I write my diary as we are sat on Hatton train station platform, on a luggage trolley, in the pouring rain. I am tired, dirty and feeling pretty ready for a shower. We had awoken and left our little green guesthouse at 2am, intending to stay faithful to the tradition of completing the hike in time for sunrise four hours later. This hike consisted of five thousand concrete steps winding up the side of a mountain, and up to a steep-sided, 2300m summit. If you, cynical reader, have just written this climb off as child’s play, hold your judgment for awhile.
It was cool, silent and still as we wound up through the remainder of the sleeping town. In time, the buildings petered out behind us and the path narrowed into a gentle incline, occasionally splitting off between trees and curious stone ruins that had been worn down from have been scrambled over and around as people passed up and down. A trail of dim halogen lights hung from poles dotted along the route that stretched away into the pitch blackness of the woods ahead.
Soon enough, the steps began. At first they were long and shallow. As they began to grow closer and deeper, we begun to see identical versions of the same three types of touristy stalls – a patronizing little bracelet and blessing from a tired looking Buddhist student for a twenty-rupee fee, a tea stall or a small shop selling candied nuts, which, on the insistence of the seller, were always better than the last ones on offer. These three stalls passed us again and again in duplicate. This repetition combined with the darkness of our surroundings, the increasing shortness of breath as we quickly climbed and the monotony of the endless steps to created an oxygen-deprived nightmare: walk, sweat, get out of breath, stop, get cold, regain breath, walk, sweat, get out of breath, stop, get cold. The biggest tease was the blurred blob of yellow light above us that was obscured by fast-moving cloud. Impossible to gauge in distance, the apparition-like summit perpetually hovered fifty meters above us, like a misty wet mirage, taunting us as we climbed. From time to time, the steps would drastically cut back across the side of the mountain and appear to take us in completely the wrong direction, merely adding to the sense of fatigue and disortientation.
As we approached the last leg, out on the bare exposed rock above the tree-line, the first blast of cold, wet, cloudy wind hit us. Though initially cooling, it eventually became bloody freezing and cut straight through my fleece that I had hastily bought the day before. It had begun to collect beads of water on the wind like dew on a spider’s web.
Half an hour later at the chilly, dark summit, it was seriously cold; a deep chill penetrated my hungry bones. We shuffled around the windy, concrete station perched atop the summit, staring out into the misty blackness beyond that blew wet clouds up the mountain and into our faces. Behind us, perched atop a pyramid of steps was an illuminated, golden Buddhist shrine that sat as the centrepiece of the whole station and the pinnacle of the mountain itself. A light caught the thick cloud sweeping over the summit, forming a thick golden aura around this shrine against the black of the night, providing spiritual, if not physical warmth to its pilgrims. From the top of the shrine stretched an spiders web of multi colored prayer flags that were lashed to the edges of this small mountaintop refuge. Bent into taught bows against the steady gale, they flapped noisily all around us.
Beneath the viewing platform was a very basic shelter that resembled a damp underground carpark full of huddled, sleeping people and a horrible toilet. We sheltered.
But as the sky grew bluer and the gaps in the dissipating cloud became long enough, the view before us slowly unfolded one peek at a time. It rather reminded me of being at a rave out in the countryside as the day begins to break, with the surrounding area that was pitch black and shapeless the night before slowly revealing itself. First, the arctic-blue reflection of the lake beyond Dalhousie that we had failed to notice on our way in offered itself in a pale, starfish-like sprawl against the still-black hills. As the horizon continued to brighten, the outline of the surrounding hills and mountains became apparent, each peak slowly defining itself against the gradually clearing haze in the valleys. Behind us, the clouds thinned out and leave those at a lower level to blanket out the eastern Hill Country and emphasize the peaks poking up on the far edge of the world.
Our windy concrete island had changed. The viewing platform now allowed a 360-degree panorama of the surrounding views. Where previously this shrine and its life-sized Buddha within seemed to be the focus of the area, the source of floodlit metaphorical warmth in the damp chill, it now became the grand surveyor of all, a spectacular and powerful icon overlooking the entire world as it’s fluttering sails dragged us across the stratospheric cloudscape.
Around us, the crowds that had been huddling for warmth beneath our feet now emerged and had converged upon the steps ascending towards the shrine. The sunrise ceremony had started and the sustained, guttural chanting that the head Lama was emitting over an unseen PA system resonated over the whole of our island. The assembled pilgrims were responding to this strange growling rumble with noises of their own, so that the whole area seemed to be alive with the ambient drone of human voices and the disjoined clangs and chimes of the variously sized bells that had appeared. I had trouble fighting my urge to ignore the rules and take a picture.
Amongst the oddly dressed worshippers I noticed a handful of lads myself and Alec had been served dinner by the previous night. Arriving late to a very basic restaurant in the basement of one of the concrete buildings, we had probably eaten our worst dinner yet- Cold, very salty Dhal with stale Chapattis. But the consolation of this had been the familiar sight of four red-eyed guys not much younger than us, stood around a table in the corner, giggling to each other through half-chewed mouthfuls of the same two-day old Chapattis we were also eating. The vulture-like swarm around the food, along with the synchronized, Barney Gumble-style fizz, crack, gulp-gulp-gulp sound as a round of Cokes were produced was too much of a potent image of our own misspent youth not to be sympathetic to. Nine hours later, in the resurrected daylight I now picked them out, one by one, bleary eyed and shivering, as they mutely joined in the ceremony. Perhaps they should have saved that smoke for after the ceremony.
By half six, we were headed back down. The lack of tea, food and warmth beckoned us back down the ladder after almost an hour and we didn’t get back to our guesthouse until gone ten. While the ascent was tough, the descent was almost as bad. The repetition of stepping down a foot-high step five thousand times meant that our calves felt like stone after an hour or so. Unfortunately, while the cold kept you moving on the way up, the rapidly climbing heat and disappearing cloud slowed you on the way down, and we could only watch as the previously thick and tumbling clouds got thinner and smaller against a deepening blue sky. The advice from our host (and the guide) had been to get moving before it got too hot. Even so, the view from up there by now would have been something else.
We arrived in Kandy, (Sri Lanka’s ‘second city’) that afternoon after heading off from our guesthouse straight after we had got back. It was solely down to the blood-pact agreement that we had jointly made not to nod off after our return from the climb that stopped us from still being in Dalhousie that night. Places to go, people to see, you know how it is.
Our train journey had very suddenly come to an end just beyond Pelmadulla junction. We both noticed something wasn’t right when we were magically travelling in the other direction from that which we had been headed for the last three hours. The man next to us gave a very scathing look when he told us this was a service to Colombo. Duh, you should have jumped off five minutes ago when we stopped at that unmarked portion of track! I had vivid flashbacks of our Ohiya experience, only this time the train was moving. Luckily, at the standard snails’ pace that most trains on the island run at, it was not too hard to jump off, provided you don’t land in anything nasty. Walking back in our original direction, we soon became acquainted with the joys of railway walking in or around any Asian population centre, playing a fun new game called Dodge the Poo. The rules are really simple: Basically you have to dodge the piles of human poo strewn all over the tracks. It’s fun until you lose.