Today, I took the train from Ella back to Nuwara Eliya – a route renowned as one of the most scenic in the world. The train arrived on time – something not guaranteed in Sri Lanka – and I got on to find my reserved seat in second class (someone had told me that second class was better than the air conditioned first class, since you could open the windows). Usually, the reserved seats sell out long in advance to tourists, but with Sri Lanka’s current problems my compartment wasn’t even full.
My guide also got on, but his ticket was for unreserved second class, meaning that he had no guarantee of a seat. I could see through the rear door of my compartment that this was a completely different travel experience. I hoped he had got a place in the melee of people boarding at Ella. Our driver headed off in the van to be able to meet us at the other end of our trip.
We set off in bright sunshine, and the views lived up to my expectations. In the area around Ella, the scenery was wild and mountainous.
It was very pleasant leaning out of my window and either watching the scenery go by or observing the frenetic activity at each station as passengers with unreserved tickets fought to get on the train first in the rush for a possible free seat. The train doors are left open for the whole trip, and more adventurous passengers held on to the hand rails and leaned out of the open door for an even better view.
As the train progressed, the mountains and forest gave way to nice orderly rows of tea plants and rolling, green hills. It also started to get cloudy – it seems that we had already received our ration of precious blue sky for the day.
The train arrived at Nanu Oya, a small town close to the popular tourist destination of Nuwara Eliya. On arrival, I got a big surprise when my guide informed me that my parcel had arrived. Initially I was puzzled, but then I remembered that I had left some trousers in the hotel at Polonnaruwa. I’d asked the hotel to send them to Kandy, but they had arrived after we had left and I assumed I would never see them again. It turned out that my guide had been in touch with the Kandy hotel to get them redirected here and that they had arrived in the morning. My guide took me to the station master’s office – a wonderful old-fashioned office room – to meet the station manager and collect my well-travelled trousers.
Sure enough, our driver was also there to meet us at the station, and we drove to my lodgings for the night – the Hill Club.
This wonderful institution is a relic of British Colonial rule, when British men (not women) could join a private club in the hills to get away from the heat of the coast. The club has now been enthusiastically embraced by a new generation of Sri Lankan club members, who have kept most of the old traditions, which include a jacket and tie dress code after 6pm, providing hotel water bottles for the beds, and a daily ceremony raising and saluting the Sri Lankan flag whilst listening to the national anthem. One less good tradition – a side door for lady guests, who were not allowed to use the main door – had thankfully been scrapped.
The club is popular with its members at weekends but rents out spare rooms to travellers when it is less busy. I arrived on a Sunday and it turned out that I was the only guest. I had the whole of the huge building to myself, including the comfortable reading room……..
……bar, two snooker rooms and dining room……..
There was even a gym. The manager looked surprised when I said that I wanted to use it and I soon found out why. It had a musty smell, like it had not been used in a long time, and after a few km on the treadmill I was soaking in sweat from the near 100% humidity. I decided that visiting the bar and ordering a cocktail was a much better idea, and I enjoyed drinking it siting by an open fire in the club’s dining room.
I then had a hearty western-style dinner of fish and chips (the menu had many traditional British offerings as well as Sri Lankan food) before retiring for the night and the company of my hot water bottle in my bed.