The Tea Train and the Well-Travelled Trousers

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.

The train arrives
Reserved Second Class

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.

Unreserved Second Class

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.

Scenery near Ella

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.

Enjoying the 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.

Rolling hills covered with tea plantations
The clouds arrive

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.

The station master….and my vagabond 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.

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……..

The reading room

……bar, two snooker rooms and dining room……..

The 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.

Better than the gym!

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.

Ella and the Phony Farmer

Today I headed off to the “Hill Country” – the mountains that cover the centre of Sri Lanka. The road wound steadily upwards, and after a few kilometres I saw the first of Sri Lanka’s famous tea plantations. It was a very scenic route, with distant mountains looking over rows and rows of bright green tea plants, and lots of waterfalls.

Tea plantations and mountains on the road from Kandy

Of course I stopped at one of the plantations to learn how tea is made and the differences between white, black and green tea……and to try some of the finished product for myself.

Trying the local products

The road led on to Nuwara Eliya, nicknamed “Little England” because of its old colonial buildings. It was a popular destination for the colonial British to escape the heat of the coast. Since I was going to return here to stay for a couple of nights I only stopped to take a couple of photos.

Could be England….

We continued to my final destination, the small town of Ella. Driving on the narrow windy roads, with the local buses, motorcycles and animals was slow, and I got a little bored. We stopped for fuel at a town near Ella. This stop proved more difficult than the earlier ones, and the police gave our guide a long interrogation before asking us to park our van and wait. The guide sent the driver off to get a document that had been requested in order to get some diesel and explained to me that the police here were particularly careful. Nearby Ella was a rare town with a lot of foreign tourists, and local drivers had been paying backpackers to sit in their car so that they could claim they were a tourist vehicle. This had made other local people understandably angry.  We waited ten minutes before we were allowed to drive up to the pump to get our ration of 20 litres.

The fuel shortages seemed to be more acute in this town

The driver, the guide and I were all glad when we finally reached Ella in the early evening. I had booked a guest house which was on a hill a little outside the town, and which was supposed to have an amazing view over the mountains. However, the afternoon had seen thick clouds return and for the moment nothing was visible.  At least it hadn’t rained.

When I woke up the next morning, the clouds had mostly gone, and I enjoyed one of the best ever views I have had from a hotel room.

The best ever view from a hotel room?

I had breakfast and set off on a short walk up to Ella Rock,  which promised an even better view of the surrounding area. The guest house owner gave me very detailed instructions, which included sending me twenty photos of the route on WhatsApp.  Finally he advised me to refuse the services of guides loitering on the route, but that if I got lost I could ask local farmers and they would point me in the right direction.

The path followed a railway line. At times, I had to walk on the track itself and was a little worried that a train would arrive suddenly. But I had no other choice, and anyway lots of local people seemed to be walking on the line quite happily.  When a train did arrive, I could see why walking on the track wasn’t dangerous – it could be heard from a long way off, went very slowly, and sounded a warning horn at all bends.  

Walking along – and on – the railway line

My WhatsApp photos told me to leave the railway and head along a path through fields. I stopped again to check the way, and immediately a small wiry man, who I thought might have been following me for a while, offered to show me the way. I hesitated, and he said “I no guide, I farmer”. I should have said no, but instead I followed him up the path. Rather than just tell me the way, he insisted on accompanying me.  The route he took suddenly became flat and I scratched my head – the guest house owner’s directions described a continuous steep slope.  Seeing me stop, the “farmer” said “I know way” and when I continued to look doubtful, “I not guide, I farmer”. He produced an identity card very similar to the one I had seen my guide use to obtain petrol. Under his photo, it said “FARMER”. Hmmm. In English, with no Sinhalese. I smelt a rat and told the “farmer” I would find my own way. With remarkable speed, he straightened his back and held out his arm flat with his palm upturned – the position of someone expecting to receive money.  I gave him a 500 rupee (1.5$) note to get rid of him and ignoring his protestations (“Not enough! One more! Rude bear!”) continued along the path he had been following. Sure enough, it led to a dead end, and I had to retrace my steps to find an alternative way up.  I reached the top, where I found the true path with a steady stream of (mostly Sri Lankan) visitors going up or down – my “farmer” had taken me on a detour, presumably to make his services harder to reject.

At the top, there were a couple of drinks stalls (someone had the energy to carry drinks all the way up) and a spectacular view, enhanced by wisps of cloud that occasionally blew in from the lower down in the valley. It was well worth my slightly extended walk.

Worth the walk – the view from Ella Rock

I felt the weather changing, so I headed back.  Just as I got to the guest house, yet another storm broke and I sat watching torrential rain for the rest of the afternoon. When it finally stopped, I grabbed a tuk-tuk to head into the small town of Ella. It was a pleasant and lively place, similar to many other popular traveller destinations I had visited in the past. Its one main road was flanked by a series of guest houses, bars, restaurants and spas. I offered myself a massage before having dinner and a beer in the appropriately named Chill bar.

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