“I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going.”
The year 2009 marked the end of a bloody civil war in Sri Lanka that spanned over 25 years. Since the guns have been silenced and an attempt to restore long-term peace to the country has been prioritised, a resurgence in Sri Lanka as a tourist destination has been massively evident. In 2012, it was named as the best valued destination for holidays and tourism in 2014 exceeded 1.5 million. Legendary 13th century explorer, Marco Polo, on his arrival to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), described it as being “the finest island of its size in all the world.”
I had the privilege of visiting this fine island last year and spent 3 weeks travelling the railways from north to south, exploring historical heritage sites, exquisite hill country and some of the most beautiful, unspoiled beaches I have ever seen. Marco Polo certainly wasn’t exaggerating in his description of Sri Lanka; it truly is paradise!
The old-fashioned charm of travelling by train has always appealed to me: the melodic, clickety-clack of the rails; the big, open windows with the ever-changing scenery that is seldom seen via other modes of transport; the cheerful vendors selling their fares; the quaint station stops along the way. Having heard a little about the beauty (and affordability) of the railways in Sri Lanka, I decided it was the only way to go!
Sri Lanka Railways (formerly known as Ceylon Government Railway) invokes all the kind of nostalgia that I find synonymous with trains themselves. The railway system, built by the British in 1864 to transport tea and coffee from hill country to the cities and towns, still looks and feels like something straight out of the colonial ‘steam’ era. Even the trains, diesel locomotives with words like “Observation Saloon” written on the windows, teak furniture and vintage roof fans take you right back to the early 1900’s.
I very quickly escaped the hustle and bustle of Colombo and made my way up north to Kandy, otherwise known as Sri Lanka’s holy city, home of the Temple of the Tooth where the molar of the Buddha is said to be kept. The country had just won the ICC World Twenty20 and the city was abuzz with excitement. Spirits were high and “Ah! Jonty Rhodes!” was a most common phrase upon hearing my origin. This cricket-crazy mentality was certainly something I could identify with. I stayed in Kandy and basked with the locals for a few days before heading to the station and booking my train ticket to Ella, a quiet mountain town deep in Hill Country with Sri Lanka’s most uninhabited waterfall, prehistoric caves and fantastic hiking trails.
The station had the same colonial charm as I had experienced before; almost like a trip back in time. The next day, I made my way to the station, a short 7 minute walk from the city centre and lake and before I knew it, I was absorbed in the lull of the clickety-clack and immersed in the old-fashioned charm of the diesel locomotive.
The train ride from Kandy to Ella is described by many as one of the most scenic train routes in the world. The route goes deep into high-altitude tea country (Sri Lanka is the fourth biggest tea producer in the world behind China, India and Kenya), and the view soon turned from shanty towns, to lush, green tea plantations, valleys, mountains, waterfalls, forests and farming fields. The diversity of the scenery is truly outstanding. The juxtaposition of the dark-skinned Tamil tea pickers in their bright, colourful saris amongst bright green terraced fields and hills makes you feel as though you’re looking at a vibrant, three dimensional oil painting. These ever-changing picturesque montages do not cease (apart from the odd rusty apricot coloured station stop along the way) for the full duration of the journey: about 6-7 hours.
Each station is a plethora of mad activity which arouse the senses at every level. The sound of hawkers selling their fare at every train window permeate your ears and the smell of freshly fried poppadum’s, curry and rice, and a variety of “short eats” (snacks) infiltrate the air. My favourite sample of the ‘padkos’ en-route was undoubtedly the shrimp vadai (fritter) purchased from a vendor through the train window wrapped in a page of a child’s old schoolwork.
The ascent into Hill Country is truly something special. The forests become denser, the tracks more curvy and the tea plantations more regular. On arrival in Ella, the nostalgia becomes even more palpable. The small mountain town, some 1000m above sea level, famous for its spectacular views, is like something out of a history book. The quaint street stalls, vendors and highland roads ensure that one makes a plan to stay longer than anticipated!
As we arrive in Ella and the bustle of disembarking passengers awakens me from my dream state, I realise I am filled with nothing but gratitude for the opportunity of having been able to experience the magic of this truly magnificent experience. I exit the train with fond memories of the colourful scenery, the quaint station stops, the cheerful vendors and their delicious fares and the clickety-clack of the diesel locomotive…
Text: Julie Graham | Images: Julie Graham