Thursday, 18 February 2010

Sri Lanka aint so bad after all!!

And so I must begin with an apology to Sri Lanka. In my last installment I think I was probably a little unfairly harsh about this so-called ‘Emerald Isle’. Sri Lanka is indeed quite lovely and for it’s size, incredibly diverse. In a comparatively small landmass it manages to cram in beautiful beaches, lush jungle and forest and fertile hill country with impressive mountain peaks that reach to over 2500M in altitude, only a few short kms from the coast. It is indeed, as its nickname implies, a gem. It is also the land of tea: formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is a country that supplies the globe with some of the greatest tea available the world over. With a landscape perfectly suited to tea cultivation, and a climate to match it is almost impossible to hike out in the hill country without coming across one of the many verdant tea plantation to be found. Many of the estates offer guided tours of their facilities, followed by a cupping…..which is apparently the correct terminology for a tea tasting… opposed to a tea bagging – which is something entirely different. But if you just want to pop in for quick cuppa – you may find it difficult! But I’m getting ahead of myself…..we’ve been here 2 weeks already now and so I should really press rewind and start at the beginning.

We arrived on an early morning plane from Trivandrum in Southern India with plenty of time to make it to Kandy by the afternoon a la public bus! Kandy is one of those destinations that everybody mentions fondly. It’s a town with not much going on – but plenty of recommendations as a great place to stay so we had high hopes for it. However, on arrival we decided that either the reason for these multiple recommendations was simply eluding us – or more likely the case (as many fellow travelers seemed to share our sentiments)…..things have changed. After Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, Kandy is one of the larger towns in Sri Lanka and somewhat of a ‘hub’ located centrally on the island and to the north of the hill country. It may have been a ‘cool and trendy’ hang out spot once upon a time – but for us it seemed to be just a slightly more pleasant place than a big stinky city like Colombo to hang out in and apply for our second Indian visa (since there is a smaller and less busy Indian Consulate here than in Colombo) – but besides that there really wasn’t much reason to stay.

Now applying for the visa was something we had originally planned to do more towards the end of our Sri Lanka stint (as it is only supposed to take 5 working days to process), but since the lovely India government have decided, just recently, to introduce a new ‘2 months out’ clause to their visa requirements and we weren’t sure whether we would qualify for exemption to this new rule we figured it would be prudent to get on and apply sooner rather than later……welcome to the joys of Indian bureaucracy once again!!! Our application was readily accepted, so we are hoping that this means it will be approved (still waiting to hear) but once this had been done we decided there was no compelling reason to stick around in the town of ‘not much going on’ (…….seriously – there’s a vaguely pretty, man made lake that you can stroll around in less than an hour and a temple that supposedly holds the tooth of Buddha – aptly named ‘The temple of the tooth relic’, which costs a small fortune to enter so that you can maybe get a glimpse of the casing in which they have hidden the tooth away……we decided to give it a miss……..and besides that there’s not much else to see or do) and we’d best be on our way.

So – off we went to explore some of the rest of Sri Lanka with the knowledge that we would be back in a few days to pick up our visa. First stop: Dambulla (which is actually where I penned my previous little rant). The town of Dambulla is rather a non-descript settlement built around a busy highway, with only a couple of ‘traveler friendly’ places to stay – all conveniently right on the highway – which doesn’t exactly make for a great night’s rest (even with my ear plugs). The whole purpose of stopping at this town was to explore a series of Buddhist Cave Temples at the top of a rocky outcrop that just kind of rises out of nowhere in the landscape, just off the highway. Now while some people may feel that the price of entry is justified here, I personally was not impressed.

And this was our introduction to the ‘Cultural Triangle’ of Sri Lanka. An area to the north of the hill country that is so called due to the high density of ancient ruins and religious sites of significance sort of in the shape of a triangle. There are 3 main sites that can be visited on one $50 ticket (a great sum of money for us to fork out on our extremely limited backpacker budget) and Dambulla wasn’t one of them – so that meant shelling out even more. We were seriously hoping that the other sites would impress us a little more – or we’d be getting in line to demand a refund!

Well, it turned out that our next stop (thank goodness) was delightful. The sleepy village of Sigiriya is little more than a hamlet really, with only a handful of homes and lodgings, as well as one or 2 ‘dining options’ in the form of cute little curry shacks. But it’s location in the middle of fertile paddy fields and tropical plantations on a very quiet road, with only occasional passing traffic allowed us to breath a huge sigh of relief on arrival. This proved to be a nice place to spend a day, unwinding and exploring the first of the 3 ‘cultural highlights’. The main attraction of Sigiriya is an incredible ‘chunk’ of rock that rises from the flat earth around it, out of nowhere to an altitude of several hundred meters. Around and upon this rock an ancient civilization carved out its living quarters and sites of worship.

Apparently the rock itself is actually a huge plug of magma that sealed a long extinct volcano. It looked absolutely stunning at all times of the day but appeared especially magnificent in the warm glow of afternoon sunlight when the suns soft radiance seemed to magically bring alive its golden and amber colors and contours.

The views from the summit were incredible and the passage to reach the top, one could easily describe as hair raising…….quite literally it felt like a stairway to heaven (see photo).

But the wobbly knees on the way up were definitely worth it. Not quite sure how they made it up there in times gone by – but I sure am glad they have the metal railings and stairs in place now to assist in the elevation process.

From Sigiriya we progressed to Polonnaruwa (watch that old classic ‘Elephant Walk’ with Elizabeth Taylor to catch a glimpse of it

– we watched it the night before we got there!) to explore more ancient ruins of a great civilization. Again, we were not disappointed. In Polonnaruwa we got to see the remains of some incredible structures – from temples, to palaces, and council chambers to sculptures of Buddha.

The site stretches out over several kms, so we were glad of the method of transit we had opted for (rickshaw) to transport us from place to place: having lost the elevation of the hill country the temperature was a little more than steamy.

Our final destination before returning to Kandy for a visa update was Anuradaphura.

This was basically a larger and less well preserved version of Polonnaruwa, spread out over a greater area and interspersed between present day dwellings, so in many ways less impressive – however its saving grace was the sheer scale of a number of the isolated ‘attractions’ dotted around the site, mainly in the form of ‘supersized’ Dagobas (think big boob with large pointy nipple made out of bricks)

which did give this final location a decent level of ‘impressibility’!! On this occasion we decided not to be so lazy and opted for bicycle as our means of locomotion and so by the end of a very long and hot day we were exhausted. Thankfully the area was in the main quite flat and so the effort involved in getting from A-B was actually not too extreme – but in heat of the day, even a gentle incline felt like the final leg of the Tour de France!!!

So – we arrived back to Kandy with high hopes of procuring a new India visa only to be told 3 days in a row that our application was still in limbo and we should ‘try again tomorrow’. On day 3 we decided that instead of waiting around anymore we would head off for the next leg of our Sri Lanka explorations and try again after the weekend.

This time we headed South, into the heart of the hill country. First stop: Adam’s Peak. One of the tallest mountains in Sri Lanka and a site of great religious significance for pretty much all the major religions represented here. For several months of the year the trail becomes overrun with pilgrims, keen to scale the heights and pay their respects to the mountain. The usual plan of attack for this steep and imposing peak is actually a twilight ascent to reach the summit by sun rise and thus be there in time to watch the amazing light show provided by both the rising of the sun, and immediately after, the specter of the peak’s shadow appearing on the misty clouds and mountains to the west as the sun slowly makes its way up into the sky.
2.30am we headed out into the cold dark night to attack the 4800 steps between us and the summit. By 4:30am we had reached the peak and realized it was going to be a long wait for dawn. Our trusty Lonely Planet Guide Book had told us it would take 2 ½ - 4 hrs for the hike so of course we did it in 2! It was actually quite cold and blustery on the top (@ 2300M) and so we retraced our steps a few short minutes back down the track to the last ‘tea shop’ before the top and ordered up some hot tea, to warm us up and fill the time. As the minutes ticked by and the sunrise approached we were joined by more and more fellow ‘pilgrims’, until we were merrily chatting away and almost missed the main event. Fortunately for us, our friendly Sri Lankan teashop dude was nice enough to break up the little party of foreigners that had gathered in his stall and remind us why we had come all this way. He quietly beckoned us to a tiny rickety wooden door, hidden away in the back corner of his stall which led to a private little ‘back yard’ away from the bright lights of the trail and the concrete steps that made the whole experience seem a little less ‘close to nature’ than we would have liked. The view that greeted us was quite simply magnificent. There was a shroud of low cloud cover over the early morning sky which actually heightened the whole experience; it made the sky appear like a bumpy crumpled quilt that had been torn into pieces – allowing the deep reds and oranges that began to disperse the darkness to break through in shocking splinters of intense pigmentation. In a word: Stunning. After watching the light gradually illuminate the sky and see the world below awakening we joined the rest of the crowds at the top of the peak to watch the final ascent of the sun, where it would break the horizon and hopefully cast it’s magical shadow behind Adam’s Peak. Unfortunately the low clouds meant that there was only a momentary glimpse of the naked sun before she rose further to be masked once more by nature. The magical shadow would not be making an appearance on this particular morning – but the supernatural light show that we had just received preceding the rising of the sun had more than made up for it. Considering the spiritual significance of this ‘holy mountain’ it turned out that the biggest disappointment of the whole experience was actually the decidedly ‘unpilgrimage like’ atmosphere. As we ascended the stairway into the sky we were greeted by a never ending ‘sound-track’ of music and chanting that to us sounded more like a radio four newscast and was of a decidedly unspiritual nature. When we reached the top we were surprised to find the source of most of this noise: a man in every day clothes (it wasn’t even a vicar or a monk), standing behind a ‘donation counter’ on a microphone, apparently announcing the generous bequests of the many arriving pilgrims, or perhaps soliciting more (we couldn’t be sure what he was saying since obviously none of his words were spoken in our mother tongue). His commentary sounded more like the sounds of a cruise ship bingo session in progress than the words of spiritual encouragement that may have been more fitting for this particular location. And then, as the sun made her final ascent we were treated to a musical extravaganza of drums and horn a la snake charmer style that seemed so wholly inappropriate; I almost felt inspired to donate myself (with the request that my donation go towards paying the ‘musicians’ to just shut the hell up for a few minutes so that the capacity to commune with nature could be allowed!). Oh well – the views were stunning: on all sides we witnessed wisps of cloud and mist swirling about the hill tops and peaks below, gradually fading off into the distance – so all in all it was a worth while experience!

From Adam’s Peak we made a quick stop off in a dusty little hill town named Haputale, to explore a little of the tea plantation heartland and make an early morning trip to ‘Lipton’s Seat’ (as in the famous Mr Lipton of Lipton’s Tea). We arrived in Haputale via train, which took us through some spectacular scenery and gave us a taster of what we would be hiking through the following morning. And so again we awoke at the crack of dawn to jump on the first bus of the day at 6:30am, with the plantation workers to the Dambatenne Tea Estate.

From there we hiked to ‘the Seat’ and enjoyed a spectacular vista from the edge of the hill country, where it kind of feels like the end of the earth (as the landscape seems to just slide away to the South Coast below).

On retracing our steps the 7kms back to the tea estate we agreed that nothing would top off our morning like a lovely hot cuppa, brewed fresh from the bushes we were currently strolling through.

And so we arrived at the tea factory with a simple request: “tea for two please”. Only to be told that there was no tea. We were horrified to discover that there was no café or tea serving facilities…….unless we would like to take a tour of the factory for 250rps per person and then there would be a ‘cupping’ to follow! And so – a word of warning (and to explain my earlier remarks): you know that saying ‘water water everywhere and not a drop to drink’? Well – replace the word water with tea and that’s pretty much how things stand in Sri Lanka!!

But at least the tea pickers here are friendly and LOVE to have their pictures taken

……so overall – even though it’s not always easy to track down a tasty brew - as far as the tea situation goes this place is much more highly rated than Darjeeling in our humble opinions!

So now we find ourselves in Ella, a sleepy little town on the Eastern edge of the Hill Country with some marvelous hiking through tea plantations and the striking formation of the Ella Gap – a break in the hills that forms an almost canyon like structure opening the plateau of the hill country out on to the low lands beneath. Today we had yet another early start – this time to beat the heat. We hiked along the train tracks and through yet more tea plantations to reach the summit of Ella Rock. Just one more spectacular view point - from here, on a clear day you can watch the horizon slide away almost to the sea.

And so - here I am, sipping on tea (in a café and not a tea estate) and typing away on Valentine’s Day, keeping my fingers crossed that when we call (yet again) tomorrow, our visa will be ready for pick up and we will once more be certain of the final stages of our journey that eagerly await us. If we can just make it back to India, we will be one step closer to our final destination and can spend our final days in Sri Lanka relaxing on the South Coast at the Beach town of Mirissa, where the aqua marine ocean will lap at our feet and we can top up our tans for a couple of days to allow us to recharge for the final assault. Rajastan here we come……

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