06 January 2013

A Train Ride Between Ella and Kandy


 The view from the train.
 The Sri Lanka of my imagination is a lush, tropical tear drop draped in tea plantations, rain forests and colourful temples. While traveling along the Southern Coast I saw beautiful beaches and majestic forts, but it was only once I boarded the train from the hill station Ella to the cultural capital of Kandy that I could appreciate the most stunning scenery the country has to offer.

When I was a wee babe of 18 I spent my first trip through Europe practically living on trains. I had a three-month unlimited Eurail pass and sleeping on trains was cheaper than a hostel bed, so while the train whizzed from Nice to Milan, Paris to San Sebastian or Berlin to Brussels I curled up like a little prawn in my seat. And while my 31 year old body does not fit so neatly and…. flexibly into a berth, I still have a soft spot for rail travel. 

The timetable at Ella train station
I think that train journeys are the most romantic way to see a country. The rail lines that crisscross South Asia hearken to a time when jute fans twirled lazily above tables laden with gin and tonics, a time when adventure travelers could traverse Asia overland from Turkey to Afghanistan and finally to the Southern tip of the great Indian subcontinent.

Trains often take a more scenic route through mountains, plains and coasts than roads do, and so for panoramic beauty alone a train journey is the more lovely option. But it’s the cities I love most. When you arrive into a city on a bus or in a car, you see its pretty face, the one it wants you to see. When you arrive by train you see the strange backstage areas that no one on the streets is allowed to access – the hobo shelters, the arcane graffiti and the weird industrial backside of an urban space. It’s a special bond, like catching a beautiful woman dressing and noticing a huge scar she keeps hidden. Beauty through imperfection – a bus can’t even begin to compare.

And so with my propensity to wax poetic about train travel, I knew that I had to manage my expectations of our journey to avoid disappointment lest the trip be less beautiful than promised by guidebooks and fellow travelers. I needn’t have worried. 

 Gorgeous scenery in the hills between Ella and Kandy

 During our seven hour trip through the mountains of Sri Lanka I witnessed some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen. The train passed idyllic villages, picturesque farms and towering temples as we climbed and dipped up around hills, wound our way through tunnels and valleys and sliced through countless acres of pristine tea estates. Standing in the open door of the train car I couldn’t help but smile like a giddy child as I waved to sarong-clad men and enthusiastic school children. 

 Dude. It was totally super munchee.
 Goofy little gal
  On board the train we were treated to Sri Lankan hospitality – we had ignored our best traveler instincts and declined to bring food aboard the train, believing there to be a dining car, or at least locals selling drinks and short eats that we could dash to buy from the station platforms. This was not the case. We were doomed to eat babybels and chocolate from our stash until an adorable family across the aisle noticed our predicament and offered us crackers, samosas and fresh sweet rolls. Their rambunctious tomboy daughter kept us entertained for hours, and they even passed my mum their number and told us to call if we had any problems while in their country. We could have used their help last week…

We pulled into Kandy two hours late – not too shabby for a country that measures how late the trains are running with the unit “day,” (as in “only half a day late”) and were picked up by the gracious Sarath, owner of the Freedom Lodge. It had been a long day, but a rewarding one. I stepped off of the train with an understanding of the culture and beauty of the central hills of the country, an understanding that only rail travel can provide.

Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. Its beaches are legendary, its food delicious and its people hospitable – but it was a train ride through the mountains that was the highlight of my trip. Just remember to pack a lunch!

Violet Dear is giddy with train-inspired joy

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