Woke at 7, had a poor buffet-style breakfast, then hopped in a tuk-tuk to the train station. I bought a 2nd class ticket to Ella, in the heart of the Tea Country. The train station in Kandy reminded me of the one in Mumbai, though a less-crowded version.
I met a Dutch couple on the platform, and we got chatting. We boarded the train and it went one station before we had to change. We had a seat for that one brief leg of the journey, but for the next 9 hours I would be standing up. When the first train stopped at the station, everybody ran out and sprinted, leaving the weak, the young, and the old in their wake. And me and the Dutch couple, whom I unselfishly walked next to as they laboured towards the second train under their mobile houses. By the time we got to the second train, people were already hanging out of the doors and windows it was so packed – and this was second class. The train had no first class carriages, so we had to squeeze in and endure with everyone else. I found myself peering out of one of the open train doors, which presented grand views, but the downside was I was standing next to the toilets, which smacked me in the face with foul smells.
So, 9 hours of beautiful scenery with bad odours sprinkled liberally over the top flew by. The train trundled past rivers, waterfalls, tea plantations, mountains, fir tree forests and little villages. Whenever it went into the tunnel children would whoop and cheer, which reminded me of my childhood when I would do the same going into the long tunnel from Huddersfield to Stalybridge. Tunnels were exciting back then. And so this became one of my top 3 train journeys in Asia…..the most diverse and incredible experience being my 22 hour epic from Mumbai to Pushkar, the next best my 12 hours from Hanoi to Sapa.
I made a few short term ‘train friends’ too, young Sri Lankan men keen to practice their English, who asked me the usual questions which I’m on autopilot to answer. Every 5 minutes men would come shoving and pushing their way down the carriages, selling a variety of things, from tea to samosas, chili peanuts to warm bobble hats.
The Dutch couple got off at Nuwara Eliya – which is the ‘in’ place to be during this Tamil and Sinhalese New Year. I predicted a chaotic nightmare, however, so didn’t include the place in my travel plans – too many people, too expensive….no fun.
The train pulled into Ella. By now it was dark, and raining, and the weather bordering on the cold. I hopped straight into a tuk-tuk and to Ella Holiday Inn. It was a lovely place – spacious rooms, hot water, clean. I chose a room on the second floor with its own balcony, table and chairs, with views of the surrounding hills, and the street below, for only 2,000Rs. I felt great, and ordered a pot of tea from the nice manager, Pradesh. I had a wonderful hot shower, supped my tea, and read my book, ‘Outposts’. For dinner, I ordered a Sri Lankan curry, and had it brought to the room. It was a bit like the sets you get in Singapore, in Little India. Pretty good. Then, I noticed a young chap at the table outside my door, drinking a beer. I joined him for a drink. His name is Tomeck, a Polish-Brit, working in Hambantota in the South as an intern for the Treasury. He was well-spoken, interesting, and had lived in Japan for a year. We got on well over a few bottles of Lion Beer.
At 10pm, he went back. 10pm is the curfew point in Ella,a sleepy town. Tomeck went back to his guesthouse, and I noticed a chap with white hair, about 50, sitting down in the cafe downstairs nursing a beer, so I chatted to him. His name is Sebastian, and his business on the island was land he had bought, and a holiday home he was building just outside Ella. He was a personable, eloquent chap, and we continued the conversation over another beer in my room. He’d got divorced after a 20-year marriage, and his weakness, he said, was beautiful and elegant women, a weakness I myself could certainly relate to. He listened to a few of my tales, and we talked of emasculated men and masculine women so typical of the West these days. “You know, I just can’t get it. It’s too much now, it’s more than equal rights. Don’t get me started, I’ve been part of a Men’s Group for 10 years.” He ranted. We talked about the plans for his business, and then it was time for bed. He went off to his room, an eccentric, intelligent chap with wild eyes, far away from his Canadian home, and about to begin an Asian adventure that would lead him God knows where. I’ve no idea where it’s leading me.