Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 23, 2009 - Kandy, Sri Lanka

This morning we boarded the train from Ella to Nuwara Eliya, formerly a British Colonial hill station and now the center of tea country. Leel arranged seats for us in the observation car of the train. After seeing us settled in, he and Sampath hit the road so that they could meet us with the van at the other end of the line. It seemed a bit odd to us to be taking a train to get someplace while our driver and guide drove there, but they assured us that the scenery was worth the trip.

As we climbed out of Ella, at approximately 3,000 feet above sea level, to Nuwara Eliya, at approximately 6,000 feet, the landscape changed dramatically. Initially, the rails wove through rice patties, ferns, flowers, banana trees and pines. But as we climbed higher, the land became more rugged, and the tracks followed a route blasted through rock, hugging the edges of mountains, and across bridges built over waterfalls.

All along the way, cows and villagers used the rails as a walkway, as they are one of the few flat paths cut through an undulating landscape. Both Sri Lankan men and women wear sarongs, although many Hindu women wear saris. Many women carry umbrellas for shade. School children dressed in pressed white uniforms use the rails to walk to school. We saw women, wrapped in sarongs, showering under an open pipe and men bathing in a rocky stream. We passed both Hindu and Buddhist shrines and saw many a monk in orange robes waiting at the stations.

The train kept climbing and climbing. Outside our windows the world was the glowing green of young leaves on tea plants in terraced tea plantations curving around the hillsides. Purple morning glories wound through many of the tea bushes, from which women (always women) were plucking the young buds and leaves.

At each of the twelve stops between Ella and Nuwara Eliya passengers climbed aboard. As the second and third class cars became crowded, many young boys chose to ride in the doorways to each train compartment. They hung out the sides of the cars, waving to people on the sides of the track and to me, the only blonde head sticking out that side of the train.

The higher we climbed, the more damp and fertile the earth smelled. The air carried a hint of mint and crates of tomatoes, capsicum, beans, carrots and cabbage waited by the tracks. We passed houses painted bright blue, pink and green. The houses in this fertile region are all surrounded by fruit and vegetable gardens, and always adorned with flowers. Many houses had laundry strewn across the tops of bushes or on the ground to dry.

As we climbed higher, the pines and tea plantations gave way to a forest of gum trees. We could smell the eucalyptus in the air through the diesel exhaust of the locomotives engine. At 6,000 feet the air turned brisk, and parents bundled up their kids in jackets and knit hats (which the kids promptly tugged off and tossed on the floor). The air was damp and the stone tunnels were covered in moss. Outside our windows tree ferns had replaced banana trees and rhododendrons and calla lilies bloomed.
When we rejoined Leel and Sampath at the station at Nanu Oya (the closest station to Nuwara Eliya) we had to agree with them that the scenery had been stunning and that riding the rails had been a good experience. Leaving the station, we took a twisting road up into the mist shrouded mountains. We passed tea plantations with romantic names like Flowerdew and Lover's Leap and inherently British names like Hethersett and Edinburgh. The laborers in tea country are predominantly Tamil. We saw many Hindu temples set among the tea bushes.

Leel's surprise of the day was lunch at the Tea Factory, a boutique hotel in a renovated tea factory. From the outside the hotel still looks like a factory. But the moment the doors were opened by a liveried footman, we could see that the renovation of the inside had preserved architectural details like the wooden floors fastened with brass fittings and accented them with beautiful furnishings. We could see why the British Sunday Times named the Tea Factory as one of the top 100 places in the world to stay. Lunch was the best meal we've had in Sri Lanka.

After lunch Sten and I diverted a bit from Leel's itinerary and wandered down the hill into a small private garden. At an altitude where it is perpetually springtime, some former plantation manager, likely homesick for England, planted a traditional English cottage garden. The garden is a magical place among the clouds. Temperate plants, such as hydrangea and agapanthus, filled borders that wound through topiaries and turf carvings. Cages containing pet ducks and rabbits were nestled among the flowers. We hated to leave, but it was time to push on.

We rejoined Leel and Sampath and headed off for our next stop, the Mackwoods tea factory. After drinking some excellent Broken Orange Pekoe, we took a guided tour of the factory. Our guide, after confessing that she drank five cups of tea a day, taught us about the cultivation and processing of tea leaves. It was fascinating. And now we have a much deeper appreciation for all the work that goes into filling those little Twinings tea bags. After the tour we were off to Kandy and our hotel.

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