Sunday, 2 February 2014

Time machines: travelling on Sri Lanka’s railway

Children greet us at a village on a hike through the mountains of Sri Lanka
© Andy Brown/2013/Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, the railroad is not just a track for trains. People build their homes along it, open shops on the sidings, and walk between the rails. This is what I was doing in November - walking along the train tracks to Ella Rock. Together with my friends Rob and Laura, I was on a hike high in the mountains of Sri Lanka’s central plateau. Our guide, Chamal, assured us that the train tracks were the best route. "No need to worry," he said, noting our concern. "If the train comes we'll hear it in plenty of time to get out of the way."

I'd already seen how slow Sri Lanka’s antique trains go - around 15km an hour - so it seemed reasonable enough. If I had to, I could probably outrun one over a short distance. Rob was less convinced. "Have you seen ‘Stand by Me’?" he asked our guide, and described the plot of the movie in which four boys go for an adventure along a railway line, get caught by a train on a bridge, and have to jump off into the river.

We continued walking along the train tracks in a wide curve around the head of a valley. The landscape was lush and green, with palm trees and mud-brick huts with corrugated iron roofs. Scarecrows flapped at birds in the fields, their heads painted with skulls like something out of a Tim Burton movie. The earth was red and showed through in long tracks between the fields.

We passed women working in the fields, digging up cabbages and pilling them into sacks. “It’s cold enough up here to grow these kind of vegetables,” Chamal said. “You cannot do this in the valleys.” We also passed a group of men who were repairing the tracks, laying down new wooden sleepers. I asked how often they needed replacing. “Every five years,” one of them replied.

A construction worker laying new sleepers on the railway line
© Andy Brown/2013/Sri Lanka
We kept walking for about half an hour until, just as Chamal had predicted, we heard the rumble and hoot of an approaching train. "Look, you can see it from here," our guide said, pointing to the other side of the valley where a train was just beginning the same loop that we were on. "If we walk quickly, we can get to the other side of the bridge and take a photo of the train coming across," he added.

This was starting to sound sketchier but Chamal spoke very confidently, so we continued at a brisk march, all the while hearing the train getting louder and closer. We passed through a narrow, steep-sided ravine and I could see the wooden bridge ahead. I was watching the ground closely to avoid stumbling, and the sound of the train was getting much louder behind me.

"Run!" our guide shouted suddenly. There was no alternative now, so I leapt forward. I have long legs and was able to take the sleepers two at a time. The wooden beams of the bridge rattled as I ran across. Below me, the valley dropped steeply away to small villages far below.

In less than a minute I was over the bridge. I veered left onto a patch of grass at the side of the track. Behind me, the others were still on the bridge. Chamal crossed next, then Laura. Finally Rob came across, with a couple of stray dogs at his heels, just as the train came out of the ravine. It was a bit too close for comfort. The train was already on the bridge as Rob came off the track beside me. "And you were joking about Stand by Me!" I said.

I did get some great shots of the train, as our guide had promised. People hung out of the doorways and waved at us as it slowly rumbled past.

A group photo on the scene of our 'Stand by Me' experience
© Andy Brown/2013/Sri Lanka
We continued our hike to Ella Rock, the highest point in the area at over 1,400 metres and an impressive viewpoint. At the top, we stood on a bare rock outcrop and looked across at 'Little Adams Peak' slightly below us on the opposite ridge. To our left, the land slanted down in a series of valleys towards the lowlands. We could see dense forests and wide tea plantations, interspersed with small villages.

It was a beautiful landscape, but like many such places is at threat from illegal logging. On the final ascent to the peak, we passed a group of men with chainsaws felling trees indiscriminately. "This is bad work," Chamal said, visibly angry. "These people don't appreciate our country or environment. All they care about is money."

Chamal challenged the men, then made a call on his mobile. Afterwards, I asked what he had done. "They're not local, I don’t recognise them," he replied. "They said they had permission to fell but I cannot believe it. I phoned my friend in Ella and told him to report them to the police."

It was a disturbing incident. But I was glad, at least, that Sri Lanka has people like Chamal who are aware of the importance of the environment, and willing to stand up to protect it.

Chamal strikes a pose on Ella Rock
© Andy Brown/2013/Sri Lanka
Out of time

We were in Sri Lanka for my 40th birthday. Joyce and I had considered going to the beach but in the end we decided to take the train to Ella and visit World’s End, where the central plateau drops suddenly over a thousand metres to the low land below.

Travelling by train was like stepping back in time. The railway system was built by the British from 1864, when Sri Lanka was called Ceylon and part of the British Empire. It was initially used to transport tea and coffee from the hill country to Colombo. In the early days, Sri Lankans referred to the trains as Anguru Kaka Wathura Bibi Duwana Yakada Yaka, or coal-eating, water-drinking, sprinting, metal devils.

Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, and there were no further tracks were laid after that date, although in the 1950s the old steam locomotives were upgraded to diesel. Since then, the railways have been effectively frozen in time, like Cuba’s automobiles.

Catching the train from Kandy to Ella
© Andy Brown/2013/Sri Lanka
When we arrived at a train station, the first thing I noticed was that everything was manual or mechanical. The departure boards were handwritten on moveable wooden boards. Although the engines were diesel, the wooden carriages would have looked just as comfortable attached to a steam engine. Instead of traffic lights, a man stood beside the track waving a red flag. Disused coaches lay at the side of the tracks, rusted through and overgrown with tall grass.

We boarded our first train at Colombo. To start with it seemed really dangerous. People jumped onto moving trains as they left the station. The doors were left open and passengers sat on the steps, or hung onto the outside of the train. Locals wandered down the track, moving aside when the train passed. But then we passed signs announcing 10 and 15 km speed limits and I realised how slow the trains were going.

Once we’d got our courage up, Joyce and I sat in an open doorway, watching the view slide slowly past. It was fine until the train passed a concrete station platform, and we had to swiftly lift our legs up. Going through a tunnel could also be alarming, as rocks blurred past our faces in the half light.

Leaning out the doorway, the views were remarkable. There were pine forests with tall straight trees, below which a fast moving river turned to white churning rapids. There were small wooden homes with lines of clothes hung out over streams. Women wrapped in saris washed at water pumps and children played cricket in fields alongside the train tracks. Tea plantations sculpted geometric shapes on the hilltops.

The train stopped to let mango sellers pass through the carriages hawking their wares to passengers. Next, we passed a ridge of hills, with flat-topped trees and large red flowers. A waterfall cascaded over smooth, glistening rocks. There were eucalyptus trees with their bark stripped down to reveal the white flesh beneath, and weird plants with large oval leaves that were green on one side, bright purple on the other.
Further highlights of the train journey
© Andy Brown/2013/Sri Lanka

The train passed through stations with English-sounding place names like Hatton, mixed with Sri Lankan names like Bandarawela. Some of the villages were Singhalese/Buddhist, identified by a tall, whitewashed stupa. Others were Tamil/Hindu, with a multi-coloured temple on the highest point adorned with miniature figures of gods and heroes.

After leaving one station, I looked back down the train and noticed a wooden pallet on wheels, tied with a rope to the back of our train. It was full of people sitting on the wooden deck and hitching a free ride. A couple of stations later it had gone. We gradually climbed higher until we were hugging the side of a mountain on our left, with a steep drop down to a flat valley floor below on our right.

In the mountains, the climate can vary hugely just from one side of a ridge to another. We came out of a long tunnel and suddenly it was cold and misty. I could smell the water in the air. Where there had been a rock wall before, now there was an empty space. The trees here were short and stubby, and loomed in and out of the mist like a set from a horror movie.

The people were very friendly and you only had to smile at someone to start a conversation. We got chatting to an old couple who were on their way to a monastery. There were also families taking the scenic route. I asked one father why he was travelling by train. “It’s actually much faster by road,” he replied. “But I wanted to show my daughter the landscape of her country. It’s her first time.” I looked over at his daughter. The girl sat mesmerised at a window, watching the view slide past as the train chugged slowly and steadily onwards.

End of the World

Other highlights of the trip included the waterfront at Colombo, where we watched the mother of all storms roll in. Over the sea, the sky was still bright and clear with a setting sun. Inland, however, it was dark, grey and menacing. As we walked out, the storm cloud moved slowly towards us. On the way back, it passed overhead and we were immediately drenched by some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced.

The seafront at Colombo, just before the storm arrived
© Andy Brown/2013/Sri Lanka
In Kandy, we visited the temple of the tooth, a rare corner of peace and quiet in an otherwise loud, polluted and crowded city. Aggressive touts dogged our every step, trying to sell us identical cultural shows. “Kandy has changed over the last ten years,” our hiking guide Anil said. “It used to be peaceful and quiet, even in the city centre.”

The temple itself was an ancient wooden building inside a more recent stone courtyard. The compound was still and silent, except for the deep pounding of drums coming from inside the temple building, where they were being beaten by three men in traditional costumes.

There was a long queue to pass outside the room where the Buddha’s tooth was housed, and you could only glance briefly inside. Most of the temple was off-limits to everyone except the monks, which added to its air of mystery. People were leaving offerings of flowers outside the tooth shrine and a Sri Lankan lady generously gave Joyce and I some of her flowers so we could take part in the ceremony.

In the courtyard building, there was a series of paintings telling the long and wildly improbable story of how the Buddha’s tooth ended up in a temple in Sri Lanka. After being snatched from Gautama’s funeral pyre and smuggled across the length of the Indian subcontinent, it was then stolen by invading armies and retrieved several times. This is because of a legend that whoever has the tooth will rule the country. On one occasion, the captured tooth was announced to be a fake, and the ‘real’ one was revealed by temple monks.

Musicians at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy
© Andy Brown/2013/Sri Lanka
From Ella, we also visited World’s End, where the central plateau comes to an abrupt end and the lowlands begin. The view clouds over by 9am, so we had to get up at 5 and drive through dark roads and deserted villages to get to the start point. We then set off on foot in the early morning light.

To get to World’s End, we hiked through a ‘cloud forest’. This is a surreal, almost alien place, where the trees and plants draw their moisture from the air instead of the ground. The trees were short and stubby but covered in trailing white moss and bright red flowers. The vegetation was so dense that there was no space between the trees, except where the footpath had been carved out. We walked over bare rocks with great swirling colours in them where the sedimentary layers had been turned and twisted over millions of years.

World’s End itself was a spectacular viewpoint, which we shared with a monkey sat nonchalantly on the signboard, yawning and picking fleas out of his fur. If not quite the end of the world, it was certainly the end of the hill country. We were right on the edge of the plateau, which ended in a vast cliff wall that descended vertically a kilometre or so to the lowlands. If you had the nerve to lean over the edge, you could see a tea plantation far below, with the roofs of buildings looking like a miniature model.

Beyond the plantation was another set of hills, and then pale rivers and lakes reflecting the early morning sun. On a clear day, it’s possible to see right out to sea, but for us the coast was already enveloped in a cloud of mist that was rolling slowly inland towards us.

A monkey sits on a signboard at World's End
© Andy Brown/2013/Sri Lanka

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