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Travelling Sri Lanka's hill country by train

Travelling Sri Lanka's hill country by train
Nicola Venning makes the journey from Kandy to Ella by train, travelling through tea plantations, jungle forests and mountains
I peered at the vast wooden timetable in Kandy’s colonial-era railway station. There was row of large clocks, each with a different departure time next to a destination in Sri Lanka’s hill country. My husband and I were catching the 8.47am to Ella, a small and increasingly hip mountain town, surrounded by tea plantations and jungle forests. And about a 163km-long trainride away.
Enjoying train ride from Ella to Kandy among tea plantations in the highlands
Train ride from Ella to Kandy among tea plantations in the highlands © Dasith Damsara / Alamy Stock Photo
Our blue “express” was already 20 minutes late, but that was part of the charm: tourists and local Sinhalese gathered excitedly on the busy platform, itching to start this renowned train journey. 

A journey through history

Sri Lanka’s 19th-century railway line was originally built to connect the remote tea country with the coastal ports of Colombo and Galle. We were taking the central section, which is generally considered to be one of the most scenic train journeys in Asia: we would be passing lush green jungle, rugged mountains, misty cloud forests and verdant tea plantations.
As the train lumbered out of Kandy, the scruffy suburbs soon gave way to caterpillar-green rice paddies. We crossed the wide brown Mahaweli river, the longest in Sri Lanka, and the rice paddies grudgingly gave way to dense dark jungle. Every 20 to 30 minutes the train stopped at villages with small smiling Buddhist shrines and pastel pink or faded orange stations where the platforms had pots of exuberant ferns and palms, and once, a fish tank with bright orange gold fish. Gruff stationmasters in starched white uniforms would patrol as families hurriedly boarded; when the stationmaster wasn’t looking, unauthorised food sellers would sneakily creep on, calling  “wade, wade, wade” (a spicy chickpea doughnut), or selling bottles of water, “chai” (sweet white tea), nuts or fruit. 
A street vendor sells fried shrimp and wade at Talawakele railway train station
 A street vendor sells fried shrimp and wade at Talawakele railway train station © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

Wallets at the ready

We were travelling on a Friday which, along with the weekend, is one of the busiest times to make the journey. It was also Independence Day—a national holiday to commemorate Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule in 1948. It was clearly a very popular long weekend: our train was rammed.
We had decided to reserve seats (having no wish to stand for hours!) and therefore had to buy tickets in advance. However, the extra demand due to the public holiday made these very hard to obtain. Tickets cannot be bought online and only become available from Kandy’s ticket office in person, roughly a month before the travel date. They tend to be bought up in bulk by agencies and touts and then sold on. This, combined with Sri Lanka’s two-tier pricing system (foreigners always pay more), meant that our tickets, which had a face value of 800 LKR for two (about £4.00), had suddenly become substantially more expensive. Our hotel manager managed to “obtain” third class reserved tickets for the rip-off price of 1, 6193 LKR—about £60.00 (normally the foreigners’ price is roughly £20.00 for two).
"It was clearly a very popular long weekend: our train was rammed"
We had no choice but to pay. However, Third Class Reserved was arguably one of the best places to sit: our carriage had wide open windows with lots of fresh air (helpful in these post-pandemic times), and was relatively uncrowded at the back of the train, far from the noisy, smoky engine at the front. 
Our immediate companions were a Polish couple who smiled a lot and a Sinhalese family who smiled even more. All of us wore face-masks, as this was still mandatory in public places. However, with the windows and doors wide open (the train is very, very slow and many people like to sit in the doorway for the view), we did not feel unduly worried.

Into tea country

As the train continued to climb, the jungle scenery gave way to grassy hills that looked like little green dumplings. These were eventually replaced with small emerald shrubs that heralded tea plantation country. They were so close to the track, you could pick their leaves. The fields of tea shrubs were dotted with small trees that looked like green lollipops and a few tea pickers—often small gnarled women in bright saris. Most were descendants of the Indian Tamils who had been brought to work on the tea plantations when the British controlled Sri Lanka. In the distance there were rows of tea-pickers' huts and small homes. Sometimes, these rough and ready dwellings were near the line, often with brightly coloured red and orange saris and other clothes drying outside them.   
A tea picker at work at the St Clair Tea Estate in Talawakele
A tea picker at work at the St Clair Tea Estate in Talawakele © David South / Alamy Stock Photo
We stopped at villages and market centres with tongue-tying, impossible to pronounce names such as Nawalapitiya or Talawakele. Instead of Buddha, the village shrines now featured the Hindu god Vishnu, alongside an occasional Christian church. Sacred cows often grazed by the line, and once or twice sauntered down the station platforms, correctly confident that no harm would ever come to them.
A row of school children in white clean uniforms made their way down orange dusty tracks, holding umbrellas against the sun, and headed to a white Victorian-looking school building.  
There are over 20 stations between Kandy and Ella, and one of the busiest stops is at Nanu Oya, about half way through our journey. Here, many people disembarked to visit Nuwara Eliya—a small town in the tea country hills otherwise known as "Little England". It was popular with British tea plantation owners because of its cooler temperate climate, and is renowned for its classic English architecture and smart hotels. 
"The small farms and meadows gradually gave way to more alpine scenery and pine forests"
We, however, continued on our journey to Ella. We were joined by a group of French teenage girls who were travelling with a Sinhalese guide (many tourists hire guides, though we had decided to go independently and had had no problems). 
The train continued to slowly climb and loop round the hills, which was great for the French girls who all took selfies of themselves hanging out the door.
The small farms and meadows gradually gave way to more alpine scenery and pine forests. When we finally groaned up the track to reach Pattipola, we were 6,226m high and 1897.5 m above mean sea level: the highest point of the journey.
The mist was rolling in and the distant hills were barely visible; as we slowly chugged down the line and emerged from the cloud forest we could still make out rocky escarpments and waterfalls, which meant we were not far from Horton Plains National Park which is popular with hikers. Sadly the elephants that used to roam here were killed off during British rule. 

Technical difficulties…

We passed another station and entered a long tunnel. The engine gave one big wheeze, a spurt of steam and promptly packed up. Only three stops from the end of our journey in Ella and we had broken down! There was nothing to do but wait for the engine to cool.
While Europeans fretted, the Sinhalese sat back phlegmatically. Clearly this happened a lot! A thumping drumbeat started in the carriage ahead. One young man was carrying bongo drums, and soon all the Sinhalese were singing and clapping along. If only that happened on the London underground
"The engine gave one big wheeze, a spurt of steam and promptly packed up"
Eventually the engine cooled enough for the train to limp on to the next station, Bandarawela, where it promptly broke down again. Buckets of water were passed along the platform in a human chain and poured over the steaming locomotive. By now it was late afternoon, and as we stretched our legs, we admired the view as the soft, round hills slowly disappeared into the dusk. 
It was all stunningly beautiful but we had been travelling for 9.5 hours and were tired. Ella was only half an hour away but we had no idea if we would make it; and within half an hour it would be dark.
Many Sinhalese disembarked, women carrying bags of rice on their heads, husbands carrying suitcases and small children; the young crowd of Sinhalese with the bongo drums all walked down the track behind the train and disappeared into the leafy countryside or jumped into waiting tuk tuks
Finally, to our huge relief, the train started again. By now it was pitch black and when we arrived in bustling Ella, there was little to see other than taxis. We snatched a late night swim in the hotel pool, ate a great curry and collapsed onto our big, comfortable bed. Next morning when we pulled back the curtains, we gasped. 
View of Ella Rock and the Ella Gap from the Ambiente Guest House, Ella
View of Ella Rock and the Ella Gap from the Ambiente Guest House, Ella © Agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo
There in front of us was the deep, V shaped valley of Ella Gap, crisscrossed with green hills and Ravana Falls waterfall, a milky stream in the distance. Colourful birds flitted past our terrace and higher up the hills, we could see tea plantations.
It was all stunning and a fitting end to a wonderful journey that revealed as much about Sri Lankan culture and its welcoming people, as it did its beautiful scenery.
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