There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 24 January 2015

By Train to Nuwara Eliya: Part 7 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Serendip

Today’s main event was a train ride up to Nuwara Eliya, the highest town in Sri Lanka's hill country, but as it did not leave till midday we had time to see some of Kandy's other landmarks.

A huge white statute of a seated Buddha overlooks the town and despite Kandy being tucked into a dozen different valleys it can be seen from nearly everywhere. The twenty minute walk from the city centre is steep, so we were happy to let Ravi drive us there.
The Bahiravakanda Buddha looks down over Kandy

This is Sri Lanka, so you must pay to enter the Buddha's enclosure, (and pay again for someone to look after your shoes), but the view from the top is worth the price - it would even have been worth the effort of walking up.

Kandy from the Bahiravakanda Buddha
The view of the statue, though, is better from the valley; here it is too close and too large.

The Bahiravakanda Buddha, Kandy
 We had suggested to Ravi that we would like to see the graveyard of the British garrison, a nineteenth century curiosity in the royal complex beside the lake. Most of those interred died depressingly young from diseases (mostly now conquered), accidents (some of them bizarre) and, occasionally, enemy action.

We thought Ravi had taken this on board so I was a little surprised that from the Buddha he did not descend to the lake, but drove us round the hill and down a couple more valleys which seemed to be heading away from the city. Ravi knew his way round Sri Lanka in general and Kandy in particular, so we said nothing.

'Here we are,' he announced turning down a country lane a few miles outside the city. As he brought the car to a halt we realised that we had arrived at a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery - we had not known there was one in Kandy, nor indeed that Sri Lanka had been involved in World War II. We had discovered it by serendipity, which seemed appropriate on the Isle of Serendip.

Lynne at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, Kandy
The cemetery is maintained in collaboration with the botanical gardens and like all Commonwealth War Graves it is beautifully looked after. The guardian/duty gardener wandered over to show us round.

There is one WW1 grave, the son of British residents of Sri Lanka who was killed in France; the other 200 are from WW2. After the fall of Singapore the headquarters of the British Indian Ocean Fleet was moved to Sri Lanka - the island guarded the route to the gulf and its oil and there was concern that it might be the next Japanese target. There were bombing raids on the fleet, which accounted for many of the casualties, but no invasion was ever seriously threatened.

Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, Kandy
There were many Sri Lankan names among the dead, many British, too, but also a surprising number of African names. It seems strange that a son of one continent should sign up to serve a country on another continent and be sent to die on a third - I suppose that is what makes it a world war.

The cemetery was not far from Peradeniya station and the botanical gardens. For some reason best known to the nineteenth century pioneers who built the railway, the main line from Colombo to Badulla misses central Kandy, stopping instead at this small suburban station.
Peradeniya Old Station

As we parked, Ravi told us he was unhappy about his brakes and wanted to have new brake pads fitted before driving into the hill country. He told us he would deliver our suitcases as soon as he could and meanwhile his friend Raj would meet us at Nanu Oya station and take us to our hotel in Nuwara Eliya. We would recognise Raj, he said - he was a man in his fifties with a large moustache. We were unconvinced. A middle aged Sri Lankan man without a moustache would be something to look for; a middle aged Sri Lankan man with a large moustache is just a middle aged Sri Lankan man.

Sri Lanka (click to enlarge)
The Colombo - Kandy (nearly) - Nuwara Eliya (nearly) - Badulla Railway is clearly marked 
Peradeniya is a delightful old station, with vintage signals, seats in the shade and a no photographing sign to ignore. Our train was half an hour late, but as it had come all the way from Colombo that would have been considered early on Indian railways.

Vintage signals, Peradeniya Station
The train was a clattering line of tin boxes hauled by a diesel that looked more suitable for a commuter line than a main line service involving a climb from Colombo at sea level to 1,800 m (6,000ft).

Most of the waiting passengers were Europeans, and we all filed into the otherwise empty first class carriage. The rest of the train looked packed - standing room only - but not Indian-style packed; nobody was hanging out of the doors or sitting on the roof.

Here comes the train, Peradeniya station
The privately run ExpoRail first class carriage was attached to a regular Sri Lankan Railways train.  It was of the same flimsy construction, but fitted with reclining seats and aggressive air conditioning. Multiple screens hung from the ceiling showing adverts and returning repeatedly to the unlikely claim that ExpoRail was ‘redefining train travel’. Presumably they felt rich Europeans would not feel at home without a vacuous marketing slogan to consider.
Palm trees and paddy fields south of Peradinya
We rolled through pleasant green countryside; paddy fields lined with coconut palms are always easy on the eye. Soon the two smartly dressed young stewards brought round rice and curry and we lowered our tray tables. It was not quite like being on a plane, the wooden tables opened to such an angle that lunch would have arrived in our laps had we used them. The stewards, though, were obliging and friendly and the food was surprisingly good – far better than any curry we have eaten on a plane.

Lynne with rice and curry ExpoRail style
The landscape became steadily less tropical with first the palms thinning out and then the paddy fields. The first tea plantations appeared amid streams and the occasional waterfall. By the time the stewards brought us an afternoon cuppa, tea bushes covered every slope and valley like vines on the Côte d’Or.

Paddy fields but no palm trees north of Hatton

With frequent stops at small towns and places that were not towns at all, we climbed higher into the mountains. After a couple of hours we reached Hatton. Presumably named after a tea planter or his plantation, this town of 15,000 people is best known as the place where the Hatton National Bank, Sri Lanka’s largest, was founded. It is also the place to alight for those wishing to climb Adam’s Peak. Climbing the conical mountain to its summit at 2243m (7,359ft) is a pilgrimage for adherents of all the island’s religion; a rock formation near the top being variously interpreted as the footprint of Buddha, Shiva or Adam.

Tea mono-culture, near Hatton
Like most of the foreigners we got off at Nonu Oya. The 92km journey (60 km as the crow flies) had taken 3¾hrs. As we descended the stairs from the bridge we were approached by a middle aged man with a large moustache, 'I am Raj, Ravi's friend,' he said.

Crossing the bridge at Nonu Oya station
The drive from Nonu Oya to Nuwara Eliya took fifteen minutes, the road winding between the tea-covered hillsides 

Nuwara Eliya (pronounced New-rail-ya) is known as Little England. The cool climate attracted tea planters and administrators, and their houses, though hardly very English are even less Sri Lankan. We were to stay at the Hill Club, once the club of the British overlords, now a club for the Sri Lankan elite who operate it like a hotel dedicated to ensuring that nothing will ever change. The club, like most of the 'British' buildings in Nuwara Eliya, is a dog's breakfast, a cut and shut of two buildings, neither of which look quite right.
The Hill Club, Nuwara Eliya

We checked in and were told the rules - no shorts or sandals in the public areas after five o'clock, gentlemen must wear jackets and ties in the dining room - and went to our room. South Suite 2 was not as the name might suggest one of two or more southern suites, but was half of the former South Suite. Nevertheless it was large and comfortable enough, though as darkness fell it became cool - verging on cold, for a man wearing shorts and tee shirt, clothing which, according to the rules, confined me to our room.

Seven o'clock came, and Ravi had still not arrived. I am reluctant to phone somebody who is driving, but eventually I felt I had to know where he had got to. He answered surprisingly quickly. 'Where are you?' I asked. 'At the front door of the Hill Club,' he answered.

We went down to collect our bags. The receptionist in his neat dark suit looked at me in my shorts and tee shirt, made a perfunctory effort to hide his sneer and organised a flunky to move our bags. Ravi explained the arrangements for the next day and we headed back upstairs to dress for dinner - not a phrase I use very often.
Properly dressed for dinner after I had borrowed a jacket and tie
Hill Club, Nuwara Eliya
While we were in our room there was a knock on the door. An aged flunky appeared with two hot water bottles, placed them in the bed, but a pillow on top each to retain the heat and bowed his way out.

The Hill Club may like to think it is as unchanging as a rock, but it is not entirely immune to societal shifts. In the 19th century ladies were not allowed through the front door, but they got over that and then, half a century ago, they swallowed the elephant - the change from British to Sri Lankan control. They have been straining at gnats ever since, but between the publishing of our copy of the Rough Guide and our arrival, the 'men only' bar had become the 'informal bar' and was open to all. There is also an 'informal restaurant', same food, same price no jacket and tie. That was where we headed, now that I was wearing long trousers and a shirt.

A sign of changing times, Hill Club, Nuwara Eliya
It was full. One of the waiters indicated that I should follow him, and I found myself in the billiards room with several other gentlemen rifling through a wardrobe in an effort to find acceptable appropriate clothing. There must be people who pack a jacket and tie when they come to Sri Lanka on holiday, but I am not one of them. Looking round the dining room, the quantity of non-matching and ill-fitting clothing on display suggested I am part of the overwhelming majority, though I think (or imagine) that I got away with it reasonably well. The ladies in general and Lynne in particular handled the situation much better - no surprise there.

Dining Room, the Hill Club, Nuwara Eliya
The formal dining room was indeed formal, the five course table d'hôte menu a Sri Lankan take on the 1960s British take on sophisticated French dining. Liveried Sri Lankan waiters with white gloves and silver trays floated silently through a throng of mainly European diners. Four Japanese girls sat together at one table, but why there were together was a mystery as none of them spoke or lifted their eyes from their phones all evening. There were a sprinkling of other Japanese tables but in two nights we saw only one person of south Asian appearance, an elderly woman dining with a European friend.
Coffee by a roaring fire, Hill Club, Nuwara Eliya

It was not a great meal, nor indeed a cheap one, particularly as we paid premium price for a very ordinary Italian merlot - though it made a pleasant change from Lion lager. We drank our coffee in the lounge before a roaring log fire, probably the only one on the island. Above the fire were portraits of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, unchanged since the 1950s. Eventually we retired to our room. It had been a strange experience, but we had rather enjoyed our step back in time and even looked forward to a rerun tomorrow - though we would be happy to return to the 21st century afterwards.

No comments:

Post a Comment