We spent the early morning and early morning wandering around the forest of PN Yala, looking for its ever-elusive leopards.
Around noon, owners and masters of ill-gotten photographs of specimens that were too far away or too hidden, we returned to the company of driver Ari and inaugurated the route that would take us to Ella.
We pass Kataragama, Sella and the local Hindu temple where the faithful praise Lord Ganesh. After a few kilometers on the same road, we come across real elephants, busy devouring fruits from trees on the side of the asphalt.
At Buttala, we turn west. A few minutes later, Ari announces Wellawaya and, soon, the first stop worthy of the name: “There, we're here in Buduruwagala.
This is one of the oldest and most important Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka. They usually close early, so we came faster and more direct. Have fun, I'll be here."
Stopover at Buduruwagala, a Thousand-Year Buddhist Shrine
Not that it was necessary, but the sequence Sella-Kataragama – Buduruwagala once again brought to light the religious complexity of the Sinhalese nation.
At the late hour when we entered the Buduruwagala space, the surrounding natural stronghold seemed to be on our own.
Millennial, the monument consists of seven images carved side by side on the face of a great rock blackened by time. Six of them appear lined up beside a now-whitened Avalokitesvara Buddha, Sri Lanka's largest Buddha sculpture. One of them is believed to represent Tara, the consort of the Buddha.
A closer look at the wide surface of the boulder proves that we had company after all. In a corner, each seated on his rounded rock, two Buddhist monks admired the sculptures.
Out of respect for their reverent peace, we kept our distance, but when one of them walked over the stone slab at the base of the monument and prostrated himself at the base of the great praying Buddha, we took the opportunity to enrich the images we carried from there with a precious scale and human relationship.
The monks were not long in disbanding. Pressed by the path that still lay ahead, we followed their example.
The Slow and Winding Rise for Ella
Gradually, we leave the flat lands of the south and inaugurate a winding and slow ascent to Ella's thousand meters of altitude. Along the way, the mountain jungle thickened before our eyes. It was irrigated by countless veins that carried the water poured back to the Indian Ocean by the persistent rains.
Slowly, slowly, held back by successive Tata lorries (but not only), we reached a meander of the road crossed by one of these streams, frequented by dozens of Sri Lankans who came out of exuberantly painted excursion buses.
The Melodramatic Delight of Ravana Falls
Ari stops the car. He advises us to take extra care as we walk over the polished stones that lined the steep course of the waterfalls above, the Ravana Falls.
“Every year someone slips there and already several tourists, even foreigners, have ended up dying. Thirty-six so far, believe it or not. The authorities should have done something to this place by now… “
Despite the drama of the alert, we dedicated ourselves to admiring and recording more than just the waterfalls themselves, the bathing frenzy generated by the visiting Sri Lankans, given up to thorough baths in sari or loincloths (depending on the gender) under fountains fallen from small ponds, or in well-disposed coexistences in the lakes which were then almost shallow, supplied by the waterfalls.
Attentive as we are to the tumults and commotions of bathers, monkeys sinics Sri Lankan endemic fluffs stalked the best opportunities to steal the tidbits and possessions of inattentive human cousins.
Ella was only five kilometers away, twenty minutes of final turns and counter-turns. By then, the early awakening was taking its toll. As he also claimed Ari.
Accordingly, we returned to the car and completed the route to the guest houses hidden in which we had booked a stay.
We installed ourselves and gave the driver the freedom he had longed for, with the painful commitment to pick us up again at eight in the morning.
The Railway Epic of the Ella – Kandy Railroad Stretch
At that same hour, we put our bags in the trunk of the car, after which Ari left us at the entrance of a detour that led to a valley crossed by the tracks of the Ella-Kandy railway route. We knew that the train was passing over a colonial-era bridge, Ponte dos Nine Arcos.
After a descent down a goat path to the rail level. We install ourselves in a privileged place to enjoy it. In the process, successive peasants crossed the so-called Bridge in Heaven, some of them leading cows.
Finally, around 9:20 am, the convoy appeared from the covert curve that precedes the structure. First, a long, powerful locomotive.
Little by little, the eleven carriages pulled by the machine, the whole of a pale blue that stood out from the surrounding vegetal-tropical panorama.
We were far from being the only ones dedicated to that program. On other slopes subsumed in the vegetation, on balconies and terraces made with panoramic views of restaurants and inns around it, several other foreigners admired the railway film.
Brief contact with Sri Lankan Authority
On either side of the bridge, two policemen in traditional Sri Lankan mustard-colored uniforms controlled the movements of the outsiders in order to prevent their photographic misadventures from ending up in tragedy.
After descending from the unstable perch we had chosen, we sat in a makeshift bar in the forest, between the bridge and the tunnel that followed. there we drink two weary in conversation with JMWS Karunarathne and AWM Nandasena, the authority duo assigned to the bridge.
Invigorated by the rest and by the yoghurt-refreshment, we followed the tracks until Ella station, a mere 2km away, where we would board the train.
As expected, tourist and 2nd Class seats with a seat booked were sold out. We buy tickets for 2nd Class Normal and we are subject to the unexpected.
Ella's Fascinating Station
During the new wait for the train, we made life at Ella station a delicious cultural trip.
We duck into the stationmaster's picturesque office and photograph him, proud of his rank, beneath framed photos of the Sri Lankan president, with a small Sri Lankan flag on his mahogany desk.
We examined with inevitable ethno-religious curiosity, the entrance on the platform of a Muslim family, its three women covered by chadars blacks.
However, the sudden appearance of the composition interrupted the banter of a group of Indian friends on the rails and generated a frenzied scramble for the edge of the platform.
Finally, on board and on the way
More confusion, less confusion, we managed to install ourselves at the door of one of the carriages that the absolute relaxation of the Sri Lankan state railway company allowed us – like so many other young acrobat passengers – to keep open, serving as perches and providential ventilation for the vendors of food that walked from one end of the composition to the other without rest.
The convoy flowed with a smoothness compromised by the many meanders imposed by the mountain range and the successive tunnels that perforate it.
The initial stretch of the route was made through a somewhat parched jungle, preceded by banana and papaya trees along the waterfront.
At a certain point, already at a higher altitude, it flows between vast and undulating tea plantations, the same ones perfected by the British settlers and who continue to produce and export the famous tea from Ceylon, such as the reputable and endless Edinburgh State .
Badulla, Ohiya, Pattipola, Ambwela, the seasons followed.
At each stop, the composition renewed its people, the saris, the men's shiny shirts, the bags, bundles and parcels thrown on both sides of the carriages with the usual emergence and audacity of these overcrowded stops.
Two little painters newly boarded on board are delighted with our photographic commotion.
Without shame or ceremony, they demand our attention with poses and more stylish poses behind youthful smiles and cheap glasses pretending to be an aviator.
In these and other entertainments, we don't notice the arrival at the stop where Ari was waiting for us. Only the strident warning communicated, via loudspeakers, by the stationmaster saves us from proceeding in vain.
Early Disembarkation at Nanu Oya
We had already gone through the really unmissable section of the Ella-Kandy section that Lonely Planet sensationally classified as “The Most Beautiful Train Trip in the World”. Accordingly, largely on Ari's advice, we left on Nanu Oya.
We didn't find the driver either first or second. We've given up looking for him.
We see the villagers walking on the rails as if it were a trail and we emulate their smooth steps. We ended up photographing the red composition that we had abandoned crossing another local bridge.
Ari appeared out of nowhere. Or rather – so we calculated – another one of his frequent masala chais. We returned to the hybrid car in which we were driving and to the asphalt.
It was two in the afternoon. Kandy was 85km away, three hours in the worst case. We warned Ari that we would continue unhurriedly, with the necessary stops, even if we arrived at night. No sooner said than done.
Two in the afternoon: Time for the Discovery of Sinhalese Tea
we crossed Nuwara Eliya, other hill station post-colonial teeming with tea, at the moment, covered by a blanket of mist that irrigated the verdant plantations.
A further kilometers to the north, we stop at the Glen Loch tea factory, also symptomatic of the Scottish colonial predominance of these parts.
Ari parks and leaves us to the service guide, Shiva Kala of her name, a Sinhalese but goddess of destruction, time and death (like the gods who had inspired her baptism) at least divine; the most beautiful and charming woman we had ever met in Sri Lanka, we agreed shortly afterwards, without too much friction.
We follow her and her smiling narratives. We smell green tea leaves. We compare them with other tostadas, made by black people. We taste a series of aromatic infusions and peek into the store well stocked with boxes and bags with appealing designs.
We were the last visitors to the factory, on an afternoon that had turned rainy.
The Ultimate Kilometers for Kandy
We reckon that, smiles aside, Shiva Kala would be willing to exchange us for his family, and we do his bidding.
We arrived in Kandy at quarter past eight at night, a late hour that left Ari apprehensive about the journeys to come. To compensate, we let him take us to a hotel where he could stay for free. We regret it in three times.
In any case, we were in Kandy, in the heart of Ceylon, in the historic City-Kingdom that Portugal never managed to subdue and that, from the XNUMXth century and the Dutch conquest of Galle fort, precipitated the collapse of Portuguese Ceylon,