We started the week badly.
When we arrived in Sri Lanka we visited the Indian visa application centre in Colombo, to make sure that we knew exactly what we needed to do when the time came to get our visas for India. The Colombo chaps very helpfully gave us the forms to fill in, told us that the process took three working days and could be completed at their Kandy branch. Perfect.
So, five working days before our flight to India, we turned up with our carefully completed forms (wrong forms) and discovered that our visas would be ready and waiting for us 6 working days later. One day after our flight. Ah. The flight we booked to leave Sri Lanka on the day our Sri Lanka visas expire. Ooh.
We were informed by a slightly amused visa official (better than his previous incarnation of totally disinterested visa official) that there was a 90% chance that they would arrive on the day of our flights at 5pm, which would give us possibly enough time to get from Kandy to Negombo, pack our bikes and get them to the airport for our midnight flight. Hmmm.
So with spirits suitably dampened, we left the visa centre and cycled the 8km to Perediniya Station, where we were to catch the train to Nuwara Eliya, some 80km South and 1.4km vertically up. It always feels like cheating catching a train on a cycling trip, but we’re still nursing Linds’ injured knee and two days of hard climbing seemed to be pushing things, so discretion being the better way to justify avoiding the climbs, we plumped for the railway.
We’d heard stories of the bureaucracy involved in getting bicycles transported by trains in India (“you must write down every component of the bicycle here”), so allowed as much time as possible in case it was the same here in Sri Lanka. Fortunately not – a form was completed declaring the transportation of two bicycles from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya in the name of Devit Frainer (?!), we paid the fee which was roughly twice the price of a second class ticket per bike (£1.40!) and that was that.
Kandy has been the worst place we’ve been in Sri Lanka for touts, scammers and other career tourist-botherers, and the railway employee who pushed my bicycle to the platform fancied a piece of the action too. “I help you with bicycle, very heavy bicycle” (this despite the fact that they’ve already made me us take all the luggage off the bikes, which we’re now struggling to carry. Heavy indeed! Sir Bob is just the right weight) “A little support maybe, a little support? You give me 300 rupees” Which is more than it’s costing to get the bike taken the whole way on the train, a decent meal out, or 1/3 of an OK room for the night. I’m aware that wages here are pretty low, and that tipping is the norm, but sometimes the feeling that you’re being taken for a total fool really bites, and this was one of those occasions. He got politely but firmly told where he could put his 300 rupees.
The train journey itself was our first in Sri Lanka, and it was great – all the doors and windows are left wide open for ventilation, and food and drink vendors roam up and down shouting, chanting or sometimes singing the names and many virtues of their wares – wade (“wod-ee” – fried, spiced lentil ball snacks) are a personal favourite, both for the mind blowing speed at which the sellers speak (WadeewadeeWadeewadee WadeewadeeWadeewadee WadEEEEEEE!) and the things themselves, which come with or without whole prawns on top (the little girl opposite us took great pleasure in pulling the eyes off hers and offering them to her lucky parents), and are really good when they’re fresh. When the engine ground to a halt and flames were visible underneath, we all hung out of the doors and windows to get a better view – it’s soon sorted, and we continued chugging our way through the lush plantations and spectacular mountain scenery. The only downside was the small child sat facing us who decided that the floor was probably a better place to wee than the toilet was, and his Mother who didn’t seem overly bothered by this controversial decision. Bags on knees for the rest of the journey then.
Nuwara Eliya was built by the British as a mountain retreat from the hot lowlands, and it shows. The post office looks like it was meant to be built in a quaint Cheshire village, and many other buildings – a lot of them now guesthouses – follow suit. There’s even a golf course. Because the climate up here (1889m) is so much cooler than the rest of the country, there is a thriving industry growing UK style veg too – terraced hillsides abound with carrots, leeks, cabbage, beetroot and marrows. We spent two lovely nights staying at the excellent King Fern Bungalow, with the day in between wandering around town and pedalling out to visit Pedro’s Tea Estate and Factory, and then set off to cycle over the Horton ‘Plains’ to Haputale.
Our new American friend Lee recommended a route, and having consulted MapMy Ride we knew that it would be 65km, with one horror of a climb up to the ‘Plains’ 12km in and then one much more moderate one for the last 5km up to Haputale. You can see this planned route here. Yet again, that was not exactly how it panned out.
The first flat 12km wasn’t flat. It was rolling. Heavily. The road surface itself though was not conducive to rolling, and cobbles would probably have been better than several sections of it. This doesn’t make for particularly happy sounding panniers and it certainly didn’t make for a happy sounding wife.
Eventually we were within site of the climb we’d actually been aware of, and I noticed a couple of pretty large bees seemed to be swooping past my head a lot. A bit odd I thought, and after they disappeared I looked back to check Linds wasn’t being bothered by them, at almost exactly the same time as she started shrieking as if the very hounds of hell were hanging off her back wheel. We were going slightly downhill at the time, so we sprinted (more like laboured really) until the two bees of the apocolypse had disappeared, and then stopped to inspect the damage – Linds had one sting on the shoulder blade, which she claims (and I believe, considering the shrieking and the look of it) felt like getting stabbed in the back, and another sting which hadn’t properly gone in, but was still stuck in her top. We have no idea why they took exception to us, and can only assume that their ancestors suffered under colonial rule. We’re just glad we were going downhill at the time, so the rest of the posse didn’t have time to arrive.
The climb was, as expected, a nightmare. The plains were beautiful, but pretty far from plain as I understand the term (flat, surely?!). We saw Samba Deer, and some purply-grey monkeys with fetching white beards (purple faced langurs, it turns out. White beard purple langurs would be closer to the mark) Sadly we didn’t trek to the famous World’s End viewpoint, because it was too late in the day by then and the fog was coming in. After traversing the top, stopping for a box of ritz-alike biscuits at the visitors’ centre and then descending the other side (do you know what cadence braking is and why to do it?! Link coming soon!) Linds was suffering enough pain in her damaged Illio-Tibial Band that we decided to cut out the final climb by catching a train to take us the final 20km from Ohiya to Haputale. We relaxed laughing at a strange little caterpillar at the station while we waited, until a local trod on it and kicked it onto the tracks, because it was actually a leech. Oops.
Haputale is incredible. The whole town is balanced precariously on a mountain ridge. We found some reasonably priced accommodation on a building site staffed by a borderline-rude manager (see curse of the lonely planet!), ate mountains of rice and curry, ejected the world’s shrillest cricket from under our bed and then slept like logs.
The next morning we set off to Ella, which was thankfully exactly the ride we needed – gorgeous views, lovely smooth road, and almost entirely downhill!
The Lonely Planet Guide (2009) describes the ‘leisurely’ village of Ella as having ‘the Hill country’s best value guest houses’. So, under the rules of The Curse of The Lonely Planet, it was one of the most expensive places we’ve stayed. Eventually we found a room with half a view (if you leaned a bit) which after extensive negotiations cost us Rs1700 (£9.50) per night including Sri Lankan breakfast – not bad.
The next room was soon occupied by an Englishman called Richard, who despite an unhealthy pre-occupation with running and cricket turned out to be a thoroughly decent bloke, at least until he pointed out that the Indian visa system doesn’t allow a tourist to re-enter the country until they 60 days after they have left it. Why a problem? Because Linds has found a job that she really wants for when we get back, and if she’s called to interview she’ll have to go home, and won’t be allowed back into India, which is where we’re due to be in a week’s time. Bums. After careful consideration of the many un-ideal options available to us, we decided that the least expensive and most agreeable is for us to apply to extend our Sri Lanka visas for another 4 weeks, change our flights to suit, and hope that Linds has been home, aced an interview and returned by then! We drank Arrack (local palm based whisky) with Richard to celebrate the fine decision-making, and went for dinner in what appeared to be someone’s garden. Delicious.
We then had four relatively boring days of travelling back to Negombo / Colombo to complete the admin side of sorting the visas / flights, and then returned to Kandy to collect our now ridiculously premature Indian visas. We now have 3 ½ weeks to kill in Sri Lanka. We hope to get to the amazing Siguriya rock and the surrounding ancient monuments, do a few days in a meditation retreat, and possibly try and learn to surf somewhere. Watch this space! I’ll try and keep it shorter next time…