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A Slow Train To Hill Country

The many natural and cultural highs of train travel from Colombo to Ella

I’m nearly 6,000ft up, a few miles along the line from Nanu Oya station. The doors are open and warm air scented from baskets of fresh pakoras blows through the carriage. A family, gathered around a harmonium, claps and sings traditional songs. Slowed by the gradient, the train click-clacks through the mountains, along contours and between slopes of pine, eucalyptus and flowering rhododendron. On every side are idyllic views of broad green valleys below, threaded with silver rivers.

Few other railway journeys in the world could come close to this. Riding the rails might not be the first method of transport you think of when visiting the island, but Sri Lanka train journeys offer a serious wealth of cultural and scenic splendour. And the 270-kilometer train ride from Colombo to Ella along Sri Lanka’s historic, hill-hugging tracks is the greatest of them all.

The line was originally built by the British to transport tea from the colonial plantations to the capital for export. Today it stitches together the epic landscapes and the must-see travel destinations of, Kandy, Hatton and Nuwara Eliya. This makes a few days riding the railway into Hill Country a simple and unforgettable way for travelers to experience some of Sri Lanka’s true highlights.

My journey had begun at dawn, two days earlier. At 6:30am I was already breakfasted and in a taxi heading towards Colombo Fort Station from the stylish, newly minted Jetwing Colombo Seven hotel. The rooftop pool and panoramic views had proved an incredible way to get my bearings after arriving in the city. Ten minutes later, outside the station’s formal white façade, the sun was only just visible, yet the air was already humid and filled with what locals call “morning music” – the honks and chatter of bus horns, tuk-tuks and commuters. Inside was a different story though. Built to emulate Manchester Piccadilly’s open design, the station felt like a 1950’s film set; the platforms spacious, quiet and raked with golden light.

Following a Tannoy call – helpfully in English – announcing the 7am inter-city train to Kandy, I stepped aboard a classic-looking maroon carriage with ‘Observation Saloon’ painted in yellow on the side, attached to the back of an old diesel locomotive. A variety of trains run daily up to Kandy and Badulla with different classes and both reserved and unreserved seating. This first–class observation coach (about £8 one way) holds 24 seats facing backwards to the direction of travel. Wood-lined with ‘plush’ recliners it felt a tad musty inside, but once moving, the large windows at the carriage’s end soon repaid with views down the tracks.

Jolting out of Colombo’s industrial suburbs, we passed billboards and brightly painted houses stacked up by the lines; there were serene white temples and local trains with passengers clinging perilously to their sides. As the guard checked tickets we picked up speed through the tunnels and narrow cuttings dynamited into the rock nearly two centuries ago. Then, like a dog slipping its leash, we bounced into greenery; all around were paddy fields hemmed with palm, coconut and banana trees.

    After an hour the train began to slow, the climb felt suddenly noticeable and everything took a more relaxed pace. A fellow passenger pointed out that we were in the foothills of the central massif that rises through the middle of Sri Lanka. “Hill Country,” he said, pointing. Families opened Tupperware with homemade curry inside and cheery conversation sprung up between locals and tourists. The sun, full overhead, lit ripples of mountain and tapestry-green forest that burst with sprays of orange-flowered African tulip, first brought here by British planters. It all set the tone perfectly for my first stop at Peradeniya Junction.

    Located 5km from Kandy – Sri Lanka’s second city – this station is best known as the alighting point for the Royal Botanical Gardens Peradeniya, a short tuk-tuk dash away. These 147-acre gardens date back over 400 years and were once the private reserve of Kandyan royalty. Formally established by the British as a botanical garden in 1843 with plants from Kew in London, they are the largest in the country with over 4,000 species. Cooled by a hill breeze, I ambled along tree-lined avenues into rose beds running riot with colours, and past giant Burmese bamboos that – unbelievably – grow a foot a day. Backdrops of mountain rainforest framed the green vistas and floral borders. All around were flashes of barn swallows and the calls of oriels. It came as no surprise to learn that part of Bridge on the River Kwai was shot here or that, during filming, Alec Guinness fell immediately in love with Peradeniya’s tropical lushness and returned often.

    In the Great Circle – a vast ring of trees planted by dignitaries – I recorded visits from astronauts, presidents and numerous British royals stretching well back into the nineteenth-century when Peradeniya wasn’t only a must-see for the green-fingered aristocracy but a vital proving ground. It was here that imported plants brought by British colonists to the island were trialled, notably rubber, cloves, cinnamon and, most famously, tea. A similar role today was evident in the spectacular Orchid House, a breeding hothouse for hybrids that is an astounding display of colour, fragrance and natural beauty that left the senses reeling.

    Next, I headed into nearby Kandy, the mountain city that was home to the last Sinhalese kingdom. Sitting by a mirror-flat lake and surrounded by hills, it’s something of a place of contradictions today where ancient streets pulse with frenzied traffic. As police in buff jackets and white gauntlets directed streams of mopeds and tuk-tuks, I took refuge in the tranquil Temple of the Sacred Tooth – Sri Dalada – a beautiful golden-roofed shrine on the lakeshore that is home to Sri Lanka’s most precious Buddhist relic: Buddha’s tooth.

    Turns out that the temple complex also houses to the Alut Maligawa Buddhist shrine, the small (but fascinating) Sri Dalada museum, the last Sinhalese king’s palace and the World Buddhism Museum. Yet despite being busy with visitors and devotees, the whole place retained a feeling of sublime calm. Going barefoot over its cooling stone floors, the air smelled rich with burning incense. A white-bellied sea eagle drifted overhead. Rows of devotional candles flickered; fine woodcarving and painted ornate frescoes were everywhere, as were elephant tusks – a male ‘Tusker’ elephant kept on-site is still an integral part of the venerations here – and many representations of Buddha himself, large and small.

    My guide informed me that its believed that whoever possesses the sacred tooth relic has a divine right to rule this land. Small wonder then that it is fiercely guarded, locked away in the oldest part of the site – a shrine built in 1592 when it was first brought here – and concealed in a series of intricate caskets. Each is like a Russian doll, smaller than the one before. As the sky began to bruise, I joined worshippers making an offering before the ornate door, dropping a flower into a bowl of water as still as the lake outside.

    Later, at my hotel for the night – the Mahaweli Reach, a handsome colonial building beside the Mahaweli River – Kandyan dancers performed in traditional masks, twirling to drumbeats under flaming oil lamps. As I tucked into cashew curry, they walked barefoot over burning coals, and then demonstrated the robustness of their own tastebuds with fire-eating displays, wielding flaming torches against the silhouettes of the mountains behind.

      “The Majestic Kingdom Of The Hills Warmly Welcomes You!” A sign at Kandy railway station proclaimed the next morning. And after hopping on an 8:47am ‘blue train’ bound for Badulla, I quickly realised this was no hollow promise. During the two and half-hour joyride up to Hatton the landscape became more majestic with each passing minute. Curtains of eucalyptus and pine to one side; horizons filled with muscular mountains to the other. My train – named ‘Podi Menike’ or ‘Little Jewel’ – was one of the modern Chinese-built blue trains running on this line. Clean and functional, its 3rd class seating was perfectly comfy enough. The warm welcome came from my fellow passengers. Backpackers sat in the door wells trading tips and snapping the views. A group of local lads offered me Arrack and fresh chicken curry, then slipped into surprisingly tuneful harmony around a guitar. Next to them a woman smiled as I clapped along, her baby wonderfully oblivious, sound asleep in her shawl.

        Climbing down at Hatton station, I was greeted by another friendly face – Ishanda, the resident naturalist and guide from Jetwing St Andrew’s hotel, up the line in Nuwara Eliya where I’d be staying the night. He’d come down to give me a tour of Hatton’s towering giant of a mountain, visible for the last thirty minutes in glimpses from the train. This area has long been known as the real start of tea plantation country, but its main draw today is the 2,443m Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada. A magnet for religious pilgrimage, it is an unusual site for being important to all religions in Sri Lanka, each believing the footprint shape in the rock at the top is connected to their faith, being Lord Shiva’s, Buddha’s or Adam’s, depending on your beliefs.

        Ishanda led me up the track into fog-shrouded trees explaining that in the calm weather between December and May the path to the summit is busy with travellers and pilgrims who set out by torchlight to witness the awesome spectacle of sunrise from its peak. But being November, and with rain clouds buffeting the peak, our attention was on the area’s incredible flora and fauna. Adam’s Peak is cloaked with ‘cloud forest’ where all manner of rare creatures thrive, including a shy, shaggy-coated leopard, which has led to Unesco World Heritage Site status. Hiking up the trail to exquisite viewpoints, we passed robed pilgrims and brightly painted sculptures and shrines, then stopped by a waterfall to pick out miniscule frogs in the undergrowth and watch long-whiskered bear monkeys feasting in the trees.

        Back at Hatton, we continued our journey and boarded the afternoon train. It chugged to the next station through ever-more breathtaking scenic bliss: milk-coloured waterfalls, ranks of jade-coloured tea bushes and perfectly neat vegetable gardens. By Nanu Oya I was ready for a good rest and a cuppa. And, fortunately, there’s no better place in the world for both than Nuwara Eliya, the famous plantation town that the station serves.

        You understand immediately why it’s nicknamed “Little England”. Partly it’s the climate. Being 1,868m up, the air is misty and cool (six degrees centigrade some months) with weather as changeable as an English summer. But mostly it’s the architecture. Imagine a Home Counties town transplanted onto a plateau atop a mountain. Old red phone boxes, a golf club dating back to 1889, a red-brick post office, even a nineteenth-century racecourse complete with stables, jockey rooms and grandstand – all make Nuwara Eliya a surreal yet stunning setting to explore.

        On raised ground in the heart of town, just up from the golf course, Jetwing St Andrew’s is one of the architectural gems here. Once known as ‘Scott’s Club’, it was frequented by golf-crazed, nineteenth-century Scottish tea planters. The name changed when it became a hotel in the early 1900s. Nowadays the grand colonial façade houses 52 rooms and luxurious suites. Sprawling lawns bloom with flowers and topiary. Inside there are antique features at every turn. I checked in and sank into an armchair for the finest cup of tea I’ve ever tasted. Then Ishanda showed me a wood-paneled billiard room that houses the oldest snooker table in the country, a grand period staircase and the dining room’s curious, art nouveau-esque copper ceiling.

        Following a feast of rice and curry washed down with more incredible local tea, I took a seat by a fire with a good scotch. The view was of Nuwara Eliya’s twinkling lights below. Cosy in my jumper as the pine logs crackled in the flames, I thought of the men who came here before me, brought to this little corner of heaven by the railways and the tea, both of which still keep Hill Country buzzing today.

        It was a wrench to leave Nuwara Eliya and Jetwing St Andrew’s hotel. Staff consoled me by pressing a fantastic-looking picnic lunch into my hands. They explained that this last leg of the train journey to Ella was the most spectacular stretch of railway in the world. As with every place on this trip, their friendliness was genuine and infectious.

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        And they were right. From Nanu Oya our old train slowed to 8km per hour as it wound around curves and up slopes even higher into the mountains. Window wide-open, head thrust out, I watched the flower-thick trackside fall away to reveal huge sweeps of country below, washed with hazy sun. Tea, like swathes of green corduroy, rolled over slopes; pines rose in looming stands. I fancied I could see for a thousand miles. Then, suddenly, we were snaking through deep, damp, lime-coloured forest, bright with sun and dew. Some passengers couldn’t help themselves, saying ‘wow’ at each spectacular sight; others dozed with the rhythm and the mountain air.

          No one wanted to leave at Ella – especially as the rain had just swept in – but this is the end of the line for most. In a jostle of backpacks and rain Macs, I slapped the train goodbye, stepped out of the station and ran to a waiting Jetwing minibus. After the high of the journey, many travellers get to Ella wondering what to do and where to go next. I already had that covered. With three days travelling under the belt, it was time for some serious relaxation. And only half-an-hour drive from Ella station was exactly the sort of place I had in mind: Jetwing Kaduruketha, close to nearby Wellawaya.

            The run to the hotel almost rivaled the train’s views. We wound down a breathtaking mountain trail, stopping to stare up at the huge roadside cascade that is Diyaluma Falls. Once at the hotel and after a long swim in its open-air pool, I lay on the bed in my own private lodge in a bathrobe. Through the open shutters rose the crumpled mountains of Hill Country. Perhaps – I found myself thinking – after a day or two more of pampering here, I could just get the minibus to run me back to Ella. Then I could just do it all again, back the other way.

            Believe me. The views, the experiences, the places and the people – you could make this journey a thousand times and never tire of it.

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            Where

            Day 1 – Colombo to Peradeniya Junction (Kandy).
            Day 2 – Kandy railway station to Hatton (Adam’s Peak) and Hatton to Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya).
            Day 3 – Nanu Oya to Ella; Ella to Wellawaya (via road).

            Getting here

            Start at Colombo Fort Station, Colombo, and catch series of trains towards Kandy or Badulla. Or do the journey in reverse, Badulla to Colombo. Visit seat61.com for train times and approximate journey lengths.

            Staying here

            In Colombo – Jetwing Colombo Seven; in Kandy – the Mahaweli Reach Hotel; in Nuwara Eliya – Jetwing St Andrews; in Wellawaya – Jetwing Kaduruketha.

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