A Travellerspoint blog

Taking the Tea Train

semi-overcast 20 °C

Six thousand feet up in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka the dense tropical mists slowly roll back under the equatorial sun to reveal a stunningly beautiful landscape...
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This is tea country; a land sculpted by man from the rainforests nearly two hundred years ago to satisfy the tastes of Europeans – first with coffee and later with tea...
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However, beauty is only skin deep and this Garden of Eden has a less attractive side – the lives of the tea pickers...
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Working in a beautiful landscape doesn't make up for the Dickensian living conditions of these poor people and their families, and it is difficult to see a brighter future for them. So, the next time you casually toss a tea bag into a cup, spare a thought for the women who daily struggle up these steep terraces in all weathers to gather the tenderest of leaves until they wilt under the weight of their sacks. Only the three tiniest leaves are plucked from the tops of the bushes and it takes a million or more to fill a sack... and their reward for a day's work is just five Canadian dollars...
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The new growth is plucked every seven days and the pickers painstakingly work their way across the plantation in a never ending cycle. The giant tea factories have an insatiable thirst and it takes many millions of leaves a day to keep the wheels turning...
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The newly picked leaves are first withered by fans in enormous vats until they lose three quarters of their weight. And then they are crushed, fermented, dried, chopped and sieved in a process that takes a day or more until they are separated by size and colour into a range of teas to satisfy all tastes. All teas come from the same plant, a camellia, and it is only the processing that produces the numerous differing strengths and flavours. And here is the finished product waiting to be shipped to Mr. Lipton, Mr. Twining or Mr. Dilmah...
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We love taking English High Tea and there is nowhere better to experience this time-honoured afternoon tradition than at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, an iconic Colonial watering hole in the midst of tea country...
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Smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches, scones with Devon cream, and a pot of the finest Orange Pekoe, has been served to homesick Brits and well-heeled travellers since the Grand was built as a lodge for the British governor in the 1830s...
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Another tradition here in Central Sri Lanka is to ride the train on the rickety tracks built by the British to transport the tea to the auction houses in Colombo and then, by the fastest sailing ships in the world, the renowned Tea Clippers, to the tea houses of England in the late 1800s.
The train to Ella, in the heart of the mountains, winds its way along steep escarpments and through multitudes of tunnels, giving us a grandstand view of the densely forested hillsides and the tiny farming communities that are scattered along the tracksides.
All manner of crops grow abundantly in this sweet land and next time we will show some astounding displays of vegetable. For now – here are a few leeks...
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Posted by Hawkson 03:31 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (6)

On Our Way to Ceylonese Tea

semi-overcast 29 °C

Much like the Turin Shroud, Buddha's tooth has been around a bit since it was first discovered in  Kushinagar, India, after he died in 800BC at the age of eighty. Legend has it that eleven centuries later, in about 300AD, the tooth was smashed with a hammer and it became a star. When the tooth returned to earth sometime later a special temple was built for it in the Kandian capital city of Pollonaruwa. This ancient city was built about 1,000 years ago and this is all that remains of a seven story temple building...
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The Kings of Kandia lived in Pollonaruwa for centuries and bathed in one of a number of lotus shaped baths. This is the only one that remains today...
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The city of Pollonaruwa covers a vast area with many ruined buildings that are little more than piles of old bricks. However, three magnificent statues of Buddha, all carved from a single block of stone, are clearly the highlight of this site...
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Hundreds of schoolchildren were visiting at the same time as us and these elegantly dressed teachers were taking a break from their charges when they posed for us...
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After Pollonaruwa we visited the Hindu city of Mathale. While Buddhist temples can be a little over the top when it comes to the number of Buddhas, they pale in comparison to the sheer garishness of Hindu temples. There are exuberant paintings of gods everywhere and many of them could be mistaken for decoration on fairground rides...
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The Buddhist temple in Kandy, in the very centre of Sri Lanka, is a much more reserved, and revered, place because it is the current resting place of Buddha's tooth. This is the Temple of the Tooth...
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And behind these golden doors is the tooth itself – although no one is ever allowed to see it for fear of taking away its spiritual power...
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Thousands of adherents bring fragrant flowers every day to this, the most important, shrine in Sri Lanka and it was interesting to see the strength of devotion of the many worshippers who spend hours praying to this relic.

Kandy was an important city in British colonial times as it is a relatively cool place in the central highlands. It was, and remains, the centre of the Ceylon tea trade and we will be visiting the plantations and factories in the next few days. In the meantime we took in an an entertaining evening of traditional Sri Lankan dancing, plate spinning and fire-eating at the Kandy Lake Club...
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Now we are headed to the hills for tea.

Posted by Hawkson 17:43 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (5)

Jeep Safari in Northern Sri Lanka

sunny 31 °C

The roadsides around the town of Minneriya in Northern Sri Lanka are littered with billboards offering Jeep safaris so we thought we should give it a try.
After almost an hour driving on rough tracks through a dense jungle of teak and bamboo our guide spotted a lone Jeep at a watering hole...
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We approached cautiously, but the Jeep seemed skittish and took off before we could get our cameras properly trained. We quickly forded the shallow river at the same place and hoped to pick up the Jeep's tracks on the other side. Unfortunately, it looked to our guide as if a herd of Jeeps had recently passed the same way and he was unable to identify the tracks of the one that had fled on our approach. Undaunted, we pressed on. The Jeep tracks were quite fresh and we still had a few hours before nightfall.
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A large monitor lizard slithered off into the bush at our approach, but there was still no sign of the Jeeps. But then we stopped to listen and to our delight we heard the purring of Jeeps just ahead of us. We crept silently through the undergrowth, cameras at the ready, and there, in a wide clearing by the side of a lake we found a group of 50 or 60 Jeeps of all ages and species...
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We watched for awhile and marvelled at their agility on the mud that had been churned up by the pack leaders. We were so engrossed in admiring these magnificent specimens that we didn't notice a commotion behind us. Finally a warning shout went up and we turned just in time to see a herd of wild elephants charging towards us...
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Caught between the Jeeps and the elephants we had no choice but to stand our ground and take photographs...
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A female with babies was clearly not happy at our presence and flapped her ears aggressively as a warning...
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We began backing off but our path was blocked by some belligerent Jeeps and for a few moments we seemed trapped, then the Jeeps slowly backed off and we were able to get several more shots of the elephants...
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In no time we had counted more than a hundred wild elephants – many with young - What a bonus – two herds in one day. And when we finally got back to civilization in Minneriya we found a wild elephant wandering along the highway...
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Maybe he was going to the tourist board to get them to change the roadside billboards from “Jeep Safaris” to “Elephant Safaris”. Just a thought!

Posted by Hawkson 17:43 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (8)

The Sacred Caves of Dambulla

semi-overcast 30 °C

We've been climbing again. This time to visit five natural caves that have been a place of worship for more than two thousand years. According to our knowledgeable guide, the entrance to the Royal Rock caves in Dambulla has been jealously guarded by two competing monks for many years...
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This monstrous, garishly gilded image of Buddha sits atop one of the monk's temples on one side of the mountain – the side where the main car park is situated. The competing temple, on the other side of the mountain, is far less ostentatious. However, it is the monk of this other temple who currently owns the right to charge admission to the caves. Therefore, having been dropped at the car park on one side of the mountain, someone had to climb up and over the top to reach the ticket office on the other side! (Anyone correctly guessing who was sent on this arduous journey will receive two free tickets to visit the caves – airfare not included).
The climb to the Royal Rock temples of Dambulla is far less strenuous than Sigiriya, and there are no scary stairs, so we arrived with breath to spare.
Despite guidebook warnings about the crush of tourists, we seemed to be alone as we entered the first of the five caves...
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In total the caves are home to more than 150 statues of Buddha and while you may think that once you have seen one Buddha you have seen them all – think again. While many of the figures are just 10 or 12 feet tall others are so big they have to lay down...
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Some of the statues were here before the birth of Christ, (though we have no idea which ones)...
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Every inch of the walls and ceilings of the five caves is embellished with ancient murals which, we are assured, are painted entirely with natural pigments from the trees and plants in the surrounding jungle...
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King Valagamba started this place in the 1st century BC and subsequent kings each added to the collection of religious statuary...
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And the last king of Sri Lanka – King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe – managed to get himself in the line-up of Buddhas with this statue...
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King Kirti was deposed at the end of the 18th Century when Ceylon became a British colony.

Now, in case you are wondering how we managed to get these photos without hordes of tourists blocking our view - we used our people free camera. Here is a true picture of the crowds we encountered at the caves...
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And this little chap with a bad hair cut was chuckling to himself as he sat in the shade and watched all of us humans struggling up a mountain in the heat just to look at a bunch of old statues...
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Who says monkeys are dumb animals?

Posted by Hawkson 17:42 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (4)

Sigiriya - A Place in the Sky

sunny 32 °C

The task for today's blog is for us to scale the heights of Sigiriya in North Eastern Sri Lanka to visit the remains of a monastery and palace complex that is some 1,500 years old. From a distance the outcrop of quartz on which the palace sits rises from the jungle floor like a giant toadstool as it thrusts more than six hundred feet into the clear blue sky...
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The climb is arduous and expected to take as much as two hours in the hot afternoon sun, but our guide assured us that we could do it – however he didn't come with us! Two thousand steps forge a path to the top and begins with a steady climb up numerous flights of stone steps...
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There is a cave with ancient murals at the halfway point, but access is only gained by a nerve-racking ascent up a fifty foot high spiral staircase dangling over the edge of a three hundred foot precipice...
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No photos are allowed during the climb to the cave – possibly a good thing as we don't need reminders. However, no photos were permitted of the murals once we had reached the cave. So, we have no proof that we did it – you will have to take our word. The climb back down the spiral staircase was equally scary and we still had three hundred feet of sheer rockface to ascend to reach the summit. From this point the palace water gardens below us already seemed very far off and we were beginning to wish we had simply stayed there and sent up our guide with our camera...
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The foundations of many buildings, their purposes now obscured by time and by the destructive forces of later civilizations, were cut into ledges at various heights. This was undoubtedly an important structure in the 5th century AD...
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We paused, but still had a long climb ahead of us. Many of the steps are cut into the rock while others are steel staircases that cling perilously to the sheer cliffs...
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The metal ladders looked sturdy enough, and plenty of people had gone before, so we pushed on until we arrived at the summit, and the base of the great plinth on which the palace once stood...
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Just one more climb and we were on top of the world. The views across of the jungle were stunning...
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And at our feet was the foundation of a great palace built by King Kassapa (477-495 AD) that had once stood proudly atop this mountain. The king built his palace here to protect himself from his enemies after he murdered his own father.
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Having climbed to the top we can say with certainty that anyone thinking of attacking the place should think again. All we had to do now was to climb all the way back down.

Posted by Hawkson 07:56 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (9)

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