The train leaves Kandy at dawn before the sun colours the land. Cars, pedestrians and tuk-tuks converge on the station. Goodbyes are said and travellers move along the platform to find their seats. This time we travel first class, the special Rajadhani Express coach has air conditioning, reserved, aircraft style seats with plenty of leg room, refreshments, newspapers and wifi.
It seemed to me a triumph of technology to be able to download The Times onto my Kindle while on the side of a mountain in Sri Lanka and read about the test match against India.
The coach rocks and shakes on the uneven track as much as the 3rd class and travels just as slowly although this is called Intercity Express. On one occasion, travelling 1st class in the last coach, the observation coach which had springs but no dampers, the coach whipped from side to side and up and down such that one person fell from their seat.
The ticket salesman said: “Yes Sir, it is air conditioned Sir, there are fans and the windows open.”
Rail Coach Luxury
The Rajashani Coach fills with seasoned travellers, businessmen, middle class families and tourists, some of the latter scruffy, unwashed, new-age youngsters. These are the people who really get to see Sri Lanka. The well-heeled tourist sees five star hotels, gem shops and a surfeit of temples.
The train goes carefully and slowly down the mountainside. The views are so vertiginous that some passengers keep the curtains drawn. An engineer pointed out that the rail chair is attached to the sleeper by only one pin or bolt, we are used to seeing four. In places there is only half a metre between rail and precipice.
There are many short tunnels and where the wall of jungle green falls away there are views of distant mountains and valleys still shrouded in the morning mists.
Robin Hood of Sri Lanka?
Bible Rock is an unmistakable block of a mountain shaped like a large book but called Batalegala by Sir Lankans. On the right side there is a good view of the rocky steeples of Utuwankande or Sardiel’s Castle.
Sardiel (or Saradiel) was a Robin Hood character who hid there in the early 19th century. He robbed from the rich but there is little evidence of him giving to the poor. He defied a search party of 3000 men but was eventually betrayed in 1864. It is said that his looted horde is hidden up there, guarded by a giant cobra.
The vegetation, where it is not shear rock face, is jungle trees, teak, mahogany, palms and banana plants, elephant grass and those magic herbs you hear about. Meanwhile in the air conditioned carriage we read papers, take refreshment and talk quietly. A perfect civilised microcosm in a wild, inhospitable landscape. The older Europeans look nostalgically at the old mechanical signal arms as they clank down at our passing.
As the train descends the air gets hotter and more humid. The jungle vegetation gives way to coconut palms and rubber plantations. Once level ground is reached, rice paddy takes over. The driver sounds the hooter often as people use the rail track as a footpath and there are many crossings of roads and farm tracks. The track is now double and other trains pass with young men hanging out of the doors and windows, partly for an air conditioning breeze and partly because of crowding.
The suburbs of all cities are depressing in their squalor and industrial rape of land. Colombo is the same and one wonders what the life of the tin-shack city dweller must be like. In places the civil engineers are erecting fly-overs, motorways and high rise offices and shopping malls. Colombo is on the move again with new investment after 30 years of stagnation caused by the civil war.
Colombo Fort Station is busy, noisy and the heat, humidity and dust enfold you. Once through the exit the touts surround you to carry your bags, find you a taxi, find you a hotel etc. One found us a tuk-tuk, the meter was broken of course. Just $20 to our hotel. You could feel the disappointment when we revealed that we know what the fare should be and settled for 400Rs (£2). A Sri Lankan would have paid 150Rs.
Smart modern hotels do not allow tuk-tuks near. Ours was smart but also the oldest in Colombo and had always allowed rickshaws, horse drawn carriages and now tuk-tuks but they have to draw up just beyond the front door.
Galle Face Hotel on the sea front is cool, quiet and smells of furniture polish. Cool drinks and cold towels are provided while you check in. With luck you get an old traditional room, one long enough to hold a cricket net practice. This time is was a ‘modern’ room, bigger than a squash court.
Famous guests who graced the hotel
Photographs of previous and notable guests adorn the wall.
You are in the company of Chekhov, Mark Twain, Prince Philip, whose old 1936 Austin car is on display there, Ursula Andress, Noel Coward, numerous European Royals, Yuri Gagarin and now us.
Unfortunately it was the photographer’s day off.
Prince Philip and his Standard 8 car
“While serving ashore in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), The Duke was sent to Trincomalee, on the east coast, to assist a Naval team surveying the harbour. He bought a second-hand Standard 8 car in Colombo and drove himself to Trincomalee and back. He was back in Trincomalee in HMS Whelp in 1945.”
Next to the hotel is an army building. On the top of an observation tower is a manned heavy machine gun. These days it is covered but on previous visits it has been ready for action complete with ammunition belt. They keep it trained on the sea rather than the hotel swimming pool. The careful or paranoid observer will see the CCTV camera above the swimming pool with a wire leading to the army building.
We Got the Visas
The government visa building is tall, busy, and hot. The crowded office is on the 5th floor. The ceiling fans may or may not be working. The application process takes 3-4 hours.
On the lower floors are the services you may need, photo booths or have a man take a decent photo, snack bars, banks and ATMs, photocopiers, printers, travel agents and airline companies for if you fail to get an extension.
This time we paid a private company to get the visa for us and had an extra half day to enjoy the hotel pool.
Post Series: Dispatches from Sri Lanka, by Mike Sedgwick:
- Dispatches From Sri Lanka
- Kandy Lake vs Chandler’s Ford Lakes
- Self-Employment In Sri Lanka
- Sri Lankan Wedding
- Sri Lankan Food
- There’s Some Corner Of A Foreign Field
- The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka
- This Is the Record Of John
- Tuk-tuk: My Transport Of Delight
- Life On The Road
- Commonwealth Games In Kandy
- A Temple For A Tooth?
- Dawn Train Down The Mountain To Colombo
- Traditional And Modern Medicine in Sri Lanka
- Ancient Vedda Tribe Becoming Extinct