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Kandy crush

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Kandy, Sri Lanka
Wednesday, 13 February 2019

It would be boring if the whole world was perfect. If every place was good, how would you determine if it was good? What would the yardstick be that you could use to measure the goodness of a certain location? If every town in the world had pleasant, brisk cold weather, pure mountain air, invigorating winds, moody skies, verdant parklands, beautiful pine trees and twee Merry Olde England architecture, why would you even bother going on holiday? You need to have unpleasant places in the world and you need to visit them. It's only after visiting cesspits that you are able to truly appreciate those places that are nice and quantify how nice they are.

Well, that's how I am rationalising my decision to visit Kandy, a truly horrible town whose main redeeming feature is that there are several trains a day that leave it.

I had heard horrible things about Kandy and only decided at the last minute that I would definitely visit. Nearly every traveller I had met was going there or had been there. Even the most independent of travellers succumbs to peer pressure and I am not immune. Besides, there is a UNESCO World Heritage Site there, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, and I doubt I could live with myself if I knowingly skipped the opportunity of ticking another World Heritage Site off my list.

First, I had to get to Kandy. I had my final breakfast at Sapu's Mountain Breeze guest house, said goodbye to the men who ran it - I appeared to be the only guest, which is a shame because it is affordable and has large rooms with comfortable beds and decent breakfasts and helpful staff and it is only one block from the main street - and got into the tuk-tuk the staff had arranged for five hundred rupees.

The tuk-tuk driver turned the engine off as we went down the hairpin bends of the A7 from Nuwara Eliya to Nanu Oya. Turning the engine off when descending a hill is quite common even for large vehicles like trucks, I guess drivers do it to save fuel. It might be good for fuel economy but it is terrifying when you are walking along a hilly road and a truck or car races past you and you are frightened out of your wits because you couldn't even hear it coming.

I arrived at Nanu Oya station at about ten to nine, about half an hour before the scheduled arrival of my train, the up Udarata Manike ("Hill Country Maiden") from Badulla to Colombo. I bought my reservedfirst-class ticket to Kandy for a thousand rupees and spent a pleasant half an hour photographing the station, the yard, signals, rolling stock and the gorgeous scenery of tea terraces and forested hills.

The Udarata Manike was another Class S12 push-pull diesel train. It consisted of various first, second and third class carriages. Only the first-class carriage was air-conditioned. There was no restaurant car like the one on the Super Secret Weekend Express but there was a loud and cheerful man who walked up and down the aisles selling tea from a large Thermos flask as well as various snacks from a large plastic tub.

The scenery was stunningly beautiful, as was my travelling companion in the seat next to me, Marta. Marta is from the Czech Republic and works in the film industry back home. She had a short break in between film jobs and took the opportunity to have a ten-day short break in Sri Lanka. She was travelling from Ella to Colombo to catch her flight back to Europe. We had a long and interesting conversation about life, the universe and everything. Do you remember what I wrote earlier about how independent travellers are either the most interesting and admirable of people or the most annoying and tiresome of people? Marta is definitely the former. It is very strange how I sometimes struggle to find like-minded people I can have an intelligent conversation with during my normal daily life in Australia but whenever I travel, they are everywhere.

Marta and I enjoyed the views while we were chatting. The railway line clung to the sides of ridges as it descended from the Hill Country plateau. Off to our left, a broad valley of tea plantations and vegetable gardens was framed by a blue-tinged jagged mountain range in the distance. There was one mountain that stuck out of the range like a tent where only one pole has been raised. This is Adam's Peak. This is the most famous mountain in Sri Lanka, and climbing it in the early hours of the morning to watch the sunrise is a popular pilgrimage for devout Buddhists and Western backpackers alike. I have heard that it isn't that great, nine times out of ten the mountain is shrouded in fog, and the five thousand steps are uneven and absolutely kill your knees when you are coming down. No thanks. Little Adam's Peak was enough for me.

We slowly descended and the weather got warmer. Though our carriage had air conditioning, enough warm air came in through the open doors that I had to take our jacket off.

After four hours the train arrived in Kandy a bit earlier than anticipated. I hurriedly said goodbye to Marta, put my jacket back on because I didn't have the time to stow it away, quickly sent her a Facebook friend request, and as I disembarked from the train I knocked on the window and we excitedly waved to each other. I do hope our paths cross again.

Kandy is one of the most important cities in Sri Lanka and has an important station to match. The long platform shelters featured elaborate cast-iron support structures and the station hall was a large and impressive Art Deco building.

When I visited the National Museum in Colombo, a group of tourism college students studying to become licenced tour guides asked me to do a quick survey about my visit to the museum. I told them my travel plans, said I was still undecided about whether I would go to Kandy, and one of the guys, Malinda, told me that his brother or father or uncle or whatever owned a guest house in suburban Kandy. I thought he said it was called Traveller's Home and he showed me where it was on the map, on the western side of town right near a bridge over the Mahaweli River.

So a couple of days ago I booked two nights at the Traveller's Home guest house. In any case, I was sort of getting sick of staying in noisy, bustling town centres and felt like enjoying some suburban peace and quiet for a change. So many people had also told me that Kandy city centre is a dump (spoiler alert: it is) and advised me to get a place just outside Kandy (pro tip: they were right).

At Kandy station I got out my phone so I could show where it was to a bus conductor or tuk-tuk driver. I had a closer look at the map and saw that there was a railway station not far away, Mawilmada.

Needless to say, I changed my plans. I went to the Matale Line ticket counter and bought a third-class ticket for ten rupees. The Matale Line is a short branch line that meets the Main Line services at Kandy. There are only about six services a day in each direction but there was one leaving soon at two o'clock.

I boarded the leading carriage of the four-car train consisting of battered old red carriages. The train was nearly empty when I got on but shortly before departure it filled up. The driver blasted the whistle of the tiny diesel-hydraulic locomotive and we pulled slowly out of Kandy station on the single-track branch.

The train stopped every kilometre or so at tiny, dusty little stations that didn't even appear in Google Maps or the Sri Lanka Railways timetable search webpage. After about ten or so minutes the train arrived at Mawilmada. I had already put my backpack on and was standing at the door thinking I was well prepared. But I saw the tiny platform sail right past me. The train came to a halt and beneath the door was nothing but long grass and a drainage ditch.

In ordinary circumstances I would have been capable of climbing down the ladder underneath the door to ground level. But I had a ten kilogram backpack on my back, a five kilogram daypack in my hands, and I was facing forwards out the door and the door and vestibule were too narrow for me to swing around and climb backwards down the ladder. The ground looked very rough and uneven so I didn't want to jump out. I also considered ripping my backpack off, throwing it down onto the ground, doing the same with my daypack and then climbing down the ladder underneath the door, but the train was on a very sharp curve and the guard wouldn't have been able to see me. I was terrified that the train would start moving with all my valuables lying on the ground behind some railway track used by hundreds of pedestrians as all railway lines in Sri Lanka are.

A schoolboy on the train told me to run back through the train and get off at the platform. I bolted down the train but it was so crowded I could barely squeeze through. It was too late, the train started moving.

I got off at the next station two kilometres away on the other side of the Mahaweli River, Katugastota. This was a proper station with a proper long platform and proper gardens and proper staff (three staff, for a station with only twelve trains a day). I explained what happened to the friendly staff, they said it was a fairly common problem at short platforms. The New South Wales railways have plenty of short platforms but they are clearly advertised as such in the published timetables and in any case, the guard announces on the PA system in the train well before arriving at the station which carriages alighting passengers need to be in. Sri Lanka's railways are still stuck in the nineteenth century so I don't think we will be seeing on-board PA systems any time soon.

It was a good thing that my ticket entitled me to travel as far as Katugastota. I left the station and found myself in a whisper-quiet middle-class neighbourhood of two-storey houses and new Nissans in driveways and neat gardens. There were no shops, no restaurants, no buses and no tuk-tuks.

Disheartened, I tightened the straps on my backpack and steeled myself for a lengthy walk in the lowland heat and humidity. Kandy claims that it is the capital of the Hill Country, and the city is indeed surrounded by hills, but it lies at the bottom of the Mahaweli valley only 528 metres above sea level. All other things being equal, temperature decreases by 5.5 °C for every one thousand metres of elevation. This would mean that Kandy is only 3 °C cooler than sea level. But Kandy is in the middle of the country well away from the cooling influence of the ocean so it is just as hot as Colombo or Galle, but perhaps slightly cooler at night and drier. In any case it was a shock to the system after spending nearly a week in the Hill Country above a thousand metres.

I had walked maybe four hundred metres when a tuk-tuk stopped. It was a larger tuk-tuk, the back seat was easily large enough for three people. There was a young adult female passenger in the back, presumably the driver's daughter. I explained to the driver what had happened and he told me to hop into the back seat, and he refused to discuss payment.

He dropped the young woman off at some shops without getting any payment. I then presumed that this might be a private tuk-tuk. Some people own tuk-tuks as their own private vehicles, not as taxis, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference. I have gotten into a waiting tuk-tuk once in Galle only to be told to get out, it's not a taxi.

After about ten minutes I reached Traveller's Home. The driver, Sirisa, didn't want any payment but I didn't think that was fair. The smallest note I had was one thousand rupees. He apologised and said he didn't have any change. I told him to keep it. He looked like he had just won Lotto.

I walked up the steep driveway and met the owner, Mahesh, and his friendly wife Manik. Traveller's Home is the upper story of an immaculate two-storey family home in a wealthy neighbourhood on a breezy ridge above the Mahaweli River. Mahesh and Manik are a successful middle-class family. Mahesh is a hotel office manager and Manik was a financier before she had children. The family had that very day bought a brand new Honda Fit and they went to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth to pray for the car to be blessed.

"Oh, by the way, Malinda said to say hello," I said to Mahesh.

"Malinda? Who is Malinda?"

"You don't know Malinda? Now lives in Colombo, he's studying tourism?"

"No, I don't know anyone studying tourism."


It turns out that Malinda had recommended a whole other guest house called Traveller's Lodge near the next bridge south on the Mahaweli River. My goodness, I feel so stupid. In any case, every cloud has a silver lining because this family is very helpful and friendly and my room is comfortable and immaculate.

I spent a few hours sitting on the upper balcony enjoying some water, leftover hiking chocolate and a punnet kf strawberries I bought from a hawker at Nanu Oya station. Being on top of a ridge over the river, this house does get a nice breeze for which I am grateful.

At five o'clock I decided to head into Kandy. More regular buses stop at a complicated intersection at the Katugastota Bridge about a kilometre away. I walked down there along the hilly, busy sub-arterial road.

Australia is not perfect when it comes to facilities for pedestrians. There are so many things road authorities and local governments can do to improve the pedestrian experience back home, chief of which would have to be changing the absurdly long time it takes for Australian traffic lights to change. Then you have those stupid pedestrian crossings, quite common in Queensland, where pedestrians are forced to wait on the median strip of a six-lane highway for another three minutes for the lights to change again. Seriously, who came up with that nonsense? The last thing I want to do is to be forced to spend another three minutes in the blazing Brisbane sun on a 33 °C day with 70% humidity with buses, trucks and cars roaring past me on either side. Heads must roll.

Anyway, as bad as things are for Australian pedestrians compared to, say, the Netherlands, Australia is a pedestrian paradise compared to Sri Lanka.

I don't think the horrible pedestrian experience in Sri Lanka is due to the failure to provide facilities. I think it is worse than that. I honestly think the Sri Lankan government actually wants pedestrians to be killed. There is no other explanation.

Footpaths rarely exist, forcing people to walk on the road. Where footpaths do exist, shopkeepers expand their shelves and goods onto them, so you still have to walk on the road. Where shopkeepers haven't invaded the footpath, cars, trucks and tuk-tuks park on them, so you still have to walk on the road. Where vehicles haven't parked on the footpath, groups of friends congregate on the footpath in one impenetrable mass while having conversations, so you still have to walk on the road.

It wouldn't be so bad if you could walk on the shoulder, which you usually can't. The shoulders here are places for people to light rubbish fires, dump builder's rubble or where road crews keep their piles of gravel for road repairs. Even when the shoulders don't have such obstructions, there are so many open drains, broken concrete driveways that crumble under your boots, and large expanses of uneven ground hidden under long grass just waiting to break someone's ankle, that you are better off walking on the road.

Walking on the road is tiring and dreary. You have to keep your wits about you at all times. Much of the time you will spend stationary in front of a parked tuk-tuk waiting for a large enough gap in oncoming traffic so you can safely go around the tuk-tuk. There might be just enough space between the edge of the bitumen and motor traffic for one person, but when two pedestrians come from opposite directions, there is a stand-off as one tries to get through first. Then there are the homicidal bus drivers who will not stop for anybody. The bodies of these buses will swing out around the bends. There is no alternative to jumping out of the way onto the shoulder and broken ankles be damned. There are also all the short bridges and the culverts where the road narrows. You have no choice but to wait for a gap in traffic to walk over these bridges.

A person who averages four or five kilometres an hour walking in an Australian city can count on achieving two or three kilometres an hour in Sri Lanka. Many Sri Lankans are too poor to own cars and their main mode of transport is on foot. Are they even aware that a better deal is possible, that there are many countries where you can walk in safety and efficiency on concrete footpaths separate from traffic on all major urban streets? I know Sri Lanka is poor, but if the government can afford to build a massive port in an isolated area that nobody needs, surely a program to build a network of footpaths piece by piece in, say, a ten-year or twenty-year planning timeframe isn't unrealistic? The savings made from the reduced number of deaths and disability should pay for it, surely.

It took me over tweny minutes to reach the Katugastota Bridge a kilometre away. I caught a bus into town and grabbed some dinner. Even though it was the evening, Kandy is the most intense and overpowering and comfronting city I have ever seen with the possible exception of Seoul. Intense traffic, intense noise, intense dust, intense litter, intense lights, intense faces, intense pollution, intense eyes, intense arguments. Colombo is many times larger than Kandy but it was nothing like this. Colombo is like a garden suburb in the English Home Counties compared to Kandy. Kandy reminds me of what I imagine a typical Indian city to be like.

One nice thing about Kandy is the lake. There is a large and ancient reservoir in the heart of town. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was brightly lit in yellow light, its reflection dancing on the little waves. Kandy Lake is just large enough that there was a sea breeze coming off it which was quite welcome.

Still, even around the lake, Kandy had a menacing air. The people here in the city centre seemed loud, argumentative, aggressive. Though many of the shops were shut the city centre streets were still a torrent of honking cars and buzzing tuk-tuks. The touts in Kandy are the most persistent I have experienced so far on this trip. While trying to find my way to the bus station I found myself on an unlit street with individuals loitering in the dim shadows. I got the hell out of there.

Buses in Sri Lanka are extremely frequent during the day but as soon as the clock strikes at seven in the evening they nearly all disappear. The Clock Tower bus station was desolate. It was with some relief that I hopped into a tuk-tuk. I couldn't have even been bothered bargaining his first quote of six hundred rupees down.

Tea pickers between Nuwara Eliya and Nanu Oya

Tea pickers between Nuwara Eliya and Nanu Oya

Nanu Oya station

Nanu Oya station

Tea seller on Udarata Manike train

Tea seller on Udarata Manike train

Adam’s Peak

Adam’s Peak

Don’t go to the toilet while a train is at a station in Sri Lanka!

Don’t go to the toilet while a train is at a station in Sri Lanka!

Udarata Manike train at Kandy station

Udarata Manike train at Kandy station

Matale Line train at Kandy station

Matale Line train at Kandy station

Katugastota station

Katugastota station

View from Traveller’s Home

View from Traveller’s Home

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Kandy Lake at night

Kandy Lake at night

Kandy Clock Tower

Kandy Clock Tower

Posted by urbanreverie 22:46 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains sri_lanka railways kandy nuwara_eliya

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