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The King of Hungary

sunny
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There was a movie I once saw when I was about thirteen, I forget its name and I have not seen it since. The premise of this movie is that aliens have invaded Earth but because the aliens have adopted a human form, nobody can tell. These aliens are indistinguishable from humans except for a strange, stilted manner. But there is this one man who is given a pair of sunglasses which enables him to clearly see who is an alien - the sunglasses reveal their true form as grotesque reptiles - and who isn't.

I feel like I have been given this pair of sunglasses and that I see that everybody around me is an alien. Hungarians would have to be the strangest, oddest, most alien people I have ever known. They are not grotesque reptiles, anything but, but they are decidedly eccentric.

I find it hard to put my finger on just how exactly Hungarians are so strange. They are certainly a very harsh, distant people with a coarseness of manner that verges on brutality. It is rare to see a Hungarian smile or laugh or cry or indeed have any facial expression other than an indifferent frown. When they walk down the street in the opposite direction to me, there is never that mutual I'll-move-over-a-bit-and-you-move-over-a-bit-too compromise that is general in Australia or indeed most countries. Hungarians will just keep walking dead straight at a breathless pace as if I am invisible, either bumping into me spilling my coffee everywhere or forcing me to jump onto the street. Conversations, whether in Hungarian or English, are very awkward and formal, perhaps even robotic. When Hungarians are polite (which isn't often) it feels like they're just following a textbook or computer script. When Hungarians are helpful (which isn't often) it is only because they feel they have to be and they let it be known in no uncertain terms that they would rather not help you.

Hungarians are, in general, an attractive people; I see far more people who I consider good looking in just one hour in Budapest than I do in a whole day in Sydney. There is no defining physical characteristic that Hungarians share, save for an indescribable yet vaguely unsettling intensity in their eyes and faces. Some Hungarians are as dark as Turks, but just as many are as fair as Swedes. Green eyes are somewhat common, but so are blue, brown and hazel eyes. Complexions are often preternaturally smooth; it's not uncommon to see a fifty-year-old woman in Budapest with the skin of a twenty-year-old.

Also unnaturally smooth are autumn leaves, which I learned today and which you will learn to if you keep reading this entry.

The day started very early. Long-time followers of my travel blogs would know that one of my weird hobbies when I travel is climbing the highest points of the countries I visit, as long as those peaks are within my fitness level and reasonably handy to transport of some description. The highest point of the Republic of Hungary, Kékestető, is 1,014 metres above sea level - three metres below the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba to the west of Sydney.

I had researched my trip to Kékestető the MÁV (Hungarian State Railways) website. It advised me to catch a train from Budapest Keleti station at 07:15, then get off at Pécel in Budapest's outer eastern suburbs at 07:45, where I was to change to a trackwork bus to Hatvan at 07:52. The main line between Budapest and Hungary's northeastern cities such as Miskolc and Eger has been closed for months between Pécel and Hatvan due to the total reconstruction of that section of track. At Hatvan I was to change to another train at 08:54, and I would then change at Vámosgyörk for a short branch line shuttle to Gyöngyös at the base of Kékestető at 09:08, arriving at Gyöngyös at 09:23 to catch a bus up to the summit and enjoy a full day's bushwalking among the fiery autumn colours.

I got up nice and early, caught the trolley bus from my street to the extraordinarily beautiful Keleti station at 06:45, had plenty of time to buy my ticket and grab some pastries and a coffee for breakfast at a station café. I settled into my seat, ate my breakfast, had my ticket stamped by the conductor, everything was sweet.

After half an hour of gliding through the eastern suburbs, all passengers were dumped onto a narrow ground-level temporary platform at Pécel. It was about a three hundred metre walk to the trackwork bus stop. I had a seven-minute connection time and my progress was impeded by heavy rail construction vehicles constantly entering and exiting the rail corridor, doing U-turns and stopping for no reason.

It was hard to find my stop. There were two stops, one for the all-stops trackwork buses that only went as far as Aszód and the other for express buses to Hatvan that I needed, but the guidance signs only pointed to the all-stations stop so I walked right past my stop. I finally found my stop. It was 07:50. There was no bus in sight. I looked at the timetable on the bus stop pole. It had already departed at 07:45. The MÁV website was full of crap.

I hope that Hungarians don't understand English swear words because I think I shouted quite a few. It was a wait of another hour for the 08:45 bus. There was absolutely nothing on the station street, just a few houses andstreams of commuters and schoolchildren heading for the buses and the trains. There was a bus shelter nearby, one of the older style ones with stupid metal plates on both ends that prevent you from seeing approaching buses, and decided to sit down in there until 08:45 became nearer.

At about 08:20 I heard an engine sound of a bus grinding past. I leapt out of my seat to see that an express bus was leaving. I think I shouted even more swear words.

At 08:45 another express bus finally appeared. A whole lot of passengers boarded. Then the bus got stuck in traffic. The bus followed the clpsed railway line quite closely and we were constantly stuck in long queues behind slow-moving rail consruction equipment. Then we hit rush hour in Gödöllő which was choked with school traffic.

After an excruciating wait we finally hit the M3 motorway where we had a clear run to Hatvan. I boarded the 09:54 train from which I disembarked at Vámosgyörk at 10:06. I walked over to the timetable sticky-taped to the station window. The next train to Gyöngyös was at 11:08.

F#@$.

Vámosgyörk is a tiny village. Its sole feature of note is that its station is the junction where the short branch to the much larger town of Gyöngyös meets the main line to Miskolc. It is a dusty, god-forsaken village of crooked power poles and dusty streets and barking dogs and cracked plaster and bored unemployed people sitting in the streets gossiping while rocking babies in their prams back and forth.

The only businesses open were the Magyar Posta post office and a pub. I have run out of mobile data on my Magyar Telekom SIM card. Mobile phone recharges are ridiculously easy to buy in Australia - every newsagent, every petrol station, every suoermarket, every convenience store and every post office will sell mobile recharges in the form of a little printed docket with a code on it; you call your telco's recharge number, punch in the code, and voilà! Your phone now has extra minutes and gigabytes!

Would to God that it were so easy in Hungary. I decided to try my luck at the post office opposite the station. I have written before that post offices are the most reliable window into the soul of a country. Hungary must be an extremely melancholy country because I have never seen such a depressing post office before. The interior was all baby poo green and scratched plywood panelling and pure despairing agony. I could feel my will to live being drained very quickly while waiting in the Vámosgyörk post office. I noticed while I was waiting in the queue that they sold lotto tickets. That makes perfect sense. If I lived here I would be tempted to buy one so I could win big and move to another country where I didn't have to endure waiting in such an abysmal post office ever again.

I finally reached the head of the queue and I explained in my very best Hungarian that I needed more data on my Telekom SIM card. The post office lady sighed, said they didn't sell mobile recharges, then another employee corrected her, then they had a short argument, and then the woman sighed again as if to say "I don't want to help you but I guess I have to", and she brought out an enormous operstional manual in a lever-arch folder which she paged through furiously trying to find how to sell mobile data.

Eventually she gave up. She sighed again and said in German that she was calling Magyar Telekom. She didn't speak a word of English, my German is far better than my Hungarian, so we did business in German. In a country where it is not an official language, and a language that is not the mother tongue of either of us.

After a long wait the Telekom agent put her through to another agent who could speak English, and the post office lady gave the phone to me. The Telekom agent told me that to top up my mobile phone credit, I would need to download the Magyar Telekom app to my phone and purcase data throigh the app. She said she would send me a link to download the app via SMS. I thanked her, the conversation ended, I gave the phone back to the postal worker and left the post office, and I received the SMS. I clicked on the download link, except it didn't work - because I have no data!

Bugger it. I still had half an hour until my train to Gyöngyös. So I went to the pub. The pub was far busier than any pub has the right to be at half past ten in the morning on a weekday. I was tempted to buy a beer myself after the morning from hell, but I practiced uncharacteristic self-control and bought a Coke instesd. I couldn't wait to leave. Every single eye in that joint was burning laser beams into my skull.

Finally it was time to take the short train ride to Gyöngyös across the flat grainy plains, Kékestető and the Mátra mountain range looming ever nearer. After fifteen minutes I jumped off the train - Hungarian railway platforms are so low tnat this is often the best choice - at Gyöngyös. What wqs supoosed to be a simple two-hour trip turned into a four-hoir fiasco. Take a bow, MÁV. It really does take a very unique brand of incompetence to make a one hundred kilometre journey over four hours long just because you don't know how to provide correct information on your website.

Gyöngyös really is a marvellous, prosperous little town of antique shops and tree-lined streets and expensive toy stores and bric-a-brac places and lots of luxury cars on the streets. Gyöngyös is Hungary's Bowral, the kind of place where I imagine successful cardiologists and law professors retire to after reaching the very pinnacle of their professions in Budapest at the end of a long and fulfilling career.

I bought a topographic hiking map of the Mátra ranges at a camping goods shop and splashed out on an expensive lasagna at a fancy restaurant on the oh-so-genteel main square. I deserved it after what I had been through that morning. Also, the restaurant had wifi. I finally was able to download the Magyar Telekom app to my phone. I opened the app, fudged my way through impenetrable Hungarian, a language that is more difficult than hacking through a bamboo forest with a blunt machete, and finally managed to get to a page where I could buy another five hundred megabytes of data for three thousand forints. I entered in my credit card details and then - donk-donk! International cards are not accepted! Please try again!

The genteel town square of Gyöngyös wasn't quite so genteel after I let fly with a few more choice swear words.

I decided to forget about buying more data and just use wifi whenever I can find it. Honestly, it should not be that difficult to buy mobile data. Doesn't Magyar Telekom want my business? Didn't communism fall in 1989?

I went into the nearby tourist information centre for more information about Kékestető, which buses to catch, activities to do on the summit, etc. I was the only customer and the employee was so kind-hearted and softly-spoken and empathetic and soothing that my heart melted. When you meet someone in Hungary who is mild and coueteous and agreeable it becomes a most treasured memory, like a beaming ruby sparkling on top of a compost heap. The tourist information lady gave me all the information I needed, made sympathetic cluck-clucks after I told her about the fiasco with the trains, pointed out things about Kékestető my prior research hadn't revealed, and I had to restrain myself from asking for her hand in marriage right then and there.

I walked a couple of blocks to the bus station and waited a short while for a bus up to the summit, it didn't take long to get up there. It was only a few minutes walk from the summit bus stop to the hughest point of Hungary, a small boulder on a plinth painted in the red, white and green of the Hungarian flag and the words "KÉKESTETŐ 1014m". I stood next to the plinth and proclaimed "Én Magyarország királya vagyok!" -- I am the king of Hungary!

Next to the plinth was a makeshift memorial of small remembrance sttones, sculptures, photographs, candles and keepsakes. This is a memorial to various dead motorcyclists - and only motorcyclists. Why only motorcyclists and why here on Kékestető, I do not know.

Near to the summit is a television transmission tower. A small fee admits you into the lift up to the two observation decks, one enclosed and the other in the open air. The Mátra mountains are a small range running east to west with expansive plains to the north and south. Though the air was very hazy, there was still a great view. The mountain itself was covered in autumn trees, a riot of colour.

It was time to start walking. My original plan was to get to the summit by mid-morning and spend the whole day bushwalking, making my way down the mountain back to Gyöngyös, but the troubles with the trains meant I had to truncate that walk. I decided on a much shorter nine kilometre walk only part of the way down the mountain.

It was beautiful. I am an Australian. Our trees are all evergreen. Autumn forests are only something I have ever seen in movies and in children's books. How great it was to walk through scenes of red, brown, yellow, green. How awesome it was to feel the soft leaves crunch under my feet, to pick up a whole hesp of leaves and throw them into the soft cool breeze, to kick the leaves as I skipped along.

It's all innocent fun - on flat ground. I had no idea just how dangerous it is to walk on thick autumn leaves going downhill. And considering that I started at the highest point of Hungary - it was all downhill.

Some parts of the trail I chose were so dangerous that the safest way I could descend was to sit on the ground and slide down the hill, my sensitive male bits hitting every single hidden rock on the way. In other places I found the best way was to make myself fall from tree to tree like a ball in a pinball machine, each tree breaking my fall. At other times I crouched down so I could keep a firm hold on a pallen log as I skilled down the lesfy slope.

I slowed down to an average speed of 1.5 kilometres an hour. There was no way I was going to finish nine kilometres by sunset. So I deciddd to truncate my walk halfway at a little place called Mátraháza at the 4.7 kilometre mark.

I started to gain confidence with walking on leaves - or I thought I did. There was one downhill stretch that I thought I would be able to negotiate while staying upright. Unfortunately I was wrong. I slipped and the bone in my left buttock landed straight onto a very jagged rock hidden under the leaves. I am writing this four days later and it still hurts when I get up out of a chair.

I was sorely temlted to call 112 and get the ambulance service to rescue me with a helicopter. But I oersevered. Im weird like that. When I want to do something, I get it done. I was going to make it back to Mátraháza and Budapest and unbearable pain in my left buttocks be damned.

I took it slowly. Soon the terrain became much flatter and I could walk normally again. I soon rejoined Highway 24 and from there it was a short walk to Mátraháza following the very helpful colour-coded markers painted on the trees every twenty metres. (Why can't Australian national parks have this? Bushwalking in Europe is so much easier.)

Mátraháza is little more than a forest guesthouse and a bus stop on the highway. There was a small crowd of visitors and bushwalkers waiting for the next direct bus back to Budapest. I asked a few people if they had any painkillers, I explained what happened, but I was ignored by most people or I just got a very brusque "no" as they turned away and then ignored me. One old man though heard me and he offered two painkillers and told me to take one now and the other the next morning. Yet more Hungarian kindness! It doesn't happen too often. He was still very blunt and very distant, but his kindness in offering me the tablets was worth more than gold to me.

I didn't know there were frequent direct buses from Kékestető all the way to Budapest. If I had known it wouldn't have made too much difference. I like trains too much. But it was a relief that I didn't have to put myself through the trains and trackwork buses again.

After about one hour forty, I got back to Budapest, and on the street I'm staying on, I found a fancy restaurant, Magdalena Merlo. Even though I was very sore and wearing filthy hiking clothes I wasn't turned away. I had one of the greatest meals I have ever eaten - paprikás (a chicken thigh cooked in creamy paprika sauce) with ewe's cheese dumplings, Gundel palacsinta (crepe-like pancakes stuffed with chopped walnuts and raisins and drenched in flambéed red wine chocolate sauce), and for a drink, a very large glass of Egri Bikavér (also known in English as Bull's Blood from Eger). I rarely drink wine, I don't like it, but Bikavér - it is truly the nectar of the gods! The meal was expensive, about 6,800 forints, but after all I had been through that day, I had been such a good boy and I deserved it!

Topping it off was a three-piece orchestra (violin, cello and xylophone) playing sentimental Hungarian favourites. They took requests. A West Ham supporter from England at the next table asked for "I'll Be Blowing Bubbles" which the band didn't know. I requested "Szomorú Vasárnap" -- Gloomy Sunday. This song was famous in the 1930s and 1940s. It was banned by the BBC for supposedly setting off a string of suicides because the song was so melancholy. This tear-jerking song about lovers being reunited in death, for some reason, has lomg greatly appealed to me. There are plenty of different adsptations on YouTube, feel free to check them out, but none were as good as at Magdalena Merlo. I was moved to tears and at the end the entire restaurant applauded and shouted "bravo!"

What a fantastic way for one of the most challenging days in all of my travels to end. Things can only look up from here.

Keleti station

Keleti station

Keleti station

Keleti station

Trains at Pécel (my train from Keleti on the left)

Trains at Pécel (my train from Keleti on the left)

Train from Hatvan to Vámosgyörk

Train from Hatvan to Vámosgyörk

Train from Vámosgyörk to Gyöngyös

Train from Vámosgyörk to Gyöngyös

Main street of Gyöngyös

Main street of Gyöngyös

Village of Vámosgyörk

Village of Vámosgyörk

The King of Hungary

The King of Hungary

Kékestető TV tower

Kékestető TV tower

View from Kékestető TV tower

View from Kékestető TV tower

Autumn leaves on Kékestető

Autumn leaves on Kékestető

Paprikás & ewe’s cheese dumplings

Paprikás & ewe’s cheese dumplings

Posted by urbanreverie 16:32 Archived in Hungary Tagged mountains budapest hiking buses railways mobile bushwalking kékestető Comments (0)

Buddhaland


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Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Friday, 15 February 2019

Before I left Kandy I decided to send a text message to Sisira, the tuk-tuk driver who rescued me after I got off the train at Katugastota because the platform at Mawilmada was too short. He had given me his number in case I needed his services again.

I had my last breakfast at Traveller's Home and said goodbye to incredibly polite Manik - her equally well-mannered husband Mahesh was at work so I bade him farewell him the night before - and waited out the front for Sisira and his ultra-wide tuk-tuk to appear at half past nine.

My train was scheduled to depart Katugastota at 10:41 so there was plenty of time to accept his offer of a quick tour. First, he drove me to the Polgolla Dam, a wide but not very high concrete dam with ten sluices on the Mahaweli River in Kandy's northern suburbs. This dam is used for hydroelectricity, the impounded water is fed by gravity through mostly underground penstocks to another lower river basin to the north at Ukuwela where there is a hydro power station.

I then asked if we could check out the Katugastota railway bridge. I had crossed this bridge on the train on Wednesday. It's as long and as majestic as anything built by John Whitton, Australia's greatest railway engineer of the nineteenth century.

The Katugastota railway bridge on the Matale Line is a long lattice truss bridge with arched braces over the structural gauge connecting the lattice truss on either side at regular intervals, very similar to the old Meadowbank railway bridge or the old Como railway bridge in Sydney. It is a magnificent old bridge still in regular service. Like all railways in Sri Lanka, the bridge does double duty as a footpath and the bridge had many pedestrians on it.

I was standing at the north end of the bridge at the level crossing taking photographs looking down the bridge. I turned around and right behind me was a train sneaking up on me from behind. I got the fright of my life. The crossing gates hadn't descended and the bells hadn't rung and I was not expecting a locomotive silently coasting along towering above me.

I needn't have worried, the train was only going at walking pace, stopped, and then reversed back to Katugastota yard. It was a neat, very European-looking engine, a Class M5C diesel-electric locomotive, hauling several wagons of concrete sleepers, and it was just shunting onto the passing loop at Katugastota to make way for the next down passenger train at 10:41.

Sisira explained that his tuk-tuk wasn't a taxi, strictly speaking, it was actually a private tuk-tuk for personal use. The tuk-tuk served as his famiky car. But he said nothing was really stopping him from hiring his vehicle out. I got the feeling that he was out of work and looking for a second income. He kept asking me to take a longer tour for a bit of extra money. I looked nervously at my watch and said we didn't have time, but he kept pestering me.

I asked Sisira to just take me to Katugastota station, there was only half an hour until the train and the things he wanted to show me were quite far away. I paid him the agreed price of Rs. 1,500 - quite generous for forty-five minutes' tuk-tuk hire; a whole day typically costs five thousand - and then he pleaded for even more. I got the feeling he was a desperate man, and that the thousand rupees I had given him out of gratitude the other day had gotten his hopes up. I tipped him another couple of hundred but he didn't seem satisfied.

I paid my thirty rupee fare, waited at Katugastota, filmed some of the shunting manoeuvres of the train carrying sleepers, and waited for the 10:41 local train to Matale. There weren't many other passengers. I think we were outnumbered by the three station staff. The over-staffing you find in all government workplaces in Sri Lanka is just ridiculous. Three station staff for a very quiet suburban station that gets six trains a day in each direction is self-evidently absurd. Yesterday I went into the administrative office at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic to ask for directions to a particular pavilion. Inside were six public servants at their desks and every single one of them was just reading a newspaper. National park ranger's offices are the same. Maybe it's all a government make-work scheme to reduce the unemployment rate, or maybe strong unions force the government to never retrench staff in any circumstances. I am an active trade unionist and a socialist but I also love efficiency, productivity and the work ethic. When workers are productive, and compensated fairly for any productivity gains they make, and profits shared with workers in the form of increased pay and conditions, everyone benefits. I fail to see how featherbedding government workplaces like this is good for taxpayers, good for government finances, good for economic growth, good for effective service delivery or even good for the mental health of the workers themselves who do nothing but read newspapers all day. Such a job would drive me insane.

The 10:41 down Matale Line train arrived, an M7 hood-unit locomotive hauling four ancient red carriages. I boarded, the train was nearly empty. I said goodbye to Kandy. Yes, the city centre is an unmitigated dump, truly a hell on earth, and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and its museums were disappointing. But I did find some redeeming features - the Udawattekelle Forest Sanctuary, pleasant and prosperous outer suburbs, a beautiful old railway bridge, green hills surrounding the city and a really nice but hard-to-get-to guest house up high on a ridge with soothing breezes.

The train rattled through the outer suburbs of Kandy and then through scattered pieces of farmland and small villages. The train then climbed into hilly country covered with tall rainforest. It passed under two giant silver pipes, penstocks that carry water from the Polgolla Dam to the Ukuwela hydroelectric power station, and called at various tiny unstaffed halts and larger stations in small towns.

I arrived at the line's terminus at Matale at about 11:37. I looked at Google Maps, there was a bus station only a few hundred metres north. Excellent!

I exited the station and found myself in a congested, dreary town at the bottom of a long valley. The street the station was on was the usual Sri Lankan melange of racing tuk-tuks, honking buses, shelves full of merchandise extruded from shop doors onto the street, nonchalant street dogs and concrete drains. I later learned that Matale's claim to fame is that it is the geographic centre of Sri Lanka.

After about ten minutes I reached the bus station - or not. It was actually a construction site, it looked like the station was being rebuilt. There were a whole lot of buses parked on the street outside preparing to depart, so I asked the conductors and passers-by where buses to Dambulla leave from but I either got no answer - English is surprisingly poor in Sri Lanka considering the country's lengthy history in the British Commonwealth and its free universal education (on paper, at least) - or conflicting useless answers. The bus to Dambulla leaves from the other side of the street! From the railway station! From the next street west! Yes, yes, I know that the inability of many Sri Lankans to give a straight, accurate answer is a cultural difference and that I should try to be more tolerant and understanding yada yada yada. But that doesn't make it any less infuriating.

Eventually one old guy sitting out the front of a shop took pity on me and offered to show the way to the Dambulla bus. I thought he might be looking for payment but he refused to accept a tip, he did it out of altruistic love of humanity and hospitality towards foreigners. Sri Lanka is like this - just when the country sends me almost to the brink of despair, the universe will send someone who restores my faith in the country and its people.

The old man with his Muslim cap couldn't come all the way, but he walked with me for about fifteen minutes and showed me to the street and pointed to a radio tower and banyan tree where the bus stop was located. I thanked him profusely and walked another ten minutes to the stop at a major intersection.

It was still very confusing. Many buses left from inside the acute angle formed by two main roads, more buses left from a yard to the west, and some more left from a stop on the street. I tried asking people where the bus to Dambulla left from but got either blank stares - don't count on English being spoken in towns where tourists never go - or even more conflicting information. I should have just caught a bus all the way from Kandy to Dambulla like a normal person. But I am not a normal person.

Finally a helpful young man who looked like a betel nut-chewing thug but actually had a heart of gold showed me the stop I needed and even hailed a bus for me. Long may he prosper.

I got on the crowded bus. One of the few seats available up towards the front where I stored my backpack was on the left side on the second row. This meant that I got a full view of the road ahead while the bus swerved, honked, sped and overtook overloaded vegetable trucks with three millimetres to spare. I was too busy making the Sign Of The Cross repeatedly to take note of the scenery along the A9 highway. I am not religious at all. But you know what they say - there are no atheists in foxholes or on Sri Lankan buses.

After nearly an hour I hauled my luggage off the bus and stood on the dusty shoulder of a busy highway outside a gleaming golden stupa. It was a walk of about a kilometre to Vihangi Guesthouse on a back street on the south side of Dambulla. On every street I took there were dogs, quite aggressive ones. I find that dogs in large cities are quite harmless and indifferent but in small towns and rural areas they can be quite vicious. My guess is that dogs in rural areas are frightened by the presence of unfamiliar people.

I had to make a very lengthy detour to avoid all the dogs in the early afternoon heat to reach the guest house. I finally reached my accommodation, a large single-storey family home on a generous lot with a smaller building divided into three hotel rooms in the frontyard. Only a girl aged about twelve and her younger sister aged about nine were home, their parents were out of house. I introduced myself and said I had a room booked for the night but they knew very little English and just stared at me blankly.

I also needed a bathroom quite fiercely. I tried communicating this using mime to no avail. I tried Sinhala but had forgotten the word for "toilet". Was it "valikisi"? "Salaviki"? "Vakisili"?

Hopping around while my bladder was about to burst, I ransacked my daypack to find my Sinhala dictionary. I could find everything else except for that. I eventually found it buried under everything else, flicked through the section beginning with T, and found it - "vasikili".

"Vasikili! Vasikili! Vasikili - NOW!" I shouted.

"Ummm, wait. Wait for father. Father coming soon," the older girl said.

"I can't wait. Vasikili - now!" I saw that some of the doors to the accommodation rooms had keys in the door. "Come on, can't I just go into a room and use a toilet?"

"No. I don't know which room for you."

"For bloody hell's sake, I need to go now!" I defied the girl and went into room 1 - I reasoned that a room with a key in the door was not currently in use by a guest. I was right.

Suitably relieved, I waited outside the rooms for about twenty minutes until the owner and his wife had returned from errands. Kumar greeted me and showed me into my room, room 1. I went into the air-conditioned room, my first since Tissamaharama, and rested a while before I tackled my next UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Dambulla Temple Cave.

I took a tuk-tuk to the ticket entrance a couple of kilometres away on the other side of the highway and bought a ticket. There was a very steep rock staircase up to the top of a rock monolith. Dambulla lies in the intermediate zone between the Hill Country to the south and the pancake-flat plains of northern Sri Lanka, and the terrain around here is mostly flat country with rocky outcrops poking through the ground like a particularly severe outburst of acne on a teenager's face. Many of these stunning monoliths were used for religious and military and political purposes in Sri Lanka's early history.

After a very steep walk with a vertical gain of about one hundred and twenty metres, I emerged onto an expanse of barren rock near the top of the monolith. There is a little booth where you have to store your shoes for twenty-five rupees and after leaving my shoes there I showed my ticket at the gate and entered the temple complex.

The Dambulla Cave Temple consists of five separate caves, really just rock overhangs. The caves are walled off from the exterior by a long white colonnade; you access the caves through portals inside the colonnade.

If you feel like overdosing on Buddhas, come to Dambulla. The Buddhas were magnificent works of art, some up to two thousand years old, and there are magnificent murals on the ceilings of the caves too. Some Buddhas were standing, other Buddhas were sitting, and I think three very large Buddhas were reclining on their sides as if they were watching Masterchef on Channel 10 after a particularly tiring day at work.

Outside the caves there are great views of the surrounding district, flat green forests, farms and dams studded with soaring rocky outcrops. I descended by a different staircase and ended up at the Golden Temple where I had gotten off the bus from Matale on the A9 highway.

The Golden Temple is very new, I think it was built in 2000. The centrepiece is an enormous golden sitting Buddha statue sitting on top of a white two-storey temple building, the entrance of which is shaped like a dragon's mouth. It all felt very tacky, like a theme park. On the bottom floor was a Buddhist Publication Sales Centre, nearby were the studios of a Buddhist television station, there was a family of fibreglass elephants in a garden next to the temple, there was a walkway through a fake cave grotto lined with hundreds of fibreglass orange standing Buddhas, and out the front was a giant golden stupa to attract passing traffic. The hundreds of howling schoolchildren and a whole fleet of tour coaches in the car park added to the theme park feel. This wasn't a temple. This was Buddhaland. I tried to come up with a marketing slogan. "Come to Buddhaland - Nirvana in just one day!" All that is missing is a ferris wheel in the shape of a chakra and a whitewater rapid ride with vessels shaped like pink lotus blossoms.

After checking out Dambulla's very modest town centre choked with trucks headed for Sri Lanka's main wholesale fruit and vegetable market, I returned to Vihanti Guesthouse too exhausted to do anything except enjoy a yummy rice and curry dinner put on by the hosts.

Polgolla Dam

Polgolla Dam

Katugastota railway bridge

Katugastota railway bridge

The train that snuck up on me at Katugastota

The train that snuck up on me at Katugastota

Train at Matale station

Train at Matale station

Dambulla Cave Temple complex

Dambulla Cave Temple complex

Ceiling mural at Dambulla Cave Temple

Ceiling mural at Dambulla Cave Temple

Meditating Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Meditating Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Standing Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Standing Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Boddhisatvas in Dambulla Cave Temple

Boddhisatvas in Dambulla Cave Temple

Reclining Buddha at Dambulla Caves

Reclining Buddha at Dambulla Caves

Scenery from Dambulla Cave Temple

Scenery from Dambulla Cave Temple

Stupa at Dambulla Golden Temple

Stupa at Dambulla Golden Temple

Golden Temple at Dambulla

Golden Temple at Dambulla

Cave grotto walkway at Golden Temple

Cave grotto walkway at Golden Temple

Fibreglass elephants at Golden Temple in Dambulla

Fibreglass elephants at Golden Temple in Dambulla

Buddha statue at Golden Temple

Buddha statue at Golden Temple

Dambulla Clock Tower

Dambulla Clock Tower

Posted by urbanreverie 21:04 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains temples caves buses sri_lanka railways kandy dambulla matale Comments (0)

The sacred toothache

sunny 29 °C
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Kandy, Sri Lanka

Thursday, 14 February 2019

I started the day with another tiring, uncomfortable walk down the hill to Katugastota Bridge to catch a bus into town. The sub-arterial road the guest house is located on has some buses but they don't seem to be very frequent. I saw some coming in the opposite directions and committed their route numbers to memory so I would know which buses to catch back to my lodgings in the evening.

A fifteen-minute bus ride crowded with commuters along a busy dual carriageway with deafening traffic brought me to Kandy's city centre. On the eastern edge of the compact city centre was my next UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

This temple is one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism, one of the world's major religions and the majority religion in Sri Lanka. The temple is the home to one of Buddha's teeth, somebody told me it was one of his molars.

I walked up to the temple gates on the northern shore of Kandy Lake shortly before ten o'clock. I paid the entrance fee, went through a security screening station, and when I emerged some official-looking man in a uniform came up and greeted me and shook my hand.

"Welcome to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Here, you respect Buddhism," he admonished.

"Yes, yes, I know, I respect all religions," I answered.

"Good." I walked on and he followed me. "And this temple was built during the Kingdom of Kandy era and has been home to the Sacred Tooth since--"

"OK. So you are a guide?"

"Yes, I am."

"Very well then. How much do you charge?"

"We can talk about that later."

"No, I would rather settle the price first. So how much do you charge?"

"Three thousand rupees."

That was about twice the entry fee. "No, thanks."

He got desperate and wouldn't leave me alone. "Please, sir. Please. You need a guide. You can't enter without a guide. Please!" Eventually he gave up after he got the hint that my silence meant I didn't want his services.

There is another counter off to the side in front of the temple moat where all visitors are required to leave their shoes, visitors are given a card with three handwritten digits to claim their shoes back later.

I entered the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. There is a large open-air central hall surrounded by galleries and in the hall there is a timber two-storey shrine. Outside the closed door at the bottom of the shrine drummers and a piper were playing some traditional temple music. Everyone went upstairs to the top gallery where there was already a massive queue.

The queue kept growing longer, fatter, denser. The temple was hot and airless. The body heat from thousands of people pushed up against each other made the conditions even worse. It was so bad that even the normally dry and clean Sri Lankans were dripping with sweat.

I joined the queue at ten past ten. The Sacred Tooth Relic was open for viewing at half past ten. I watched the second hand on my watch tick down ever so slowly. If it went any slower it would have been going backwards.

Then on the dot at half past ten - the aperture in the shrine opened. There was a crush. It made the Boxing Day sales at Myer on Pitt Street in Sydney look like a paragon of order and decorum. Such was the devotion among the Buddhists in the crowd, their anxiety to prove their veneration to Buddha's sole bodily remains, that I and all other non-Buddhist visitors were kicked, pushed, tripped and shoved. Even eighty-year-old ladies showed no restraint as I was subjected to what in any other context would be called "aggravated assault" in a court of law.

The torrent of humanity carried me up to the shrine. For all of three seconds - lomg enough for me to throw forty rupees into the offering tray and clasp my hands together in a gesture of respect - I got to see Buddha's tooth.

Or rather, a container which held the tooth. Nobody ever gets to see the actual tooth. It is contained within a golden casket shaped like a Prussian spiked helmet, perhaps a metre tall, with gold threads hanging off it and embellished with gemstones. This casket contains another casket, which contains another casket, and so on, like Russian dolls, and it is only the smallest casket that contains the tooth.

It was underwhelmingly underwhelming. Have you ever heard from people who have visited Copenhagen about how underwhelming the Little Mermaid statue is? The Sacred Tooth was even more underwhelming by many orders of magnitude. I came to Kandy, giving up two nights in a place that I might actually like, for this?

There is, however, more to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic than the sacred tooth relic. At the back of the temple is a long hall, Alut Maligawa, with a large Buddha statue, and the hall is lined with dozens of smaller Buddha statues donated by Thai devotees. Behind that hall on the upper floors is a museum, the Sri Dalada Museum, full of dull yet worthy exhibits relating to the history of the Sacred Tooth.

In a separate building behind the temple, a nineteenth century law court building erected by the British, is the World Buddhism Museum. This museum contains all sorts of artifacts amd reproductions from around the Buddhist world, with each room dedicated to a particular country. All the exhibits were accompanied by dense explanatory notes full of Buddhist jargon that might have made sense to the devout, to the people who have studied for seven years to become a Buddhist monk. But my knowledge of Buddhism is rather introductory level, and consequently the museum bored me out of my wits.

The only thing I found interesting at the temple was a little pavilion off to the side containing the stuffed remains of Raja, a tusker elephant who was captured on the east coast in 1925, sold to the temple in tje 1930s and became a much-loved resident of the temple until he died in 1988. Raja was so popular that when he died the hat was passed around and enough money was raised to preserve him for the enjoyment of future generations.

I spent a long time on the temple grounds not because I enjoyed it, but because the museums and pavilions were quiet, cooler and a respite from the madness outside. It was well into the afternoon when I put my shoes back on and went back out.

I walked a little while along Kandy Lake, past the Queen's Bath, a bathing pavilion built on the lake shore for the personal use of the Queen of Kandy, and back into the city centre.

How could I possibly describe Kandy's city centre? "Lunatic asylum" doesn't even come close. It's a heaving, roaring, dusty, blazingly hot cacaphony of motor vehicles, blaring horns, touts, hawkers, people arguing on the pavements, exhaust fumes and grotty, ill-kempt buildings. Kandy's town centre is about as pleasant as a visit to a council rubbish tip. Being in a valley surrounded by hills, the air pollution here is the worst I have seen in Sri Lanka.

I had some lunch in a food court and I went looking for a bookshop. I wanted to buy an English-Sinhala dictionary. I am falling in love with the Sinhala language and wouldn't mind learning a little bit more of it before I leave. You can't find Sinhala dictionaries in Sydney for love or money.

I found a bookshop, on the top floor of a building down a narrow corridor and up a flight of stairs between a church and what looked to be some sort of service club. I entered a little tiny bit of paradise. With its dark, heavy timber shelves and soft, cool air and soothing paper smell, Expographic is the kind of bookshop they have in heaven.

I found some perfect pocket dictionaries that would fit easily in my backpack without adding much weight. I paid for my purchase and got an unusual coin in my change. I remarked upon it and the young woman behind the counter said she collected coins too. She opened the till and found more older coins that have been superseded by newer designs or alloys. She smiled and I was forever grateful.

I decided to go for a walk to check out the railway station. This is harder than it sounds. Kandy is impossible to walk around. The city council has installed pedestrian barricades along the kerbs of every street in the city centre. I suppose this prevents pedestrians from getting killed. It also prevents pedestrians from participating in simple activities like reaching their destination or getting into a tuk-tuk taxi.

I got lost. The shockingly poor cartography in my Lonely Planet guide conspired with all those stupid pedestrian barricades to send me well off course. I felt like I was a sheep in a shearing shed's pen, unable to go anywhere except where supposedly more intelligent beings determined I was allowed to go.

I ended up in this neighbourhood west of the railway station, lost in a labyrinth of blind alleys and Escher-like staircases that went nowhere. I was walking down one staircase when I saw about one metre in front of me a dangling wire. I looked at it, it was an electrical connection from a nearby power pole to a house on the other side of the staircase. It was at about forehead height. A live wire, strung across a public stairway at forehead height. Seriously, do they hire electrician's apprentices in Kandy from the graduate pool at schools for the intellectually challenged? I watched what others were doing, they all just ducked by instinct, they all long knew the wire was there. If I survive the remaining week of this holiday, I shall be doing well.

I emerged from the stairway into one of Kandy's three bus stations and the main one for longer-distance services, the Goods Shed bus station. I have never seen a bus station like it. It was a logjam of buses going left, going right, going forward, reversing, but with no bus able to move because too many other buses were in the way. The only way pedestrians could move through the station was to wriggle their way between the buses. This is what I was doing when a bus driver decided to chuck his gears into reverse and start moving back even though there was another bus a few inches behind him, with me between the two vehicles. I jumped out just in time.

I took some photographs of the station from the outside and then went to a nearby tourist information centre. I had two questions which I assume would be quite common queries from visitors:

(1) What bus routes go to where I am staying and where do they leave from?

(2) Where can I top up my mobile SIM card?

There were four employees in the tourist information centre. I had committed the bus route numbers I saw outside my guest house that morning to memory but I had forgotten them. It was that kind of hot, sultry, intense, tiring day where my brain starts short-cifcuiting. When I asked about the bus routes, I got four different answers. Try the 691 from the Goods Shed! The 538 from Senanayake Street! The 632 from the Clock Tower!

It was the same with my mobile phone recharge. My Sri Lankan mobile provider, Dialog, is one of the largest and most popular. Usually in most towns you can find a place that has a Dialog sign on every street corner, but I hadn't seen any in Kandy city centre. I thought the tourist information centre might help but I got the same useless, conflicting, inaccurate information. There's a Dialog kiosk opposite the Temple! No, there's a newsagent on Dalada Vidiya! There's one at the Clock Tower bus station! I decided to try the Clock Tower bus station right behind the information centre but I couldn't see anything. I propose that we rename that office the Kandy Tourist Disinformation Centre. Absolutely bloody useless.

I went back east trying to find a place that sold Dialog mobile phone recharges but all I could see was useless junk of the sort you find at weekend flea markets in suburban Sydney - beads, mobile phone covers, plastic booby pins and the like. Eventually the heat got to me and I had to go and sit down for a long time in a bakery with an ice cold bottle of water. The temperature in Kandy wasn't that hot, 29 °C, but combined with the humidity, the exhaust fumes, the unrelenting sun and the sheer mass of people on the streets, it was too much.

I eventually found a Dialog retailer, a watch repair joint. I went up to the counter. "Hello, I'd like to top up my Dialog SIM card, please."

"No, we do not sell SIM cards here, we only sell recharges."

"Yes, and I would like to recharge my SIM card, please."

"I am sorry, but we do not sell SIM cards here."

"No. I don't want to buy a SIM card! I just want to recharge my SIM card with more data."

"I said, we do not sell SIM cards here."

I snapped. "Listen! I. Do. Not. Want. To. Buy. A. SIM. Card! I. Only. Want. To. Buy. More. Data!"

"Very well. Ninety-nine rupees for two gigs."

I had turned into the very thing that I hate - the ignorant tourist who shouts condescendingly at the locals. But you would understand if you went through what I go through when communicating with some of the locals.

I headed even further east. About a kilometre east of the city centre is a forested hill, the Uduwattekelle Forest Sanctuary. I paid my admission of nearly seven hundred rupees and entered into the cool, moist rainforest. This is just what I needed. There was a large pond, the Royal Pond where the King of Kandy used to bathe, and a lookout over the city - from a distance Kandy is very pretty with its jewel of a lake and its temple complex and its situation in a bowl of jagged green hills fringing the urban area - as well as an extensive network of forest paths.

I stayed in there until closing time at half past five. My Lonely Planet warned me about muggers in the park but the only scary thing that happened was some monkey high up in a tree dropping something heavy that landed on the ground right behind me - I think it was a breadfruit.

I left the park and caught a bus back up the Katugastota Road. I got off before the bridge to have a burger dinner - I crave Western food every now and then - and buy some water, fruit and snacks at Cargills. I waited for a bus back to the guest house but every time a bus came the conductor would say it wasn't going there. I tried asking other waiting passengers which bus I needed but they couldn't help me.

In some respects public transport in Sri Lanka is far better than in Australia. During the day at least, buses are so frequent that wherever you are in the country you do not need to wait longer than ten minutes. But in most respects Sri Lankan public transport is far worse - antiquated, uncomfortable and unsafe buses; shocking driving standards; no disability access; and perhaps most importantly for the traveller, bugger-all public transport information.

No maps. No timetables. No lists of routes. No websites. No displays at bus stops showing which buses go where. Nothing. All one can do is ask other people at bus stations which buses go where and hope that they are telling the truth.

The only information I have been able to find is one website, routemaster.lk, which I presume is the personal project of a public transport enthusiast. It lists the major destinations of each route with a low-resolution Google Maps screenshot zoomed right out. But even it is missing many routes, the search function is sketchy at best, and it doesn't tell you which bus station or stand a route leaves from.

After waiting twenty minutes I gave up and waved down a tuk-tuk.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Drummers and a piper playing at entrance to Sacred Tooth shrine

Drummers and a piper playing at entrance to Sacred Tooth shrine

The shrine that contains the Sacred Tooth on the upper foor

The shrine that contains the Sacred Tooth on the upper foor

See that bright golden bell-shaped thing? The Sacred Tooth is in that.

See that bright golden bell-shaped thing? The Sacred Tooth is in that.

Buddha statue in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Buddha statue in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Raja the tusker elephant

Raja the tusker elephant

Queen’s Baths on Kandy Lake

Queen’s Baths on Kandy Lake

Kandy Lake

Kandy Lake

Kandy railway station

Kandy railway station

This is why pedestrians can’t have nice things

This is why pedestrians can’t have nice things

Royal Pond in Udawattakelle Forest

Royal Pond in Udawattakelle Forest

Udawattakelle Forest Sanctuary

Udawattakelle Forest Sanctuary

Kandy from Udawattakelle Forest Reserve

Kandy from Udawattakelle Forest Reserve

I don’t think that’s how “Colgate” is spelled

I don’t think that’s how “Colgate” is spelled

Posted by urbanreverie 21:50 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged temples rainforest buses sri_lanka kandy sacred_tooth Comments (0)

Up into the hills


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Ella, Sri Lanka
Thursday, 8 February 2019

I awoke shortly after six o'clock, well before I had set my alarm, having had eleven hours of deep sleep. I was not in a hurry so I took my sweet time eating a breakfast of leftover chocolate biscuits, spicy dried chickpeas and an apple that I bought for my bus trip from Matara to Tissamaharama, showering, shaving, reorganising my backpack, packing and searching for my hat.

My hat! My hat! I lost my beautiful hat! That steadfast and trusty companion on my travels that I bought at Big W in Bathurst for about twenty bucks six years ago. That hat was just perfect. It had a wide brim that protected my entire face and neck from the sun, it was made of straw so it collapsed easily into my luggage, because it was made of straw my head still got some ventilation, and it had a sturdy chinstrap with a movable woggle that stopped my hat flying away even in gale force winds.

I know exactly how I lost it, it was somewhere on the floor of the jeep that I went on to Yala National Park. Because the back of the jeep had a roof I didn't need it on all the time so I had stowed it under the seat in front of me. When I disembarked from my jeep at my hotel I did do a quick check of the floor to check that I hadn't left it behind but the hat must have slid away to some other part of the floor. I was also very, very tired and though I pride myself on my organisation, thoroughness and the fact that I rarely lose anything, when I am very tired I let my guard down and get a bit forgetful. It's why I left my daypack in the taxi van on the trip from the airport to my hotel in Colombo.

Oh well. I will just have to put plenty of sunscreen on my head until I come across a suitable hat somewhere else. Slightly pissed off with myself, I paid my bill of Rs. 3,690 to the owner's aunt - and at fifteen Australian dollars a night, that would have to be the cheapest I have ever paid for accommodation on any of my overseas travels - and asked her which bus I had to take to Ella. She didn't understand me so she called over some people from the shop next door. They also had difficulty with English so I got out my Sinhala phrasebook. Then they told me the good news - the stop was across the road and I only had to change once or twice.

Grateful for the glad tidings, I crossed the road and waited a whole two minutes until my first bus of the day, route 335/1 from Tissamaharama to Thanamalwila. I boarded the bus, I told the conductor that I wanted to go to Ella.

"I will help you, yes, I will help you."

It was the strangest bus I have been on in Sri Lanka - the driver stuck to the speed limit, obeyed the law, and was courteous to other road users. He even gave way to traffic already on a roundabout. I should have taken a video. I know that you won't believe me. I scarcely believe it myself. Most of the other passengers were country housewives off to do the shopping.

A few kilometres south of Thanamalwila on the A2 highway, a bus overtook us. "That's the bus towards Ella!" the conductor exclaimed. The conductor went up to the driver and asked him to honk his horn and flash his lights at the other bus. The other bus pulled over and the conductor told me to hurry, the bus was waiting just for me. Sri Lanka is like that - just when you get sick of the touts and con jobs, someone will surprise you with astonishing friendliness and hospitality that restores your faith in this country's people.

Thanking the conductor and driver far too quickly, I hopped onto the next bus, route 35 from Mathara to Monaragala. It was a fairly short journey for me as far as Wellawaya and I spent my time practicing my Sinhala with the middle-aged married couple sitting in front of me. I am starting to fall in love with Sinhala with its sinuous snail-like letters and musical murmuring and bouncy rhythms.

I got off at Wellawaya at about 11am. I had planned on just using Wellawaya as a lunch stop but on my way there I checked my Lonely Planet. There was a place called Buduruwagala, known for its ancient stone carving of Buddha on the side of a cliff, about ten kilometres out of town. I then changed my plans to have lunch then find a tuk-tuk to Buduruwagala.

I got off the bus and was mobbed by the usual crowd of desperate tuk-tuk drivers. One was a bit more persistent than the others and followed me.

"I am sorry, sir, but I don't need a tuk-tuk just now. I just want to find a restaurant so I can have lunch."

He seemed to relax. "It's OK, I will show you a restaurant. Follow me." He led me to one end of the bus station and on the other side of the highway was a Chinese restaurant.

The Chinese restaurant had yet to open for the day. "I'm sorry, sir, but the restaurant is not open. There is no other restaurant around here, you will need a taxi." And - what are the odds! - his tuk-tuk just so happened to be parked right there opposite the closed Chinese restaurant! What an amazing coincidence!

"I told you I do not need a tuk-tuk. I'll walk somewhere else, I know the town centre is just on the next street." I pointed at the busy intersection one block north.

"No, there's no restaurant there, it's too far. You can't walk there, you need a taxi." I ignored him and he followed me a short distance before giving up.

Right-wingers and conservative parties, even some centre-left parties, in Western countries like Australia want to abolish the welfare state, the greatest moral advance of the twentieth century. They dream of some Hobbesian free-market utopia, a war of all against all, the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest, devil take the hindmost. They want to force society's most vulnerable people, the poor, the lonely, the disabled, the single parents, even the elderly into insecure poorly-paid work in the so-called "gig economy" like these tuk-tuk drivers and touts and scammers. The right-wingers claim that any job is better than no job at all and that there is greater dignity in working in such precarious, demeaning work than in being on the dole queue.

Bullshit.

There is far greater dignity in being paid a social security allowance from a system you pay into when you are healthy and able to find work. There is no dignity at all in being forced to lie, cheat, steal and harass innocent strangers by an unjust economic system that refuses to provide secure, adequately paid, dignified work to every citizen. No human being should be forced to degrade themselves and their morals just to put food on the family table and a roof over their heads. If you want to see a place that doesn't have a comprehensive welfare state, come to an underdeveloped country. You will then appreciate social security a bit more. The welfare state, built by the generation that suffered through the Great Depression and defeated fascism, is our most prized heritage. Defend it with all your might.

Only about a hundred metres north of the closed Chinese restaurant at the other end of the bus station was a whole row of restaurants where I could eat delicious rice and curry and drink coffee to my heart's content. Which is exactly what I did. I told the restaurant owner that I wanted to visit Buduruwagala. She told me to wait and got on the phone, presumably to a relative or friend. Soon a friendly man, Savan, appeared. He quoted me thirteen hundred rupees for a tour to Buduruwagala. My Lonely Planet said the going rate was seven hundred. I decided to meet him halfway at one thousand but he wouldn't budge. So we settled on thirteen hundred.

Here's my attitude to bargaining - I come from a country where it simply isn't done and is seen as massively disrespectful to the person providing a service. I do not have the confidence to bargain and I find it stressful. So I try and avoid it. Besides, what is the difference between Rs. 1300 and Rs. 700? It's A$10.35 versus A$5.60. What is A$4.75 to me? I am stingy but not that stingy. It's about what I pay for a cup of coffee with the boys at work every morning. But what's A$4.75 to a Sri Lankan? It's food for a whole family for a day. The marginal utility of A$4.75 is microscopically tiny to me. The marginal utility of A$4.75 to a Sri Lankan is many orders of magnitude greater. So by paying the extra six hundred rupees above what my Lonely Planet said, I am actually increasing the amount of utility within the human race. Jeremy Bentham would be proud of me.

I got in the back of Savan's tuk-tuk and we headed south out of Wellawaya. We stopped at a rice paddy. He ran into the field and harvested a mature stalk of grain for me. I looked at the rice stalk with interest, rubbed the grains between my fingers, even ate some. The grains were hard but not as hard as uncooked rice from the supermarket; the grains are oven-dried during processing before retail sale. They tasted like rice but fresher and more fragrant. It's as rice should be.

We then turned west off the busy A2 highway and down a bumpy gravel track fringed with lakes, rocky hills and more rice paddies. Savan stopped the taxi again so we could look at the teeming schools of flat, black, bulge-eyed fish in a lake.

Soon we arrived at a ticket booth and I paid my Rs. 368 admission. Savan parked the taxi in a car park and I walked a hundred metres to Buduruwagala. Buduruwagala consisted of a cliff on the side of a hill, and on the cliff a large standing Buddha was carved into the stone. The Buddha is fifteen metres tall and is the tallest carved standing Buddha in Sri Lanka. On each side of the Buddha is a group of three smaller figures each representing various figures from Buddhist theology.

Buduruwagala was csrved in about the tenth century AD. As an Australian, seeing such antiquities never ceases to strike me with reverential awe. I come from a country that was first colonised by Europeans in 1788. I work next to a UNESCO World Heritage-listed building that was built in 1817, one of the oldest buildings in Australia. Sydneysiders think this building is extremely old and treat it in much the same respect as Athenians treat the Parthenon. But really, 1817 is nothing. I've slept in a building twice as old on this trip.

Buduruwagala was interesting and I recommend it but it's the kind of thing that takes less than ten minutes to see. I went back to Savan and his tuk-tuk and we made our way back to the Wellawaya bus station. He pulled up outside my next bus and we exchanged hearty farewells. As I said, just when you get sick of the touts and rip-offs, you meet people here who stun you with their friendliness and warm humanity.

The next bus was, to put it mildly, a bit eccentric. My route 998 bus from Matara to Badula was bright pink all over. Pink exterior, pink interior, pink seats, pink frilly curtains, pink ceiling. I felt like I was stuck in a six-year-old girl's doll house minus the Barbie dolls. This bus was also a little bit fancy - it wasn't just playing hideous Sri Lankan pop music but hideous Sri Lankan pop music videos on the screen at the front of the bus.

The mobile doll house left Wellawaya and climbed north into the hills. The bus roared, swerved and honked its way up a twisty mountain highway with few guard rails protecting fifty people from a fiery death in the ravine far, far below. I just tried to concentrate on the glorious mountain scenery and looked away from the road.

After about an hour I arrived in Ella where I quickly disembarked on the main street. I found a lovely, bustling little village surrounded by steep, cloud-fringed hills. It is also very tourist-oriented, most of the people on the streets are foreign backpackers. There has not been such a large concentration of smelly dirty feral hippies in one place since Occupy Wall Street.

It was a ten-minute walk to my guest house, Up Country, which just so happens to be located opposite Ella railway station. Not that I would intentionally pick a hotel opposite a railway station. Oh no! Perish the thought!

Ella is a very steep town. At street level is a small café and shop, and the guest rooms are out the back down the hill behind the café. The station road is on a ridge and it was a great place to relax with complimentary pancakes stuffed with coconut and treacle and a soothing cup of black Ceylon tea while enjoying the recuperative breeze. Ella is 1010 metres above sea level and the weather here is marvellous - mid-twenties, moderately humid but not sweaty, cloudy. I worked on my blog as I watched the occssional train go past.

Ella is famous for its array of cookery classes and I booked one at a restaurant, Nanda's, on the corner of the station road and the main highway. For eighteen hundred rupees I and six other tourists were taught the fine art of how to cook a rice and curry. We all participated in the preparation - grinding the coconut, soaking the dhal, kneading the coconut roti dough, cutting the pumpkin and such like - and we were handsomely rewarded with a magnificent meal of our own making - garlic and pandanus rice, coconut roti, coconut sambal, and three curries (green bean, pumpkin and dhal).

Afterwards I retired to a nearby pub with a thatched roof, open sides and log pillars of the sort you find all around the world in every tropical tourist destination. I am not a party animal so I picked a nice, quiet one a bit off the main drag where I could work on my blog and catch up with friends online.

Soon I fell in with an English chap, Jason. I do have a rule - meeting people is preferable to my writing project; my blog is just a spare-time, chill-out endeavour. So I put away my Samsung Galaxy tablet and got to talking with Jason. This loud but affable fellow is thirty-three, he owns a campsite back home that closes in winter, and so he spends three months a year travelling overseas to a warmer climate with his young family. This year they are staying in Sri Lanka. I am so jealous of those kids. Why couldn't I have a childhood like that? Not fair!

We got to chatting, compared notes, made some terrible jokes, laughed. The Lion beer was way too warm - there had been a blackout for most of the day, the Ceylon Electricity Board was doing maintenance work on power lines in the neighbourhood. I remarked that the beer was a bit warm but that Jason being a Pommy bastard should be used to it, and he just laughed and gave me the finger.

Soon we were joined by a mad fat drunk Czech bastard aged in his fifties who knew we couldn't speak Czech but insisted on speaking only Czech. He would hug me without asking for my leave and would sometimes bring his face right up to mine when he spoke. I found this when I was in Prague in 2017 - Czechs are aloof and gloomy when sober but terrifyingly convivial when drunk. This guy got a bit too huggy, he wouldn't stop laughing and making lewd gestures (I guess while telling bawdy jokes in Czech), and though we tried to use Google Translate to understand what he was saying the translations only came out all garbled.

Later we were joined by a local whose name I forget, a young, sharp-eyed guy with a scar on his forehead who claimed to be in the Sri Lankan mafia and to have served time in prison for murder. I have been in enough pubs in my life to know that they are full of people whose relationship with the truth is rather flexible. But it was enough to make me worried.

"Doesn't this guy give you the creeps?" I asked Jason when the young local had gone to the toilet.

"Just a bit. Yeah, just a little bit," he said.

It was time for me to leave. It was eleven o'clock and though I had had only one gin and tonic and two beers, I was rather tired, had planned an early start for the next morning and the Czech weirdo and Sri Lankan wannabe-mafioso were annoying me. I walked the hundred metres back to my room through the marauding packs of street dogs, occasionally turning to make sure I wasn't being followed.

Lake near Buduruwagala

Lake near Buduruwagala

Buddha carving at Buduruwagala

Buddha carving at Buduruwagala

Pink bus

Pink bus

Savan and a rice stalk

Savan and a rice stalk

Bus from Thanamalwila to Wellawaya

Bus from Thanamalwila to Wellawaya

Complimentary welcome snack at guest house in Ella

Complimentary welcome snack at guest house in Ella

Dinner is served at Sri Lankan cooking class

Dinner is served at Sri Lankan cooking class

Ella railway station

Ella railway station

The beginning of the Hill Country north of Wellawaya

The beginning of the Hill Country north of Wellawaya

Pink bus at Ella

Pink bus at Ella

Tambourine-playing beggar on the bus at Thanamalwila

Tambourine-playing beggar on the bus at Thanamalwila

Sri Lankan cookery class at Ella

Sri Lankan cookery class at Ella

Posted by urbanreverie 16:05 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged buddha buses nightlife sri_lanka ella tissamaharama buduruwagala wellawaya Comments (0)

The dry-light zone

overcast 26 °C
View Urban Reverie 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka
Tuesday, 5 February 2019

I awoke early at seven o'clock because I wanted to reach my next destination, Tissamaharama, by early afternoon so I would have plenty of time to organise a safari tour the next day. I had to wait a while before I left, though. The laundry I had given the wife of the guest house owner in Galle yesterday morning had still not dried. It reminded me of the days when I lived in Brisbane where a pair of jeans would sometimes take three days to dry in summer.

At about nine o'clock the sun came out and by ten my clothes had dried just enough that I felt I could pack them. They weren't wringing wet, just damp around the seams.

I checked out of the Old Dutch House, a great place to stay. Yes, it is a bit run-down (it's called the Old Dutch House for a reason), but it's central, the owners are friendly and obliging, and they chuck on a really good feed. I give the Official Urban Reverie Seal Of Approval to the Old Dutch House.

I took a tuk-tuk to the station, I couldn't be bothered carrying eleven kilograms through Galle's sauna-like humidity, and waited to buy my second-class ticket to Matara, the terminus of the Coast Line east of Galle.

I found the right counter, there were only four of them. There were only four people in front of me but I waited forever. "Come on, how long does it take to buy a ticket," I muttered.

The South African backpacker in front of me turned around. "Patience, my friend, there's still plenty of time. Patience helps in a country like this." He had a good point.

After the passage of an entire geological epoch it was finally my turn to buy a ticket. The railway official behind the counter stretched his arms, yawned, swivelled his chair to and fro, turned to gossip with his colleagues, turned back towards me, stretched his arms yet again, checked his watch, and basically did everything possible to ignore my repeated entreaties of "excuse me! Excuse me, sir. I would like to buy a ticket. Hello? Can I buy a ticket please?"

Back in Australia I am a public servant for the state government. Most public servants are reasonably conscientious, diligent and dedicated to the well-being of the society which pays their comfortable salaries. However, there are a significant minority of people in the Public Service who wouldn't work if you shoved a lit stick of dynamite up their rectums and they often make my professional life a living hell. But at least those slackers put on an outward show of pretending to work and when pushed will do just exactly enough to keep management happy. I didn't think it was possible to find lazier, more unmotivated workers until I encountered your typical Sri Lankan public employee.

I decided to try a different approach - studied silence. Maybe if I stopped pestering him he would start to acknowledge my presence. It didn't work. In the end I snapped. "Excuse me! A second-class one-way ticket to Matara, please!"

Mister Yawn sighed and pulled the lever on the ancient, rusty Edmondson ticket dispenser as if he were being asked to carry a one-tonne boulder up Mount Everest. "One hundred," he snarled.

I slapped a one hundred rupee note on the counter and grabbed my ticket, went through the gate where the attendant punched a notch on the edge of my ticket, and went onto the platform. I didn't have to wait long for unnamed express train No. 8040 to Matara which departed fifteen minutes late at 11:20.

The train was crowded when it pulled into Galle but nearly everyone got off. I got an oceanside window seat in a second class carriage in which about a quarter of the seats were occupied. The suburbs of Galle soon gave way to a nearly continuous string of rural villages as the train driver continually blew the whistle before every single level crossing or pedestrian walking in the rail corridor. Occasionally there would be glimpses of the ocean through the houses and trees, long, unbroken, narrow, golden beaches with long waves breaking close to shore.

The track quality was very good, according to my phone's speedometer we maxed out at 75 km/h. We stopped at many, but not all, stations; modest peach-coloured station buildings with generous awnings, lush well-kept gardens and, at several stations, a fish tank of all things. There was once a time when many Sydney railway stations had beautiful gardens and station staff eagerly competed in the annual railways garden competition. Now stations in Sydney are desolate expanses of bitumen, perspex and steel. That's progress. I think. Perhaps not.

After about fifty minutes the train arrived at the terminus of Matara. As I handed my ticket over at the exit gate I met Ted and Dave, an older Australian couple in their sixties from Brisbane. They were backpacking through Sri Lanka like me and had covered far more miles than I intend to, even making it as far north as Jaffna. And they were doing it without a phone or a travel guide, just a sheet map of the whole country, perhaps 1:250,000 scale. They had arrived in Matara still unsure whether they were going to stay there for the night or move on somewhere else. Their modus operandi was to find the nearest tuk-tuk driver and ask him to take them to anywhere with accommodation. Now that's what I call placing your trust in divine providence.

Being Brisbanites, Ted and Dave were talkative and hospitable. They ended up walking with me from the station to the bus imterchange about a kilometre away as we talked about our plans and I gave them as much information about the area as I could glean from my Lonely Planet. They were hoping to see some guest house on the way but there was none. Matara is a thriving, busy transport hub with a beach but it's the kind of place most tourists just pass through.

At Matara bus station we said our farewells and wished each other the best of luck as I went searching for my bus. Most bus interchanges in the Western world, but not necessarily in Australia, will have a nice big list of all the buses that call at the interchange, where they go, and which stand they leave from. Perhaps there will be timetables or route maps. Not in Sri Lanka. I guess that visitors are expected to use extra-sensory perception to divine which stand to go to. Or they can have a friendly helpful random local who came up to Ted, Dave and me who will tell me to take route 334/1 from the stand just over there. Which is, thankfully, exactly what happened.

I stocked up on water and snacks for the long bus trip ahead at the Cargill's Food City supermarket inside the bus station and found a route 334/1 bus waiting for me. I boarded and soon we headed east on the A2 highway along the coast.

The bus wasn't crowded when it left Matara so I choose a window seat on the right hand side two rows behind the driver. There was a solid bulkhead behind the driver. I chose this seat because it would mean I wouldn't be able to look ahead and see the bus on the wrong side of the road barrelling towards a fully loaded petrol tanker. This would mean that I would die blissfully unaware of what happened and I would save all the workers at the morgue and the funeral home the distress of seeing the unspeakable terror etched in my face for eternity. I'm sorry to be so morbid. Sri Lanka does this to me.

The bus was interesting. It was a private bus and so the interior had all sorts of garish decorations, like a row of Hindu figurines above the front windscreen fringed with blinking coloured lights like some poker machine. There was a poster of some Hindu god on the bulkhead behind the driver, and the subwoofers above the luggage racks played Sri Lankan pop music that could be generously described as sounding like cats being strangled.

The bus followed the coast, beautiful beaches and rocky peninsulas and scattered resort villages. The bus called at the major town of Tangalle and after that the population densi dropped off. The scenery became flatter and more agricultural as we went a bit inland through rice fields and cattle farms.

After a while even the farms disappeared as we went through miles of brownish scrub. We had entered what Sri Lankans call the "dry zone", the parts of Sri Lanka with savannah climates featuring lower annual rainfall and a pronounced dry season.

In the middle of the dry zone is the town of Hambantota. This was formerly a small fishing village, the home town of Mahinda Rajapaksa, a populist demagogue who was formerly the President of Sri Lanka and one of the two competing Prime Ministers during last year's constitutional crisis. In the spirit of crony favouritism that is the hallmark of every true populist demagogue, Rajapaksa shovelled billions of rupees into questionable infrastructure projects to turn Hambantota into a world-class port city right up there with Dubai and Singapore.

As the bus approached Hambantota, we entered a dizzying maze of dual carriagways, exit ramps and motorways. We would pass significant new buildings in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but miles of dry zone scrub - a gleaming new multi-storey hospital, a massive convention centre, an imposing government building called something like the Magim Ruhupunu Administration Centre. Off in the distance were huge gantry cranes at the new artificial harbour lifting non-existent containers off non-existent ships for delivery to non-existent customers.

It seems like a thoroughly silly place to put a port. Hambantota is, by Sri Lankan standards, in the middle of nowhere. There is no major centre of population nearby. There are no highways or railways connecting the hinterland to the port. There are no major manufacturing industries, not a huge amount of agriculture, and no mineral resources that I know of within the port's catchment. What Hambantota does have is a failed Commonwealth Games hosting bid. It was the only other contender for the right to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The winner was the Gold Coast in Australia.

Not long after Hambantota the bus reached its terminus at Tissamaharama, a small town that is nothing special bus is used as a base used by visitors to the nearby Yala National Park. I got off the bus and walked a kilometre on the shoulder of a busy highway to the Hotel View Point.

I was greeted by Sanjiva, the owner of a two-storey family home, the top storey of which has been coverted into a small hotel. There is a large deck overlooking an adjacent rice paddy. The way booking safari tours worksmis you can either book through your hotel, or go to this place on the village's outskirts where Jeep owners comgregate and bargain with them. I did it the easy way. Sanjiva called his brother, Lalli, who soon came on his motorbike. We sat down and he said a full-day private safari tour would be €105. Deal.

Next - like most Sri Lankans, he would only take cash upfront. There were two banks on my way from the bus station to the hotel. While on my way to the hotel I tried to withdraw cash from both the banks' ATMs. At the first, the security guard told me to go away, they only accept local cards. At the next bank, both my debit card and credit card failed. My cash reserves were running very low after paying my hotel bill in Galle that morning.

Lalli offered to ride me to another bank, the Commercial Bank, where the security guard told me the ATM accepts foreign cards. I haven't ridden pillion on a motorbike since my uncle offered me a ride when I was ten. Motorbikes are scary and terrigying. I couldn't even get on the back of the bike anyway - the seat was too wide at the back and I couldn't get my short legs over.

I got too nervous, then I remembered that the hotel advertised bicycle hire. I asked Sanjiva if I could borrow a bicycle to ride to the bank. He said sure, and brought out my trusty steed - a rust bucket hybrid bike that had obviously seen better days. But any port in a storm!

Lalli said to follow him. The highway into the town centre was flat with a generous shoulder. I got up to quite a decent speed, maybe 25 to 30 km/h. Then suddenly a bus blasted its horn as a warjing just behind my right shoulder and dead ahead parked half on the shoulder, half in the traffic lane was a tuk-tuk. To the left of the tuk-tuk was a pile of rubble.

I couldn't go left over the rubble or right into the path of the bus right behind me so I had to brake to let the bus pass. So I applied both the brake levers. There was no reponse. "Where are the brakes? My God, where are the brakes? There are no bloody brakes on this f×÷$ing thing!"

To go right into the traffic lane would have meant certain death, to go left over the rubble would have at least resulted in serious injury, and I wouldn't have come off lightly if I slammed into the back of a tuk-tuk either. I used my sandals rubbing on the rad as an emergency brake. I managed to slow down but there was no way I could come to a complete stop before hitting the tuk-tuk.

However, I had slowed down enough that there was time for the bus to pass me and the tuk-tuk one second before I could swerve to the right around the illegally parked tuk-tuk. F×#$. How many more life-threatening situations will this country provide over the next fortnight?

I continued on, not daring to go any faster than about 10 km/h. I still hit a tuk-tuk though. A tuk-tuk suddenly pulled oit from the kerb and then stopped in the lane. I used my sandals as a brake again but I still hit the rear bumper at about walking pace. There was no damage to me, the bike or any human being, fortunately.

Lalli met me at the Commercial Bank, I explained why I took so long. I then went to the ATM. I tried my debit card. Transaction declined. I tried my credit card. Transaction declined. I then tried the credit card again but instead of selecting withdrawal, I selected cash advance.

Hallelujah! 30,000 rupees in crisp, new notes! I handed over 19,500 of them to Lalli, trusting that he would keep his word and meet me at 4:15am as agreed to and not take the money and run.

I went back to the hotel a kilometre away on the edge of town, half-walking, half-cycling. I got to the hotel, returned the bicycle, explained what happened. Despite the generally decrepit condition of the bike there was nothing wrong with the brakes per se, the cables just needed tightening. It would have taken me five minutes to fix with an Allen key and a can of WD-40 to pull the cables tighter by an inch or so at the calipers. In any case, that is my first - and last! - cycling adventure in Sri Lanka.

An interesting conversation with Sanjiva, a high school PE teacher who asked a lot of questions about the Australian cricket team I fudged through, a dinner at a restaurant across the road where I met a young and engaging Spanish couple who I thought were Swedish because they were so blonde, and an early night. Please pray for me. I mean, not because I keep nearly getting killed. But pray for me because I have to get up at 3:30am for a 4:15am start. Will this incorrigible night owl make it? You will find out in the next blog entry.

Indian palm squirrel in Galle

Indian palm squirrel in Galle

Second class carriage from Galle to Matara

Second class carriage from Galle to Matara

Hindu figurines and lights on bus to Tissamaharama

Hindu figurines and lights on bus to Tissamaharama

Bus from Matara to Tissamaharama

Bus from Matara to Tissamaharama

On board train to Matara

On board train to Matara

The View from the Hotel View Point In Tissamaharama

The View from the Hotel View Point In Tissamaharama

Swastika Hotel and Pizza “Hot” in Tangalle

Swastika Hotel and Pizza “Hot” in Tangalle

Hindu God on bus to Tissamaharama

Hindu God on bus to Tissamaharama

Ticket from Galle to Matara

Ticket from Galle to Matara

Timetable at Galle station

Timetable at Galle station

Rustbucket bicycle without working brakes

Rustbucket bicycle without working brakes

Posted by urbanreverie 21:57 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains buses cycling sri_lanka matara hambantota yala tissamaharama galle Comments (0)

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