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Entries about caves

Train to the underworld

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I have a theory that there are only three things on which it is impossible to overdose:

1. Trains
2. Waterfalls
3. Caves

It may be impossible to overdose on these, but I may as well try.

So I found myself on a grey, gloomy Thursday morning checking out of the Dežnik guesthouse, storing my luggage there, and walking down quiet, empty streets to Ljubljana railway station. I wondered why there were no cars on the roads and all the shops were shut. I googled "public holidays slovenia" on my phone and found that today was Reformation Day commemorating the day that Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of a church in Germany. It seems like an odd holiday for a country that is overwhelmimgly Catholic.

Public holidays in Europe really are public holidays. Things actually shut. Perhaps the Australian system is more convenient for tourists, where things are allowed to stay open but they have to pay their staff more. But what good is a public holiday if so many people still have to work?

I bought my ticket, splashing out about another three euros for first class, and caught the same train that I had taken the previous afternoon, the "Pohorje" intercity tilting train. I was even travelling on the same line southwest of Ljubljana but this time I got off much earlier at Postojna.

I walked about half an hour from Postojna station through an attractive, modern but eerily silent mid-sized country town to Postojna Caves. I bought a ticket for about thirty-five euros which entitled me to a tour of the caves and also Predjama Castle about nine kilometres further down the road. They do run shuttle buses between the two attractions but only in the summer months. I had to spend another thirty euros on a taxi organised by the caves visitor centre. Gulp. Oh well. You only live once. It's only money. Gulp.

After a short wait the taxi van appeared. The driver was friendly and knowledgeable and talked about the history of the area - the fierce battles in World War One when Slovenia was the front line between Austria-Hungary (on the side of the Germans) and Italy (on the side of the Allies), about how some fields used to be a lake but were drained by farmers many centuries ago, and he pointed out a cave in which Neanderthal remains were found.

Soon I reached Predjama Castle. This isn't any old castle. Predjama is built into the side of a cliff. How cool is that? I went in and saw how the rooms and the corridors merged seamlessly between artificial wall and natural rockface.

Predjama Castle's most famous resident was a Slovenian folk hero, Erazem Predjamski, who allied himself with the common people against Habsburg tyranny. After he killed a favourite of the Habsburg king, there was a price on his head. Erazem holed himself up in his magnificent castle and the Habsburg troops laid siege.

Behind the castle is a network of caves which lead to a ground entrance in the mountains behind the castle, this enabled Erazem to replenish his supplies. He even taunted the Habsburg soldiers by throwing fresh cherries at them from the parapets. It seemed as if there were no way to dislodge Erazem from his impregnable fortress.

But there was one room with thin walls - the toilet. The troops bribed a servant to display a candlelight signal when Erazem went to the loo. When the Habsburg troops saw the candlelight, they flung a boulder with a catapult right into the toilet, causing the toilet to collapse and crushing Erazem to death. What a way to go.

The taxi met me at the castle entrance at the agreed time and I was whisked back to Postojna Caves in time for the two o'clock tour. I wasn't the only one, there were hundreds of others. We were divided into language groups and then led through a short passage where a train was waiting for us - a cute little battery-operated toy train, that took us into the bowels of the earth, through the most beautiful and intricate stalactites and stalagmites and columns, all artistically illuminated.

At the end of the ten-minute train journey we were led on a walking tour through various chambers. There was the Spaghetti Chamber where the stalactites on the ceiling were so pale and thin and straight that they looked like dangling noodles. There was the Red Chamber (it does exactly what it says on the tin) as well as the White Chamber (ditto). There was the Postojna Cave's most famous sight, "Brilliant", a pure white stalagmite several metres tall that looked like a giant melted candle. We finished our walking tour at the Concert Hall, an enormous hemispherical chamber in which concerts are actually held before an audience of thousands. The train then took us back up to the surface.

There is a debate about which caves are better, Postojna or Škocjan. Personally I prefer Škocjan even though I loved Postojna, simply due to the sheer immensity of the Škocjan Caves that swallow you whole and turn you into a mere atom. However, Postojna has more intricate and beautiful cave formations, and the lighting is much better at Postojna too. Postojna allows you to take photographs, which is prohibited at Škocjan. I also found that Postojna had an artifical theme park feel with its little kiddie-sized train and smooth, gently sloping, step-free path that even toddlers can do. Škocjan felt more authentic. Also, Škocjan took commitment. There was a lengthy walk from the visitor centre to the cave entrance, there were hundreds of steps, you had to be careful where you stepped. I found that this made the Škocjan Caves more rewarding. My hot tip: see both like I did. They are both great. You won't regret it.

I caught a coach back to Ljubljana. I would have just missed a train and the next train wasn't due at Postojna for ninety minutes. Slovenian railways are well maintained and reliable and modern, but the services are not very frequent and they are very slow due to all the twisty mountain tracks that haven't been straightened out since they were built in the 1850s. Sounds like a certain state that I live in!

Eva at the guesthouse had recommended that I see Metelkova before I go. Metelkova used to be a barracks of the Yugoslav National Army in the heart of Ljubljana. After Slovenia declared its independence in 1991 and emerged victorious from a ten-day war, the Yugoslav army abandoned the barracks. Various groups of students, anarchists, hippies and other alternative lifestylers occupied Metelkova and turned it into an autonomous commune. It still is. Unfortunately when I went there, the only people I could see were dodgy little knots of dodgy young men huddling conspiratorially, presumably they were esteemed providores of the finest powdery substances from Colombia and Afghanistan. There was some interesting street art but overall it was just another filthy graffiti-ridden squat like Christiana in Copenhagen.

After a quick dinner at a felafel restaurant, I walked back to Dežnik and collected my backpack. I heartily recommend staying here, at a real family-owned guesthouse rather than an impersonal hotel owned by some multinational corporation, a place where you will be welcomed with amazing Slovenian helpfulness and hospitality. The fact that Dežnik is in the heart of the cutest little city you will ever see is just an added bonus.

It was time for one more train. I walked back to Ljubljana station and bought another ticket to Lesce-Bled. The sleek, shiny, red, nearly empty Siemens Desiro went northwest through the dark evening gloom. About an hour later I emerged from the train, a taxi was waiting on the platform. There were probably buses but I couldn't have been bothered, I was tired and just wanted to sleep. I introduced myself to the driver and asked him to take me to my apartment in Lake Bled about five kilometres away. Even though he used the meter, the fare was €16.30. Slovenian taxis are pure extortion. I should have taken the bus instead. I checked the timetables later and there was actually a bus not long after I got off the train.

I checked into the apartment using the precise detailed instructions the Airbnb host had sent to me, and enjoyed a quiet night doing precisely nothing for a change.

Tilt train to Postojna

Tilt train to Postojna

Predjama Castle

Predjama Castle

Train in Postojna Cave

Train in Postojna Cave

Postojna Cave

Postojna Cave

Curtain formations at Postojna Cave

Curtain formations at Postojna Cave

Red Chamber at Postojna Cave

Red Chamber at Postojna Cave

Postojna Cave

Postojna Cave

“Brilliant” stalagmite at Postojna Cave

“Brilliant” stalagmite at Postojna Cave

Spaghetti Chamber at Postojna Cave

Spaghetti Chamber at Postojna Cave

Train at Postojna Cave

Train at Postojna Cave

Train to Lesce-Bled

Train to Lesce-Bled

Metelkova

Metelkova

Posted by urbanreverie 15:13 Archived in Slovenia Tagged trains caves slovenia ljubljana postojna lake_bled metelkova Comments (0)

Karst the first stone

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I have always liked caves. They both terrify me and intrigue me at the same time. I remember my parents taking me and my brother on a short holiday to Wellington Caves in the Central West of New South Wales when I was four. I recall having the living daylights scared out of me by all the bats - bats still give me the chills - but also being amazed by all the stalactites and stalagmites and columns and all the other bizarre formations. Caves are a glimpse into another world, a world beneath our feet that we human beings rarely give a second thought, a fairytale universe in which monsters are real and rivers disappear into darkness and all the furniture is made of limestone.

Slovenia is the ideal destination for someone who likes caves. To make a cave, you only really need two things - limestone fairly close to the surface and water. Water, being one of the most powerful solvents on earth, reacts with limestone to form calcium carbonate suspended in solution. The limestone is slowly but relentlessly eroded away, forming the cavities that we all know as caves. Water drips through the limestone into the caves, depositing the dissolved calcium carbonate on the ceilings, floors and walls, forming those beautiful spikes and columns and curtains that tourists love to take photos of.

The best landscape for the formation of caves is karst - typically, karsts are highland plateaus where the limestone forms a large relatively flat surface easily accessible to rainwater. Karst is found all over the world, but the granddaddy of all karsts is its namesake, the Karst region of southwestern Slovenia.

So I got up early in the morning and caught a train to the Karst plateau. I walked fifteen minutes to Ljubljana station, bought my ticket from the counter - unusually for a European railway, Slovenske železnice doesn't have ticket machines - then bought a small McDonald's breakfast to take on the train. It wasn't long before my train, the 08:15 local train to Opčine, departed. This small modern two-car electric train, very sleek and smart in its dark red livery, departed on time, the polite conductor stamped my ticket, the train was comfortable and clean and didn't smell of urine at all and it didn't stop halfway through its journey to dump everyone onto trackwork buses that never come. What a change from Hungary!

Another great thing about this train - there were four different bins for recycling. Slovenes would have to be the most fastidious, pedantic recyclers in the world. Wherever you go you see people at street bins carefully sort through their waste to make sure they put the right things in the right bin. Back home, I always nearly have an aneurysm whenever I open the recycling wheelie bins only to find other residents in my apartment building have put unrecyclable waste or unseparated items in garbage bags or dirty nappies in them. Why do people have to be so damn stupid!

The train went through Ljubljana's western suburbs then crossed a green agricultural plain, after which it slowly climbed up into mountains clad with pines and beeches with views across emerald valleys studded with villages of neat two-storey family homes with steep roofs. The line was quite twisty. Slovenian railways remind me a bit of the railways in New South Wales - the track, signal, electrical and the trains themselves are all reasonably modern and well maintained, but they still follow the same antiquated nineteenth century alignments as when they were built, meaning that the trains travel at a snail's pace.

A bit over one and a half hours after leaving Ljubljana, I disembarked at Divača, a few kilometres from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Škocjan Caves. I and four other visitors didn't have to wait long for the free shuttle bus to the caves, a mere five minutes away by minibus but an hour's walk.

There are two tours available for the Škocjan Caves, and I bought a ticket to both. The first tour was "Following The Reka River Underground", a hike along the Reka River canyon including through natural tunnels where it goes underground for short distances. There was a short while before this tour began so I went on a short walk to a nearby lookout. This lookout gave an excellent overview of the layout of the Skocjan Caves. The Reka River - "Rijeka" in Croatian; the Croatian port city of Rijeka is at the river's mouth - flows across the Karst plateau and has carved out an enormous canyon. The canyon isn't complete though; there are portions where the Reka disappears completely, only to reappear out of a tunnel portal.

At eleven o'clock the first tour began. We followed the tour leader for a hike across nearby farmland then descended very steep stairs into the canyon. The path then followed the gushing Reka river along the canyon and through two large natural tunnels. After the second tunnel we emerged into a giant bowl-shaped cavity, the Big Collapse Doline. What happened is that previosuly, the Reka was completely underground here. But erosion action over time from surface water (e.g., rainfall) permeating the limestone slowly makes the ceiling get thinner and thinner until the ground collapses. Essentially, the Big Collapse Doline is one giant sinkhole. Further erosion has carved out a massive bowl-shaped natural ampitheatre with the river still flowing through the bottom.

We ascended back to the visitor centre on a funicular railway and I had a deeply unsatisfying lunch at a restaurant with the slowest, most indifferent service. I should have learned by now that restaurants at national parks and other natural attractions remote from urban areas is always expensive and horrible, and that I should always bring my own food. These places are effectively monopolies and they damn well know it, and visitors have no choice but to cop it on the chin. I paid €3.50 for a 500mL bottle of Coke Zero (the going rate elsewhere in Slovenia is about €1.50). Even by Australian standards, A$5.60 is outrageous.

At one o'clock the second tour began, "Through The Underground Canyon". This is by far the more popular tour, it goes into the caves proper, not just the tunnels. The friendly and knowledgable guide - yet also quite rightly strict; the rules quite clearly stated no photographs on this tour and she came down hard on the flagrant rule breakers - led us on another hike for a kilometre or so across farmland, down another very steep staircase into the canyon, then through the cave entrance.

The next hour - wow. What awe and reverence these caves inspired. The scale of the caves defies belief. In some chambers, the tour leader would shine her torch into the darkness and the beam of light would touch no wall. The Škocjan Caves make the Jenolan Caves west of Sydney look like somebody's basement. The immensity of the caves swallows anybody who visits them and turns them into mere inconsequential atoms.

It was hard work. There were very steep staircases connecting the different chambers, the wet, slippery path didn't help things. The tour guide made it all worthwhile, she was patient and answered everyone's question in turn. I asked a question about why photography was prohibited on this tour and not the other one. She politely explained it was all about safety - when people take photos they take unsafe risks like leaning over the many precipices and crevices, and also about timing - the caves are massive and there is only so much time, and if everyone took photographs it would take up too much time. So I have no photographs of this tour. Just do a Google Images search for "Škocjan Caves". You will see what I am banging on about.

After about ninety minutes we all went back up to the visitor centre on the same funicular railway, then there was a half hour wait for the shuttle bus back to Divača station. I went to the ticket office at the railway station but it was closed, the roller shutter well and truly locked. They don't have railway ticket machines in Slovenia. How on earth was I supposed to buy a ticket? The other caves visitors were scratching their heads too.

It wasn't too long until the train back to Ljubljana appeared, the "Pohorje", an Intercity train that travels the entire length of the country from the port of Koper on the Adriatic coast to Hodoš on the Hungarian border. We boarded this sleek little three-car tilting train but we needn't have worried. In Slovenia, railway conductors sell tickets on board. Such a relief! In New South Wales boarding without a ticket is a $200 fine and I was worried it might be the same here in Slovenia.

After resting for a bit at the Dežnik guesthouse, I went out for dinner. I chose a Bosnian restaurant, Sarajevo '84, that specialises in Bosnian cuisine as well as čevapi, the spiced skinless sausages that are a staple all across ex-Yugoslavia. I must confess that before I came to Slovenia, I imagined that all the former Yugoslav people still hated each other after the toxic hatreds, suppressed for decades by Marshal Tito's slogan of Brotherhood and Unity, were unleashed in the 1990s Yugoslav Wars.

If Slovenia is anything to judge by, this is nonsense.

There is this Bosnian restauarant. The airwaves on Slovenian radio are full of cheesy synth-pop by Croatian and Serbian musicians. (By the way, cheesy synth-pop from the ex-Yugoslav countries is like crack for the ears. It burrows through your eardrums, buries itself in your brain and never, ever leaves. I'm hooked.) Every day I meet people who live in Slovenia but whose origins are in the other ex-Yugoslav republics. The roads are full of cars with Croatian and Serbian plates.

Anyway, I went to Sarajevo '84. Because the place is so popular I was seated with others and I was placed next to a Parisian lady my age or perhaps a little younger, Irene. Irene, a good-eccentric traveller (I don't think I've met a bad-eccentric traveller on this trip yet, thank heavens), is on a personal project to visit as many capital cities as she can. She is starting with all the European countries, has also clinched a few Asian capitals, and will then branch out to the rest of the world.

I talked about my own project of climbing as many national high points that I am capable of climbing and she laughed. We got to talking about our travels, the things we have seen. We swapped tips on what to see in Ljubljana and swapped phone numbers in case I ever visit Paris or she ever visits Canberra.

It was a pleasant end to a pleasant day exploring one of the world's most impressive cave systems.

Train from Ljubljana to Divača

Train from Ljubljana to Divača

Twisty pine at Škocjan Caves

Twisty pine at Škocjan Caves

Reka River at Škocjan Caves

Reka River at Škocjan Caves

Underground Reka River canyon

Underground Reka River canyon

Curtain-style stalactites at Škocjan Caves

Curtain-style stalactites at Škocjan Caves

Natural river tunnel at Škocjan Caves

Natural river tunnel at Škocjan Caves

Reka River tunnel at Škocjan Caves

Reka River tunnel at Škocjan Caves

Reka River waterfall at Škocjan Caves

Reka River waterfall at Škocjan Caves

Reka River canyon

Reka River canyon

Train back to Ljubljana from Divača

Train back to Ljubljana from Divača

Čevapi at Sarajevo ‘84

Čevapi at Sarajevo ‘84

Posted by urbanreverie 15:15 Archived in Slovenia Tagged canyon caves ljubljana karst skocjan 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)

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