From bright red carriages to the lush greenery of the hills, the click-clacking of the train’s wheels to the piercing note of its horn, and from the warmth of the city to the invigorating coolness of higher ground – traveling by rail into the Lankan hill-country is nothing short of a glorious experience.
With my Exporail ticket in-hand, I boarded a brightly-painted carriage with anticipation heavilly-fuelled by the good things I heard about going into the hill country. I was greeted by warm smiles from the cabin crew upon boarding the privately-owned carriage and led into a spacious general cabin lined with luxurious-looking seats and two good-sized LCD TVs. I soon found that the seats were indeed fit for maharajas – they had ample leg space, a foldable table for meals and a plug point for power-dependant passengers. These are luxuries for any traveller on rail, especially on the 9-hour haul from Colombo to Ella.
The train pushed ahead on-time, gathering speed through the bustle of Colombo with a pleasant welcome message looping on the TVs.
There were a good number of business-like Chinese men onboard, perhaps reflective of growing diplomatic and economic ties with the Asian superpower. This group, I later found out, are builders of upcoming railways in the hill country. Against an increasingly green and untouched landscape, light breakfast was served – fresh and appetizing pastry rounded up with a decent cup of coffee. The folding table deserves special mention, it was far from ornamental and held breakfast with little to no mess. Service by the cabin crew was polished, hospitable and there was an air of comfort among the passengers. I thought less about the 8 hours that lay ahead while focusing attention to the Tom Cruise movie playing on screen.
At the Ambepusa Station, I witnessed for the first time the exchange of train engines in the middle of a journey. The cabin crew, having swiftly communicated with the train captain, informed the passengers who had gathered at the observatory area at the front of the carriage to take photographs or step down onto the rail for a smoke. It is noteworthy that the situation was far from one of anxiety and worry – it was dealt with in an almost rehearsed, docile manner. The bald, imposing sillhouette of the station master as he stood overlooking progress commandingly against the mid-day sun painted the scene well. The station’s Colonial-British architecture also stood gallantly, providing a quaint backdrop for the locals from all walks of life, with an overhead bridge just metres away from the carriage making the perfect spot for a visual feast.
Lunch was served timely. A heated pack of chicken briyani and a bottle of water was served with a reassuring smile by the crew just as my mind began to remind the body for mid-day nourishment. The size of the serving was just as satisfying as it tasted, rich with the local flavor and considerately spicy. By now, Colombo feels like a distant past as the train soldiers on towards an increasingly green and hilly landscape. Graced by evergreen tea plantations and the occasional white fortresses of tea factories, the coolness of the hill country beckoned with warm hellos.
I recall being gently interrupted by the cabin crew at one point as I stood in the observation area, marveling at the lush greenery that lay before my eyes. He informed me of an upcoming waterfall on the other side of the observatory area. St. Clair’s Fall was indeed a sight to behold as it came into view, flowing with reverent grace at the heart of a breathtaking panaroma. The same series of event reoccured as the train clacked past the Upper Kothmale Dam, a crucial water source for the surrounding land yet debated over its impact on the natural ecosystem. The heavy drizzle that began before did little to repel the responsive passengers as they posed and smiled for hills-and-I self-portraits in the observation area. I recall a moment as I gazed out into a vast, fading image of the hill country that stretched out into the misty horizon. The clouds were colored a warm, crimson red by the setting sun – it was a humbling sight to behold.
The train climbed surely up the hill country and the drizzle subsided as nightfall began to creep in. Having just woken up from a much-desired nap, the fresh coolness of the observatory area served a tempting proposition. I was hit by a cold I did not expect upon stepping out – in the hour or two or passed, the temperature had dropped considerably. Again, I was gleefully informed by the cabin crew of the rapid climate change that takes place in an ascend of the hill country and well-prepared for the passing of the wooden board that marks the highest point of Sri Lanka’s railway network.
By nightfall and with Ella on fast approach – after multiple visits to the carriage’s washroom, a blockbuster movie, a fair amount of reading and an added layer of clothing, I found myself seated alone in the observatory; the brisk cold of the wind caressing my face as I trained my sight on the focus of the train’s headlight cutting through the imposing woods. With most of the passengers asleep by then, I had the privilege of conversing with the ever-present cabin crew, whom by then I had warmed up to and shot questions freely. Sweet Kandyan-made pastry was also served. It was a deserving-icing to the cake for what turned out to be an incredible, wholesome journey of the senses. I arrived at Ella in good time and high spirits, bidding the crew an enthusiastic goodbye and a quiet hello to the charming town.
If you’re all about the icing on the cake – Exporail runs from Colombo to Kandy, Badulla, Ella and Haputale on a daily basis.
This is a sponsored post but the author’s opinions are his own, naturally.