I thought of this trip in three stages - the cultural triangle of the north, the Hill County in the southcentral region and finally the south and east coasts. The Hill Country is many things – green, mountainous, bisected by waterfalls and rivers, cool climate, lush farms, tea plantations and by all accounts one of the best train journeys in the world.
I boarded the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, one of the highest points in the country. The town, known as Little England, with Victoria Park at its center, is surrounded by acres and acres of tea plantations. Tea growing, harvesting and processing is done almost exclusively by hand and is back breaking work. Pickers climb the steep hillsides picking the tender leaves and buds. The baskets they carry are strapped to their heads and they are paid per kilo of leaves collected. The bags of leaves are picked up from the fields and brought to the factory, During the initial drying or withering, leaves in the giant troughs are turned by hand, then fed manually to the rolling machines. Once rolled the leaves are sorted, fermented and dried again. Each step the tea leaves are handled by people. The process is old and so are the machines. Most wood-fired drying machines came from England or Ireland in the late 1800s and are still in operation today. The tea estates bag the leaves and sell the tea at the auction houses in Colombo to buyers like Lipton, who blend the leaves from many estates. Some tea factories retain a portion and sell estate grown teas under their own label…a little like winemakers and grape growers.
But it’s not just tea, the area is perfect for growing all kinds of vegetables – especially as my tuktuk driver said, “English vegetables” - carrots, peas, cabbage and leeks. The narrow mountain roads are lined with vegetable stands, precariously perched between the cliff and roadway.
From Nuwara Eliya I hoped the train again to Ella. The trip through the mountains was even more spectacular than I could have imagined. Everywhere you looked there was green, and the people, especially women in vibrant saris, lined the tracks at each station or walked along behind the train. It was almost sensory and color overload.
Ella is the heart of the Hill Country. Over the last few years it has gained a reputation as a backpacker destination - surrounded by the mountains, more tea plantations, and a small downtown, filled with cheap eats and Western style cafes. It is a hiker’s paradise – start walking in any direction and the views are amazing. I walked nearly 20 miles in two days - climbing Little Adam’s Peak, walking along the railroad tracks to Nine Arch bridge, hiking to waterfalls, and cave temples. It is also was one of the few places in Sri Lanka to take a cooking class – which was my reward after a day of many, many, many steps up the mountains.
I’m not sure that there was an “aha” moment, or lesson learned by traveling to the Hill Country, but I know I will never forget the sights, the colors and sense of being in a place that practically begged to be seen and explored, and then enjoyed with a cup of tea or (or a beer).