This train journey is today, a rite of passage for any traveller who visits Sri Lanka. As it chugs along on its approximately seven-hour long journey across paddy fields and through tunnels, you get a door-side view of the high hills and lush green tea plantations. Welcome aboard the blue train from Kandy to Ella.
It wasn’t always so though. It was originally built when the British to transport tea from the hills of Kandy to the capital. What initially started out as a 50 odd kms rail line in 1864, has, today, expanded to over 1,500 kms that runs through hills, along the coasts and through villages across the country.
Hatching a plan
When I planned a New Year getaway to the emerald island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I was sure it was going to be different. On my previous two trips to the country, it was all about soaking in the sun by the beaches of Hikkaduwa and exploring the charm of Galle.
This time, it was going to be a journey, for me, into uncharted territory deep in the heart of the country. However, like all good plans, everything doesn’t necessarily go as planned. With a travel budget that will put the budget traveller to shame, I wasn’t keen on paying a premium to book tickets in advance. Heck, I wasn’t even bothered about which class I travelled in, so long as the windows could open, or I could stand by the door. But try one must.
My travel buddy, who had reached Colombo a day prior, had made the obligatory trip to the railway station, to try and see if he could get us reservations. No luck. Turns out that the only tickets available were in 1st class, at prices I preferred spending elsewhere.
The only other option, which to me was fine, was to try our luck on the day of our travel, which, in this case, would be the 8:47 train from Kandy to Ella. No issues with that either.
After spending time exploring Kandy over four days, we had an early breakfast, paid our dues, said our goodbyes to the guest owners and hopped into a tuk-tuk for a short ride downhill to the railway station.
Once at the station, the only tickets available were unreserved 2nd and 3rd class. So, with our 2nd class unreserved tickets in hand, we walked onto the platform and a sea of tourists and Sri Lankans, all waiting for the train to arrive. And an interesting wait it turned out to be.
I’ve only every seen it before while travelling through India. Even before the train has come to a complete halt at the station, hordes of passengers, and their proxies, hop onto the train to grab the best possible seats, preferably window. By the time the train has come to a complete halt, chances are that all the seats have already been occupied. Those who have travelled on Mumbai’s suburban trains will have an idea of the scene that unfolds, train after train.
As it got closer to the train’s arrival at Kandy station, I started to look at the other passengers, positioning themselves at strategic points on both sides of the track. A brief confirmation with the station master and some of them would reposition themselves elsewhere. And quite a few smart couples would have themselves on either side, thereby increasing their chances of securing at least one seat.
For all the strategic planning that we did, let me just say it came to naught. Though, back of my mind, I was angling for a position at the door. A bit of shuffling and adjustments later, with the bags safely stowed under one of the seats, it was time to ride what, a lot of travellers would vouch for, is among the most beautiful train journeys.
There is something that is magical about hanging out of a moving train. While it was a necessity travelling on Mumbai’s suburban rails, here in Sri Lanka, it felt refreshing, as every turn along the journey was an opportunity to experience and appreciate a landscape that was ever-changing. Lush green paddy fields in small towns gave way to high hills with trees that towered even higher.
Occasionally, as we arrived at another station on the journey, there would be a monkey or three, patiently giving us the stare, while they kept an eye out for any giveaways that they could take back with them. Then, as the train climbed higher and higher, views of misty covered hilltops and stations would greet us, while tea pickers would stop work in the tea plantations, for just a few moments, to smile and wave back at delirious passengers trying to capture their photograph.
I also think that deep down, a lot of us become a kid once again. Staring out of the window or door for minutes on end just felt so normal, no matter whether it was a Sri Lankan mother getting a window view of the scenery outside, squeezing her head side by side with her young son, or the smile of contentment on the face of an elderly tourist who, for convenience, had locked herself in the bathroom for an uninterrupted view. Then, as the train would go through another tunnel, there would be a group of Sri Lankan teenagers who would let out a series of loud screams.
A stop at the next station would bring vendors selling an assortment of snacks and refreshments; from water and soft drinks to milky sweet tea best had with salty peanuts and my favourite snack on the journey – vade.
Sometimes, a stop at a station would take a bit longer than anticipated as we waited for another train in the opposite direction to pass by. That would be the right time to catch up with other travellers and see new faces, exchange travel itineraries and photography tips, and occasionally, take a selfie.
As the train slowly snakes its way uphill and takes yet another turn, the tourists would take centerstage. Hanging out from the door, they would pose for that perfect ‘Instagram’ shot. Feet dangling in the air, their partners would click away from various positions and angles.
And then, finally, we are there. Still giddy with the fresh air that was pumped through my body and a mind still analyzing all those visuals that were now memories, it is time to say goodbye to other travellers, and a train journey that is truly one of its kind. . As we alight from the train and step on the platform, I mentally say ‘goodbye’ to the train slowly chugging out of the station, and ‘hello’ to Ella.