After a pretty hectic morning where we were almost forced to miss the train, we finally touched down at Kandy station. Our tickets were stamped and we were directed to the correct platform. At this point, I started to wonder what all the rush had been about as we were one of the first people to arrive at the platform. I shrugged off the thought. At least we were here in good time.
As the minutes passed by, more and more people started to arrive and I noticed there was order to where they were standing at the platform. Most people seemed to be at the closest end to the station and so I decided that was were the third class carriages would be as majority of the train consisted of third class. I decided we should stand somewhere in the middle of the platform as we had second class tickets.
Both Lewis and I were exhausted and barely able to focus on our surroundings. I was amused to see two tourists waiting for the same train on the other side of the platform who actually looked more worse for wear than we did. They had huge backpacks on their backs as well as smaller ones on their fronts. Large black bags sat under their tired eyes and they wore looks of both annoyance and exhaustion. I guess we weren’t the only ones not used to backpacking. I suddenly felt grateful that we’d decided to travel with one hand-luggage which was a small backpack each. That was more than enough for us and our backs were sore.
Suddenly, the ground started rumbling. It was almost like thunder was making its way gradually towards us. I glanced to my right, where majority of passengers were waiting to see them looking expectantly down the tracks. They started shifting excitedly, like they were preparing to pounce on a prize. Across the tracks, the two tourists started looking round in bewilderment, their faces red with exhaustion.
This was the point where my mind flipped. So far this morning I had felt drained, a little sad and very guilty for booking such a disorganised trip. But as soon as I saw the cyan vehicle trundling towards the platform, my heart nearly leapt from my chest in excitement. The Kandy to Ella train-ride is often referred to as the most beautiful train-ride in the world and we were about to take it and see it for ourselves! I also noticed a change in Lewis beside me. It was like the presence of the train snaking along the iron tracks instilled happiness and made us feel like giddy children, ready to go on a magical adventure.
We were almost correct in our standing positions. As soon as the train hissed and ground to a halt, we sprang towards the second class carriages, hungry to be some of the first in the train. I’m used to having to race on trains in order to grab the best seat so even though we had reserved seats, my instincts still kicked in, urging me to pounce before anyone else.
Almost at once, I felt confused. There was second class and second class reserved which I hadn’t been expecting. I hadn’t much time to think and concluded that we’d be in second class reserved after floundering around in regular second class for a few moments. It seems obvious now, but in the moment, sometimes you get daunted!
Our seats were wonderful. I couldn’t have asked for better seats. We were sat at the start of a carriage with tables in front of us and a good deal of legroom, which would be ideal for Lewis as he has such long legs. Above us, two fans were wizzing, their heads spinning from right to left. Most exciting of all was the open window beside us. Now we just had to fight for the window seat! I won initially.
Our train tooted its farewell to the station and began to chug out of the platform. Locals started waving to us as we exited and I waved back, smiling with excitement. Our journey was beginning and I didn’t want to miss a moment of it! Almost immediately, I hung my head out the side of the open window, feeling the warm air blowing gently in my face. Of course, I had my camera in hand and began snapping away at the landscape before me, in awe of everything we passed.
Kandy is a very large city in Sri Lanka so at first the sights on either side of the train were more urban. We passed many houses and apartment blocks, each oozing with its own character. We also passed numerous people who were walking along neighbouring railway tracks or who had been forced to move out the way of our train before they were to continue their journey along our track.
It wasn’t long before the urban landscape was replaced with a more rural view. Rice paddies and fields began to take over, each surrounded by lush palm forests. Livestock grazed amongst the crops and majestic, white egrets stood proudly beside them. It was a similar landscape to that which we saw on our first train journey from Colombo to Kandy.
However, the fields were only fleeting and the journey began to display unique characteristics. The terrain became far more mountainous and our tracks began snaking round hillsides, some coated with thick forest. These forests are known as the Sri Lanka montane rain forests. These forests only live at least 1220 metres above sea-level, hence the addition of ‘montane’ in the name meaning mountain. Interestingly, these elevated forests contain a far higher number of flora and fauna than the low-level tropical forests of Sri Lanka and many endemic (native to this area only) species of mammals and birds.
As well as the montane forests, we passed many rivers and streams, thick and flowing. Due to our high altitude, we were frequently submerged in cloud and experienced moments of heavy rain.
The balance of nature and human settlements was refreshing to see. There were periods of undisturbed forests as well as areas which had been turned to small towns or villages. Occasionally, we would pass houses hidden amongst the trees, living with nature as its neighbour.
Then the tea plantations started to come into view. They dotted the landscape like a patchwork quilt, each one its own unique shape as it surrounded various hills and curves. Some plantations were right beside the tracks. I was even lucky enough to catch a glimpse of workers plucking leaves from their tea plants.
The production of tea is actually the main income stream for Sri Lanka with 5% of the population working in the tea industry. There are over 10 types of tea that is grown in Sri Lanka, thriving on the highlands. The most common tea is ‘Ceylon black tea’ which is actually thought to be the cleanest tea in the world, with no pesticides used in production. Interestingly, tea production wasn’t native to the island but instead the first tea plant was brought over from China in 1824.
I was quickly beginning to learn why this train journey was often dubbed the most beautiful train ride in the world. The views were just incredible! Lewis and I soon began fighting for the window seat but out of the kindness of my heart, I let him have it for most of the journey. It made me smile to see him so eager to soak up the landscape, keenly snapping away with the camera. He was so engrossed in his photography that the first 5 hours of the journey slid past him without any second thought. Although he loved landscape photography, his favourite genre was quickly becoming apparent. He loved portraits. Trying to capture people going about the daily business had him the most engrossed and he was fascinated by the various expressions that he managed to document.
At the back of my mind was one shot I was really keen to grab. That was the iconic photo of me hanging out of one of the train’s open doors. That sounded strange. The exact photo of me isn’t iconic but it’s an iconic pose that I had seen scattered around Instagram and numerous blog posts. As well as being an incredible photo opportunity, I wanted to feel the wind through the my hair and the thrill as I leaned out. Living life on the edge has always been my thing. It sounds crazy to imagine hanging out the door of a moving locomotive which is snaking around hills with vast drops on one side.
I decided I couldn’t wait any longer so told Lewis I’d be heading towards the front of the train to one of the open doors. I told him to be ready with the camera. He was more than happy to oblige. So I made may way up into the next carriage and stopped near the door, where there were several other people awaiting their turn. I was going to have to make my debut hanging out the door a snappy one as I really hated to hold people up.
I noticed a Sri Lankan man in a striped shirt sitting on a seat near the door. He told the two boys who were currently hanging out the door to let a young girl who was next in line to have a go. I hadn’t been expecting this but I guessed at that point that this man was on duty of the door to make sure everyone got a turn and more importantly, to make sure everyone was hanging safely.
Then it was my turn. He waved me on politely and I made my way to the edge of the train. The train jerked and juddered over the tracks, its thunderous roaring in my ears. I grabbed on to the metal bars either side of the door and swung my body as far out as I could manage, looking in the direction of our window. To my delight, there was Lewis, photographing as I’d hoped.
The wind was blowing wildly through my hair and I tried not to wince at the force of the wind. The train was a lot slower than the Colombo to Kandy train so this act didn’t actually feel as perilous and was almost quite relaxing, if it hadn’t been for the building queue of people behind me.
Although my time at the door was fleeting, I was sure to head back to it several more times throughout the journey. Lewis was keen to perfect his photography and I just couldn’t wait for another burst of adrenaline. At one point I was met by the man in the shirt who shook his head at me and said, “It’s too dangerous here. Please wait a few minutes.” Although mildly disappointed by the regulating, I figured it was only a good thing that there was someone looking out for our safety.
Our journey through Sri Lanka’s highlands continued. We snaked deep through tea country passing plantation after plantation. Villages soared past us in a blur of colours and laughter. Dogs trotted beside the train tracks and we passed the occasional cow grazing beside the train. The hours were flying by and our camera battery was gradually getting lower.
Each time we stopped at a station, street sellers would pick up their produce and enter the train selling water, fresh fruit and street food. As tantalising as some of the food smelled, I wasn’t prepared to risk getting sick on such a long train journey, especially considering the toilets were mere holes in the train where you could see the tracks below and there was no toilet paper. I shuddered at the thought.
I’m aware this blog post is getting rather lengthy but I just didn’t want you to miss out on anything from the journey. Between us, Lewis and I took over 400 photographs on this train trip. I managed to condense it down to 100 of my favourites but that’s still a hell of a lot. What I’ve decided to do is include the rest of our photographs in a photo essay in my next blog post so that you can get a feel for what the rest of the journey was like. They say a picture speaks a thousand words and I totally agree with that. I hope you will enjoy viewing them just as much as we enjoyed taking them!