Saturday, 31 January 2015

Day 18: Vavuniya to Kilinochchi

The A9 reminded me of its Scottish namesake: in my 1997 LEJOG, it was also the most tedious part of the trip, with scenery unchanging from hour to hour, and an irritating headwind. The Vanni, as this northern part of Sri Lanka is called, is flat scrubland punctuated by small scruffy towns, with the A9 cutting a long, boring, straight swathe through it. Still, I did get some amusement: seeing a group of local road cyclists out on a run (pic).

Our paths crossed again later and we stopped for a chat and a snap (pic). They're the Sri Lankan Army Team, riding cut-down versions of the town clunkers you see everyone riding round here: 28 inch wheels, rod brakes, single speed. They were still a lot faster than me.

In hot sun, with little sleep last night, and no food bar a breakfast muffin thanks to a mildly upset stomach, I was tired. I had to stop every mile for water as I approached Kilinochchi, my target for today. This is very much Tamil territory, as the technicolour Hindu temples show (pic).

I wasn't too interested in the finer points of polytheistic representation in Hindu architecture though. I was just desperate for a comfy hotel bed, for an afternoon nap. Fortunately I got one.

Miles today: 49
Total miles: 468
Miles since Dondra Head: 430

Friday, 30 January 2015

Day 17: Anuradhapura to Vavuniya

A short day today, entering the flat, green Northern Province (pic). Until 16 Jan this year, you needed a permit from the Ministry of Defence in Colombo to enter. I queued up there to get mine, and two days later they abolished them.

The checkpoints are still there, but the army officers now spend the interview time asking questions such as Is this your own bike, What is the weather like in England, Do you think Ian Bell is strong enough against the short ball, etc.

There are lots more people on bikes in this region than elsewhere in Sri Lanka, some of them carrying enormous loads. This was one of the most extravagant (pic). I wonder if the army guys stopped him to ask him how he kept his balance.

Log Man was pretty fast. I overtook him, then when I stopped for a swig of water he passed me. It wasn't until the busy town of Vavuniya, my overnight stop, that I caught him up again (pic).

Miles today: 34
Total miles: 419
Miles since Dondra Head: 381

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Day 16: Anuradhapura

A pleasant, easy day on the bike, exploring Anuradhapura's extensive ancient ruined sacred city, dagobas and stupas. I wasn't sure what a dagoba was, but here is one (pic). When this was built, about 1200 years ago, only two Egyptian pyramids were bigger. I'm still not entirely sure what it is, but it's solid, and made of an awful lot of bricks. Enough, it's calculated, to build a wall ten feet high from London to Edinburgh, which would make the A1 even more difficult for pedestrians to cross.

Lots of monkeys live around the dagobas, and like to climb up the steep walls. It all looks very precarious (pic).

The ruins are spread out over several square miles, with living villages in between, making a bike the best way to explore them (pic). I was glad not to be in a tour coach, or a motor-trike taxi, constantly stopping at handicraft stalls. I was more interested in fruit juice.

I was rather taken with this pair of swimming pools, built around 800 and used by monks. The deep end is 17 feet, so they must have had a pretty high diving board.

And I liked this frieze of elephants guarding yet another dagoba. But by lunchtime I was dagoba'd and stupa'd out (and had seen the Famous Two Thousand Year Old Sacred Bodhi Tree, which looked like, well, a tree). It was time to go back to town for a cheap and delicious curry, eaten with fingers, in a local restaurant, and some more fruit juice. (No pic - my fingers were too sticky to use the camera.)

Miles today: 15
Total miles: 385
Miles since Dondra Head: 347

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Day 15: Sigiriya to Anuradhapura

Another pre-dawn start, as I slipped through cool dark forest roads, accompanied by the remarkably diatonic calls of Sri Lanka's melodious birds. This is the sort of twitter feed I like.

And it wasn't just the birdsong that proved I wasn't in Britain: it may have been the A9, but you don't get road signs like this in Scotland (pic).

I'm into the flat north of the country now, and there's noticeably more bikes on the road. I was pleased to see this little gathering having a joke outside a shop which sells... well, the sign's self-explanatory.

I got to Anuradhapura by lunchtime. The town – the ancient capital – is home to extensive and evocative ruins, which I'll visit tomorrow. For this afternoon I was happy just to trundle round the three local lakes (pic), sightsee some of the eye-catching temples, and practise shooing stray dogs away. (They're all bark and no bite. All you have to do when one chases you is point at it suddenly and shout 'GO HOME!', and it runs away.)

During which I also enjoyed seeing this lad cycling home from school against a typical Sri Lankan backdrop. As you can imagine, the school uniform doesn't need to specify a sweater or jacket.

Miles today: 60
Total miles: 370
Miles since Dondra Head: 332

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Day 14: Sigiriya

Sigiriya is Sri Lanka's big-ticket tourist attraction, its equivalent of both Australia's Uluru (being a rocky outcrop of national identity) and Peru's Macchu Picchu (being a ruined hilltop capital). It towers over the forested plains (pic) with a breathtaking, almost arrogant, size – just like the admission fee.

There's a very steep walkway glued to the side of the rock that takes zillions of tourists a day up to the top (pic). Those big paw sculptures used to belong to a mighty lion gateway statue, in Sigiriya's heyday from 500 to 1400.

One sign on the way up advised us to keep still and quiet in the case of a wasp attack. This wasn't hypothetical: a few minutes after I finished my visit, the whole rock was closed for a few hours because of one. The admission fee and the tuk-tuk drivers weren't the only way some tourists got stung...

Anyway, this is the view from the top (pic). You can see why the ancient Sri Lankan kingdoms wanted to build their HQ here, because you can spot troublemakers coming a mile off. Also, there's no chance of an overcharging tuk-tuk driver making his way up here.

In the afternoon I trundled round the Sigiriya area on my bike, down little dirt roads to villages (where more games of cricket were bring played) and up tiny lanes through forests. One of them took me to Pidurangala, another rocky outcrop which you can walk to the top of, to get fantastic views of Sigiriya's rock (pic). There were hardly any tourists here, nor even wasps, and for 15 minutes I had this view to myself.

Miles today: 11
Total miles: 310
Miles since Dondra Head: 272

Monday, 26 January 2015

Day 13: Kandy to Sigiriya

Thanks to another very early start in the cool Kandy dawn, and a cloudy daytime keeping the temperatures down, this was the most enjoyable cycle so far. I'm now following the A9 up north for the last section of my End to End – a concept familiar to domestic LEJOGgers – and out of Kandy it went pleasingly downhill through unpretentious little towns.

In one of them, I got chatting to a local cycling enthusiast (pic, stripey top) and his police officer chum. Sri Lankans are really a very friendly lot.

In one village I saw this steamroller (pic). Thankfully it was going the other way. Otherwise I might have suffered the embarrassment of it overtaking me.

There were a few rainshowers, most of which I managed to sit out in handy roadside eateries. This is how the locals coped (pic).

On a Sri Lankan road, you're never far from a banana, thanks to the plentiful fruit and veg stalls (pic). Or indeed a tuk-tuk. Or a clanky but reliable town bike.

At Dambulla I did the obligatory tourist thing and paid a whopping £7.50 to visit the Rock Temples. At least you get plenty of Buddha statues for your money (pic) – dozens of them, including some giant reclining versions.

Anyway, I'm now in Sigiriya, with another day off the bike tomorrow, visiting Sri Lanka's version of Ayer's Rock...

Miles today: 57
Total miles: 299
Miles since Dondra Head: 261

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Day 12: Kandy

A day biking in town, going past Kandyesque sights such as this GR-period British post box in front of a Buddhist temple (pic). So you can pray for good luck, for instance that the postcard you've sent will actually arrive.

I cycled up a steep back road into the hills to the well set-up Tea Museum. I hadn't realised that the Scots, along with inventing most useful things such as television and phones and whisky, were also the pioneers of both of Ceylon's tea plantations (James Taylor) and its mass tea production and marketing (Sir Thomas Lipton). The enlightenment was finished off with a free pot of tea on the top floor (pic), which afforded excellent views of the rainclouds.

I had an afternoon stroll round the city's famous lakeside (pic), gamely trying to walk off my enormous lunch of a Sri Lankan special, kottu (a huge plateful of chopped-up roti with bits of, in this case, chicken). I washed it down with some fresh fruit juices: soursop and nelly.

Cricket continues to be a big thing, both in conversations and in being played out on in parks and streets. En route back to the hotel, I saw these lads playing on the pavement with a home-made bat (pic). The bowler's arm, as so many seem to do in SL, did rather stray from the linear. I resisted the temptation to call 'NO-BALL' though. Extending an arm suddenly sideways to signal it, given Kandy's upredictable surges of street traffic passing within six inches of you, would not have been a good idea.

Miles today: 8
Total miles: 242
Miles since Dondra Head: 204

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Day 11: Nuwara Eliya to Kandy

Today was a treat: 50 miles of mostly downhill – cashing in on 1400m of descent – including 20 of freewheel. There were more hairpins (pic) than in a hairpin shop that sells a lot of hairpins after a fresh delivery of hairpins.

Progress actually wasn't that fast, despite the hurtling downhill speeds of up to 30mph, because I kept stopping to admire the views (pic).

The scenery was pretty awesome all morning (pic). I stopped for breakfast at a friendly little shophouse and had fierily delicious hoppers (conical thin pancakes) and sambol (red-hot tomato and chilli salsa) and a cup of tea. The toilet was the house's own, an outside tin shed down the bottom of the garden past some chickens. It's little moments like this that delight me about bike touring. No, really.

Given the lush tea-plantation scenery all around, all this free downhill, and that 40p breakfast inside me, it's no wonder I looked happy (pic).

I got to Kandy by noon, and had time to visit the excellent Botanical Gardens on the edge of town before finding a hotel. I was particularly taken by the avenue of pine trees that look like they're staggering home after a particularly sociable party (pic). Apparently they're all wonky because their roots are weakened by chomping termites, and as they grow they get bent by the wind.

In Kandy I visited one of the city's famous dance shows (pic), which includes (for the female dancers) elegant and subtle gestures and (for the male dancers) somersaults, fire-eating and fire-walking, all accompanied by loud drums and snake-charmer wind instrument. Bewilderingly fast, noisy and danger-defying – but fun – it was curiously similar to cycling amid Kandy's traffic bedlam.

Miles today: 49
Total miles: 234
Miles since Dondra Head: 196

Friday, 23 January 2015

Day 10: Nuwara Eliya

A day off the bike exploring Nuwara Eliya today. Created by the English, it's still got a colonial feel to it: racecourse (pic), golf club, half-timbered villa houses, High Tea at the Grand Hotel (more of this later). And the A5 goes right through it, though the one from London to Holyhead probably doesn't go past many Buddhist temples.

And lawned parks: Victoria Gardens was a delight to stroll around this morning. Not quite up to, say, Harrogate's Valley Gardens, but it had a nice line in formal notices that you don't really get in England these days (pic).

In my morning forage for breakfast – or 'breakfirst' as it is often spelt here – I went past this second-hand car pitch. It also sold three-wheel taxis (pic), a snip at around £1,500. They often come with mottoes painted on. These range from the stirring ('Simple life makes a man successful') to the gloomily downbeat ('Life is Not a Flower Garden') to the commercial ('Pick Your Own Favourite Pizza!') to the engagingly realistic ('I may not be the best but I'm trying my best').

An afternoon walk round Gregory Lake (pic - hang on, wasn't he in Emerson, Lake and Palmer?) proved sociable, chatting to a couple of people about cricket, and involved more fresh fruit juice. I had a haircut too, a very professional job involving a complex series of oils, pomades and head massages, with the salon telly showing England getting caned by Australia in the cricket ODI.

Finally came that High Tea at the Grand (pic). The clientele consisted of perky young middle-class Chinese taking group selfies with sticks (75%); bored-looking middle-aged Europeans swiping through their tablet photo-library of Wildlife Park snaps (23%); and fragrant, well-coiffured cyclists in faded trousers continually ordering top-ups for their tea (2%).

All good fun (and tasty), if not exactly exuding that colonial ambience. And the brusque alacrity with which the bill arrived, unasked – before I'd even started my last cake – suggested a less than deferential attitude. I'll be glad to be back on the bike tomorrow...

Miles today: 0

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Day 9: Haputale to Nuwara Eliya

A beautiful, tranquil dawn start, with awesome views of Hill Country peaks sticking up like islands above the layer of cloud a thousand feet below (pic). Down there in the clouds, at Bandarawela, it was cool and damp and felt more like England, except my breakfast muffin from a bakery only cost 25p.

It was downhill most of the way to Ella, a touristy hill village. I was here to take the train (pic) to Nanu Oya, a famously scenic route through the mountains. It was half an hour late and took three hours to do forty miles. Sri Lankans are not impressed by Superman being able to run faster than a speeding train: most people can.

The views from the train were indeed grand, as it ambled its way round Hill Country mountainsides (pic). Though, actually, the views I've had from my bike have been better, if anything. Still, there was little excuse for all those backpackers sharing my carriage who spent the entire journey ignoring the scenery and Facebooking on their smartphones.

I left the train at Nanu Oya, and cycled up the long steep road to Nuwara Eliya, 1900m up. En route I saw this rather hopeful sale (pic). It's not the only old-fashioned British thing here: Nuwara Eliya is called 'Little England' by Sri Lanka's tourist department. I'll be here two nights, with another day out of the saddle tomorrow. As you can see, my speed is hardly breakneck. Maybe that train wasn't so slow after all.

Miles today: 21
Total miles: 185
Miles since Dondra Head: 147

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Day 8: Haputale

A rest day today, but I was still up early, rewarded by some stunning views of the hillscape mists (pic). It's chilly at night up here in Hill Country: there are actually sheets and blankets on the bed (elsewhere there's nothing), the windows had condensation this morning, and I needed my fleece to go out for breakfast. It was windy, too ‐ given the rather whiffy open drain running down the street outside my room, that's just as well.

Anyway, I took a local bus up an improbably winding and steep narrow lane to visit Dambatenne Tea Factory (pic), founded by Sir Thomas Lipton in 1890 – yes, as in Lipton's, the famous English tea, which you seem to see everywhere in the world except in England.

I had the guided tour. The factory was a spotless state-of-the-art unit full of computer-controlled robots. No, I'm joking. It was rickety, full of clanky old machines, there was no tasting, and the visitor toilet had no water at all. Or toilet paper. I had to improvise, using up the drinking water I was carrying. (I still shudder at the consequences of a similar incident in Filey in 1969, when I didn't have the serendipity of liquid on hand.)

From there I hiked 7km up to Lipton's Seat (pic), a pleasing anagram of Lipton's Teas, where Tom would apparently survey his empire. There are stunning panoramic views from the top, but more important, a tea room where I enjoyed snacks, tea, and water to replace the stuff used in the earlier emergency.

On the way back down through more tea plantations, I saw some pickers at work, picking (pic). For an eight-hour day, they earn 650 rupees (about £3.25). And I complain about writing being low paid...

Back on the bike tomorrow.

Miles today: 0

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Day 7: Balangoda to Haputale

A short distance today – just 30 miles, whatever that is in km – but very strenuous ones, into Hill Country. There was around 1500m of climb, whatever that is in feet. But the dawn start from Balangoda was a delight, cycling through sunrise rice paddies to the sound of birdsong. Lots of steady climbing, and several downhills that were exhilarating but lost all that height-gain. Though with views like this, I didn't mind too much. (pic).

We're in tea country here, a Sri Lankan speciality of course. One plantation had a cafe where you can try their product, factory-fresh (pic). It was stronger and more tannic than we're used to in England; I liked it very much. Tea-factory bike tours of Sri Lanka could rival distillery bike tours of Scotland, and you wouldn't have to worry about how much you were drinking.

On and on uphill went the road (pic), with lovely vistas over the lower-lying valleys and distant hills. They're so unused to seeing tourists here that all the stallholders selling me water, cold drinks and curries forgot to overcharge me.

I rolled up at my destination, the hilltop town of Haputale, not long after noon (pic). I checked into a hotel, where they are used to seeing tourists.

They're clearly sticklers for accuracy here, giving the elevation of the place to the nearest millimetre (pic).

Miles today: 29
Total miles: 164
Miles since Dondra Head: 126