When it comes to trainspotting, I’ve traditionally been more of the Irvine Welsh school of thought. Despite a year living in the UK when I was regularly told to mind the gap, I’ve had little interest in donning an anorak and seeking out obscure locomotives. As far as I was concerned, trains were just for transportation and, occasionally, long chats with anarchists who had day jobs making stained glass windows.
But in Sri Lanka, I’ve become an ardent trainspotter.
Partly, so one doesn’t crush me. Despite laws to the contrary, locals use the train tracks as an all-purpose footpath and cattle thoroughfare and we have followed in their footsteps. It therefore pays to have a lookout and a good working understanding of the train timetable, which any self-respecting local can rattle off for you at a moment’s notice.
“Ella to Kandy, Sir? It goes at 6. 40, 9.20. 12.30….”
But it’s more than that. It’s spectacular to stand by the side of the tracks and watch the trains pass, with locals hanging out the doorframes and waving from the windows. The train is a means to an end, but it’s also an end in itself for tourists who actively seek out vantage points from which to wield their telephoto lenses. We learn to exchange gems of trainspotting wisdom as readily as guesthouse numbers. An excitable Swedish couple tells us, “If you follow the track through the pine forest at around 7am, you’ll even see the train pass over the Nine Arch Bridge!”
All this enthusiasm, and not an anorak in sight.
Part of it is that Sri Lankan Railways still has an air of ye olde colonial glamour that you definitely don’t find on the Train Link Xplorer from Sydney to Armidale.
And then there’s the renegade adventure of it all. Michael Ondaatje (he of The English Patient) hails from Sri Lanka and has written a fantastic memoir that includes some of his father’s exploits on Ceylon Rail back in the day. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Mervyn Ondaatje was known to get drunk on the train and wave his army pistol around. On his most infamous journey, “he managed to get the driver of the train drunk as well and was finishing a bottle of gin every hour walking up and down the carriages almost naked, but keeping his shoes on this time and hitting the state of inebriation during which he would start rattling off wonderful limericks—thus keeping the passengers amused.” And this with a war on.
Not surprisingly, Mervyn was banned from Ceylon Railways in 1943. Maybe it’s not so different to the Sydney-Armidale Xplorer after all.
With all this in mind, Mr Tea and I wanted in and we decide to book train tickets from Ella to Kandy. In a country where people are almost unanimously friendly and courteous, the single guy manning the fort at Ella Station missed the customer service memo from Colombo. He’s busy chewing betel nut and watching an Indian soap opera and why we got to be so STUPID and ask HIM for a ticket when we clearly need to wait for the station master?
Betel nut chewer gets back to Bollywood and we sit around on the platform for a while.
Eventually the station master shows up, and Mr Tea asks for two first-class tickets; we’ve been warned about poultry and overflowing pit toilets. The Station Master is only marginally friendlier than his accomplice. He can offer us two third class tickets, that’s it, take it or leave it, suckers.
We are suckers, any tuktuk driver can tell you that, so we take the tickets and hand over our 800 rupee.
At 6.30am on the appointed day of departure, Mr Tea and I walk down the railway tracks to wait for the train. It’s only ten minutes late and we get on board. The seats even look like they recline; this isn’t so bad, I say.
But our fellow carriage mates wave us away – “This is second class! Not reserved!”
We head towards first class, but the ticket master sends us right back to where we belong – Third Class Reserved. Two young Sri Lankan women snigger behind their hands. “Third Class!” I hear them whisper, as we schlep our luggage down to the other end of the train.
Fortunately, Third Class has seats, a working toilet and no chickens in sight. The trip is six and a half hours at a brisk jogging pace, but it’s magic. The train rattles and clanks along to panorama after panorama: of mist floating off the top of mountains, tea plantations, waterfalls and rice paddies.
We watch a wedding party alight, dressed in elaborate saris and holding drums and bags of food. At smaller stations, local children run after the train, squealing and waving. At the larger stations, entrepreneurial types stroll the platforms, selling “Wade-Wade-Wade-Wade”, a lentil cake deep fried in coconut oil, or strips of green mango to be dipped in chilli salt. In our carriage, several families munch away on these snacks or on home made lunches of rice and curry packaged up in old homework papers.
Half way through the trip I remember that Prasanna, our hotel manager, pressed a styrofoam box of train treats into my hands at stupid o’clock. Hungry mid morning, I open it up to find sesame balls, pistachio shortbread and deep fried biscuits laden with chilli salt and cumin. It’s perfect road trip food for the perfect Sri Lankan road trip, and I get to thinking that maybe those railway enthusiasts back home are actually onto something.