Snacks on tracks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am

'Vadaivadaivadaiiii!' A low-pitched growl begins in the adjoining carriage. It gets louder and louder, stopping only when a passenger indicates a desire to buy. A raised hand or a twitch is all it takes. The seller pauses, hands over a bag of deep-fried lentil cakes, collects his coins and moves on through the train.

The antiquated but charming railway network that connects Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, in Sri Lanka's hill country, is one of the world's great train journeys. Vistas of tea plantations, colonial bungalows and dense pine forests punctuate a four-hour climb of almost 1,400 metres. However, the activity inside the train is as absorbing as the views outside.

The Hill Country service boasts a buffet car but as soon as we jolt out of Kandy station, a buffet of sorts comes to us. First an apple seller does a roaring trade tempting lowland passengers with fruit from the high country. A wizened man follows him with a department store in his basket. The de Silva family sitting next to me buy some gum, peanuts and cigarettes, then call him back for matches.

Before long the scenery reflects the higher altitude. Waterfalls gush in torrents across overhanging rocks. Fir trees surround an isolated grove of coconut that appears to be shivering and yearning for a tropical beach. Buzzards and egrets hover. Someone turns off the fan. I put on a jumper.

The procession in the aisle continues. Vendors hop on for one or two stops, tickets wedged between the merchandise, ready for inspection. A smiling woman offers spicy samosas and pakora fresh from her kitchen, still warm. Following her, a man (her husband?) sells icy bottles of cola, much needed after all the chilli. Are these people working in tandem?

A change in landscape marks our entry into tea country. Bright green bushes corduroy the hills and the flashes of colour are the saris of Tamil tea pickers. Sri Lanka is a top tea exporter so it comes as a surprise that no one on the train offers a steaming brew.

We zigzag upwards through tea estates with British-sounding names: Edinburgh, Sussex, Cameron and Glendevon. European coffee planters requested a rail network to transport their produce to Colombo for shipment. Work began in 1858.

During the 1860s, the coffee crop was decimated by disease and by the time resourceful planters had switched to growing tea, the tracks were in place. Tamil pickers originally migrated from India at harvest time but the need for permanent workers meant that families began to settle on the estates.

Two beggars work their way between carriages, one blind, the other lame. The blind girl belts out a song and receives coins and samosas. An energetic student gives a virtuoso tambourine performance. The woman next to me, lips red from a life of chewing betel nut, tells me he's raising college funds.

Stations are cleaner and more orderly as we lurch higher. The guard whistles, waves his flag and gives a mock salute at Talawakelle. A thirsty granddad buys two bottles of beer from the train vendor's close relation, the platform peddler. As we slowly chug out, there's plenty of time to count out the change.

The train snakes higher still, playing hide and seek as it weaves in and out of a succession of tunnels. Youngsters whoop and shriek as the compartment lights fail, plunging us into darkness. The Pool Bank tunnel, at 651 metres the longest in Sri Lanka, leaves us blind for a full two minutes. Red Lips fondles me in the dark - but only because she's trying to find her pineapple slices.

We find ourselves in the clouds at Hatton but the poor visibility and drizzle relent in time for me to photograph St Clair Falls, which plunge 120 metres in two stages. By now there's standing room only and the throng in third class is filtering through to our second-class car. I can see passengers hanging precariously out of the carriage doors to escape the crush; swaying back inside each time we approach a tunnel.

The de Silvas are still busy buying. They stock up on more peanuts, a large bag of pears and some jaggery or unrefined palm sugar. Mr de Silva knows his up-country stations and reels off a few to impress me.

'Watawala, Watagoda, Ambewela, Idalgashinna,' he chants, his tongue flicking in and out like a lizard catching its prey. He could be listing the Sri Lankan cricket team for all I know. Luckily I only have to remember one name: Nanu Oya, which is the nearest stop to Nuwara Eliya.

Just when I'm sure the de Silvas have bought everything on the train, a bookseller arrives with what sounds like an irresistible sales pitch. No one is biting though. Rather than give up, the determined hawker breaks into a song that resonates through the compartment. His change of tack works. Mr de Silva succumbs and buys a Sinhalese-English dictionary and some Buddhist literature.

The last few kilometres prove the steepest of all. The train seems to pause at stations to get its breath back rather than to pick up passengers. The logistical difficulties faced by colonial railway engineers must have been immense - Nanu Oya station is 1,613 metres above sea level.

A short taxi ride completes my journey to misty Nuwara Eliya. Dubbed 'Little England', this was where the British came to escape the heat of the lowlands. It's easy to forget where you are - the mock-Tudor timbering, olde-style post office and chilly breeze are more reminiscent of a country far away.

Keen to experience a cosy log fire at the equator, I track down a guesthouse just as the sun is setting. The smiling owner comes down the steps to meet me.

'Do you need anything to eat?' he asks.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific. com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Colombo's Bandaranaike airport. Taxis from the airport to Kandy cost 7,000 rupees (HK$475) and take about 21/2 hours. Trains from Colombo Fort Station to Kandy take about three hours.