Five favourite travel books: Asia and the Middle East

I’m not Asia’s greatest fan. Though you’ll find some of the world’s most fascinating natural and cultural sights, I find it irritating that they’re buried amidst jumbles of telephone wires and that reaching them often involves darting out in front of more motorbikes than it should ever be possible to encounter on one road. Nevertheless, I enjoy reading about the place, when I can filter out the bits that I don’t like to be left with a vibrant and enticing locale. There are exceptions, however, and one is most definitely Sri Lanka. I visited last year and cannot wait to return.

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries

Tea planter

It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, to learn that one of my choices is a work of fiction. The story is enthralling but most of all, it captures the essence of the country in which it’s set. Here’s one of my favourite descriptions from the book:

“She took a deep breath of what she’d expected would be salty air, and marvelled at the scent of something stronger than salt.
“What is that?” she said as she turned to look at the man, who, she rightly sensed, had not shifted from the spot.
He paused and sniffed deeply.  “Cinnamon and probably sandalwood.”
“There’s something sweet.”
“Jasmine flowers.  There are many flowers in Ceylon.”
“How lovely,” she said.  But even then, she knew it was more than that.  Beneath the seductive scent there was an undercurrent of something sour.
“Bad drains too, I’m afraid.”
She nodded.  Perhaps that was it.”

For some reason, though this scene takes place in Colombo, it feels to me like it should be set in Galle Fort. Quite possibly that’s because I grabbed the first train out of Colombo to head for the hill country and quite possibly because Galle Fort oozes history, spice and sewage from every cobblestoned street.

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson


My next choice focuses on an Asian country I also love: Japan. Travelling through Japan ought to have been a challenge, what with the different alphabet and all, but the Japanese go out of their way to make sure they can understand you, even if the conversation can get a little stilted. Here’s the author on the art of Japanese conversation:

“This was conversation by Non Sequitur and I was thoroughly familiar with it by now. The trick was to answer with equally arbitrary statements, until you sound like a couple of spies conversing in code.
“Yes, I can eat Japanese food. Baltimore is very big.”
“How long will you stay in Japan?”
“Until tomorrow, forever. It is very cold in Baltimore.”
He shook my hand. We smiled warmly at each other, clearly this was an International Moment.”

Fortunately, when I reached Kyushu, the lady in the tourist office at Yanagawa defaulted to technology when she realised our language abilities were sorely lacking. Video conferencing with a disembodied head on her computer, I was able to secure a map and a recommendation for lunch. The head seemed very disappointed that I had no further questions and I felt guilty as I thanked it and headed off.

Three Moons in Vietnam by Maria Coffey


Years ago, I found myself sleeping in Michael Caine’s bed. He wasn’t in it, of course – of course! – but he had stayed in that same room and slept in that same bed while filming The Quiet American. The bed was located in Hoi An, in an old Chinese chophouse that had been converted into a guest house. Despite that it heaves with tourists (more so now, I understand, than when I was there) I found Hoi An to be a wonderfully atmospheric place. Maria Coffey describes the place thus:

“It was no problem to while away some time in Hoi An. We explored the fish market along the river bank, where women vendors smoking fat hand-rolled cigarettes squabbled nastily and noisily with each other.”

I don’t remember any squabbling, but I do remember the noise.

Mirror to Damascus by Colin Thubron


On to the Middle East now, and a book set in a city whose history stretches back seven millennia, giving me hope that when the present conflict ends, the city will rebuild and restore. I visited shortly before the war kicked off and was enchanted by the place and its people. Clad in what felt like a mediaeval cloak, I marvelled at the Umayyad Mosque; free of my robes, I haggled in the tiny shops on Straight Street and never felt unsafe in the streets of its old town, even late into the night. In his book, Thubron tackles some of the city’s history:

“Some cities oust or smother their past. Damascus lives in hers.”

Here’s to when Damascus can live freely again.

The 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames


My final choice is another reminder that time changes everything. Mention Baghdad now and the Iraqi capital is still, to many, a place that instils fear instead of hope. But less than a century ago in 1928, none other than Agatha Christie made the journey from London to Baghdad by train. Her route took her through Syria, where she frequently stayed at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo. (Rumour has it that this historic hotel, which I visited but didn’t overnight in, has so far survived the war almost unscathed.)

Eames quotes the 1928 edition of the Thomas Cook handbook which “advises customers packing for Syria that “There is nothing better for travelling than a suit of Scottish tweed, supplemented by an ulster or other warm overcoat and a good waterproof.” The author had probably never ventured further than Ramsgate.”

Times change and for some places, that’s a good thing.

A beginner’s guide to the Trans-Siberian

I love a good train trip and the ultimate in rail journeys has surely got to be the Trans-Siberian in some form or another.  If you’re thinking of crossing Russia by train, I’d suggest doing some background reading beforehand to get your head around what seems like a complex trip but in reality is more straightforward than it looks.


What is the Trans-Siberian?

Some people wrongly believe that the Trans-Siberian is one single luxury train.  It’s not.  It’s one of several long distance routes that stretch across Russia.  Generalising a little, there are three main routes: the Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Manchurian and the Trans-Mongolian.  Following each of these routes, it is possible to travel on a single train, but most people stop off along the way to explore some of Russia’s great sights – and see something of Mongolia and China as well, perhaps.


Trans-Siberian route (Courtesy of Ertmann and Profil CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia)

How long will I need?

To follow the classic route from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east without stops will take 6 days.  If you plan to do this, you’ll need to book the Rossiya train (number 1 or 2 depending on the direction you take).  Extending your journey , you could begin (or end) in St Petersburg rather than Moscow, which are connected by an overnight train taking about 8-9 hours, or the high speed Sapsan train which covers the distance in about 4 hours.  Personally, I’d allow at least a couple of days to scratch the surface of Moscow or St Petersburg, though it’s easy to spend more time in either.  To cover the whole route with a few meaningful stops, it’s best to allow a couple of weeks, more if you can.  And of course, you can do the whole trip overland with connecting trains via Paris and a route that takes you through Berlin, Warsaw and Minsk.


What was my itinerary?

Mine is, of course, by no means the definitive tour.  On these three routes, it’s easy to tailor your journey according to your own personal preferences.  I flew from London City airport to Moscow as at the time I booked, this worked out cheapest.  When I planned my trip, I’d already been to Beijing, so I opted for the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, leaving the Trans-Siberian on the map above at Ulan-Ude and heading south to the border.


I stopped at Vladimir (for Suzdal and the Golden Ring) and then Perm (to visit one of Stalin’s notorious gulags).  I skipped the popular stop at Yekaterinburg for reasons of time, though I’d like to visit next time, making the journey from Perm to Irkutsk in one go (a little under three days and over 3000 miles) as I wanted to experience a multi-night trip.


I had a couple of days at Irkutsk so I could visit Listvyanka at Lake Baikal before reboarding a train to cross over into Mongolia.  Having seen a little of the Mongolian capital and surrounding countryside, I then retraced my steps to Ulan-Ude from where I caught a flight back to Moscow with budget airline S7 – a six and a half hour domestic flight which gives you some idea of the country’s vast size.  This worked out considerably cheaper than finding a single leg fare to Moscow and home from UB.  In all, the train tickets cost me about £500, with flights adding about £350 to the total.

Is it easy to do as an independent traveller?

Yes and no.  I’m a big fan of independent travel, not only for the cost savings, but also for the flexibility it gives me to tailor the itinerary to suit my exact requirements.  But I’m also not a Russian speaker and I felt I needed support with the booking process to ensure I ended up with the right tickets for the right trains.  As you can see from the ticket below, it’s not at all easy to understand not only a different language but a different alphabet as well.


Due to the complexities of the railway ticketing system plus visa considerations, I decided to use a single specialist travel agent for those two aspects of my trip.  As is my usual style, I booked my own flights, accommodation and most of my sightseeing myself; the exception was a private tour to Perm-36 Gulag which I also outsourced.


The company I used at the time was Real Russia.


Their website has a dedicated Trans-Siberian section which enables you to check train times, suss out possible routes, check prices and order visas.  It’s clear and in my experience the support offered by the team was excellent.  All my tickets were sent in good time with English translations, the visa process was uncomplicated and every aspect of the trip that they’d arranged went according to plan – which was more than could be said for some of my own bits:



Since switching careers, I’ve done a lot of work for Just Go Russia, another London-based agency specialising in Russia, and they are always extremely efficient.  If you’re looking for a tour, they do offer a wide range of options.  You can find them here:


Even if you don’t end up booking a tour, it’s a good way of getting an overview of the route and whittling down the options about where to stop off.  Another source of information is The Man in Seat 61, my starting point for every train trip I’m planning outside the UK.  There’s a good overview here:


What’s it like on the train?

Each of the trains I took was a little different.  I “warmed up” on the short leg from Moscow to Vladimir and this was a regular seated train.  From Vladimir heading east, some of the long distance trains leave in the middle of the night, so I opted for one departing early evening which arrived after lunch the following day.  The overnight trains varied considerably in terms of speed and quality, something that is reflected in the price.  Another thing to factor in if travelling in Russia’s hot summer is that the air-conditioning is turned off when you stop at the border and the windows of such carriages don’t open; more basic trains have windows that can be pulled down to let in a breeze.  (In winter, in case you’re wondering, the trains are heated.)

Some compartments featured luxury velour seating, others were more basic, such as the one I travelled on from Perm to Irkutsk.  In my opinion, that didn’t really matter as I followed the lead of my compartment companions (all Russians) and stretched out on a made bed all the way rather than converting it back to a seat.  When I did the Irkutsk-UB leg, the train was more luxurious, those sharing the compartment were all tourists like me and we all sat up during the daytime.  To be honest, I liked the native approach best.


In all cases, I opted for second-class tickets which provided comfortable accommodation though no en-suite facilities.  The logic to this was that as a solo female traveller I didn’t want to be alone in a compartment with a single man and the first-class compartments came as two-berth not four-berth kupe.  I shared with three men from Perm to Irkutsk but as everyone sleeps in their clothes nothing untoward happened and actually I was well looked after by one of them in particular, a Russian army officer heading on to Chita.

What should I pack?

As you are likely to sleep in your clothes then picking something comfortable like jogging bottoms and a loose T-shirt is a good idea, though clearly you won’t win any fashion awards.  Who cares?  I found it helpful to pack changes of clothes (socks, underwear and T-shirts) in a day pack so I could store my suitcase under the bed and forget about it.  In terms of footwear, most of the locals seemed to favour blue flip-flops with white socks. Slip on shoes of some form are convenient to help keep your bedding free of dust picked up from the floor.

When I travelled, the bathroom facilities were pretty basic so I would definitely recommend taking lots of wet wipes and also a can of dry shampoo.  It’s amazing how clean you can get yourself in a small cubicle with just a small sink.  These days, most Russian overnight trains have a special services car with a pay-to-use shower which would have been great.  You do need your own towel, but I use a special travel towel which folds up small and dries fast.  I won mine in a competition but you can get something similar here:


In terms of sustenance, each compartment has a provodnitsa, a carriage attendant who keeps order and makes sure the rooms are hoovered.  She also keeps a samovar boiling from which you can get hot water to make tea, noodles or soup, so I packed some of these too.


There’s a restaurant car as well and at station stops, despite the queues there was often enough time to nip off to buy food from the platform vendors, so carry enough small change for these kind of purchases.  Finally, it’s a long way.  Although batteries can be charged (though sometimes in the corridor on older trains) I’d pack an old fashioned paperback to read or carry a pack of cards to entertain yourself.  It’s also true that a bottle of vodka can break the ice though some compartments sounded more raucous late at night than others – the luck of the draw!  I also had a copy of the Trans-Siberian Handbook (as opposed to the Lonely Planet which I would usually take) because the level of detail about what you’ll see out of the train window was much better.


Anything else I should know?

One of the things I was most worried about before I set off was missing a train or missing a stop.  In the event, neither of these were an issue.  At the station, huge signboards helped identify where the train might pull in and showing the ticket and smiling a lot got me escorted to many a carriage door.  The trains run on Moscow time which can be a little confusing at first, but there are timetables up in the corridors and even on the longer legs I usually knew roughly where I was.  A phrase book helped me decipher the Cyrillic; my technique was to focus on just the first two or three letters rather than trying to remember the whole name.  Thus Suzdal became CY3 etc.  The train provodnitsas were very good at giving their passengers plenty of warning when their stop was imminent and so I managed to get across Russia without incident.

I never felt unsafe during my trip but I would say that you need to be a bit savvy when it comes to your valuables.  Keep your passport and money with you, don’t flash around expensive cameras or laptops but equally, don’t get too paranoid.

Would I do it again?


Yes!  The scenery at times was monotonous but that was missing the point.  The adventure was in the interactions with people on the train; the sightseeing came after I alighted at the station.  Next time I think I’ll begin in St Petersburg, detour to Kazan and make that visit to Yekaterinburg before heading east to Vladivostok.  Now where did I put that Trans-Siberian handbook?

Checking in to come home, Russian style


I stood, motionless, in the middle of the crowded space. People came and went around me. Some queued, others waited patiently next to piles of luggage, still more hugged relatives in emotional goodbyes. For all the world, it looked like a regular airport, going about regular airport business. I reckon I’ve been to thousands of airports in my time, striding confidently across halls, dealing with airport officials, polite on the outside even if seething on the inside at petty officiousness and stupid rules. I’m no fan of airports, you understand, but they are a necessary evil to get me to somewhere exotic and exciting.

But this one had me stumped. For the first time, I couldn’t find check-in.

How do you lose check-in? How is it possible not to see row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts, with their maze of retractable queue barriers that make you pace this way and that like a caged lion? How do you lose the planeloads of people that must have got to the airport before you as your flight is going out late afternoon?

Like a detective, I scoured the room for clues. The space was devoid of signage, even in Russian. I couldn’t see anyone holding a boarding card and most people still had large suitcases. Was I in arrivals, I wondered? I headed back outside. The sign read “Departures”.

Back inside, I started to ask fellow passengers but drew only blank looks. Pointing at my suitcase and shrugging my shoulders in a kind of a “what do I do with this?” mime wasn’t working. Pointing at the airport page in my phrase book and again at my suitcase wasn’t working. I glanced at my watch. At this rate I’d miss my plane.

Half an hour before, I’d been so relaxed. Russia, so daunting at first, had lost its ability to intimidate. My vocabulary was still limited to a dozen words (and only then if “Big Mac Meal” counts) but I’d learnt to match the Cyrillic alphabet to their Latin translation which was enough to make a quiz game out of most days’ activities. The people I’d met on the numerous trains and buses that had transported me 3500 miles across the Russian steppe to Ulan-Ude had, without exception, been helpful and charming. For three days, Aleksandr, the Russian Army officer headed for Chita, had fed me omul for breakfast on the slow train to Irkutsk, asking nothing in return save for a compliment about his red-haired wife in the photo album he carried in his kit bag. That same smoked fish hung in the market in Listvyanka, a tumbledown village on the shores of Lake Baikal. An elderly woman, head covered with a colourful babushka, pointed out the sights from the bus and used my phrase book to explain she was off to buy crystals.

I thought about her, in the airport terminal, and cursed my phrase book. What editor would include the word for crystal but not check-in? It was hot in the hall, and I wiped my brow with the back of my hand. I was starting to panic. The voice inside my head told me to calm down. I still had twenty minutes before check-in closed. There was a queue forming at the far side of the room and I joined the end of it. My question about whether this was the check-in queue leapfrogged up the queue like a Chinese whisper. Back came the answer – no.

No? No?!!!

I turned away from the queue and the mutterings of its occupants. I was running out of ideas. Now I started to mentally re-plan my journey home. If I couldn’t fly back to Moscow, I’d have to take the train, a four or five day trip. I’d miss my Moscow connection and have to pay for a new flight. More than that, I’d have to suffer the humiliation of telling friends and family the reason I’d missed my flight and suffer months of good natured ridicule.

Indignant, I thought to myself that no airport was going to beat me. I scanned the hall again. Along one side, there was a blank white wall. It looked like a recently-erected partition, free of scuffs and scratches, though I couldn’t be sure. I wheeled my case over for a closer look. On inspection, there appeared to be a concealed doorway. I knocked and waited. A businessman in a hurry pushed his way past me and through the door. I looked through, of course, to find out what was behind it.

There before me stood row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts. I made check-in with five minutes to spare.

When it isn’t OK to post a bad review

Recently I stayed in a hotel very close to Colombo’s airport, the Otha Shy Airport Hotel. The Sri Lankan capital is some distance away, and as I had a late arrival followed by a morning onward flight, I was more focused on location than quality. I took a cursory look at some reviews but didn’t bother with much more.  The price was reasonable, it looked clean and I wasn’t going to have to spend an hour in traffic worrying whether I’d miss my flight.

On arrival, at nearly midnight following a delayed flight, the person manning reception was pleasant and efficient. He gave me a complimentary bottle of water and a working WiFi code. The room was spotless and I had a comfortable night’s sleep. I woke reasonably early and half an hour or so later I became aware of some persistent hammering from the floor above. I wasn’t too worried, as I was about to check out anyway.

On check out, the reason became apparent: the ground floor was complete but the first floor was a scaffolding-clad building site. Never mind: the owner was still charm personified and despite his late night, gave me a free lift to the airport about ten minutes up the road.

Curious, I checked the reviews. Most were very positive.  Here’s what Trip Advisor has to say: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g2550421-d8656795-Reviews-Otha_Shy_Airport_Hotel-Katunayaka_Western_Province.html#review_361396695 and here are the reviews on Booking.com: http://www.booking.com/hotel/lk/otha-shy-airport.en-gb.html#tab-reviews.

The owner was very enthusiastic about his expansion plans and convinced that the building work would be completed this month (April 2016).  He was the kind of man you want to root for; he had a dream and was determined to realise it.  What’s nice is that the lack of poor reviews means that the people that have stayed there while construction is underway get that.  I can’t imagine there being much leeway in his budget, so he’d need bookings for his ground floor rooms despite the noise or disruption.  A few bad reviews could scupper his dreams.

I’m not in the habit of destroying someone’s chances to improve themselves.  Mr Nalaka, I wish you every success with your business and if I return to Sri Lanka, I’ll be booking my old room.

A beginner’s guide to Sri Lankan railways

One of the unquestionable highlights of touring Sri Lanka is a journey by rail. The network is extensive and links many of the country’s must-see destinations. There are many tour companies who offer itineraries based around train travel, but these can be expensive and prescriptive. If you prefer to go it alone, here’s my guide to getting around by train.

Sri Lanka's hill country is easily explored by train

Sri Lanka’s hill country is easily explored by train

Planning is everything

Although trains link many of the country’s cities and towns, there are gaps. I planned a circular route beginning at Colombo Fort station, heading inland to Kandy, then up into the highlands to Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya) and then on to Ella. Separately, I rode the stretch of track from Weligama to Galle from where you can catch a train back up to Colombo.

Some of the faces I saw while waiting to board

Some of the faces I saw while waiting to board

Arranging a driver for the gaps

To visit the lofty palace at Sigiriya, I hired a car and driver for the day, stopping off on the way back at an elephant sanctuary. There’s no rail link between Ella and the south coast either, so again, I hired a car and driver. This time I stopped off half way to take an elephant safari at Uda Walawe. Although I could have picked up a train at Matara, I chose to book the driver to Galle so I wouldn’t have to clock watch all day. Drivers were arranged as I went along, either through the hotel or via a taxi driver at a station. Costs aren’t excessive by UK standards. To travel from Galle to the airport via the fast expressway costs around 11000 rupees including tolls (about £55).

Seeing the elephants at Uda Walawe requires a car as the rail network doesn't extend to that part of the country

Seeing the elephants at Uda Walawe requires a car as the rail network doesn’t extend to that part of the country

To book or not to book?

Some trains can be reserved online and you may wish to book these trains for the beginning and end of your trip if you want to be sure of making connections. Depending on how long you allow at each stop, you should be fine to just purchase your other tickets as you go along, unless you’re travelling in a large group or at a holiday time.

Tickets are easily purchased on the way; my advice is to call in at the station a few days ahead of travel

Tickets are easily purchased on the way; my advice is to call in at the station a few days ahead of travel

Where did I get my tickets?

I caught the Rajhadani Express from Colombo Fort to Kandy; a reserved seat in air-conditioned first class cost 1100 rupees (less than £6). It was straightforward to book online. Seats become available two weeks prior to departure and you just need to make a note of your reservation number. On arrival at Colombo airport, as you exit into the tour and taxi desk hall, you’ll see a Mobitel counter right by the door. They will print your ticket for you on production of your reservation number and passport. Alternatively, you can do this when you get to the station.

The Rajhadani Express

The Rajhadani Express

It wasn’t what you’d call luxury by European standards but the fat leather seats and padded arm rests were comfortable. The train lurches around a lot so whichever carriage you opt for it’s not going to be a relaxing ride, however. Expo Rail bookings work in a similar way to the Rajhadani Express with their own dedicated website. However, departures with these two companies are limited and may not fit in with your plans. You can check the online schedule on the Sri Lanka Railways website for a full list of trains operating on the days you wish to travel.

Booking regular trains

Whether or not you can book other trains in advance depends on whether the train has any reserved seat carriages or not. Following up on a recommendation from the Man in Seat 61’s excellent website, I booked the Kandy to Nanu Oya leg with Visit Sri Lanka Tours, a UK based travel agent. They were efficient and most importantly, the reservation number they sent me was recognised at Kandy station when I went to collect the ticket. Obviously they charge a premium for this service, but their rates were not exorbitant.

If a web connection eludes you, use the station timetables

If a web connection eludes you, use the station timetables

Reserved carriages can be first, second or third class. First class isn’t necessarily air-conditioned but can be. Don’t expect luxury; it’s more about space than quality. Second class usually has four seats per row, overhead fans and windows that fully open, while third class is more crowded with six seats per row.

First class carriage

First class carriage

Second class carriage

Second class carriage

When I booked the train from Kandy to Nanu Oya second class was full so I bought a first class ticket for 1000 rupees (about £5). I was told that sometimes additional reserved seating is released at the last minute at a premium price. If at first you’re told the train is full, it might therefore be worth asking again the day before. This strategy worked for a London couple I met on the train whose driver procured second class reserved tickets at the last minute.

Or ride at the door...

Or ride at the door…

For at least half the journey I rode by the door as it was more social and I could take better photographs from the open doorway. I tried not to think about health and safety too much, but definitely held on tight. One jolt and I could have been offering myself as extra labour in a trackside tea plantation.

Great views from the open doors for photographers

Great views from the open doors for photographers

From Nanu Oya to Ella a first-class observation car had been attached to the back of a train mostly hauling freight but with a couple of unreserved passenger cars also. I wouldn’t say the view out of the dirty observation window was much to write home about, for photographers at least, but the windows did open fully making for some fantastic scenic shots from my seat and a welcome breeze too.

Station master just outside Ella station

Station master just outside Ella station

On the Weligama to Galle hop, I just bought a ticket on the day as there was no allocated seating on that local train. It cost 60 rupees (about 30p) and I just found a seat when the train pulled in.

As it was a middle of the day departure, it wasn’t crowded, but on some peak time services the advice from the station master was that to get a seat, you may have to fight. I didn’t like the sound of that for the Galle to Colombo leg of my trip which I would have had to make at rush hour with luggage, so I opted to hire a car and driver instead. Had my schedule permitted, I could however have pre-booked an afternoon train with a reserved seat, just not a morning one.

Boys running for their train at Colombo Fort station

Boys running for their train at Colombo Fort station

And one last piece of advice…

All tickets are collected on exit so make sure you keep your print out (reserved seating) or little cardboard ticket (regular seating) safe throughout the journey. My ticket was checked en route by an inspector on the Rajhadani Express but not on subsequent trains.

Elephant spotting in Uda Walawe

Uda Walawe National Park is home to the largest concentration of elephants in Sri Lanka.  It was created in 1972 and centres on the Uda Walawe reservoir.  Although in March there was quite dense vegetation on the way in to the park, it thinned by the lake shore and thus made it easier to see wildlife.  At first, sightings were limited to a few monitor lizards and birds, neither of which excited me much.  But at the lake, a couple of herons were pottering about in the shadows seemingly oblivious to the crocodile skulking behind them.  In the middle distance, some water buffalo wallowed.

But I’d come to see the elephants, said to number around six hundred, making it the best place to view them in the country.  Easily seen year-round, herds can number over fifty but the largest family group I saw was eleven, still impressive.  Our first sighting, a mother with two juveniles, was entertaining.  They took a stroll down to the lake where the youngest couldn’t wait to relieve himself in the water.  Toilet taken care of, it could bathe happily before the trio wandered back into the bush.

As we drove along the lake shore dirt track, a lone adolescent  passed us at close range, near enough to leave us in no doubt that he was a male.  Unperturbed by the camera clicking, he ambled past towards the lake.

In the vegetation, the thick leaves can provide excellent camouflage, but the guide was equally skilled in locating the wildlife.  This was our closest encounter, though fortunately the creature was very docile and didn’t warn us off.

A herd of eleven including two babies was the highlight of the drive.  One infant looked to be just three months old or thereabouts, with the other perhaps six months.  It’s always delightful to see how the older members of the family protect the youngest when they’re on the move, keeping the babies close by but placing themselves between infant and safari vehicle just in case.

There are other species to keep the elephants company, and I saw plenty of water buffalo and in the distance, a couple of spotted deer.  A family of monkeys swung in the branches of a tree and amongst the birds I recognised were a grey heron and a kingfisher by a lake so full of green algae it was hard to decide which was the most vibrant in colour.  Leopards are said to be present in small numbers though I wasn’t lucky enough to encounter one.

While some people stay at one of the nearby hotels or guesthouses, I took a game drive en route from Ella to Galle.  The three hour stop was a welcome diversion from sitting in the car.  My driver arranged a safari jeep within minutes and it cost about £45 for a private excursion with Wild Safari Service including all entrance fees.  Be prepared to haggle.


Tea time in the Hill Country

I expected tea picking to be difficult. Working in the sun on scarily steep slopes for eight hours wouldn’t be my choice of job and certainly not for the 600 rupee (£3) daily wage that these industrious women earn.

Tea pickers off to work

Tea pickers off to work

Learning that the Heritance Tea Factory offered a tea plucking and tasting activity, I jumped at the chance to try my hand. The slopes carpeted with squat tea bushes were relatively gentle compared to those I’d seen from the train on the way in and thickening cloud promised to deal with the heat issue.

Weather changes fast in the hills

Weather changes fast in the hills

The staff at the Heritance kitted out their small but enthusiastic team of volunteers in suitable attire: saris for the women and sarongs for the men. Raising my arms, my dresser tied a string snugly around my waist, into which she tucked a carefully pleated sari. Six metres of fabric is expertly tied to create an elegantly flowing dress, pinned across one shoulder to ensure modesty isn’t neglected.

The basket for collecting leaves

The basket for collecting leaves

Elegant, that is, until I moved. Sadly walking in a long dress without tripping had never been a skill I’d mastered and squeezing my way through the tiniest of gaps between tea bushes only compounded my clumsiness. Unhooking me from a stray piece of barbed wire, our guide led me to the plucking area and demonstrated which leaves to pick.

The guide showed us which leaves to pluck

The guide showed us which leaves to pluck

Get it wrong and the tea will be useless.

Tea, glorious tea!

Tea, glorious tea!

As I started to pick what I hoped were the softer, greener leaves I wished I’d paid closer attention to those deftly thrown into the basket by the expert. My basket, with an optimistic capacity of 3kg given we were only out here for half an hour, looked pathetically empty, despite the guide’s surreptitious efforts to sneak a few handfuls of her leaves in when my attention was diverted.

Not much to show for my efforts

Not much to show for my efforts

No shortage of tea bushes

No shortage of tea bushes

The bag attached with a wide canvas strap across my forehead. As I bent over to pick, it swung a little, needing the weight of some leaves to hold it steady. That strap seemed to have a mind of its own, alternating between slipping down onto my glasses and wriggling up to form a Sixties’ style beehive. Eventually, I gave up and balanced the basket on the ground. It wasn’t quite what was expected but at least I could fling in a few more leaves before my shift ended to save face.

The area surrounding Heritance is stunning

The area surrounding Heritance is stunning

It was hard to concentrate given the beauty of the landscape surrounding the hotel – and indeed, it’s own well-tended gardens. The Heritance Tea Factory has a long history. Its original owner was a man called William Flowerdew who bought the land in 1879, only a decade or so after tea bushes were introduced to Sri Lanka by Scot James Taylor.

Heritance Tea Factory

Heritance Tea Factory

Flowerdew named his factory Hethersett, producing around half a million kilos of tea each year for decades.

Machinery from the factory still in place

Machinery from the factory still in place

The factory buildings were modernised in 1937 but the factory closed, no longer economic, in 1973. Fortunately, it soon underwent a sympathetic restoration: much of the factory machinery remains in situ to make this what surely must be a unique hotel and, with attentive staff, a delight in which to stay.

The table laid for tea tasting; flavour and strength are determined only by how small the leaves have been ground

The hotel has its own tea bar; flavour and strength are determined only by how small the leaves have been ground

The fact that they serve a decent cuppa – well, that’s just a bonus.

Hands off the Flowery Pekoe!

Hands off the Flowery Pekoe!