Cycle Touring in Sri Lanka 6: Ten days on me tod – Part 2

Photo - New career option
New career paths opening up

I left you in Part 1 having just ridden 89km from Kandy to Dalhousie and then climbed the 5300 steps up and back down Adam’s Peak. My legs were in a right state. I hit the sack hoping to at least get 30km down the road to Hatton the following day.

I woke up not much better, and after a hearty breakfast slung a leg over the bike to find things really were pretty bad. An hour down the road though, and I was absolutely astonished that my legs were loosening up quite nicely, so I passed the turning for Hatton and headed towards the hills – only a bit up and then a long way down I thought – and Balangoda. This ended up being a seriously enjoyable ride – the roads weren’t great but the scenery was, and the people I came across were really lovely; the tea-picking ladies shouted hello and laughed at me heartily, the schoolchildren looked joyful instead of murderous when they chased me down the road, and things were generally great. I could look back for the first two hours of the ride and see Adam’s Peak towering over the rest of the scenery too, which was good for the pride!

Photo: Adam's Peak
Adams Peak from 2 hours away

As I crossed the top of the mountains, the scenery spread out below me and the weather changed dramatically; gone was the cool(ish), clear mountain air, and here was hot, humid, misty jungle. So I did the decent thing – I ate a banana and gave it hammer and tongs down the twisty mountain road through the tea plantations, forests and villages for the next hour. Absolutely brilliant. The road was still really poor in places, but following the principle that the faster you go the more you skim across the top (tenuous, and not a recommended strategy on a loaded touring bike) Wiggins and I decided it that things were going well, and cracked on. Any doubts I had about the suitability of my wheels, the strength of my pannier racks and the effectiveness of my brakes (will the discs overheat?! No!) are now gone. I stopped when a bird of prey parked up in a tree next to the road for a look around (see pic!) before its pal turned up and they went for a flap about together, which was rather lovely. I then carried on giving it the full Steve Peat (You do know the 3 x Downhill World Cup Champ from Sheffield? This was more Steve Peat on a touring bike, mind) into the scenery below.

Photo - Balangoda Raptor
Balangoda Bird of Prey

By the time I got to my intended stop for the night, I was on a bit of a high despite a bus load of sneery teenage schoolkids, and after a couple of bananas (King bananas – twice the price, but REALLY nice!) and a coconut I decided that I may as well push on another 45km to Ratnapura. It was a bit of a dull grind along a reasonably flat A-road, thankfully. I slept really well that night, having done 135km and eaten a tasty dinner in the Guest House, served by a man who wanted me to sponsor him to come to the UK so he could share in our plentiful work opportunities and fabulous easy wealth.

That push to Ratnapura had put me in a position to get to the surf town of Hikkaduwa the next day. I got there, but only after a surprise mountain range (a bit bigger than the Pennines, so not sure how I missed it), a detour on a road so minor that it turned into a dirt track that you couldn’t have driven down, another detour due to a bridge shown on google maps but not yet completed, and a minor altercation with a tuk tuk driver. He cut me up really badly, I yelled obscenities that he presumably didn’t understand, he came past again later and actually apologised! How often do drivers – let alone taxi drivers – do that at home? Especially once you’ve already yelled the obscenities? This should have been a 120km day, but ended up being 140km due to all the navigational errors. I was bushed.

Photo - The bridge that was not
Not a bridge

This was also the day when I heard that Linds hadn’t got the job that she’d flown home for. Bad times! She got to final interview and the school had nothing negative to say about her. They told her that they couldn’t choose between her and another candidate so went for the other on the grounds that they had been teaching for longer. She was really gutted to have missed out for such a weak reason having gone to such lengths to get to the interview, but hey ho. She’s seen her parents, her sister, niece and nephew and all our friends, and she’s still a brilliant teacher so no doubt she will end up with a cracking job even if there’s a bit of supply work to get through first. And if she hadn’t gone for it, we’d always have said what if.

The two days R&R I earned myself in Hikkaduwa by getting there a day earlier than I expected got off to a slow start, mainly because I very quickly remembered that I have very little interest in sitting on beaches when I’m with my wife, and absolutely none without her. Fortunately I had the distraction of Kingfisher Airlines cancelling our flight to India due to their declining fortunes, so got busy very quickly booking another. At the moment they’re saying that we’ll get the money back, but I’ll believe that when I see it! After that I wandered to a local rotti shop for lunch, found a beachside bar that could give me a surf lesson the next day when my wobbly jelly legs were better, and spent the afternoon on the laptop sipping Lion Beer and watching the surfers. After a spot of dinner at another excellent local rotti shop run by a nice young chap called Eranda, I went back to the Guesthouse and sat down to read, feeling a bit lonely to be honest, and rather wishing I had my wife back. It was the first day I’d stopped for long enough to think about it.

I went back to Eranda’s rotti shop for brunch the next day, and it turned out that Eranda had a good mate called Pasanda who could teach me to surf for a slightly lower rate than the bar down the road. Bingo. Especially as this meant that my first attempt at surfing wouldn’t be outside the hippin-hoppin-happening surf bar where everyone was too cool for school, and were either great at surfing already, or so young, tanned and sexy that they looked great trying even if they were rubbish. I signed up on the spot, and wandered down to his Uncle’s surf shop with Pasanda to collect my board. There are probably several models of ironing board that would have been better than this thing. One fin was hanging off broken, the whole thing was clearly ancient and about as smooth and flat as the local B roads, and it had seen more repairs than I’ve seen rice and curries in the last 7 weeks. And not all of them were successful – there was a particularly large jagged piece of fibreglass sticking out of the top of the board at exactly the place where my sternum was when I was paddling it. It turned out not to be too important though, because after 20 minutes of utter basics, the waves which I’d been watching since arriving in Hikkaduwa nearly 48 hours previous, just stopped. We agreed to reconvene later that day at high tide for another attempt.

Photo - Worst surfboard in Sri Lanka
The worst surfboard in Sri Lanka?

At high tide my teacher Pasanda didn’t show up, and Eranda was so embarrassed that he invited me to his house for a beer. I happily accepted the offer before getting the heeby-jeebies in the tuk-tuk on the way there, and texting all the details I could think of to Linds so at least someone knew where to look for a body. Ridiculous, of course – I enjoyed splendid hospitality from Eranda and his wife and Mother, including dry fried fish, fresh jack-fruit from the garden, and when they realised how impressed I was with that I got a full tour of the garden and the fruit growing therein – coconut, pineapple, jack-fruit, and several others I don’t know the English (or indeed, the Sinhala) for. After two Lion beers, I was feeling a bit merry and poor old Eranda was clearly concentrating very hard on walking straight, so his good friend from the Navy drove me back to town in his tuk-tuk.

Photo - Eranda and Family
Eranda and Family

Having resolved not to have a miserable night in again, I took Eranda’s advice and after dinner at the rotti shop I headed to Mambo’s Night Club. The England cricket tour were passing through town, so plenty of the Barmy Army turned up and I got a bit of a dance in with some guys from darn Sarth. Easily pleased with my hour on the dance floor, and sober enough to be well aware that things could only go downhill from this point, I went home to bed.

I even managed to get up in time for my final arranged attempt at surfing with Pasanda, at 7am. Sadly he didn’t, and neither did the waves. I had tea and curry at Eranda’s rotti shop, then went back to the guesthouse to pack my things to begin riding back to Negombo to meet Lindso. I headed straight up the main A2 Coast Road, and was making pretty fast progress when I caught up with a couple of local racers. Let’s hope for their sake that they were warming down after a long run or something. We went through the usual stilted conversations, exchanged numbers, and they told me that 15km down the road was a shop that sold the ‘racer handles’ (tri-bars without the arm rest) that they all used. This was good, because I had a plan!

Photo - Sri Lankan Racing Cyclists
Sri Lankan Road-Racers.... Not fat

The gear system on my Bob Jackson custom tourer is a Rohloff internal hub gear. This is an extraordinarily reliable and durable system, but the only shifter that Rohloff make for it is a twist-shift style one designed to fit on the flat handlebars of mountain and hybrid bikes, not the drop bars that I use on my tourer. The fix for this so far has been to use a bar extension plugged into the right hand end of the drop bar onto which the twist-shifter fits. I’ve never been pleased with the aesthetic of this, it makes my very wide bars even wider, it puts the shifter totally in the way of harm and it also demands a huge cable run. Aussie Adrian was using a sawn-off tri bar instead, and I decided to copy him! I found the bike shop in Balapitya, and £9 and a sawn up pair of nice new tri-bars later, and I was on my way. It’s not a pretty solution, but it’s much better than the previous set-up.One day I will treat Sir Bob to the recently released Gilles Berthoud shifter, but at over £100 it won’t be soon!

My planned stay for the night was at Kalutara, and I got there at about 3pm and set about looking for a place to sleep. As I cruised down towards the beach, thee view across the river to the enormous pagoda caught my eye so I stopped to take a photo. As I framed it something else caught my eye and I turned to see an enormous water-monitor in the river a few feet away! The tuk-tuk driver next to me was also quite impressed by it – these huge lizards and their land cousins seem to be well liked, and despite appearances they aren’t dangerous. I asked the driver if they eat fish, and from what I gather the answer was no. To be honest though we had so little vocabulary in common that monitor lizards could dine on nothing but trifle and pork pies for all I know.

Photo - Water Monitor
Water Monitor

I had a pretty bad time finding a room in Kalutara. Most were pretty awful (‘look – it has window! You can open if you like. And here – electric light. Working!’) and I also got pursued – actually chased down the street – by a tout, who followed me back to the first guesthouse I’d been to, and had an extensive argument with the proprietor along the lines that he was due a commission for my stay there. The only reason I wasn’t already in a room at this place was because someone had it booked until 4pm (that funny price for the day / price for the night thing again) and so I’d decided to look round a few more while I waited. This same tout later found me sat on the beach and tried to get me to change my mind again, using the argument that the guy I’d been dealing with was a drunkard. I’ve become a lot better at asserting myself in these situation since we began travelling in Asia, and he soon left. As it turned out he was right about the drinking though!

After a night’s sleep in a room with a fabulous spider’s web headboard, an even better misquote on the wall (see below) and a less fabulous collection of cockroaches in the bathroom, I set off early again for my last day riding alone. Negombo is about 100km up the coast from Kalutara, but Colombo is between the two of them and I had no particular desire to spend the day on the hectic roads in and around the capital, so I planned a route that looped inland. I ended up doing 132km, and it would have been about 120 were it ont for the practical-joke road system in Gampah, which cunningly sent me back the way I’d come without me even realising it, and the fact that I missed a turning and acually ended up entering Negombo from the North instead of the South! Ah well. I bumped into more slow-seeming racers as well, and it turned out that they were members of the SL Army Cycle Team. Again, I hope they were on a rest day, because if not they had no business getting overtaken by me!

Photo - Keep thy eyes before marriage
Well Boss we couldn't fit all the words on and 'open' didn't seem that important really

Getting Linds back is great. It was good having a week travelling on my own – something I’ve never done before – and I think that it is something I would like to repeat for a weekend every year or so, probably with a small tent and a change of clothes on the bike and not much else. At the end of the day though there were so many moments I wished she’d shared, and without her company I had to set myself ludicrous things to do like climbing that ruddy mountain in the middle of 350km of riding just to keep myself occupied.

She is also glad to be back, but going home has made her realise that she is now ready to go home. After 7 months, she’s pretty much had enough of sleeping in a different room every night and the stresses of getting by in a foreign culture. She misses our friends and family. We both agree though that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us and we would kick ourselves forever if we went home now, so we have one week left in Sri Lanka, and then we will be flying over to India to begin the next, and most intimidating, chapter of our travels. But more on that later.

Route Maps – MapMyRide

Dalhousie to Ratnapura

Ratnapura to Hikkaduwa

Hikkaduwa to Kalutale

Kalutale to Negombo

Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 5: Ten days on me tod – part 1

Photo: Sunrise from Adam's Peak
Photo: Sunrise from Adam's Peak
Sunrise from Adam's Peak

So my wife Linds has leapt on a flight home to go and do a job interview, leaving Wiggins the elephant, Sir Bob and me to our own highly disorganised devices in Sri Lanka for 10 days. I have a bit of history here, with an unfortunate propensity to get myself in trouble when the wife disappears for an extended period. Last time she went home I got lost on a night out in Thailand before finally finding my friend and host Adam at 8am, only for us to jointly pour boiling oil on both our feet when we got home. The time before that she went to the Isle of Man for 16 weeks, and came home to find that I was re-building a car engine in the living room, having grown a big red cyst on my face that subsequently needed removing in hospital. She was a little concerned about leaving me, to say the least. As I said at the end of my last blog post, my plan for the week was to get myself into a meditation retreat in Kandy for a few days, and take it from there.

Linds left before 6am to get to her flight, so seeing as my plan was to get all the way to Kandy in one day – a journey which we had previously taken 2 days over – I got my stuff together, said my goodbyes to Thositha (very nice hotel chap and there’s a picture of him coming up) and we (Wiggins, Sir Bob and I) set off.

Photo: Thosita
Thosita. Sound bloke.

It’s amazing the difference a few weeks’ regular riding makes to the fitness! I got to our previous overnight stop by 9am, and pressed on towards the hellish 400m Kadaganawa climb. Turns out it’s not actually that bad – still a bit of an ordeal, but climbing it without experiencing second-hand the exhaustion and pain that my dear wife was going through the first time made it a lot easier. About 2/3 of the way up I came across an Aussie on a modified Cannondale mountain-bike-turned-tourer, who was busy haggling for a couple of avocados. He looked as sweaty as me, which was very pleasing until he mentioned that he’s just been hosed down by a car-washing guy at the side of the road. We agreed to meet at the top and have a chat, on the basis that we both wanted to finish the climb before stopping, and there was no point me waiting for him to complete his avocado negotiations as he would surely catch up before the top anyway. Which he did. Turned out his name was Adrian, and he had been touring Sri Lanka for nearly 3 months – the first leg of a potentially 18 month long journey including Indonesia, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Malaysia and other assorted highly visitable countries.

He was going to Kandy too, so we rode the last 15 miles together, and ended up staying at the same guesthouse (‘Room together? No thanks, we’ve only just met!’. Slightly awkward.) That evening we went out into Kandy to find food, and discovered the town centre in utter chaos – enquiries with one of the thousands of police present revealed that qualifying was about to start for a series of motorbike and car road-races! I have a bit of a soft spot for fast cars (though I don’t own a car any more) and it turns out that Adrian is an ex-motorbike nut with several large Ducatis, BMWs and some lovely classic bikes in his past, so we decide to stick around for a couple of nights to spectate, seeing as it was free. Promisingly, an hour after the announced start time, the first group – a dozen 125cc standard motorbike racers – are released for practice, and half of them immediately fall off at low speed on the first corner. Crikey. Valentino Rossi they are not. It’s getting late, and we’re both tired from the ride, so we agree to reconvene the next night and watch the racing itself. You will notice that this does not exactly constitute the meditation which was my alleged reason for being in Kandy. Hmm.

Kandy the next day is a death trap. A lot of the racers and would-be racers appear to be practicing on the race course, despite the fact that it is public road, and still in use as such. The police are out in huge force again, and seem to be divided on the matter; some are enjoying the spectacle greatly, and the rest are totally disinterested.

I did make some effort at achieving enlightenment in Kandy, but they were probably a bit lacking. I had been in touch with Upul from the Nilambe Meditation Centre (recommended by Lonely Planet and others), and been advised that the centre was fully booked up due to an event commemorating the death of the centre’s founder. He recommended that I try the Llewellyn Centre, an affiliate located in a suburb of Kandy. So before race night on Saturday I cycled over there, only to find that an event for the same commemorative purpose was underway, and the Priest was not available to speak to me. The extraordinary quiet of the place despite the many people present immediately put the willies up me and even as they were telling me to call back later I already knew I wasn’t going to. I had done a bit of reading about the schedule at this place after the qualifying session the night before, and was already a bit perturbed a by a couple of things; no speaking apart from during a 30 minute break in the afternoon, and the fact that as far as I could discern there was to be but one – ONE – meal a day! Can you imagine? I also had some doubts about whether I wanted to spend the week without Linds doing this, or whether I would rather take the opportunity to get some serious miles in. So I hate to admit it, but I turned and fled. Maybe we’ll try again in India when I have a bit of moral support from the Missus. Then again, anyone who’s met her will now that she is not particularly one for staying quiet. Ever.

That decided, I headed back to the guesthouse and met up with Adrian. We went for a dosa masala (my first; blummin lovely. Good job because apparently they are a staple in South India) and then decided to have a couple of beers before the racing started. Being good travellers-not-tourists, economy-minded folk, we shunned the tourist bars and headed down to the local version. These pubs offer instant social-life if you are Western, but the guys (invariably no women) you meet are not always those you particularly want to socialise with – drunk, and apparently often pretty unhappy with it. I don’t think most happy, well-adjusted Sri Lankans spend much time in pubs. Conversation that night included, not for the first time, a man who was despairing that although Sri Lankan people were very lovely, they often made terrible mistakes. If there is such thing as a national psyche, the Sri Lankan one seems to hold a few pretty deep insecurities. On the plus side, the beer was cheap and strong, and the Arrack cheaper and stronger. Suitably impressed by 2 beers each, we headed out to watch the racing.

The racing ran from 9.00pm and was a series of short races, most of which were 3 laps long, with each lap lasting no more than a couple of minutes depending on exactly how terrifying the race in question was. There were allegedly meant to be 14 races of various categories of both standard and modified cars and bikes, so if everything had gone smoothly you would expect things to be finished in roughly 2 1/2 hours, right? We left at 2.30am, with at least 3 races yet to start. We saw all manner of vehicle harried round the course by incredibly enthusiastic but often truly worryingly incompetent drivers and riders – the only thing missing (and it was a damn shame) was the ubiquitous tuk-tuk. The car present in greatest numbers was the awesome old Austin Mini – most of the other cars couldn’t hold a candle to them. The most popular vehicles with the crowd were the Super Moto bikes, anything else that did a wheely, the ambulance – which got called out with sickening frequency, including to tend to a man who had apparently decided to cross the road in the middle of the field during a 250cc motorbike warm-up lap – but by far the biggest cheer of the night went to a very confused ginger mongrel who was lapping the wrong way, much to the amusement of the course marshals – who didn’t seem to see a problem having a dog running around in the middle of a motorbike race. Egads.

Photo: Kandy Night Racing
Super Moto rider pulls wheely; Monks love it.

By Monday morning I had formulated a plan for the rest of the week, and so I exchanged email addresses with Adrian, paid for my room, and set off towards Adam’s Peak, the 4th highest mountain in Sri Lanka, and a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Reputedly the place where Adam first set foot on Earth from Heaven, though no-one produced any good evidence to back this up while I was there. It was 89km from Kandy, and sadly not many of those km were down. Most of the roads were minor and therefore quite rough, but at least most of the climbing was steady rather than Kadaganawa-esque steep, so by sticking it in the (very!) low gears I could just dig in for the long haul and grind out the 1255m of ascent. I arrived at about 3pm, and after a wander around the small town of Dalhousie (pronounced ‘Dal-house’, bizarrely) I stretched my tight quads, had some dinner and got an early night, ready for the 3am start up the mountain. The important bit to pick out there is that I was planning on climbing the 5300 steps to the Summit of Sri Lanka’s 4th highest mountain, and my legs were already tight. I should have paid more heed to that myself, but decided that walking was, after all, a sport for fat old men with grey beards, so should be very easy indeed for me – my beard is only very slightly grey.

The way up wasn’t too bad. The whole way was lit with lanterns, which isn’t quite as magical as I thought it was going to be because they are electric neon tube ‘lanterns’, and as I had hit snooze a couple of times too many I hardly saw anyone for the first half of the trip. I did overtake a young Russian couple (“are you French”? “No, we are from Rrrrussia” quizzical expressions) about a ¼ of the way up though, who were very friendly, and he was hilariously out of breath wearing fabulous faux snakeskin pointy shoes, which made me feel a little under-dressed in my Merrells. Never saw them at the top, thinking about it. I did have one significant problem to overcome on the climb up – I was absolutely unable to pass by a single toilet without dashing in with considerable relief. Presumably either the unfiltered water I had uncharacteristically drunk the day before, or something I head eaten.

I was pretty sure that I was going to be too late to be at the summit for sunrise which was kind of the point of the whole getting up early thing, so I pressed on as hard as I could, and gradually started passing more and more people – mainly Sri Lankan pilgrims, but also a smattering of fellow tourists – in an effort to get to the Sri Pada Temple by 6.30am. This became seriously difficult, and by about 1900m I was having to stop every 15-20 steps to rest. I met a French couple (actually French this time, not masquerading Russians), and he casually dropped into conversation that he had ‘done it from ze uzzer side last time – you know, Ratnapura, Eet ees a seven hour climb from there’. I told him he was mad. His wife quite agreed, and fell about laughing, presumably already weakened by the climb. At this point the light was beginning to show over the horizon, rather beautifully it must be said, and Mssr. Sproingylegs assured me that we were very near the top. Thankfully he was right, and I stood with a large crowd of other sore legged folk to watch the sun rise over the mountains. Many had climbed early in the night and stayed on top in the cold – really, it was cold at this altitude – for some reason that I couldn’t quite fathom. All of us though, had done the climb, and no-one spoke as we watched the sky turn from purple to orange and listened to the pipe and drums being played in the temple, the first trills of bird song and the incessant shutter click of digital SLRs. There was something approaching a cheer when the sun finally peeped over the horizon at us, and then the few amongst us who had read The Lonely Planet walked round to the other side of Sri Pada so that we could watch the triangular shadow of the mountain we were on creep back across the landscape towards us. At this point I also saw the guys doing the pipe playing and drumming, and was mightily impressed to see the drummer leaping around in a fancy traditional outfit at the same time as holding down a good rhythm which was surprisingly funky for the time of day and the circumstances. But then we have found many Buddhist temples across Asia house excellent rhythm sections with seriously bassy equipment. Good effort, Buddhists.

Photo: Just before sunrise
Just before sunrise near the top of Adam's Peak

Having taken several thousand photographs in all directions to record the event, I put my cold feet back into my shoes, and head for the stairs down. First step. Doesn’t feel good. Second step.No, that’s not a good feeling at all. Third step. Oh crap. This is going to be really tough.

It was. I got back to the guesthouse, but it was a close-run thing. Fortunately my stomach had calmed so I didn’t need to stop at the first two of the four toilets on the path. By the time I got to the third toilets I did need to stop but knew that if I squatted (no western toilets here!) there was an extremely high chance that I wouldn’t be able to stand up again, without the assistance of some heavy lifting equipment, so took the painful decision not to. I met a lovely couple from London, who were quite sympathetic, and also a couple of teenage lads from Dambulla who were keen to practice their English, similarly keen to be friends on Facebook, also keen that I should go to Dambulla with them. Sadly they were less keen to carry me down the mountain in exchange for any of the above. Seriously, I have never felt so physically spent – at every step I had to grit my teeth and concentrate on preventing my knees from buckling. I felt like the legs trying to support my admittedly hefty body were not my own but those of a nine-year old girl – one who had just totally over-done it in the gym. I got back to the hotel at 9am, and the friendly young Manager ‘Crackhead’ (presumably spelled differently, but that’s how it was pronounced) laughed delightedly at me and then promised to bring some breakfast down to my room if I couldn’t get back up the stairs after showering.

I spent the rest of the day stretching, trying to contact Linds to wish her good luck in her job interview, sleeping, stretching, eating, stretching, trying to contact Linds to find out what had happened in the job interview, stretching, and sleeping. I didn’t want to stay in Dalhousie due to the problems I was having communicating with the outside world, and because I wanted to get to the coast and have a surfing lesson before heading back up to Negombo to meet Linds. So I resolved to try and at least make it 30km down the road to Hatton the next morning. I went to bed still struggling to walk.

So at the beginning of my 5th day without Linds I had climbed from sea level to 2,166m entirely under my own steam (Yesssss! Result!) and temporarily pretty much lost the use of my legs in the process. (Booo.) I’ll post up the following 5 days’ achievements pretty soon!

Route Maps – MapMyRide

Negombo to Kandy
Kandy to Dalhousie
Adam’s Peak – Hike

SNGEA6KRUBJK

Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 4: Sigiriya and other animals

Picture - Sigiriya
Sigiriya

What you’ve missed:

We travelled for 6 months without bikes, due to my careless wife injuring her knee. We got the bikes sent to us thanks to the recovery of said knee, and have been touring Sri Lanka by bicycle(and train shhhhh) whilst suffering a comedy of errors regarding various visas. Consider yourself filled in.

Visas eh? Oh yes. Having rushed back to Kandy by train in order to collect our now hopelessly premature Indian visas, I turned up bright and early at the visa centre to submit our passports, to which the visas would hpoefully be affixed for colection later. I was more than a bit miffed to be greeted by a group of disgruntled Sri-Lankans gathered round an A4 notice on the door informing us that the centre was closed for the day ‘due to holidays’. Great. Things like this are why you should always leave a day or two of float between critical activities in Sri Lanka!

With no great expectation of success I headed off on errand number two – trying to get my Sri Lankan sim card to work with data so that I could take advantage of the decent 3G network and cheap data plans to free ourselves from the perpetual hunt for guesthouses with Wi-Fi. Two hours and 3 network employees later, and I am sent to an extremely helpful lady in Kandy’s main Airtel branch, who has me up and running in no time, with 1GB of data plus a load of call credit for a mere £1.50 or so. This is a great thing – the guesthouses that have wi-fi are often those that are geared up for Western tourists, and are therefore poor value and often less friendly than the alternatives. And quite ofen the internet connection is pretty abysmal anyway.

Suitably pleased with myself, I cycled back to the guesthouse and ordered the world’s finest breakfast: dahl (lentil) curry, coconut sambol (fresh minced coconut with onions, lime and chilli) and rotti (flat bread). Tea for two goes without saying round here. Sri Lankan Breakfast and Som Tam from South Thailand are, I assure you, the two best meals available in the world.

Photo - Breakfast in Kandy

It turned out that Lindso was still in bed feeling poorly, but managed to drag herself out onto the balcony overlooking Kandy Lake and The Temple of The Tooth Relic, where we have been having our breakfast. There’s a pretty busy road between the balcony and the Lake, but with the sun shining off the golden roof of the Temple over the lake it’s pretty special, especially when you consider that we’re paying Rs1500 for the room and 300 for the breakfast! That’s a total of less than a tenner. It’s called the Pilgrim’s Rest, and I highly recommend it.

With Linds feeling under the weather we decided to have a lazy day at the guesthouse, and met up later with new Cornish friend Richard for dinner and scrabble. Oh yes, we know how to live. Richard is a demon at quizzes (he’s been on Eggheads and everything) but we are absolutely delighted to find that he is rubbish at scrabble, his game being ruined by the overpowering urge to put down the longest words he can possibly make regardless of whether they are worth any points or not. My uninspiring numbers game wins out tonight; 2-0 to the North.

The next day I made another attempt at the visa centre, and selflessly they had graced us by opening up. Passports delivered and Linds still unwell in the guesthouse, I took it upon myself to do the day’s cycling and cultural activities myself, by riding up to the impressively large Buddha image sat on a hillside gazing out over Kandy. The climb was a first-gear lung buster, which was pretty galling when a bemused local pointed out that Buddha was actually sat on the next hill. When I got there in a right lather (cue more amused locals) it turned out to be part of a temple (Bahirwakunada), which meant shoes off. The painted concrete floor was so hot that I still had sore burned feet that evening. Thankfully the view was impressive, the artwork secreted in the room in the bottom (yup) of the Buddha was surprising, and the ride back down to town was worth at least one of the rides up.

Picture - Big Buddha
Big Buddha, Bahirwakunada Temple, Kandy

Linds by now had decided to try 24 hours off food to sort out her ailng constitution, so I drowned myself in dahl and tea for the team, and then we wandered over to the reet-posh Queen’s Hotel and paid 250 rupees each for the privilege of spending the rest of the day flopping in and out of their small but immaculate and under-used pool. The wife was most pleased, and I got some work done on the laptop… To put the icing on the cake of a very pleasing day, I later realised that I had forgotten to pay the last of our drinks bills. Splendid. Obviously we returned later to settle up in full*.

The swimming-pool / no food combo worked wonders for Linds, so the next morning we set off bright and early for Matale, which was a fairly uneventful 32km apart from the bit where Lindso nearly passed out on a climb (not 100% yet, then) and with not much available in the way of decent budget accommodation ended up treating ourselves to a relatively luxurious wedding hall room for a big Rs2500. We spent the afternoon: 1) enjoying the hilarious wedding band playing at the function downstairs, 2) at the very cool Rock Temples up the road, and 3) at a local centre producing batik textiles, which was an impressively time-consuming process. More impressive was that from a starting price of $50, we ended up paying $13 for a piece! We mainly said the price as a way of stopping them trying to sell to us, and were pretty surprised to walk away with it.

Picture - Rock Temple, Matale
Rock Temple, Matale

We headed for Sigiriya after our wedding hall night, and as a bonus found ourselves passing Dambulla’s Golden Temple, which was built recently with Japanese funding. I liked it a lot. Mainly because it was quite funny to be honest – this plastic lion was a highlight.

Picture - Camp Lion, Dambulla
Lovely Fibreglass Lion, Golden Temple, Dambulla

We found out later that the famous Cave Temples were on the hill behind it, but missed that, having been distracted by the painted fibreglass manequins and rocks of the Golden Temple. Oops. So instead of the fabulous ancient cave temples, here is the magnificent fibreglass Golden Temple in all its glory – Note the line of plastic monks queuing up on the right – they stretch all the way past about a hundred metres of those papier mache rocks to the fibreglass lion:

Picture - Golden Temple Dambulla
Golden Temple, Dambulla. Nice.

After a total of 64km we arrived in the tiny town of Sigiriya, home of the incredible rock fortress and it’s equally incredible entry fee, which if you happen to be foreign is 48 times the local price. A bit harsh, and well outside our daily budget, but we realised some time ago that occasionally we need to stick two fingers up at the budget and just get on with it, because we certainly won’t be able to come back here for a while!

What we have just paid £32 (That’s a lot here!) to see is the magma plug of a volcano, with an ancient settlement on top. The volcano itself has eroded away leaving only the plug, and at some point some fine chappy who was in charge decided to build a fortification and monastery on top, and some tiered gardens on the approach. Very nice job he did of it too, though I believe he had some help. At some point the entrance to the climb up the final near vertical section of rock was through the mouth of a colossal brick lion, but sadly the entire thing apart from the paws has fallen victim to the elements. Shame. Now I’m not great with heights (actually I’m fine with heights, it’s edges that upset me) but Linds is a complete jessie with them. She very bravely started the climb up the walkways pegged to the side of the rock, but ended being dragged up quivering by a Sri Lankan guy who was far more helpful than me, and worth every Rupee of the Rs100 he took for his troubles. Fortunately we weren’t attacked by swarms of furious hornets as all the signs promised we would be, though a monkey did try to steal Linds’ waterbottle from her bag. He got away with it for being small, cute and ginger – a brunette monkey would have got a poke in the eye, I suspect, but Linds has endless patience for her redheaded brethren. She is a very special person.

Picture - View from Sigiriya
View from Sigiriya

After Sigiriya, we enjoyed a lovely quiet ride to the town of Girithale, which we picked for its proximity to Polonnaruwa, which the Lonely Planet informed us was expensive and disappointing to stay in despite its incredible sights. Thinking about it now, we should have tried it to see if The Curse of The Lonely Planet also works inversely. A missed opportunity. Anyway, it’s just as well we didn’t get there, because we ended up staying in a lovely little place overlooking a lake in The National Park, who served fabulous food – the best rice and curry we’ve yet had for lunch, and a dinner of fish and chips (hooray!); the fish was fresh out of the lake and served in small spiced battered pieces. Absolutely delicious. They also provided a small frog in our bathroom sink, which is a touch we haven’t had elsewhere.

 

That evening things went splendidly awry again. Splendidily because the problem was that Linds received an email inviting her to a job interview for a job she really wanted, awry becasue it was 6 days away, in Stockport, which is not famous for its proximity to Girithale. Cue a series of frantic skype messsaging sessions, some hastily booked flights home, and a van ride the next morning from Girithale back to Negombo so that she could catch the flight at 6am the following day. Fingers crossed she gets the job!

So that left me on my own at 6am back in Negombo, with Sir Bob the bicycle and a new toy elephant called Wiggins for company. There are two things that I have previously said I’d like to do in Sri Lanka – a meditation course, and try to learn to surf. Learning to surf is quite expensive, and meditation retreats are seriously cheap, so Wiggins and I mounted Sir Bob and struck out to Kandy again – the home of enough mediation centres to keep the most intent navel-contemplator happy. Did you know that when one reaches the 4th Jhana (trance level) Buddhist meditative practice, there are benfits such as remote viewing and hearing, telepathy and the ability to fly? According to a book I have just read (Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Damien Keown) “There is nothing distinctly Buddhist about these abilities and they are widely acknowleged in Indian thought as attainable by anyone wishing to invest the necessary time and effort”. So there you go. Tune in next time for some seriously enlightened blogging. Or not, as it turned out…

 

*Honest.

Route Maps – MapMyRide
Kandy to Big Buddha
Kandy to Matale
Matale to Sigiriya
Sigiriya to Girithale

Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 3: Kandy, Nuwara, Ella and Kandy again!

Picture - A nice cuppa' Sri Lanka tea, Nuwara Eliya
Mmmmmmm Tea

We started the week badly.

When we arrived in Sri Lanka we visited the Indian visa application centre in Colombo, to make sure that we knew exactly what we needed to do when the time came to get our visas for India. The Colombo chaps very helpfully gave us the forms to fill in, told us that the process took three working days and could be completed at their Kandy branch. Perfect.

So, five working days before our flight to India, we turned up with our carefully completed forms (wrong forms) and discovered that our visas would be ready and waiting for us 6 working days later. One day after our flight. Ah. The flight we booked to leave Sri Lanka on the day our Sri Lanka visas expire. Ooh.

We were informed by a slightly amused visa official (better than his previous incarnation of totally disinterested visa official) that there was a 90% chance that they would arrive on the day of our flights at 5pm, which would give us possibly enough time to get from Kandy to Negombo, pack our bikes and get them to the airport for our midnight flight. Hmmm.

So with spirits suitably dampened, we left the visa centre and cycled the 8km to Perediniya Station, where we were to catch the train to Nuwara Eliya, some 80km South and 1.4km vertically up. It always feels like cheating catching a train on a cycling trip, but we’re still nursing Linds’ injured knee and two days of hard climbing seemed to be pushing things, so discretion being the better way to justify avoiding the climbs, we plumped for the railway.

We’d heard stories of the bureaucracy involved in getting bicycles transported by trains in India (“you must write down every component of the bicycle here”), so allowed as much time as possible in case it was the same here in Sri Lanka. Fortunately not – a form was completed declaring the transportation of two bicycles from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya in the name of Devit Frainer (?!), we paid the fee which was roughly twice the price of a second class ticket per bike (£1.40!) and that was that.

Kandy has been the worst place we’ve been in Sri Lanka for touts, scammers and other career tourist-botherers, and the railway employee who pushed my bicycle to the platform fancied a piece of the action too. “I help you with bicycle, very heavy bicycle” (this despite the fact that they’ve already made me us take all the luggage off the bikes, which we’re now struggling to carry. Heavy indeed! Sir Bob is just the right weight) “A little support maybe, a little support? You give me 300 rupees” Which is more than it’s costing to get the bike taken the whole way on the train, a decent meal out, or 1/3 of an OK room for the night. I’m aware that wages here are pretty low, and that tipping is the norm, but sometimes the feeling that you’re being taken for a total fool really bites, and this was one of those occasions. He got politely but firmly told where he could put his 300 rupees.

The train journey itself was our first in Sri Lanka, and it was great – all the doors and windows are left wide open for Haputale Train journey ventilation, and food and drink vendors roam up and down shouting, chanting or sometimes singing the names and many virtues of their wares – wade (“wod-ee” – fried, spiced lentil ball snacks) are a personal favourite, both for the mind blowing speed at which the sellers speak (WadeewadeeWadeewadee WadeewadeeWadeewadee WadEEEEEEE!) and the things themselves, which come with or without whole prawns on top (the little girl opposite us took great pleasure in pulling the eyes off hers and offering them to her lucky parents), and are really good when they’re fresh. When the engine ground to a halt and flames were visible underneath, we all hung out of the doors and windows to get a better view – it’s soon sorted, and we continued chugging our way through the lush plantations and spectacular mountain scenery. The only downside was the small child sat facing us who decided that the floor was probably a better place to wee than the toilet was, and his Mother who didn’t seem overly bothered by this controversial decision. Bags on knees for the rest of the journey then.

Nuwara Eliya was built by the British as a mountain retreat from the hot lowlands, and it shows. The post office looks like it was meant to be built in a quaint Cheshire village, and many other buildings – a lot of them now guesthouses – follow suit. There’s even a golf course. Because the climate up here (1889m) is so much cooler than the rest of the country, there is a thriving industry growing UK style veg too – terraced hillsides abound with carrots, leeks, cabbage, beetroot and marrows. We spent two lovely nights staying at the excellent King Fern Bungalow, with the day in between wandering around town and pedalling out to visit Pedro’s Tea Estate and Factory, and then set off to cycle over the Horton ‘Plains’ to Haputale.

Nuwara Eliya Sunrise
Early morning Nuwara - we're heading over that big hill just right of centre!

Our new American friend Lee recommended a route, and having consulted MapMy Ride we knew that it would be 65km, with one horror of a climb up to the ‘Plains’ 12km in and then one much more moderate one for the last 5km up to Haputale. You can see this planned route here. Yet again, that was not exactly how it panned out.

The first flat 12km wasn’t flat. It was rolling. Heavily. The road surface itself though was not conducive to rolling, and cobbles would probably have been better than several sections of it. This doesn’t make for particularly happy sounding panniers and it certainly didn’t make for a happy sounding wife.

Eventually we were within site of the climb we’d actually been aware of, and I noticed a couple of pretty large bees seemed to be swooping past my head a lot. A bit odd I thought, and after they disappeared I looked back to check Linds wasn’t being bothered by them, at almost exactly the same time as she started shrieking as if the very hounds of hell were hanging off her back wheel. We were going slightly downhill at the time, so we sprinted (more like laboured really) until the two bees of the apocolypse had disappeared, and then stopped to inspect the damage – Linds had one sting on the shoulder blade, which she claims (and I believe, considering the shrieking and the look of it) felt like getting stabbed in the back, and another sting which hadn’t properly gone in, but was still stuck in her top. We have no idea why they took exception to us, and can only assume that their ancestors suffered under colonial rule. We’re just glad we were going downhill at the time, so the rest of the posse didn’t have time to arrive.

The climb up to Horton Plains - and the view!
Nuwara Eliya- Horton Plains: Higher than it looks... just ask our legs.

The climb was, as expected, a nightmare. The plains were beautiful, but pretty far from plain as I understand the term (flat, surely?!). We saw Samba Deer, and some purply-grey monkeys with fetching white beards (purple faced langurs, it turns out. White beard purple langurs would be closer to the mark) Sadly we didn’t trek to the famous World’s End viewpoint, because it was too late in the day by then and the fog was coming in. After traversing the top, stopping for a box of ritz-alike biscuits at the visitors’ centre and then descending the other side (do you know what cadence braking is and why to do it?! Link coming soon!) Linds was suffering enough pain in her damaged Illio-Tibial Band that we decided to cut out the final climb by catching a train to take us the final 20km from Ohiya to Haputale. We relaxed laughing at a strange little caterpillar at the station while we waited, until a local trod on it and kicked it onto the tracks, because it was actually a leech. Oops.

Haputale is incredible. The whole town is balanced precariously on a mountain ridge. We found some reasonably priced accommodation on a building site staffed by a borderline-rude manager (see curse of the lonely planet!), ate mountains of rice and curry, ejected the world’s shrillest cricket from under our bed and then slept like logs.

Picture - view form our guesthouse in haputale
View from our otherwise rubbish guesthouse in Haputale

The next morning we set off to Ella, which was thankfully exactly the ride we needed – gorgeous views, lovely smooth road, and almost entirely downhill!

The Lonely Planet Guide (2009) describes the ‘leisurely’ village of Ella as having ‘the Hill country’s best value guest houses’. So, under the rules of The Curse of The Lonely Planet, it was one of the most expensive places we’ve stayed. Eventually we found a room with half a view (if you leaned a bit) which after extensive negotiations cost us Rs1700 (£9.50) per night including Sri Lankan breakfast – not bad.

The next room was soon occupied by an Englishman called Richard,

Picture - Paddy fields over Ella
Paddy fields above Ella
who despite an unhealthy pre-occupation with running and cricket turned out to be a thoroughly decent bloke, at least until he pointed out that the Indian visa system doesn’t allow a tourist to re-enter the country until they 60 days after they have left it. Why a problem? Because Linds has found a job that she really wants for when we get back, and if she’s called to interview she’ll have to go home, and won’t be allowed back into India, which is where we’re due to be in a week’s time. Bums. After careful consideration of the many un-ideal options available to us, we decided that the least expensive and most agreeable is for us to apply to extend our Sri Lanka visas for another 4 weeks, change our flights to suit, and hope that Linds has been home, aced an interview and returned by then! We drank Arrack (local palm based whisky) with Richard to celebrate the fine decision-making, and went for dinner in what appeared to be someone’s garden. Delicious.

We then had four relatively boring days of travelling back to Negombo / Colombo to complete the admin side of sorting the visas / flights, and then returned to Kandy to collect our now ridiculously premature Indian visas. We now have 3 ½ weeks to kill in Sri Lanka. We hope to get to the amazing Siguriya rock and the surrounding ancient monuments, do a few days in a meditation retreat, and possibly try and learn to surf somewhere. Watch this space! I’ll try and keep it shorter next time…

Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 2: And they’re off

Rest stop before Kadugawanna

I was worrying in my last post about whether our bikes would have arrived in one piece. They did arrive, thankfully, so I tootled off to Colombo airport to find out if they were in one piece. I expected to be back at Negombo Beach with them in time for a spot of lunch and a lovely afternoon of assembling, test riding and feeling pleased. The Customs Officials had other plans.

It took 7 hours, 3 rides on the back of a motor bike, about 300 forms and 13000 Rupees (about £70) to get our bikes released. This was bad because I didn’t expect to have to pay anything when I set off, and £70 is 3 ½ days budget. It is also fantastic, because they initially wanted to charge me over £1000, mainly in import duty against the insurance value of the bikes!

My argument that it was not an import because we’ll be leaving with them was rejected on the grounds that they didn’t arrive on the plane with us so procedures had to be followed. A helpful chap suggested that used bicycles couldn’t possibly be worth the insurance value on the form. This argument went down much better with everyone involved, with the consensus being that a lightly used Bob Jackson Tourer and Surly Cross Check probably had a combined market value of about 8000 rupees, or £45. My poker face was tested, but held. If only they knew.

Unpacking and building the bikes was bliss. Like the anxiety prior to meeting an old friend after too long replaced with the simple pleasures of sitting down for a pint and remembering why they’re an old friend. Trusty old multi-tool back in hand, and magnificent Sir Bob and Chrissy Cross Check to work on. Not to mention the prospect of spending the next 18 weeks riding, which I’ve missed so much it hurts. Brilliant.

The next day was spent doing a 45km loop up the coast and back with the panniers loaded to check that everything was working right before setting off properly. It was, and after passing through a small village (which seemed to have an economy based entirely on the low volume sale of very small fish in various shapes and moisture levels) we drank ginger beer on a lovely little deserted beach, which managed to get one over us by shooting a surprise wave up our trouser legs while we were paddling. We headed inland a bit and looped back to Negombo.

Katuneriya Beach

Linds’ knee gave no bother all day, so we celebrated with a pancake (having realised we’d missed Shrove Tuesday) and a couple of Lion Lagers, which are surprisingly good. (I do realise that this probably means that I desperately need to re-calibrate with a nice cask ale. Anyone who can bring one here is welcome to my left arm.)

The first day’s proper riding was a mixed bag. We set off at 6.45am to avoid the worst of the traffic and heat, and made a pretty straight line from Negombo to Mirigama on the B324. There was more traffic about than we’d hoped, and even though it was only 40km some smallish hills caused Lindso’s knees a bit of pain. She thinks it’s the pain you’d expect to get trying to hustle a loaded touring bike up some hills after a year of little to no riding rather than injury pain, so we’ll take it easy and give it time to strengthen up, which it will reeeeeeally need to do before we arrive in Nepal, methinks!

Fortunately we stumbled across bargain-guesthouse-of-the-trip just in time to bring Lindso back from near terminal grumpiness brought on by the pain and the repeated hills. Lovely room and as cheap as any we’ve found in Sri Lanka at 1000 rupees (£5.60) a night. Bingo! We were the only guests, as their main business is hosting weddings. Check out the water feature next to the top table. Nice. Isn't she lovely? She's 10 foot tall...The only fly in the ointment came at check out time – seems Rs1000 is the rate for a night from 6pm to 10 am, and you need to pay another Rs1000 for the day! Very odd, and not the impression we got at check-in but we’ve come across it elsewhere in Sri Lanka so we settled on Rs1,500 for the day and night and left it there – still great value.

We ordered a lunch of ‘Rice and Curry’ – the universal term for the universally fantastic assortment of 4 veg curries plus rice at anywhere from £1.10 to £1.50 per person – and then watched the waiter pretend to go back to the kitchen to get it before merrily leaping on his scooter and nipping to the restaurant down the road! Same happened for every drink we ordered – great fun. After a fairly melted ice cream desert (the outsourced kitchen idea had its limits), I set about investigating my totally ineffective rear disk brake. Skip the next paragraph if the tech stuff bores you!

Turns out that the usually awesome German Rohloff internal hub gear has chucked a load of oil out onto the brake, which is a tad concerning. My current theory is that the cargo hold of the flight wasn’t pressurised, so the oil that bathes the internal workings was forced out through the bearings. I cleaned everything with soapy water and a toothbrush, then reassembled and test rode – still not right, but improving after a few stops to lay some brake pad on the newly cleaned rotor (this is the bedding in you need to do with disc brakes – getting a layer of brake pad material on the rotor by performing around 30 stops). Hopefully it will bed in OK, because if the oil has totally contaminated the pads I have none spare – along with padded cycling shorts and spare Rohloff cables they are the only things I so far know I’ve forgotten to pack! Rubbish.

An easy 25km to Kegalla was the plan for Friday, but it didn’t quite pan out like that… After breakfast of a sweet dry shreaded wheat type thing with honey on it, we joined the A1 and headed off.

The A-roads are busier than the Bs, but have the distinct advantage of having a sort of slow traffic / pedestrian lane at the side, so you are at least protected by the traffic thundering past by a white line painted on the floor. Better than nothing. We had originally planned a much less direct route using the B roads, but decided our current course was preferable.

Kegalla came and went, and with Linds’ knees holding up well we kept going; mainly because we couldn’t find a palatable guesthouse that we could afford. To be honest we didn’t look very hard – Kegalla itself wasn’t that appealing, so we pressed on with eyes peeled. We were told that there were a few guesthouses a few km down the road at the top of a hill. Excellent! Turned out the hill was a mountain. False summit begat false summit, thighs turned to lead, and Lindso’s heroic riding turned to equally heroic walking. Eventually we reached the top, featuring a nice restaurant (lime soda and cheese toasties please!) and an impressive monument to the Englishman who built the road around 450BC. We didn’t linger long in reverie, as we’re pretty confident he could have made it much flatter if he’d put his back into it. Later inspection of the stats (see MapMyRide) revealed the climb to be 3.5 miles at an average gradient of 5.2%… Pretty harsh!

The top!

I knew that the rest of the road actually was relatively flat, so we decided to carry on and stay near the botanical gardens 5km short of Kandy. We certainly passed the gardens, complete with 100+ enormous flying foxes (3 foot wingspan bats!) flapping around scaring the fruit, but never spotted the guesthouse that was supposed to be there. Which is why we ended up staying in Kandy, having done a ride that we intended to do in two days in just one. 67km in total, and a superb day for Lindso’s recovering knee considering that 24hrs previously she struggled with a total of 152m of climbing; Kandy is 500m above sea level, and we did a total of 780m of climbing to get there! I suspect she will be beating me up the climbs in about a week, which will be bad for the pride, but a great excuse to take some luggage off my bike and put it on hers. My plan is that she will be carrying everything within a month.

They'd be terrifying if they didn't eat fruit

We spent 3 nights in Kandy, exploring the town (very nice, but quite a lot of tourist-botherers) and the botanical gardens, which were a very pleasant way to spend the day – I particularly liked the Burmese Giant Bamboo, and Linds surprisingly took a shine to those Flying Foxes, of which there were thousands.

Really big bamboo. Maybe I'm easily pleased.Having bikes with us is brilliant – no good for exploring the City Centre because the traffic is chaotic and you miss all the sights for concentrating on not becoming Tuk-Tuk fodder, but the sense of freedom you get from having independent transport to anything within cycling distance is fantastic. We had a hire car in New Zealand, and since then we’ve really begrudged being tied to public transport and worse, taxis and tuk tuks since leaving there – it makes it much harder to get away from the crowds.

Our legs are still pretty sore, and discretion being the better part of valour we’ve decided that we’re definitely not attempting the 80km 1400m climb to Nuwara Eliya (the highest town on Sri Lanka at 1889m) tomorrow, we’re getting the train. This is for two reasons – to protect Lindso’s recovering leg, and also because the road there has a very bad reputation for being narrow, having a sheer drop on one side, and being infested with very naughty buses. I do hope our Mothers are proud of this eminently sensible decision.

Route Maps – MapMyRide
Negombo to Mirigama
Mirigama to Kandy

Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 1: Half way round the world, and I have now started blogging! (to divert my attention from my imminent death)

As I write this my wife Linds and I are on a Sri Lankan bus travelling at an entirely inappropriate speed towards Colombo Airport, where we will hopefully be able to collect our hopefully intact bicycles. The main safety feature of this ancient coach is an image of the Buddha plus friends decorated with flashing lights. Let’s hope it works, because in common with everyone else on these roads, our driver begrudgingly resorts to hitting the brakes only after repeated use of the horn has failed to clear our path.

 

This is the 25th week of our travels, and we have around 18 weeks left before getting home. In order to clear my conscience for starting to blog about it so late, here is what we have done in the last six months. You can have it in picture form only if you’re properly rushed, five word summary form for the relatively motivated, or full-on text for those who need to procrastinate for longer. Take your pick:


LA, California:

Beach, many loonies grinning excessively

We had 3 days in Venice Beach with the assorted eccentrics. Managed to avoid going downtown altogether, which is a good thing, I believe.

New Zealand:

Rugby heaven, amazing scenery fatigue

A month on each of the two islands, following the England World Cup effort. We had tickets for the England Group matches, kindly bought for us as wedding presents by various friends and family. The England rugby was hugely disappointing (fortunately I’m half welsh, so swiftly pulled out the Welsh shirt when England exited), but New Zealand was fantastic. We wished we’d spent 6 weeks on the South Island and two on the much busier North. We camped the whole two months (bar 3 nights) in a tiny two man tent, partly because we hadn’t realised quite how cold it would be! Amazing place – we’d both love to go back, preferably with mountain bikes…

Singapore:

Clean. Hilarious buildings. Many people.

4 days here. Amazing buildings, splendid food. Blagged our way up to the viewing deck of the funniest building I’ve ever seen for free,instead of paying the extortionate $20 charge like everyone else! (“Can we have a table at the restaurant at the top please”?). Got made to feel 3” tall by a man in a camera shop, because our camera is nearly 2 years old.

Sabah, Malaysian Borneo:

MASSIVE insects. Nice fish. Gingermonkeys.

Blimey. This was a shock! I’d been out of Europe only once before we set off, and that was to Florida. Borneo was an education in Asia for me – and aside from feeling very prominently big, pale and sweaty much of the time, it was fantastic! We did our PADI Open Water Diver course at a stilted resort over it’s own reef, which we had almost to ourselves due to it being the last week before the season started, and we went to the Sepilok Orang Utan rehabilitation centre, which was phenomenal. Would love to go back. The place was teeming with life, often in the form of insects much bigger than insects should be.

Thailand, Laos and Cambodia:

Let’s go back please. Wat?

Loved it! Managed to do some of the Thai Islands before the hordes arrived for the peak season, and had a particularly lovely time chilling out at a guesthouse / restaurant called Pim in Ao Mae Haad, Northwest Ko Pha Ngang, where the resident Myna bird shrieked ‘Rent Boy, Rent Boy’ every time he saw me (no-one else) and the lady who ran the kitchen made, and taught me to make, absolutely delicious Som Tam – green papaya salad with lime juice and a lot -really, a lot – of chilli! Spent a lot of time including Christmas and New Year with my good mate Adam who lives in Phuket now (cheers Ad!) and then travelled up North to Chiang Mai, which beat the islands hands down as far as I was concerned – great coffee scene, and some excellent mountain biking! Even Linds enjoyed downhilling, despite having previously sworn she would never go MTBing again after the last outing ended with her inverted in a ditch several feet below the wooden bridge she was trying to ride on at the time.

We then crossed in to Laos and took a two day slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, and promptly fell ill. I’ll spare you the details, but it marred our two weeks in Laos and Cambodia. Hope to go back there and do it properly one day! We did just about recover in time to spend three days cycling round the jaw-dropping ruins of Angkor though… another highlight for me. Absolutely incredible.

Sri Lanka to date:

Best breakfasts known to humanity

We’ve had two weeks here now, one dominated by seeing some of our best mates from home (home being Sandbar, Grosvenor Street), which was absolutely fantastic, and the second was HelpXing (basically some voluntary work in exchange for lodgings) at an English Language School in tiny Mi-ella near slightly larger Wallesmulla in Southern Sri Lanka. We both taught English Language for the first time; I also built them a Heath Robinson chicken egg incubator. Fingers crossed it produces chickens, and not omelettes. Our host Firdouse took me out to test ride a pushbike with a petrol engine strapped to it which he was thinking of buying. Amazing. Video will be uploaded soon! Oh, and dahl (lentil curry), sambol (grated coconut plus spices and veg) and roti (flatbread) breakfast = heaven. The coffee they serve here’s total rubbish though, which is a shame considering the history of growing it.

 

So that is 6 months and 8 countries in horrendously inadequate detail, but let’s be frank – there wasn’t much cycling, which is what we’re all about here! We originally planned to have our bikes with us the whole time, but Linds managed to sustain a really nasty knee injury skiing in spring (mainly by standing still in exactly the place I was about to snowboard. Oops).

Anyway, the knee seems to be recovered now, and the horrendous shipping company we used has allegedly managed to finally relinquish our bikes from the vice-like grip of their Heathrow depot where they’ve been for two weeks, and thus we find ourselves hurtling across Sri Lanka to pick them up. I really hope they’ve made it in one piece, and I really hope we make it to them in one piece. If we do, We have 18 weeks of bicycle touring in Sri Lanka, South West India and Nepal to look forward to – can’t wait!

PS: After I finishing writing this, a man got on the bus, shouted some Sinhalese, and then started smashing up and eating a fluorescent tube light bulb.  Eating it I tell you. Absolutely terrifying. We had no idea what he was saying, so I could only assume that he was absolutely nuts and a danger to himself and everyone else. Turned out he was busking! I prefer the guitar, and other activities that don’t cause me to taste blood and fear for my life, so gave him no money. Tssk.

PPS: For an email telling you when there’s new blog posts and other fine revolveMCR news, pop your email address in the box up there on the right. Ta!