Sunday, July 29, 2012

The bees are waiting! Sigiriya.


It was an early wake up call this morning. Last night, we had agreed with Chandana that we needed to be at Sigriya early as it would be at least two hour hike up and down and we wanted to avoid doing it in the heat of day. Knowing me, the slow poke, it would probably take more than two hours. :-(


Chandana also told us that we would be in Chami's care this morning as he had to return to Negombo to meet another tour group arriving at the airport.  We would catch up with him later today.

We prepped for the day by putting on socks and proper shoes. I really have no idea what getting to the top of Sigiriya will entail but better to be over prepared than not. In can case, I am packing in my sandals into my back so I can get out of my hiking sandals as soon I'm done with the hike up to the top of the boulder. I also filled up my water bottle. I am certain that I will guzzle down every drop by the time our hike up to Sigiriya is over.

The sun was barely up over the horizon when my brother and I made our way to the dining hall. There was no one in sight....that is until I saw Chami's head pop up from the far side of the van. He was cleaning out the dirt from our ride yesterday. We've been spoiled with a clean van to start our each day with.

Even though the front seat was empty, we had been conditioned to pile into the back seat so that's what my brother and I did.

Down the road we went, past the veggie wholesale market. At this point, I pretty much guessed where Chami was taking us. Bentota Bake House! It was string hoppers, curry and tea for breakfast. Simple food but belly filling.

We started to make our way out of town and along the way, passed the same Juiceez place as yesterday. Chami turned back to us and simply asked, "Juice"? We gently shook our heads and replied, "No thank you".

It took about 1/2 hour to arrive at a place to see what looked like a canal running through a well manicured lawn. Later on we learned this was the moat around the grounds surrounding the palace complex. Back in the day, there were alligators or crocodiles in the water - presumably to keep out unwanted visitors.

Chami pulled the van into the parking lot. The moment I got out of the vehicle, I was approached by a man. I don't know why but I just assumed he was our guide. Turned out he was a guide but not ours. Chami had left us for a few minutes and he returned with an elderly gentleman in two who turned out to be our guide. What?? The guy looked old and frail. How the heck could he lead us up the boulder? Well, I have learned to not judge the book by his cover. As the Nepalese have taught me, don't discount anyone just cause they are thin and slight - they can be extremely strong and hearty for their size of body frame.

Chami handed us our tickets....the usual booklet with the DVD and then turned us over to our guide.

Front and back covers of the ticket booklet.
Inside the covers - the ticket and the DVD.

The elderly gentleman introduced himself as Herath (sp?) and in return, we told him our names. Introductions over, we walked with down the path that would eventually lead us to the boulder atop which are the ruins of the former palace. There would be about 1200 steps to climb each way and in all, the round trip up to the top and back down would take about 2 hours - add a few more minutes for me as I'm always a bit slow whenever steps are involved.






The path crossed over the water and that's when he explained to us that it was the outer moat. A few steps later and we crossed over the ruins of the inner moat which didn't have any water in it.







Beyond the inner moat, lay the ruins of the former palace gardens.




Herath pointed out drainage ditches that would pipe rain water, collected in the pools in the gardens at the top of the boulder, down to small rock hewn cavities that had holes pierced into the bottom. The volume and descent speed of the water, traveling down the boulder, would be great enough to create fountains of water. How cool.



By now, we could see the boulder. From where I was standing, it seemed a lot smaller than I had expected but maybe there's more to it on *the other side*.


It was quite a long walk to the base of the boulder.  From the open gardens, we soon entered into a lightly forested area. Ruins were strewn about.










We continued our walk heading towards the left side of the boulder. Then I saw them.....the steps. I had mentally prepared myself for the climb. I figure the worse it could be was like the hike up to Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan. So far, though it was nowhere as strenuous as that walk and I continued to pray that stay that way.




I started up the steps, bringing up the rear as I did not want to slow the two guys down. Herath is veteran at doing the climb. In tourist season, he said he goes up and down at least once a day. At one point, I asked him his age and he told me he was 53. Wow!! Same age as me but looking so much older. He's definitely lived a more difficult life than I have. Looking at him was a reminder to myself of just how lucky I have been to live the life I have.






Our path wound through the woods. We passed Deraniyagala Cave, named after the man who discovered it. The cave is notable for its frescoes which are not quite as well preserved as the ones located higher up on the boulder.









As we walked and climbed along, Herath would stop and point out things of interest which was helpful as I would have likely walked right by them if I was wandering about on my own. For example, this arch formed by two VERY large boulders touching each other.





Though it was early on in our walk, I have to say that the steps were no were near as bad as I had expected and the walk was a very comfortable one for me.




Yes, Herath was wearing flip flops!
Even so, I took whatever opportunity I could to take a breather and enjoy the view which of course, the higher we went, the better it got.From one vantage point, we could look back at the gardens we passed on our way in and way beyond the grounds of Sigiriya, a very tall, white Buddha.  The white dot above my brother's right shoulder is the Buddha :-)













About 1/2 way up the boulder, we reached the Mirror Wall which over the centuries has lost much of its sheen - you can't see your reflection in it as the King once did.





 








 




Just at the point where the Mirror Wall starts was a double helix, spiral staircase encased in what I would describe as a wire case - presumably to ensure people don't accidentally (or perhaps deliberately) tumble over the stair railing.













 
It was quite a number of spiral turns up before the stairs opened up into the boulder overhang where the famed frescoes of Sigiriya are painted on the side of the boulder. 







The frescoes are all painted on a long wall. Protected from the elements by cloth Roman shades, the color of the frescoes has been very nicely preserved.







They were a fascinating set of paintings of women, seemingly nude from the waist up though Herath pointed to one that had, what looked like a sheer top, on.


He also pointed one that he said was of an African woman because of her features. Who knows if this is true or not but one thing we did agree on was that her features were not typically Sri Lankan.

 
Done with the frescoes, we headed back down the spiral stairs to the Mirror Wall.
 

The surface of the wall has a satin sheen to it now but I can imagine what it must have been like if the surface was so well polished that it reflected back the King's image.


 Herath pointed out the supposedly centuries old Sinhalese graffiti that had been scribbled onto the wall. Proof that defacing surfaces is not a modern day phenomenon - even back then, someone felt the need to leave their mark. If I can, I will see if I can find out what the markings say - I'm sure someone has deciphered them.


 We continued our walk past the Mirror Wall and steps taking us higher up on the boulder. At this point, I was quickly realizing that this *climb up Sigiriya* was nowhere near as tough as it had been described. Even someone like me, cursed with not so good lungs, was easily managing the ascent.


 







Before I knew it, we had arrived into an open area. I looked around and saw one large stone paw.















I knew we had arrived to the entry point to the palace!

We could see people with dark green vinyl suits on, making their way up the stairs. No doubt that those were the been keeper suits that the English couple were telling us about.








A warning sign at the entry way said it all....except we weren't dealing with bees, we were dealing with wasps!! Yikes!!

Keep silence?  How the heck do you that with tourists?  Hmmm....this might be more challenging than we thought.



The black blobs, in the center of the photo, are the nests.

I asked Herath where the wasps were coming from and he pointed out the LARGE cluster of black blobs that were draped on a rocky overhang.....very close to the stairway.

I had to wonder why they just don't exterminate the nests. Maybe because Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation and they don't believe in killing creatures....even small, dangerous ones??


In any event, just as we were debating whether or not to suit up, we saw a small group of tourists scurrying down the stairs with a swarm of wasps right on their tail. Their guide showed us his hand - badly swollen from bites that he had gotten yesterday, After that, there was no doubt we were suiting up!!

We headed for the small trailer where suits were being provided, free of charge, by a Sri Lankan insurance company. I don't remember the name of the company but THANK YOU!!

I got suited up first and then giggled as I watched my brother get into his.

Trying to find a suit to fit.



Dresed in our suits, we both posed for photos. My brother took it very seriously with the mask fully zipped up.


I decided to leave my mask mine open with the thought that the moment I would hear anything buzzing around my head, I would zip up!

The last person to get suited up was Herath, reluctantly so even though it was clear to us that he was scared of the wasps. He was the first of the three of us to turn around when he saw the tourists scampering down. Trying to be brave in front of us but I think once we suited up, he didn't feel the need to hide his fear.


We waited a few minutes, watching to see if there were anymore swarms of wasps. It seemed quiet, eerily so.

We decided to go for it, Herath leading the way and as usual, me bringing up the rear.  Chami decided, wisely, to hang back. 

It was a short climb up the stairs. It was a quiet walk. I was waiting for the sound of buzzing wasps but fortunately, I didn' hear any sound other than my own breathing and my shoes landing on each metal step. I have to admit that it was hot inside the suit but I new I would only have to put up with it for a short time so I just focused on getting up to the top; didn't even take time to take photos.

At the top, we unzipped our tops and tied them around our waist. I didn't realize how much I had sweated being inside the suit til I took off the top and felt cool.

We continued up a very short set of steps and before us lay the ruins of the former palace and gardens. 





Because we're standing on the top of a boulder, we had 360 views around us.  I finally got a full view of the entry path and the ruins of the lower gardens with the giant white Buddha sitting in the far distance.


I can see why the King built his palace here.  The views are amazing and there's a constant wind blowing around so temperature wise, it's comfortable.  Herath had warned us that it would be windy so we're hanging back from walking over to the ledge of the boulder.


Unfortunately, because it's dry season at the moment, there's no water in the pools.  They say if you coming during rainy season, you'll see the pools filled with water as they were when the King lived here. There's enough water that it flows down to the gardens below and the fountains actually still work! Maybe someday I'll come back to see that!


Still, the views are amazing! We followed Herath around to various sections of the garden. It took us about 20 minutes to see all the grounds.


After that, it was tops up and we were making our way back down the stairs. Again, I was prepared to hear the sound of wasps buzzing around my head but again, it was silent. It was all good!  Chami was there to greet us with big smile on his face.  He asked, "Good?" and I held two thumbs up and replied back, "Yes!".  We were glad to see each other.

Back down, we posed in front of the paws for one last photo.





We followed Herath and we continued on a path that would take us down the boulder - we went down a different way from how we came up.













Eventually, we did end back up in the forest but a different part. We walked by the King's Audience Hall where he would have held court with dignitaries and citizens of his kingdom.  I let my brother check it out :-)












....another cave. I can't remember what this one was for.














....another Boulder Arch


  














....and a cave that had a rocky outcrop that looked like the head of a cobra, hence its name - Cobra Hood Cave.











From the forest, we walked through the lower gardens, backtracking to the parking lot where we met back up with Chami. We thanked Herath for his time and gave him 1000 rupees, a very generous tip by Sri Lankan standards but not even $8!

Back with Chami and in the van, we were off to our next destination. The Cave Temples at Dambulla!

Bye Sigiriya!  It was fun!