Friday, August 3, 2012

Ah....finally a bit of cool weather. Nuwara Eliya.


Yesterday's final destination was the hill station of Nuwara Eliya which is pronounced "New-rail-ia". Yes, I completely mispronounced it until Neil corrected me but you have to admit, it's not spelled anything like the way it's pronounced :-)


On our way out of Kandy, we had, yes, we had to make one pit stop.....to a durian stand that Chandana said sold the best durians on the island. Okay, he doesn't eat the stuff but apparently, everyone whom he has brought to this stand has made that claim.

The stand really wasn't a stand. It was a very large pile of durians on the roadside. The sellers were an elderly gentleman and his two sons.

Chami, Chandana and the old man went about the task of picking a durian. The guy cracked it open and before you could say the word "durian", Chami and my brother were feasting on chunky pieces of the fruit. Verdict? Yes, indeed the best durian that they've had so far on this trip. The guys polished off the one durian and Chandana brought two more for us to take with us.....mainly for my brother to feast on.

As the guys were eating, I noticed the oriental looking man standing next to them. He was speaking perfect Sinhalese! I was curious how that could be but unfortunately, he left before I could summon up the courage to ask him. I'm always amazed when I encounter something so unexpected.







We passed one small town after another.  They've all become one big blur to me.














As soon as the landscape started to change from tropical rainforest and rubber trees to tea plantations, I knew we were in the vicinity of Nuwara Eliya.









The road got more narrow and windy as we made our way up and down the green hills. Pretty much every inch of land that could be planted up with tea plants was and where there was space left, vegetables were planted. The vendor stands that dotted the roadsides were filled to the brim with vegetabls for sale - evidence of the fact that this region in Sri Lanka is the agricultural heart of the country. The relatively cooler weather means that temperate climate fruits and veggies make up what's grown here.


It was a pretty landscape to drive through. The best part though was that we could turn off the air conditioning and roll down the windows to let the fresh air in. It was nice change!

I have to admit that I went a bit crazy about wanting to take a good picture of the landscape so Chandana said that whenever I saw a good vista, that I should just shout out, "Stop" and Chami would pull over. I didn't do this often but when we neared this view point, I shouted out. We all got out to check out the scenery. It's not the most beautiful of landscape shots but it captures a lot of what we saw on our ride - lots of tea plants hugging the hillsides, vegetable plots to fill in the gaps and a lake beyond. They make very efficient use of ground space here!


Before we arrived into the town of Nuwara Eliya, we stopped at Blue Field tea plantations. I'm a tea drinker so I am always happy to be visiting a tea esate!

Chami pulled in to the parking lot and as soon as we got out of the van, there was a young girl, dressed up in a typical Sri Lankan sari, to greet us. Chandana told us to follow her - she would be taking us on a tour of the factory.

Back when the country was known as Ceylon, everyone knew it as a producer of tea. The name of the country might have changed but tea is still a very popular drink here.

All tea comes from the same plant and the subtleties come from the grading of the leaf and bud and how the tea is processed. In terms of processing tea is basically processed the same way no matter where it's grown. The differences come with how long the leaves are dried and/or fermented. The grade of the final product also determines flavor and cost - whole leaves will always brew a better cup of tea and for that reason, will always command a higher cost than either broken leaves or *dust* which are often sold in bagged form. Always, always, always buy whole leaves!!

Sri Lanka for orange pekoe which is a grade of tea that includes opened leaves of different sizes. The smaller the leaf, the higher the quality and therefore, the higher the cost. All tea is handpicked though in Sri Lanka, it is not necessarily hand plucked - some estates use a cutter box that basically shears off the top bud and leaves.

Our factory tour began in a large room where the leaves are placed on large meshed bottom boxes for the process known as withering - basically, removing water from the leaves. Large fans circulate the air and I can't remember how long it takes but the leaves are eventually reduced about 1/2 their original weight.

From here, the leaves are dropped by a large chute to another area for fermentation. Leaves destined for black tea are fermented for a longer time period. The factory dates back to the time of British colonial rule so the warm air used in the fermentation process is generated by a wood burning oven. This also imparts additional flavor to the tea.






Next, the leaves are placed into a machine that separates the leaves from the twigs. I thought maybe the twigs would be ground into dust and sold as tea but apparently, it's recycled as mulch. Good idea.







 The tea is then sorted into the five grades that this factory sells - orange pekoe (top quality also known simply as OP), pekoe, broken orange pekoe (BOP), broken orange pekoe fannings (BOPF) and dust.  Apparently, they like dust here because it brews a strong cup of tea which then gives reason to add milk.  Sri Lankas love their tea with milk, no doubt something they picked up from the British!











After our factory tour, we got to go to the shop. Of course, I left with a couple of boxes for me and my brother brought a couple for gifts. Chandana loaded up with several kilo sized bags for his family and as gifts for friends and neighbors, With our purchases in hand, we met back up with Chami in the restaurant and were treated to a perfectly brewed cup of tea!








By now, it was mid afternoon and we still had not yet reached Nuwara Eliya so we had to get going. Scenery wise, it was more tea estates and veggie/fruit sellers. Since the fruits are what we can get in the US, we were not interested in stopping.

 It wasn't long before we started to see semblance of a town - we were finally in Nuwara Eliya. Our drive took us alongside the waters of Lake Gregory which is a popular spot for locals to come and relax. There were some peddleboats on the water and I did see some horses as well. Unfortunately, we're just spending the night here so no opportunity to take advantage of the lake. It is a pretty sight though.

Chandana had Chami drive us through town and parts of the area surrounding Nuwara Eliya - a quick tour. Maybe it's because it's an overcast day but somehow, I imagined it to be more charming.....more of the English Tudor style buildings that I had seen in my pre-trip readings. Don't get me wrong,it's not an ugly place....just not as quaint as I had expected it to be.

Arriving into Nuwara Eliya, we had also left the sun behind. I could see the fog rolling in from the surrounding hills. I suspect that's what keeps this area so cool and makes it the perfect spot for growing tea. After close to 10 days of sweating it out in the tropical heat and humidity, it was a nice to have a bit of temperate climate. No complaints.

Chami eventually pulled off the main road onto a narrow, hilly lane that had a few hotels on it. Close top of the hill, he pulled on to the short driveway of the Hotel Sun Hill. It looked like a hotel that was built in British colonial times. One foot inside the lobby and it looked like a hotel that was built in British colonial times. Our room was one flight up and one step into it and it looked like a room that was built in British colonial times. Ditto for the bathroom.  My brother commented that there was no toilet paper in the bathroom - he still hasn't gotten used to using what he refers to as the "butt flusher" to clean his bottom. So, we have to go get some.

The room was truly nothing fancy but luckily, we're not picky - clean sheets and bathroom and we're good to go. We had a small balcony.   The view from it was nothing to rave about it was nice to be able to step outside and take in the cool, highland air!

We dumped our stuff and decided to head out to explore the town. From our hotel, we walked downhill to meet up with the main road. We had no map so we just had to take a guess as to which direction to turn in. We opted to go to the left.

To our left were more hotels - Nuwara Eliya is a popular highland destination for Sri Lankans. To our right was the road and beyond that, the seemingly overgrown grounds of the horse racing track. Beyond that was Lake Gregory. I suggested that we walk along a bit and if we didn't spot anything that looked like downtown Nurawa Eliya, that we cross the race track and head towards the lake - that would be Plan B.

We were walking along, minding our own business, when I heard shouts of "hello" coming from across the street. I looked over and saw four young Chinese men waving their arms at us. At first, I thought they may be they had mistaken us for people that they knew but when they crossed the street and walked towards us, I realized they were just curious about two people who were probably the only other Asians in town.

They were indeed curious about us. We told them we were originally from Malaysia and as it turns out, so were two of guys. The guy that I would call the *leader* of the gang was a very sociable guy from Singapore and the fourth member of the group was from China. All four had spent the past few months globetrotting. It was nice chatting with them and we wished them well on our journey. Before we parted ways, we asked if we were walking in the right direction to get to town center and they confirmed that we were.








 We continued on our walk - more hotels and restaurants and then we got to an intersection, with the small stupa on one corner, that I recognized we had passed on our drive through town. From here, I knew we had to turn left to get to town and so that's what we did.

The landscape in this part of Nuwara Eliya was very alpine - lots of tall evergreen trees. I felt like we were back in northern California.

We walked by a small city park; a toy train chugged along with people along the ride.




 A short distance later, we happened upon a small row of fruit and vegetable stands. Uh....with the Fruit Obsessed One as your travel partner, you can guess where we went next. Of course, you can't go to a fruit market and not buy fruit so we left with a small bag of mangosteens which I fully expect will be eaten within a day.

There was also a vendor selling munchies so I bought 100 grams of hand fried potato chips. In the US, we pay at least $3 for a small bag of kettle fried chips. Here, I barely paid 10 cents and they were just as tasty!

Bro's fruit bounty for a day....yes, he eats all this in one day!

Just about a block beyond the vendor stalls was downtown Nuwara Eliya. We walked pass the central bus station and found ourselves under a covered walkway that had shops on one side.

First order of business though. Buy a small bag of roasted peanuts....still in the shell. We both enjoying munching on peanuts and the variety they grow in Asia is not as big in size but are much, much more flavorful. We ate as we window shopped.

We stopped into a couple of places that looked like grocery stores, inquiring if they had toilet paper for sale, and as I had expected, they did not. Then, lo and behold, we came across a very busy pharmacy that also sold groceries in the back.

Turns out they had toilet paper! Score one for my brother. We both checked out the groceries and I bought a small tin of sardines in chili tomato sauce (don't ask why) and my brother picked up a small jar of woodapple jam - definitely something that would be very difficult to find in the US!

After the pharmacy, we stumbled upon what looked to be the town's central market. We both love wandering through the markets. Here, the stalls sold mainly vegetables and fish. We only noticed one vendor selling chickens and two selling meat. Makes sense since the typical Sri Lankan diet is mainly fish, vegetables and rice - very healthy!


I had wanted to buy some Maldive fish to bring home with me so we had purpose to wander around.  I passed by one fish vendor who only had Maldive shavings but the next vendor I stopped at had exactly what I wanted - chunks of Maldive fish.  I bought a 100 gram piece to try.  If it's good, I'll ask Neil to pick up some for me on his next trip back to Sri Lanka. 


As much fun as we had wandering around the markets, we also had to be mindful of the fact that the sun sets around 6ish and we didn't want to have to walk back to the hotel in the dark. It was nearing 6pm so after a quick walk through the market, we decided to make our way back. No rush walking but we did need to go.


Surprisingly, as we passed the same row of shops that we had been to just a short time ago, we notice that all the lights were out. I'm guessing that Nuwara Eliya probably has scheduled brown outs - not unusual in these parts of the world. Hopefully, we'll have electricity back at the hotel.

By the time we got back to the hotel, the sun had not fully disappeared over the horizon so we decided to extend our walk - continuing up the street until it dead ended. Nothing to see so we turned around and headed back down.

Back in the room, we had less than an hour before dinner time. We just kick backed and relaxed.

Dinner was at a small local restaurant that was just off the main road - we had passed by it on our walk to town. We met up with the guys in the lobby. Both were dressed in shorts and short sleeved t-shirts. Uh.....hello?? It's like 50 degrees outside.

We stepped outside and indeed, the night was cold. My brother shared his extra long sleeve shirt with Chandana but unfortunately, he only had one extra shirt so poor Chami was shivering.

The restaurant had two sections to it. One part was housed under a tented area. We vetoed sitting there because we wanted to be warm. We headed inside the small room where it was still cool but bearable even for Chami.

Dinner was simple food. After dinner it was the usual nightly duties before hitting the sack.

Good night from Nuwara Eliya!

I slept well last night and woke up this morning well before the alarm was to go off at 7:30a. Surprisingly my brother was awake as well - he normally sleeps until the last minute possible.

Bright and early at 7am, he decides to break into one of the two durians that we had picked up yesterday. He chuckled as I shook my head as I jokingly pretend to object to the stink. I headed into the shower to escape the odor and by the time I came out, he was on the balcony. He at the entire durian and then decided to leave the shell outside so as not to stink up the room. What?? Too late!

At 8am, we were downstairs with our luggage. The van was already parked out front and Chami was busy cleaning out the interior and checking the engine - his usual morning duties.

Chandana soon appeared and told us that we would be having breakfast at the hotel. He warned us that it would be a Western style breakfast. I didn't want to say anything but I was quietly grateful for a change from hoppers and curry.

Our plate of sardines is just to the right of the teapot :-)
We sat down in the dining room which, like the rest of the hotel, looked like it had been built during British colonial times and had not been changed since then. The waiter came by with a basket of toast and a plate of butter and a selection of jams. He returned a few minutes later with glasses of papaya juice - the only item that would not have appeared on a truly continental breakfast menu.....juice yes, papaya juice no.

He then took our order for eggs - mine was for an omelette.

Looking at the toast, I remembered I still had the can of sardines in chili tomato sauce. I had deliberately bought a can with a pull top so I could easily open it. With a smile on my face, I took the can out of my backpack, opened it and poured the contents on to a saucer. I then told everyone to dip in.

So here's the story behind the sardines. When we were kids, my parents took us to the UK one summer. We stayed in a small suburb of London called Rickmansworth, in the house of a friend of my father's. The first morning we were there, we found a little restaurant to have breakfast in. The place was owned and run by a Swiss woman and her husband. On the menu was sardines and buttered toast. We ordered it and it may sound odd, but it was delicious. I had that same meal for breakfast every morning and ever since that time, there have been many a morning that that has been my breakfast. My brother shares that same memory with me. It's amazing what brings back warm memories decades later.

I took a slice of toast, slathered some butter on it and spread out a small piece of the sardine. One bite and I was back in Rickmansworth.

The waiter soon appeared with pot of perfectly brewed tea and the omelette came. We also ordered some sausages - Chami is definitely a meat guy :-)

We polished off every slice of toast, bit of sardine and drop of tea. I don't know about the others but I left the table with a fully belly and we would need it as we would be hiking through Horton Plains today!

After breakfast, Chandana settled the hotel bill and we headed out.

Our road trip began with a brief stop at the Grand Hotel which was built during British colonial times as a high end retreat and it remains as a luxury hotel today. By American standards, the rooms are very reasonably priced for a luxury hotel.


The place had a small but well tended front garden so we took a few minutes to walk around it before continuing on our journey.






Our ride took us through small village communities. Although it was early in the morning, people were already tending to their gardens. According to Chandana, the government provides water free of charge so villagers can use as much water as they need to and not worry about racking up a huge bill. It's a very practical way for the government to subsidize farming and as a result, Sri Lankans have plenty of fruits and vegetables to eat.





I had no idea where we were going but the scenery was lovely - lots of steep hillsides covered in tea plants.



At one point, we could see what looked like a tea factory sitting on the crest of a hill. A very nondescript, unattractive building that was the largest structure for miles around so it stuck out like a sore thumb. I figured that's where we were heading. The thought of another visit to another tea factory didn't quite thrill me but hey, it might be the last one I visit in a long, long time so what the heck.




Soon enough, we came to a stop - we were at some entrance or other and we had to wait for the guard to lift up the bar to let us pass. Up the hill we went and when we got to the top, we were at the parking lot of that ugly, industrial looking building we had seen from afar. Definitely a factory....or so I thought.

The place did have wonderful views of the surrounding area so I took full opportunity to soak in the vistas.








There was also a small building on the premises. I went to check it out.













The doors were closed so I peeked inside the window and saw a tea tasting table. Must be where you go after the factory tour.














To the side of the small building was a small topiary garden....








....and they even mowed patterns onto grass. It was all very cute.


I was dreading doing another factory tour but I found it odd that no one was coming to get us to go on a tour. I finally decided to go inside and check things out. What a surprise I had when I stepped inside the door. I wasn't in a tea factory! I was standing in the lobby of a luxury hotel and it was an elegant interior - dark woods, plush furniture. Known as the Heritance Tea Factory, this is a 5 star hotel that retains elements of its former life.


Mounted high above the atrium are massive turbines that feed the old generator that once powered the factory.  I think it's really cool that they left this old machinery intact and on prominent display, preserving the building's heritage.  It actually looks like art.
























There were steps that led to the upper floors as well as a cage (?) elevator that would do the same. Nosy me, I wanted to take the elevator to the upper floors. My brother decided to join me. A soon as we got in, four British tourists joined us. We all crammed into the elevator and it took a few seconds for us to figure out how to get the elevator moving. We only had to go up about 3 floors and it was just about the slowest elevator I've ever been on; I think it would have actually been faster to walk up the steps but it was fun!


Unfortunately, there wasn't anything to see at the top so a quick look at the turbines and we were back in the elevator riding back down to the lobby.

If not for the fact that we had just eaten breakfast, I would have twisted everyone's arm into having a morning snack, with tea, here. Oh well.

All four of us were loitering about the hotel and its grounds - here,there and everywhere. Eventually, we all found each other and after a quick nature call, we got in the van and went on our way.

Lesson of the morning. Never judge a building by its exterior - ugly means nothing!








We were backtracking towards Nuwara Eliya - through the village farms. This time, we made a quick stop at the local vegetable wholesale market to see what they grow and sell here. If I didn't know that I was in Sri Lanka,I would have thought I was back home in the US - carrots, cabbages, potatoes, squash.....sound familiar? :-)










Next thing you know, we're back in town - at the same set of fruit and veggie stands that we bought the mangosteens at yesterday. We found out from Chandana that this is local bus stand; makes sense that the vendors are parked here.




Soon, we left the tea estates of Nuwara Eliya behind. Next destination. Horton Plains National Park!