Tea By Train in the hills of Sri Lanka

Ceylon, or Sri Lanka as it is now known, has been regarded as a top tea producer ever since the plant was introduced by the British in colonial days past. Kieran Nash booked a third-class train ticket and ventured from the coast to the hill country of central Sri Lanka, sampling the finest leaves the country had to offer.

This journey starts on the east coast, in a small beachside town called Arugam Bay. As always, I’m accompanied by my girlfriend Jacqui, and from the roadside, we hail a black-and-green tuk-tuk which putters its way from the coast to the main bus depot in Monaragala, about an a hour and a half away. The slow journey flies past, as the driver recounts his stories of the brutal civil war which ripped Sri Lanka apart for almost three decades. Ending in just 2009, it killed thousands and closed the east coast to all but the most intrepid travellers. Our driver had family and friends who died in the fighting, which was between the Sri Lankan military and the separatist Tamil Tigers. Today, the shadows of the war remain – machine-gun toting soldiers are everywhere.

We roll up to the hot, dusty bus depot and, after much confusion, manage to board the correct bus. The crusty old Leyland is loaded, and as we thread higher and higher into the hills, the road narrows to a treacherous black ribbon. It then starts to drizzle, the slippery road driving my heart into my mouth at every tight turn. A few hours of this white-knuckle ride and the bus spews us onto the roadside at Ella – not much more than a few shops, a narrow road, and some of the most breathtaking views in central Sri Lanka.

It’s raining lightly, more of a heavy fog than anything, and the verdant slopes that surround us disappear into the mist. Taking shelter in a roadside cafe, a madman approaches. He could be anything from 40 to 90 years old, and he staggers toward us, leaning heavily on his cane, a tangled white shock of hair draping his lined face. Through a smashed-up mouth of blackened teeth, he offers to show us a nice place to stay. He seems trustworthy enough, and we turn off the road and up a slippery clay track into the bush to Ravina’s place – a small, hand-built homestay perched on the side of the hill. It’s amazingly tranquil and we spend a leisurely afternoon amid the mountains and monkeys drinking tea that would put the finest hotels to shame.

That evening, Ravina cooks us a gigantic curry dinner and tries to marry Jacqui off to her eldest son. The next morning, we’re up at sunrise walk to the summit of Little Adam’s Peak, the most accessible of Ella’s many walking tracks. Among them are Adam’s Peak (2243m) and Ella Rock (1350m). It’s an easy climb through verdant tea plantations as the breathtaking scale of the mountainous wilderness unfurls below. We reach the summit and are blown around by the hearty winds, then make the descent for breakfast.

On the way back down, we pass tea ladies on their way to work, who were more than happy to pose for a picture for a fee, which supplements their meagre incomes.

After a sambal breakfast, we bid farewell to Ravina and arrived at the 1950s-era train station for the next leg of the trip. They were fresh out of first-class tickets, so we do the sensible thing and travel in third. Clambering into the rust-coloured machine, we squeeze into the only available spot, which of course is next to the toilet. It’s also next to the doorway and so while the lav provides an olfactory assault, the open doorway is a visual feast.

Over the next three hours, the hills roll on forever: vivid green tea bushes punctuated by the pinks and reds of the tea pickers. Inside the cabin, we’re ogled by slack-jawed children as cheery men sell piping-hot roasted peanuts in squares of old graph paper. The blue ink of math homework shows through from the other side. Standing up for three hours gets tiresome, and when the train trundles to a halt at Nuwara Eliya I’m pleased.

Cruising through the city, past clipped hedges and cricket matches, it’s apparent that the city’s heritage is unmistakably British. This place screams colonialism. And nothing says colonial like the Grand Hotel, a mock Tudor mansion plonked in the middle of grounds of manicured lawns, fountains and rose gardens. As we arrive, bar staff on the front lawn mix drinks in time to the Macarena pulling us back to, if not the present, then the very recent past. But we’re not here to sip cocktails, we’re here to drink some of the finest tea in the world. So, we summon a tuk-tuk driver, who promptly drives us up the nearest hill he can find and looks on as we wander aimlessly through the shrubs.

After clearing up some confusion, he eventually takes us to Pedro Estate, a plantation established in 1885 which produces what it calls the “Champagne of Sri Lanka tea”. Guests are welcome to wind their way through the steep, slopes of the plantation, the vivid green tea bushes offset with larger, silver-trunked rubber trees. Then we make our way past a motley crew of solid women with large cane baskets filled with the deep green tips, and into the old mustard-coloured factory, led by guide Sangitha.

Struggling to both understand Sangitha and make our way through the factory at the same time, we do our best to understand how tea is made. The old building is filled with long drying racks, where the leaves are dried and withered to create a more complex mix of chemicals in the tea. It then opens to a large hangar-like room, which smells of freshly cut grass. It’s here the leaves are rolled, fermented and cut. A conveyor belt takes the tea up to the grading room, where it is sorted into big, medium, fine or super fine. The size of the tea leaf contributes toward the taste and colour – the larger the bits of leaf, the lighter the tea. Large-leaf tea is called Pekoe, medium-sized is called Broken Orange Pekoe, fine leaves are BOPF (Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings) and are dark, and used for English breakfast tea. The really fine tea dust goes into teabags.

I was told long ago that teabag tea is made from the sweepings from the floor? “No, no, that’s not teabag tea!” cries Sangitha. There are no different varieties of tea plant, she says. “The tea plant is the same all over the world. The elevation is different otherwise it’s the same tea.” After sipping on more tea, it’s time to head back to the Grand for a absolutely massive buffet dinner in a huge dining room bereft of any patrons, save for some Saudi tourists in full burkas.

The next morning, we bid farewell to the quaint colonial town, and opt to take a taxi to Colombo. The six-hour drive costs $160. The driver, Raja, complains the whole way about the corruption in government. He’s not happy that he can be pulled over and threatened that he will lose his license – and his livelihood – by a corrupt cop that he has to bribe.

After a six-hour lecture in government malpractice, we depart the cab and Galle Face Hotel, another colonial throwback perched right on the beach. Hundreds of multi-coloured kites wait for the sky to turn black with rain, and as the rain pours, we relax over a drink. I’ll have mine with a dash of milk, please.

This article was originally published in May 2013.

HOW TO GET THERE

It’s a four-hour flight from Singapore to Colombo. From there, it’s a six-hour cab drive to Nuwara Eliya. Ella is a three-hour train ride from Nuwara Eliya.

WHERE TO STAY

In Ella, Ravina’s is the place to go – she may even marry you off. Ask locals around town where it is. In Nuwara Eliya, live it up at the Grand Hotel. www.tangerinehotels.com/thegrandhotel