Night-time pilgrimage

Trip Start Nov 01, 2006
Trip End Oct 31, 2007

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Monday, January 8, 2007

Adam's Peak, or Sri Pada, as it is known in Sinhalese, is a highish mountain (over 2,000 m) around the middle of Sri Lanka.  Sri Pada apparently means Buddha's footprint, and the mountain has this name because there is allegedly a depression at the very summit which resembles a footprint.  All religions try to claim it as the footprint of their own deity, so it's a very holy place and thousands flock here every year to make the climb to the top.  It's so popular as a pilgrimage that steps have been built all the way up to the top and, because the climb is traditionally done through the night, the path is also lit up all the way.  So as climbs go it's very safe.  So, thinking we must be mad for doing so, we set our alarm for 2.30am this morning, and at 2.45 walked out of our guesthouse and through deserted dark streets with lots of barking dogs to the start of the climb.  I had expected there to be crowds of people doing the walk so was very surprised to find that we appeared to be the only people around who were going up, and instead saw lots of people on their way down.  We wondered if we'd got something wrong somewhere along the way.  After a while we were caught up by 2 young men who we had a brief chat with but they were younger and fitter than us, so we had to let them go, and after that we were on our own most of the way up.  We had fun though, reminiscing about the trip so far, and trying to remember things that have happened to us.  The climb took us just under 3 hours, including two 10 minute tea stops at a couple of the many tea shacks that dot the way up, along with stalls selling energy food to the weary pilgrims.  We, as always, had brought enough provisions with us that you'd have thought we were climbing Everest, so had no need of their wares, but the hot, sweet, milky tea was very restorative and welcome.  Yesterday we had hung around the bottom to speak to people returning and find out how hard it was going to be, and people had given us the impression it was absolutely awful, but we found it OK.  Tiring, but certainly bearable. 
About 5.40, as we neared the top, we saw the dawn appearing on the horizon, and the very bottom of the sky turning deep pink.  We reached the top about 10 minutes later and were amazed, given how quiet it had been on the way up, to find that there were hundreds of people there and that, as it's a fairly small summit, there was no room to move.  Still, we managed to find a spot and stood with the pilgrims there for their religious reasons, and the westerners for their own other reasons, and watched the sunrise.  It was absolutely beautiful and very moving, so much so that we both had tears in our eyes and couldn't really say why.  Sometimes I think beauty in nature just is moving.  Even the really loud, jangling 'music' which was bizarrely blared out from numerous loud speakers couldn't spoil it for us.  Once the sun had come over the horizon, we walked over to the other side of the summit to see if we could see the famous, perfectly conical shadow of the mountain that sometimes appears to hang in the air.  At first we couldn't make anything out, but then Tim spotted a very faint line and as we watched it got bolder and bolder and made that perfect shadow.  It was really amazing, and when (if ever) we get to a place with faster internet access, we'll put up a picture to show you. 
After a while of marvelling at the beauty of everything up there it was time to head down.  The descent was a bit quicker than the ascent but in a way was harder.  By the time we got down, at 9am, we were pretty tired and our legs hurt, but we were really pleased with ourselves for having done it, and we were in a lot better state than a lot of the Sri Lankans who had done it out of religious devotion and really weren't fit or young enough for it, and were having to be virtually carried down by helpful friends and relatives.
Then it was back to our guesthouse for a very welcome breakfast of beautiful fresh fruit and toast and a much needed shower, and then we were off again to make our way towards, eventually, Uda Walawe National Park, of which more in the next entry.  This was another of those times when our travel plans change in the space of a few minutes, and which is what makes this kind of travel so exciting.  We had been planning to take a bus to Hatton, about an hour away, and then get another bus westwards to Ratnapura.  Then tomorrow we would get another bus, or maybe 2, to the national park.  But one of the people at our guesthouse told us we could take a train eastwards from Hatton, to Haputale, from where it would be much easier to get to the park than from Ratnapura.  So that's what we did and everything worked out really well.  Well, the train was 1 and a half hours late arriving, but we're used to such delays by now so that didn't really faze us.  We travelled in first class (still only 5 pounds for the 2 of us for a 3 hour journey, so hardly extravagant) in what they call the Observation Car.  It's a wonderfully eccentric idea, but really great.  The car is at the back of the train and at the end of the carriage are huge picture windows so you get a panoramic view of the landscape you're travelling through.  And in the case of this journey the landscape was incredible.  We were climbing all the time so it was all rolling hills and tea plantations and really green and lush.  About halfway through the journey it got so misty that we couldn't see anything at all but white air, but the first half was amazing. 
We arrived at Haputale to rain, wind, mist and cold and it was like being back in England!  We found our way to a nearby guesthouse which was OK, although a bit soulless, and had a so-so rice and curry and then bed to rest our aching limbs after our 2.30 start.   (R)
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