One of the highlights of my trip to China is experiencing the train ride from Beijing to Lhasa. Despite the initial reservations of coping for two days on a train, dealing with altitude sickness, and living in a cramped compartment (meant for four), I am excited!
I get to the Beijing West Railway Station with just enough time to battle the madding crowds, pass luggage through overworked scanners, decipher the Chinese-only ticket details, search for correct gate and platform, and struggle down the escalator without tumbling down headfirst!
With ten minutes to spare (train departs at 20:00), I am at the platform and boarding the Z21, the sky train that will be my accommodation for the next two days.
I have (wisely) got a soft sleeper, better known as a first-class sleeping cabin. These berths comprise of four “soft” sleeping beds, a pillow and a blanket each, a small table, flask for water, one power outlet and four oxygen outlets, and a door that can be closed for privacy.
I have a dream to someday visit all of the Wonders of the World. This time, it’s the Great Wall of China. Built between the 5th century B.C. and the 16th century, the Great Wall is a 4000-mile, stone and earth fortification built to protect the Chinese empire from invading Mongols. This makes it the world’s longest man-made structure.
While there are many sections of the Wall that can be accessed, I am at Mutianyu, known as one of the best-preserved and least crowded. It is 65km to the north of Beijing. Once there, the ticket entrance is a short walk from the vehicle park and I’m given the choice of walking up to the top, or hitching a ride on a cable car.
Of course, I get on the cable car!
As SQ 802 circled Beijing’s airspace for landing, I crane my neck at the window seat trying to get a glimpse of the Great Wall. I am disappointed because at this late midnight hour, there are too many twinkling lights to confuse me in this capital city of modern architecture.
China has been a source of fascination for me. From wondering what the most populace nation in the world was like, to history lessons about ancient dynasties, the Mongol conquest of China (I am a great fan of the Genghis Khan), the strict communist control by Mao Tse-tung, apt quips by Confucius, to walking finally on the world’s wonder, the Great Wall among so much more.
Now, I’m here….
That means “good things come in small packages” in Scottish. A perfect description of my destination!
The weather is chilly yet a welcome change from the scorching heat in Colombo and the three-hour 30 minute drive to Hatton is easy and picturesque (and much more bearable than the three-hour power cuts I was experiencing at home). I am en route to The Argyle , located along the Nuwara Eliya road and Google Maps explains the way very clearly.
Set in 3.1 acres of sprawling tea country, The Argyle is large, spacious and themed along Scottish heritage in reverence to the era of the Scottish tea planters who settled in this area in the 1850s.
“Go and visit the S.E.A. Aquarium,” pestered my offspring over the phone. So, with an afternoon to spare before catching my flight back home I headed off to Resorts World Sentosa situated just across the street from the Bay Hotel Singapore.
Located in a 20-acre park which combines two attractions, the S.E.A. Aquarium and the Adventure Cove Waterpark, it was once considered to be the world’s largest aquarium by total water volume until overtaken by Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Hengqin, China.
Despite it being a Friday evening, I was relieved that there were not many visitors. This, undoubtedly made my visit easier, faster and more enjoyable.
The aquarium is amazing. It really is.
It’s only 6 a.m. on this barmy Sunday morning. Our drive up and down the Mannar causeway in search of flamingos was futile. Except for some waders and an awesome sunrise reflecting off the water, there was nothing much to see.
Since the day was still young, we decided to drive into the Mannar Fort, which is located right off the causeway.
Galle is famous for its ancient historical Fort, sunny beaches, blue-green sea and kitsch temples. But I discovered another fascinating place to visit, the Handunugoda Tea Estate, home of the rare and real virgin white teas.
Located less than 30 minutes from the Galle Fort, the road to the estate is winding and circuitous, and if not for trusted Google Maps I would very well have got lost!
But I make it in time to meet with an old friend and owner of this estate, the inimitable Herman Gunaratne, fondly referred to as the Prince of Ruhunu.
After a chat over a perfectly brewed cup of Oolong tea, I follow Herman on a tour of the tea plantation that gained worldwide attention with the launch of the Virgin White Tea factory. As we walk across the tea fields, Herman starts by narrating the history behind the virgin white teas.
Colombo is like a throbbing pulse. Busy, bustling, and bursting at its seams. Nevertheless, this capital city is full of surprises; breathtaking, mysterious and fascinating.
Colombo is also home to four of the oldest and intriguing places of worship belonging to the four main religions in Sri Lanka, and I am on a journey with Arshad, my most learned guide, to discover the history and evolution that make these places so revered.
I start at Seema Malaka, the floating Buddhist monastery on one of Colombo’s oldest waterways, the Beira Lake. It is a sublime and serene surrounding where Buddhists come to meditate, offer flowers and light incense sticks.
Vastly ignored and hardly appreciated, the Nalanda Gedige, once the most central point in ancient Ceylon is a remarkable archaeological site with an interesting story, some fascinating carvings and historical significance.
According to former Commissioner of Archaeology, Prof. Senerath Paranavitana, there is inscriptional evidence that this was built during the 8th and 9th centuries as an ancient Hindu temple. The Dravidian-style (Pallava) architecture is dedicated to a Mahayana cult with Tantric learning. Subsequently, it is believed to have been used by Buddhist monks.
“Epic”. “Stunning”. “Awesome”. “Scenic”. “Asia’s Best”
These are just some of the adjectives used to describe the train ride from Colombo to Ella and a reason to find out for myself.
It is 5.55 a.m on this Friday morning when 35 like-minded friends and adventurers meet (and greet) at Colombo’s Fort Railway Station to catch the “Podimenike” train heading towards Badulla. The railway station is abuzz with activity as travelers’ scramble to get on board this ten-carriage train.
Three hours later we reach Kandy, and hereon, for the next six hours, is where the scenery changes into some of the most stunning sights one can experience on a train ride. At Rambukkana, the train begins its steep climb into the hills.