Sri Lanka 2 weeks individual itinerary

When given the choice between beach or mountain, I´ll always chose mountains. So my two weeks travel in Sri Lanka focused mainly on the Hill Country and the Ancient Cities. As always I travel independentely, without a guide or driver. I traveled between December 8th-21th 2016.

Day 1: Arrive Colombo and train to Kandy
I arrived on a Qatar Airways at 9 am, took the local bus to Colombo city center, a dusty place which I left a couple hours later on the local midday train to Kandy.

Dambulla Cave Temple
Dambulla Cave Temple

Day 2: Kandy (Temple of the Tooth), bus to Dambulla (visit Cave Temple), tuk-tuk to Sigirya (visit rock)
The Dambulla cave temples are quite wonderful with beautiful reclining Buddhas lining the caves which are reached by walking a couple of hundred meters up a rock. Even more so is Sigirya, the iconic Sri Lankan site, with a temple-ruin on top of a free-standing rock and magnificent views all around.

View from Sigirya Rock
View from Sigirya Rock

Day 3: Local bus to Polonnaruwa and visit of the ancient site.
It really is very easy traveling on local buses here: Distances are relatively short, it is very cheap and I don´t think traveling would be much faster in a private car. This time I sat next to a man who traveled between Sigirya and Polonnaruwa every two weeks: He was a hotel manager of the top Polonnaruwa hotel and had gone to hotel school in Switzerland. As for the UNESCO heritage site of Polonnaruwa, it is definitely interesting: A classic outspread area of ruins, interesting, but perhaps not as remarkable as Sigirya or Anuradhapura.

Day 4: Local bus to Anuradhapura and temples
The Anuradhapura temples are wonderfully alive and in full use, predominantly by locals. I saw very few tourists here. Interestingly these rural destinations in Sri Lanka are devoid of restaurants and nightlife: Sigirya, Polonnaruwa and now Anuradhapura. Sri Lankans obviously prefer to eat at home and most tourists seem to head for the beaches or national parks.

Anuradhapura pilgrims
Anuradhapura pilgrims

Day 5: Local bus to Kandy, train to Nuwara Eliya
I had booked the tourist open view carriage on the Colombo-Badulla trail, where lunch is served and seats are assigned. Honestly I did not find the town of Nuwara Eliya very atmospheric, plenty of construction is going on here, though there are clear remnants of the colonial-era getaway it used to be.

View from a guesthouse, Ella
View from a guesthouse, Ella

Day 6: Tuk-tuk to Horton´s Plains, walk to World´s End, train to Ella
Quite frankly I found Horton´s Plains and the walk to World´s End overrated. It is a 7 km (GPS) circular walk through tussock and pleasant mountainous landshape, but nothing out of the ordinary, especially for those familiar with mountains. Rather, this is something of a local attraction, obviously being quite different from the jungles and coastal landshapes elsewhere.

Horton´s Plains
Horton´s Plains

Day 7: Ella
Something of a tourist trap, in my opinion. The town itself is quite simply ugly, full of concrete buildings and ongoing constructions and entirely without atmosphere. The surrounding tea plantations are quite lovely, though touristic, as is the famous Demodara train bridge.

Demodara bridge
Demodara bridge

Day 8: Train to Haputale, walk up to Lipton´s seat, visit Dambatenne Tea Factory
The walk up the original Thomas Lipton tea plantation is very interesting, encountering the Tamil teapluckers and their villages on the way and is described in a separate post. Furthermore Haputale is vastly more interesting and atmospheric than Ella.

Tamil tea pluckers on Dambatenne estate

Day 9: Train to Hatton, tuk-tuk to Dalhousie
The train line stretch from Haputale to Hatton lovely, and driving through tea plantations on the way up to Dalhousie is quite spectacular. Dalhousie is the entry point for the walk up to Adam´s Peak, the highlight of my visit to Sri Lanka and described in a separate post.

Puja at Adam´s Peak at sunrise

Day 10: 3 am start up to Adam´s Peak, descent to Ratnapura, local busses to Galle.
The Adam´s Peak hike was the highlight of the trip and is described in a separate post.

Adam´s Peak at sunrise
Adam´s Peak at sunrise

Day 11: Galle
Spent the day searching for wifi in a couple of cafés and recovering from the Adam´s Peak walk.

Day 12: Taxi Galle-Negombo (close to the airport)
Day 13: Leave Sri Lanka in the morning

Highlights:
The walk up (and down) Adam´s Peak.
Walking in tea plantations near Dambatenne Tea Factory.
The living temples of Anuradhapura.
Sigirya Rock, a major site and just as impressive as it looks on photos.

Tea plantations in Ella
Tea plantations in Ella

Adam´s Peak via Dalhousie and Ratnapura

Named Adam´s Peak since this was allegedly the first place of earth on which Adam sat his foot after being thrown out of heaven, this is probably the major pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka. The season runs from poya day (full-moon) in December and until May. During this time hundreds of pilgrims ascend the more 5000 steps through the night passing hundreds of teashops and temples on the way, arriving at Adam´s Peak at 2243 meter in time for sunset. Most arrive at the top well before sunset and sleep on mats on a concrete floor inside a cave right next to the top temple. This is a walk where you are never alone.

Ascent through the night towards Adam´s Peak
Ascent through the night towards Adam´s Peak

The closest village is Dalhousie, about an with tuk-tuk  from  Hatton on the main Colombo-Badulla train line. Most tourists start the ascent from their Dalhousie guesthouse at around 2 am and return by the same way after sunrise.

However, to avoid backtracking, and since there are in fact two ways up the Peak (from Dalhousie and Ratnapura), I decided to descend to Ratnapura, thus I bringing my entire backpack with me. This descent, though technically very easy,  is really tough on the knees: 1700 meters straight descent on steps.  I started out from my guesthouse in Dalhousie a little before 3 am arriving at the top (with luggage) around 6:30, including several stops at temples, tea-shops etc. on the way. A wonderfully atmospheric experience with myriads of people, shops and glittering statues as well as all kinds of paraphernalia. At the top, I arrived right on time for the puja, again a very atmospheric experience with fabulous views.

Adam´s Peak at sunrise
View from Adam´s Peak at sunrise

By descending the steps towards Ratnapura I immediately left the tourist-track (though tourists make up less than 1% of those ascending Adam´s Peak) and for the next five hours I met nobody except a couple of locals. There are tea-shops on the Ratnapura route as well, however it is significantly longer (both in terms of length in km and descent, as Ratnapura is lower-lying than Dalhouse) than the track from Dalhouse. It passes through wonderful forests, though the eternal steps equal anything I have experienced in Nepal. Finally down (the trail does not end in Ratnapura itself, but about 40 km outside), I took a tuk-tuk to Ratnapura bus station and then a local bus down to Galle on the Coast.

Pilgrims on their way up Adam´s Peak
Pilgrims on their way up Adam´s Peak

Walking in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka

The tea plantations are one of the most famous symbols of Sri Lanka and a highlight for most visitors. Easily accessible as the main train line from Colombo to Badulla passes through numerous plantations, starting mainly after Hatton train station (the jump-off point for visiting Adam´s Peak).

One of the great cultural walks in Sri Lanka is the +800 m walk up to Lipton´s seat, starting out from Dambatenne tea factory, a 45 min tuk-tuk ride from Haputale. Dambatenne was the original factory of tea-magnate Sir Thomas Lipton, and it is said that he often walked to the point now called Lipton´s seat to survey his empire. It takes around 2 hours to walk the 7 km and 800+ meters ascent up to the seat from Dambatenne tea factory, all the way through tea plantations on a paved road.

Tea pluckers weighing tea leaves at a weighing station
Tea pluckers weighing tea leaves at a weighing station

The tea-pluckers are Tamil women. They live in separate Tamil villages, located close the tea plantations, easily distinguished by prominent hindu temples. Employed by the Dambatenne Estate, they are payed 600 Rupees (around 4 US dollars) per day for a quota of 18 kg tea leaves. Whenever the bag on their backs is full, they empty it at a weighing station. If the 18 kg quota is not reached, their salary is reduced according to a specific algorithm.

Tea plantations in Ella
View over tea plantations in Ella

It has been well documented that the Tamil tea-pluckers are among the poorest in Sri Lanka. Apart from tea-plucking being hard work, they are frequently discriminated against and the Tamil communities are not integrated into the Sri Lankan communities. My tuk-tuk drivers mother used to be a tea-plucker, but was able to give it up as her children could provide sufficient income for the household. He told me how she would complain from constant back-pain as well as chronic skin problems, not to mention the ubiquitous leeches present in the often wet tea-fields.

Alert, 82°30′ N, on top of the world

Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world. Located at 82°30′ N on the Northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island only 817 km from the North Pole and with the nearest Canadian city more than 2000 km away.

Military plane for Alert
Military plane going to Alert

The Canadian Forces have a base here (CFS Alert), co-habitating with a weather station and a Global Atmosphere Watch laboratory. Around 75 people are stationed here, year-round. Twice a year supply planes reach Alert from Thule Air Base on Greenland, where I worked as a doctor. Visitors are allowed on the military plane on a first-come, first-serve basis and I waited two days in the hangar to get a so called seat in the back of the Canadian military plane.

Military plane for Alert
On the way to Alert

Flight time is less than two hours. I remember Hans Ø was pointed out to me, the place of a bizarre “whisky” conflict between Denmark and Canada. And we flew past the massive 110 km wide Humboldt Glacier flying over the Kane Basin and up to Ellesmere Island and finally CFS Alert

Alert, Nunavut
Alert, Nunavut

As with Thule Air Base, it is an arctic desert up here. Flat and barren. And from here it is 817 km of straight travel through icy waters to the North Pole.

Alert, view towards the North Pole
Alert, view towards the North Pole

The base itself consist of a collection of flat, unassuming buildings and we stayed only a couple of hours for the plane to drop the cargo before returning to Thule Air Base.

Travel to Alert
On the plane to Alert

Other posts on Greenland:

Doctor in Greenland – the basic facts.
Doctor in Qaanaaq: 24 hours on call.
The doctors visit to Siorapaluk, the northernmost settlement in Greenland.
24 hours working as a doctor in Nanortalik.
Life as a doctor on Thule Air Base.

A photogallery of Alert is available on flickr.

Life as a doctor on Thule Air Base

Thule Air Base is a strange place, and has since the beginning been surrounded by myth and controversy. The northernmost US Air Force base is located on top of Greenland close to the historical settlement Dundas, which served as base camp for several famous polar explorers  such as Robert E Peary and Matthew Henson as well as Knud Rasmussen who founded a trade station here and named it Thule. The original Thule trade station now serves as the museum building in Qaanaaq. Upon establishment of the Thule Air Base in the 1950s, the original inuit population were forcefully evacuated to the present day village of Qaanaaq, causing ongoing lawsuits for decades until the matter was finally settled by the Danish Supreme Court in 2003.

Thule Air Base
Thule Air Base

In brief, the main purpose of the Thule Air Base is to support the Thule Radar, a part of the BMEWS system to detect a missile attack against the United States.

Around 600 people live on the base, 150 from the US military, the remaining 450 are service personnel, mainly from Denmark and Greenland. The service contract with the Thule Air Base is with the company Greenland Contractors, who hires the doctors (in my case via an Agency). This service contract is currently (2016) in the center of a major controversy.

Thule Air Base
View from Thule Air Base

Two doctors are permanently stationed on the base and one of these needs to have surgical skills. I did not have to use mine. The work itself is mainly duties within general medicine including health certificates and other administrative reports. There were no emergencies the month I was there. The closest was a call from a captain on a Lufthansa flight located right over the North Pole where a patient had abdominal pain. In the end it was decided that emergency landing at the base was not indicated. Though not part of the health care system in Greenland, Thule Air Base doctors and authorities will nevertheless assist with medical evacuations from nearby Qaanaaq if needed.

My office, Thule Air Base
My office, Thule Air Base

As a Doctor you are provided with a car. And you have to pass a driving test at the base. I had a small apartment within the medical building/hospital ward, and we had no admissions during my time there. There is a small convenience store. The Top of the World Club (a bar/restaurant). And a fitness center. I was on Thule Air Base in August. The sun was never down and I covered the windows by plastic foil during the night.

Dundas
The old huts in Dundas

The scenery is spectacular with approximately 20 km road to drive on outside the base. I visited the Thule Radar. And despite many visits to Greenland, this is the only time I have actually been standing on the Inland Ice. I climbed the iconic Dundas mountain, visited the old Dundas inuit village. And lastly, I visited Alert, the Canadian base only 817 km from the North Pole.

Around Thule Air Base
Around Thule Air Base

Other posts on Greenland:
Doctor in Greenland – the basic facts.
Doctor in Qaanaaq: 24 hours on call.
The doctors visit to Siorapaluk, the northernmost settlement in Greenland.
24 hours working as a doctor in Nanortalik.
Visiting Alert, the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement in the world.

A photogallery of my time as a doctor on Thule Air Base is available on flickr.

Global surgeon and traveller