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I sit patiently on the platform at Nuwara train station. Elegantly-carved stone, crafted wooden beams and lush overflowing hanging baskets remind me of some sleepy Cotswold backwater spot. There is a serene air which leaves me feeling blissful.
I’m heading for Demodara; and along the way, I will enjoy what is often dubbed as ‘the world’s most beautiful train ride’. I’m certainly not sure what to expect, as the jovial groups of locals and ragged-looking backpackers all seem completely at ease with what is coming.
On the horizon, eventually, a blue mass that is our train begins to worm around the corner. By my watch, the train is twenty minutes and yet no one seems bothered; but those in the know, like my guide, assure me that this is the Sri Lankan way. Everything happens in its own time.
Stepping on board, I’m introduced to something completely different. It isn’t as rustic and characterful as the exterior of the train and the station’s situation would suggest. Instead, the seats are comfortable and spacious, and windows fully open to allow passengers the freedom to consume everything that is on offer along the way.
The driver’s flag cuts down through the air several times to signal that we are now on our way. I sit down, we set off. I can feel the excitement rising as the train drags itself forward.
I spend the first thirty or forty minutes with my neck craning in every angle to take it all in. Elderly tea workers swarm slowly through neat estates which slant down hillsides, houses painted in vivid colours burst out from thick undergrowth and long sweeps of low-lying cloud hang thickly between trees. My window acts like the frame for a kind of live-action epic of colours and culture.
My guide Anjith shuffles to the seat across from me and begins to explain a little more about Sri Lankan life. It’s a deep pot of cultures and history.
Over the centuries, Sri Lanka has been home to numerous rulers and kingdoms from near and afar. The Sinhalese, Tamils, Portuguese, Dutch and even British have laid a claim to parts or all of the country from around 540 BCE. The European influences are particularly evident in places like Galle Fort, which is found along the south coast. The broad white buildings and elaborate hybrid of Portuguese colonial and Dutch architecture is like nothing else in the country.
Anjith’s dialogue begins to tail off and I can see him peering down the track through the window. He ushers me to my feet and chirps excitedly about how the highlight of the line is fast approaching: the Nine Arches bridge – also known as ‘The Bridge in the Sky’, due to its immense height.
We walk together through carriage and Anjith points me towards an open exit door. The scenery is still streaking past at full speed and the whole train lurches awkwardly on a corner. We both shuffle forward and snatch for a rail each to support ourselves as we lean out.
Moving myself forward, I am gifted with a sprawling view of the countryside. Through the sounds of rushing wind and clunking metal, I learn more about the fable of the Nine Arches.
There is a story that the British set about building the bridge but were forced to halt progress with the commencement of World War One and the fresh demand for steel. A group of locals, led by chief engineer P.K. Appuhami, decided to offer their services to complete the bridge using only solid stone and cement. As a show of confidence in their skills, Appuhami and his men claimed that they would sleep underneath it.
I stand with my toes hanging over the edge of the exit door. Just below me, young children unperturbed by the train’s presence flit along dirt tracks on their way home from school. Suddenly, the thick forest falls away and the curving chunk that is the Nine Arches can be fully appreciated.
The long blocks of grey rock seem to disappear into the distance below. And as we cross the bridge from our perch, it feels as though we are almost floating high above a large blotch of trees and houses in the shadow of the structure. I even forget, for a brief moment, that I am relying on a single, awkward grip to stop myself from taking a very, very close look at the beautiful world below. It’s both a relief and a disappointment when it is time to step back properly into the carriage.
As we step off the train at Demodara and a local greets me with ayubowan (a go-to greeting and a wish of prosperity), I realise what makes Sri Lanka so unique. At every corner, the people are so forthcoming about sharing their positivity and happiness with you that it is almost impossible to just dip your toe into a visit. They embrace everyone around them and, as a traveller, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect accompaniment to all of the beauty and vibrancy that is waiting on the small island.