Cultural Triangle and Dambulla Caves

We now in the middle northern area of Sri Lanka in an area named the Cultural Triangle because many ancient capitals of Sri Lankan empires are located. And also many ancient monasteries and other religious sites.

Louisa is writing about Sigiriya which will be posted soon. (Soon is relative as we currently don’t have an internet connection and are writing on our iPhones). Now a week later and I see that this hasn’t been posted, so here goes.

Sri Lanka has a mixed religious and ethnic heritage. There are still a few pre historic tribal people called the Veddahs who may date from the time when there was a land bridge to India. Two groups of Hindu Tamils from South India—the first came to northern Sri Lanka in over two thousand years ago and modern Tamils brought over by the Enlish to work the tea plantations. The predominate Buddhist Sinhalese who came from Northern India in the sixth century BC. And some Muslims traders who came about 1000 years ago. Many of the temples mix Buddhist and Hindu icons and practices. And both schools of Buddhism are followed, although Theravada is more widely followed than Mahayana. Almost forgot the European invaders—first the Portuguese, then the Dutch followed by the English which brought Christianity. Sri Lankans with European blood are called Burghers and they held power from Independence in 1948 until the late fifties when the Sinhalese took over which lead to discrimination against the Tamils. Which resulted in the Tamil Tigers revolutionary group which caused major havoc until a couple of years ago.

We haven’t been affected by the flooding, which is in the predominately Tamil areas. A major challenge for aid givers and the leaders of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a third world country but shows signs of improvement. Some very good roads, many minor roads paved, lots of buses and tuk-tuk for public transportation. Many private motos, but not many private cars. Electricity most everywhere as far as we can tell. Some thatched roofs on out building, but otherwise tile or corrugated metal or some kind of composite.

OK enough social studies. After spending most of the day at Sigiriya we went to the Royal Rock Temple Caves in Dambulla. Five caves about six hundred feet above the generally flat plains. The caves have had significance for Buddhists for 2000 years, but most of what is here is generally 200 years old. Two of the caves have large reclining Buddhas and many smaller standing and sitting Buddhas. Most outstanding though is the wall and ceiling murals which are in good condition. The murals include scenes from Buddhas life and geometric patterns as well as dozens of Buddhas.

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

We have been on the go and at last have a decent internet connection here in Nuwara Eliya. We at 6000 ft. elevation high in tea plantation area at the atmospheric St Andrew’s hotel a former club for home sick British tea barons. Some things have not changed since 1900—rooms have old coal fires places, elegant arch doorways, the floors are slightly off kilter, creaky stairways, billards room, terraced garden with wrought iron chairs and tables for sipping afternoon tea. Across the street barefoot sarong clad Tamil ladies with burlap bags on their backs hanging by a tump line over their foreheads pick tea leaves on the hillsides. Their grimy concrete hovels, gaily painted fushia, lime green and lavender, surround stately Queen Anne style architectural ghosts of the colonial past.
We went to a Hindu temple near by for the evening puja or blessing. This area is primarily Hindu because of all the Tamil tea pickers. The temple is supposed to be the legendary site where Rama’s wife Sita was held captive by the demon Ravana who kidnapped her from India. The heroic monkey god Hanuman flew to Sriilanka and rescued her. The puja was a lively affair with boys playing drums, cymbals and singing while a handsome young Brahman priest performed the rituals and prayers before colorful statues flanking the small room which held Hanuman swathed in ritual fabrics. Each devotee was blessed with a tikka mark before a flaming vessel and the priest placed Hanuman’s hat on their head briefly. Then the little band led a procession around the temple dancing and clapping with joyous exuberance. After we went on to a Buddhist temple for their puja which was rather a dull affair by comparison but interesting nonetheless.
We were feeling hungry after all this and were dropped off by UL, our Sri Lankan guide, in search of the best hopper and roti maker in town. Hoppers are a Sri Lankan crepe batter that is ladled into a five inch diameter “wok” and cooked on a stove. When it is golden around the edges the hopper chef pops it out and starts making a stack. You can eat these with a little chili salsa or have an egg hopper with a egg cooked on top of it. The roti maker put on a great show for my video camera showboating with all his best moves, whirling the dough around, spinning it, flipping and stretching it in time to Bhangra music blaring from a radio in this little hole in the wall eatery.
Tomorrow we are off to Dalhousie in preparation for our 7 km climb with Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims for sunrise on top of Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada.

Namaste! Aayu-bowan!

Louisa

Serendip

Saturday. After spending yesterday bird watching which means a bit of walking and lots of standing and looking, we opted to try for more of a hike today. We went peak bagging! Took a short hike to a peak. Was nice to get above the canopy and see the countryside.
It seems like the jungle is held together with roots. Hanging roots and so many tree roots that they make nice steps. The peak was 760m (2500 ft.). Mt. Mulawella.

On the way down our guides stopped us for a while and with an MP3 player, played bird songs. After about half an hour they found a small rare owl, named serendip (photo below).

Our local forest guide charged about $10 per day. Not much by our standards. From the little we’ve seen Sri Lanka doesn’t look that poor, but with wages like that it is. Seems to be a good bus system. Many busses even in the country side.

Women wear both western clothes (jeans and blouses), shirts and blouses, and dresses. Not the same styles as California, but maybe would not look out of place in the Applachians. Eomen also wear saris. Men wear western clothes and many wear sarongs, more so in the country side. The mens sarongs are colorful—woven large plaids, solid colors with wide borders. The lengths vary from knee to floor. Short more for work and long for dress. Good because they’re cool.

Found out that the low temperatures we had a couple of days ago were the lowest for the day in 61 years, about 20*F lower than normal. Getting warmer now.

Driving through the countryside, it’s surprising how many people there are, frequent villages, tuk-tuk running back and forth, seemingly buses every few minutes. And in one area dense with tea plantations, many private cars—mostly compacts.

I’ll have to sort out the two Buddhist groups. Anyway, the Sri Lanka form is the same as Thailand—no prayer wheels and not many flags.

The long running war with the Tamil Tigers was ended a couple of years ago. But the taxes have gone up since the war. The taxes increase the prices by as much as three fold according to our guide, but by observation not true for everything. Some of it goes to infrastructure and supporting the environment, but also apparently to lining the politicians pockets.

Still writing this a couple of days later. We’ve seen several electrification projects. One gets the impression that most of the country is electrified. Our lodge at Sinharaja had a water small turbine generator, but power lines were being put up nearby. Cell phone coverage wide spread as elsewhere in the emerging world.

Last two nights stayed in a hotel used in the Bridge Over the River Kwai. And yesterday visited the site of the bridge used in the movie. The bridge is gone (it was really blown up for the movie), but the abutments are still there. And it really is jungle. Thick vegetation. Hot and humid even in winter. Misty mornings. Not much rain here now. Although we’ve heard about the major flooding in the northern part of the country—forty days of rain. We don’t think it will affect our planned trip, although we still have to recheck our northern most destination.

Birds and Forest Reseves

Off the grid today and tomorrow for sure. Alreeady Friday afternoon and we left Monday morning. We apparently arrived in Colombo Wednesday mornining, Jan. 12. For the first week we’re traveling with Jewings Tour which is well regarded for their birding tours. Louisa and I aren’t particularly birders but we enjour tromping around in the woods and seeing birds. Anita who arranged the trip is a budding birder and this is her first birding centric tour.

We spend the first night at Villa Talangama on a lake of the same name on the edge of Colombo. Beautiful house built as a private house, but now the original owners are B&Bing. Wonderful hoults. Both are retired, he was a construction project engineer and she a psychiatrist, both in England. Built their dream house on the lake. Excellent food. The Caplans, our driver-guide, UL and us did a little birding on arrival. The lake is more like a swamp with water buffalo and therefore cattle egrets, purple heron, and many other birds as well as mongoose and water mionitor (lizards). The weather started unseasonably cool, dropping to below 70°F at night.

Thursday we got going at 7 to go to the Bodinaagala Forest Preserve which surrounds a Buddhist monastery. About 12 monks reside here. The monks take care of the grounds and meditate. They do have electricity and talk (many monks takes vows of silence). They do receive food and alms from their devotees. Instead of walking around a town or village, they come to building at the edge of the monaatery were people bring them a 10 a.m. morning meal. On the day we were their a family consisting of maybe three women, a couple of children, and a man had come to prepare a meal for the monks. They used a provided kitchen to prepare the meal. At 10 a.m. about 7 seven monks came down to the building with their begins bowls. They sat down in a line and received their food. All but one of the monks then left after some prayers (or whatever they are). The remaing monk conducted a service for the food providers and any visitors. Before it was over we went out to vied watch and tour the monastery which had building spread over tens of acres. We met one monk who we found out had been their for 18 years, and then talked to another monk (with our guide translating). The second monk was younger. He goes home once a year to visit his family. After some conversation he offered to perform a blessing and tied blessed strings on our wrists. We then returned back by the kitchen building and were offered lunch by the devotees. They had probably eaten after the monks left and were kind enough to give us lunch. And it was very good. Teh usual dahl and rice, but several good vegetable dishes and chicken. Their generosity and friendlyness proved what we’d heard about the Sri Lankans beign friendly and genreous. We then drove a couple of hours to the Sinharaja Rainforest, going by four wheel drive for the last few kilometers to Martins Lodge on the edge of the forest. Martin, a sixty of seventy something owner/host was one of the key players in improving the protection of the area which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was started in the 1870s, but has also been logged and used for other purposes, but logging has been stopped. Today we went our out on a birding walk with UT and another required guide. Between the two of them we saw at least 20 bird species as well as many flowers including orchids.

After our deluxe first night we now in more pedestrian digs. But we do have power and hot showers, and we’re in a beautiful rain forest.

Sri Lanka and India

We’re picking up our postponed trip to South India and also
joining Bob and Anita for a month in Sri Lanka. We plan to post
blogs and some photos while on the trip. Presuming WiFi so we can
post with our phones and occasionally Internet cafe stops should
make it possible. We have two house sitters while we’re gone:, my
brother, Steve and a Susan a friend from New Mexico. Both are
escaping cold climes.

In the air now. Just passed by St. George, Utah and Cedar Breaks. Lots of snow.

The airplane is nice. We’re on Emirates with a layover in Dubai. If we’re not too tired we’ll have time to explore a little.

Several inches of legroom compared to domestic flights and well equipped seat back, that is, well equipped screen and 110V and USB charging plugs. The plan is about half full which is a surprise these days. But this is a slow season. Hope to post this in Dubai.

We plan to blog this trip which shouldn’t be too hard technologically, just have to make the time. I didn’t have the time or technology to post on the Nepal trek and didn’t finish writing up the trip, but I did cover more than half the trip and posted on our blog at http://knobby.ws. Links to photographs also from the Nepal trip are on the blog.

Up the Barun Valley to the Makalu Base Camp

For the next seven days we went up the Barun Valley to Makalu Base Camp and returned. About 17 miles one way. Unfortunately and fortunately this was an eventful section. Our lowest elevation was about 12,000 ft. (3700m). This upper section of the valley has no permanent residents. During the summer, animals are grazed. Almost all of the animals have returned to lower elevations and we met several small herds of goats and sheep being herded out. The valley is narrow and rarely more than a hundred yards wide. Surprisingly at this elevation, forests exist. The forest resembled rain forests.

One view of the Barun Valley
One view of the Barun Valley

The pastures (kharkas) a spread out along the valley. Most of the kharkas have stone huts and some of them now have tea houses—primitive hotels. Campgrounds are provided at the tea houses. We camped, although a couple of us stayed inside at the first tea house at Yangle Kharka to get relief from being in a tent during days of rain. Camping is theoretically only allowed at approved locations in an effort to preserve the area. Wood fires aren’t allowed either. Trekking companies use kerosene.

Camped here going up and back.
Yangle Kharka

Not many people on our way up because of the bad weather, but when we reached Makalu BC we started to see more groups—many had come over several high passes on a northern route from Lukla. Typically two or three groups of ten clients at each tea house camp ground. Also a few independent trekkers, usually young couples; although we met two guys who had teamed up a Lonely Planets discussion board the Thorn Tree.

The unfortunate event was a log on a small bridge that broke under Paul’s boot causing him to fall and break several ribs. That ended his and Judy’s trip. The bridge was near a tiny tea house where they waited for two days for a helicopter rescue. Jhalak, our guide, and a porter had to travel at night to Makalu BC to intercept a group with a satellite phone to call in the helicopter. The phone wasn’t available until about 8 a.m., and when the helicopter arrived at 10 the clouds had come in. Another long day for the Becketts.

The next day we heard the helicopter fly over at 6:15 a.m. to avoid the clouds and succeeded in landing and whisking Paul (and Judy) to the hospital in Kathmandu. (We at Makalu BC didn’t know for sure until the next day they’d gotten out because the satellite phone had left, but based on the weather we were confident that they had.)  Although it wasn’t an easy decision, except for one assistant guide and a porter, the rest of us had proceeded on the trek, knowing that in two days we’d be returning to where the Becketts were. We were all very happy when the first helicopter came at 10 a.m. and it wasn’t until we reached the satellite phone later that day that we found out that it couldn’t land. We were above the valley fog/cloud and couldn’t see down the curved valley to where they were. But when we heard the 6 a.m. helicopter we were pretty certain that it was early enough to land. Fortunately we didn’t have to deal with what to do if they hadn’t gotten out when we returned the next day.

The bridge was comprised of four logs about 4 to 6 inches in diameter, and the outer one was rotted near the end.

That day was our day to look at Makalu and explore. I wrote about what I did earlier in the blog here.

The next day we awoke to an inch of fresh snow and before leaving Sharon led us in putting up a prayer flag.

That day and the next we went back down the Barun Valley and headed up towards Shipton Pass stopping the second night in a cold rainy campsite. The porters huddled around a fire.

Our porters keeping warm around a fire.

The next day we made it back over the three passes including Shipton La (Pass) 

and ending up back in the Arun Valley at Kauma.

More trek photos here.

First Eight Days: Tumlingtar to the Barun Valley

Since I couldn’t blog during the trek, I’ll put up a trip description is several blog postings. Our trek was a 28-day trek—two days for getting in and out, and 26 straight days of hiking (chance to take it easy one day, but I did the hike described below). I enjoyed the trek immensely. Fantastic scenery, a good group of fellow trekkers and support crew. The trek was hard, but not always fun. More challenging than any of us expected—long steep ascents and descents and some unpleasant weather.

We started out by flying to Bratnigar, then taking a long SUV trip, followed by a night river crossing, and short ride to Tumlingtar ending up there at maybe 8 pm. We were supposed to fly directly to Tumlingtar, but the airport is closed for reasons that were never quite clear—maintenance or a rain saturated runway. The first few days were along a new dirt road with some sections along the old road and sections of trail. Farming and towns and villages the whole time. And even a couple larger towns with all kinds of stores and markets. The main challenge was the heat and humidity—maybe 85 for both. Farming is rice, millet, beans (lentils and soy) mainly. And some animals—pigs, goats, and cows. Friendly people, mostly from the Rai group—Hindus. Almost everyone enjoyed having their pictures taken and would smile for the picture—quite a change from Africa. For three days we were hiking along a ridge until the village of Num.

From Num we dropped steeply down to the Arun River and climbed as steeply up the other side to Sedua About 2500 ft. up and down and we only went 4 miles (6 km). But by then we had gotten over jet lag, our legs were getting used to walking, a little cooler because of the elevation. More climbing to come and then the rains came. Not heavy rains or accompanied by wind, but as we got higher accompanied by cold. Made for slippery going on rocky trails. We got occasional peak sitings, but hiking in the clouds for some of the time. After the down and up day, we climbed 2200 ft., then 4700 ft. to almost 12,000 ft. (3600m) at Kauma. That was followed by one of the tougher days of climbing over three passes in the rain, and the crew couldn’t find a good place for lunch so we did without more or less. After 2700 ft. of climbing and 1100 ft. of descending we arrived in camp. But the scenery was incredible—lakes, lichen, moss, and small plant.

Kathmandu

After a 35 hour trip with about 20 hours of flying we arrived safely in Kathmandu. We being Judy, Paul and I. Three of seven taking a 28 day trek to Makalu base camp to the east of Mt. Everest. We start Monday by flying to Tumlingtar, up to Makalu BC and backtracking a bit then west to Lukla and then back to Kathmandu. Tomorrow, Sunday, our group meets each other (I think I’m the only one now everyone hasn’t met, and the key support personnel. Off to a group dinner. We we arrive early enough Monday to start our trek. A bit apprehensive about walking mostly every day for a month, but here goes.

We arrived late Thursday and by now, Saturday evening feeling a bit over jet lag. Weather is nearly perfect, in the seventies, a chance of rain which makes for nice clouds. Took it fairly slow the last two days. We’re staying at the Tibet Guest House in Thamel. The hotel is large and pleasant spread over several buildings, and inexpensive. Thamel is the center of the tourist district. Not high end, not sure where the five-star hotels are. But here lots of shopping and eating possibilities.

Yesterday we took the two hundred some stairs to Swayambhunath temple. Swayambhunath is a large Buddhist stupa sitting on top of a hill. Gold leaf covering the top, monkeys scampering around and views of the sprawling humanity of the Kathmandu Valley. The population of Kathmandu is about 900,000 and 600,000 in the surrounding areas. Crowded, noisy, and dirty like many third world countries.

Today we spend much of the day at Boudhanath Stupa which is the one most of us associate with Kathmandu with a pair of eyes staring to each point of the compass. Judy and Paul visiting Boudhanath years ago and we arrived by taxi, Judy was sure we were in the wrong place because the stupa was out of site. When they visited before there was nothing else around, now it’s part of the sprawl of Kathmandu. The stupa itself is ringed by building from maybe two to ten stories. Most are stores and restaurants, but there are several temples. Today is the first day of a multiday featival so the stupa was well attended by locals.