The Ceylon Express

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We approached the station with trepidation. The train journey from Kandy to Ella is renowned as one of the most scenic in Sri Lanka, a country famous for its breathtaking rail lines. But, this makes it popular. First and second class reserved seats are purchased months in advance by tour groups, leaving only unreserved seating in second and third class. Stories abound of sweaty, 6 hour journeys in packed carriages with standing room only. But, we need to make Ella by nightfall and a personal taxi costs $80US, so train it is! Our lovely airbnb host takes us to the Kandy train station half an hour early and wishes us the very best of luck.

The ticket counter is divided into two queues, second and third class. The second class line is full of foreign backpackers, some nervously laughing. There are no locals, they are all in the third class line along with a single foreigner. What does he know which I don’t? The line moves quickly and I pay the equivalent of $2 each for our tickets. Success! Of course, the Sri Lanka Rail Authority does not put a cap on ticket sales and it remains to be seen if we can even get on board the carriage.

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There isn’t too many people, this will be fine!

We hustle onto the platform, which while not exactly crowded does have a disturbing number of people waiting for a train most likely already full. I exchange guarded glances with other foreigners, there is no solidarity here. Where is the best place to stand we wonder, near the front or back? Trying to guess where a carriage door will stop. In the end we decide I will stand with the bags whilst Rachel can nimbly race forward and secure space. The train arrives, and only a few minutes late! It rumbles and creaks into the station, everyone despondently looking into the packed carriages – how will we fit? There is a mad rush as people jockey for space at doors of carriages with a bit of breathing room left. I notice the third class carriages seem almost identical to second class, but are slightly less crowded. Maybe that foreigner was onto something. Too late now, I push into the doorway behind Rachel, one of our bags hanging from my back outside the carriage.  The train, creaking and groaning begins to move out. Miraculously a few more inches of space is made for me and I watch from the open door as the now empty platform recedes behind us. Somehow, we all fit!

After an hour or so enough space opens up that we can actually sit on the floor next to the open doorway. The train climbs into hills covered in bright green tea plantations. Occasionally we cross an ancient colonial era bridge, or pass a rusted train hulk pushed off the tracks. Every hour or so food sellers move up and down the train, climbing over and around the tightly packed passengers, selling curry puffs and nuts.

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After 3 hours, sitting on the floor was not very exciting anymore. Luckily, Rachel had made friends with a local family from which we were able to snaffle some seats when they disembarked. It was good timing as yet more people piled on and it became standing room only again. From the comfort of actual seats, we watched the scenery roll past and ate the occasional curry puff. By 330pm, only 30 minutes late, the train pulled into Ella station disgorging almost every passenger. Despite the lack of space, it is an amazing journey which we were very glad to make. Everyone (except the occasional foreigner) smiles, and the scenery is amazing.

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