To those of us who speak English there is a certain humour in the fact that the city of Kandy has The Temple of The Sacred Tooth Relic. To the Sri Lankan people the tooth relic is the actual tooth of the Buddha and whoever holds the relic holds the governance of the country. To worship and give offerings in this holy place significantly helps you on your journey towards enlightenment.
Masses of worshippers and tourists shuffle in line three times a day during Puja, the only time the doors are open to see the golden casket that holds The Tooth. Actually it’s seven gold caskets nestled within each other like a Russian doll, with the tooth in the smallest one.
Kandy was a bit warmer than the hill country we’d arrived from and downtown was busier as well. However we did find some quaint corners left over from it’s glory days.
The beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens were a special treat and for 1,500 rupees ($10) deserve a visit for anyone going to Kandy.
A 30 minute scooter drive through winding, quiet country roads (a relief after the traffic in Kandy) brought us to the ancient Lankatilaka Vihara Temple. The temple doors were closed but a monk was happy to open them up for us and even adjusted the lighting inside for the benefit of our pictures.
After two days we said goodbye to our lovely guesthouse in the hills above the city (surrounded by jungle and monkeys in the trees) and boarded the bus headed towards the historical village of Sigiriya.
It was a beautiful 3 hour train ride from Ella to Nuwara Eliya. Nuwara Eliya is the most important area for tea production in Sri Lanka and the coolest area with day time temperatures peaking at 68 degrees Fahrenheit in late January. Altitude is 6,128 ft with amazing vistas, waterfalls and tea plantations you can tour.
This town is known as ‘Little England’ and indeed you can enjoy a gin and tonic or a game of golf in the more genteel area.
Travel Tips: Expect a bit higher budget for hotels, meals, drinks and scooter rentals. Also bring warm clothes for the evenings in January and sunscreen for the sunny high altitude days!
On the way to the tea plantation covered hill country we went on safari in Yala National Park. We saw Asian elephants (smaller than African elephants with smaller ears), a leopard in a tree, crocodiles, too many birds to count (including the beautiful green Bee Eater), a jackal, mongoose and other critters.
We arrived in the beautiful hill country town of Ella and enjoyed some typical rice and curry with the Sri Lankan Lion beer.
Ella enchanted us with verdant tea plantations, rocky cliffsides, dreamy waterfalls and fun loving backpackers. There are plenty of hikes with different levels of difficulty where you can see monkeys in the trees, tropical flowers and tea pickers on the hillside.
While in Sri Lanka you must try the egg hoppers for breakfast! Made from rice flour and coconut milk, pan fried into bowl shapes and then a fried egg nestled in the center gets topped with sambal. Sambal is chili and spice based, and can be made with coconut meat or tomatoes as shown in the picture below.
After three days enjoying Ella we boarded the train headed for the most important area for tea production, Nuwara Eliya. The train ride was the most beautiful one we have experienced up to date!
After 26 hours of trains, airplanes and tuk tuks we arrived in Galle, Sri Lanka. Coming from snowy Moscow the change in temperature and humidity was quite noticeable. We enjoyed the Dutch colonial town of Galle and rented a scooter (1000 rupees, $7) for a side trip to have a cocktail on Unawatuna Beach, visit a Peace Stupa and take a small hike down to Jungle Beach.
We hopped on a bus and headed to the long stretch of beach with loads of guesthouses, restaurants and bars right in the sand called Mirissa. One end is party central with spotlights, fireworks and pumping music all night but you can find quiet and solitude on the East end.
We rented a scooter again (locals call them scooties, very cute) and visited a temple with a giant Buddha statue along with another reclining Buddha in the town of Matara.
After three nights in Mirissa (and seeing several other beaches in the area, some great for learning to surf, others for solitude) we took a bus to Tangalle, then a tuk tuk to our remote guesthouse in Marakolliya Beach.
Our place was situated on a lagoon that flowed into the ocean just steps away. We could watch the fish, snakes and kingfishers in the lagoon while having lunch, then stroll down the long, almost empty beach. It was serene!
The name of our tour was ‘Arctic Explorer: Northern Lights, Northern Culture’. It was on our third night of searching for the lights that we saw them near the town of Murmansk. My brother Rob was able to capture this mystical sight with his professional camera. You can see his photos at http://apolymath.com/northern-lights/
Murmansk also included a visit to the decommissioned nuclear powered icebreaker Lenin.
On our way south towards Moscow we were treated to a traditional Russian Christmas show in the town of Petrozavodsk.
We also visited the small town of Suzdal which has several UNESCO World Heritage sites. It was one of the original Golden Ring towns and dates back to 1024.
We finally made it to Moscow and had the great tour of The Armory, Kremlin and Red Square. The Armory is full of royal treasures such as faberge eggs, crowns, thrones, coronation gowns and even carriages. Too bad there are no photos allowed!
Ian and I ended our Russian trip with a visit to the famous Moscow metro, otherwise known as ‘Palaces for the People’. Next up: Sri Lanka!
Happy New Year! We began 2018 in Russia on The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express Train on the way to Norway. Dinner was served on the train with an abundance of vodka that consequently sent me to my cabin for the night while everyone else disembarked for a fireworks and fire dancing show to ring in the new year. On New Years day we crossed the Arctic Circle!
We passed through the Russian/Norwegian border quite smoothly and took a bus to the town of Kirkenes, famous for the part it played in WWII. We visited the Andersgrotta bomb shelter built to hold 2,500 people and protected them for a total of 328 air raids. There was no heat, light, or bathrooms in the rambling tunnels as the town was bombed and burned down above.
Then it was time for a snowmobile sled ride to the frozen fjord to catch our lunch of delicious king crab. Turned out the crab was caught the night before so we witnessed the traps being hauled out of a hole in the ice and the crabs being quickly dispatched by a knife. They are called ‘King’ crabs because of their blue blood.
The sun never rose while we were in Polar Night in Norway, so most of my pictures are a bit dark or blurry. Take for example this one of the dog sled adventure we had in late afternoon!
There’s nothing like a vodka shot served from a glass made of ice at the Kirkenes Snow Hotel at the end of a dog sled ride.
Each room in the snow hotel has its own beautifully carved theme. If you are brave enough to stay overnight (unfortunately we didn’t get to) you are given a thick sleeping bag and a balaclava to spend the night in your personal igloo art piece. I heard that it’s cozy indeed and super quiet. Only problem is putting on your boots and clothes to run down the snow corridor to use the WC in the night!
There was plenty of activity at The Snow Hotel including a reindeer farm, snow shoeing and visiting the husky farm full of excited, vocal sled dogs. They provided us with snow suits, mittens, boots, socks, and balaclavas when needed.
Although Kirkenes was bathed in darkness for most of the day and the sun never rose in the polar night we discovered the warmth in the hearts of her people. And the laughter we shared was more than enough to brighten our days!
Russia! Did I ever imagine going there? Honestly No. Given the current political climate and growing up in the Cold War plus Russia is COLD in the winter, it’s kind of a miracle that I ended up there. My parents generously gave Ian and I (plus our son, Soma and brother Rob) tickets to join them on The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express train from Saint Petersburg up to Norway and ending back in Moscow.
The elaborate and somewhat somber history of Russia is best left to the people who inhabit it’s vast lands, and the history experts. I only wish to share some of the incredible beauty that was my pleasure to witness.
Saint Petersburg is known for it’s canals, museums and beautiful architecture. We had the incredible opportunity to have first access to see The Hermitage Museum before the crowds arrived! Truly amazing and rare experience, we even saw the famous Peacock Clock go through its paces (only kings, presidents and the fortunate few have witnessed this amazing feat in person).
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was built on the exact place that Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Remembered as one of Russia’s greatest tsars, he emancipated the peasant serfs in 1861.
Another beautiful church we visited was Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.
The borscht was delicious, the temperature frigid, the Russian dolls gorgeous in shop windows as snowflakes fell. The sky was dark except for a couple hours each day. We boarded the train and headed north to Norway!