To my surprise, I got out of bed early, drank a not so good coffee in a yoga cafe and left Nuwara Eliya with positive thoughts and traveled to the most sacred mountain in Sri Lanka to see a miracle.
Sri Pada or Adam’s peak lies roughly 50miles from Nuware Eliya right in the middle of the island. It is one of the must-see places in Sri Lanka as on top the mountain lies the Sacred Footprint. Perhaps this is the only place in the world which all major religions accept as a sacred place. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians all gather around and pray together. The footprint is said to have belonged to Buddha, Shiva or Adam depending on the belief system. Interesting… The same footprint. Belongs to a different holy person. And in the light of the events of the past weeks it would be good to remember that we all believe in the same God or Gods.
Whoever it belonged to you need to work hard to get to see it. There are more than 6000 stairs between the foot of the mountain and the actual foot(print) on top of the mountain. Non-religious individuals are probably more interested in the magnificent sunset, in any case it’s worth the trip. The mountain and the stairs are open 24/7 and receive thousands of pilgrims every day. It is recommended to start the climb around 2 am so that one has enough time to get up there before the sun rises and the heat is also more bearable at dawn. So relatively comfortably and still in the dark, you can reach the top and admire the miracle. The sun is about to rise! Again! As always. It would be a miracle if it didn’t rise. But hey, you never know! And there is a lesser-known miracle which I’d find out soon enough.
The closest city to the mountain is Dalhousie mainly populated by tourists. I doubt anyone would live in a tiny village amongst tourists. Except maybe the monks. In Nallathanniya, I’m still talking about the same village, it has been given more than one name just to confuse the non-locals, you can only find shops, accommodations and the necessary souvenir market. Little Buddha, golden Shiva and other thingys. Obviously, I was seduced and although I was very good at not buying anything so far, I had to buy a monkey. Not a live one or a dead one for that matter but one with weird fake hair and big smiley eyes. I had to have a travel buddy. It would be really weird if I was talking to myself… Her name is Bambi. And yes. She is female. And is called Bambi. No further comments…
I arrived in the afternoon after an expected unpleasant ride. I didn’t book any accommodation as I wanted to sniff around. I found the most appropriate room for my needs. I went to the first store I came across with and bough a bottle of water and managed to get a room with it. The shopkeeper also had some spare rooms to let or perhaps just rented out someone else’s room. Who knows. This is Sri Lanka. Same thing. I wasn’t picky as I wouldn’t need a castle to get only a few hours sleep.
Before dinner, I walked around to discover the area and find out at least where the trail leading to the top is but after 15 minutes I gave up. Nah, fuckit. I worry about it tomorrow. As soon as the Sun disappeared to prepare for the next day’s big show the whole city became empty. Markets and shops were open but no one was around and everyone went to bed early to get some sleep. I had a really slow dinner and also returned to my chambers. I was so worried that I would oversleep and miss the opportunity to climb 6000 stairs that I came up with the best solution. Let’s go find a bar and stay up all night. The idea never materialized. Pubs aren’t common around sacred places. But maybe it was for the better. Hiking half drunk is never a good idea. There are other reasons to vomit on the road. Some of us will find that reason.
Instead of drinking I found a quiet corner in the city and did some people watching. While I was attacked by a couple of monkeys who wanted my banana I was wondering what if I left around midnight? Why should I wait? Does it matter if I get up at 3 or 5am? Yes it matters. It can be pretty chilly at 2200 meters and it’s not fun waiting around for hours in frosty weather. So I stayed put and enjoyed the atmosphere of the deserted town. I was never at the Himalaya base camp, nor at any other base camps, but I think I would feel the same the evening before the summit attack. Sleepy heads wandering around in boots doing last minute shopping. I could really feel that in the next couple of hours the village would be alive again and hundreds of people start their ascent. And some of them won’t make it to the top as they miscalculated their stamina and strength. You don’t have to be a mountaineer but it doesn’t hurt to be fit a little bit. To tackle the 1100 meters of elevation in a continuous pitch is not easy. It doesn’t feel like a walk in a mall.
At 2am I made a final round in my room and packed my photography gear. I bought a bottle of water from my host and started to mingle with the other sleepy zombies. Some of them looked as if they were about to conquer the Everest while others started their journey in slippers and shorts. The former will die of exhaustion the latter will freeze to death. But I was sure they knew what they were doing. We all quietly left the city in the dark trusting others to lead the way.
After a few minutes of walking and passing all kinds of temples, shrines and bridges left and right we arrived to a huge bell tower adjacent to an open sanctuary. Each one of us rang the bell letting the mountain know that we are coming. How nice!. We left our names in a huge book then, of course, gave some money to the monks to get new robes.
The stairs were fairly flat at the beginning and just as far apart as to mess up the normal walking rhythm. Those are the most annoying stairs ever. But at least it wasn’t steep. Nothing special. Gentle walk. It went on like that for around 20 minutes. Then the first real climb began. The stairs were steeper and much closer together. The first half an hour was really kind of a warm up for the big push. But it can be deceiving as it looks relatively moderate but the real climb hasn’t even started. More than 5000 stairs to go! Teahouses along the way offered hot & cold beverages and anything from a chocolate bar to an inflatable duck. Sri Lankans really like everything inflatable.
After another half an hour of stairs, I started to feel my legs a little and my blood was short of oxygen. At the beginning, I was still counting the stairs, but I got bored around 500. I guess I managed to climb around 3000 just under an hour. I was sort of halfway through but there was no way telling it for sure. The first signs of despair appeared on many adventurers. They were lying around like dogs. Anything from a 10-year-old kid to a 80-year-old wise old human. To be honest I wasn’t feeling much better than them but I kept moving as I know for a fact if I had stopped, I would have never stood up again. The male part of Zandi told me that when they were climbing he was so exhausted he simply believed that his life would be no more and no less than climbing these stairs. Forever. It would never end. Back then I didn’t really understand but after 1 hour of marching, I started to get what he meant. It was mind-blowing just to think that it would continue for another 2-3 hours. It is nothing like hiking. With hiking, there are at least some flat grounds or even some downslopes. But nothing compared to this. Just upwards. The dim lights which were illuminating the stairs were lined up in the night like a necklace indicating that there were more stairs to come. Endlessly showing the road.
I reached rock bottom roughly half way. Until then my body was in a constant fight with my mind. Asking the same question over and over again. Why the fuck are you doing this? You had so much fun drinking gin and tonic on the beach. Why is it good for you now? Constant battle. Many times I thought about quitting and heading back down. I guess many of us had similar thoughts. No. I have to keep going. It must end at some point. Everything must end eventually. But what if that’s not true. I finally understood what Zoli was talking about. It will never end. Never. Fucking. Ever. This is it. This is my life. And that will be all. Everywhere I looked I only saw stairs. Up down left right. I’ll just go forever like Sisyphus. But without a rock… My mind is my rock. Whoa, that’s deep!
But I didn’t give up and carried on walking. I soon successfully got into a good rhythm. Not too fast not too slow. Just about right. My body also gave up fighting my brain and decided to help rather than hinder. Funnily, the remaining 1000-1500 steps for me were easier than it was before. The only problem was that the stairs were really steep and narrow which caused a little congestion. I didn’t want to rush but slowing down and walking around people completely messed up my perfect pace. The last 20 minutes were the real deal breaker. Quite a few of us just stopped and never went further. It was too much for them. I heard one of the shopkeepers saying that there was not much left. I wanted to push him off the mountain. I’ve been going for almost two hours and you really think that comment could help at all? You really think I would believe that the top of the mountain is around the corner? I’ve been climbing this mountain forever. Right, left, right, inhale, left, right, right, exhale. That’s all I know. Time and space meant nothing anymore.
After a right turn and a constant 20 inch high steps the tip of the mountain was finally clearly visible. Or at least a temple which was built on it. Why not build a shrine on the top of everything? I honestly was expecting nothing but the Sacred footprint and a big flat plateau. But unfortunately, it wasn’t the case. As I progressed the crowd became larger and denser. The top was more like a homeless shelter rather than a holy place. But sometimes these go hand in hand. On every inch of the ground people were lying around wrapped in blanketsand they either slept or chewed on something. I had to step over every living soul. It was almost impossible to sit down.
But I was glad I finally arrived. I rang a bell on the top too letting the mountain know that I arrived. As I couldn’t sit anywhere, I kept on wandering around. The eastern side was the VIP seating area with the best possible view of the coming sunrise. Right behind there was a small shrine where the Sacred footprint was visible. I think they messed it up as they built a shrine on top of it as I couldn’t find anything remotely resembling a footprint. On the west there was a small sanctuary where candles were lit peacefully. It was impossible to find a place from where you can see the sunrise clearly so I gave up on that completely and I went looking for a less crowded place to change my clothes. Zandi gave a really good advice to take a change of clothes as being soaking wet at 2200 meters at 4am is not human-friendly. I changed my wet T-shirt to a nice warm, dry one and said areally short prayer for them for the best advice ever. Next time please mention the underwear too. Thanks!
While we waited, or put it this way, while they were waiting for the miracle I tried to spend my time usefully and started taking pictures of everything and everybody. I didn’t really care about the sunrise, I had seen it many times. I was much more interested in the other famous sighting. The shadow of the Sri Pada mountain. It is said that when the sun rises the mountain casts a perfect polygon shade over the valley. Which can really be a miracle as the mountain hasn’t got a regular shape. They alsobuilt some stuff on it so it makes no sense at all. Ok, the shadow doesn’t look like a tetradecagon it’s only a perfect triangle. But still it’s something worth waiting for.
I only had a couple of hours to wander around as the Sun was about to wake up around 6ish. I found an empty ledge overlooking the valley where I was almost alone. For a while. As the sky was getting brighter more and more people gathered around me and most of the empty places got filled. Some of them tried really hard to push me away but I stood my grounds. I only let a girl have my place. She asked me nicely. And she had a really nice smile. And she was really pretty. Way too pretty. Then her boyfriend arrived. No further comment…
Slowly, it started to get warmer which meant the Sun didn’t forget to set her alarm and she would soon shed UV-rich photons. The completely dark valley slowly but surely started to brighten up as if somebody gently pulled up the shadow slider in photoshop. And all of a sudden out of nowhere somebody roared into my ear. See? There! Naturally I looked back at her but then I realized I should be looking in the direction she was pointing at and not where she was pointing from. I turned back and fuck me, the shadow was really there! There was a perfect triangle shadow. In the middle of nowhere it was floating in the valley like a ghost. Slowly and gradually, minute by minute the shadow of the mountain became sharper, crispier and darker. I felt like a small child seeing a rainbow for the first time. What is that? I do not understand. I mean I understand what a shadow is but I just don’t get it. I have not been able to fathom it since. I know what I saw but I don’t understand why I felt the way I felt just seeing a smooth monochrome celestial phenomena. I guess the hundreds of gently lit candles, the quiet but steady chanting, the view as the Sun shone over the valley or the happiness of the couple next to me helped a lot feel what I felt but still I cannot comprehend it. It was really a miracle. And it only lasted for 10 minutes. One day when I become a poet I will write a poem about it really cryptically so nobody would understand it and then, after 100 years I’ll be a legend. For the time being I’m just a photographer so I did my best with my camera in case I won’t become a poet.
Once the show was over on the other side and the Sun was no longer as interesting as ten minutes before most of the pilgrims started to descend. I stayed another hour or so and took advantage of the opportunity to be able to walk around without the need of stepping over someone. The stairs were also pretty much crowded so it was a good call to hang around. Once the place was nearly empty I said goodbye to the mountain and I headed down at 8 am from 2200 meters.
Those whose knees are f..ed up are aware of the fact that walking down is way worse than walking up. Less tiring but much worse. Halfway through my knees were screaming at me. I wasn’t the only one who walked down backward like a crab. As the Sun was getting better and better in her daily routine I slowly but steadily started to sweat like a normal human being multiplied by a hundred. I was also really surprised that some were still climbing up. Really? Are you late or you just like suffering? But I guess everybody has their own reason.
Apart from seeing the shadow, an image of a young and clearly wealthy tourist and a local man burned into my retina forever. The former was busy getting the best selfie possible proving he was up on the mountain. I agree. I get it. It’s not a small achievement. I don’t question it. But to see him and a Sri Lankan guy carrying a big bag on his back while climbing up on those stairs in the morning, well, it makes me wonder. As there are dozens of teahouses along the way it’s obvious somebody has to carry up all the supply. It doesn’t get up by itself. These guys are climbing these stairs twice or three times a day while carrying a 20kg potato bag instead of a selfie stick. As I learned later a freight of this amount earns them around 600Rs (£3) Again, no further comment….
Once I got down, I ran into the pretty girl and her boyfriend. Naturally, fate brought us together again so we had breakfast together. Tina was Norwegian and the guy was half Norwegian and half Sri Lankan. It was Tina’s first time in Sri Lanka and she was about to meet his boyfriend’s parents for the first time. Exciting! They were a really nice couple. Love all around. And the guy was also in the film/tv business. I found out a lot of interesting info about Sri Lanka through him of which I had already written about or about to write. Or I just forgot already.
Ah, one more thing. On the way down I also bumped into a monk who kindly offered to knot some threads onto my wrist and give his blessings. Perfect memento. I always wanted to get something to be reminded of this adventure. Apart from the monkey. Sorry Bambi. It would have been just too clichéish to buy a bracelet on the market. Although I gave him some money but that’s different. I’ve been proudly wearing it since then! Fits well with my other bracelet I got also from a holy place in Japan. Plus another one from a friend. My right wrist is now officially reserved for bracelets with good memories. So if I lose one I could be really pissed off.
After our breakfast I had to make a big decision. I wanted to travel east to see more mountains but there was a tiny tiny problem. I lost my tripod in Sigiriya which I was only carrying to use in the mountains to take some nice long exposure night photos. The only city where I could possibly get another one was in Kandy. I’m a tough guy so I decided I go back to Kandy. Bip Bop was on board too. Or actually I was on her board… 5 hours later with a little bit of hallucinating going on I arrived to Kandy. Again. I stayed at the same place, I drank a ‘few’ G&Ts at Slightly Chilled where I was welcomed like a family member. The next morning, I returned to Nuwara Eliya. Again. I had to stop somewhere and I just couldn’t drive more. In 48 hours, I managed to drive 250km in a tuktuk averaging 20kms/hr, climb a mountain, get a bit tipsy and sleep no more than 8 hours. And regarding the tripod. No luck…
In my next post I travel to the end of the world and I find the best and most beautiful accommodation so far. Which is kinda hard to believe as it was still under construction…