If not the summer heat, wandering in Islamic Cairo around the huge Khan el-Khalili market would be the most ideal way to enjoy Old Cairo. Even without entering mosques or museums, just strolling around to feel the bustling activities, hearing the calls of prayer mingled with the yells of merchants, smelling the shisha smoke and Arabian coffee from open cafes, and searching for the highly decorative details on centuries old building facade was just a pure delight.
As the largest and most famous souq in the region, it is understandable that Khan el-Khalili has been developed into a major tourist attraction in Cairo. It was precisely the souq’s popularity among tourists that made it falling victim as a target of terrorist attacks. In 2005, just one year prior to my visit, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device near the market, killing two French and one American tourists. In 2009, another bombing incident took place at the souq and killed a 17-year-old French girl. These incidents did make some temporary impact to tourism in Egypt. But judging from the tourist crowds that I saw in 2006, just one year after the suicide bombing, the impact was rather minimal. Of course no attacks would make a greater impact to tourism than the Covid 19 pandemic that we are experiencing right now.
In 1996, British director Anthony Minghella adapted Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient into a box office hit and critically acclaimed movie. In the film, the 1940’s Historic Cairo appears to be an untouched medieval Arab city. In reality, the scenes were filmed in Tunisia, as the real Cairo is a much more developed city. Nonetheless, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Historic Cairo, or commonly known as Islamic Cairo, is the “Cairo” that most travellers and audience of The English Patient desire to see: a vibrant neighbourhood full of winding alleyways, souks, fountains, medieval mansions, hammans, and most of all, mosques of different sizes and with them, a thousand minarets that make up the city’s skyline. Established in 969 AD, Cairo was the capital city of the Fatimid Caliphate until the 12th century. Then the city changed hands from one Islamic empire to another, including the Ottomans. Throughout centuries, Cairo was situated in the midst of caravan routes between Africa and the Middle East. From spices, Yemeni coffee to Indian textiles, Cairo has always been a trading hub in the Arab world.
Just like many old Arab cities, my first impression of Islamic Cairo was noisy, chaotic, disorganized, crowded, disorienting, and confusing. However, at certain moment when I stood under the shade of a minaret or took refuge at a tranquil teashop near the souk of Khan el-Khalili, I felt being miles away from the hectic activities and could easily imagine myself being in the Old Cairo of The English Patient.
In June and July 2008, a retrospective screening of David Lean’s films took place at BFI (British Film Institute) London Southbank. We picked an evening show of Lawrence of Arabia as an after work treat. Watching the 1962 classic on the big screen was a fantastic experience, especially for the majestic desert scenes that reminded me of my brief stay in Wadi Rum back in 2006. Wadi Rum, an UNESCO World Heritage site acclaimed for its desert landscape, is a popular filming venue for epic movies from Lawrence of Arabia of 1962 to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker of 2019. Wadi Rum also put its mark in modern history when T. E. Lawrence passed through the desert numerous times during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. Together with the iconic red dunes and rugged plateaus, the memories of T. E. Lawrence has made Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon, the most well known tourist attraction in Jordan after Petra.
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At around 09:00 we arrived at Wadi Rum Visitor Centre where our guide Attayak greeted us at the ticket office. After we got the admission tickets, Attayak drove us into Rum Village and stopped at the Resthouse Cafe, where we met Shaba, our desert guide for the day. The first thing we did with Shaba was to get bottled water and the red and white keffiyeh. We put on the keffiyeh with Shaba’s help before hopping onto his Toyota Land Rover. Our first stop was the Spring of Lawrence. Story has it that the spring was the spot where T. E. Lawrence bathed and relaxed himself during his stay in Wadi Rum. Reaching the spring was a 15-minute climb up a slope of boulders, about 200m high. We were a little disappointed to find the spring was no more than a tiny pool, perhaps an outlet of underground water. Though we were rewarded by the magnificent panoramic view of the desert.
Our second stop was a cliff of ancient petroglyphs, where figures of camels, goats, and humans were found. Petroglyphs and inscriptions could come from the ancient desert nomads 12,000 years ago, or any desert dwellers thereafter, including the Nabataean caravans 2000 years ago when Wadi Rum was situated in the crossroad of caravan routes between Saudi Arabia and Damascus. In the shade of a rock plateau, we got off the Land Rover once again for our first desert lunch. Shaba took out canned tuna, fresh tomato, mixed beans, cheese, and bottled orange juice. He then started a fire to make our cups of mint tea, a common practice for the nomadic desert Bedouins, who have roamed the Arabian desert for centuries. Despite circumstances after World War II that led to mass sedentarisation for the Bedouins, the carefree lifestyle of the desert nomads continues to inspire literature and cinema, consolidating the cultural heritage and promoting tourism of the Arabian Desert. Today, most Bedouins have moved to houses or apartments. The few Bedouin tents remaining in the desert are erected mainly for tourists. As globalization continues to reach the different regions of the Middle East, nomadic traditions of the Arabian Desert are becoming a collection of romanticized stereotypes reconstructed solely for the commercial value of tourism.
Day 9 (1 of 4).
On our final day in Ella, we get up early as usual. We had a car arranged to leave town at 10:30am. Before leaving Ella, we decided to do a bit more hiking. Our plan was to head east to the summit of Little Adam’s Peak, then descend to the north to visit the iconic Nine Arches Bridge, and walk back to Ella via the railway track. This is a popular tourist route for anyone who has 2-3 hours to spare in Ella.
With a shape resembling the much higher sacred Adam’s Peak (2243m) near Nuwara Eliya, Little Adam’s Peak (1141m) offers a much easier hike for everyone. Climbing Little Adam’s Peak took us no more than an hour from the trailhead. The scenery was pleasant at the top and there were only a family up at the peak when we reached the top. Despite short, the hike was a great activity to start the day.
To ensure we had plenty of time to walk around Ella in our last morning, we got up at dawn.
After we put on our hiking boots and packed our water bottle, we stopped by our hotel terrace to enjoy the sunrise scenery of the Ella Rock.
From the main intersection of Ella, we headed east on Ella Passara Road towards The One Ella guesthouse, where the trailhead of the short walk up to Little Adam’s Peak is located.
On our way to the trailhead, we bumped into three familiar faces: an European couple and their baby boy, the friendly family that we kept on bumping into at different towns and attractions since our first encounter at the Quadrangle of Polonnaruwa.
The short hike began from a small tea plantation.
As soon as we arrived at an open area, Ella Rock immediately dominated the view.
We passed by a tea farm in the first part of the hike.
The last bit of the hike is a set of steps that go all the way to the top.
At the top of Little Adam’s Peak, the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains was breathtaking.
The iconic Ella Rock was right across the valley in front of us.
The highend villas of the 98 Acres Resort seem to blend in perfect harmony with the surrounding natural landscape.
A small Buddha statue marks the summit of the Little Adam’s Peak.
Just below the peak of Little Adam’s Peak, Flying Ravana Mega Zipline established a range of recreational facilities including zipline and archery.
Instead of returning to the trailhead, we continued our walk through a tea farm towards the resort ground of 98 Acres.
The huts of 98 Acres across the valley from Little Adam’s Peak are probably one of the most luxurious accommodation in and around Ella.
Beyond the compound of 98 Acres, we found our way towards the most well known attraction of Ella, the Nine Arches Bridge.
Day 8 (1 of 1).
In 1890, Scottish merchant Thomas Lipton who owned a vast business of grocery stores in Britain, visited British Ceylon and partnered with tea farming pioneer James Taylor to secure supply of Ceylon tea and distributed it throughout Europe and the United States. Lipton’s business plan of providing affordable tea to the mass working class in the West led to the increasing demand of tea and the bloom of tea plantations in Sri Lanka. The plan eventually developed into the business empire of Lipton tea.
Near the hill town of Haputale, about an hour of train ride west of Ella, the enormous Dambatenne Tea Factory and the surrounding tea fields have been immortalized by the legacy of their founder, Thomas Lipton. An 8km uphill hike to the lookout known as Lipton’s Seat remains as one of the best hike through the tea plantations in the hill country. Unlike taking the train or car, hiking in the tea plantations allow visitors to get close to the tea bushes and interact with the tea pickers.
From Haputale railway station, we hopped on a tuk tuk and got dropped off at the entrance of Dambatenne Tea Factory. We had no hurry to tour the factory, and left the factory tour for after the hike.
From the factory, we began to walk uphill into the plantation area along a winding road frequented by tea pickers. Tea terraces extend out in all directions from the road. We passed by all sort of buildings from worker dormitories to school complex, all apparently belong to the community of plantation workers.
Rows after rows of tea plants terraced up the hill slopes. Busy tea pickers dotted on the slope moving slowly horizontally on the slope.
Dramatic shadows were cast on the tea slope in the early part of our hike.
Everywhere was lush green as we walked deeper into the plantation.
Causally zooming into any cluster of tea pickers would create a scenic picture.
For visitors who don’t want to hike uphill may opt for a tuk tuk ride up to the destination. But surely walking would offer much more opportunities to get close to the tea shrubs and tea workers.
Past the first valley, we soon realized that the tea plantation was much larger than we thought. Tea terraces extended out from all directions to as far as our eyes could reach.
Shrines of different religions, including Roman Catholic Christianity, signify the wide range of religious backgrounds of the tea workers.
A tea plantation is much more than just a place for work. It also includes settlement of housing, school, dining places, temples, etc. Many tea workers are Tamils from Southern India, thus settlements with a Hindu shrine are quite common.
Near Lipton’s Seat lookout, we stumbled upon a weighing station where tea pickers offloaded their tea leaves, got them weighed and repacked into large bags for transportation.
Soon we arrived at the lookout of Lipton’s Seat, apart from a sleepy dog and a bronze statue of Sir Thomas Lipton, only fog coming from the other side of the mountain greeted our arrival. Some said this was the spot where Lipton loved to linger when he came to inspect the plantation. With the fog, we had no luck to see the supposedly good view from the lookout.
Soon we realized that great scenery of this hike were basically everywhere, not limited to the final lookout.
Doing the journey on foot allowed us to get close with the tea pickers.
Returning to the first valley where we started the hike, the slope with dramatic shadows was replaced by a foggy scene.
Following a tea picker, we chose a different route to descend the slope towards the factory.
The small path through the tea rows gave us a closer view of the working scenes of tea pickers.
We took our time to walk down and were greeted by several smiling tea pickers.
Close up of working tea pickers.
We leisurely walked back to Dambatenne Tea Factory in the fog. At the factory, we joined a tour to learn more about the tea making process, machinery and traditions.
Day 7 (2 of 2).
In the midst of tea plantations and cloud forests, the town of Ella situates at an elevation of 1000m above sea level and maintains a relatively cooler climate than the surrounding lowlands. Well known for its scenic valley view of Ella Rock at the Ella Gap, and a laid-back backpacker’s atmosphere, there is no surprises that the hill town has developed into the most popular tourist hub in the entire hill country. Almost all businesses in Ella are somewhat related to tourism. Because of its decent guesthouse and restaurant selection, convenience of transportation, and pleasant surrounding scenery, many travellers including us chose Ella as their base to explore the area’s hiking trails and tea plantations.
Since July 1918, Ella railway station has been an important stop on the Main Line, the oldest railway line in Sri Lanka running from coastal Colombo to Badulla in the hill country, via Kandy.
Just like other railway station in the country, curious dogs were often the first to greet us on the platform, especially when we had breakfast in our hands.
Depending on the time of day, visitors would either get off at Ella from the red or blue train.
We stayed at Zion View Ella Green Retreat for two nights. A number of guest houses, including Zion View, are erected on the valley slope facing the Ella Gap, one of the most scenic spot in town.
Every room in Zion View has a terrace overlooking the Ella Gap.
The terrace was the perfect spot to watch the sunrise over Ella Gap with the silhouette of Ella Rock.
It was also in Ella that we had our first Sri Lankan egg hoppers for breakfast.
The two German Shepherds at Zion View always welcomed us at the hotel entrance.
Walking on the railway tracks is often the the most direct routes to go between attractions. Because only a few trains would pass by Ella daily, both the locals and tourists would use these tracks as footpaths during the rest of the day to reach their destinations.
From our guesthouse we walked half an hour on the tracks to visit Kithal Ella falls. We reached the falls just before nightfall.
Just a few kilometres away from Ella, Halpewatte Tea Factory is a popular tea plantation that offers factory tours for tourists. The factory can easily be reached by tuk tuk.
Halpewatte is one of better known tea plantation in the UVA Ceylon tea region.
Founded in 1971, Halpewatte is a family run business.
Visiting a tea factory is a good way to learn more about the variety of Ceylon tea.
From the factory, we enjoyed a panoramic view of the tea terraces and surrounding scenery.
Among the many restaurants, we picked AK Ristoro in a quiet neighbourhood off the main road for dinner.
We chose to dine at the lovely veranda area at AK Ristoro.
AK Ristoro serves good fusion food with Italian, Japanese and Sri Lankan touches.
We couldn’t resist but to order a can of the local Lion beer to wash down our delicious dinner.
At night, the Main Street of Ella is flanked by lights and signage of restaurants and souvenir stores.
Day 7 (1 of 2).
Established in 1864, the railway system of Sri Lanka was constructed by the British colonial government for tea transportation. While not the fastest way to travel, making intercity journeys by train was a unique way to absorb the history of Sri Lanka, and enjoy the beautiful scenery in a relaxing pace. Some journeys are particularly more popular than the others because the beautiful scenery they offer. The journey from Kandy to Ella is one of the most popular routes, and is often referred to as one of the world’s most scenic train journey.
Getting a reserved ticket (1st class or 2nd class) from Kandy onward to the hill country is a challenge for many tourists, including us. We tried purchasing through online agent 1.5 month prior to our departure, but failed to land on any reserved tickets for our desirable date. We planned to try our luck to buy unreserved tickets and get on at an earlier stop. At worst we might need to stand for a period of time until someone get off during the 7-hour ride. The staff at Villa Rosa heard about our situation, and helped us to obtain two 2nd class tickets with reserved seats from a local agent on the day before our departure. We were grateful for his help.
The wooden timetable board at Kandy Station looks like it has been around since the colonial time.
As the train slowly left the train station, we bid farewell to Kandy and moved on into the hill country.
Soon we arrived into the tea plantation country.
Hindu temples are often erected in tea plantations as many Tamils working in the plantations are Hindus who came from Southern India.
The entire hill country is lush green and dotted with houses of pitched roofs.
Our train passed by one village after another.
On occasions, our train would get close to a sloped tea farm.
It was amazing to see so much land have been converted into tea plantations.
The tea farms seemed never ending.
Some tea farms seemed to receive poorer maintenance.
Since the train was relatively slow, many tourists chose to sit at the doorway with their legs hanging out of the train car.
Tourists took turns to lean out of the doorway of the train to take selfies and enjoy a moment of “flying” over the tea farms.
Many villagers stood near the railroad to watch our train passed by.
Many locals walked on the train tracks.
And so as dogs wandering around the railway stations.
Near the end of the journey, the weather suddenly turned breezy and foggy.
Fog covered much of the area near Ella.
After 6.5 hours, we finally arrived in the area of Ella. We would stay in Ella for two days before moving on to the south.