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Tea and the Temple of the Tooth

True it was astronomically expensive, but the convenience of eating breakfast before wheeling all the way down the mountain in the city of Kandy was too much for us, so we made our way once again up to the rooftop restaurant at Rodney’s Viewpoint, and consumed that watery pot of coffee and two spicy pepper omelets before climbing onto the cycles again.

The day’s wheel was to take us up into the famous Ceylon tea country, which lay in the highlands above the city of Kandy. We were not sure how to get there, but knowing that it surrounded the city in just about every direction made navigation less of a big deal.

After making our way down the mountain and into the city, I called a random lichtenstein, which sent us climbing uphill. The road continued uphill and so did we, soon pouring sweat even more furiously than the day before. We stopped from time to time to drink more water and coffee, only to return to the endless uphill climb. Soon my ears were popping and the temperature was falling.

The new cool breeze felt icy as my soaking wet shirt flapped against my back, giving me a mighty chill.  Kandy was spreading out beneath us, shrouded in that strange cocktail of clouds and smog. We were well out of the confines of the usual tourist zone, and were quite a sight for the children and tea plantation workers whose homes dotted the roadside. Soon the foliage around us began to change from thick tropical jungle to tea plantations, and with it, the temperature fell even further.

We rode higher and higher into the clouds. Now the air was downright comfortable, and dry enough that our sweat was beginning to evaporate faster than it was being produced. It felt great.

At one point, we stopped for a rest and I wandered off into the tea fields. The smell of the tea plants was strong, but not necessarily analogous to any smell I had until then associated with tea.

We continued to climb, wheeling by the Ceylon Tea Museum, outside of which we were harangued by a group of school children on their way, in a great uniformed hoard, presumably toward the bus stop. Traffic  thinned so much that we would ride for five to 10 minutes at a time before we were passed by an auto rickshaw or delivery truck. All the while, the view around us grew increasingly dramatic, made all the more so by the polarization of the Maui Jims.

Finally, after a couple hours of climbing, we reached the highest crest of  the road. Ahead of us, the wild unknown of Sri Lanka spread in its jungled mystery, while behind us the city of Kandy looked like a tiny smokey pile of pebbles, which had collected in the midst of these great green mountains.

We locked the cycles to each other amidst the tea fields that spread out on either side of us and decided to go for a hike. We were at a place where two steep peaks met in a pass. First we made our way a mile or so along the side of one of them until we came around a corner surprised suddenly to hear music. A few more curves later on the stony path, we found ourselves in a small village. We wandered along, taking in the small concrete homes, all of which appeared to be empty (their owners presumably at work in the tea fields), including the one which emitted the music. We were just about to turn around, when we ran into a man in a lungi walking along the same path. We stopped to greet him and exchanged a few words. He welcomed us to the mountain, and inquired as to where we were going. He seemed sort of confused that we would come all the way up here just to turn around. Obviously he had no idea in how worthy-of-sightseeing a place he lived. This was working out to be one of the most glorious wheels of my life.

We made our way back to the cycles, and after taking stock of our diminishing supply of water, decided that we had just enough to climb the remaining peak (the taller of the two). The path up was originally or had long ago become a drainage channel for rain coming off the mountain. It was the dry season, so we did not have to deal with mud, but we were sent scrambling a few times as the steep, dry earth of the trail gave way underfoot.

When we finally reached the top, we found it to be covered with a kind of highland prairie, most of which had been recently burned, with the telltale  strips of unburned stomped grass, and hastily dug trenches running through it that suggested the fire had been deliberately started and controlled by people.

We wandered through the ashes and I took a moment to explore a long unvisited memory of accompanying my father to a prairie burn in Iowa. It had been a startlingly hot, loud, and generally intense experience. I could barely imagine how much more intense such an endeavor would be on the windswept top of this mountain.

Having submitted, we made our way back down to the cycles, which we found had been moved by someone, to a lower spot some 15 feet over. We thanked the powers that be that the move was not into the back of someone’s pickup truck never to be seen again.  Before heading down, we stopped at the Ceylon Tea Museum for a cup of the stuff, but they had none to serve.  Instead, we used their restroom and avoided a gigantic swarm of gnats that buzzed in the carpark.

The ride down was a high voltage exercise in proper breaking technique, for had we not paid careful attention, we could have easily either melted our break pads, wiped out taking a turn too fast, or a fearsome combination of both.

Back in town it was high time for a feast, which we found at a local buffet-type restaurant, at which we were thrilled to consume a fragrant  local brown rice.

Now, you dear reader, might think that after such a savage wheel up a savage mountain  we might be tired, sweaty, reeking of endorphins, and generally more beast than man. And you would be correct. But if you think we were about to go take a shower and relax, you’d be dead wrong. You see, AsiaWheeling had, in its supreme ignorance, scheduled only a week for the whole of Sri Lanka, and there was no time to waste being civilized.  We now sought directions for the next waypoint.

We needed to visit the Temple of the Tooth. And so we did, or at least the surrounds.

We parked the bikes outside of the temple and locked them to a couple of bright yellow riot barriers, which were in and of themselves quite interesting, being essentially large walls of spikes with wheels on the bottom of them, presumably to be used in forcing large groups of people into a predefined space. Raw indeed.

Nearby the riot walls, there were a great many tour guides and taxi fellows who were very interested in AsiaWheeling Global Enterprises, the Speed TRs’  estimated value, and in providing us with services during our time in Kandy, and more specifically, at the Temple of the Tooth. We were, of course, not interested in purchasing any services, but being exhausted and rather cracked out on endorphins, we were more than interested in socializing. So it was with a small entourage that we approached the Temple of the Tooth, informing our new friends only once we entered the security checkpoint that we would not be requiring any services beyond our recent conversation. It was visibly heartbreaking, but as far from a result of animosity on our part as possible.

As the heavily armed guard frisked Scott he asked him in very good English, “Were those men giving you any trouble?” “No. No. Not at all,” Scott replied. And we made our way into the inner courtyard of the temple.

It was quite beautiful. And we were thrilled to be strolling in the sunlight.

We circumnavigated the temple, taking in the many carvings and interesting buttresses that kept the elaborate tiled roof in place. As we made our way around, we found ourselves suddenly in a rather forgotten and none too often trafficked courtyard. We looked to one of the many guards with AK 47s who were lazing under umbrellas, but they met our gaze only with smiles and waves, indicating that we had not strolled into any kind of restricted zone. Perhaps just the post apocalyptic zone.

As we made our way around, the amount of trash on the ground grew, and a number of open sewers appeared. Soon we could hear a very strange sound, something like the wet crack of a femur breaking, again and again, followed by the clatter of chains.

Haunting, I know. And no less haunting was the sight that we found when we turned the next corner. It was a large a very scarred elephant.

Both of its back legs were chained to a wall, and it shuffled from side to side in an alarmingly deranged way, as it munched on a large pile of palm trunks. Extreme.

Feeling like we’d had about enough of the Temple of the Tooth, we made our way back to the riot wall and the cycles.

From there, the sun set on Kandy,  and our stomachs were filled once again with Koththu before a night of fitful sleep in Rodney’s Viewpoint.


  1. Nathan | April 5th, 2010 | 3:46 pm

    Incredible post. The power of those folding bicycles is amazing. I wish that when I was traveling I had access to them. A promising foreign landscape, the freedom to go wherever you wish, and the immediacy of experience from the seat of the bicycle must be exhilarating…

  2. Brandon | April 5th, 2010 | 5:59 pm

    Agreed about the folding cycles. That being said, after reading the end of this post I think you guys would look pretty good in panama hats and maui jims riding an asian elephant you freed from its sri lankan chains

  3. Woody | April 6th, 2010 | 4:51 am

    @ Nathan
    I could not have put it more poetically. Exhilarating indeed.

  4. Mark/Dad | April 11th, 2010 | 8:54 am

    Beautiful and intriguing. Did you see the tooth?

  5. Woody Schneider | April 13th, 2010 | 1:57 am

    @ Mark/Dad

    Nope. It was quite expensive, and required a lot of getting inspected and detected by the armed forces before entry. We felt like saving money and we had already gotten the extremes of experience just circling the temple, so we decided skipping the tooth might be the move.

    Probably the kind of thing that, when I am paying my bill at a pizza joint in the US, and realize that it exceeds the cost of the tooth viewing, I will regret.


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