North of the hill country are the Ancient Cities – a collection of historical sites including the ‘face’ of Sri Lanka: Sigiriya, whose picture appears on almost every travel brochure and advertisement for the country. Does it, can it ever, live up to the hype…?
The area north of Sri Lanka’s hills is a drier region of plains interspersed with outcroppings of low hills. These hot central plains were where the ancient Sinhalese dynasties set up their capitals and is the location of some of Sri Lanka’s most iconic sights.
Although well endowed with lovely ruins this region is not so well stocked with train tracks meaning that for the first time on this trip we are obliged to take buses unless we want to take outrageously circuitous ways around, that is. Hey, no one likes a public bus much – they are crowded, noisy and cramped when compared to the more calm inducing trains – but I have to say that I have a particular dislike of them following numerous utterly terrifying rides on the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan, around the bendy, precipitous mountain roads of Nepal and, well, virtually anywhere in India to be honest.
First stop is Anuradhapura. One of the greatest challenges of travelling in Sri Lanka is not overcoming culture shock, learning to cope with the fiery food or dealing with the extreme heat – it’s learning how to pronounce and remember the never-ending names! It’s no good queuing up at the bus/train station for your ticket, only to arrive at the front of the line to then stand there in silence like an idiot because you have completely forgotten how to say the name of the place you’re going to. I seem to be spending a lot of time on this trip repeating place names over and over in my head trying to fix them there…
Anyhow, the main attractions of Anuradhapura are some truly massive dagobas including the 55m high Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba (see image right) – and the Sri Maha Bodhi, a 2000+ year old bodhi tree grown from a cutting from the original tree in Bodhgaya (India) beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment. It’s HOT here though, the kind of heat that makes you feel like you’re melting (think Nazis opening the Ark of the Covenant in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’) and sightseeing is only possible for a few hours in the morning after which we have to retreat to somewhere shady and, if possible, air-conditioned. Although I don’t particularly rate the latest edition of the Sri Lanka Lonely Planet (who is it aimed at? certainly not the long-term backpackers it used to be), it does direct us to various hotel pools where non-guests are allowed to bathe for a small fee – a very pleasant way of passing a roasting hot afternoon…
We follow this early morning sightseeing pattern throughout our time in the Ancient Cities pretty much (early morning is by far the best part of the day when you’re travelling anyway), continuing on to Dambulla, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. The caves at Dambulla are wonderful (see image left of Cave 2) and cycling around the ruins at Polonnaruwa is great fun but Sigiriya proves justified in its status as the most famous site of Sri Lanka.
I have to admit I love heights, so Sigiriya is as much fun for me in its ‘ledge of death’ staircases and walkways (see image of Rich, right) as it is for the actual ruins and frescos! But, if local signposts are anything to go by plunging to our deaths is the least of our worries – it’s nightmares of nature that we should really be on the lookout for. First off are the notices advising us not to swim in the moat as apparently ‘crocodiles go about’ there! Then we should make sure that we are off the paths surrounding the site by 6pm due to marauding wild elephants, and if that’s not warnings enough we should keep silent whilst climbing the rock to avoid wasp attacks. The ‘Contagion’-esque protective body suits we see lying around convince us that there is no leg-pulling going on here…
Any world famous site such as Sigiriya has been much photographed and one of the challenges of modern photography, when millions of images are captured on a daily basis, is to try to find a new or slightly different angle to the usual one. A little research (OK, reading Rough Guide in this case) indicated that a great view of the north face of the rock could be had from Pidurangala hill. The image would work for either sunrise or sunset but weather patterns during our stay favoured morning – every afternoon clouds rolled in and were shortly followed by torrential rain! In the end we climbed the hill three times – each time encouraged to the top by the friendly local dogs (see image below left – not the snapping fiends of Unawatuna these).
The first climb was really a reccy – it was afternoon and already quite overcast. The second visit the following morning was good but the light was just a little bit too diffuse so a third dawn visit was required and I feel that this bagged the shot. Although having lots of lovely and expensive stuff is a wonderful thing you can still take rotten pictures with great equipment finding the spot and going back again and again until you get the picture is the real secret.
Tech spec wise this shot is 1/8 secs at f/11. I used a 1 stop ND grad to balance the sky and the foreground. Even though with the Image Stabilization that the Canon EF 24-105 features this shot could probably just about have been taken hand held, I always use the tripod for landscape shots. Not only does it help me to think more carefully about composition – I can ‘look around’ the image better to make sure that nothing is in there that shouldn’t be – it also makes me feel better about carrying the bl**dy thing around for months on end…!