The Taster Journey – The City of Gems, Day 3

So day three. We wake up at the beautiful Palm Island after a rather uncomfortable nights sleep on paper thin mattresses and causing quite stiff shoulders, it was a good start to the day to say the least. Never the less, I open the door of our mud hut to see the sky was blue and fresh, the sun was bright and empowering, suddenly, all the pain of the night was released and forgotten! Today was a good day.

I could smell the gems in the air. I could picture the Sri Lankan men digging away at the earth endlessly only to reveal some of the most intense royal blue sapphires you had ever seen, huge, cut and polished flawless sapphires, a multitude of coloured quartz and spinel crystals as big a your hand and as beautiful as gazing into Amy’s perfect eyes. Oh yes today was a good day.

After pulling myself away from the beauty of my surroundings, it was time to make a move and get to this ancient city of gems. We packed and loaded Lucy up, paid the bill and we were ready to go. We said our goodbyes, had a quick consultation of the map and we were on the move.

Driving a tuk tuk is so much fun and I would recommend it to anyone, it’s a little safer than a bike and a lot more comfortable, especially for the passenger, Amy could sprawl out and kick back, enjoying the sights of this beautiful tear drop island. The track to the main road was treacherous as Amy mentioned in our previous post but, as always, Lucy pulled through, literally.

We decided to pull over to grab some supplies before we start the long journey to Ratnapura. We stopped at a fruit and veg stall on the side of the road, filled with mounds of juicy treats, we elected for bananas, tambilli coconuts, apples, oranges and water to keep us going until we reached gem city. We paid the man what was a fair price for the goods and we were back on the road again, we just had to make a quick stop for fuel and put some fresh air in the tyres.

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We set off on our journey again and after about an hour of driving we started to go up hill, dramatically. This was the first test for my precious Lucy’s ability to hill climb, she was doing very well so I treated her to a little rest on the side of the road while we ate our breakfast. We stopped on quite a sharp bend to take advantage of the view but the surrounding vegetation was to overpowering to see the full extent of the beauty of the land. We parked by a small motor bike garage, there was a motocross bike in the front being repaired and a woman holding a baby. They both had the biggest smiles, something that is so fascinating to see, to share the loving energy is just something that sadly is all to unfamiliar in the UK.

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I gave a wave whilst eating my apple and as they waved back a man pulled over out of his own kindness and concern for our welfare, he wanted to see if we were OK and to see if we needed any help with anything as not many white people travel by tuk tuk especially inland. To take advantage of the situation we got the map out and asked him if we were on the right road. I did however, know we were on the right road but it’s always good to be sure. He was a very happy man in his mid-thirties to forties and just seemed happy to be there. He said ‘mama yanowa’ ( I go ) and zoomed off into the distance – a truly beautiful soul. We finished eating our fruit but, before we started our treck once more, we had to complete the morning routine of a cheeky (but very naughty) cigarette to kick start the day! By the way if there is any any readers under the age of 18, smoking is not big and it’s not clever and I do not condone it by any means but it is something I found I enjoy and it just so happened there was a shop across the road with more people  waving. They knew what I was thinking, I needed more cigarettes and they are just letting me know they are there if I need them, which of course I did. I sent Amy to go get them while I protected my main woman Lucy (only joking I love them both equally ;)), after Amy returned I enjoyed a smoke in the sun and was ready for the next leg of the journey.

We continued to climb the hill, Lucy was all nice and rested, she was doing well and we drove for what seemed to be maybe another hour. We stopped again to take a few photos of the mountains we were approaching, in the field there was an irrigation pump ran by local men, it was so fascinating to see, it made us think of life in a simpler time where the only concern was keeping the paddy fields nice and hydrated.

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We pressed on once again until we weren’t far from Ratnapura, we saw a Buddhist temple on the opposite side of the road we weren’t able to find out the name but it was clearly visible from the roadside. In terms of temples if was anything outstanding from the others we had seen and it wasn’t on the map or in any guide book that we looked in. Amy did however, wander off to take some pictures as I sat waiting, a woman approached me to see if I was interested in seeing any gems and of course I was.

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I started looking in the little shop, it was tucked away off the roadside and didn’t look anything special, I window shopped to begin with, looking at all the different coloured stones wondering what they were and how much they cost! I was interested in the cut and polished ones, however, I wanted an uncut blue sapphire so I asked the man that had randomly just turned up – he turned out to be the women’s husband and shop owner. “I want a blue sapphire, uncut, please” he showed me this blue stone it looked almost like a glass pebble, It could have been a sapphire because the initial asking price was LKR50,000 which is about GBP£250 I manged to work him down to LKR5000 – GBP£25 so a dramatic difference, this made us suspicious, in the end didn’t bye the stone I couldn’t be certain for sure that it was real.

We said good bye and were on the move again! Ratnapura here we come! Or as it seemed,not quite, we made one more stop off at the Katharagoma hindu temple just outside of Ratnapura. Hindu’s, I must say, put a lot more detail into their temples, it had so much going on and this was just the outside. I wonder what they look like on the inside, the temple was closed so we were left guessing for now. We pulled over to take some picture of this amazing masonry, there was a man was sat on his doorstep, his house was a room of concrete standing over a drain that had a painful scent of excrement wafting upwards and attacking your senses. We didn’t catch his name, he was in his thirties and missing a hand, he spoke very good english and he told us the name of the temple we stood before. I asked him how far Ratnapura was and he informed me we were only about 20 minutes for the centre!! The jewels were in sight!!

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We arrived at the city of gems to find a massive traffic queue, we had planed on going to see two Buddhist temples we found on the map but, we simply couldn’t work out where they were so, we decided to pull over and ask for some local knowledge on the situation. We pulled in at an electronics shop and as soon as we stopped the Tuk a man asked us for money but, he wasn’t your typical beggar he had a little party trick up his sleeve, literally. The mans left arm was broken at the elbow and we take it he had never had it looked at as he could bend his arm complexly around its self until he was waving his right hand over his right shoulder at us! Amy’s face was horrified, it was as as if someone had just released their personal methane straight at her nose and asked her if it smelt good.

I went into the shop to get some directions to the temples we were searching for but not one of the staff or customers could help us as they didn’t seem to have even know or have heard of them. So, we decided, as time was pressing on, to not bother going to the temples and just go straight to the gem museum, if only we could find it. This also required us to stop and ask for directions, this time Amy when into a different shop and asked how far away the museum was, it turned out to be only a sri lankan kilometre down the road. After about 2 kilometres with no gem museum insight, we pulled over once again to ask someone else. The first man we asked walked straight past us and he was followed by another older man whose eyes were a startling light shade of blue which was quite unusual, we asked him where the museum was and he was more then happy to jump in the tuk tuk and show us the way!!

It turned out there was more then one gem museum (I know shocking in the city of gems), The one in Lonely Planet was the way we had just come from which, unfortunately, meant sitting in a load more traffic, just what we wanted! We drove for another 15minutes when he told me to turn down the little side street or should I say side track, the museum was a relatively big building and as you walked into it it didn’t really have the museum kind of feel but, never the less it had more gems them you could shake a stick at! The museum consisted of a room with a load of stones and minerals in glass cabinets, there must have been millions of pounds worth of gems in there. I had to ask myself, how do you get to be come an owner of such and establishment? It turns out the owner of the place was actually a dedicated geologist and had even discovered some unique types of mineral. The man who had lead us to the museum was still with us and he himself seemed to know a lot about gems as I’m sure most people do in gem city.

After looking at all the different gems we decided to look in the gift shop, while we were there Amy looked at the black onyx and spinel as she was thinking about having her bother Joe a ring made by my friend I had made back in Galle but wanted stones from the city of gems. She picked a few pieces that caught her eye and paid the woman around 10 pounds for 5 little pieces of black onyx and 2 pieces of spinel which was probably a little to much for what she got but Amy was happy with her purchase as it was from gem city. I on the other hand didn’t find anything that was in my price range, they did have a beginners collection of rough minerals that I was interested in but it was too expensive – 40 pounds is what it worked out to be and I could only work them down to 35 so I declined.

All the while the man that brought us here had taken notice that I was interested in gems, as we left the museum the havens truly opened and suddenly it was a perfect time for a back seat tuk tuk deal! Now, at this point, I must say, in all the guide books it says do not buy any stones off just any men on the street as they probably sell fakes or will rip you off. So, as you do, I took none of the advise and started looking at the gems he had on him, he showed me a yellow sapphire that was not a very deep shade of yellow but I wasn’t interested. I wanted the blue sapphire so after showing no interest in the cut stones he revealed a yellow and blue rough sapphire, it was just what I was looking for and for 10 pounds it was a deal I had to snap it up. I took my jewels and pocketed them away safe but, the deal was not yet done, he showed me a blue piece of aquamarine, the price was good at 6pounds so I took it! He showed me the yellow sapphire again as I think that’s all he seemed to have, the price was good but I wanted to make sure it was real so I took him to the independent gem commission to get it verified (you can do this with any stone and they will verify the cut and mineral). The gem commission was basically a man In a room with tons of gems he took the stone and looked at it under a magnifying glass and confirmed it was real. There is a lot more to identifying whether gem stones are real and maybe, if it was worth more, then extensive testing would have to be done but, since it was only 10 pounds I was willing to take the risk of it being fake.

After an afternoon of gem browsing it was time to crack on to Adams Peak, we decided to not take the path from Ratnapura as we weren’t properly prepared to take the 12kilometre trek and decided it was wiser to travel to Balangoda to take the shorter more direct route the most pilgrims make.

We set off back the way we came, as we left Ratnapura the sun was setting and darkness was soon approaching, we had a quick stop for fuel and a chocolate éclair before we started the assent to Balangoda. The road was the steapest it had been and we must have been gong about 15 kilometres an hour top speed! It was pitch black, the lights on the tuk tuk work on a dynamo so the slower we go, the less light we had, and we were going slow to say the least. After we were about half way to Balangoda we needed to give Lucy a rest so, we stopped off at a what seemed to be a truck stop on the corner of the road. We stopped and noticed a Buddhist monk in full robes sat, eating some rice and curry. We didn’t stay long, about 15 minutes, just enough time for Lucy to cool down and catch her breath before we were off again Balangoda here we come !
We reach Balangoda at about 8pm it was a busy town in the hills, as soon as we reached the town I saw a truck that was full of military personnel, I wondered if this area was maybe used by the army for training as the army seemed to have a heavy presence! We stopped soon after to ask if anyone knew of a guest house we could stay for the night, one man informed us we were just 2minutes away from one so, we jumped back into Lucy and sped into darkness. We turned up at the guest house, it seemed to be quite and very empty on arrival but, when I entered there was a room full of people watching tv. I walked through to find the reception but was told by a man quite bluntly there was no room at the inn. We left and pulled up outside a pharmacy, Amy went to ask the man behind the counter who was very helpful, he got his friend to lead the way to the place we should of spent the night. The first place he took us to was also fully book (and the man was also very rude, we go the feeling they didn’t want to cater for white people) but the second place, Randilu Resort, had space and we were given a room with a sensational view, we got into bed and ordered a coffee from downstairs a good end to a long day.

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Fuel & Tyres






Gems for Joe’s ring


Blue & Yellow Sapphire






Cut Yellow Sapphire




Water & Eclair


Tuk to guesthouse


B&B & Coffee


Cigarettes & Biccies



(£71.60) LKR14,320

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