Tuesday, May 30, 2006

12 days in the '.ch' country

I should have done this long long back ... but I guess such procrastination is to be expected from someone who seldom does anything before its too late. And somehow I seem to be proud of it :-s.

So, it is considered to be the ultimate tourist destination (by most indians atleast).. hence was never in my radar of must-visit places .. somehow got the chance and oh! boy, wouldnt I like to do it again.. Every place in the country seems to be like a tourist destination damn it!! Looking at all the beauty and the luxury, I wondered what the locals think of it, for them its obviously 'normal'. And how many people enjoy it all through out the year? Just 80,00,000 humans approx. Yep 8 million is the population of the dream-land called Confederation Helvetica. Umm .. what is the population of our dear own Hyderabad? around 80 lakh .. including the suburbs .. hey its the same?? It is so unfair!! So much of beauty and richness for so few people!! Or maybe thats the main reason behind it all, the lack of humans to mar the pristine beauty
of the land called Switzerland.

I visited all the three different parts of Swiss- french part (south east), italian (south west) and german (rest of it). Yeah the national languages of Swiss are German, French and Italian and an historical language called Romansch (just like our sanskrit I think).

Amsterdam: Yeah I know, its not in Swiss. This city seems to be criss-crossed by hundreds of water bodies, It is huge and seemed quite pretty from the sky. Now lets talk about that part of the city which i visited, Amsterdam airport Schiphol as it is called. It has to be one of the largest in the world and is much more organised that KLAI (Kuala lumpur airport which I explored pretty well). It has a central hub which has like 5 wings spanning out from it and each wing is so long that there are 3-4 walk ways. Ten planes take off at almost the same time after all!! It even has a museum containing paintings of Rembrandt's students and yeah also a meditation centre, casino! besides the regulars stalls, cafes etc. One thing in which KLAI Or Narita of Tokyo score over Schiphol is that they provides free internet access whereas this one charges 5 Euros or something for 15 mins!! We went Geneva from here in a cute small plane which seated about a hundred. We had to get in by climbing stairs from the ground just like in old movies :D.

Geneva: You know you are flying over Geneva if you see a large stream of water from a lake rising up to you :D. It has the tallest fountain in the world (about 50 metres not sure). The city is built beside 'Lake Geneva' which is the largest lake in Swiss and if you go any south from here, you would end up in France. Geneva is called the 'international city' and rightly so. I could find people from all over the world. It has many UN offices for one. Apparently 40% of the 5 lakh population of the city are of foreign origin. Anywhere and everywhere in the city you could find Europeans (obviously) and other white people, lots of black people (Africa i presume), Japanese and other Far east people (chinese an korean?), Thai, Sri lankans and so on. Every creed, race must be having some people in this city. Indians you ask? Everyday that I went out in this city (which is like more than 8), I didnt come back without setting my eyes upon an Indian. This would hold true for the rest of the country as well I guess. Most of the buildings in Geneva have that old charm and seem to be built ages ago, apparently the city administration doesnt allow any new/modern buildings to come up and spoil the beauty. Incase, you want to give birth to twins, staying in Geneva may better your chances. There were loads and loads of twin-babies to be seen everywhere and you could also do a study on the special baby-carriers that have been designed to carry twins around. I found many versions, one with two seats side-by-side, another with one seat behind the other etc. And yeah, most of the genevans (actually they call themselves Genevois or something ;) ) were either middle-aged, old-aged or small children. Not so many youth around. The main shopping street of Geneva called Rive (if i remember) was pedestrian and tram only street. And it was pretty long.

Transport: The best means of transport within the country is railway. They would take you to any town and quite on time too. Pretty comfortable as expected. And all of them are right on time even to the minute. There are some double decker trains on the longer routes. And yeah all are day trains ... they dont need night trains I guess. Atleast I havent come across night trains or sleeper trains anywhere. There are also many special trains which go on tourist routes. The best among them is called 'Glacier Express'. It travels through the various valleys of the snow peaks and has to be the most picturesque train ride ever. We got the best pics on this ride. Many of its intermediate stations are famous ski resorts (supposedly patronised by the richest in the world). Even the tallest peak in the country called Jungfrau can (actually the only way) be reached through rail. That part of the rail actually cuts through the mountain .. i.e it goes through a tunnel that spans through the mountain from somewhere in the middle to the peak!! Construction of such a marvel was finished in 1906!! Details of this interesting journey shall come later. For the energetic enterprising tourist, bicycle is an interesting transport option. Saw quite a lot of bikers puffing their way around the mountains. Some compartments in the trains permit the passengers to bring in their bicycles.

As regarding the intra-city transport, it was based on buses, though some big cities like Geneva and Bern had trams also. The buses in Geneva run on overhead electricity just like trams do. They were also pretty long having something like 3 compartments. The only factor which distinguishes them from trains or trams is that they dont run on wheels and not rails. In other places like Interlaken, the buses were quite normal but seemed pollution free. Tickets are rarely checked on these city buses, most of the people seem to have passes anyway. All the time that we travelled inside Geneva, not once did anyone come to check the tickets. Though we carried something called the Swiss pass which allow unlimited travel on any mode of public transport all over the country. Saw many many varieties of cars, it was tough in recognising what company some of them belonged to. The best looking was ofcourse the roofless Red Ferrari!! Many cars were two seaters. The taxis are shamelessly pricey and mostly Mercedes. Intra city also, bicycles are widely used. Actually in Interlaken (a tourist town), the city buses seem to be used only by tourists or old people. Normal citizens used either cars or bikes or bicycles. Yeah, motor bikes are also seen in all places including in Geneva. That too mostly scooters rather than motorcycles.

St. Moritz: This is the final destination of the famed 'Glacier Express'. A quaint hill town, still had remnants of snow in april and chill in the air. It belongs to the Italian speaking part of the country. We went to a pizzeria to take some pizzas back to the hotel. The joint seemed closed from outside but was bustling inside. Interestingly, it was totally managed by girls. There was only one man who was baking the pizza bases. The pizzas? Well they had very thin crust (almost like our rotis) and werent so heavy either. Not so tasty either for us spicy indians. The town has a population of 5000 which in peak tourist season increases to 25K. Later I found out at the Olympics Museum in Lausanne that this seemingly small town hosted the winter olympics in the 1920s.

However, it is the journey to this place that forms the second best part of the whole tour (the first part is detailed later). The train travels through green lawns speckled with yellow flowers to completely white snow covered valleys, through the mist that lies around the Alps to the wooden railway stations and the surrounding cute motels. Every few minutes, you glance upon this wonderful scenery of a lush green lawn with a quaint hut in the middle, some cows lazing around, flowers growing haphazardly, thick growth of trees behind it and white snow mountains beyond it. They make the best wallpapers ever. Then there are instances when all that you can see on either side is just pure white. The land and the horizon merge to form a complete hemisphere of white around you. And there are also mountains spotted with snow making them look like a shapeless dalmation. That journey of 7 hours has to be the best train journey of my life. You wish that it wasnt fleeting and you could live in that moment forever. Basically settle down there and live a quiet beautiful life??

Bern: The capital of Switzerland also contends itself to be a 'heritage city'. Everything about the city is antique. The old gothic style buildings, the brick roads, the arched bridges, the castle like buildings on the small islands in the river or even the harmonium musicians on the pavements contribute their bit. As soon as we stepped out of the railway station into the open, it felt as if we were transported to some 16th or 17th century city. The main center boasts of one of the longest contiguous pathways. The whole city has the antiquated look. Except the shops which sell the latest brands :D. It also feels like you have come into another country. While Geneva is supposed to feel like France, being in Bern was as good as being in Germany. Also visited the 'Einstein House', the place where Einstein spent the most productive years of his life. The tourist center of Bern also had a small, very nice movie about the evolution of the city since the 12th century.

Jungfrau: My only wish when I realised that I was to visit this country, was to touch and feel 'snow'. To stand in a snowfall, catch those minute icicles and watch them melt in my hands Thats also the primary reason which made this leg of the tour most memorable. So, we first reached Interlaken. This serves as the base town for all the tourist expeditions to various peaks situated around it. Its called Interlaken because it is situated between two lakes. It seemed to have only hotels, shops and restaurants. The only income for the town seemed to be from the tourism sector. This was the best place to notice the kind of tourists that Swiss attracts. And the result of the analysis is ... surprise surprise .. First position in terms of volume is taken by the ever punctual Japs. Next come the enterprising, over excited fussy Indians .. yeah us. There were loads and loads of Indians here.

Anyway, this town is situated at a height of around 1000 metres. The highest peak called 'Jungfrau' is 4000 metres. It is nicknamed 'Top of Europe' and boasts of the highest railway station which is just below the peak. To reach there, one needs to first travel to a station for some 20 mins. Then change trains for another 40 mins journey. The whole trip is actually on a single line. All the passengers in one train have to move to the next train which will take them to the next halt and so on. Changing of trains is not warranted because of it being a junction for changing lanes or anything, it is only because the next train is even lighter and slower. After the 40 mins journey, one reaches another station for the final train-change. This time the train is a wooden one! Makes a lot of noise, enters a tunnel and stays in that tunnel for the rest of the trip! Finally we emerge at Jungfraujoch, the tallest train station in the country at 4K metres. This place is very well built and it encloses everything. There are only two openings to the inclement weather outside, both of them at the peak. Though the temperature outside is in the negatives, its quite warm inside. The station is connected to the main reception area. There are 4 eating places here. One is called Bollywood something. Yeah it is an Indian restaurant. And it was completely booked by some large Indian group on the day we were there. Any look through the glass windows only converges on plain white snow. However, I was surprised to find some birds flying around. How do they survive!!

The first attraction is named 'Ice palace'. Completely made of ice, it showcases many ice statues. The floor made of ice is expectedly quite slippery. The ice statues were quite exquisite. Apparently they do not melt or get disfigured at any time of the year. The next stop was a walk on the glacier. We actually go out into the open. The temperature on that day was at - 8 Celsius. And there was a strong blizzard reigning there. Walked some distance and then had to return back because it was impossible to see due to the thick snowfall. The scene could belong to any of the Discovery channel covered mountain expeditions. It was exactly like that. Just that we just needed to walk and not climb using ropes etc. Can I say that I had a slight taste of how eskimos live? The third and final attraction was an open platform where you could experience the snowfall minus the harshness of the previous one. The floor of the platform a steel net kind of thing and could see through it. The sight of the slope and the ground far far below it may not be recommended for the vertigo prone people.

Lausanne: The history behind this city is that peole initially settled down at the base of the mountain range. But some invader attacks pushed them up the mountains. Thus, the city is full of ups and downs. Its most well known as the headquarter of Olympic Committee. It also houses the Olympic Museum. Personally, the most fascinating part of the museum was where all the Olympic torches were displayed alongside little snippets of that particular olympics. The day we were there, the city was also hosting a cycle race. Also visited a cathedral. It was grandiose but then again nothing compared to our temples here :)

Where ever, you maybe in Switzerland, be it in the middle of a city like Geneva or in a hill-town, you would find the horizon dotted with snow peaked mountains. In every part of the country, every one seems to know english, maybe not perfectly but more than enough for basic conversation. One thing to notice in the country that is evidently lacking in our country is that any place be it the city bus or a building, they are all wheel-chair friendly. It is not as impeccable as Japan though. The people all seemed relaxed and not in a hurry as most of the Japanese (with reference to my previous odyssey) seemed to be. While we have stupid hideous looking weeds growing on the free soil on our country, there even the weeds are beautiful with colourful flowers blossoming on them :-??. I could also experience what 'cold' actually means. Whatever the temperature be, you feel cold or shiver only if there is a breeze or wind blowing. Otherwise, if you are wearing a decent coat or sweater, you wouldnt feel anything. The whole country shuts down by 6 in the evening (despite the sun being around until 8pm during the time in april when we went). Only emergency services, transport and restaurants, bars and ofcourse discoes remain open. The shop keepers almost push you out of their stores after 6pm. I think this is to ensure that everyone enjoys a decent family/private life.

MIGROS & COOP: Anything you want to buy in this country, you will end up going to either of these supermarket chains. You find an outlet belonging to any of these every few meters. And they sell everything under the sun .. maybe not cars and bikes but everything else. Migros has something called Migrol outlets which are yeah petrol bunks. Migros also has a restaurant attached to its outlets. They are buffet kind of restaurants wherein after you choose your items, you go to the cashier who would charge you on the basis of the weight of your maincourse and the cost of the other items like a pastry or coffee or whatever. It was both cheap and palatable.

The whole country seems so extravagant closed to being wasted for so few people. If I my descriptions havent given you a decent mental picture of the various places then you may contact me for some snapshots (not encouraged) :P.

I am back to blogging!!

What pricks me is
not that you wont be with me, now or ever
but that I existed, you wont even remember ...