OK, I titled this post “from start to finish” and so it is going to be started tonight, and finished. Starting with the Swiss Glacier Experience.
Actually that’s not what it’s called. If it was, I would never have set foot there. I find tourist attractions that use the word ‘experience’ (and the British Isles are full of them, the London Bridge Experience, the Scottish Whiskey Experience, the whole list) really irritating. Experiences, rather like good cookies, don’t come in slick overpriced packages, they are HOMEMADE! There is a tourist train route called the Swiss Mountain Experience, but I don’t think it could come close to the rawness of rumbling through icy fog on a motorcycle at several thousand feet. But I digress.
For that trip, I have to thank my grandmother. On a warm April day in the continental climate of Dulles Airport, Washington, as I was leaving for the continental climate of Bern, she tossed into my already loaded arms…a pea-soup-green winter coat and a little book with some name like “Catholicism and You.” The green book I set down discreetly under a chair in the departure lounge–it was probably eventually blown up to heaven by the bomb squad. As for the coat, even though it was more or less summer, I put it on and walked onto the plane with it. Once I made it to Bern– red-faced and sweating from all the layers– the coat went straight into my closet without a look out. Until, that is, the day I went up the glacier.
Only in Switzerland would you find a railway that goes up a glacier. The Swiss created these mountain railways for two reasons:
1) to attract tourists, both Swiss and foreign, by saying, “Look, we have a railway that goes out onto a glacier!”
2) to show off to all the other mountainous countries. “Hey! Look what we can do!”
I started off at eight in the morning in Bern. Then I rode the hour or so out to the touristy village of Interlaken next to a group of geologists from New Zealand who were keeping up a running analysis of every rock face as if it was televised sports. Then up to Grindelwald, the mountain town Adrian and I had explored on our first road trip. Then up to Kleine Scheidegg, a small, windswept town built on the tourist trade whose inhabitants can’t be too happy about the Japanese, American, Korean, Russian, Indian and who-knows-from-where-else tourists who romp around on their private property snapping pictures as if the whole place were a sort of funhouse…SwissLand.
The real SwissLand FunHouse is yet to come. From Kleine Scheidegg we take the last steep climb up the Jungfraujoch. Besides me, the train is absolutely packed with Korean girls. The conductor was totally atypical in two ways: 1) He was enormous and filled the corridor and 2) Unlike the caricature of the stoic Swiss man, this guy laughed and sang as he walked around, making fun of himself and warbling in German and flirting with the blushing, giggly Korean girls. The intermediate stations between Kleine Scheidegg and Jungfraujoch were really just platforms carved into the rock with huge picture windows looking out over the surreal scenes of blowing snow.
Jungfraujoch station really is a perfectly designed tourist trap…shops every few feet are selling Swiss watches, Swiss chocolate and Swiss painted cowbells. There’s an expensive European restaurant, another expensive restaurant masquerading as a cheap restaurant where ridiculously gullible Asian (and other) tourists sip ramen at 6 francs each and vending machine coffee at pretty much the same price. I know I sound arrogant, but don’t they know you can get that stuff for less than two francs in town? In a symbol of the changing face of global tourism, there is now an INDIAN RESTAURANT as well at Switzerland’s biggest tourist attraction…and it’s packed with tourists from India. All the signs are in English, German and Japanese, most are in French and Italian as well, and they’re starting to add Hindi.
Random thought- I did not see a single black face, except for a couple of Somalis– and they were from Toronto. No Africans to be found, although every other geographic group was there. But fifty years ago, were there any Indians? Doubt it. Maybe in 50 years 1/4 of the tourists will be African and you’ll be able to buy yassa and mafé, ugali and grilled fish, in the world’s highest train station cafeteria for 30 Swiss francs. If that comes to pass, you saw it here first.
There is a small museum detailing the story of how the railway was built– and when you think about it, it really is quite cool, building a train up a mountain?! There’s a pointless silent film showing people having fun walking around Jungfraujoch. And there are souvenir shops around every corner. There is an ice sculpture room– honestly, pretty nice– where you shoe-slide along icy paths surrounded on either side by backlit ice-carved dragons, penguins and polar bears. The backlit, ice-carved advertisements for Thomas Cook Tours and the European Commission take away a little of the fun though.
But once you step out past either of the two entrances to the Aletsch Glacier, the commercialism stops. You try to keep your balance as you climb down the icy wooden ramp– luckily for me, some nice Japanese guy was grabbing people’s arms and helping them keep their balance as they lurched by. You push past all of the people who are staring out at the frigid scene and telling their friends in half a dozen languages, “Fuck, I’m not going out there!!”
And then there you are on the glacier, walking out. Let’s hope you’re wearing better shoes than I had on, otherwise your feet are already pretty damp and cold from the snow. The sky is clear blue, the sun is beating down and everything around you is white, white, white. You walk forward (apparently there is a restaurant 45 minutes’ walk from the station, although I didn’t go all the way out) directly into a biting, snowy wind. You don’t get sunburned up here, you get windburned. If you didn’t bring gloves, you start wishing for them. I was very clearly reminded of a two or three mile trek I had to make along the Chemin de Ste-Foy near Quebec City in February. Minus ten and the wind at my front the whole way, blowing snow. But this time, instead of the lights of Quebec City sparkling in the purple night, it was white snow-covered mountain peaks as far as the eye could see. Minus ten easily– and mind you, this was the weekend that it was 40 degrees celsius/100 degrees fahrenheit in the shade in most of eastern North America! If you step a foot or so off the snowpacked path, you are in snow up to your knees. If you were to step five feet off the path, you’d probably fall to your death. On the way back you’re genuinely scared, because the wind is going in a different direction and the path is obscured by the snow– it’s only by making out a series of posts and following the heads of tourists in front of you that you can follow the path back to the station. By this time you’re probably wondering if you’ll ever be warm again…the perfect frame of mind to sip overpriced ramen, tuck into overpriced butter chicken, twiddle and think about buying painted cowbells, scarves or watches…or do what I did, which was go back to Kleine Scheidegg and have a hot tea and bratwurst with a hunk of bread and some alpkase to go with it. The vendor, standing over his warm grill was actually very kind and let me have the whole lot, even though I was 50 rappen (cents) short and should have put back the cheese. I finished my sausage and was the last person to jump on the overcrowded train full of half-asleep people. I stared out the window as we slowly rejoined the world of short sleeve shirts.
And that’s the end. Of that story anyway.