Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On To Switzerland: The Crossroads of the World

Question: In what country are you likely to find: Hindus, Pakistani Muslims, Chinese Communists, Australians, Malaysians, Americans, Japanese and Koreans all swamping the same places - taking the same trains, etc.? The answer is Switzerland! With only 15, 940 square miles this beautiful nation has every type of terrain with at least one certain to appeal to everyone who comes. But what sets it apart are the majestic Swiss Alps which are unusual here, because they are made accessible to mountain lovers!

As one Australian told me during one of our last train trips (from Schynige Platte) on our just completed 2-week holiday: "Yes, we could've  gone to New Zealand to see some mountains. But it's over here you can actually GET to them!"

He wasn't kidding! At Jungfrau Joch, for example, one can actually get in the literal shadow of the mountain peak, Jungfrau. There are few other places one has such access - and also - the ability to dine in a restaurant built on the self-same mountain side!

We arrived at Jungfrau Joch just six days after arriving in Zurich. Staying in the hamlet of Wengen, we had a perfect launching pad by which to access a number of mountain delights including Grindelwald, Brienze and the Rothorn, the Santis and also the Schilthorn and Piz Gloria (where a famous shootout between 007 and his enemies was filmed in the 1969 Bond flick, 'In Her Majesty's Secret Service')

I will cover some more regions of Switzerland but now a few photos. First, our arrival at the JungfrauJoch station:
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And walking through the ice corridor to get out to the plateau:
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Next, part of the crowd on the Jungfrau plateau and with the Sphinx Meteorological Observatory visible at the right:
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Earlier we had gone to the platform circling the Sphinx  Observatory for a panoramic 360 degree view of the Jungfrau region.  About half of those present were Japanese, and perhaps 20 percent Indians and Chinese, while about 50 Aussies showed up  - including, amazingly, a bevy (14)  of Australian school students (girls) who removed their tops and stood facing the chasm of the valley bare breasted. Since the scene was so unusual, our camera was as active as about fifty five others all going off at the same time and capturing the same surreal scene:

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We judged the girls to be Sixth form students or the equivalent of American freshman university coeds. We also suspected they (or previous groups from their school) had pulled this off before as some kind of a ritual.  There was also no gainsaying the fact that they may have derived some pleasure from being the center of attention of hundreds of other visitors on the Jungfrau Plateau.

When the mob scene at the crest of the Jungfrau Joch died down, Janice turned her camera on yours truly standing with the peak in the background.
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No, I'm not actually THAT fat. I had to put on several layers of clothing beneath the Green Bay Packers 'shell' jacket, including a thick t-shirt, and a fleece jacket. What struck us this time, unlike when we were there in 1978, is that the powers-that-be had roped off the entire plateau area and warned visitors not to jump over the ropes to go beyond. (In 1978, no such rope boundaries existed and we hiked up the side of the inclined slope over 400 feet to look down below.)  We observed chunks of snow and ice falling and suspect a primary reason is that global warming has rendered the snow-packed slopes more treacherous, and the risk of avalanche higher. This view was also supported during the train trip up as we observed several glaciers that had retreated significantly - including Eiger Gletscher - since we were there in 1978.

Earlier, before going out on the train to the Jungfrau Plateau - at an earlier train stop- we enjoyed the Eismeer, an ice cave full of intriguing ice sculptures.
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In 1978 when we ventured into the Eismeer, there was no discrete passage way marked out and the ice varied in temperature resulting in a very slippery walk, Now, all that's changed and the ice is kept at a stable temperature and you can actually walk across it without breaking your neck. The Swiss, to their credit, have taken the Jungfrau attraction and ramped up the quality of the facilities to levels we couldn't conceive 36 years ago. Whereas before there was no defined order to seeing the assorted sights, one now could take a path featuring seven parts, starting with a 360 degree film of the panorama that puts you at the center.

On the way back we had an interesting encounter on the train from Kleine Scheidegg to Wengen. Seated to the side of us were two Chinese in uniforms - Mao suits. These were not typical Chinese middle class tourists, and they probably weren't there just to take in the sights. The older of the two - maybe 68 or 70- wore his Mao cap just over the brow and constantly eyed the surroundings - rapidly  talking to his younger counterpart.  If I had to make a guess, I would have pegged the older of the pair as a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the People's Republic. He was clearly no nonsense, and the eyes betrayed an intensity not visible in the other Chinese we encountered. What was he doing here? Who knows? Possibly it was to see how China might advance its own tourism potential and develop its sights, much like the Swiss have theirs.  I certainly doubt he was a spy or anything like that.

Why have so many from so many different (and sometimes warring nations) found it safe to come to this country? The first reason is likely Switzerland's neutrality. They are a neutral nation and they prefer it that way. However, neutrality must not be taken to mean pacifist! Each Swiss male is required to undergo military training and each keeps his own rifle at his home, ready for call up on a moment's notice. Those young Swiss who don't qualify for military training are given alternative service.

Thus, what the Swiss practice is actually armed neutrality.  Our Swiss friend Rolf gave us lots of background, including how the Swiss had to negotiate a difficult path during World War II - with the threat of German - Nazi invasion always a possibility, but the nimble Swiss able to dodge it by deft diplomacy or making concessions. (In one case, after downing 11 Luftwaffe planes and raising the ire of the Germans, they had to keep 100 Allied planes in impound - oh, and also keep the Swiss banks open for business.)

So why do so many from so many nations come to Switzerland? For its beauty for sure, but also  because they know the country provides a safe and secure haven. Also, as one Australian told me: 

"You know the trains run on time and you can depend on all the assorted machines and vehicles, You don't have to worry about a chair lift breaking down midway during a mountain transit, or a cable car losing one of its doors halfway over the Grindelwald valley. You KNOW you're in safe hands from the moment you arrive. Nothing is left to chance."

Well said, and perhaps why a wizened Chinese Communist Politburo member likes it too.

Oh, one more thing: the Swiss water sites including lakes and rivers are crystal clear, not one hint of any pollution. Their water also tastes better than nearly every other place we've been to. We asked Rolf if any fracking was going on or if it would ever be allowed. His response was blunt and to the point: never in a million years! The Swiss environment - not to mention the water -  was simply too critical a resource  to leave to the suspect mercies of frackers! The Swiss cherish their nation's natural beauty too much to turn it over to exploitative, frack-happy fiends.

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