14 April 2010

Europe recap, Day 10: Jungfrau

Tuesday, November 3, 2009. No driving involved this day, as all my day was spent hiking up in the Alps. As Rick Steves likes to say, any day in Switzerland that is not spent hiking in the Alps is outright criminal.

The day started with the first Jungfraubahn train leaving Interlaken Ost Station at 6:35. I was glad to see that at every row on the train, I could see the map of the area, showing major points of interest (transfer points, villages, etc.) and their altitude in meters. I was starting at Interlaken, which was at under 600 meters altitude (around 1,800 feet), and ending up two hours later at Jungfraujoch, at 3,500 meters altitude (close to 12,000 feet!). A fairly conventional train took me as far as Lauterbrunnen, from where I had to transfer to a narrow-gauge cogwheel train, full of aged Alpine flair, for the second leg up to Kleine Scheidegg.

Now, I am on another cogwheel train, having just pulled out of snow-covered Kleine Scheidegg Station, for the final push up to Jungfrau. It's quite chilly outside already, and altitude at this point is already over 2,000 meters.

The train, intended for tourist use, is quite posh, and the cabin has video screens playing introductory video to the region and the railway. Narrations are in eight languages: German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, then Korean. The crowd this day was very Asian indeed.

The wall on the left is part of Eiger (Ogre), while the peak on the right is Mönch (Monk). In the legends, Mönch protects Jungfrau (Maiden), further to the right, from Eiger.

Another look at Eiger, and its infamous North Face, before entering the tunnel portion.

The tunnel starts at Eiger's anus (ewww!) and works up his intestines, before transferring to Mönch and going under his robe, to finish at Jungfraujoch, the mountain pass between Mönch and Jungfrau.

Inside the tunnel, the train makes a couple of intermediate stops, to allow passengers to disembark and take a look outside.

The outside views are okay, but not spectacular, as the Plexiglass windows are all fogged up. It's quite chilly in the tunnel, but still balmy (at least above freezing) compared to the harsh conditions outside.

The first stop, well inside Eiger's guts, is already at 2,700 meters above sea level. From this point on, hypoxia becomes a real issue; staying fully alert becomes a bit of a challenge, and nausea is common for weaker travelers.

I am now at the Sphinx, the observatory located on top of Jungfraujoch. It is a lengthy elevator ride (about 100 meters up) from Jungfraujoch's train station.

My elevation is now at 3,571 meters, or 11,782 feet, above sea level; Jungfraujoch is, indeed, called the "Top of Europe," and its railway station is the highest in Europe. And those temperature readings (barely above zero, if converted to Fahrenheit) and wind gusts are certainly NOT conducive for a hike outside. Between the hypoxia, the cold, and the wind chills, I'd pass out within minutes and freeze to death, if I ever dared to go all the way to Jungfrau's summit.

At least I am able to move about. My mother is completely clobbered, and she is forced to lie down on a bench near the train platforms and rest.

I am looking north in the direction of Interlaken, which would be hidden in the east-west valley in the distance. Gotta love these glacier-carved mountain cliffs and valleys, something I don't see on a daily basis.

Looking west at Jungfrau herself.

Before I came on this trip, I was having some mountain-related discussions with two Facebook friends - Morwen Madrigal of New Orleans, who used to work for the US Geological Survey back in the day and brags about "having licked all the Grand Tetons," and Angela LaChic of Calgary, who loves to climb the Canadian Rockies close to her home. As all three of us are lesbians, we joked about selectively climbing, and licking, the summits of mountains with female names, and of course, I had to mention my planned visit to Jungfrau.

Unfortunately, again, due to the bitter conditions outside, this is as close as I'll ever get to licking the summit of that maiden, clad in a beautiful white dress.

That Swiss flag marks an observation point, and the start of the trail to the Jungfrau summit. But then, again, due to the brisk conditions, it'll be a challenge for me to get even that far, and walk on the glacier, much less attempt the summit of Jungfrau, which is at 4,100 meters above sea level, and will definitely clobber me.

Granted, I've been at high altitudes like this before - just four months prior, I had been at Rocky Mountain National Park, where I actually drove to 12,000 feet in a car - but it is harder now, due to a much faster ascent this time. At Rocky Mountain, I had spent the previous day or two at altitudes around 5,000 feet and a bit higher, so I had some chance to get used to the thinner air, but I don't have that benefit here at Jungfraujoch.

This is a lovely view to the south, showing a glacier stretching in the direction of Italy.

It won't be Italy right away where the glacier disappears into the clouds, but over there, I do have to speak Italian. Over here at the Top of Europe, the language spoken is German, though I can easily get by in English and Asian languages due to the tourist traffic.

To the east lies Mönch. Nice view of snow blowing off the summit.

To my mountaineering friends and others, I jokingly refer to Mönch as "your stereotypical Catholic pedophile priest" - one who has gone commando under his robe, and whose pee-pee I had to endure watching as I had ridden up the tunnel. According to tradition, Mönch protects Jungfrau from Eiger behind him, but right now, it's me protecting Jungfrau from that pervert monk.

I took this particular photo outside the sheltered dome of the Sphinx. I found it impossible to stand outside for more than 30 seconds at a time.

I am back into the visitor services area. One of its features is the Ice Palace, a tunnel dug into the glacier.

It is surely cold in here, and hypoxia is still trying to clobber me. But I am finding that moving around is the best defense against hypoxia.

The Ice Palace is lined with many ice sculptures, like these polar bears.

Early visitors to Jungfraujoch would have come dressed in outfits similar to this.

Practicality and warmth, while still showing off style and femininity, that's really my thing.

A number of snack items are available, but everything is grossly overpriced, because of the added complexity of hauling everything up from Interlaken.

Here is an interesting choice. I can buy a small cup of "Jungfraujoch Bowl Noodle" - which is just standard bowl of instant ramen from South Korea's Nongshim Foods. The price is an obscene 7.50 Swiss francs, and if I need extra hot water or chopsticks on top of what the attendant provides, that will cost me a small fortune as well. For comparison, buying the same bowl at a grocery store in Seoul or Los Angeles will cost under a franc - and not much more at one of the Asian grocery stores back in Interlaken.

Not exactly the most authentic way to go, but I took up on the offer, just for the experience. The chilly environs of Jungfraujoch make the hot noodles a good choice, as well as a memory to savor.

It is notable that the menu is done not in local languages, but in English and Korean, indicating that the noodles are targeted to Asian tour groups. And sure enough, every visitor today is either Japanese or Korean. My mother and I are chatting with the Korean visitors in Korean - though they have no idea (and no need to know) that we are really Americans independently traveling in a European Delivery Mercedes-Benz, rather than fellow group tourists from South Korea.

Now I am back to saner altitudes of Kleine Scheidegg, and my mother has finally come back to full vitality.

I have been previously advised that Jungfraujoch tends to be sunny in the early morning hours, before clouding up very fast for the rest of the day. And I am finding that to be indeed true. Good thing I took the early morning train. This photo shows Mönch on the left, Jungfrau on the right, and the Sphinx observatory in the middle.

Jungfrau would soon hide in the clouds and never show herself to my eyes again. She is indeed one very shy maiden. Glad to have come face to face with her.

We proceeded downhill, to Wengen, just below the snowline. The initial plan was to take a cable car over to Grindelwald, and return to Interlaken there. But as it turns out, the cable cars are all shut down throughout the region; between the summer hiking season and the winter ski season, they were all shut down for routine maintenance, and indeed, that also explained why the Jungfrau Region was overrun primarily by Asian tour groups, rather than independent travelers and locals.

It would be another hour before another train would come to Wengen to allow me to continue downhill to Lauterbrunnen. Since the nearby hiking signs indicated that walking to Lauterbrunnen would take an hour anyway, I decided to walk down instead. This would also be an opportunity for my mother to enjoy the fresh Swiss Alpine air and fully recover from the hypoxia.

Downhill hiking is the best way to really take in the postcard Switzerland - the huts, the cows, the cowbell sounds, and the lush grass, as well as gorgeous views of the glacial valleys that look similar to Yosemite Valley (itself glacial). And excellent signage keep indicating which way to walk toward my destination, as well as estimated walking time.

The Lauterbrunnen walk time of one hour was said to have been timed by local senior citizen volunteers. Even at my more youthful walking pace, the one-hour estimate was right on the mark; these senior citizen volunteers are certainly master hikers.

As I walk further downhill, I can see a waterfall on the other side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. I am again reminded of Yosemite Valley back in California.

And now I close in on Lauterbrunnen. In the lower left, I can see the cogwheel railroad.

As I walk down, I am sharing with my mother the basics of how the European economy works. I discussed the role of the European Union, even though I also stressed that neutral Switzerland is not an EU member, and also that the UK, despite being a member, tends to not march in lockstep with the Continent. I also discussed the European taxation policies with hefty income and sales taxes but smaller to no property taxes, as well as how the taxation pays for various government services, including universal healthcare and top-notch transportation network. I compared and contrasted the European Union's mechanisms with those of the US federal government, and wrapped up with an observation that while Americans may possess more materially (including the Mercedes-Benz we're driving around in, and sending to America the next day), Europeans have the basics (i.e. healthcare) better covered while consuming only a fraction of the resources.

Now I am back in Lauterbrunnen, with only a few more minutes to go to the train station.

More evidence of heavy Asian tourist traffic. That hostel-style accommodation displays a South Korean flag, and has signs in Korean, though it turns out to actually have a Japanese owner.

For East Asian independent travelers to Europe, places like these can be a very good way to mingle with fellow travelers speaking the same language, eat the home cuisine, and gather travel information. This American with full English and limited French proficiency prefers to hang out with the locals and eat local food, but can certainly appreciate the value of this travel infrastructure for East Asians who want to go beyond the group tours but don't have the advantage of European language proficiency. It's thanks to places like this hostel that South Koreans have learned to travel through Europe on a budget - and also learned that the neoliberalism, Christian conservatism, and homophobia, taught to them by their former military dictatorship and its US Republican masters, are not the prevailing ways of the civilized world (and I am grateful, having seen the mentality improvements back in South Korea first-hand in 2008).

From Lauterbrunnen, twice-hourly commuter trains run back to Interlaken Ost. Now I am back in Interlaken but am not retiring to my hotel just yet.

I am at the expanse of grass where I had seen grazing cows the previous day. Cows are still grazing, but this time I have the photo of these statues instead.

Again, thanks to the rise of the word "Tea Party" and "teabagging" to denote the anti-Obama neoliberal protests in the US, I am referring to all male nudes as "teabaggers," and chuckling at them. In this case, however, the male nude has a female companion, and I have chosen to call the female nudes "carpetmunchers" for a contrast. I was indeed wishing that a sane, progressive countermovement to the teabaggers would start in the US, and that it would indeed call itself the "carpetmunchers"; that would eventually happen in early 2010, though its name would be the Coffee Party USA instead.

And nearby, these elderly men are playing a game of boules - a game where the objective is to roll a large metal ball as close to the smaller target ball as possible without hitting it.

I had seen the game in the Rick Steves videos, and am glad to see it in action.

Now heading back to the train station, then on to the hotel in Goldswil. Here is a better look at the Japanese garden that I had seen the previous day.

As it turns out, this garden was a gift of the Japanese city of Otsu, which had been an Interlaken sister city since 1978, when Japanese tourists started arriving here in droves. The garden was built in 1995, with elements symbolizing the Berner Oberland mountains and lakes.

At this point, my mother and I did some souvenir shopping - though one particular souvenir shop, featuring some bells (not cowbells, but ceramic) that my mother wanted, was not open. In fact, it was the only shop with such bells, and it would not open for the duration of my Interlaken stay. Also, the cold air and hypoxia in the mountains had done their work on my mother, and she wanted to buy some cold medication; a pharmacie (as opposed to a smaller Apotheke which I normally see in German-speaking areas) next to Interlaken Ost helped us. While the English-speaking pharmacist did not recognize the American brand name Tylenol, she did choose a local-brand equivalent, and upon reading the packaging and the instruction sheet, I could indeed discern that it was a cold medicine, and could also figure out the proper doses. This being Switzerland, the instructions were trilingual - and again, when three languages are used, chances are good that I understand at least one (French in my case).

Upon retiring to the hotel, I took time to clean out and prepare the Mercedes-Benz for the shipping the next day, while my mother took it easy in the room. I also fired up my laptop and its Microsoft AutoRoute, so that my mother would finally have an idea of the route I had taken her through so far - as well as the route remaining (drive to Stuttgart, then TGV to Paris for a 3-night stay before flying home via Munich). Speaking of the car, its odometer reading was approaching 2,000 kilometers - and just over 1,200 miles when the units were switched to Imperial. I had driven a lot, and there was some more driving to do the next day.

The return to Stuttgart, the shipment of the vehicle, and the continuation to Paris will be the next post.