Surrounded by the mountains

I have to say that the mountains and lakes of Switzerland are truly awesome. We’ve spent four days clambering all around the Grindelwald-Interlaken-Zermatt area now, and there’s still a sense of wonder when we see these sheer walls and cliffs rising above us deep into the alpine forest and then above into white-streaked peaks.

When we first headed south of Basel, we encountered the mountains at Interlaken. This picturesque town, which we’d heard of before, is positioned between the lakes (as its name implies) of Faulensee and Breinzersee. Neither are as large as the Great Lakes, but they are pools of that translucent green-blue alpine water which are fringed by dozens of towns and cities along the road. We exchanged at Interlaken Ost, a common station, where we started realizing that we would have to crane our necks upward to see where the mountains ended outside the window. Both of the towns we were visiting (Grindelwald and Zermatt) are located deep in the valleys, so we changed to a local train to Grindelwald, and it was a cog railway which pulled the trains into the mountains. It’s hard to remember, but unlike cars, train wheels have no traction, so they must be pulled up any sort of significant incline. We ascended so quickly I had to pop my ears several times during the next half an hour. We went through a few stations for mountain towns which were small enough to be “stop on request”. Finally, at Grindelwald, we emerged into a misty valley town, wide and verdant, and ringed with mountains on all sides. I think that was the best part of Grindelwald and something I like better than Zermatt – the mountains were very tall on all sides. To our immediate southwest were these three gigantic mountains, the Jungfrau, the Monch, and the Eiger. Their English names are the Maiden, the Monk, and the Ogre – even the mountains here evoke fairytales.

On our first afternoon, we got settled and went for a walk around town in the rain, just looking at the town while walking on the footpaths. The Swiss mark the footpaths with a yellow diamond sign that says “Wanderweg”, which is a lovely word. However, it can mean sometimes semi-muddy footpaths in the grass which have uneven footing. We took this particular wanderweg in a short circle, which ended up at the church in Grindelwald. It seems a custom in that valley to make large stone headstones which are carved elaborately, and then to plant beautiful flowers all over the grave. People seem extraordinarily long-lived in that valley – many gravestones we saw dated from the 1920s or 1930s to the early 2000s. And they had these lovely tended graves which marked where their loved ones laid them to rest. After coming back, we made dinner in the hostel we were staying at, and then went to bed hoping for better weather the next day.

In the list of unexpected things, I have to say that somehow, we didn’t realize we’d be over here with approximately half of Asia. We had started seeing a lot of Asian tourists on the trains as we made our way into Grindelwald, but it truly hit us on the next morning when we made our way to the cable cars. Literally hordes of mainland Chinese tourists were lining up for the cable cars from Grindelwald to First, one of the closest peaks. There were also significant amounts of Cantonese-speakers probably from Hong Kong, some Taiwanese as indicated by their accent, and many, many Japanese and Korean visitors as well. A handful of Indian or Pakistani visitors stood out in fairly traditional garb (at least the women, anyway), looking kind of cold in the damp weather. We managed to get a cable car up with another couple that seemed to be from mainland China, and watched our ascent to First, at 2,168 meters. Below the cable cars on the way up, we saw wanderwegs that other adventurous visitors were on, many mountain huts/ houses, and many, many cows. At first, we heard a lovely cacophony of bells that sounded the most like a Taiwanese temple procession. Both Steve and I couldn’t believe our ears for a moment, but then we figured out that it was coming from a herd of cows which were feeding. Each cow wore a cowbell, and as the mist rolled over them on the mountain, we began to understand why they wore the bells.

Up at First, it was even more obvious that Swiss tourism is a favorite with Asia. It was hard to avoid tourists taking pictures of each other in the snow exuberantly in various poses, which is a thing I find both endearing and a little frustrating, given how they tend to ignore anything else going on in the vicinity. We both raised an eyebrow when we saw a huge Chinese flag with its yellow stars on red pulled out by several tourists. Inside the restaurant, Steve remarked that he was probably one of a handful of Caucasians in the middle of about 80-90 something people. For our midday meal, we sat beside a large table where a Japanese family was eating and talking. They were joined later by a few mainland Chinese tourists, and the Japanese father surprised everyone by whipping out his strangely accented but very fluent Mandarin, asking about the dialects of Chinese they were speaking (Zhejiang Province dialect, apparently).

The most unexpected thing about this trip (and not in a good way) has been the weather. I think we were both a little too naïve about all the pictures of alpine weather that have been depicted through photos and Instagrams. Something about the mountains just makes you think there’s going to be plenty of sunshine on the snowy peaks. The truth is that for the past three days, it has been raining and drizzling on and off, and sometimes, being so high up, it’s basically the same as being in the clouds. We’ve only been able to see some of the mountains we came all this way to view, and that has been quite disappointing. A few hours of clear weather has shown us just what would have been possible if it was nicer weather. Furthermore, early June means that not all the mountain trails have opened for the summer, and it makes us wonder if we had come a little later in the summer, if it would have been a better idea.

The weather weighed heavily on us as we made our way around First. At the peak, there is a short cliff walk which we ended up doing. The mist rolled over us very quickly, clouds forming as suddenly as they dispersed. Sometimes, we couldn’t see anything in front of us, but then sometimes the entire mountainside would be unveiled again. The cliff walk was in fact a little scary, and Steve admitted that he walked through as quickly as possible. Some people were attempting to start the hikes that originate from First, but they were all closed (officially), and most of them were partially obstructed by snow. So we took the cable car down to Schreckfeld, and decided to walk down from there.

It was a wet, long journey of about two hours from Schreckfeld to Grindelwald. Downhill usually is not a problem, of course, but a grade of 20% will stress your calves and quad muscles quite a lot. (We were really sore the next day.) We saw many large cows in the meadows, peering back at us, some with shaggy long hair, some with horns. Amazingly, alpine wildflowers grew everywhere in the meadows. We saw little white buds of snowdrops that grew very high up, close to the peak. It seemed amazing that such flowers could flourish in such cold temperatures. Further down, there were buttercups galore, milkweed, little blue lupines, baby’s breath, and others that I can’t even hazard a guess to. They grew all over, and seemed to be a favorite for the cows who grazed over the hills. We made a mid-trip stop at Bort, where we stopped in a restaurant for a beer and some hot cider, while we watched the rain outside. Finally, we ended up sopping wet back at our hostel in Grindelwald.

I’ll write next about our lovely reprieve in Spiez and (finally) a sunny day in Zermatt!

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