Travel: Impressions From Zermatt-Matterhorn II(Satis Shroff)

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Impressions From Zermatt-Matterhorn II (Satis Shroff)

As you go along the Riffelberg trail to Riffelalp in Switzerland, you´re following Mark Twain´s footsteps. He describes the trail in his book ´Climbing the Riffelberg.´ Riffelalp has the highest ram in Europe, and when you reach the top you can see a breathtaking panorama of 29 four-thousand-metre peaks, including the Matterhorn. There are a few places in this world which leaves you breathless for you are overwhelmed and awed by the sheer beauty of what you behold. I had the same feeling when I gazed at the Khumbu Himalayas, and beyond the Roof of the World.

A feeling of humbleness and joy overcomes you. The thrill of having been there, seen, smelt and felt the greatness and magnificence of the lofty peaks rising sovereign above the thin milky mists ascending languidly from the vales and spurs below. You have eyes only for the glaciers and peaks.

When you descend to the Riffelsee, a picturesque lake, you cherish the sight of the Matterhorn with its jagged, majestic peak and you see the reflection in the Riffelsee´s turquoise water. Flanking it are 29 other peaks: all four thousand metres above sea level.

The Riffel lake is a nature reserve, a wonderful place with huge stones that have tumbled down from the slopes above, right down to the small lake. You can meditate on the many big rocks around the placid, blue lake and when you turn your eyes to the sky you are blessed by the great Matterhorn massif. Around the lake you find botanical specimens like: the floating bur-reed (Sparganium augustifolium), marsch horse-tails (Equisetum palustre), hair-leafed buttercup (Rananculus trichophyllus), small pond weed (Potamogenton berchtoldii), three bearded rush (Juncus triglumis), the surrounding fields and meadows are full of Scheucher´s cotton-grass (Euphorbium scheuchzeri) and the Sledge Darner (Aeshna juncea). You can´t help being fascinated by the pine and larch forests, moraine lakes, alpine vegetation, glacial moraines and the scree gather below. What I love to see are the tarns, glacial lakes that have been left behind when the glacier recedes.

Along the trail you come across people doing nordic walking, training their entire bodies. You can do intensive training of your upper extremities because you swing your arms in the process, and not only your legs. According to the American Medical Association, trekking along the countryside, be it in the high Himalayas or the Alps and Dolomites, is one of the best ways of improving your health. Yes, you can do something about your Musculus brachialis, deltoideus, triceps, latissimus dorsi, your gastrocnemius and other muscles.

Below the hotel Kulm Gornergrat I talked with a burly, friendly guy who spoke English softly and was selling his art, but when Japanese tourists came by he switched over to the tongue of Nippon. His name was Mathew Fletcher and was from York and had started painting local street scenes in his home town before coming to Switzerland in 1991. Mathew said: ´I´m trying to capture the beauty of the alpine landscape.´ He has exhibited his work in Zermatt and other parts of Switzerland.

”I did the Everest trek on November 11, 1993,´ he said with a twinkle in his eyes.

He went on to say: ´I´ve been to Patagonia, painted in Tahiti, came back to Europe and fell in love with the Matterhorn (sic).´ He draws his works with a pencil first, then paints it with a fine squirrel-hair brush, using water colours.. You can´t miss Mathew Fletcher when you go to Zermatt-Gornergrat. I found his collection of drawings excellent and gave him a tip how he could digitalise his pics and upload them as an art book in one of the increasing number of publish-on-demand sites in the internet. We departed with a namaste, which means ´I greet the godliness in you´ in Nepalese.

Zermatt is a fascinating place. You see Europeans, Americans, Japanese and Indians (with and without turbans) either trekking to the observatory hill on the Gornergrat, taking the cog-train to the summit or the cabin-gondola to Little Matterhorn which is the best alternative that money can buy. The visitors are old, young and very young and you can see them whezing, puffing, snorting and sweating up and down the many Swiss trails, stopping to take shots of peaks like: Cima de Jazzi, Gorner glacier, Nordend, Dafourspitze, Ludwigshöhe, Liskamm, Grenzgletscher, Zwillingsgletscher, Castor, Pollux, Schwärzegletscher, Breithorn, Theodul glacier and the Matterhorn.

After a hearty breakfast comprising Himalaya tea, cooked beans, scrambled eggs, Bircher müsli and croissants with cheese and crisp speck, you say goodbye to Zermatt (1605m above sea level). A friendly, overweight blonde Dutch lady tells you: ´We didn´t see anything up at the Little Matterhorn. The rising mists and the thick, grey clouds veiled everything.´

It was bad luck. You hear this also in Darjeeling when visitors from the plains of India book jeeps to view the sunrise from Tiger Hill. Instead of the Kanchenjunga range they just see the heavy monsoon clouds that bring rain that is so good for the tea growing on the slopes of Gorkhaland. That´s hard luck for the tourists.

After a day´s trekking and a good Swiss dinner with rosti or raclette and a Swiss wine, you can go over to the wellness phase of a sauna or enter a hot bubbling whirlpool. I´m fond of the whirlpool for the tired and cramped legs, because the muscles of your lower extremities that have been slogging all day also need to be given a treat with an underwater massage followed by a cold shower.

Since there were a lot of Japanese visitors in the hotel it was a tranquil and serene atmosphere in the sauna and whirlpool, for the people of Nippon don´t frequent saunas and whirlpools when they´re abroad. I remember we had a young Japanese visitor from Kyoto named Takashi who used to play soccer at the local German club in Zähringen. After the match all players went under the shower but not our young man from Nippon. He had inhibitions about undressing in the cabin in front of all the German lads and walking around naked. The Japanese just don´t do such things in public. He´d come home and take a long shower. We in Germany would say: ´Der ist so verklemmt!´ He´s so shy and inhibited. On the other hand two Indians came to the sauna in their street clothes and shoes. An unpardonable thing to do. A young blonde lady from Dresden named Romy, with whom I had a long chat after the sauna, told me, ´The US Americans are even worse. They march into the sauna in their dirty trekking boots!´

Oh really?´ I said and couldn´t help emitting a chuckle.

Zermatt is like an old western town and you can walk from one end of the shopping street to the other. And that was it. Since it´s August 1, which is Switzerland´s National Celebration Day, all Swiss huts, houses and buildings have the scarlet flags with a white cross on their window-sills, balconies and terraces between the equally scarlet geraniums. Flags in all sizes flutter everywhere, even on peaks and cliffs. The Swiss love their Heimat and are extremely patriotic.

I remember a Swiss lady in Freiburg named Heidi who was married to a Swabian who lamented that she was surrounded by the dominant German culture. She was a rather garrulous person from the Romand speaking area of Vna but became awfully depressed as time went by. However, on the Swiss National Day she´d hang out all the flags of the Swiss cantons and invite us to a champagne and raclette evening. You never saw her elated throughout the year. Some have a longing for religious festivals like Christmas or Tihar (Diwali) and others have just a feeling of sadness and nostalgia. Heimweh or Fernweh, as we are wont to say in Germany.

In Zermatt I ran into a Hippie couple. He reminded me of John Lennon and she a Cheshire cat with all those wrinkles akin to whiskers on her pale face. A pair round spectacles nestled on the bridge of her nose, and she scurried around her make-shift tent with wares from overseas for they were globe-trotters who´d settled down in Zermatt and were catering to the delights of customers who needed woollies in the higher reaches of the Zermatt-Matterhorn treks. They had a lot of souvenirs from Nepal: Buddhist prayer flags and statues of meditating Boddhisatvas, Indian textiles that the Hippie generations have worn, accessories that even find buyers among the current generation. Bollywood has become an expression of chic from the Land of the Maharajas. I´m amazed and delighted to see my German and Swiss students in Freiburg and Basle draped in Benarasi brocades and golden sandals with gemstones imparting and air of royalty from the Orient. Blondes and brunettes with pierced noses and diamond studs, multiple gold ethno ear-rings like the ones worn by the ladies of Rajasthan and Kirtipur. Ethno jewellery and tattoos in strategic areas of the human anatomy are ´in,´ you know.

You can´t go to the hotels, shops and do a bit of sightseeing without missing overseeing the ads in Japanese in Zermatt. Even the TV in the hotels have programmes in Japanese. It´s amazing how flexible the Swiss are in Zermatt and have adapted to the demands of the tourism market: the Japanese bring a sizeable amount of income and even the shops have Swiss and Japanese saleswomen. If a Japanese buys an item in the shop the Swiss are quick to warp it as a present in special Nipponese paper. The visitors from Japan go around in groups with their own Japanese guides cum translators. It reminded me of the Junior Year Abroad students from the US colleges who bring their own text-books and teachers to Germany, and keep to themselves instead of getting to know the German students and people in general, and listening to native German speakers in the streets and the professors at the university, and earning their credits in German universities.

The train ride from Zermatt downwards to Visp via Täsch is wonderful, past a milky Matter-Visp river, with spurs guarded by pine trees, children playing golf, myriads of traditional dark wooden Swiss huts and piles of stones from the mountains. Alpine flowers sway in the wind along the way. Suddenly the mist clears to reveal a rugged peak.

From Herbreggen you can see the walking route painted on yellow boards with black letters indicating how long it takes for you to get to different destinations, and not in kilometres. The cliffs become visible when the misty veils disappear.: jagged silhouettes of the pines trees along the ridge.

The train goes along serpentine tracks, through tunnels and reaches St. Niklaus (1130m). The railway station was built in 1890. There are cute wooden houses bearing names like: Chalet Frieden (peace), Haus Elch. The chalets are small houses with diagonal laid flate stones, like the ones you find in the Gurung villages on your way to Jomsom.

After St. Niklaus you see mixed forests and tunnels galore. Since there´s only one track, your train has to wait and let another go by, which again is filled with Nipponese visitors clicking away frantically with their digital cameras for power point and slide projections in the winters months in Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku or Kuyushu.

Your red train proceeds and below you flows the turbulent, white Matter-Vispa river. The train tracks follow the right bank of the river, getting broader as you go over bridges. A great feat of engineering which was done with the help of guest-workers from Italy. You see evidence of landslides: huge and small rocks and waterfalls gushing down from the mountains. At Kalpetran, where there´s a Luftseilbahn (ropeway car) the train ´stops on request.´ If you forget to press the red ´Halt´ button, the red train with its big windows goes merrily to Stalden.

The wooden houses have pretty little windows decorated. with red geraniums. Since the houses are built on the slopes, the Swiss families have to battle against the torrential rains in summer, and snow and ice in the long winter months. Most people have additional stone and wooden walls along the slopes where they live, to control the wrath of the elements to some extent. You see small wooden huts being overshadowed by big houses with beton fundaments and wooden architecture above.

You arrive in Stalden-Saas, a tourist place with lots of chalets to rent. At the railway station you see young people relishing their warm soups, an ´Il Buffeto´ sign of a pizzaria, decorated with more geraniums. There are vineyards along the slope. The people in the Alps, especially the older generation, are very conscious about God and written on a wooden board are the words:

Gott beschütze dieses Haus

Und all die gehen ein und aus.

God protect this house,

And all those who go in and out.

The Matter-Vispa changes its bed for a moment and flows again to the right. It´s swollen now and the water has turned grey with stones becoming rare. More vineyards appear along the slopes to the right. A cement factory appears with rich green meadows.

You reach Visp, a much bigger Swiss town with intercity railway connections. The houses are built atop the surrounding hills and almost on every slope. You change trains and board a comfortable double-decker intercity. It´s 2pm and the train is speeding towards north Switzerland. One tunnel alone is 20 minutes long. The Swiss do keep you often in the dark. A train conductor comes along the aisle and admonishes a bearded guy with a Jewish cap.

We call it trick number 17,´ he says to the passenger, ´travelling without a ticket.´ But he´s kind and doesn´t throw him out. The passenger pays and that´s the end of the matter. Not so in Germany. The conductor ordered a school-kid who didn´t have a ticket to get off the train in the middle of nowhere. Poor fellow. In German trams Schwarzfahrer, as commuters sans tickets are called, are obliged not only to pay the fare but also a fine of 40 euros. An expensive ride.

In the lovely town of Bern you take the fast Swiss train to Basle. It´s 3pm and the sky is still clouded and misty below. It has rained and the streets are wet, with the vapour rising. There are men in orange vests moving around the platforms busy as bees, transporting luggage from hotels. An elderly trio in their seventies push a Kofferkuli towards platform no. 8. There are a lot of blondes and brunettes dressed and looking like Shakira and Britney Spears commuting to their homes. The styling is top and they all have that cover-girl look. You see Swiss blokes in shorts, sneakers and T-shirts walking down the aisle with ears plugged to their respective MP 3s.

The river in Bern has a greenish-blue colour as it snakes out of the town. Cute little two-storied houses appear as you speed by. An attractive woman in her forties, wearing tight blue jeans, glittering slippers and elegant features watches your truly as I scribble my microstories on my pad. She must be wondering what I´m writing. She has a hand resting casually on her thigh and the other is on the seat as she gazes at fellow passengers. A young blonde mother with her small son take opposite her and pack out their chicken nuggets with dips. She closes her eyes after a sigh. The smell of ketchup and sweet spicy dip floats in the compartment.

Outside it´s green again and the hamlets in the outskirts of Bern fleet by as pine trees begin appearing. Ah, pine trees have been following me since my schooldays in the foothills of the Himalayas and in the Black Forest where I live. It´s such an exhilarating experience to walk along pine forests. The smell of the green in the forest is a spiritual experience because it bears the smell of incense or Weihrauch, which not only the shaman-healers of Nepal and other parts of the world use but also catholic priests in the church.

The blonde woman with a city bag has her eyes still closed, oblivious of the mother opposite her who´s talking over her mobile, amidst the monotonous noise of the speeding train. A wonderful holiday in coming to an end: with trekking during the day and sauna and whirlpool baths in the evenings till 9pm. How lovely it has been, candle-light dinners, promenading in Zermatt, enjoying life without a care. Zermatt is worth the four-star hotel tab. You bet I´ll go there again.

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