Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe

I was tipped off by a colleague that visiting Jungfraujoch would be an incredible destination while in Switzerland.  Words like “glacier” seemed sort of cool, but when other words like “cog railway”, “narrow gauge railway” and “UNESCO World Heritage Site” were used, I was hooked.

As I bought tickets, I didn’t really understand what we were in for on the trip over.  Swiss railways are nothing short of spectacular, the Zurich Hauptbahnhof being a prime exhibit with its 26+ tracks, two levels, 2,900 daily trains, and over 340,000 passenger per day.  For a point of comparison, Beijing’s new West Railway station serves roughly 150,000 passengers per day on average, and while this is one of three Beijing stations, you’re talking a comparison of a city of 22 million vs. a city of 365,000.  OK, enough stats.  The point is, I’m not sure there’s very many systems in the world, even in small countries, that can get you to where you want to go and back on a 10+ connection, 10 hour journey.  We missed one of our connections in Bern due to a misreading of the schedule, but there was another option 20 minutes after that one, and I’m not even sure it mattered towards the end result.

The trip involved five different trains out and back, and our route was:

  • Zurich -> Bern (Intercity Express or ICE, double decker coaches)
  • Bern -> Interlaken Ost (Intercity Express single deck coaches)
  • Interlaken Ost -> Lauterbrunnen (Narrow Gauge on the Bernese Oberland Railways)
  • Lauterbrunnen -> Kleine Scheidegg (Narrow Gauge Cog on the Wengernalp Railway )
  • Kleine Scheidegg -> Jungfraujoch (Narrow Gauge Cog on the Jungfrau Railway)

From Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch, each of these segments included multiple stops (see the route maps I’ve linked to) as we wound our way up the mountain from Interlaken to an altitude of 11,388 feet which makes it the highest railway station in Europe.  In case your curious, the Qingzang railway to Tibet holds the record for the world.

Riding up from Interlaken was a neat experience as the cogs permit a level of ascent that’s almost roller-coasterish in some places.  You pass by hundreds of small cottages, several small skiing and resort towns, and the train is carrying mostly skiers through the lower stations, complete with additional carts for baggage on the front of the train.  The railway is completely electrified, and though the equipment looks interchangeable, these are all separately operated railways with different uniforms, liveries, cars, and locomotives.  Typical of Swiss efficiency, the trains generate electricity for the line on the way down and can recover something like 40% of the power expended on the ascent.  As we progressed, we became a little worried that the top would be obscured by heavy fog that was blanketing the mountains, even though a train information official assured us it was clear on the top.

The last two plus kilometers of the trips is at a very steep ascent rate and is completely within a tunnel with one stop for an observation point.  This last point is incredible, considering that this line was built in 1894 and 1912.We got a late start from Zurich as we caught the 10:32 AM train out of Zurich and the entire trip we witnessed frowns and mumbles about there not being enough time, and sure enough, when we got there we had 40 minutes until the last train, but for us it was enough.  We hustled through the station, rode a very fast elevator up, and emerged at the Sphinx Observatory whose very name leaves you unsurprised it has been used in a James Bond movie and as a setting for several novels.What a view!  We were high above the clouds, and in every direction there was snow, mountain peaks, and nothing else.  The lack of a visible rail line or road to the station due to the railway’s tunnel progression make it seem like you’re at some sort of Antarctic outpost having parachuted in, and the 12 degrees Fahrenheit temperature reinforce that impression.  We snapped off a ton of pictures, about froze to death, ran back down to the train, and were off!

Was it worth it?  I would say definitely yes.  If you’re a train buff, this is a can’t-miss experience despite the rather expensive cost.  For extreme environment junkies, I’d say yes as well.  There are hiking excursions you can take but those may only be available for the summer.  My advice would be to go for a weekend or couple of days of skiing at one of the lower stations and head up for an hour as part of your larger experience.  An hour is all you need if you just want to see things, if you want to experience the restaurant or ice palace, maybe more time is warranted.

Hello From Zurich, Switzerland

It’s New Year’s Even here in Zurich, and we’re hanging out for a few hours before heading out to sample street food, drink beer, and watch a fireworks spectacular (paid for by the Zurich Hotellier’s association, of course). Here are a few thoughts on Switzerland:

  • Flight over was mediocre to poor.  Flying Delta this time, but the plane was an ancient 767 with peeling upholstery on the seats, and no personal video screens.  On the way over we got to watch movies with bad sound, which were interrupted constantly by the chattiest flight crew we’ve ever heard.  Despite only being able to watch 82% of The Social Network (due to interrupting first officers) we managed to agree that it completely sucked.  Aaron Sorkin, WTF?  It’s like we hardly know you anymore.
  • Trip in from the airport was easy, but felt completely out of control.  The train/tram system in didn’t seem to have a lot of route maps (as far as we could tell on our tram, there weren’t any), so we defaulted to our standard MO when we’re in this situation: John just asks everyone he sees hundreds of times where we are and how to get where we’re going.   We made it to our hotel just off the lake and jumped on the courtesy wifi while we waited for our room and ate some breakfast.
  • Hotel is nice.  We got upgraded to a suite for having to wait an hour while we tried to check in at 10AM.  We have free internet and national flag channels in Russian, Italian, German, English, Chinese, Japanese, Farsi, and Arabic.  We also have “ESPN America” who advertised on channel listings and on their website that NC State – West Virginia would be on, and then screwed the pooch on hour 38 of staying awake and showed a “March to the Capital One Bowl” instead.  Fail.
  • Food here is expensive.  Like, insanely expensive.  Rather than have a strong currency compared to the US dollar, the Swiss strategy seems to be just double the price on everything.
  • Everyone seems to think we’re French.  “Merci” seems to be the common way people thank us.
  • The Swiss National Museum was great, and included a really cool exhibit, movie, and hands-on “build your own Swiss Army Knife” exhibit.   John didn’t get to build one as he was 3 kids back in the line.  We’re ordering one from Amazon and we’re just going to fib on that one.
  • Weather has been hazy so far, but we got about 3-4 inches of snow our first night here.
  • American Idol singers still sound bad even if they’re dubbed in German.
  • We have eaten at a few really good (expensive) restaurants, but John’s favorite so far was the Zeughauskeller Beer Hall.  This place was nuts.  A huge room in what used to be an old armory with massive tables, where you just get seated in with another 4-5 couples as the table.  We had some aloof Swiss, and some semi-communicative Russians (only the girl could speak English), and we dove in to huge plates of Sausage, potato salad, and fresh halved tomatos.  And beer.  One of the most unusual dark beers I’ve had was the Falken Draft “Dark” beer that tasted almost like vanilla.  It was cheap, too – relatively speaking of course.
  • We also ate at the Odeon Cafe which is apparently famous as being one of the favorite hangouts for Einstein and Lenin.  Very good breakfast options.
  • We were tired our first day here, so we decided to watch a movie, the only real choice available in English being the Tourist.  Decent movie, and we loved the classic Swiss twist of the intermission that’s apparently always done here:  lights come up after the first hour (right in the middle of wherever you are in the film), everyone stands up, and the screen says “Lets all eat ice-cream!”  So everyone does.
  • Even though I’d been here before, he realized he couldn’t remember almost anything about the trip.
  • We kept turning on the TV to see this weird creepy loaf of bread with arms talking…and talking…and talking.  After much Googling and Google-translating, it’s apparently “Bernd das Brot” or “Bernd the Bread” which is this weird half-show played after a kids station goes off the air here.  This is probably the same reaction European tourists get when they turn on the TV and Wipeout or WWF is on.

We’re having a good time enjoying the cold, and we’ll see you next year.