Sunday, April 27, 2008

A second peek at Switzerland

So.. left with around a week off from work, two holidays thanks to Easter, and two weekends, we had suddenly decided on a trip to Switzerland. I had been on a six day trip to the country last December (Note to Self: Should blog about it sometime!), but well, it was a second trip with my mom around this time. Its perhaps jinxed, but so happened that both my trips were essentially last-minute. The comforting part though is that as an UK resident, a visa is not needed. However, the plan involved my mom as well. Actually the trip was mostly for her, as the travails of Bollywood and Kollywood over there had expectedly left a deep impression on her. But the question was, as a mere visitor to UK, would she be exempt from a visa as well? After much digging into the UK Swiss consulate website, we found a nice webpage with neatly put pictures of valid visas, with the column 'No. of Entries: MULT' in the visa circled, so as to say, "See, this is what you need to get in!". We scurried her passport to find the magic letters.. ah! there they were.. MULT!! and so we were all set for the Swiss trip.

Thursday the 27th of March, 2008

We reached Zürich by the afternoon. Vinodh aka Vindy was our host. If you need to roam around this country, a Swiss pass is a must. This provides you free unlimited travel using almost the entire travel network in the country (but for flights, of course, and some other exceptions like many cable cars), including trains, buses, trams and steamers. The minimum time for which this pass is available is for four days, so if you are travelling the country for less than that, you will have to shell out for four days. We got the pass starting from that day itself, pushed in our luggage to the lockers in the railway station itself, and headed to Schaffhausen from Zürich. Like many cities in the country, Schaffhausen too has an 'old town' strongly reminiscent of the medieval times, with the pebbled pathways, and squares with statues and spouts of water. A pretty sight that. We soon took a bus from there to Neuhausen Am Rheinfall, from where it is a five minute walk to the falls. I had been to the falls before as well, when the volume of water was far more impressive, but the falls still had its unmistakeable grace intact. It was evening by then, and after some time, we made our way back to Zürich.

Actually, you get from Zürich to Schaffhausen and back usually by the German railway (Die Bahn, aka The Railway.. Talk about egocentrism!), as Schaffhausen at the very border with Germany, and is en route places inside Germany, from Zürich. Trouble is, someone needs to tell these guys that what gets prominently displayed across the train is the destination, and not where it was coming from. I almost got in the other way thinking that a train was headed to Zurich, on my way back. Turns out they meant, "that's what it is coming from"! Duh! To add to my scares was my cellphone provider O2, which greeted me suddenly with a 'Welcome to Germany' text when I was returning in the right train. Smells strongly of a failed conspiracy to catch me without a valid visa and get me deported. Better luck next time guys! :D

Friday the 28th of March, 2008

Our trip had to be more of a 'milder' nature (as opposed to climbing hills and stuff like that), as my mom was accompanying me. The best that Switzerland has to offer for such trips are the 'scenic' transport options. Breathtaking views from them are, indeed! Our second day started off, after much brainstorming and planning between me and Vindy the previous night, with a trip to Lucerne from Zürich, from where we went atop a mountain called Pilatus in a cable car. It takes a good 45 minutes with two stops in between, and provides really beautiful views as you climb up, provided the skies are clear. Luck seemed to favour us, with the sun shining down, till the last 100 metres near the peak, where we were like.. 'err.. where did all this fluffy stuff appear from suddenly!' So, there was hardly a view from the top. But well, the cable car views were good enough. We came back to Lucerne after a couple of snaps there. Looks like we could take 'the world's steepest cog wheel railway' from the peak to Alpnachstad, near Luzern. Didn't know it then.. should have been good!

We then took the rail route from Lucerne to Interlaken called the 'Golden Pass' scenic route. Actually the Golden Pass route goes further, this is the first leg of that journey. Plenty of lakes and breathtaking sights on the way, as the train meanders its way between mountains, but the crown should undoubtedly go to the segment as you near Interlaken. The Lake Brienz near Interlaken. Wow! That's all you could perhaps say, I guess. You realise your linguistic limitations when it comes to describing a still emerald coloured lake with a snow-capped mountain fence reflecting on it. Beautiful. I would stop there.

Interlaken is right in the middle of the so called 'Bernese Oberland' region, best known for its hiking and skiing options, due to the abundance of mountainous ranges nearby. Like Jungfraujoch, which supposedly is the highest railway station in Europe. We decided to go to Schilthorn, which needed us to take a train to Lauterbrunnen, then a cable car, and then a rail again to the mountainous village of Mürren. Schilthorn had to be reached from there by a cable car again, but it was too late in the evening for us to do that. It was anyway weird to see a rail network being reached by a cable car! The short train journey was beautiful though, will all the snow around. The glass windows on the train could be pulled down as well. To hell with the sub-zero, I thought, as I pulled it down completely to peep out with the cold breeze blowing across you as the train chugged its way through all the snow. Bliss! This was also a moment of realisation that it had been more than six months since I had gone in something like a bus or a train with the breeze blowing against your face. Some of the small joys of having been in a tropical country!

We came back to Interlaken and then to Zürich to end the day. One of the good things about the Swiss transport is that these scenic routes coexist with the 'cut the crap' intercity trains which get you across the country in no time, when you need it. Yes, you don't get the scenery but you tunnel across the landscape to reach the other end in no time. These guys recently got the Lötschberg Base Tunnel, which bored through 34.6 km of Alpine rock to reduce transportation time by more than an hour. Crazy, I hear you say. These guys, you know...

Saturday the 29th of March, 2008

The third day was to be a continuation of the 'Golden Pass' route. Two more trains complete this trail, which we started after a journey from Zürich to Interlaken. It was halfway on the journey to Interlaken, when Vindy calls me up and says that he needs a key that I had immediately. Trouble was, we were heading out on a tight schedule, and Vindy was already an hour behind, if he had to catch us up somewhere. Luckily for us though, it turned out that the second leg of the Golden Pass route from Interlaken retraced the Zürich-Interlaken route backwards till Spiez. The plan thus was for Vindy to catch a train from Zürich to Spiez, within we cross Spiez to go to Interlaken, and then come back via the Golden Pass train to Spiez. The time buffer we would have, between Vindy arriving and we reaching, was around six minutes. That's actually a hell of a lot of time, if you have an idea about how punctual Swiss trains are. Vindy never ceases to be amazed of an instance where a friend of his travelled across countries for over fourteen hours and arrived at the destination at the minute he was supposed to. Not exaggerating when I actually say that you can set your watches by noticing when a train arrives in the station. But then, Murphy smiled. At really a bad time. In a rare event, the train Vindy was coming by, was late by seven minutes. Yes, from a buffer of six minutes to one, negative. I thought it best to leave the key somewhere in the platform so that Vindy could take it a couple of minutes later from there. Luckily for us, the authorities cascaded the delay to other trains leaving from Spiez, so that people could make connecting journeys. Bless them. A few moments of tension thus passed uneventfully.

The train chugged its way to Zweisimmen, covering more snow and more beautiful landscape. It's really tough for me to get bored of all that though! You get to see the second lake associated with Interlaken, Lake Thun, early on in the journey. Darker than Brienz and a bit more turbulent, it was a pretty sight to look at. The third leg was from Zweisimmen to Montreux, as we slowly percolated to the French side of the country, with 'näch halt' giving way to 'prochain arret', and the gutturals replaced by the dentals. Of particular mention is the last half an hour of this trip, during which the train quickly spirals from the top of the mountains to the level of Lake Geneva, in full view of the lake and the surrounding mountains. Spell binding! Description of unending blue waters on a clear sky with snow capped mountains bordering it, and lush green meadows just catching up with spring on the other side... I think I better leave such stuff to pictures!

The plan was to take a steamer from here to visit a chateau and then from there to Lausanne. Montreux, I gathered, was famous for a Jazz festival, a statue of Freddy Mercury, and its promenade flowers. However we hardly saw a few of the flowers in our rush to somehow find our way to the pier in time for the steamer, as it sailed through the beautiful lake for around fifteen minutes to reach Chateau de Chillon, a small fort standing by the edge of the lake. We didn't bother going inside the fort though, and ended up snapping ourselves in front of it, and the edge of the lake -- really provides for a few very breathtaking snaps (Enticing ducks with pebbles on the banks of the lake is nice fun as well).

We took the next steamer from there to Lausanne. The steamer ride for over one and a half hours long over the blue and beautiful lake. The day was pretty cold, but that doesn't really stop you from removing your coat (leaving you with two thin layers of clothing) and stand at the forecastle with the wind blowing against you and your hair flowing in the air. Aah.. Liberating! My mom thought it wiser though to take the coat I refused to wear and wrap herself around. Turns out that a lady was quite impressed by my lofty hairstyle, as she came and told me that I looked quite handsome with that flowing hair. Would have been more flattered, but just that it might have required her to be a bit younger. Mom surely wasn't impressed with the young girls at the bow swigging vodka, but was intrigued by a particular lady whom she claimed was a Hindi actress on a Swiss holiday. Well, Bollywood isn't exactly my forté, so I left it at that. It was evening by the time we landed at Lausanne, so we took a train back home soon, and did some chocolate shopping! (Aren't they the first thing which come to your mind when you hear the country's name?!)

Sunday the 30th of March, 2008

The last of the four days in our little rendezvous with Confoederatio Helvetica. Vindy decided to join us on our travails despite his.. ahem.. busy schedule of searching, researching and soul-searching (But for the first and the third, which were for rhyming purposes. We are not casting aspersions on whether he does the second, though) We started our itenerary at half past six in the morning from the sleepy Zürich suburb of Adliswil. Or so we thought. Until Vindy, equipped with his superior sense of orientation, observed that the hour hand in the clock on the railway station was a bit too tilted to be between six and seven. We thus became the 2342nd, 2343rd and 2345th (mom observed all this a bit late and thus missed the place in between) victims in Switzerland of this wonderful invention known as the Daylight Savings Time, aka DST. So, it was Plan B for the rest of the day starting at half past seven, CEST. Thank god for small mercies though. Looks like sun hasn't yet yielded to human whims, and we got an additional hour to roam around later on in the day.

We started the trip for the day by going to a different country. Yes, from Switzerland to Liechtenstein (Complaints like 'Hey, that's around 160 sq. km., the size of say, Chennai!' will not be accepted). After an hour's journey to Sargans, we boarded a bright (for the sake of political correctness) flourescent greenish yellow Liechtensteinian bus to take us across the border to their capital city of Vaduz, after crossing through a bridge (which we uninamously decided was the border), lush green fields and a few small, pretty castles. A few steps down the Vaduz Post bus stop onto Städtle ("Little Town", the Market Street) and I knew that I was in love with this city. The pedestrian had a heady mix of modernity and the charm of medieval European cities. We searched our way to the tourism office and got a nicely illustrated map of the city and its surrounding tourist spots. The map also had the postage seal of Liechtenstein, which is supposedly a collectible. We grabbed a copy to 'prove' our visit to this neighbouring country.

We had a couple of hours before our planned trip back to Switzerland, and thus took a bus to a nearby town (village perhaps) of Malbun atop a hill. The bus sped up the fairly steep incline of the hill leaving behind the picturesque town, as we looked forward to the snow-clad peak amidst the clouds. Turned out soon that we were wrong about the cloud bit. Malbun was actually in the midst of strong winds which were blowing all the snow into the air. Exciting stuff indeed. Things got more exciting when we actually got down from the train into the near zero centigrade clime with the winds pushing us. No, I am not exaggerating. Mind you, none of us were light, and well, if you know me and my mom, we aren't all that thin either! But the beastly wind actually swung our legs whenever we lifted them, leaving us tottering and moving forward (I actually had to hold my mom so that she doesn't lose balance!) Oh yes, before I forget, our main accomplishment atop the hill top on 'A windy day with Vindy' (I have taken a bit of a liking to this phrase I invented). Having tiffin box lunch of moar kozhambu rice somehow making sure that the potato chips dont fly away from the box in the front of err.. a toilet (that happened to be the only few square feet which was a bit protected from the wind) amidst the storm. Could some good samaritan tell me if this qualifies for some sort of an entry in the Guiness Book of World Records?

Anyway, after all that and couple of stylish poses for posterity back at Vaduz, we chugged our away back to Sargans, and took a train to Chur. That was where we started our bus journey "The San Bernadino Express" to Bellinzona, in the Italian part of Switzerland. En route were deep gorges, and even deeper tunnels, but the high point of the journey was the display of the Swiss engineering prowess. Or perhaps, fetish would be a better word, considering the amount of tunneling they had done in the country. Bridges at various depths and tunnels at every mountain left us amazed as the bus drove (or rather bore) its way to the Svizzera in Switzerland.

Turned out however that the Italian part of Switzerland was not all that well maintained as the rest of it. Well, it surely was a revelation for us indeed to know that trains could run late, and well.. we perhaps spotted the only places in Switzerland where people would walk across the railway tracks on the platform! Anyway, we took a short train from Bellinzona to Lugano, and then to the base of Mt. Bré. There was a funicular from there to the mountain top. The lack of staffing for the railway surely led to a lot of confusion, and to add to it, none of us knew Italian as well! We somehow reached the top of the mountain to catch a glimpse of Lake Lugano (and what was probably Italy beyond that) near sunset time. That ended the day, and our trip around Switzerland, as we packed back and it was back to the Queen's land by the next afternoon!

Well, yes, but not before a last dose of adventure, at the exit point checks at Switzerland. I hand over our visas to the officer (Grumpy Ol Visa Officer, or GOVO)...

GOVO: (Looking at my mom's passport) Can you show me where the visa is?
Me: (Turns to the UK visa page) Here
GOVO: I asked for the Swiss visa page.
Me: But this is the UK visa, and so she doesn't need one.
GOVO: What do you mean, of course she needs a visa
Me: Well, the website told us so. Even I don't have one.
GOVO: You don't have a problem because you have an entry clearance. Your mom doesn't have one.
Me: But this is the entry clearance page.
GOVO: That's visa, not entry clearance. (Pauses) Anyway, I can't do much. It's the official's mistake to have let you in at entry. But please make sure you get a visa next time.
Me: Thank you...

And we walk through, as I peer through both our passport pages, and finally find a glaring difference right at the top. One was 'UK Entry Clearance' and the other was 'VISA'. He had a point after all, right? Well, lady luck sometimes is kind enough...

Friday, April 11, 2008

Dear Mr. Sam

Neither are you an uncle to me, or is it right to bring personal relationships to this, so I shall skip the 'Uncle' part. Let us get a few things clear here. You are one country. One country out of hundreds around the world. You have a constitutional setup and a congress whose job is to make laws for your country and your people. And to the rest of the world, you many a times sound retarded, or to use a more politically correct term, cognitively challenged. Or to put it like the way your countrymen do, you are a real dick sometimes. Now, let us shout this again to you. You, and your congress, are your country's, and not the world's. Didn't get me? Let me tell you again. Your congress makes rules for your country, and not for the world.

We appreciate your concern for Tibetans in China. Many of us share your concern as well. So, get your PR machine or the Congress to say so. But let's stop there. Let's not tell China what to do in this issue. It's their country and for all you know, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry says in so many words, you might not know anything about what's happening there. You have a job at hand. To help your country improve. As much as I would hate to follow your footsteps and tell you what to do, you do have a lot of issues within your country as well. What? Didn't get me? I said there's a lot of trouble brewing in your world. You know, companies writing off millions of dollars every day isn't exactly a new fashion statement.

Similarly, your concern regarding countries which refuse to repatriate immigrants who have been convicted in your country. Well, yes, you have a problem there. With your country that too (what a surprise!). Our sympathies. But you see, your highly logical VISA applications do ask for declarations stating that you don't plan to start any criminal or terrorist activity in there, right? And you thought criminals would obey them? That's sad! When you expect with such milk of goodness that criminals would follow what they give in writing, and all you get is betrayal. Tragic. Sigh. But hey, you didn't let them in purely to help them right? You know, like your statue of liberty says.. that give me your poor stuff. Yeah, your immigration laws clearly don't gel with that. Don't know what your culture and folklore says (Hey wait, you are only a few centuries old right? Atleast the majority of you which doesn't speak Cherokee and goes around claiming that people should speak the 'native' American English tongue? Sorry. My bad.), but there are lots of adages which float around in my native place which say something like when you want roses to bloom, you have to bear the thorns. Yeah, so, you get the point?

Very well, we still understand that you have a got a problem there. After all, those guys shouldn't be misbehaving like that. But well, you should talk and sort out the issue only by talking to the other countries. That's called diplomacy. But you have ended up putting forth a law which called for sanctions and suspensions of visas to countries which didn't tail your line. I would really hate to call you so, but well, generally, such countries are not really called peaceful. You know, the way you describe China and Saddam's Iraq.. yeah, a bit like that. What's funny still is that you don't realise what you would be up for, if all those countries decide to not bother about people not being able to come to your country, and tell you to stick that law of yours up your.. err.. you know what...

You can very well live with all your hypocrisy given your economic clout, and have the rest of the world wagging its tail behind you. But well, things could change. Hell, it's already looking as if its changing. I am sure making some amends would do you a world of good.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Angry Young Man

One of my friends supposedly is. It's a nice pastime to make trends like this out of Facebook statuses :-)

Monday, April 07, 2008

Pathway from heaven

View from the top of a ladder thrown from the heavens to earth...