Bhutan for the Backpacker: My Experience

Bhutan is a magical place, one that many travellers can only dream about. Wanting to make the most of my opportunity, my two weeks could not have more perfect! I left with new friends, a wealth of Buddhist knowledge and hunger for more. Friendly, respectful and outgoing, the Bhutanese welcomed me with open arms.

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Thangthangka, Bhutan <- 26th March.2016

Well, I’m freaking tired. So is my guide so it makes me feel a little better. Somehow I missed that we’d have 2 more passes, even if we made it over Bronte La. 4800m sucks, but hopefully we don’t go higher than that.

The climb to the lakes was beautiful but hard at 9am and 4100m. My guide had decided we’d walk until 11:30 and see how far we got. We ended up getting high enough to see the Pass! Definitely “bush-walking” and snow plowing but we followed the Yak trail as far as we could. Coming back sucked, straight up. It was stunning scenery and on the way back we hung up prayer flags which I’ll claim was badass! The assistant cook ended up waiting for 3 hours back at the Jomolhari Base Camp and, after we had finished eating, we headed down together. Although it was only 4 hours getting up, it took 3 to walk down. My heels are shot (Blisters obliterated, but hey!) and I’m sure I’ll be sore in the morning! 3 days down, 3 to go!

In the bush near Yakse ← 27 March

…Today’s mission took us from Thangthangka to (nearly) the Yakse village. There was a building at the end of the valley that Pema no. 2 was aiming for but I had to, for the first time, bail on our destination! I had felt the resistance early on from my feet, and knew that coming back down to the campsite would suck. I performed minor surgery on my blisters this morning but there wasn’t much I could do to minimise the uncomfortable throbbing pain. On top of it all I had layered up, preparing for the worst of the weather and we ended up spending 5 of our 6 hours in 20oC sun! I seriously developed heat rash! At 3500m I saw it first this morning on my hands, initially thinking it was a reaction to the sunscreen. A few days of ‘liberal’ application evidently doesn’t let your skin breath. When we got to our base camp, I discovered it was also starting on my legs. 20oC doesn’t call for thermals to say the least. To top it off, I am recovering from a freakin’ sunburn! Thanks to the beautiful day at Tigers Nest, my face and neck feel like I fell asleep on a beach.

Enough of my whining! Who have I spent the last five days with?

Pema no. 1- Guide turned confidant
Pema no. 2- Cook helper & lunch runner
Jigme- Bhutanese cooking magician. Could make a meal out of water.
Dorley- One-eyed horseman. Definitely would hire him if I moved into the woods. Could easy make a mansion from a tree.

 My first six days in Bhutan was my Jomolhari Base Camp trek. Although I had booked the Jomolhari Loop Trek, it was evident early on that it wouldn’t be possible due to the snow still at high elevations. The normal plan in this case, would have been to spend a full day at the Jomolhari Base Camp for some sightseeing hikes, and then slowly head back down. Thankfully our cook (who was very experienced with over 30 years in the trekking industry) had suggested that we head further down and have the chance to head up to the Soi Yakse Valley, an area that I should have seen on Day 5 of the trek. Despite not completing the full loop, we hiked one day high enough that we could almost see the first pass. It had snowed in Thimphu only a few days before I arrived in Bhutan and, as I live in Switzerland, fully respected the “don’t mess with Mother Nature” attitude. We weren’t going to be annoying any mountain deities on my trip.

I was thankful to see more than other tourists but it made for two long days, aided by blown-out blisters. (My hiking boots are years old, but my soft snowboarding winter feet hadn’t seen my hiking boots for over six months!) Blisters riding Blisters x3, I was walking like I had a stick up my bum. And with sun on us all day, it was an overly exhausting 5th day. The best thing about the Trek was coming back to camp with an amazing fresh meal of vegg, rice and chilli cooked up. I didn’t know it then, but it would be the best Bhutanese food I had the whole trip.

The second week is referred to more a “Cultural Tour” where I had the opportunity to visit monasteries, Dzongs (fortresses) and temples in Paro, Thimphu, Punaka and Gantey. Although I have hundreds of photos of the beautiful architecture, I wasn’t able to take photos inside the temples out of respect for the deities and Buddha. With the oldest of temples, it really felt like I was walking into a museum…floor to ceiling murals of various historical stories. Lord Buddha’s life story, Buddhist teachings and Bhutanese folk-lore decorated entrances around Bhutan. I was lucky to have a very patient and knowledgeable guide who answered all my questions — especially when I asked them multiply times!

 During the second week of the tour, I would typically have breakfast at the hotel, buffet style with a mix of Indian and western items; scrambled eggs, toast, fresh fruit, etc. Lunch would be had a (very touristy) set restaurant. My driver would need to pre-order the food, usually ‘fusion’: a standard mix of three vegetables, rice and a noodle dish. During my holiday in Bhutan, it fell on a religious Buddhist holiday whereas you couldn’t buy fresh meat in the markets. Larger hotels would have stuff stock-piled, or used canned variations imported from India. DSC08344Dinner was usually again at the hotel, but on a few occasions we ate in the town, but again at touristy restaurants. Although I would request to try local restaurants, it took a few days for me to learn that this isn’t really their culture. They’ll eat together with friends and family, and on special occasions go to a nice restaurant. In reality though, what a meal cost was not something they could afford eat week. It was an interesting change from Switzerland, where people eat out regularly! In Thimphu, the most metropolis city (but still small by European standards), there was a few bars / nightclubs, but this was mostly to placate the modern-thinking younger crowd.

I learnt towards the end of my trip that the restaurants where we ate at, had already typically agreements set up with my company. Although alcoholic drinks weren’t included, tea, coffee and water weren’t a problem and were added to the bill that would be later sent to the company office.

There was a standard list of sites that we visited during the second week. My only (small) regret with my trip, was that I didn’t get to see any of the famous Bhutanese festivals. There are 100s of dances performed by monks dressed as various folklore. We did get to see a small cultural show on my last night but unfortunately it wasn’t comparable to the real thing. It’s on the list for next time!

Although we spent the second week during various goembas and temples, I actually visited the famous Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) on my second day as the altitude change was perfect for trekking acclimatisation. It was a beautiful day, and the hike to the monastery was certainly easier that I expected.

22nd March – Paro

…One of the most exciting things was when Pema told me about a ,,wishing relic rock”. You have to make a wish, close your eyes, and aim your thumb at the round impression in the rock. My first two goes didn’t amount to anything, so wishing for children were so far off! The third go I changed my wish and got it! Now let’s see if it comes true! …

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As for the sites we saw after the trek, we started in Paro Valley where we visited Kychu Lhakhang, Paro Dzong and Sangchen Choekor Shedra. We made our way east, towards Thimphu where we would spend a full day exploring. We hiked to Tango Monastry and then had lunch back in the city. While we waited to visit the Tashi Chho Dzong in the evening, we stopped at the Big Buddha (50m tall!) and the Takin animal reserve.

When we did make it to the Thimphu fortress, it was so much bigger than I anticipated! Ironically, the King, Queen and Prince live in a modest one-story building in the lush grounds away from the busy Palace (although the king will walk the 500m to work every day!). There was surprisingly little security for the royal family, in the way of guards and security. Just one huge fence! The guards for the palace were the first ones I had seen in Bhutan that did actually carry guns, but we could almost look into the window of the royal residence across the river! We weren’t allowed to stop and look (or take photos) out of respect. When I asked about the lack of guards, Pema said that almost all tourists will have a personal guide and therefore it is the responsibility of the guide to keep their tourists in line. (On this note; when we went into the Palace, I was wearing my Burmese htamain (a long skirt) with my rain jacket. It took some discussion between my guide and the guards to let me in as they thought it was part of the ‘Kera’, the tradition Bhutanese dress for women . Had this been the case I would have need to wear the rest of the outfit, including a small jacket over the top. I had to show them it was certainly not a kera dress by un-folding it.

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Inside the Thimphu Fortress- you can see the local men in the background wearing the ‘gho’.

Inside the Thimphu Fortress- you can see the local men in the background wearing the ‘gho’. I didn’t realise until I saw photos from that evening that it had a very likable resemblance to the tradition dress. Although I never meant to insult anyone, my guide did get a quick lecture about what is appropriate attire for the tourists!).

After our day in Thimphu, we had a full day’s drive east to Gangtey. On route, we had stopped at Dochula Pass for tea but as the weather was slightly cloudy we couldn’t see the panoramic view. It was amazing to think that every year the Chief Abbott (Bhutan’s religious leader) makes the pilgrimage from Punakha to Thimphu each year Spring. It was almost 100km over a mountain pass!

Gantey was definitely the smallest town I had seen, with only one main street and a few hotels. The Gantey Valley is best known to bird watchers as the nesting grounds for the black-necked crane. Unfortunately all the birds were still in Tibet while I was there, and only got to see the injured crane whose home had been made in the Information Center.

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Rural Bhutan
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Phobjikha Valley

The following day we walked, and sloshed our way through the Gantey Nature Trail. Unfortunately my shoes were lost to the good cause due to the mud and puddles, but we continued nevertheless onwards. We saw the Fertility Temple, and later back in Punakha, the Punakha Dzong. From Punakha we headed back to Paro, stopping at a Nunnery and a local Tao Village. As I was flying out the next day we also did some souvenir shopping, where I was able to get myself a painting!

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Was it worth it? A perspective slice.

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 As a ‘backpacker’, my average Asian travel budget (or estimate while saving) is an average of 50USD per day, and I don’t include my international flights in this estimate. Usually within a few days of arriving this budget will change– especially in Central and South-Eastern Asian countries. As I mentioned before, the daily limit during my visit to Bhutan was $250 per day. Fives times more than my average budget. I am very, very fortunate to work in Switzerland at the moment, and without having much in the way of expenses, we work to travel. Making the most of my situation, Bhutan was not going to be missed!

I was certainly part of the small younger crowd that was travelling in Bhutan. Most of them visit for trekking, but usually for the one week tour. After, while I was in India, I usually had two reactions: 1) Omg! You were in Bhutan!! 2) What the fuck. Why would you spend so much money for that? … granted, the later came from one disgruntled Scottish traveller that was being pulled through India by his girlfriend and had consequently given up enjoying any last possible experiences.

Bhutan was the first country in Asia that I have not seen poverty. There wasn’t people sleeping on the streets (it’s illegal), children went to school everyday and were not allowed out after dark (unofficially). The only time I saw children selling anything, was personally made book-marks along the path to the Fertility Temple. When I asked my guide, he quickly said that the parents will get in a lot of trouble from the police if they saw that and chances are, the kids (maybe 5 or 6 of them) were doing it in secret. He thought it probably would have been to purchase sweets from the local shop– I compared this to kids selling lemonade on the street corner. Certainly not the beggars on the streets on India.

There is still certainly an economic class structure in Bhutan, but certainly not as rigid as neighbouring countries. My horsemen, the lowest earner in my group during the trek, still made enough to send two kids to school. One son was studying to be a monk, but he had a sick wife in the hospital. His main form on income was the tourist treks, where he made 450 Nu./ 7USD per horse, per day.

For the duration of the trek my 250USD daily tariff kept four people employed. Sure, you could argue that I was sleeping in a tent and eating by a campfire for six days but I knew after that, these guys would all have money to support their families after. The company could also afford to buy good quality gear from Nepal, instead of cheaply made tents imported from India. When it was 5oC at 4100m, I was happy to be sleeping in a -10oC Marmot bag.

During the later part of my trip, the daily tarif included all meals, the accommodation (which was easily over 100USD each night for the hotels I was staying in), and of course pay the wage of my guide, driver and having a nice car for 8 days.

Although I thought I would argue with myself for why they don’t provide a cheaper, affordable option in order to carter to a larger market, the quality was unbeatable. This is a country that is proud of its image; an educated country that is welcoming to their guests. They are not shrouded in corruption and political problems with homeless people sleeping in the doorways. Indian labourers work often in Bhutan as they earn more, but still must follow strict Bhutanese rules. The population is educated, often up through to university and has a better sense of the global world than some of the visiting travellers themselves. All the younger generations spoke amazing english, and most hindi, as well. Television, although recently introduced, played BBC, CNN, HBO, SKY and Al Jezeera New stations- a more rounded source of information than available in Switzerland! Other than selling hydroelectricity to India, the only other main source of income for Bhutan is tourism. This funds the education system, health care and infrastructure (which as I was there, they were widening the national highway which travels through to Eastern Bhutan).

Financially, I couldn’t afford to travel through Western Europe on the same budget while being offered similar quality services. And even if I could (and did), that money would be going straight into the pocket of the private company’s bank account, leaving nothing for the local people to benefit from.

Was 250USD a day worth it? Yes! For the sake of preserving their culture, they are doing it the right way 🙂

My trip to Bhutan was definitely once-in-a-lifetime, and combined with my 4 days in Delhi/Agra, but I left knowing that I will have to go back at some point. So much still to see!

Packing Tips: My Must Have Items

The adventures of packing. The smallest detail which can make or break a trip. That small charger you forgot, or that extra pair of shoes you never needed. We’ve all been there. I know each time I go on a trip I play a small game of tetris with my backpack, hoping to make the most of my 55L Eagle Creek Truist backpack. After a few solid trips, I feel comfortable to share my 5. The items that come no matter where I go, hot or cold. Long or short. A trip is an adventure!

Stuff sacks.

In this day and age, most travellers will have some form of packing system. Some use packing cubes, but as I’m not travelling with a rectangle suitcase I find the stuff-sacks work better for backpacking. I purchased my Me°ru’ ones at the local outdoor outlet center for a bargain, with 5 different sizes (S-XL). I usually split them into the following categories; undergarments, t-shirts and light pants, jeans/sweaters, one bag for the trainers/hiking boots (this is always the same bag, in my case a red one, so I’m not fussed about dirt from the shoes getting on my clothes.), and dirty laundry. It works well for dirty laundry as the fabric of the stuffsacks is breathable so the clothes don’t stink a lot when put together for a few days. Unlike packing cubes, the stuff-sack pack completely flat to save space when I’m not using one of them!

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Two padlocks and a Swiss Army knife.

Although most will travel with some sort of padlock, I have found it easier to always have two. On a not-so-recent trip to Thailand, I found that my main padlock didn’t fit in the hostel lockers. My friend’s luggage lock, with a smaller shackle, fit perfectly. I now always have two, also allowing me to lock valuables away and keep my other belongings locked in my bag if necessary. When my whole bag doesn’t fit into the storage provided, I will typically leave everything (minus valuables) in my bag, as to save ‘unpacking’. The second lock is also perfect as my small packable day bag can also be locked as neccessary. Locks don’t take up a lot of room, and are definitely worth it. A Swiss Army knife is pretty standard I believe and with I use the keyring clip from my bag so as never to accidentally pack it in my carry on!

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USB retractable cable.

With technology enriching our lives (and travels!), we all have the trips where we bring wayyy tooo many cables. My first recommendation is to have everything charging with the same cable! I have never travelled with my laptop (tablets all the way!) so this eliminates the biggest hassle. My camera, phone, and battery backup all charge with mini-USB. With minimal space taken up, I usually bring the small cable with my carry-on so I can charge my phone while on long-haul flights. Most hostels (and hotels) will have USB charging points nowadays although I do still bring an international travel adapter. Battery backup is perfect for my camera, as I never want to run into having a flat camera battery!

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Rayon Sarong.

A towel, blanket, scarf, skirt, curtain, quick drying… need I say more? I got mine on my first trip to Asia and it hasn’t left my side since! They pack small and are light. With darker colours, they show less dirt too!

Add It To Your Packing List!

  1. Passport Photocopies; digital and paper versions!
  2. US Dollars; perfect for emergencies and every country exchanges them! Preferably only new notes, as countries are becoming sticklers for old, creased ones.
  3. Sewing kit. Making your clothes last that little longer! Mine is super basic.
  4. Flip-Flops. Compact and comfy, can be worn in the evenings instead of your walking shoes (even with socks when its cold 🙂 ). Although I’ve seen Crocs as a substitute, they take up more room and are fashion suicide (more so than socks and flip-flops!).
  5. Digital Watch with alarm clock. Mine is an old Swatch model that also can do two clocks, one usually set to my home timezone.

 

Happy Packing!

Flashback: Bumpy Trains and Ginger Salad.

09. Feb. 16 -> Somewhere between Goteik + Hsipaw

Well, I’ll start by saying that it’s not that bad! We’re at the point where the train is still swaying but atleast not bouncing! The first hour was definitely the worst! We were literally jumping off our seats! However, its become particularly enjoyable now!

In February this year, I was fortunate to travel to Myanmar for three weeks. With a crisp Lonely Planet on hand, I was eager to see another side of the Asian culture. On my first night in Yangon, I met up with two other amazing travellers, one from Germany and the other Australia. We teamed up for the Circle Line train the following day, and meet another traveller from China. Meeting up again in Bagan a few days later, we would travel the majority of Myanmar together- definitely influencing it for the better 😀

We spent 3 days in Bagan, cycling around and filling ourselves with Burmese donuts and Sweet Tea. Delicious curries for dinner, and an amazing hostel topped it off! (We stayed at Ostello Bello Bagan). From Bagan, we took a day boat to Mandalay. Coming from peaceful Bagan, unfortunately the highlight of Mandalay were the 600Ks Shan Noodles we had for dinner. “With alittle of the pickled spice vegg, it turned out to be the best 60cent dinner in a long time!”

Our 4am departure from Mandalay to Hsipaw meant we weren’t going to be getting much sleep!

This morning meant another early rise to take the train to Hsipaw [pronounced Sis-paw]. We decided to make the trip up for the night as our friend leaves on the 11th and we all wanted to the Goteik Viaduct (built in 1900!). The first hour we bounced around like dice in a cup and established very quickly we probably weren’t going to get much sleep! Our german friend didn’t feel well, and after putting her head on her backpack, in her lap, she was able to sleep. I slept for about an hour, in 2 half hour stints, and again for about 20mins this afternoon.

One of the best experiences of the (will be 11.5 hr) journey is definitely the food!! Each stop, we purchase difference baggies of food. Although the hostel in Mandalay was super kind and made our breakfast takeaway, we got some sticky rice (the dark one again) on our first stop. The boys also picked up some friend things but that was unfortunately very hit+miss. There was only one thing that we all liked (with vegg inside) and most of the other stuff went to the dogs. We also found Chinese tea and milk tea along the way! The boys also tried chilli-salted fruit (papaya + pineapple). For “lunch” we had the fried noodles from another station after Pyin Oo Lwin.

Flashback : Buff Momos and Nepal

25.10.2014- Elburus Home, Kathmandu

Today is our first full day in KTM, but something tell me that it’s not the “real” Nepal – this weekend is the last of Dasain (celebrating the Duiga’s victory of evil) – the last few days bring in the New Year (Newari New Year). Consequently, 90% of the shops and cafés (everywhere we could eat) are closed.

Yesterday our arrival was pretty standard – we were about 15 mins late landing, as there can only be one aircraft in “the valley” – we literally flew circles about KTM – the most exciting/ coolest thing was that we were able to [see] Everest on the way in. Definitely big. We arranged pickup at the airport – making things a lot easier (mentally). I guess the guy with my name was standing there for a while – although he wasn’t the one to drive us to the hostel, Elbrus Home. Although I had previously emailed and reserved a room with a shared bath, they were over-booked and instead of spending our first night at a different location and moving back on our 2nd night, we opted to take a slightly more expensive room (with private bath). I wasn’t largely impressed that Khem hadn’t emailed to confirm (or share this) and he offered us a cup of tea! haha – I thought it was quite nice of him 🙂

We went for our first walk through Thamel last night. We went down Bhagabati Bahaj & Thamel Chok. It was really nice; good crowd and lots of lights.

Today we went to LP’s “South Thamel to Durbar Square” – definitely photographed too many Stupas!

…later

Historical Beauty - Durbar Square, Kathmandu
Historical Beauty – Durbar Square, Kathmandu

The walking tour took us from Thahity Square down through Tyouda to Bhotahity -> Asan Tole “Kathmandu’s busiest junction”. From here we proceeded to Durbar Square – Basantapur temple & Freak Street and through the “old town”. It’s astounding to believe that chunks of Kathmandu are older than Europe! We didn’t get a guide for Durbar Square to save money but as usual, we know we lost out of valuable information. For about a half an hour we sat above “Maju Deval” and watched the world go by. Mostly I played with my camera … there was tons of locals trying to flog the usual. Although the list of travelers junk changes from Continent; in Nepal it is as follows

  • Brass Buddhism trinkets
  • ” I ❤ Nepal” t-shirts
  • prayer flags
  • knives
  • Tibetan paintings
  • Pashimina scarves
  • wood carvings
  • (over the top) extreme clothing

And when every store in a given suburb (Thamel) sells it – it doesn’t allow for much excitement after the frist street is walked. I have, however, purchased my first souvenirs of Nepal – a deep red elephant ornament, with 6 smaller elephants around its feet. I’m sure there is a meaning to it that I will need to research.

After 24 hours here, I have realised there is [a] slightly strange comfort feeling I have with this trip – I’m not sure if it’s the “returning to an Asian culture” or the fact that my boyfriend and I travel well together, but Nepal has (so far, and knock on wood) thrown us any surprises. Ironically, I think his “trip karma” isn’t fending too well – today he got shat on by a bird, resulting in the quick cleanup with baby-wipes. He said the bird stared at him after completing his bowel movements- targeted?

There is definitely things that I’ve noticed, in way [that] I’ve changed. I’m more polite to everyone except those wanting money. Many people here (possibly the Karma thing) are really polite (although not always curtious). My boyfriend asked a random [person] to sue the toilet this afternoon, and didn’t want any payment for it. We haven’t really seen any public toilets (not that I would go out of my way to use it) but usually they would require payment. Naturally, the assumption was the local kid in the corner of the court-yard would like some as well.

My First Dal Baht!
My First Dal Baht! Thamel, Kathmandu

The Nepali food has been quite good so far – last night I had momo’s for the first time – steam mix between dim-sum and perogies. I’ve also had the staple mean, “daal bhaat tarkari”, lentil soup, rice and veggies. Being a Hindu/Buddhist culture, there isn’t a lot of beef going around. “Buff momos” have been pretty delicious – the dumplings but with water buffalo [meat]. Out last two dinners have averaged around 400Rs – daal hasn’t been about 250Rs. For Buff momos 100Rs-150Rs seems to be the going rate. We did need to ask the ridiculous question of how many came for 100Rs – we (or I!) half expected it to be for one!

In terms of “pollution” – KTM is extremely dusty – I’ve mentally compared it to sticking your head out of the window, while driving down an Australian orange dirt road…well following another vehicle. You actually see people dusting the products in their stalls & the clothes faded enough to show that they missed the dusting gig. I’m almost happy that I only have two pairs of pants – washing is not going to get done that regularly! There have been a few tourists that are donning face masks – scooter rides sure – the wet sidewalk? I don’t think so!


Living in the Moment: What We Forget

In April 2015, Nepal was struck with by a devastating earthquake. Many of the beautiful historical buildings we saw in Kathmandu and the surround areas, many which had stood for centuries, were destroyed in a matter of hours. It broke our hearts to see such irreplaceable damage done to such beautiful monuments, squares and stupas. I remember watching a video of the “monkey temple” (Swayambhunath Temple) shaking and rocking, priceless artifacts crumbling away. Other than entrusting in international charities, there wasn’t much we could do back in Europe.

It brings home one of the most important travel mottos: live in the moment. Enjoy the moment, where ever you are, doing whatever makes you happy. I always think I will return to my favourite places again, but Nepal will never be the same. Centuries of religious history lay in pieces and I can admit I definitely took it for granted while I was there.

24 Hours in Zermatt: I have to get there first.

So as the summer is winding down in the tourist mecca of Interlaken, I finally had myself three days free from work. I was leaving the nest! Although Switzerland is as central Europe as it gets, leaving can sometimes be hard sans Car. With options limited to the Swiss trains, I decided to head to an ol’ favourite, Zermatt.

Placed on the Swiss-Italian Border, Zermatt is home to the famous Matterhorn, a pyramidal mountain rising over 4000 m. Standing alone on the horizon, it makes for breath-taking photos… but even after just an afternoon and 200 photos my camera begins to tire. The Matterhorn has, for over a century, been the setting for tragedy and conspiracy. Even on my third trip to Zermatt I was going to learn something new!


The adventure, literally, started on my way to Zermatt. I had decided to take my mountain bike along so as to ride the 80 km home. The fact that the Swiss Rail system is as organized and, as I assumed idiot-proof, the 2 hour journey should have be a simple ride with 2 connections. Like I mentioned earlier, I have been to Zermatt on two previous trips and had no problem.

My first connection was 20 minutes after departure in Spiez. My connecting train was on the same platform. No stairs… an easy win. My train to Visp was slightly cramped for the poor bike, which ended up being Origami’ed into the corner after two Tour Bikes decided to take 4 of the 5 places available for the bikes. (The Swiss trains usually require the bikes’ front tyre to be wedged into a metal bracket or hung from the front tyre, depending on the carriage.) The riders thought it was necessary to space their bikes apart, creating a gap too small for another bike to use the tyre bracket.With my bikes 29 inch wheels and large frame, the last (and smallest) place for the bike was all we had and although the bike storage is located in the lower half of the family carriage, I was happy we didn’t have any tots running down the aisle of this train. Add 4 Koreans’ wheely suitcases, and there wasn’t much space left to share.

When I got to Visp, I knew I would need to carry my bike to switch platforms. I had already looked online to see which direction I was heading in. However when I got to the top of the stairs on my new platform, I hopped on the closest train. Making the trip twice before, I knew that the train going to Zermatt was red and had Matterhorn Gotthard logo printed on the side. That train always goes to Zermatt.

I walked to end of the train where the bike storage was located. The train was relatively lacking in passages, but I put this down to the odd time I was traveling at. (There isn’t really an odd time, it’s just another excuse.) I took a few pics of the bike hanging alone, ready for her big trip to Zermatt. wpid-img_20150923_120720.jpg

It was probably at any point in the 5 minutes of bike selfies that something should have clicked. Zermatt sees over 2.5 million tourists a year. Not a single person on this train? I lived in Grindelwald for a year, and although the population is about 1/4 of Zermatt, and you can drive there, I still never had an empty train. I put it down to the fact I was in the bike carriage.

My first stop on the train was Brig. Now, I thought I knew from my first two experiences that from Visp you go up the Mattertal valley. Getting to Brig was a strange option. However, I still knew I was roughly in the right area and didn’t think twice about it. About 10 minutes outside of Mörel the conductor came to check my tickets. Looking at the bike pass first, he gave a nod of approval. Next, the my ticket. An eyebrow is raised, quite highly.

Conductor (In German): Where are you travelling to?

Me: Zermatt. duh, isn’t that where everyone is going?

Conductor: Um, Not on this train. We are travelling to Adermatt.

Me: Sure?

Conductor: Yes. trying not to laugh…

At this point, I knew my only option was to jump off and wait for another train heading back in the direction I wanted. The conductor told me the next train in Mörel would be half an hour. When I asked him which train… he replied and said there was only one, and it was a direct one to Zermatt! Now the journey had reached the highest level of idiot proof. I just had to not get off the train in Brig, where it would wait before continuing back to Visp and then upwards to Zermatt.

Because I had purchased a discounted fare online, my ticket was supposedly valid for only that journey from the time stated… so of course I get another eye-brow raise when the Conductor in Brig checks my ticket… Brig is not located between Interlaken- Visp- Zermatt route. I quickly told her in german that I had gotten on the wrong train. Eyebrow rested and she walked away with a smirk.

My arrival in Zermatt was greeted by a cold wind and hidden mountains. The autumn weather was certainly starting to show as tried to use Google Maps to find the hostel. Ironically, I had also stayed at this hostel once before… but as a large set of stairs are required to walk up, I needed to find a road in which I could ride up. Easier said then done. Zermatt is not that big, smaller if you are riding at a reasonable pace trying to warm up. I missed two streets and finally after turning around 3 times I could my self on the correct-ish street. It was super steep but I wasn’t going to let it dampen my spirits! I had made it to Zermatt 😀

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Taken the Morning after. The Skies had Cleared!

My evening in Zermatt was entertained by the Matterhorn Museum which, for 10 fr, was probably the best bargain of the trip. The 40 minutes that I spent inside was not enough to cover all the details from the displays and films that were created around the Matterhorn. With plenty of mini-exhibits covering the history and stories of the Matterhorn and general climbing in the Swiss Alps, the museum is the perfect raining day choice in Zermatt. I learned that they never found the 3rd body of those that perished from the first descent (they all made it to the top!) and now many conspiracy stores surround the family and whether or not the gentleman was pushed, or fell. All for the Swiss to claim the first ascent! Fittingly, there is no tombstone in the Climbers cemetary either.

The next day, I went paragliding and a hike to the Stellisee hike. The paragliding was a fun experience, but being as it was my 5th time in the sky, I really just wanted awesome photos of the Matterhorn 🙂 My hike to the Stellisee was gorgeous, but only after I had put Zermatt in a summer perspective:

My other two visits to Zermatt were in Winter and everything was always blanketed in snow. Above the tree-line and without the blanket of snow, Zermatt’s mountains are littered with roads and trails (too many for my likely) and, due to my late September arrival, orange. The beginning of autumn made for some nice photos, but for the most part, the summer season had taken its toll. Service roads and mountain biking paths crisscrossed over every open space like termites chewing at a tree. Winter hid the Summer scars and I think I preferred it that way.

The following morning my boyfriend made the 2 hour train journey so we could ride the 80 km home together. We found a nice pub to get a good breakfast, and after taking a selfie with the Matterhorn we were off. With a quick train ride between Birg and Kandersteg, we were able to complete the downhill trip in around 6 hours!

When Travelling isn’t a Choice. A Perspective Piece.

What I make of the current Immigrant Crisis facing Europe’s Borders.

Travel.

Although the Merriam Webster dictionary explains the verb has a journey or transition from one place to another, the Urban Dictionary also adds, “often done at the spur of a moment.” Objectively, I think most travel is planned for some time.

This thought comes about after a question after my walk home. There is a building on the same street that houses refugees awaiting papers to settle in Switzerland. What I see every night in the three-story building, are two bedrooms with corner windows packed with bunk beds and luggage. The lights are on, windows open and the most delicious culinary and incense smells leaking into the quiet Swiss street. Ethnically speaking, they don’t have it easy. Although Tourism has been a strong driving force in Switzerland for over a hundred years, the minds of some locals are still as closed as the mountain valleys. 30 minutes away from Interlaken there is a small farming community that is home to some of the worst, where they refer to some Arab tourists as “ninjas” because of the appearance of the Burka. In Interlaken, the opinions are certainly not nearly as strong but depending on the crowd… negative comments are exchanged.

To be honest,  I have no facts on what exactly this building is. I see dorm style bedrooms and muslim women. They see a new life. When I smell delicious foreign food, I know they are trying to preserve their culture for the younger generation, (there is a few families staying there at the moment). But in a country where a coffee costs 4 Chf ( €3.70) and a can of beer is only .90 Chf ( €1 ) … how far is their support income going to go? In Switzerland, some of their support income is required to be paid back once they are working, certainly not making it free money.

I looked at the bunk beds and suitcases differently today. For the last few days, the front pages of the newspapers have been sprayed with images the current Migrant problem taking Europe by storm. When I lived in Australia; Every few weeks, we would hear of a fishing or cargo boat holding refugees arriving in Christmas Island. Here, in Europe, it’s a daily problem. Countries with borders in the Schengen Area are under extreme pressure as people are flooding in from war-torn countries in search of a better life. Some make it but many, as we have recently seen, make it as far “no-man’s” land in between countries. Refugee camps self develop with no political or NGO support, sometimes putting themselves in a worse situation than before. Although Switzerland’s government has agreed to let 3’000 Syrian refugees in, thousands are rescued weekly in the Mediterannan…obivously not all are Syrian either!

I realised that the Refugees living down the street must feel so many emotions. They have made it as far as to have a roof over their heads, usually financial support and some even work permits. Although I can imagine it would have been a long process, they are so close. And then I think of those stuck at the borders of the Schengen Area, and think that they must have the same thoughts. so close.


I think the reason that the current Migrant Crisis in Europe resonants within me, is the vague similarity to my family moving around the world. In some regard, we were looking for a better life. We certainly weren’t leaving a war-torn country and in some regard there isn’t a comparison to that kind of hardship on the family… but we were starting new. The only common factor between the homeland and Canada was the English language. Although we had passports and a plane ticket, I still remember the overwhelming feeling on my first day of school. I knew nobody. And although our immigration process was only slowed down when asked about our dual-nationality, we still had months of organising and settling in. 5 children under 10 years old isn’t the easiest, but certainly not the hardest.

Since 18, I have had three massive moves. The UK, then Australia, then Switzerland. All the time, it was my choice. It was my choice what items I kept, what I left. It was my choice where I was going and why. Because of Freedom, it certainly wasn’t overly difficult. I remember thinking that it was a massive inconvenience that my tax numbers weren’t arranged sooner in Australia, however… this was an inconvenience. Nothing more. It certainly didn’t stop the 5 month backpacking trip 12 months later.

Travel for me is a choice, financially and politically. I can choose where I go and why. What I want to see and when I see it. And I always have some where to come back to. Home. Where I made it. But depending on the perspective, home can merely be a transparent thought.

Although we live on the same street and use the same stores, I’m not sure if the Refugee’s think of their shared dorm rooms as Home.


Some news articles that helped provoke my thoughts:

What Makes a Good Bucket List?

A Bucket List can sometimes be a reflextion on a person. They are a fun way to shape goals and future plans.

Inspired by an article at 1.30am, I started thinking about my true bucket list- the things that I will do before I die.

When I was younger (before I had an adult passport), I used to think of the places that I would love to see. Sights and monuments filled with history. Buildings with character. Famous city squares. That list has certainly changed. One that I compiled a few weeks ago, when I purchased Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Adventures, showed me that I was more interested in the “adventure” activities, or ones that weren’t only about the destination but also the journey in getting there. A list of week-long treks, lakes to explore and cultures to see confirmed my fears. I need to make a lot more time!

Relating back to an earlier post about chosing Travel and not an academic career just yet, I feel like there is still the world to see. A popular traveler’s quote, “There is always more to see.” sums it up. You could do a city-break trip and feel like you’ve seen the country. Where is the line for scraping the surface? Cities tend to be multi-cultural, melting pots of the cosmopolitan life. But does rural living define culture? Tourism has always be a fast competitor to aid international development, but what is everyone looking for?

Everyone is looking for adventure, of varying degrees, and so am I. My current bucket list certainly shows my lifestyle at the moment. Active.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to see the sights. As long as I could remember I have also had two of the oldest resolutions in the book;

  1. Step foot on every continent. (5/7!)
  2. See the Seven (New) Wonders of the World. (2/7!)

I’ll die happily if I complete those two goals. Of course, my bucket list just completes the gaps in between!

So what is the current bucket list?? Looking over it, it’s a slight scattered-brained approach… but I think it’s always fun to share these sort of things!

travel.

The Newest Bucket List:

  • Munda Biddi trail, WA
  • Lycian Way, Turkey (5 weeks)
    • St. Paul Trail (500km)
  • Torres Del Paine, Chile
  • Canada: Iceland Parkway: Cycle Jasper -> Banff. Robson Bight Kayaking.
  • Myanmar (2 weeks) (Bagan hot air balloon)
  • Naimibia Sossusvlei Namib Desert
  • LL: Central America (2 months)
  • LL: Italy (via ferrata) (4 weeks)
  • LL: India (Ice trek, February)
  • Bulgaria, snowshoe/ mountains -> onward Turkey?
  • Jordan (2 weeks)
  • Norway & Iceland (3 weeks?)
  • Croatia
  • Tasmania (Franklin River)
  • Uganda (Gorilla Trek)

◊ When I was originally writing my list out on paper, I had added LL: Life List. It will happen!