Thailand travelogue!

European Adventure: HOW MUCH IS A BIG MAC???

The departure from Munich was a bit more exciting than I had planned. Doing my research the night before I’d found a handy train out of Munich to Interlaken with only one switchover. Unfortunately it wasn’t until I’d gotten my reservation at the station that I realized how tight the switch was, only 7 minutes. This was the German train system so I was reasonably optimistic at least. The first part of the journey had about 8 stops and I very carefully watched the clock as we hit each one exactly on time and left exactly on time. I started to relax (big mistake) and then about fifteen minutes later realized with slowly dawning horror that we were coming to a stop in the middle of nowhere. We sat here for about 10 minutes then went through the next tunnel at a pace that would have let an arthritic octogenarian pass us. Once we were out of the tunnel we spend back up to 150kph again but the damage was done.

Arriving at the crossover station there were about 10 of us dashing to the other platform on the off chance it hadn’t left. I got there first sighed at the lack of a train (who knows when the next one would be since this wasn’t a really major station) only to glance up at the status display and notice that it said 15 minutes late in German. I turned around to see each subsequent person run up, deflate then slowly realize and smile. Score one for luck.

Arriving in Interlaken was one of the prettier train rides I’ve ever taken as the last hour in particular of the journey is spectacular. Once you split off the main line it’s a narrow track mostly hugging the edge of the beautiful blue green lake with the swiss alps towering above. It’s instantly obvious why this is a favourite playground of the wealthy and the number of expensive yachts on the water at every turn was a good indicator. Pretty much everyone who’s been to both places has made comparisons to Banff in describing the place to me and it’s pretty apt. For one thing it’s a bluehair-bus mecca and there are also hordes of asian tourists. The tourbus kind were present, but the hostel was absolutely full of south Koreans as well. My one aussie roommate and I left in the morning just assuming our replacement roomies would be Korean and sure enough all four were.

Unfortunately roughly half of them were very much of the spoiled rich kid on a pre-college break paid for my mom and dad. If you’ve never run into that type in a hostel they’re a nightmare. The worst examples of them never do dishes, take over the room and behave as antisocially as a certain couple on my New Zealand trip when you have to share a room with them. As some of you probably guessed from my facebook updates, the particular offenders were a kid whodidn’t turn off his cell phone ringer and just let it chirp with incoming messages all night long (or rather he did until I turned it off for him around 3am)  as well as two of them who would consistently leave the door open whenever they left the room. Not a huge problem while we’re there as well, but you had to wonder if they’d be closing it if we weren’t there too. Enough griping though, overall it was a fantastic hostel. Basic breakfast provided, free coffee for those that drink it and ski and snowboard racks in the basement for the winter season (oh how I’d love to go back.) When I had to leave early my final morning the owner even pulled me a pre buttered breakfast pretzel thing from the freezer and told me it would be perfect thawed come morning (she was right, I ate it on the train.)

I spent the rest of the first day looking around town, buying some groceries for dinner (yikes, even that cost me what eating out would have in most of the countries I’ve been in lately even when I begrudgingly considered McDonalds to tide me over it was going to be $15 for a basic big mac combo) and in general just admiring the view in all directions. Most of the town is just perfectly charming old alpine buildings, and at pretty much every shop you can buy an authentic swiss army knife.  Interlaken is (as you might guess from the name) nestled in between two alpine lakes. In every direction there are beautiful mountains, green peaks closer to town but a few snow covered bigguns in the distance including the Eiger.

Interlaken also has an adventure sports scene and Chris and Jodi had really enjoyed the rafting so I signed up as well. Unfortunately school summer holidays (and uni I’m guessing) are over here so visitor numbers of younger people are down and my trip only had 3 people signed up with a minimum of 6 required. When I woke up the next morning I checked in and it was still only 3 so I resigned myself to finding something else to do. He gave me a bit of hope though telling me to check again in an hour. I actually happened to walk past the office for the place and found out that if rafting fell through I could do Canyoning instead which seemed fun but incredibly dangerous. Turns out that’s what I did and that’s certainly a good descriptor of it.

We’re talking mountain streams of course so it was going to be cold, we got our first hint as to just how cold when they kitted us out in a full weight combo of wetsuit overall AND a singlet suit over it. Water socks and neoprene booties, a climbing harness, life jacket and helmet. Most of the helmets had bizarre things written on them (mine was shaved), I ended up hanging out with Horny, Emo and Muffin. Once we were all trussed up they stuffed us into a van and trucked us up into the mountains. The views got even better up here as the narrow valley spread out below and we could see both lakes reflecting nearby peaks. Eventually we were dropped next to a narrow stream and were given a demonstration on how to walk through the rushing water (hint: Carefully) then how to flop properly onto our backs. Basically this involved throwing yourself out off a rock and landing flat on your back. This of course presents the maximum surface area as you hit the water and you slow down faster, helpful when jumping from 8 feet into foot and a half deep water but hardly the most sensible seeming thing the first few times you do it.

Once everyone had demonstrated the technique to one of our guides we set off down the stream. This is an activity that’s hard work, one moment you’re pulling yourself along with just your arms, the next you’re crabwalking across a narrow ledge with swirling white water below. Our first fun moment came with a short natural slide, basically a rushing halfpipe of water that we all just tucked in our limbs and slide down into a deep (COLD!) pool. There were quite a few of those, always fun. The jumps were the most intense part of course. They started us off small, one backflop like we’d practiced, then a cannonball into a wide pool and a few others, but it wasn’t long until they got ridiculous. Of particular note: A reverse Scuba entry (falling backwards head first) from about 8 feet up, a backflop from about 8 feet into knee deep water, the slide down to the guide whereupon he grabbed your leg and pivoted you out headfirst over a drop and the worst of them an 18 foot leap into a 3 foot wide crevasse where you had to hit the tiny patch of white water below or risk hurting yourself. This isn’t even mentioning a few short rappelling sections or the various cliff climbs. I’m sure they do their best to keep the danger to a minimum but there were times where it was very real and incredibly fun. Also exhausting, especially when we got to the bottom and they said “way to go, now we climb back up to the van.” Once we were back at the home base we got all our gear off and dried off and they did something that I really wish more rafting companies would do. They pulled out some beer and soft drinks, one of the owners was slicing up a ton of amazing bernese farm cheese and fresh bread and they let us just hang out and chat while we recharged a bit. I know we’re paying for the beer and cheese in the price, but it’s just nice to get a chance to sit and laugh about the trip with everyone else before we go our separate ways.

Once back at the hostel I took an incredibly long shower to warm up again. One of my new Korean roomies was using a skype app or something on his phone and was shouting at the top of his lungs as I’d walked in to grab my things and by the time I’d gotten into the shower he was shouting so loudly that I could hear him through the wall. Noise aside, it felt amazingly good to be warm and after I got out I was tempted to lay down for a bit shouting Koreans or no, but I really wanted to get a view from up the mountains with my camera. I didn’t have the time or money ($200+ cdn) to do the trip to the highest train station in Europe, but found out the mountain just outside of town had a funicular and what’s more had a 15 franc deal to head up and have a drink included for one specific departure that I could just make if I hustled. It’s obviously the best deal of the day as the thing was packed. The view and beer were definitely worth it though and I sat up there for quite a while enjoying the scenery and the mountain air (eventually a piece of swiss apple cake as well.) It was all really great until I realized that my steadily deteriorating camera will now no longer take a proper image if I use the zoom at all. Once the zoom is moved it needs to be turned off before it will function again. I now think it must have gotten a significant smack when I fell and hurt my thumb in Wales. Hopefully my parents appreciate that I saved the expensive camera while breaking my own. I won’t be surprised if it gives up the ghost completely before the trip is up but I can always switch my video camera over to single shot mode if need be.

On coming down from the mountain I detoured to the train station since I was most of the way there, found out my desired train was fully booked and ended up booking a 7am one instead (ick) that got there later than my preferred route. Since I was quite tired I decided to just hit the grocery store, buy some bread and cheese with the last of my swiss francs and take it easy, a plan that didn’t outlast the aussie roommate returning. He’d gone canyoning as well but he’d done a longer one and was heading out to dinner and mini golf with his group. It turned out to be a good decision to go with them as we had a hell of a time. On the way to the restaurant we finally figured out what the temporary stadium being set up in the park was for. Apparently it’s a once in six years or so traditional swiss wrestling championship, it looks truly bizarre but everyone seems quite excited. As we walked through the stadium a group of singers were practicing for a sound check and actually included some Yodeling which made us all feel incredibly touristy. The restaurant turned out to be great as well, we eventually got a table for 7 on the patio and ended up right next to a high school band providing entertainment. We spent about 3 hours there abandoning the mini golf plan when we waited 45 minutes to order for people that never showed, everyone else was great company and we all had a blast but sadly most of us were leaving early the next morning so we called it a night around 11, even then by the time I packed I was looking at five and a half hours of sleep.

Today has been another fantastically beautiful train ride through the alps, every little town we passed looked fascinating and I’d love to go back with a car or motorcycle and explore that area of the world properly. After a short stopover in Milan I’m heading to Venice along a much less scenic route. Of course just as I write this we come out of the tree tunnel next to a beautiful lakeshore lined with red tiled roofs. We’re getting back into hot temperatures and the A/C is barely keeping up.

—- later…

Crossing the big bridge to the actual island was quite neat, this was saturday and a number of enormous cruise ships were docked near the train station as we pulled in. For those who haven’t been, the moment you walk out of the train station you walk into a plaza with your first canal right in front of you. It pretty instantly screams YOU’RE IN VENICE! as you scramble to find the right boat to get to your hotel. Unless you can afford to cab it everywhere of course, but that’s a boat as well. I quickly found the hostel and regretted my thought of “that was the nicest place of the trip” this morning because that meant that of course this place wouldn’t be great. It’s not terrible, but the living area is going to keep me awake until late no matter what time I head to bed I’m guessing. I had a quick shower (nowhere to put any clothes to keep them dry hooray!) and head out into the city.

The famous piazza San Marco was first of course, because it’s the center of many of the monuments and also because it was the next stop on the water bus from my hostel. I managed to arrive while the Doge’s Palace was still open to visitors so I quickly joined the delightfully short queue and explored the palace. Lots of beautiful architecture and art, mostly remnants of Venice’s powerful days as a merchant nation and quite impressive. By the time I finished in there most of the other attractions had closed so I spent a few hours walking around, took a few photos from the Rialto bridge and grabbed a delicious spicy salami pizza at a trattoria back near the square.

I’ve since spent the evening locking down where I’ll be staying for the last week as Italy seems tons more busy than the rest of the continent as the summer winds down. It’s the first time I’ve planned more than 2 days ahead since England, but it seemed prudent.