“Is this for real, or am I in a calendar page?”
“Pinch yourself,” my aunt Olgi tells me.
It’s a picture perfect day in a picture perfect landscape. Clear blue skies, the low shrubbery turning an autumn red, slate grey rock and glistening white snow peaks; a picnic of Swiss bread and cheese among blooming heather and blueberries. The music of cow bells makes the idyll complete.
Before us rise the three Swiss mountain giants – Eiger, whose north wall many have tried to scale, some failing and falling (the Swiss version of Mount Everest). Mönch (Monk) in the middle, and the Jungfrau (virgin) to the right. The Jungfrau Joch – the pass between Mönch and Jungfrau, is one of the most frequented spots in Switzerland. Over 700,000 visitors a year climb into the rack railway train to the highest train station in all of Europe.
We’re hiking the path from Männlichen, which is reached by gondola, over to the Kleine Scheidegg, from which the train goes to the Joch. Olgi calls it the AHV (senior’s) path – a wide gravel pathway winding 4.6 kilometres a comfortable 192 metres slope downwards. I’m quick to note that if we’d gone the more strenuous way – up – we’d miss seeing the big three before us the whole way.
There’s even a bit of Canada here – hiking around a corner, a group of Inuksuk greet us. There’s no shortage of slate rock to build the popular stone cairns, mostly in human form. But what a Tepee is doing down by the restaurant and train station of the Kleine Scheidegg I don’t really know. Closed now, it’s apparently a beer garden during the ski season.
We hear more English – most of it American it seems to me – than Swiss. Enjoying a pizza with wine along the Interlaken Promenade later, we see many women in head scarves. Olgi tells me the Arabs are bringing the money to the tourist town now. They used to see more Asians – at one time primarily Japanese. There are definitely fewer Germans this year. Switzerland with its high Franc has become too expensive for those with the Euro.
We walk through the commercialized tourist villages of Grindelwald and Wengen. It’s a double edged sword. Tourism brings money, revives the village, makes jobs and keeps the young people home, but it means big changes, a loss of the old way of life. It seems you can’t have it both ways.
There are other changes. Olgi comments on how much the glaciers are receding. She shows me one glacier that has receded 300 meters since the mid eighties. Most of the Swiss rivers are fed by glacier water. Some fear that by the end of this century 50 to 90 per cent of the glaciers will have disappeared, which will have far reaching consequences for the Swiss river system.
The impassive rock and snow peaks before us comfort me. There are still some things that don’t change, much.