An old friend from Kashmir, Shabir, came over to London for a week in the middle of June and I accompanied him on a three-day trip to Switzerland, the main attraction being a day trip to Mount Titlis called ‘Eternal Snow and Glacier’.
I have always enjoyed summer breaks in this picturesque country. But this was the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic that I’d been able to revisit Switzerland. I was supposed to attend a wedding in Zurich in the summer of 2020 but travel restrictions due to the pandemic put paid to this plan.
Shabir and I caught a flight from Heathrow to Zurich. Before landing, the plane flew over a mountainous terrain and the landscape looked lush green from the air as well as the ground.
After landing in Zurich the first thing you notice is that it is a lot cleaner here than in most of the world cities that you’ve visited. On the way to our hotel from the airport, Shabir also remarked that the roads and pavements in Zurich are better swept than those in London.
Shabir worked out his itinerary with an online travel agency based in Gurgaon. Because he hails from mountainous Kashmir, the agency assumed that he wouldn’t be interested in touring an Alpine country like Switzerland and encouraged him to visit Spain or Greece instead. However, it currently takes more time to obtain a Schengen Visa from the Spanish or Greek embassy in Delhi, and Shabir was pressed for time. He had allowed a fortnight to obtain a Swiss visa but it took worryingly longer than the estimated time. Luckily he was issued a visa on the day before he was due to fly.
It is always a welcome respite to leave a densely populated city like London for a few days. In fact, the population of Greater London is larger than that of the whole of Switzerland. Admittedly, London boasts 3,000 parks. But Switzerland has 1,500 lakes and most of them are pristine, unlike ponds and reservoirs in London. And when you hop on a tram in Zurich, you can’t help noticing how public transport in London leaves a lot to be desired in comparison: in Zurich the trams are clean, punctual and frequent.
Thanks to the Bollywood films shot there, Switzerland has been popularised in India as a tourist destination. Wherever you travel in Switzerland, you inevitably hit the Bollywood trail and the Indian tourists who follow it. Our day trip to Mount Titlis proved to be no different. We arrived at a coach station near the confluence of the Sihl and Limmat rivers, the centre of the town from which sightseeing coaches depart every morning to various destinations in Switzerland. Ours was a double-decker coach, reminding me that I had boarded a double-decker
train during a previous visit to Zurich to see a wilderness park near Sihlwald and enjoyed the ride.
The first stop during our trip was at a small church at the edge of Lake Lucerne, which acts as a backdrop for pictures taken by modern-day travellers wielding their camera phones. Some of us are now so bewitched by taking selfies that we forget to behold the magical landscape in front of us.
Our driver made a final stop at Engelberg, the cable car station where large groups of tourists were arriving in coach-loads, one after another. Some of these groups were made up exclusively of Indian tourists. The tour guides held up small flags to lead their flocks. I was pleased to see that you can hire mountain bikes from a shop in the Engelberg cable car station. You can also buy gloves and thermal hats to keep yourself warm on the summit of Mount Titlis.
Shabir dipped his empty water bottle in the clear water of the stream that flows through the resort. When you look around in Engelberg, you find multiple cable car lines. In fact, Switzerland holds the record for installing the world’s first rotating cable car.
Our own cable car ride took us through a green valley surrounding a shimmering lake. You could hear the tolling of bells in the distance. A herd of cows was grazing in a pasture below. Tying bells around the necks of cows and other animals has a long tradition in many countries but the Swiss have elevated it to an art form. As the cable car approached the herd, the bells became louder but it’s a pleasantly musical sound. In Kashmir, too, some shepherds tie tiny bells around the necks of their goats.
When it reached the station at stage one, we got off the cable car for a stroll and then boarded another car at the same station for the second leg of our aerial tour. A single rotating cable car at the next stage was large enough to accommodate an entire coach-load of sightseers.
Mount Titlis belongs to the Uri Alps. A border town in Kashmir is also named Uri. Mount Titlis is 10,625 ft high. Shabir had once driven me in his car over Khardung La pass in Ladakh that is more than 17,000 ft high.
I crossed an iron suspension footbridge and gazed at a range of rugged mountain peaks. I had seen pictures of this bridge straddling a snow-white landscape without any jutting rocks in sight and I felt saddened as I realized that the ‘Eternal Snow and Glacier’ on Mount Titlis may not be “Eternal” after all.