ARM Trip Report
Sunday, May 11, 1997 Took off from Phoenix and flew to Dulles. Changed planes in Dulles and arrived in Zurich, Switzerland on May 12. After clearing customs, you follow the signs downstairs to the train platform. This is a rather "novel" idea that Phoenix can't seem to figure out... PUT A TRAIN STATION IN THE AIRPORT! I purchased a round trip ticket from Zurich Airport to La Chaux-de-Fonds (where I am supposed to be "working"). The airport platform has four (Count 'em) tracks and various trains arrive and depart with perfect precision. The station is clean and well lit. My train arrives and I climb on. The departure was extremely smooth. The cars are VERY clean and all of the features (IE: lights, trash bins, coat racks) all work. The conductor was helpful and cheerfully provided the platform number for my train change in Biel. All I can say is.... THIS COUNTRY KNOWS HOW TO RUN TRAINS! They are everywhere. The line to La Chaux-de-Fonds was a minimum of two tracks. At places, it expanded to six. The old PRR "Broadway" doesn't even compare. During the 1 1/2 hour ride, we passed DOZENS of other passenger trains and DOZENS of work crews. I think that everyone in this country must work for the railroad. At one point, as we were passing through a tunnel, I spied two track workers (wearing fluorescent vests) crouched in a "duck hole" along the side of the tunnel. Apparently the philosophy here is.... If you are a track worker, it is your job to get out of the way of the train, not the opposite. I can't even imagine AMTRAK sending a passenger train into a tunnel occupied by maintenance personnel. La Chaux-de-Fonds is a quaint little town. Pick up a Marklin catalog, look at the pictures and that is really what this place looks like. The town supports a four track station with trains going everywhere.
After participating in a brief meeting (work is such a nasty word). I made a beeline for the station. Through my adept skills at hand waving and looking genuinely confused, I purchased a round trip ticket from La Chaux-de-Fonds to Luzern. Here is a travel hint: Buy 2nd Class seating. It is cheaper, (and better that AMTRAK 1st class) and the view is the same. The trip to Luzern required TWO changes of trains. After being in the country for a total of 48 hours, I naturally considered myself an expert at traveling. Actually, it really isn't bad. The Swiss are VERY efficient when it comes to operating trains. The first transfer occurred at Biel. Get off the train, go down the ramp, look for one of the YELLOW signs (YELLOW= Departures, WHITE= Arrivals), look at your watch, translate to 24hour notation, find the correct hour on the YELLOW sheet, find the next town for transfer (Olten), note the track number, dash to that platform, run up to the waiting train and leap aboard. By the way, you typically have less than 5 minutes to accomplish all of the above. (Bring comfortable shoes) The transfer at Olten is a little more relaxed. A couple of people notice me as I scurry around snapping pictures. Through broken English, they ask me if there is something special coming. I respond "No", and they look at me like I was a fool for taking pictures of "common" trains. The Luzern station is impressive to say the least. I counted 15 active (with trains) passenger platforms. If you are lucky, you can catch the NIOE. One note: most of the station platforms require you to use an underground tunnel to cross tracks. I found these to be quite clean and well lit. After exiting the station, go directly across the street and get on bus #2. This bus crosses the river, makes a right and follows the bank of Lake Luzern. Approximately on mile down the road you come to the Verkehrshaus stop. This is the location of the Swiss Transportation Museum. DEFINITELY SEE THIS! This is probably the most astounding collection of transportation equipment (The PRR Museum in Strausburg, PA will always be my favorite due to the predominance of PRR stuff). The collection consists of Boats, Cars, Planes and of course..... TRAINS!. Most of the displays have quad-lingual signs to describe the equipment. In addition to rows of "stuffed" loco's, they also have a great display of smaller items. EACH piece is labeled and it's significance is noted. They even have a steam engine which has been sectioned to demonstrate the inner working of a steam engine. If you are interested in the Swiss Transportation Museum go to http://www.verkehrshaus.ch When exhausted, return to the Luzern Station using bus #2. Locate the departures listing and locate the appropriate train. My return trip was smooth with one exception. At Biel, when I tried to double verify my calculations of the correct train. A very well intentioned Baggage Handler misread my ticket at tried to usher me to a train that was headed back towards Olten (where I just came from). I thanked him, stuck to my original inner hunch and climbed on to my original selection. I was correct and arrived back at La Chaux-de-Fonds safe and sound. Not a bad day of fun and adventure for a foreigner.... :)
Here are some "general" observations that I have
made during my adventures so far.....
1. A Second Class ticket is just fine.
2. Trains operate ON TIME. If you are late..... TOUGH.
3. If you miss a train, another will be along in one hour. (usually)
4. Swiss people do not understand why someone would WANT to stand in the rain to take a picture of a train.
5. Swiss Maintenance Cabeese have plaid curtains.
6. There are very few grade crossings. The trains give one short "toot" before they get to the crossing.
7. There is absolutely NO slack action when the train accelerates or decelerates. (AMTRAK TAKE NOTE).
8. Nothing delays a passenger train.
9. Most of the rail is CWR (Continuous Welded Rail) on concrete or steel cross-ties.
10. The passenger cars are VERY quiet.
11. If you need information, look for the "i" symbol in the station. That's where you can usually find someone who speaks English.
12. You won't find a restroom, but follow the signs the the "WC" and you can take care of business.
13. Regarding Food.....the majority of the restaurants close from 2pm to 6pm. If you get hungry, your choices are extremely limited.
14. Most of the major stations have currency exchanges inside. Very convenient.
15. For some reason, in a country with permanent glaciers, the Swiss do not use ice in their drinks. Sodas (hope you like Coke only) are usually served cool (not cold) and without ice.
Today's adventure started at the Musee International D'Horlogerie (International Watch Museum). This museum is incredible. It contains specimens of early stone sun-dials through a modern Atomic Clock. The display contains thousands of examples of pocket watches and an entire wing dedicated to the tools used to make all the intricate pieces.
When I travel to a new country, I always try to get the "real" experience. I tend to stay away from the tourist packages. I, myself prefer to just get out and walk around to see how people go about their daily tasks. For example, a lot of the young women here seem to enjoy wearing platform shoes. These things have a sole about 1 1/2" thick with a 2" heel. As they walk down the street, it reminds me of the way kids walk when they try to walk in their parents shoes. I hope this "fad" doesn't make it to America.
Whenever I find someone who speaks English, I try to learn a little French. "Hello", "Please", "Thank You" can get you a long way. NOTE: If you visit La Chaux-de-Fonds, be versed in French. So far, my goofy grin and smile have kept me out of serious trouble.
Today's adventures included a small trip to Neuchatel. A Second Class ticket costs 19.20F. I climbed aboard and were promptly off. The line between La Chaux-de-Fonds and Neuchatel consists of a LONG tunnel ( I estimate at least 1 mile ) and a switch-back. The line climbs up the hillside leaving La Chaux-de-Fonds before boring through the mountain. On the other side, the train works it's way down the mountin, traveling through large stands of tall trees. During the ride a lady sitting across from me was holding a small Yorkshire Terrier. I'm not sure who was more interested in looking out the window. I think my tongue was hanging out more. If you have never been to Neuchatel, I can sum it up as.... BEAUTIFUL. It is located on the edge of Lake Neuchatel and has an old portion located just below the 15th Century Curch. The old section is studded with classic old European architecture beautifully maintained. For .50F you can climb the prison tower and get a commanding view of the entire city. The coble stone streets were sooooooo picturesque. Back to the trains..... the Neuchatel station has a pedestrian walkover (usually they have a walk under). From the walkover, you can get a nice opportunity to get overhead shots. The trip back to La Chaux-de-Fonds was great. As the train works it's way back up the hill, through the switch back, you can get a nice view of the lake and the grape vines used for the very good local wine.
Today was a drag. I was actually required to work today. However, I was treated to a nice lunch at a hilltop Chateau with a view of the Alps. Lunch consisted of Brunschweiger Patte and Neuchatel wine. The main course was Pork Sausage with Champignons. After work I visited a local Italian restaurant. Because I speak no French, my menu selections were based on the "point and eat" method. The pizza arrived with squid, octopus, calamari, oysters, anchovies and shrimp. I later discovered that the menu listed these "ingredients" as "Fruits of the Sea". A brisk and thorough walk around town cleared my palette for room to sample the local beer (Cardinal). NOTE: They eat horse here (usually imported from the USA). If you don't want to try "Fillet of Trigger", stay away from the menu listings under "Cheval".
Another day spent at work. Once again my host took me to a location out in the country side. After a beautiful, 20 minute drive down a wonderfully winding road, we arrived at Biaufond. This beautiful restaurant is located in a beautiful bend in the Le Doubs River. This river separates Switzerland and France. The setting was serene and peaceful (we were the only patrons). Lunch was a chicken plate smothered in a delicious sauce with a bottle of Neuchatel wine and a dessert consisting of French ice-cream, grapes, Jamacian Rum, and Swiss chocolate.
After work, I decided to travel to Les Ponts-de-Martel, a small hamlet located 15 miles from La Chaux-de-Fonds. This line is narrow gage (1 meter). The single engine and car trundled through the countryside stopping several times to allow the local residents to load and unload. At Les Ponts-de-Martel, a town of 1000 inhabitants, I spent an hour just walking through the streets, watching people go about their daily tasks. Near the station, there is a small lumber mill. Behind the mill were piles of sawn logs. These were literally logs sawn into 3" thick slabs and then stacked to dry. Hmmmm I wonder what a piece of lumber 15'l x 2'w x 3"t costs? My mind raced with ideas for such fine pieces of lumber. The return trip was just as beautiful. The train passes dozens of single family farms, each with 10 to 15 cows. The speed of life in Les Ponts-de-Martel is definitely slow.
Today, I spent 12 hours riding trains through the Swiss Alps. Follow along.
I left the hotel after a Continental Breakfast and walked to the station. I climbed aboard the train to Interlaken Ost. Promptly at 9:15am, the train departed La Chaux-de-Fonds. Once again, I found myself traveling to Neuchatel. At Neuchatel, I changed trains and headed for Bern. The section to Bern travels along Neuchatel Lake and through the fertile lowland section of Switzerland. A long, high bridge spans one of the many valleys. At Bern, I once again have to change trains. My layover is 30 minutes which gives me a chance to check out the station. Bern has a train station with 10 active platforms. The underground shopping plaza offers the traveler many selections of food and drink. I purchase a bottle of water and swing onto the train to Interlaken Ost. This section of rail provides many beautiful vistas and glimpses of the coming Alps. The line drops down to water level along the Thuner See (Thuner Lake). The view is spectacular across the lake. Dozens of small towns cling to the sides of the mountains, nestled amongst patches of open fields and thick stands of forest.
At Interlaken Ost, I have exactly five minutes to purchase my ticket to Jungfraujoch. To reach Jungfraujoch requires riding three (count 'em) different rack railroads. The first departs Interlaken Ost and plunges into the Alps, hugging the side of the Schwarze Lutschine river. This 30' wide river is at it's upper bank limit due to the perpetual snow melt. A beautiful waterfall treats the traveler along the way.
At Grindelwald, I change trains again. The next rack train departs and grinds up the mountain to Kleine Scheidegg. At several places, I would estimate the angle of ascent to be 40 degrees. Along the way you get magnificent views of the Alps and surrounding towns below. Patches of snow begin to appear along the track as the train gains altitude. Several snow sheds protect the line from the sometimes suddenly changing weather.
Kleinne Scheidegg is a busy place. The country side is a wonderful place for mountain hikers. The ski runs make perfect hiking trails during the summer months. Here, I board the third rack train and begin the final ascent to Junfraujoch. This train leaves Kleinne Scheidegg and within 1 mile bores into the mountain. For 30 minutes (really, I timed it) the train grinds up, up, up inside this natural rock tunnel. At the 9,000' and 10,000' level, the train stops. Here there are two small tunnels that have been carved from the track to the face of the mountain. The train stops for 5 minutes at each place and you can get off the train and take pictures of the glacier. The final destination is Jungfraujoch. Jungfraujoch is billed as "The Top of Europe", and I believe it. Located at 11,333' above sea level, It takes several minutes for you head to adjust (my ears popped 4 times during the ascent). The building here is very nice. The windows are huge to match the surrounding views. I can't begin to describe the vistas. In the same manner as the Grand Canyon, the experience can't be sufficiently described with words. The soaring mountains, the glaciers unstoppable cycle, the sheer enormousness of everything is a humbling event.
>From the main observation building, you can walk through a 500' natural rock tunnel to the base of the Spinx Observatory. A quick elevator delivers you at the 11,500' high astronomical observatory. I brave the elements (-5 degrees Celsius) and walk around the outside terrace. Oh, by the way, the tower is prone to being struck by lightning, so they conveniently shield the walkway with a Faraday Cage. Due to the fact that I was ONLY WEARING A T-SHIRT, I took my pictures and returned to the heated building. The observatory is large enough that I find a small corner to myself and spend a few minutes pondering the enormousness (and relentlessness) of Mother Nature and the infinitesimally futile attempt of humans to try and tame her. In relation to the time it took to create the beauty before me, the entire recorded achievements of the human race are infinitesimally small. I snap out of this bout of introspection and reflection and board the 4:00pm train down the mountainside, leaving Mother Nature to her chore.
After winding down the mountainside on the three rack railroads, I once again board the express train to Bern. At Bern, I realize that it is 7:30pm and I haven't eaten since breakfast. I purchase a salami sandwich from a small shop in the terminal and climb onto the train to Neuchatel. I finally arrive at Neuchatel around 9:00pm and stand on the platform to watch the other trains arrive and depart during a 20 minute layover.
AAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGG! While standing on the platform at Neuchatel, the French TGV rolls into the station right in front of me......and I am out of film. I stand next to one of the World's greatest trains, awed by it's beauty and graceful streamlining. With a curt whistle from the conductor this lady pulls away from the platform, leaving only images in my head. Oh, well. I intend to ride this sleek piece of modern rail travel on my next visit to Europe.
The train back to La Chaux-de-Fonds carries half a dozen passengers. I have a whole car to myself. I have time to sum up the days events:
4 different railroads.
11 train changes.
Rode on three different rack railroads.
View of the Alps from 11,500'.
12 hours riding trains.
1 hour at the Top of Europe.
I spend Sunday, walking the streets of La Chaux-de-Fonds, committing as much as possible to memory. A slight drizzle of rain in the morning puts a layer of gloom over the day, but the rain stops and the afternoon is perfect. Near the hotel is a local music school. I am treated to various pieces of classical music throughout the afternoon. I avail of the cool weather and walk (hike) to the top of town to get a beautiful panoramic view of the town. After a nice meal, I settle down for a good nights sleep because.........
Took the train to Zurich. Once again, nice train..... no film. The German ICE train was sitting directly across from my platform. The flight from Zurich to Frankfurt was short and nice. The skies were clear an provided a beautiful view of the European countryside. From 18,000 feet, you can really see just how close everything is. The layover at Frankfurt, Germany was a bit frustrating.
When it came to board the Malaysia Airlines flight, we were loaded into buses and shuttled out onto the tarmac. I believe that we almost drove half way to Kuala Lumpur before we finally arrived at the Boeing 747. Once aboard, the plane was delayed due to a "slight mechanical problem". The APU would occasionally stop running, leaving us to swelter inside. Fortunately, the Upper Deck stewardesses kept bringing a non-stop flow of beverages. After the 11 1/2 hour flight, we touched down in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Imagine being trapped inside a perpetual sauna with no exit. That is about the closest I can come to describing the first shock of walking out of the terminal. I booked a taxi to the Shangri-La Hotel. At the hotel, there was some slight confusion regarding my reservation, they did not have a room for Steve Whisel of Motorola, but they did have a room for a Steve Wilson. If there really is a Steve Wilson that works at Motorola, he is going to be pissed at me for swiping his room. I collapse in the room and let my body adjust to another time zone.
After a generous Western Style breakfast (Five Star hotels are WAY COOL!). I venture out of the air conditioning and hire a taxi to take me to the Museum Negara. This is Malaysia's National Museum. After the obligatory time was spent looking at native clothing styles, stuffed examples of local animals, display of Malaysian Weaponry, I head outside to photograph the REAL reason for visiting the Museum. They have TWO Malaysian Railway steam locomotives on display. Directly across from the museum, is a rail yard. Unfortunately, they are undergoing some serious freeway construction and most of the yard was obstructed by fence.
I leave the museum in another taxi and head to the KL Railway Station. This is a relatively modern structure with Mid-Eastern architecture. The four track terminal is a bee-hive of activity. Commuter trains (lightrail, overhead electric trains) come and go on various tracks. I luck out and catch the long-distance train coming into the station. Powered by a single diesel engine, the train looked clean and well cared for. While I was standing on the platform taking pictures, I began to feel like I was the prize pig at the county fair. Let's just say that it is kinda' hard to blend in with the local people when you are 6'-2" tall and the average Malaysian is 5'. Once again, I got the distinct impression that the waiting passengers thought I was totally insane for taking pictures of stupid 'ol train cars.
I return to the hotel, and work out in the hotel Gymnasium (I told you 5 start hotels are cool), get a bite to eat and crash for a good nights sleep.
Another day spent working (This is seriously impacting my train watching!). The factory engineer introduced me to Indian cuisine. Curry, curry and more curry. Dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe was the standard fare (which helps to settle a curry laden tummy).
Hired a taxi to take me to another factory located 65 miles South of Kuala Lumpur in the town of Seremban. The taxi driver found Seremban, but got lost trying to find the correct factory. I think we traveled on every back road in the town. Finally, we located the factory and all was well. After the days activities, I requested to ride the commuter train from Seremban back to Kuala Lumpur. The rate was extremely inexpensive ($5US) for the 1 1/2 hour ride back. The cars were clean, well lit and best of all.....air-conditioned. Once again, I was the main attraction on the car. A small boy, traveling with his parents, kept peeking around the corner of the seat to get a look at me. Oh, well.... no harm done. I guess it makes up for all the times I stared at foreigners as a kid. I keep him occupied by making faces which amuses him to no end.
Some observations on Malaysia
1. This is a very safe country. The penalty for
drug possession (any type or amount) is DEATH.
2. The people are predominately Muslim and Hindu.
3. The economy is strong (8% growth per year for the past 10 years) so there are few beggars.
4. Being an ex-British Colony, they drive on the wrong side of the road.
5. More people here speak English than in Switzerland.
6. Again, learning a few key phrases will get you a long way. Most signs have English translations.
7. There are plenty of Western restaurants available if you choose to not try the local foods.
8. If you need to get a taxi at the KL Railway Station, exit on the Track 4 side and go to the "Teksi" counter
There, you tell the attendant your destination, and she will provide you with a "coupon" to present to the driver. The fare is cheaper than normal, and you don't have to worry about being charged the "tourist" rate.
Spent day at work (on a Saturday no less..). Rode back to
hotel on the KL Commuter train again. The station stops along the
way have rather unusual (by western standards) names.
-Bandar Tasik Selatan
Back at the hotel, I packed for the next leg of my journey...
After a light breakfast at the Shangri-La, I was delivered to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. During the taxi ride to the airport I had a good chance to look at the KL Light Rail Transit System. The above ground line follows the "highway" for quite some distance. The construction uses pre-fabricated sections that are lifted into place. Check in was briefly confusing, but I located the correct departure gate. The "gate" consisted of two busses that ferried the passengers out to the airplane. As luck would have it, the bus I was on broke, so we had to change busses. Once at the plane, everyone was herded up the ramp. The connection at Singapore was short and sweet. Once again, a seat on the upper deck provides me with the space to work on this page. As I leave Malaysia, I found the people friendly and hospitable, but not to the extent of my next stop..... Manila.