In mid-January, I took my final long, solo backpacking trip. The main motivation was to see Rhine Falls in Switzerland since I missed it due to bad planning in 2012. I contemplated asking for company, but after much thought, I decided to set out all by myself. I needed to get away from people for a week and spend some final moments in Europe with memories that belong only to myself. I needed to roam indulgently through endless beauties without restricting myself with anything. I needed to know that I could be lost and not afraid.
(Of course, that final line came from the lyrics of “Trip the Light” from the Where the Hell is Matt video, 2012 version.)
So I went. In the midst of packing my luggage for Canada, selling everything that I was leaving behind, and finishing off administrative procedures in France, I stopped doing everything and flew to Basel, where the week-long travel began. This trip has been in planning for about 3 months, and even though it was meant to be more or less spontaneous, I needed to know roughly where I was going as I would be visiting 3 countries and 6+ cities in 7 days. I knew Rhine Falls had to be one of the destinations, and since I was in Switzerland again, why not spend some more time in this gorgeous country? I also missed Lucerne during my two previous visits, so that was added to the itinerary. I would later go on to add Schaffhausen, Bern, Vienna, Hallstatt, and Bratislava to the route, and thus began my final elaborate solo journey.
That feeling of taking flight without a burden in my mind and without a worry in the world – it was exactly what I had been missing as the aircraft took me from Bordeaux to Basel. Switzerland again – it had been my favourite European country to visit, until not much later when it would be replaced by Iceland. Yet, I could never get tired of visiting Switzerland. The greenest grass, the bluest skies, the whitest snow, and the clearest waters are found here, and perfection is too perfect that it became eerie. Eerily attractive.
Basel was in fact just a transfer point (I had already visited Basel with chef) to my first destination, Lucerne. Then it turned out that Lucerne itself wasn’t even the first destination. Before I headed out, as I was planning my trip, I saw my friend’s photos of a place in the Swiss Alps called Mount Titlis…not so far from Lucerne. I was instantly taken over by the gorgeousness of it all – I HAD TO GO. Looking into half-day trips from Lucerne led me to a choice between Mount Titlis, Mount Pilatus, and Mount Rigi, all of which were easily reachable from Lucerne. After taking into consideration various factors including time required, cost, modes of transportation, and reviews, my choice was clear. Instead of following my initial urge for Mount Titlis, I decided to go for the “Queen of the Mountains” – Mount Rigi.
The trip between Lucerne and Mount Rigi involved 3 modes of transportation – on the way there, I’d take the boat from Lucerne, cross Lake Lucerne to Vitznau, and then take a cogwheel train from Vitznau to the top of Rigi. On the way down, I’d take the same cogwheel train down only halfway to Rigi Kaltbad, and from there I’d take a gondola/cable car down to the town of Weggis, where a boat would take me back to Lucerne. I was surprised that in mid-January, the number of tourists was anything but few. Seems like Rigi does have its reputation for a reason. On the morning of departure, Lucerne was hit with the thickest fog I’ve ever seen. The entire city was a smokey gray – you could not see any further than 10 metres in front of you. As the boat left the docks of Lucerne, I felt that we were venturing into a space warp as visibility around the boat was literally zero. The winds were chilly on Lake Lucerne, and most passengers were smart enough to hide in the warmth of the interior of the boat. Few brave ones, including me, sat outside. It would probably have been a good idea if we were able to see something, but clearly (or not so clearly…) that was out of the question. I soon came to regret the idea and like the wise passengers, went back inside before the winds froze me.
The boat pulled into Vitznau where we made a transfer onto the next leg of the trip, the cogwheel train, or the Vitznau-Rigi Bahn. Notably, the Vitznau-Rigi Bahn is the first mountain track railway in Europe, reaching a height of 1752 metres above sea level when it reaches the summit of Rigi.
I sat on the Vitznau-Rigi Bahn and realized that this was exactly like the excursion to La Rhune during the 2012 IDS training school, where I was up in the Pyrénées with my dear FunMates. The “little train” was absolutely unforgettable, and never would I have thought that I would relive that experience! This time, the difference is that it is winter as opposed to spring in March 2012, and this is Switzerland versus France before. No snow on La Rhune, but c’mon, in mid-January, you’d have to give me some snow in the Alps, 1752 metres above sea level.
Some 45 minutes later, we arrived on Rigi Kulm, the summit of Mount Rigi. And there’s snow, alright. January 2014 had so far been a very mild winter for much of Europe, and I escaped France hoping that Switzerland would offer some snow. Well, Lucerne didn’t have any when I arrived, but certainly Rigi would not disappoint, right? I mean, a little bit of snow 1752 metres above sea level isn’t that much to ask, is it?
And certainly we got more than “a little” snow. In fact, there was one single moment during the train ride up to Rigi Kulm where I swear my heart skipped a beat. Fog continued to hover in the low altitudes as we ascended, and in one split second, the train broke through the fog like a newborn chick cracking through the eggshell that protected it. Sky! Sunlight! It was as if we saw these for the first time, and as the icing on the cake, we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by rows and rows of mountains capped with pure, sparkling snow. The fog no longer loomed over us, and instead became a beautiful decoration to the peaks that now have taken over and become the main characters.
These were the sights that I had hoped to see years ago when I visited the mountain ranges in Zhangjiajie in China. I had imagined seas of clouds dancing in the air, dressing the mountains in a light, silky white and bringing them to life, transforming them into creatures with a magnificent soul. Regrettably, all I saw in Zhangjiajie were those majestic mountain ranges, tall but naked under a scorching summer sun. It was mind-blowing, don’t get me wrong, but a wisp of mist was all that was needed for perfection. Here in Rigi, however, was everything I had wanted to see in Zhangjiajie and missed. The peaks in the distance seemed to scream out the greatness of God’s creations, and I could not help but fully succumb to how tiny, how insignificant I am in this vast, vast world.
I looked beyond the endless realm and stood in front of a lone cross that guarded Rigi (1752 metres isn’t all that high, really, compared to Titlis at 3238 metres and Pilatus at 2128 metres), feeling an insurmountable sense of peace and relief. On a clear day, one is supposedly able to see the lakes and villages surrounding the canton of Lucerne, including Zug, Lauerz, and Lucerne itself. I didn’t get this view (which I’m sure is stunning), and while the mist and clouds wrapped Rigi in a loving embrace, I thought, “Is this the place that I’d been dreaming of?” It was what I had hoped to experience in Zhangjiajie, but the skies back then were hopelessly clear. Oh Switzerland, what a blessed land you are…
You know what’s amazing though? You could be surrounded by a thousand people and feel completely alone, yet you can be completely alone physically and feel nothing more than content. Just content, nothing more, nothing less. I thought that my heart would be filled with excitement, but it wasn’t. I was just happy – happy to be alone, happy to be free from the noise and worries that have taken away my joy for so long, happy to be spending time with myself and my God.
Soon it was time to say goodbye to Rigi. I had contemplating hiking back down to Rigi Kaltbad (which would take an hour or so), but decided against it (and wisely so). I was absolutely NOT prepared – no snow boots, so I would sooner have slipped and fallen before making it to Kaltbad, and my “winter” attire would definitely not defend me from the chilly winds. While the paths were well maintained for winter hiking and I was seriously tempted to attempt the trek, in the end I went with the original plan of taking the cogwheel train once again down to Rigi Kaltbad…
…where we switched the a gondola ride that offered a panoramic view of Rigi as we descended into Weggis. That feeling of rotating and floating in the air is irreplaceable, but again, it reminded me of the cable car ride in Zhangjiajie, except this time, it was much, much less scary. I still remember those almost-vertical cables that hauled the cars up to the top of the Zhangjiajie mountains and the thrill that I experienced, looking down into an abyss of green forests. At least this time, we were going down instead of up, which was…a bit more reassuring, perhaps?
And finally, we arrived in Weggis, a town that seemed to be built on a huge hill lodged at the foot of Rigi. All is tranquil and serene. There is not a trace of any white, slushy substance signifying the presence of winter; not a clue that a majestic world, one that is out of this world, is hidden behind its depths; not a sign that anyone came and left…