ON TOP OF THE WORLD AND IN A TRAIN
There are some facts that one must know before a visit to the Jungfraujoch station. Located at 3,454 metres above sea level, Jungfraujoch is Europe’s highest altitude railway station, and was built exactly a hundred years ago, in 1912. While the facts alone may seem fascinating to some, it took me just a single look up to be enthralled. As I cranked my neck from my position on the ski decks in Kleine Scheidegg (2,061 metres) I was staring straight at Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau — three icy mountain peaks in the Bernese Alps — with just the one question. How did anyone have the daring to build a railway line so high up in these cliffs of eternal snow and ice?
Set in the heart of the Bernese Oberland is Interlaken and that
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From Interlaken, I head to Kleine Scheidegg, changing trains at the glacier village of Grindelwald. The real fun begins here as I take the Jungfraubahn train for the final leg on this fascinating cog-wheel railway. As you’d expect, the ascent is fairly precipitous (the steepest gradient being 25%), so much so that the seats have been angled on the train to prevent rear-facing passengers from falling off. On the way up, the train runs close behind the Eiger’s north face, stopping at Eigerwand, the first of two stations, where viewing windows built into the rock afford stunning views of the ski fields and the Kleine Scheidegg station below. These windows, I’m told, were used for the gravity-defying climax scenes of a Clint Eastwood movie, The Eiger Sanction. You have but five minutes to get off and take pictures. There is a second stop at the Eismeer (‘Sea of Ice’), a large glacier stretching out for miles in front of the Jungfrau. Finally, just under an hour from boarding, the train rolls into Jungfraujoch station, having successfully navigated 1,400 metres in height along the 9.34-kilometre-long stretch, including the last seven through tunnels.
On reaching the summit, the effects of altitude are instantaneously observable. There is 25% less oxygen at this height, so it takes a while to acclimatise. One way to do that quickly is by staying hydrated. Interestingly, although the settlement up here was first established in 1912, it still feels surreally futuristic. Inside the rock of the mountain a mini township thrives. Besides the highest railway station in Europe, there is the highest post office and also, this being Switzerland, the highest watch shop. There are three restaurants (including ‘Bollywood’, serving authentic Indian cuisine) souvenir shops, and a coffee bar. The Ice Palace, a long pedestrian tunnel beneath the glacier, equipped with sculptures of penguins and polar bears, is another Jungfraujoch highlight. The grotto has to be artificially cooled to minus 3 degrees to compensate for the heat generated by thousands of daily visitors.
The final 111.4-metre-long ascent begins vertically on an ultramodern elevator (Switzerland’s fastest lift installation) to a pinnacle called the Sphinx, an observatory and meteorological research station that was opened in 1937. This building serves not only meteorologists, scientists and astronomers, but for many visitors it is also the true landmark of the Jungfraujoch. From its 3,571-metre-high terrace, visitors can enjoy 360 degree panoramic views of an Alpine wonderland. The views across the top of the Great Aletsch Glacier (which stretches across 23kilometres) are magnificent, as is the view of the Jungfrau and surrounding mountains. In days of good weather, one can see as far as neighbouring Italy, the Vosges Mountains in France and Germany’s Black Forest.
On the return journey to Kleine Scheidegg, Urs Kessler, CEO of Jungfrau Railways, smiles a contented smile as he sits across me. “It took seven months and a lot of hard work to make the impossible possible. We had the vision to create the best all-weather programme in the Alps, and that’s what we have done,” he says. “There have been many railways built during this period, but the Jungfraubahn must rate as a true masterpiece in the history of great railways all over the world.” Back in Interlaken, while savouring my last supper (Swiss steak with fondue and rosti) before my flight home, Kessler’s words still ring deep. Here’s my advice — If you ever find yourself within a day’s travel of the Jungfrau, ensure that you’re on the Jungfraubahn train to the Jungfraujoch. email@example.com
l The Jungfraujoch Railway was the brainchild of Adolf Guyer-Zeller, an industrial magnate from Zurich.
l Despite numerous hardships and loss of lives, the line was completed on February 1912.
l Construction took 16 years instead of 7, and the project cost worked out to 16 million francs instead of 10.
l Over 7,00,000 tourists visit each year. In 2011 of the 7,64,000 tourists, over 85,000 were from India.
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