If the weather had started to improve in the morning I thought I would do a quick trip to one of the mountains surrounding Lucerne before leaving. The receptionist checked online and there was almost no visibility at any of them.
Interlaken is the adventure sports capital of the Swiss Alps, offering things like bungee-jumping, hang gliding and skydiving. I had picked two hostels in town and began my walk from the Interlaken-West train station. The plan was to amuse myself in Interlaken for the rest of the day and night — maybe do a short hike — then go to Lauterbrunnen in the morning. Lauterbrunnen is the small alpine town about which the guys at Krumlov House had spoke so highly, so I knew I had to at least check it out.
As I walked towards town I started wondering if staying in Interlaken was the right call. The town elevation was relatively low, so to even do some regular hiking you would have to walk or take a train up the mountain to get to the trails. Plus, with less than a day there, most of my time would be eaten up by unpacking and then repacking to check out. If I went straight to Lauterbrunnen, I could spend the afternoon settling in and getting my bearings, then get a full day and night to hike and explore the town. I stopped walking just as I got to a huge open field right before the town center. I picked a bench, put my pack down and took out my lunch. As I slowly chewed my sandwich and stared at the giant “Hollywood”-like sign across the field, I carefully considered my options. By the time I finished eating, I had made my decision.
I strapped on my packs, did an about face and started walking back to the train station just 15 minutes after I left it. Another one of the many benefits of both traveling solo and not having a plan (or clue, some might say).
The trains that run around the Swiss Alps are really quite amazing, as they navigate some pretty narrow passes and climb up steep hills. The views are fantastic and you get the feeling of being in a secluded alpine environment. And more than just that feeling, you are actually are in a secluded alpine environment.
Lauterbrunnen is a tiny town in the middle of a valley surrounded by immense mountains. The major industry is tourism, fueled by the hordes of travelers who come through town on their way to some kind of outdoor activity. As small as it was, I still had to pop into the visitor’s center to figure out the way to the hostel in town.
And of course it was just around the corner, but when I got there all I saw was a sign saying the front desk would be open at 4. Another girl came in at the same time, and an older man who was overseeing some work being done on the house said we could leave our things there and check-in later.
The girl was an Australian teenager named Rachel and she agreed to come with me on a short walk around the town to kill time. She had just finished high school and was heading to university in Auckland when she got back. She was spending time with relatives and friends around Europe, but was also doing some solo backpacking too. We walked out of town and through the valley, deeper into the mountain range. It was a very spread out area, but at the same time, the looming mountains made it seem crowded.
We walked all the way past that little shack you see in the picture above, then realized that unless we wanted to commit to a 4-5 hour roundtrip hike, we might as well head back and check in.
The hostel owners seemed really friendly, and so did everyone else who was staying there. Random conversations would strike up in the cafeteria, and I spent about 10 minutes chatting with my roommates right after putting my packs down. The funny thing, though, was that 98% of them were Korean. Not that it’s a bad thing, just seemed kinda weird. Rachel found out from one of the other girls that Lauterbrunnen got a good write-up in a popular Korean travel guide, so it was a stop for most Korean backpackers (South Koreans, that is, as we know there probably aren’t many North Korean backpackers in Europe … or North Korean travel guides for that matter). Indeed, many of the hostels had common signs written in both English and Korean, and there were even a few South Korean flags waving outside guesthouses.
One thing you learn quickly when backpacking is that Asians love to cook. They also like to eat together, and everyone helps in the cooking. So even if there’s only a couple groups in the dining room, the kitchen will look like it’s 10AM at a dim sum restaurant. I didn’t find room in the kitchen to start cooking my dinner until about 9, but it was OK, since I spent the idle time chatting with Rachel and some of the other travelers.
In fact, as we were all sitting at a table near a set of french doors, a familiar face walked by outside. It was Joel, the young Aussie backpacker I met in Zurich. I knew he planned on coming out to the Alps, but had no idea would run into each other again.
As I started to cook another guest walked by carrying a plastic bag filled with short, 250 ml bottles. He noticed that I was carrying a bottle of wine I had bought at the local supermarket along with my dinner, and he asked me if I liked to drink vodka. “Sure I do,” I said, desperately hoping he would suddenly materialize an extra dry vodka martini, two olives (working at a bar had given me expensive tastes).
Instead he plucked out a bottle of what he called “Korean Vodka,” which turned out to be soju, a distilled, fermented rice alcohol. I looked at the label and exclaimed, “Oh, soju! I actually like this stuff.” Everyone around me found this very amusing. The last time I tried soju was at Laura’s wedding, where each guest was given a small complimentary bottle of soju to commemorate the time she and her husband had spent in Korea. I liked it then. I did not like it now. I’m not sure if it was the brand or the quality, but it tasted awful. I understood why they laughed when I said I enjoyed drinking soju.
Joel and I stayed up late talking about backpacking and sharing stories from the road. I told him about Ouse and Wanaka, and in my semi-drunken state tried to impart some words of wisdom about traveling. In hindsight it was probably a bad idea; I had a long day of hiking planned and should have gone to bed early and sober.