E: Emerald Glass Waters – Switzerland

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Managing to find time for one final excursion before the start of term, I held tight to my print-at-home boarding passes as I waited in the Luton airport departure zone. My chin rested on a soon to be confiscated bottle of water as I glanced intermittently up to the departures board. The last time I’d seen Alex was only a few weeks ago when she was visiting London. Almost days after I’d waved goodbye to her at Piccadilly tube station I had fixed my sights on an affordable £70 return flight to Zürich. Being the shameless nature freak I am, I sat bright-eyed and feverish at the prospect of experiencing the Swiss countryside which had been plastered and boasted about on chocolate wrappers I’d witnessed countless times growing up.

My beloved friend Alex is a Swiss humanoid of Chinese descent currently studying at the University of Zürich. We met last year in Singapore and after a few iced coffees and some waffles we decided each other was alright. We’ve experienced a lot of good times together including reaching Singapore’s laughable summit and voyaging to the idyllic Pacific Island of Pulau Tioman, this trip would be a great excuse to add to the list of memories. The only problems about our reunification would be a) that I would be reminded of the fact Alex, a non native speaker talks better English than me and b) I would need to readjust to keep up with the amount of irony in our conversations.IMG_2238

My easyjet flight was 20 minutes delayed so I hurried my way through baggage collection and border control (where I encountered a man who did not seem to like my surname) to be greeted by the familiar face I was here to see!  Within roughly 2 hours from being on UK soil I was sat in Alex’s sophisticated student kitchen devouring her pasta and juice whilst she lectured me on all the locations she wanted to go this week. (I’m sorry I wasn’t paying much attention, the pasta was really good). As the sun hid behind the horizon we met up with one of Alex’s friends who’d accompanied her to London and had a wander around central Zurich at night. From the bar at the Urania Observatory we witnessed some superior views of the slumbering city.

Following an early awakening, we dashed onto numerous trains and buses until eventually we found ourselves smittenly gazing upon the sparkling green waters that rest in the Verzasca Valley. The scenery was breathtaking as the gentle river casually meandered between the colossal mountains smothered in greenery that surrounded it. Character filled settlements made cameos outside of the bus windows frequently during our journey, By far the most prominent of these man-made creations was the staggeringly elegant Catholic church with a stone front, which along with the scenic ‘Bridge of Leaps’ marks the starting point of the trail.

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The water here is truly impressive, your eyes are left free to explore the bottom of the riverbed with only the glimmering reflections of the sunlight acting as distractions. The stone that surrounded the river bed was also of interest, the distinct layers of rock are clearly visible and the indentations of the rock alongside of the river made for peculiar places to squeeze your body into.

Our hike led us to discover more hidden gems along the river bank, the majority of our time was spent wandering in the woods that rested at the foot of the valley, occasionally stumbling into a waterfall or two along the way. We made numerous attempts to submerge ourselves the water but shamefully none were of any success. The deepest I managed to get into the water was to my knees, which within 5 seconds the glacial water proceeded to cut off my circulation as I lost the feeling in both of my feet.

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Pitying ourselves at how disappointing our cold tolerance remained, we chose a small  flat river island made of polished marble like stone as our lunch spot. The glorious surroundings made for the most breathtaking backdrop I have ever had during lunch. A definite benefit of bringing a packed lunch instead of allowing a restaurant owner to pick your lunch spot. We consumed various pieces of Swiss bread, dried meats and grapes as we sat admiring the views on our conquered piece of land. After a few hours of repeating the formula of stopping every ten minutes to admire the beauty of the same majestic mountains from a slightly different angle, we reached a bridge leading us back to the other side of the bank where a bus awaited to take us to Bellinzona.

As usual I was heartbroken to be leaving this bewitching valley with its bright emerald waters and unusual stones. There was nothing too complex about the area to discuss, it was simply a place of consistent natural beauty showcasing merely a sample great outdoor space that remain in Switzerland. Stepping out of the bus onto the attractive streets of Italian speaking Swiss town of ‘Bellinzona’ helped to comfort me slightly. The town proved to be a sophisticated little metropolis laying discreetly in the shadows of grand stone castles which peered down at the town from their position high above in the surrounding hills.

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The three castles of Bellinzona are impressive sights, all three are considered UNESCO world heritage sites and are easily reached by elevator. They offer an array of impressive views over the city, as well as the connecting castle walls are a treat to walk within. Grass has been laid between the walls making it appear as if it’s a green carpet, making the space ridiculously photogenic. The town offers plenty of cobbled streets, a healthy selection of stores to browse into and numerous eateries. As our legs ached, we were easily seduced by the prospect of a pizza cooked in a log burning oven. The pizza as predicted was delicious and I didn’t have a single shred of shame about the money I spent on it.

The Italian part of Switzerland had been good to us, welcomed by its beautiful scenery and bribed by the delicious food I could easily see this becoming a weekend favourite if I ever find myself living in Switzerland. It was a sleepy trip back to Zürich and unsurprisingly we were flat-out as soon as we hit the mattress. Well… at least Alex was. I had the beautiful melodies of her snoring to lull me to my dreams.
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Things that impressed me the most about Switzerland so far:

  • No ticket barriers
  • Double-decker trains
  • Tasty carrot juice
  • Ancient castles of Bellinzona
  • Crystal clear emerald waters of the Valle Verzasca

E: Paddy Fields and the Indigo People of Sapa, Vietnam

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Of the places I visited during the winter break one of the most touching locations I had the pleasure of witnessing was the Sapa district in northern Vietnam. Although weather wise the coldest of all my destinations, I was pleasantly warmed by the scenes throughout Sapa town and the surrounding villages.

People here are poor, and although I have witnessed poverty before I’d never seen people living off log fires and mainly consuming food they’d produced themselves. Various ethnic minorities inhabit the area including the Black Hmong, Dao and Phu Lo people. Many of these speak languages other than Vietnamese. The changes brought by tourism are noticeable, but no so prominent to ruin the area’s authenticity. Many families have converted from farming to selling souvenirs with examples including, indigo scarves and various carved stone objects. It was refreshing to see the majority of what was being sold out of houses and on the street, were products produced by the people themselves.

Exceedingly obvious is the ethnic minorities cheekily ripping tourists off, our guide gave us an indication of what we should be paying. Unfortunately I found it difficult to stop the woman selling me an indigo scarf, purchased as a gift, from overcharging me by two pounds while she was sat smiling bleakly underneath a tin roof, without heating in the middle of winter. I didn’t have it in me to refuse, especially when I thought about how little two pounds is to me, compared to what this woman could use it for.

If you plan to visit be wary not to buy from the local village kids, as although they’ll give you cheaper prices than the adults, this encourages them to skip school and continue attempting to make money from western tourists doing no good for their future. Besides any money lost whilst buying gifts I definitely made back on the food, where else can you get 73p beer? Apart from the eerily lit church located centrally in Sapa town it seems due to the French’s presence in Vietnam they left some cultural characteristics such as aspects of religion behind, our guide told us that many of the villagers refused to use contraception as they were supposedly catholic, yet still maintained some Buddhist beliefs.

Breathtaking scenery in the nearby mountains means the majority of our trip was hiking and admiring the views, with the occasional stop at some of the local villagers’ homes where our guide allowed us to ask questions, try some local tobacco and test our skill of using various farming utensils. I’d like to return to Sapa, 2 days wasn’t enough. If returning I would visit again in September during the harvest season, where apparently all the rice fields evolve into a glowing gradient of yellow. The trip ended with a farewell to our guide and boarding the night train (which one day I’m sure will become my permanent type of accommodation) back to Vietnam’s capital Hanoi.

 

Village Life

Life in the village is the dream, people here don’t seem to suffer from ‘old age syndrome’ no matter what the age they keep themselves busy and it’s refreshing to see. My short two day break was spent running away from snakes, eating mountain berries and throwing ice cold water over my cousins. All good fun. I wish I grew up in a village, having the mountains as your back garden as a kid must have been the best playground you could imagine. But wait don’t think it gets boring when you become a teenager, oh no Kakopetria (the village) has a club. You heard me a club, in a mountain village. Of course me and my cousins did not require any alcohol or a dance floor to bring the party to the streets with the use of a blackberry curve’s speaker….. Coz that’s just how we rollA small cottage tucked away in the trees. On the first moutain hike where we managed to walk into snakesAfter about an hour of convincing these weren’t toxic I learnt to love wild mountain berriesNot particularly historic but a scenic bridge neverthelessThe village has a plentiful supply of water from underground springsCloud covering the mountainsGot to meet the family hamsterThe village at nightApple anyone?

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