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I thought long and hard about this topic and while I’m still far away from having a coherent position on what has been going on in the Middle East during the last few days – lacking both the knowledge on  the historical background, details on current events and experience on the ground –  I have come to a conclusion on one part of the problem. So here’s the position:

Unless you have just lost a loved one – in which case it is understandable that this pain would overrule almost anything else – this should be the appropriate response upon hearing that an “enemy” civilian has been killed. I would want to extend this to enemy combatants, but that’s probably asking for humans to act like angels or saints.

You should feel a deep sense of grief about the fact that a human being will never rise up again, will not grow old, will never talk to her friends again and will never again be able to do all those things you and I enjoy doing. You should empathize with the pain of his mother, son, grandfather, or spouse who will never be able to hold his hand again or apologize for the bad words they might have exchange only a few hours earlier. You should realize that, had God, fate or just pure luck decided otherwise, it could have hit you or your closest friend.

Your first reaction should not be “but it was her fault because she supported this oppressive / terrorist government”, nor “but if the enemy government didn’t hide behind civilians / didn’t implement its oppressive policy, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place”, nor “oh but I’m quite sure he wasn’t a civilian but a militant / soldier in disguise” or any such justification.

In fact, if your reaction is the latter, I am not sure if we are still friends.

I am not saying that killing can never be justified. It probably can. I am not saying that the expression “collateral damage” is always hypocritical. Ultimately, all politics is weighing one life against another. But if this cannot be avoided, then what might matter is the attitude with which we approach human suffering.

You might think that a henchman (and, by extension, his supportive or at least inactive audience) shedding tears over his victims is sanctimonious. But I still prefer him over the madly laughing joker or the butcher who justifies his deeds by denying his victims their humanity.

Post Scriptum: Or maybe you think that this is trivial. So let me give you an non-trivial example: posting a picture about a dying Palestinian / Isreali child/civilian. So you think this is non-controversial, right?

I say it depends. If you post this picture to raise attention to the human suffering caused by the conflict, then it may well be. If you post it with the intention of telling everyone how right you were to hate the Israeli / Palestinian government  because they kill innocent people, you might want to think about the ethics of using human suffering to make yourself feel better about yourself and your side.

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Some random pictures I took on a walk up 6th Avenue to the MoMA

 

The same old story

Everyone who ever had to move from one country to another for a longer period of time knows that the puny 20-23kg luggage limit offered by most airlines is simply not enough. He or she also knows that sending your stuff instead of taking it with you is costly and not always easy. Let’s just say you might have good reasons not to let the Kyrgyz postal system get its hands on any parcel that contains valuables, and not just because it will take several months to actually get delivered to a randomly chosen post office within a 50km radius of the address indicated.

So one alternative option is using the cargo department of airlines. Unfortunately, this is tedious as well, as you have to do the paperwork for the customs on your own. I fondly remember writing a letter in Russian to the head of the customs at Bishkek’s Manas Airport a couple of years ago,  asking him for permission to send my parcel. By hand. Nobody had apparently found it necessary to develop a form for such occasions.

 

The ubiquitous flag

 

Instead of sending my stuff from Kyrgyzstan to Switzerland and then to the US, I asked Ala to store it and send it directly to the US once I had a permanent address there. I didn’t want to put her through the hassle with the customs, so I decided to ask a specialized company (AriCargo) to take care of that part. Of course if you hire and pay for such a company, you assume that they will take care of all the bureaucracy. And, unsurprisingly, you would be wrong.

So one nice morning, I received a call from  Turkish Cargo, threatening to charge me a storage fee if I didn’t pick up the parcel within the next two days. Also, they mentioned something about customs procedures not being finalized. And so it turned out that sending a parcel via cargo in the US is not that dissimilar to the same experience in Dubai or Kyrgyzstan.

 

Shortly before Central Park

 

You head out to the airport to discover that it is even more sprawling than you would imagine when you trundle through as a tourist. You also discover that anything outside the arrival hall is designed based on the assumption that you have a set of wheels. I felt a bit lost at times dragging my suitcase (emptied to be filled with the parcel) across endless parking lots, or maneuvering across giant storage halls with futuristic fork lift trucks. A car would’ve been handy indeed, but so I drove out to the end of the subway, took the airport train to Federal Circle and hopped onto a shuttle bus that brought me to the Turkish Cargo’s office. There I was handed a form that I had to deliver to the US customs. So I drove back to Federal Circle and took another shuttle to the US Customs and Border Protection.

Now, the guys from the CBP are the ones you always fear might find something wrong with your documents when you enter the US, so it was somehow comforting seeing a couple of elderly chaps sitting there (admittedly in uniform and full gear), chatting about baseball results. And of course they hand you a highly confusing form to fill out. So far it could have been anywhere in the world – but then the customs officer patiently helped me fill out the form, even thought it was already past the shift change at 5pm. Also, he didn’t put any stamp on the form I had brought from Turkish Cargo. “It’s all in the computer,” he explained (and he was correct).

While waiting for the shuttle that would drive me back to Federal Circle, I counted the incoming planes (about one every minute) and hummed that famous tune from one of the few Swiss music bands worth listening to:

And back to Federal Circle, to take the next shuttle to the Turkish Cargo office. It is also seems to be universal rule of cargo bureaucracy somewhere down the line, an unexpected and unexplained fee is being charged. This time it was a 50 USD ” import service charge” AriCargo had never mentioned. But as the other side was holding my parcel hostage, what could I do? Of course someone had also opened the package and made sure that all the items I had carefully arranged so that they would not move around during transport would lie around loosely instead. I was past caring at that point. After five hours of shuttling back and forth, I was just happy to haul my stuff back to my apartment.

Childhood memories

When I was still a toddler, my parents spent their holidays in one of the southern, Italian-speaking valleys of the canton Graubünden – the Bergell or Val Bregaglia. So during at least three summer weeks, I (and later also my brother) were carried through the mountains. A couple of photos is all that remains as proof, but I was curious if hiking there would uncover memories buried in a lost corner of my mind.

We took the train on the glacier express route through some remote valleys connecting Chur with St. Moritz and then traveled onwards with the bus, past the string of lakes on the plateau of St. Moritz and Silvaplana up to the Maloja pass road. Which – mental note to myself – would be nice thing to do also by bike or even canoe. And then maybe learn kite-surfing on the lake of Silvaplana.

The cheaper alternative

But I am digressing into the future (hopefully). For now, I found the small, family run hotel “La Stampa” in Casaccia, just below the Maloja Pass, where some amazing pictures by the Swiss painter Lukas R. Vogel were on display (and I was almost tempted to buy one that would have set me back 1500 USD – one of those where the mountain is visible only as a collection of snow fields in the light, with a black bench in the foreground).

We decided to sleep in the common room/dormitory for 35 USD per person and discovered that the common room can easily become a double room – it seems as if not too many people stay in the common rooms of Swiss hotels that are not Youth hostels. Good for us.

Annoying bug(ger)s

We left our main luggage in the locker and headed down the valley. The Maloja Pass is a favourite among motorcyclists, because of the beautiful landscape and the winding pass road. Luckily, after an hour of walking their waspish buzz was drowned out by the sound of the river in the valley.

Local food

As it was Sunday, and Switzerland (or at least its more mountainous regions) is one of the few areas where shops actually close over the weekend, we were happy to find a seat in a small Kiosk in Durbegia around lunchtime. They served most excellent sweet chestnut pie and home-made Salami.

That familiar feeling…

So far, I hadn’t felt any familiar tingling looking at the glaciers peaking across the dark rock walls of the mountain range on the other side of the valley. But later on, when we arrived in Soglio and descended further to Castasegna at the Italian border in the shade of chestnut trees, I guessed the origin of my fondness for Doro and the upper Ticino. The same white houses with stone roofs, closing in on the narrow, crooked alleys between them. They cling to the rocky walls like oisters, and most of the year, they are just as silent. The quiet, closed shutters of the houses testify to how many of the young people have left in pursuit of happiness to the cities or abroad.

Those who remain are their parents and grandparents, who themselves had earlier on made their living far away from where they have returned to now. They live in villages without sunrays in Winter, and do not move to the sunny and dry pastures hundreds of meters above them in Summer anymore. And so, within just two generations, the forest has reclaimed most of the steeper pastures, and the valleys look again wild and pristine – although they are bereft of a variety of fauna and flora that thrived on alpine pastures.

Swiss National Day Celebrations in Casaccia

The change became even more evident in the evening in Casaccia. As it was the first of August, Swiss National Day, we decided to attend the celebrations. A couple of tables were enough to seat all attendants, and there were few young faces among them. But there was home-made cake and sausages for sale (the proceeds was intended for the renovation of the valley’s only ski lift), a woman sang some traditional songs, kids were clutching their lampions and in the end, someone even  lighted a volcano.

They are few, but determined to stay.

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In our second day around Tiefencastel, we did a long hike from Bivio to Tinizong (and, in the end, Savognin) over Alp Flix. Bivio is a remote village at the end of a valley that leads to St. Moritz (over the Julier Pass) or into the Bergell Valley (Val Bregaglia, over the Septimer Pass).

The weather was absolutely brilliant, with no clouds to be seen. We quickly climbed up to the “Kanonensattel” and down on the other side to the Alp Flix, a broad plateau with a wonderful view on the surrounding mountains. In the restaurant “Piz Platta” we had an excellent lunch and moved onwards to Lake Flix and slowly down the valley, where we reached Tinizong after 5 ½ hours.

We were so enthusiastic about the area that we decided to stay one more day in the region and thus walked on to Savognin, where the tourism office offered the necessary internet connection to check and arrange everything for the panorama hike in the Val Bregaglia.

A yurt. In the Swiss Alps? Curiouser and curiouser...

The bus back to Tiefencastel was late, and so we missed the connection to Alvaschein, the small village nearby where our hotel was located. Which brings me to the explanation of how we ended up there in the first place.

Hotels in Switzerland are not cheap. We do have the famous „Generalabonnement“, the amazingly expensive ticket that allows you to use almost the whole Swiss public transport for free. Exceptions are, unfortunately, some of the cable cars and postal cars (busses) leading to mountain tops, where you only get a discount.

But even then some of the regions in Switzerland still take 4-6 hours to reach, so doing hikes in the more remote regions without staying overnight is difficult. Unfortunately, those “remote” regions (St. Moritz, Davos, etc) are also the places where even youth hostels regularly charge more than 60 USD per person in a double room, and more than 40 USD for a bed in the common room.

The scenic route

I was thus very happy when I discovered a hotel offering double rooms for less than 100 USD near Tiefencastel – so happy, actually, that I overlooked the fact that the hotel was located in nearby Alvaschein – half an hour (or three quarters, if you take the scenic route by the church of Saint Peter in Mistail) by foot from Tiefencastel. And walking was almost the only option to get there, as the bus connection between the two villages mainly serves as the school bus for pupils. It didn’t work at all on Saturdays and Sundays, except if you called an hour ahead and requested them to do a particular trip. On the other hand, we went there to hike, so avoiding a hotel just because you have to walk there would’ve kind of missed the point, no?

The former post office in Alvaschein

Apart from the lack of public transport, Alvaschein is actually a very pleasant village with beautiful, old buildings and great location overlooking the valley. It also boasts an extremely talkative and sociable bus driver. He was very surprised to hear that we were staying in this small village and proceeded to shout “Alvaschein, Alvaschein!” whenever he saw us – which was surprisingly often, given the meager bus schedule.

Staying there also granted us insights into local social life (as the advertisement of the hotel announced: “get to know the local population of Alvaschein”) and allowed us to experience a form of accommodation that was as close to home stays as is possible in a Swiss hotel. The “Alpenblick” has three rooms with two beds each on the second floor, while the first floor served as the only restaurant/bar in town. And it is indeed the place where the local population (which probably does not exceed 150 people) meets in the evening to have a beer.

Near the bus stop

Thus our dinner was accompanied by conversations in the dialect of the Graubünden. While we were reading the menu, the mainly male local population discussed hunting, or, to be more precise, how to prepare deer meat. Once we had ordered our “Röschti” (traditional Swiss food, similar to hashed browns), the topic moved on to a fishing contest and the giant fish another local had caught. We were still waiting for our dinner when two of them started arguing over a recently built fence. And when we dug in on our Röschti, they were finally discussing the two German horses which had escaped the same day and galloped on the highway until the police had captured them. There was clearly a lot going on in Alvaschein.

In short: it was a quaint, but pleasant stay there.

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Elections are on

Well, I study politics, so I whenever there are elections in my country of residence (be it Kyrgyzstan or someplace else), expect me to make a comment on it.

So when I spotted people handing out leaflets with smiling faces, I got curious.  It became even more obvious during Brooklyn’s West Indian Carnival Parade I attended together with Elena a week ago: We had to stand through almost an hour of politician’s campaigns (waving, shaking hands) and other advertisement parading through before we got to the interesting part with the girls in the bright-colored, skimpy costumes with feathers.

It was a free-for-all: some of the spectators wore more glamorous costumes than the participants

Apparently today New Yorkers vote in the Republican and Democrat primaries, for the New York attorney general and the State Senate. I admit that I have no clue about the candidates or even the institutions they are applying to. But let me note two interesting differences to Switzerland:

1. People handing out leaflets for elections? Don’t think I’ve ever seen that in Switzerland. I guess that either proves the high wage level in my country or the lack of volunteer spirit when it comes to politics…

2. I walked past a sign in English, Spanish, Korean and Chinese saying “Vote Here”. These are apparently also the languages the ballots are written in – and note that the New York Times (see link above) considers this to be “skimpy”!

Okay, that one is a participant

The fact that Swiss wouldn’t dream of issuing voting material in any non-official language testifies, I guess, not just to Switzerland’s sore lack of cosmopolitan spirit and the high barriers we put before acquisition of citizenship, but also to the close connection we make between the knowledge of the national language and citizenship.

Unfortunately, my camera's battery gave up literally the moment things got interesting

So only a few feathers...

... but plenty of food and bystanders

One of the newer bridges across the Via Mala

Via Mala

Switzerland is, as every child knows, full of mountains. Mountains usually also mean mountain passes and valleys, some of which can be pretty narrow. The Via Mala (literally the “bad” or “evil” path) is definitely one of the latter, and was thus a major obstacle on the way to the Splügen and San Bernardino Pass already in the time of the Roman Empire, and possibly even before that, as bronze age  petroglyphs seem to prove. The 2 ½ hour hike along the Hinterrhein from Thusis to the narrowest part of the Via Mala is thus pretty impressive, as it often leads you only a meter away from a sheer, 100m drop down to the river.

A view from Castle Hohen Rätien's tower

Castles at the end of the world

The hike two medieval fortresses or castles, Burg Ehrenfels and Burg Hohen Rätien. Apparently, the deep valleys and high mountains were by themselves not inhospitable enough for enemies. The Castle Hohen Rätien is probably one of the most difficult to take fortress in Switzerland.

Burg Hohen Rätien

You’ll easily discover why: Just when you are about to caper and frolic on the sunny grass patch surrounding the tower, you’ll discover that two steps to the right the world ends. Only to restart again, 200 meters below. So you might want to go slow on the capering.

See the building among the trees? That would be the castle's tower. To the left you see the reason why it was rarely conquered.

The entrance to the well-preserved castle with the stunning view on the valley of the Rhine is regulated by rather unorthodox economic principles: in the wall at the entrance, you’ll find a small slit in which you are supposed to insert the entrance fee. Nobody is there to check if you actually comply.

It may sound strange, but it does actually work. Having watched me follow the instructions, Changjiang decided to check up on the Swiss and observe the next hikers. Hiding behind a bush, we saw them get out their wallets and throw in some coins. Certain laws of economics apparently do not apply in the Swiss Alps. They do apply, however, in any restaurant you might encounter during your hike.  Oh yes, they do.

Another one of those rope bridges

Another Swiss peculiarity, as I realized on the way, is our fondness of bridges – we even build plenty of rope bridges on hiking trails. And suddenly I understood another oddity in our development aid. It is clear why Switzerland would try to teach everyone and their cat how to breed cows and make cheese – even if everyone and their cat are actually lactose-intolerant, like the people in Mozambique. It dawned on me that I had found the reason why we also build rope bridges in any mountainous region and even advertise it as peace-building activity. Apparently we can’t look at a steep ravine without considering how to construct a path across it.

After our decent into the depths of the Via Mala gorge, we still had more than an hour to kill until the bus would arrive. We thus decided to follow the river until the next bus stop, where I stumbled on to something peculiar.

Those who know me also know my uncanny ability to discover strange puzzles and wonder about small details. So here’s one:

The bus schedule from San Bernardino to Thusis shows 6 busses travelling in one direction, but 7 in the other

Via Mala from the very bottom

If seven busses drive from San Bernardino to Thusis, but only six from Thusis to San Bernardino every day, what happens to the seventh bus? Is there an assembly plant in San Bernardino that produces a bus a day? Rather unlikely, as San Bernardino is a small village just South of the pass by the same name.

It appears as if there’s only one logical solution: There must be a stable wormhole between Thusis and San Bernardino which is big enough for one bus to pass through.

I sincerely intended to double-check my theory by asking the bus driver, but unfortunately, he didn’t understand German, and my Italian is not really up to the task of explaining advanced theories of physics. But I am convinced he would have confirmed my hypothesis.

Do It Yourself

Here’s the map. From the train station in Thusis head towards the river and cross it a bit downstreams (753572, 174259) to get to Sils. Start your ascent below (754192, 174029) Burg Ehrenfels and continue to Burg Hohen Rätien (753522, 173159). Follow the Rhine southwards until you reach Via Mala (and then, time permitting, Rania – 753804, 168467)


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