Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-X (Skiing in Austria)

After bidding good bye to my friends in Grenoble, I started very early in the morning for onward journey to Austria by Euro-rail. Bartl Neumayr, the Director of the Austrian Ski School called Bundesportheim situated on a glacier in Kitzsteinhorn had invited me for a week’s visit. He had been the Chief Examiner of the Indian National Ski Instructors at Gulmarg. He had asked me to call him whenever I had a chance to visit Europe. I phoned him a couple days before coming to Grenoble from Paris. He informed me that he was conducting a top executives’ programme for a week and I could join it.
Accordingly, I had made train reservation to be in Zell Am See the nearest train station to Kitzsteinhorn in Austria. The train was going through Geneva and Zurich before entering Austria. However, it was not a high speed train and took its own time. I enjoyed the scenery much more than one does while travelling in a high speed train. We stopped in Geneva for half an hour. The travel through Switzerland in a train did give me some glimpses of the countryside. However, I was not very much impressed. Switzerland is like Kashmir on a mini-scale. It is also very much made up. Kashmir has wild and savage beauty of its own. In subsequent trips, I visited Zermatt, the famous resort where Matterhorn stands like a finger jutting out into the sky. I also visited Les Diablerets where I was awarded Merite Alpin for my contribution to rescue in the Himalaya.
After the train entered Austria the landscape started somewhat resembling Kashmir. Especially Tyrol with its valleys, pinnacle peaks, and lakes to a great extent resembles the scenery in Kashmir. It may be more appropriate to compare Kashmir with Tyrol rather than with Switzerland! We reached Zell Am See quite late, almost at mid-night. Once I went out of the station, everything was closed.
After walking some distance I found the entrance of a hotel still open. As the ski season had been over, there were not many people around. The lady sitting at the reception of the hotel agreed to give me a room for the night but there was no food available. Well, I had no choice but to spend the night on an empty stomach. I did have a good sleep as the hotel bed was very comfortable. I got up in the morning around 8 am and went for breakfast to a nearby restaurant. I was feeling quite hungry! After having a good meal, I took the bus to Kaprun, the base station of the funicular train climbing up to Kitzsteinhorn glacier. There was a long queue of tourists but there was a separate entrance for the Ski School. I contacted the in charge and informed him that I had been invited by the Director of the Ski School. He asked me to wait so that he could contact the Director. After about 10 minutes he called me and issued a special free pass for taking the next funicular train. It was an experience to travel on this train which climbs an incline of more than 30 degrees and goes through a long tunnel to come out on the glacier. Some years back, the train was involved in a very tragic accident. It had caught fire while inside the tunnel and over 200 people had died in this mishap.
The Ski School building is just in front of the funicular station. Bartl Neumayr, the Director had been waiting for me. He was happy that I had made it to Kitzsteinhorn. I was allotted a guest room with a nice view and was introduced to the Executive Group which had been invited for a weeklong course. The School was centrally heated and the facilities inside were like a five star hotel. I was impressed by the meticulously clean atmosphere. These people knew how to create excellent facilities at such odd and difficult places and also maintained these in reasonably good condition. There were immense possibilities of skiing in Kitzsteinhorn. There is a cable car going right to the top of the mountain and the skiing run goes for a short distance through a short tunnel which opens up on the glacier. I stuck to easy slopes near the school. During our stay we were taken to some ski equipment manufacturing factories and on the last day a special farewell dinner was organised. It was a wonderful stay for which I thanked Bartl Neumayr. I also had the good fortune of meeting in person Dr. Kruken Hauser, the father of skiing in Austria and Karl Shranz, the downhill champion! During my meeting with the Director, he offered to train some of our instructors and during subsequent years three of our instructors from Gulmarg, Rashid Bakshi, Nazir Bhat, and Aziz Wani came here for a longer duration as the guests of Austrian Government.
While at the Bundessportheim I had contacted Professor Heinrich Harrer, the famous teacher of Dalai Lama. I had met him in Darjeeling during the International mountaineers’ Meet in May, 1973. His book “Seven Years in Tibet” has been made into a movie also. Professor Harrer told me that he lives in a chalet in Kitzbuhel which was on my way to Vienna where I was next scheduled to go to catch a train to Poland. He asked me to have lunch with him. An instructor from the Ski School dropped me at the Railway Station and I was picked up by Professor Harrer at the Kitzbuhel Station. His wife was glad to see me. She was very gentle. Inside of the chalet was like a monastery, full of Tibetan artefacts and wall hangings.
Professor Harrer was keen to visit Ladakh which had been recently opened to foreign tourists. We talked about Ladakh and his days in Tibet. He did visit Ladakh a number of times and we met there also. After lunch he dropped me back at the Railway station to catch the train to Vienna. I reached Vienna around 6 pm and the train to Warsaw was supposed to leave at 9 pm. I tried to get a berth but these were all booked. So I got a seat reserved and went out to have round of Vienna on a tram. In spite of the darkness I could visualise Vienna as a traditional city with lot of greenery. This quality of maintaining heritage and traditions is common in most of the famous European cities like Paris, Rome, and Lisbon and many other smaller cities. However, in Austria they have maintained the typical village outlook in most of their ski resorts. I came back to the Railway station around 8 pm and took my seat in the train which was already on the platform. I was looking forward to crossing the famous “Iron Curtain”!

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