The sun was too bright. Stepping down from the train that had just lurched to a stop, I was temporarily blinded as my world flashed to white. While my eyes adjusted, I began to take in everything around me: red-and-white Swiss flags, the German words intermingling with English, and last but certainly not least, the white-tipped mountains, standing guard over the land. Though I had been glued to the window the whole train ride, I felt then, the most I ever have, dwarfed by the majesty of the world. I had arrived in the Lauterbrunnen valley.

There’s just something about the Alps. It’s a place where the grass truly is greener, the air crisper, and the vistas more spectacular. Switzerland’s borders envelop the heart of this mountain range, home to some of the most breath-taking panoramas in the world. But I did not plan on staying in Lauterbrunnen for long. Rather, I was going to a place nestled deep in the Swiss Alps: Gimmelwald, perched 4,485 feet above sea level. However, this village certainly isn’t your typical mountain retreat. Only 130 people live there, but during the peak period in the summer, they are joined by 50-or-so self-proclaimed “Alpoholics” who go for the views, hiking, and extreme sports. These visitors congregate at the Mountain Hostel, offering the best views one can buy for 30 Swiss francs (35 dollars) a night.

Upon checking in, I was directed up a flight of terrifyingly narrow stairs to the 16-bed room. Unlike a typical hostel, the beds here were not individual, or even bunked. Rather, each “sleeping structure” had two levels; on each level were four mattresses all in a row. Backpacks studded with multicolored flag pins lined the wall and a freshly laundered shirt waved in the open window. The snow-capped mountains faded into the wispy clouds above and the valley below, verdant and dotted with red-roofed houses.

“What a view.” It was just as promised.

A girl sitting on the bed across from mine looked up from her book and smiled. “Yeah. I’ll never get sick of it.” She had just been here last summer with her dad, but couldn’t wait to come back. So here she was again—a true Alpoholic.

My days were spent hiking the Schilthorn and picnicking at scenic overlooks.

The night before I left, giddy from alpine air, everyone at the hostel converged in the common room after dinner. The long wooden tables filled with people laughing and exchanging stories of their travels, all over giant steins of amber-colored beer.

“Yeah, we tried to hike all the way up the Schilthorn, but we ended up in a foot of snow so we turned back. But Mike over here decided to just keep going. We just watched him trudging through the snow until he became a little dot on the mountain, and we were like, ‘What a goddamn idiot!’”

Mike interjected, “But hey, at least I made it to the top!” Everyone chuckled. A moment of silence followed as we all just luxuriated in being there in that moment—in becoming friends with strangers. Even inside, it was as if the calm of the mountain permeated the space.

As quickly as it descended, the quietness snapped. Someone asked, “Anyone want to go out and look at the stars?” Affirmations rang from around the room. It was pitch black now, and a hint of a chill brushed against my skin as the five of us walked out beyond the furthest light in Gimmelwald. Without light pollution, without beeping, glowing electronics, the stars seemed as if they comprised a gossamer-fine net of fairy lights strung up in the sky. A swirl of the Milky Way was weaved into blackness far above and satellites kept close watch with their blinking eyes.

One of the guys drunkenly opened his arms wide and said in wonder, “Isn’t it amazing?” We all nodded along. Though he was plastered, his observation was no less astute for it. Having grown up in city confines, I had never experienced the dark like this. Silence reigned as we all just absorbed, as if we were hoping to capture this feeling of contentment forever. I thought about what I else I had come to know the last couple of days: Switzerland, to me, had become a place of connection. The people staying at the hostel provided no shortage of that, though I was traveling alone. Whether stacked two high and four deep while sleeping or cooking with six other people in a tiny kitchen, I felt the strength of community and communality, more than just about any other place I’ve been. In this tiny-but-beautiful place, I felt similarly tied to nature. Others speak of being overwhelmed with the splendor of this place at first sight. For me, this feeling never went away; even pictures that I took seemed unreal, too good to be true. But Gimmelwald’s beauty was approachable and welcoming, and I felt that it had taken me into its arms.

Another person proclaimed suddenly, “None of us get to leave until everyone’s seen at least one shooting star,” drawing us out of our reverie. We stared into the depths of the universe, waiting for a little ephemeral zip of light. But when I did see my first falling star, I stayed silent, in hopes that we would have an excuse to stay here longer—infinitely longer.

~Haonan Du '17