food / travel

A Strange, Steep Journey Into The Heart Of A Swiss Mountain

A four-kilometer underground road leads to the Salanfe dam, in the Swiss Valais canton. Making this uncommon installation work is a constant struggle. And for the passengers, the journey through the dark and freezing tunnels is a long way from your local

Aboard the funicular that goes from the Miéville power plant to the Salanfe dam
Aboard the funicular that goes from the Miéville power plant to the Salanfe dam
Sylvain Besson

MIEVILLE â€" The Swiss citizen is more than a hard-working, pragmatic and materialistic homo economicus. His second personality, lauded by the national mythology, is that of an Alpine explorer, looking up to the sky and mountain summits â€" almost mystical. But that second persona also has a darker side: the tunnel and bunker digger, the burrowing gnome, hiding his treasures in the depths of the earth.

An ideal place to explore this underground aspect of the Swiss spirit is in Miéville, in the west of Switzerland. The power of the mountain is breathtaking. In 2011, huge rocks broke away from the cliff and almost crushed the power plant on the edge of the village. The office of an engineer was destroyed â€" luckily, he wasn’t working. The rust-colored boulders are still there today, though it is not recommended to hang around outside the plant.

Here, at the foot of the steep Mount Salantin, is the departure point of what may be the most unusual installations of the Alps: an almost five-kilometer-long underground funicular railway that goes from the Miéville power plant to the Salanfe dam, 1,473 meters higher. Dug with dynamite for almost two years, between 1947 and 1949, the tunnel made it possible to transport the necessary material and cement for the construction of the dam.

The funicular is now used for the maintenance of the structure during construction jobs. It also supplies the Salanfe restaurant and lake. But just maintaining its proper functioning is a daily struggle for the employees of Hydro Exploitation, the caretakers of the dam, which is 100% owned by the electric utility company Alpiq. At almost 70 years old, the funicular is capricious, delicate, sensitive â€" as if it had a soul.

6,000 steps

Entering the first cavern, a torrent of sensations marks the passage into the underground world: icy draughts, the smell of cave, the racket of spring water flowing inside the tunnel.

On its first section, the funicular climbs 1,000 meters on a 94.6% (43.3°) slope, one of the steepest in the world. The carriages pulled by a plaited steel cable are quite rustic, made up of basic planks and bare iron. Each ride to the dam lasts an hour, at least, with three transfers in transitional cave arranged into stations.

Some distance from the start, a flower drawn with a black pen, in a recess, is the only visible tribute to the workers who dug the tunnel. They advanced two meters by two, with miners’ bars and explosives. The rock debris was evacuated through windows that give onto the cliff side, in the wild forest.

Until 1994, each morning employees had to climb the 6,000 steps to reach the start of the funicular. Communication between the top and the bottom of the tunnel was done with hard strikes against the cable, to give the departure signal. This primitive system has since been replaced. The funicular is now automatically guided by magnets placed along the way, detecting the passing through of the wagons. The problem, the employees of Hydo Exploitation explain, is that a storm is enough to disrupt the magnets and stop the train.

Right before the dam, in the third and last section, our funicular suddenly stops with a piercing screech. The wagon itself doesn’t have any breaks: only the cable is holding it. We would later learn that the stop was triggered in the station above, and that a bolt broke around the hoist. We were stuck.

Hypnotic effect

To set off again, we have to go back down 400 meters into the tunnel, hurtling down some 2,200 slippery steps in 20 minutes. The effect of advancing into the tunnel is hypnotic: the temperature keeps varying, the steps become jerky and monotonous, one must regularly straighten up as to not lean forward too much towards the slope, which, because of an optical illusion, seems flat.

Voyage dans le funiculaire souterrain de Salanfe â€" Le Temps

But this small trip is nothing. The real ordeal is walking down the first section, two times steeper with its 1,000 meters of difference in height. "When you arrive at the bottom, you don’t know how to walk anymore," the train conductor explains.

A few years ago, a group of retirees from Vernayaz wanted to take the funicular for a senior outing. In the first section, the steepest, the funicular stopped. Impossible to make the older folk to walk up or down, most of them wouldn’t have had the strength to reach the exit. A rescue party, made up of mountain guides, had to intervene to help them out of the tunnel safely.

The story of the Salanfe funicular, like so many other Swiss dams and mountain constructions, is marked by achievements that most people have never heard of. Who remembers that, in the 1980s, they had to drag a 300-kilogram pump on their skis, on the dam’s frozen lake, to restart the water conveyance supplying the reservoir? Or that in spring, the pumping station, had to be cleared by tearing a hole in the snow with aronite, an industrial explosive?

Today, an insidious threat is hanging over this hydraulic saga. Like all the great Swiss dams, Salanfe is on the road to ruin. Whose fault is it? The German solar and coal energies, which brought the prices of European electricity down.

Later this year, Switzerland's parliament will be called on to vote for or against more funding to keep the "great hydraulic" going. For this alpine nation's dams and their operators, it will be a good test to see if that old Swiss burrowing gnome superego lives on in our elected representatives.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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