Monday, August 5, 2013

Not Czechoslovakia; just Slovakia

From 1918 until 1993 the Czech Republic and Slovakia were one country. It was Czechoslovakia. Sadly, there are some Americans who think this place still exists. If you click the link back there you will go to some verbose article in the U.S. Library of Congress about the history of the place. I assume it's going to be more accurate than Wikipedia, the free and unreliable online encyclopedia that I cite quite a lot.
Anyway, there are some differences between the two now-independent states. Most of the differences I can think of are things I have been told by my Czech friends. Evidently the language is a bit different, but I'll be damned if I can notice any discernible distinction. Generally, I'm told, people from the two countries can understand each other pretty well. It looks and sounds the same to be, but I'm pretty ignorant and I believe there is a difference. Also Slovakia seems to have a larger rural population. Some of my Czech friends joke that Slovakia is a nation full of rednecks. None of the Slovak people have appeared to be rednecks to me, but perhaps that is because all the ones I actually know are living in Prague and may have put on some highfalutin airs when compared to their more vídlak brethren.
Slovakia has a larger religious population, I know some Slovaks who attend mass regularly, some stricter laws and different borders. From my limited experience I have seen that most Slovaks have two legs, two arms, ten toes (except for the six-toed girl I met in a bar) and ten fingers just like nearly every other human on the planet.
So, when I had the chance to visit Slovakia with some friends of mine I was more interested in getting out of the city for a while and being in "the nature" for a few days rather than experiencing some completely different culture that may or may not have adopted some kind of Lord of the Flies governmental structure after the fall of communism.
Oh yeah, and they have bears in Slovakia where there aren't any in the Czech Republic.
I went to a place called Poprad-Tatry. At least that was the name of the town where the train was going to take me. It's in the Tatras Mountains on the border with Poland.
I planned out a three-day weekend, figured out the best train to take, the night train leaving at 12:06 from Prague, and then promptly procrastinated purchasing a ticket until there were no more sleeper compartments available. The trip takes about eight hours.
I boarded the train, found my seat and promptly took my repose in a seated position. Other than waking from time to time when the train stopped, I slept rather well. I awoke to find myself traveling through Slovakia to watch the sun come up in the mountains and in a few hours I was met by the rest of my party at the train station.
It was at the station that I was informed that the day's activity involved a ten-hour hike to the top of the third-highest mountain in the country. So I changed my shirt and off we went. I'd never hopped of a train and bagged a peak before so this was new to me. I was promised that from this peak I would be able to see into Poland, so I was excited.
We began at some ski area and climbed a gentle trail to a high mountain lake where we would take another trail and ascend the rest of the way. Down low the weather was really pretty nice but we could see that the higher elevations were socked in with a bit of nastiness.

As you can see, there wasn't much sun up high. No matter we soldiered on hoping it would clear up or wouldn't be that bad at the top. Notice the other intrepid adventurers I was with on the left.
I was immediately struck by how amazingly common it is for people to just post up a few feet from the trail and relieve themselves. I've done a fair amount of hiking in the states and never have I seen an ad hoc latrine right along the trail. On this one hike I saw several, or there is some sort of Slovak tradition of tossing wadded up toilet paper in pre-determined places along the trail. I suppose a cat hole was out of the question. I didn't pack an e-tool, why would anyone else? It does seem however, that relieving yourself in public is pretty common in this part of the world and I attribute this to the extreme lack of free public toilets, unless the exterior wall of a 600 year-old church counts as a free public toilet. This trend is a topic for another discussion though.
After some time we reached our turn-off point where we would start the more challenging acclivities of our journey. It was at a lake called Popradské pleso and while we did not stop this time to gaze upon it's placid splendor we did venture back the next day.

From this point the trail turned into a winding track across mostly talus and a the same river a few times. I took this opportunity to ask my Czech friends what the translation for talus was and was met by everyone in the group with the same response: "what is talus?" Evidently, Mountaineering is not required reading for, well anyone really. After I explained talus to everyone I was told, by English and Czechs alike, that "we just call those 'rocks,' or 'kámen.'" 

We crossed this river three times. Each time on a well-built wooden bridge. The views from the crossings, and really during the whole hike were phenomenal. 

As we made our way toward the top I started to notice something else I was not accustomed to while hiking in the states -- people. Lots and lots of people. This trail was like a freaking superhighway. Where it really became apparent was when we hit a bottleneck in the form of a brief technical section equipped with chains to aid whoever needed it. It was raining a bit at this point and the chained, moderate class four section seemed treacherous, but really wasn't. People were clinging for dear life to the chains and while I was far from reckless, I just went around most of them.

This photo is no where near a good representation of just how crowded the trail was. Nevertheless, you can still see a pretty good crowd waiting to navigate this perilous ascent.
The queue, that means line for those of us who speak the comprehensible vernacular common to the English-speaking residents of the Western hemisphere, was worth it as shortly after a small mountain lake was revealed, as was the stream that fed its icy waters. My comment on the temperature of the waters in the mountain lake is pure speculation, because it is protected and forbidden to get too close to it. And my sepia toning of the photo makes it look cold, so there is that.

The trail winds past this lake and you pass the small stream that feeds it as you continue to climb.

After this, many people reach their reward: A chalet perched at 2250 meters where weary climbers can get something to eat. I think there people can also sleep there too. I did not photograph the chalet, but I did photograph the outhouse. It has the best outhouse view I've ever seen and the front wall is plexiglass so you may revel in the beautiful scenery while you defecate. Guys, if your requirements are to micturate you're out of luck. The back wall is solid.

No, I did not take a photo from inside the contraption. The small, singular wire holding it to the rock face and the inherent olfactory affront which comes from never moving your outhouse were enough to dissuade me from prolonging my stay in the lofty lavatory. Besides, there was a line and no one wants to wait for some punter to take a photo in the bathroom.
We were also greeted by what I consider to be one of the coolest things I have seen in a long time.

This is a bus stop and the comedy doesn't stop there, but a little translation is in order. The word in red, "čsad" means "bus" in Czech and presumably Slovak*. "Zastávka" means "stop." And "na znamenie" means if you're on the bus you have to indicate to the driver you want to stop and if you're at the stop you have to wave the bus down. So basically what we have is a bus stop named, "Bus Stop" and if you happen to see the bus you have to let them know you want to get on.
We took some time at the chalet to dine on tepid goulash and rest our weary legs before setting out to climb the next 250 meters to the summit. We had an hour left to go.
When we arrived at the summit it was still socked in with fog.

This is the Slovak summit marker. As you can see, visibility was lacking. I proceeded to tease my friends that I was disappointed because I was promised I was going to be able to see Poland. Then the man in this photo with the beer spoke up and said, "sure you can, Poland is there." He was pointing about three meters away. Turns out this mountain, Rysy, while the third-highest in Slovakia is the highest point in Poland. So, I was able to see Poland and visit as well. So, it was a banner day for me. I fell asleep in one country, woke up in another and then walked to a third.

I took this photo from Poland, barely.

Occasionally, on the way up we saw people wearing these horribly uncomfortable looking wooden-framed apparatuses. It turns out, if you think you're man enough, you can haul supplies to the chalet. The minimum you have to carry for a reward is 5 kilograms. Sure, it doesn't seem like much but it's a long, steep trail; over mostly talus. I'm not sure what the reward is for carrying a pack up, but if you just grab a rack of bottled water you get a free cup of Sherpa Tea. It's wonderfully efficacious, I paid for mine.

You don't have to sign a waiver or anything. Just grab a load of cargo from the turn-off point at Popradské pleso and get your pack mule on. If you think a 15 kilo bag of stove pellets looks like a huge haul, just take a look at what the man on the right edge of this frame has.

The white box on top is a food processor and this guy is a badass.
The next afternoon we went back to Popradské pleso and ate at the hotel you can see in the photo of the lake above. After that we took the short hike to The Symbolic Cemetery, an area filled with memorials to fallen climbers. It is there as a remembrance to the dead and a warning to the living. While none of the climbers memorialized here have their final resting places here it is a very solemn place.

All in all this was a really great trip and I can't wait to go back. The trip back had some un-noteworthy complications. Really, I just hopped on the same train I took out, going in the opposite direction, arrived in Prague Monday morning, took a little nap and went to work. Perfect.

*Note: I have learned that čsad does not actually mean bus in a literal sense. It is an acronym for Czecho Slovak Autobus Department -- or some variant thereof. Czechs call busses "autobus" and pronounce it "outo boos." Calling a čsad a bus is a bit like pointing at a federal agent and saying "there is an FBI" it really isn't the same, but it's kinda right.

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