Vilnius, Lithuania. 00:17 16th of July, 2006
Tonight`s my last night in Vilnius. And my hope is to bring this up to the present. Lets see how we do. unbutton shirt cuffs, go smoke cigarette... a heat wave was followed by a cold front that seems a premature autumn tonight. The wind is blowing and the clouds are clearing. The northern horizon is aglow with the fading dusk of this latitude`s lingering sunset. Polaris is high in the sky, Cassiopeia pointing her out, and faintly, the caustic scent of a cat in heat rises from the balcony below.
I boarded the train spontaneously for Zilina, Slovakia, the closest "major" city within the boundaries of Slovakia. Nobody goes to Slovakia, the guidebooks are not encouraging, and so judging from Brno, I figured I`d be on my own. But dotting the map were thermal spas suggesting hotsprings throughout the region, so my plan was to search out an outside bath, and see what I couldn`t come up with. I met a wonderful woman in my compartment on the train, an Vet, more specifically, an animal psychologist who was going to a conference in Eastern Slovakia. We chatted about all the changes the region has been through and the political climate seemed promising. She warned me that while there didn`t used to be any crime in Slovakia, recent immigration was changing that fact, and I should be careful. Also, the economy was depressed, mostly due to aging industrial infrastructure. The main factor leading to the breakup of Czechoslovakia was the manipulative governance of that country. All the higher tech industry, the final assembly and cleaner industry was developed in Bohemia, while all the dirtier industry, coal mining and steel manufacture was located in Slovakia. This had a disasterous effect on the ecology of an otherwise underdeveloped and pristine region. Slovakia is home to the highest mountains in the region, and it has historically been fairly backward even by this region`s standards.
To understand the history of this area, you have to go back to all those subjects glossed in Western History classes. Czech, Slovakia, and most of Poland was for three hundred years part of the Austria-Hugarian Empire. There were thirty some odd kingdoms loosely collected therein, with the Head of State in Vienna. And then with the rise of Prussian power, things got messy. Lithuania itself points to its glorious past as part of an alliance with Poland four hundred years ago, and once, 800 years ago they had their own king. But its a lot of local history of little consequence to the outside world, and there was brief independance between the Great Wars. And then of course, as you all know, in 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, and things got messy. With the colapse of the Soviet Union, and the partitioning of Czechoslovakia, The Slovak Republic is getting its first tast of soverienty in, like, forever. Read a book. Its complicated.
So, I pulled into Zilina, and my friend the Pet Psychologist helped me get my ticket to Rijeck Teplice, a town indicated as a Spa 12 kilometers south of Zilina, which is to say, nowhere, south of nowhere. It looked promising, at least for camping. I managed to explore the whole town in about fifteen minutes, and using my superpowers of observation, identified a parking lot as the "center." I said parking lot was a portable building with a large covered seating area, that had all signifiers of "the local pub," and my intention was to identify a "cool" "local" of whom I could enquire about the lay of the land, and the possibility of finding natural hotsprings outside of town. Well, I found him, a recent returnee from Canada, and of course, the typical third question came up, "what are you doing HERE?" Well, exactly. He informed me that yes, I could camp ABSOLUTELY anywhere, and that in fact, I may likely be the first American ever to set foot in that town. The tourism industry was predominant, the spa and four hotels and five restaurants being the sole employers in town, and the clientel being almost exclusively Polish, Czech, and Slovakian. Score. I became a minor celebrity. I managed to pay for only two beers in the three days I stayed, but as everyone lived with their parents, I couldn`t manage to get an actual roof over my head, which my horse sense told me would become an issue.
It so happened that on the train, my friend the vet enquired how long I`d been travelling. For the life of me I couldn`t figure out what that meant. I mean, 12 years sounds obfuscatory, one month seemed to sell myself short, and in my confusion, to be helpful, she mentioned today was the 25th of June. <beat> "wait! Its my birthday!!!" and so it was. I milked that a bit at the "bar" and got most of my drinks bought for me by my new friends the bartenders. I sat at the table off to the side for the staff and their friends, chatted with those who could speak a little english, and otherwise laughed at jokes I couldn`t understand. After the bar closed, we went across the street to the park where a guitar and five boys were singing. Slovakia is still a country where the thing to do is sit around and sing... early 90`s grunge music mostly. Seattle had no idea to what extent they would affect world culture. So we all hummed along to the songs none of us knew the words to, and bellowed out the choruses when we did. Drinking foul wine from a plastic screwtop bottle. As it got stupidly late, people kept asking where I was staying, I pointed out into the park somewhere, but got no invites... even on my birthday; and still, am too proud to ask... That scene in fight club where Tyler insists, "Just ask, man!" haunts me. So I stumbled off to the edge of town, a three minute stumble, and following the river upstream, my feet discovered a trail, and even in the pitch black I followed it cleanly. But when pitch black became can`t-see-the-hand-in-front-of-one`s-face black, I broke out my torch... err flashlight. There was a fence to my left, a farmer`s small field within, and I simply walked to the end of the fenceline, found a firepit, and kept walking behind the fence and found a perfect area, completely concealed... but worryingly showing evident signs of the recent flooding... and camped for the night, hoping for clear skies.
I woke up, now 32, with a predictable hangover, and bathed in the frigid river to shake it off. The sun came out and dried my bones, and I wandered back in to town for my morning coffee. This was when I had my first culture shock this trip. Studying the menus at the cluster of two or three restaurants I found the day before, I could find no indication of "breakfast." And of course, nobody at any of the establishments could speak a word of English. Russian, yes, German, a bit, but English? Forgeddaboutit. So, next recourse, see what other people are eating... nothing... Everyone... its 9am, is drinking beer. I am not that kind of rockstar. Bloody Mary`s at 11, yes. But beer for breakfast is beyond the bounds of decency. So studying the menu for a breakfast analogy, I came upon strudle and nescafe. This was the only time this trip I failed to make my own coffee. Its just too hard to start the day and deal with shit like this before one`s morning coffee. Thereafter, I bought bread and cheese at the local supermarket, and stayed with my "local pub" which opened at 8 to provide the locals their morning beer. I hit them up for hot water, and broke my fast My Way (cue: Sinatra).
Rajecke Teplice [RI-yek te-PI-chay] is located in the foothills of the Tatras, a small town surrounded by small hills, and loads of nature. I didn`t see a cop anywhere in the town. The night of my birthday the most exciting thing was someone doing four consecutive donuts in the middle of the only intersection in town. There is a single bus stand in town. And it has all the charm of a Soviet Spa. Everything pink, derivative, and somehow inexplicably out of place. As for the "hot springs," the closest I found was a large heated pool, heated by the hotsprings, but heavily chlorinated, and eminently local. A beautiful community pool in a beautiful mountain valley.
The last night I would spend there, I was watching the world cup until eleven, and in the distance, I could hear thunder. I tried to think nothing of it. Then the wind started to kick up, and I began to get nervous. The game was going into the last five minutes, I think the swiss were rolling around on their backs, getting leg massages, dragging out the final seconds, and I couldn`t take it anymore. impending crisis was eeking into my bones and I knew I simply had to get out of there and find shelter for the night. The trail to my campsite of the last two nights led under an overpass, and I knew it would just have to do. But, having scouted it previously, I figured the opposite bank from the trail would be better. So, nearly running, with the wind kicking up, and the thunder closing in, I scrambled up the bank, crossed the bridge and down the other side. I laid out my groundcloth on the sharp rocks and sat down to catch my breath, right as the clouds broke and the rain poured down. Timing is everything. Moral of the story, "trust your gut..." or, "shelter from the storm takes precidence over writhing pansy-ass footballers." Take your pick.
But my luck with staying dry was starting to concern me. I hadn`t been rained on the whole trip, I`d had fantastic weather the whole time. I just knew it couldn`t last. But, having no alternative but to press forward, and nothing to keep me there, I set out the following morning for one of only two outside hotspring baths I`d been able to locate from constant interrogation of every English speaker I`d met for a week. So, back to Zilina, then a train up to the northern corner of the western Tatras, the train line that branched off was a totally quaint local electric line, leading up a valley that shows almost no signs of tourism, but I did see one thing on the way that I totally forgot to stop and check out... Its in Oravsky Podzamok, if you`re heading that way. Well, I took the train to the end of the line in Trstena, and optimistically hoped for a bus late in the day to Oravice (O-ra-VI-tsa). While I have my map out, the other outside hotsprings bath is in Turcianske Teplice. All the rest are attatched to hotels or are indoor spas. Still, it`d make an interesting tour for someone someday to do the Slovak Spa Circuit. <shameless plug> If someone wants to front me the money, I`d love to write the book </shameless plug> .
So what to do. From Trstena, you can go left, and hike and camp around a huge lake, or right to the official border crossing with Poland. Or, you can branch off of that road six miles shy of the border and head up to the lesser used entrance to the Western Tatras National Park. The more normal route into this area is via Zuberec, where there`s a great mountain lodge/hostel or "Chata," by which they`re usually referred.
Note: GO TO THE TATRAS. THEY F#CKING ROCK. THEY ARE THE MOST UNKNOWN (big) MOUNTAINS IN THE WORLD. THEY ARE HUGE, THEY ARE MAJESTIC, AND THEY ARE UNSPOILED. THERE ARE MANY MANY MOUNTAIN HUTS TO STAY IN ON BOTH SIDES, AND ITS IMPOSSIBLE TO GET dangerously LOST. That said, a dozen or so people die every year taking them lightly. Be prepared for changable weather, loose rock, and in the winter, spring, and fall, avalanches.
Okay, so I was patting myself on the back for arriving at the bus station NOT on a Sunday, cause if there were to be busses, they`d certainly not be running on SUNDAY. So I stared at the schedule, found the bus to Oravice, waited, and waited, and after 20 minutes, petitioned a really cute highschool girl (whom I figured would know a bit of English) for some assistence. She giggled a lot. Even when she told me the bus only ran on Sunday and I was out of luck. Well, to verify, I cornered a bus driver who spoke no english, and "explained" my situation. And he explained that I was basically out of luck, that I`d have to wait for two hours for a bus to the turnoff point. Well, it was around 4, I figured I had five hours of sunight left, and I could walk the 12 kilometers before dark, so, stopping for provisions at the first convinience store, picking up a can of peaches for breakfast (and in which can I could boil water for coffee) Chocolate, and other essentials, I set out to walk/hitch to Oravice.
I ended up walking most of the way. But outside of Liesek I got a ride into town from a guy in a tractor pulling a horse trailer. with horse. going home from the fields. He dropped me off next to a local drunk who was attempting to flag down a ride to Oravice. We briefly discussed hitching together (he spoke no English, of course) but in the end, I decided we`d have better luck seperately, and besides, I was pretty sure I`d be walking the whole way. Anyway, the whole walk, I`m watching storm clouds miraculously pass East, South, and West of me, loud thunderheads with some serious looking downpour beneith them, and constantly scouting for shelter under every bridge, shed, and barn for when my luck finally ran out, but nary a drop. I didn`t tempt fate by stopping for a beer at the only pub I saw on the way, but pushed right on through town, even past a really nice bridge that would have served nicely for the eminent rains. Just outside of town, though, a nice Polish couple picked me up and took me out of their way all the way to Oravice. Then, a bit of a surprise, when it turned out there wasn`t actually a town in Oravice. Just a "ski mountain" with a single slope and chairlift and an indoor pool with a water slide, the famed outside hotspring bath (score... but with paid admission) a general store, two covered bar-like portable building cafe`s, and a single hotel. So, eyes on the raincloud barreling down on me, and the gathering winds, I headed up to the hotel to try my luck. They were booked solid... with a Polish or Czech school group aparently. Anyway, I`d come a long way and needed a hot meal, so I sat down, and ordered a beer and "food" (the menu was in Slovak or Polish... I attempted to average them out to little avail and just picked something by price and weight. They give the weight of the food on all the menus. So I ordered 200g of something for 90crowns). Right as my beer arrived, I noticed through the window the rain pouring down. And the last 20 minutes of Brazil playing somebody on the T.V. while 12 little boys played at the pool table. Again, I dodged the downpour by less than five minutes.
When the kids were settling down for dinner, they kicked me out of the hotel, and the rain had stopped. But I reasoned that this wasn`t the last I`d see of it. So I scouted around for more shelter. the best I came up with was a picnic table in a litter strewn picnic area, with big ugly ill kept fire pits. In this case poor maintance was a good sign that I wouldn`t be disturbed in the night. I found the driest picnic table in the darkest corner, sorta on a peninsula between two streams, and headed back up to the hotsprings. I still had an hour and a half before they closed, and so I soaked. Mission Accomplished.
I pitched my tarp over the picnic table, slept through the night, and had a bit of trouble scavenging firewood in the morning for striking up a fire to make my coffee, but I am a boyscout, and have been in picked-over campsites before. I simply walked five minutes down the road, and voila, an armful of firewood. An armfull of firewood is all it takes to boil water. So water I boiled from the ragingest river and coffee made, I set out to stock up for my onward hike. I headed back to the General store, bought a very detailed hiking map, a loaf of bread, a block of cheese, a bottle of wine, you know, the essentials, and by noon, built up my courage to set out to cross the western Tatras. My plan was to stay in Slovakia, and come out the other end, and head to the High Tatras next. But after following the ridgeline which is the Polish/Slovak border all day, it dawned on me that there was no "stamp" on my passport for entering Slovakia, and as far as any government official knew I was still in Ireland. So, I could think of no good reason not to cross from one EU country to the next. Hence, I changed my tack, and decided the following day to make my first "illegal" border crossing. I was just sad I had nothing to smuggle. Anyway, the first day was a bit of a killer, as I consistenly forget ridgeline trails are wont to be. up and down and up and down and up again... I was making my way over to some alpine lakes (source of water are a good thing.) which I`d found on the map. But as I crested the final summit for the day I nearly jumped for joy at the scope and scale of mountains that greeted me. These were my friends. I was home.