Crossing into Poland
begun, Riga, Latvia. 22:35 16, July, 2006
completed, Moscow, Russia. 20:00, 19 July, 2006 in two sessions.
From the mountaintop, I could see the lake below. But I didn`t forsee the hour hike to the bottom. Distances can be so deceptive in the mountains. Nevertheless, it couldn`t be helped. I needed water, and that`s where it was to be found. By the lake was a small cafe, closing as I arrived; so I stayed out of view until the proprietors left in a shelter by the lake, a small half A-frame designed to withstand heavy snowloads. It made only a token effort of keeping the rain out, which, of course, arrived minutes after I decided to make it my home for the night. I ate my dinner of bread, cheese, hot soup and wine under marginal shelter from the evening drizzle, staying mostly dry despite the blowing mist. I built a fire to cook my soup on the edge of the river so that I could wash away the ashes and leave no trace. Anyway, there`s something poetic and beautiful about washing dirt. For sleeping, the drier area was on top of the narrow table, so that`s where I made my bed for the night. There are bears in the mountains there, but I opted not to worry about it.
Waking up at home, a picturesque mountain reflected in the lake. The morning mist rising, I set out to make a fire for my morning coffee, somewhere out of sight of the morning tourists. I guaged the wind and sited the fire where the smoke would blend somewhat with the lifting fog, though the blue smoke and the white fog were in no way similar, to say nothing of the carrying smell. But once the fire reached full burn and the evening`s rain boiled out of the wood, the smoke diminished enough for incognito. After breakfast of bread and cheese with my coffee (man cannot live on bread alone. Bread and cheese is a different matter) I hit the trail... back up the (damn) mountain I`d climbed down the evening before. I had opted for the easier trail, much to my chagrin, since the alternative woried me a bit. It led over the ridgeline of the mountains reflected in the lake which looked intimidating, and, I donno, common sense kicked in for a change? So I took the easier way, euphamistically speaking.
Originally, I was planning to just pop over the ridge and drop down the other side into Poland, but the summit beckoned, and I`m a sucker for a summit anyway. Optimism trumped my gut feeling, and I naively interpreted the "weather to be clearing" in a wanton act of self-deception. After all, there was "A" patch of sun... with both low clouds and high clouds... high grey clouds... in the morning. （One or the other is probably okay, but both... no. FYI, its NOT clearing)... I studied the map, again optimistically, and saw a "simple" trail across a ridgeline, only dropping a couple hundred meters on each of four or five rises, and then I`d be able to hike a nice long decending ridgeline into the valley. It looked like a nice plan... on paper.
So I headed up the first summit to a breathtaking view, and a very happy Hudson. I mounted camera on monopod/walking stick and shot away. I am still obsessed with "why." Why is this beautiful? What about this is "fun," wherein lies the adventure? But mostly, why is it that the view from the summit is the most exalting, most human, most pardon the expression, uplifting experience. Why when I`m on top of the world so all my cares and worries about the existential angst of exisitence melt away? Why is everything so small when one`s perception stretchs out hundreds of kilometers to the horizon? Why can nothing trouble me. Its almost absurd to even phrase these questions because for anyone who`s been there, it simply is so. But the camera is a philosopher. It wants to capture and analyze and flatten and deconstruct the awe-stricken sway, the emotional upheaval, and analytically present this beauty to the world. But how is that possible. You see the 600x400 jpg image and what do you feel? Do one`s cares-of-the-world melt away? To use the Heideggarian vernacular, does one`s being open up to Being? Can Dasein (existence) open up to essence of the sweat and toil of reaching the mountaintop through HTML or TCP/IP data packets? Of course not. So what`s the point? I donno, but I feel I must share what I come across in travel with the world, I must bring something back and share with others what they may never have the opportunity to see. Because in my solitude, I find the most damnable thing is being useless, feeling useless, giving nothing back, being nothing more than an automated passport-and-wallet. To be contributing nothing is the deepest hell for a sensitive soul; worthless in its deepest sense. But enough of this.
From the summit, I could see the clouds gathering all around me. And yet I set out across the knife-edged ridge to the next peak over, and again, was WAY too optimistic in my reading of the contours. Thunder rumbled overhead, but without the flash or sharp crack of lightning strikes (its just heat lighting I kept telling myself). Up and down and up and dooooown and Up-up-up, and I FINALLY got to the 2100m summit, exhausted and nervous... Right as the clouds opened up. On these mountains, there was no shelter; halfway back along the ridge were some small crags and low shrubs that could be fashioned into a camp, but they were too far back to head for. Atop the mountain there wasn`t so much as a rock to huddle under. So I wrapped myself in my groundcloth, using my walking stick as tent pole, and waited out the first shower. I cut my proposed route short, my nerves getting to me and took the first decent into Poland. (its only a thousand meters down I kept reminding myself... rounding off the last 400 meters...). I made it about half way to the treeline when the sky really opened up and started dumping. I rigged a shelter on the side of an embankment that was doing a fair job keeping my dry until the trail became a river, subverting my efforts. The wind picked up and the rocks holding down the corners of my tarp surrendered, turning the tarp into a kite, sending a minor landslide into my back.. In an instant I was soaked, so finally, after a half-dozen lucky breaks dodging the raindrops, my luck had finally run out in a big way. The rain didn`t let up all day, So, decending 1400 meters in the rain, with thin-soled tennis shoes with the traction and support of ballet slippers, and a leaky ex-goretex jacket, I grumbled and bitched and prayed for anything to call shelter. To no avail. When I finally got to the bottom of the mountain, and into the woods, I made myself stop, eat something, smoke a cigarette, and calm down. I was wet, but not cold, I was still well-fed, healthy, my knees and ankles were in exceptional shape (thanks to my lovely walking stick), and I was only minorly dehydrated but now surrounded by water. Not to mention I was now in Poland... but with no Polish money. hmmm...
So, on my map I saw a "chata" to the left, and civilization to the right. But I was really wet, and in no condition to deal with the real world. In my wallet I had.... Thai bhat, Japanese yen, US dollars, Travellers checks, Slovak and Czech crowns, even Euros and a few Pounds. But no Polish crowns. I figured we could work something out. The settled for the Euros. And at 5 euro a night, I could still afford beer!. I had some food left over, and of course, plenty of coffee. The Chata turned out to be a huge hostel peppered with mostly Czech and Polish youth. They served food and had 24hr hot water. After the first night I was able to grab the bed by the window and commandeer a table. And from this base of operations, I could lick my wounds, nurse my seriously sore calves and hobble around.
So, Mistakes Made: first of all, goretex shoes with real soles and good thick tread are highly recommended for actual hiking. I`m slightly opposed to hiking boots for all but the most extreme mountaineering, crossing moraines, getting off trail on scree, etc. because they become a crutch, and weaken your ankles; thus causing sprains whenever you`re not actually wearing them. Shoes without real traction are fine on maintained trails... but all of this changes when dealing with muddy clay soils, standing water, and slick tree roots. The problem with wet feet is it quickly leads to blisters, softening the skin and then friction between socks and soles of feet causes problems. Specifically in the center of the pads at the front of ones foot where you push in the course of taking a step. but in general, I`ve enjoyed hiking in shoes that were the Rebock equivalent of moccasins. The feel and attention paid to each step has proven safer in the long term (when combined with a walking stick) than cushier trail-running shoes or boots, and the increased ventilation of a non-goretex shoe or a non-leather shoe means that your feet stay drier on average since they don`t get as sweaty (hence socks and feet less smelly, neighbors on planes, busses and trains happier...); however, they get especially wet in the rain. And puddles have to be dodged like the plague. In this case, I lost; however, in three years wearing these shoes, the benefits of breathability have outweighed the defecit of water absorbancy by a wide margin.
Problem number two was not having proper raingear (again. when will I ever learn!) I opted to leave this at home, and I won`t say I`ve regretted the decision, but that one addition would have allowed my to better waterproof my backpack and walk with impunity. Water running down inside of one`s jacket leads to minor hypothermia, and the reduced body temperature allows the onset of a cold, or worse, pneumonia. You don`t "feel cold" per se, but you are weakened, and courting disaster. Few things are worse than being sick on the road. Finally, optimism. I didn`t trust my gut. I knew in my bones that it was going to rain that day. It was inconcievable that it wouldn`t. Yet I was optimistic, and thus decieved myself
The next day, I saw just how pastoral the valley, and stayed another day. But could only afford keilbasa for dinner. And beer, of course. I dipped into my emergency rations (always carry emergency rations. You never know when you`ll get stuck some place without food. Trial mix, dried fruit and nuts, pemmican, beef jerky, musli, any of the above, about the volume of two fists.) for the first time this trip, and made it through the day, though I went to sleep on a half-empty stomach to save enough money for breakfast. And beer. And bus fare.
So, finally I hiked out to the next major town. whatsit... Zacopane... which is the Polish Gateway to the Tatras. (From the Slovak side, aim for Poprad). Okay, actually I hiked to the bus stop, arriving minutes before the hourly busses to Zacopane. So I took the bus the last 7km into town. Zacopane is 100% given over to tourists, but has a quaint sorta proto-polish-alpine-y feel to it, if you`re into that sorta thing. They sell ornately molded smoked cheese (mold as in shaped, not the fungus) as a primary tourist item, and little ladies wait outside the bus station to offer home-stays to arriving tourists. The Slovak side has a much less developed tourist industry. Come to your own conclusions. I got as far as the pedestrian mall, obviously of recent construction, before I decided to take the first bus to Krakow.
Arriving in Krakow, I was at first impressed with how much saner and easier it was to get my bearings compared to Prague, which is its closest analogue. Hostels had kiosks outside the train stations, people pressed fliers in your hands and offered you free cabfare to their hostel. What this really means is that the hostels in the outlying areas face stiff competition from the hostels in the center, which will be plentiful and well-labeled (compared to Prague). It also indicates a price war, and the opportunity to haggle down prices. As I was staying only one night, I went to the center, got a more expensive bed, with a nice window, and as with every hostel across Europe these days, free internet.
The contrast with Prague ends there. It was otherwise a tourist mob in the old-town center, and dirty, more interesting outlying neighborhoods. There was a very large central square, the requisite cathedral, and of course the Poles are strict and devout Catholics. But inside, this Cathedral was a piece of work. Like Jesus on acid. Every surface painted in contrasting primary colors, blues and reds and yellows, with ample gold leaf. As it happened to be Sunday, church was in session, so I couldn`t exactly wander around. But wow. A nice break from the grandiose, yet drab, Gothic interiors. (I know, I just said Gothic Cathedrals are drab. I take it back. they`re beyond critique...
even if they are just oversized, overwrought barns...). But still, "yet another church."
Unlike Prague, the architectural sculpture was lacking, or rather, back to normal, and it isn`t set on the hill. Previously, its main charm was that it was NOT Prague, was "still" cheap, and undiscovered. This is definitely not anylonger the case. Add it to the (long) list of beautiful, historic, medieval cities killed by tourism. I emphasize killed, for while the city is still beautiful, and perhaps "charming" to some, its no longer a city. A city is where people live and work, not a place where a majority percentage of the pedestrians are visiting. Places where the majority of people you see are tourists are called amusement parks, or carnivals, or circuses, or even Museums. Whatever they are, they are no longer cities. They are no longer urban, in the strict since of relating to a governed populace.
While I was at first disappointed to have only one day to spend in Krakow, watching the thoroughly obnoxious (but good-natured) British stag parties, the neverending flow of elderly tourists, and the erstwhile inaccessible-from-thence Polish culture, an evening and a morning was enough. The next evening, I set off to visit my friend Albina in Vilnius.
Postscript: I skipped the most obvious un-"attraction" to Krakow: "The Former German Concentration camp of Aushuwitz," as it is now officially designated. Think about it. Its 1946. You walk up to a prisoner on the way to the gas chamber. you say, "you know, someday this is going to be a major tourist draw with busload after busload of tourists coming here voluntarily! You`ll be famous!" I`m sorry. My Zippy sense of macabre irony and cynical psychosis can only go so far. The place should be utterly destroyed; every brick crushed to dust, ever barbed fence melted to slurry and the whole mass of rubble burried a kilometer underground. Then a forest grown in its place, one tree for every inmate, guard and official involved. Then Put up a fucking plaque or something, "Here the Unspeakable Occured." IMHO.