Sun baked and rain soaked
Trip Start Sep 06, 2006
42Trip End Ongoing
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Several weeks back my friend Michal had mentioned a homo oriented outdoor club called GIL and that there was a planned hiking excursion to the Tatra mountains in Slovakia for the last weekend of June
So loading up my backpack and having prepared my patented trail mix I headed to Wschodnia train station on the day of departure. I bought Michal his train ticket as he was running late buying new hiking boots with plans to meet on the train in Zachodnia train station. This was not to be and I ended up taking the train to Katowice in southwestern Poland with a train packed with passengers standing in the aisles, the empty seat next to me, and the engrossing best seller "The Sixteen Pleasures."
Once in Katowice I met Michal at the station as he had taken the doubly expensive express train which arrived ahead of mine. We met his friend Adam, a witty chemist with a charming demeanor, in whose place we would be crashing for the night. On the way to Adam's apartment we popped in for a bite to eat at the local vegetarian bar which served an excellent lentil lasagna. Once at Adam's apartment filled with books on art, photography, poetry, and all sorts of literature we were soon joined by his friend also named Michal. I didn't know it then but later was informed that I was officially the second homosexual that he had met besides Adam. I was shocked by this news and could not get off the topic for several days afterward as to how it's possible to be 30 and count all the gays you have met on one hand.
The next day the three of us awoke early to meet Jurek, the organizer and driver for the weekend excursion
The time melted away effortlessly and before we knew it we were at the border having our passports checked. The guard of course gave me a hard time with mine as I had accidentally washed it with the rest of my laundry a month before resulting in a faded sad booklet with wrinkles covering the front page. With a grimace and a typical Slavic hurumph he let it slide and we slipped into Slovakia.
The difference between Poland and Slovakia became quite apparent once I figured out that I had no idea what people were saying. However, there are subtler distinctions such as the diet heavy on meat and potatoes which I thought couldn't be worse than Poland's but apparently I was wrong. This results in an obvious ass to body ratio producing a bulging and full behind which is a sure fire way to tell a Slovak apart from a Pole
Arriving in Zuberec, a small town nestled in a valley staring up at the Western Tatras, we were pleased to find that the pension we had reserved was a immaculate place with a kitchenette and fresh linens and towels. Sorting out the plan for the day we decided to head out towards the trail head and grab obiad (lunch) on the way. The choice of garlic soup with croutons wasn't the ideal choice but it tasted good nonetheless.
The mountains in this area are varied and quite beautiful if the weather permits a view across the peaks and valleys. Lush fields teeming with flowers and grasses of all sorts burst with color and fragrance. Forests of spruce, fir, and linden puncuate the landscape in great swathes of shady geometry standing perfectly upright, bending in curves along ridges, and twisting along angles of their trunks. Sheep dot the lower hills bleating and ringing their bells as they move like tufts of down in synch with their communal demeanors. Streams sweep along polished rocks and through rocky gorges lined with giant leaves sprouting along the waters edge and patches of flowers squeezing their way through the cracks
The first day of hiking meanders along the hills with bouts of lively conversation and biological discussions of flora and fauna of the region. That evening we settle in for a supper of pizza at the small local eatery before heading to bed spent. The next day we awake slowly to breakfast and head out to the trail head for the higher mountains. With my belly full and anticipation swelling fo
r a solid day of hiking, we reach the car park already swarmed with other hikers.
The mountains in the distance for which we are headed rise out of the mass of verdant forest sprouting like crumbling coffee cake. The ridges are a mass of boulders, chasms, and deep lined scars that threaten to come tumbling down if not for the clouds keeping them tethered and suspended. We hike through the forest and along the edges of waterfalls crashing down through downed trees and rocky ledges. The climb is steep but the path is well maintained as we amble up towards cooler heights. Finally the view opens up and the crowning ridge can be seen bold and imposing above on the verge of rocky avalanche
Several long stops and snack breaks later we are back at the car park. Michal and I are deciding where to go for our next hike along with where we will be spending the night since everyone else is heading back home to Poland. We scan through maps and discuss routes. I want to spend the week in this area hiking back to Zakopane in Poland and Michal wants to head further south to the Great Fatra mountains (actually they're hills). We finally compromise and decide another day hiking in the Western Tatras and then head down to the Fatras. We celebrate our weekend adventure with a late obiad and say our goodbyes to our departing hiking buddies.
Left in the restaurant parking lot we sling our backpacks on and head towards the forest behind the restaurant looking for a place to camp. As camping is illegal everywhere in Slovakia especially national parks we have to find an out of the way and discreet location. After some time wandering around unable to find a suitable spot we notice a large roofed deer feeder filled with fresh hay
The next morning I am tired and itching from the hay and crawling insects keeping me awake most of the night. We make a hearty breakfast, leave our backpacks hidden inside the hay, and head out towards the trail. The trail climbs steadily and steeply up through forests, fields of wild blueberries and raspberries, and to the windy polany (fields) blanketing the ridges. As we head up along the spine of the Western Tatras buffeted by cold winds and baked by the sun above, grand panoramas unfold like a tapestry. The ridges buck and bend along sheer drops to fields of rocks that spill from the peaks making cone shaped fields of gray scree.
As we progress further along this shattered scene of rock and winds, the trail becomes more technical. We have to hold on to chains to maneuver along pencil thin ledges that give way to 200 meter drop offs
We finish the hike up watching a group of hikers well equipped with ropes, carabiners, and modern gear maneuver a challenging part of the path that involves pulling oneself along a chain with a drop off spelling instant death should one slip. One of the hikers is frozen in place and his friend has to clamber down to retrieve his backpack and help him up over the hump of rock above. However, several minutes prior we had witnessed a middle aged heavy set women in a pink sweater and tennis shoes take the path without the use of chains as though she was climbing over her couch to get a better seat in front of the TV. It was quite the contrast and possibly humbling had the hikers seen her take the path that they were now suffering through.
The day slips into dusk as we head down the scree slope and back into the sub alpine regions of wildflowers and dwarf spruce. That night I sleep soundly in the deer feeder despite the bugs, itchy hay, and thunder and lighting. The next day we make our epic tour through small towns in search of ATMs as we forgot to bring enough money from Poland and finally to town of Ruzemberok, the start of our ill fated hike in the Fatras.
In Ruzemberok we take a cursory tour of the market, Middle Age church, and various streets displaying brightly outfitted homes
Eventually we hit the town periphery which is an amalgam of small summer homes plopped in the middle of lush flower and vegetable gardens referred to as "dzialki." These little plots of land are the quiet getaway for many city and town dwellers giving them the stress relieving opportunity to weed their tomatoes, tend red currant bushes, and admire their blushing blossoms. We plod on in hopes of finding a place to stake our tent and gaze up at the views that abound.
As we hike further into the forested hills the sound of cars becomes muted till it eventually falls silent. The woods spring up around us moist and shadowy. Our legs carry us up past sleeping sheep dogs, through fields of frightened bleating sheep, and brooks that whisper from among the dense foliage encasing them.
The next morning we awake to a brief hiccup of sun before the rain begins. It continues all day with the clouds rolling through like specters injecting cold into my bones. The day is long as we pass unripened raspberry fields and blueberries sinking their shallow roots into the boggy terrain. The flowers have shut tightly unwilling to be subjected to the cold gusts and chilling rains. Eventually we reach a small town where we unsuccessfully try to build a fire with wet logs and cook a mish mash meal of couscous, soy protein, and instant tomato soup. My clothes just begin to dry and feel comfortable again before we set off in the unrelenting weather for the mountain hut still four hours away.
I am complaining openly and frequently at this point and wander off ahead at an accelerated pace in front of Michal. My body is unwilling to stop even for a brief rest as the water seeps in through my gortex coat and my shoes slosh with each step. I get to the intersection of two trails and jogging my memory remember the yellow trail that goes around the mountain while the green that goes over it. As I want to knock off 20 minutes from my hike and make myself a hot cup of black coffee as quickly as possible I decide to turn left onto the yellow trail and past the boulder strewn field glistening with wetness.
Within 30 minutes I have descended far enough to be out of the clouds and the rolling hills pop into view
An abandoned house sits in a field overlooking a stagnant pond ripe with mosquitoes as I stare at the sign in front of me. "Stare Hory: 3/4 hr" This is not right. I know I don't remember this being on the way to the mountain hut. I do, however, remember making fun of the this when I saw it on the map the day before as in Polish "stare" means old and the polishized plural version of whore would whory therefore meaning "old whores." This is only mildly amusing at this point as I am obviously lost and probably going in the opposite direction of my intended destination. I have been walking downhill for 2 hours and it would be unwise to retrace my steps back to the green and yellow trail intersection. It would take me at least 3.5 hours to the trail crossing and another three to the mountain hut. I decide to continue down towards Stare Hory.
An hour and a half later I arrive at a road and a small farmhouse with two grazing bovines. I notice a bus stop sign askew and beckoning. Apparently I am in Liptovska which consists of a bus stop, two cows, a road, and a farmhouse. I wait for the bus to the only place I recognize which is Ruzemberok. It comes within 30 minutes, I buy my ticket, and bask in the dry warmth of the interior. Shortly after embarking, the bus makes a left turn to what appears to be a main road and out of the corner of my eye I see a sign "Banska Bystrica 39 K." I jog my memory remember this town being our ultimate destination. I sprint to the front of the bus, ask the bus driver to stop, and after unsuccessfully trying to get my fare refunded run across the street to check the schedule going the other way.
The entire time I have been text messaging Michal updating him of my lost state with various plans and scenarios to which I get nothing in reply. I decide to get a coffee and grab a plate of poppy seed and jam dumplings at the Slovak version of a roadside greasy spoon before the bus comes. It is outfitted with traditional mountain outfits, hand embroidered tablecloths which could be considered quaint, and free hand charcoal sketches of musicians with what I assume to be traditional instruments. The service is pleasant and the dumplings sickeningly sweet. I eat every bite and use my fingers to mop up every last bit licking them clean with each swipe across the plate.
Upon arriving in Banska Bystrica, I embark on finding a cheap bed. I wander around town, but find little in the way of accommodation. I walk down small alleys of the medieval town square and along the main roads finding only two pensions
Sleeping in late I get up for lunch around noon and wander about the town admiring the cathedrals, sculpted arches, restored apartments exteriors, and bright red terra-cotta roofs. I have gotten in touch with Michal who made it to the mountain hut around 10 PM the night before and make plans to meet in a town on the train route back to Poland. A long journey back to Poland later I arrive in Warsaw at 6 AM the next day in a train that fills up with chatting freshly awoken Warsawian weekend travelers heading to the Baltic Sea beaches near Gdynia. The weather is a foul mix of gloomy ominous clouds, blustery winds, a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius, and forecast for more to come. However, no one is discouraged by this as this is the typical unpredictable weather in this part of Europe and everyone is used to it. I trudge back home and fall into a deep slumber the likes of hibernating bears.