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The Long Walk

Saturday April 7th 2007: A Long Walk

I got the miniBrute and Li'l Red talking to each other to bring you the photos in this report; this is a major achievement as some of you might know. xP For clarification: miniBrute is the laptop and Li'l Red my cellphone, both bluetooth enabled, both awkward little sods. But yes, I got them chatting, so you get this one illustrated, you lucky buggers. Don't you feel special? They're not the greatest quality pictures, but what can you expect from a cellphone; my camera had the audacity to go and die within half an hour. Grr.

No, seriously, I got the Brute and the li'l Red talking. You have no idea how momentous this occasion is.

Anyway! On to the serious bulk of this update. You're getting it a day or two late, but here's my Saturday.

My roommate had gone out the night before, fully intending to come back absolutely blasted; so be it, I'd told her, but expect no sympathy from me, and I'll be crashing around getting ready at six o'clock tomorrow morning. Six o'clock came, the alarm went; I turned over and went back to sleep for fifteen minutes, safe in the knowledge I could be ready in ten and I didn't have to leave until seven anyway. Around six-twenty, I decided enough was enough of this sleeping lark, sat up and looked across the room. No roommate.

Rather uncharitably, my first thought on this matter was, Well, damn, I can't wake her up now. (I'm a horrible hypocrite; I tend to beat folks with blunt objects if they wake me up when I'm hung over). My second thought was, I hope she's all right, and my third, If she isn't back by tonight, I'll tell the hosts, and Anna from the school. And the police, a little voice added in the back of my mind. I ignored it, for now. She'd be fine. She'd be there tonight.

Putting roomie out of my mind -- chances were she had gotten blasted as intended and gone home with some new friend or friends -- I packed my bag for the day, made sure I had my camera and water and was wearing plenty of layers to try and stave off the cold of the Tatra mountains, checked my handy-dandy city map to figure out where we were all supposed to meet the coach, and set off. There was a convenient No2 tram standing waiting as I approached, and I hopped on with a vague feeling of 'Today is going to be good'.

Of course the blessed map doesn't have a scale, and through either my own daftness or the fact I was still asleep I hadn't twigged I'd have to walk for nearly a mile once I got off the tram, right down a stupidly long street (Cracow is full of the things) to the Hotel Cracovia where the coach was idling as the driver and guide waited for stragglers. To my relief I got there around 7:45 and I wasn't the last one to arrive, though it was a fairly narrow squeak; only three or four came after me.

And so we were off, twenty or so bodies huddled in anoraks and scarves (and me in four layers under an unzipped leather jacket, being as I am an idiot, but a stylish one) sitting in a hired coach going to explore the mountains; the less adventurous were staying in Zakopane down below, but that still left a good dozen or more, perhaps fourteen or fifteen of us, who decided to brave the ice and snow and trek for miles on end in a pointless circle in the freezing cold.

"It is for two hours walking before break," the guide said in broken English, then repeated himself in broken German for the other ninety percent or so of the coach. "Then we dinner in the hut, then maybe one hour half walking again, by different route to go down."

This 'hut' intrigued me. I imagined a wooden lodge, maybe a small ski lodge, with a backwards-sloped roof and a chimney spewing wispy pine-scented smoke, half-buried under a huge snowdrift, bears prowling around the outside, pine trees tall and imposing round about. The folks within would know we were coming, of course, and have bowls of hot soup (please gods let it be something vegetarian) and pierogi and placki and bigos for the meateaters...

I set off with a couple of friends from my intensive language brush-up course, Vivian and Dan -- she a fifty-eight year old wiry sprig of a grandmother from Peterborough, he a twenty-five year old abrasively Christian language student from Cornwall. We kept up a good pace, nothing too fast, but maintainable; Vivian and I kept together, but Dan quickly developed a tendency to dart between she and I, and a group of three German students about his age who hung back and smoked and gossiped the whole way up.

The climb started easily, but quickly showed its true colours; within ten minutes we were struggling up a steep incline and complaining loudly that we didn't have crampons. Though both keen walkers, neither Vivian nor I had bought a pair yet, and when we had enough breath, we managed a lively debate on whether or not they'd be worth it. "Certainly for this sort of setting," she pointed out reasonably. "Perhaps not so much back in England, however."

"I don't know," I said; "Ben Nevis, the Lake District... Hell, walking from my house up to the town in the middle of winter, I could use a pair!" I was only half joking, too; buses have got stuck on my road in bad snow, too steeply inclined to get much of a grip on the ice to go on up.

Somehow from there I got to telling her my life story, on her insistance; I'd rather have saved my breath -- it's not that interesting a story, in all honesty -- but she seemed genuinely interested, nodding in all the right places (or thereabouts) and asking questions whenever I tried to skim bits. It was, in the end, easier just to be thorough.

After about twenty minutes, we got our first small break: a bridge, wide and flat, and blessedly horizontal. Tyre tracks suggested we were presently walking up a route used by vehicles, so we guessed it couldn't be too hard going, at least for a while. How wrong we were. "Why aren't they using cat tracks, or at least tyre chains?!" I enquired many a time in the next hour or so, as we trailed up and up on ever steeper inclines and patches of solid sheet ice.

At last, though, after -- as promised -- a two-hour climb, we reached our destination. The hut wasn't at all as I imagined; it was a ski lodge, but a big one, with a high, pointed roof; it was built from stone rather than wood, and suffered from a lack of prowling grizzlies. Inside, there was no friendly wood-burning stove and no little old ladies offering congratulations and bowls of free soup; but there was a cafe, and for seventeen zloty I got some tomato soup and pierogi (those, if you're wondering, are ravioli-style packages made from noodle dough and boiled; mine had soft cheese and potatoes within). Dinner was a rambunctious, loud affair; half a dozen of us -- Vivian and I and four Germans from our ragtag group -- sat at a long, low table and managed most of a conversation, switching as vocabulary allowed between the limeys' broken German and the Germans' broken English.

After dinner, once we'd all paid a zloty to the loo attendant to do the necessaries, we bundled back up in layers on end (me zipped up this time, minor shock horror) and headed off outside to brave the snow again on the way back down. "This won't be so bad," Vivian said confidently. "We're going downover, after all, aren't we?"

If only it had been that easy.

"It's a short climb more," the guide told us (then repeated it in German, of course). "Then we go down."

Thankfully for me, the photo above is there for its beauty, not to illustrate how high we went (though it's taken at around 1750 feet, if memory serves). A little to the right of that there mountain, there was another, with skiiers diving down it -- tiny black dots (weevils, I thought with bitter envy) whipping and weaving across the powder. Vivian and I were horribly jealous and whined to one another for quite some time about how we'd much rather be skiing down a mountain than climbing another few hundred feet up the bloody thing. Sadly, there was no skiing; I'd hoped we might get the option at least, but no: Zakopane or hiking were the choices. I'm half-considering going back by myself in a few weeks to have a day of skiing or maybe boarding anyway.

We survived the 'short climb more', albeit just; we were headed up behind the ski lodge now, and occasionally a skiier or snowboarder whizzed past (causing Vivian and I to mutter the catcalls we longed to shout after; once, I did dare call out, "Here, lend us your skis!", but was ignored. I put this down to the fact I spoke English; obviously had I asked in the right language we'd have been away...). Tired and too cold now after the warmth of the lodge, we were a rather more subdued group by now, trailing along in ones and twos rather than the larger groups of before; at last, we'd negotiated the climb and came over the peak to look down across the view below.

"Breathtaking," I muttered; Vivian nodded her agreement. Hills and valleys stretched away into the distance, the nearer ones patchy with snow, getting more green and brown as they drew further away.

"So where do we go now?" Vivian enquired thoughtfully, casting around for where the path continued. There seemed to be one way down, horribly steep and difficult, more of a ski path than somewhere to walk. "Surely not..."

"I don't think so," I said, and pointed right.

"Surely not," Vivian repeated when she realised where I was looking. "Along the ridge?!"

"I'd say," I said; and I was right. The guide led off, a regular Sherpa Tensing with practised ease in the icy slush, and we were soon picking our way along the ridge, ten feet down from its zenith with a sheer drop of several hundred feet to our right. We all fell at least once; I hit the ground hard with my rear end, and slithered several times more but managed to regain my balance. "Nice catch," Dan told me once, with a grin, when I'd executed something akin to a samba shuffle to stop myself going over, and of course I promptly got cocky and had to wiggle out of another fall.

Going down proved harder than coming up, all things considered. At least on the way up we hadn't been battling icy slush along a track only just wide enough for us to go single file; some places one had to shuffle sideways to get by. At last, the ridge track gave way to a forest path, but that wasn't much easier; admittedly there wasn't the hundreds of feet to fall if one slipped too far to the right, but we were walking pretty constantly on solid sheet ice, and it was tough going, with feet clenched instinctively even encased in hiking shoes or boots, trying to find purchase on the glassy surface.

Eventually, though, and without any major mishaps, there was a sign of hope through the trees: buildings! And soon enough, there we were, hanging around outside a small ski shop, tired but buzzing from our achievement.

We took a minibus back to Zakopane itself, and were turned loose into the village for an hour to explore. It was pleasant enough, though small, and the major attraction for Vivian and I were the dozens of colourful market stalls lining the main street. I'd just about given up on pictures by this point; taking photos on a cellphone is rather depressing when you're used to a digital camera.

However... Mother -- guy in traditional costume!

The far cuter part of that pic is hidden by the kids. The fellow had a lamb. Which was following him. Cute overload, may I say.

After our bit look around the village, it was back onto the bus and off for two hours' drive back to Cracow. Vivian and I treated ourselves to dinner in an Italian restaurant, then headed off home.

As I got off the tram and walked the couple of hundred metres back to my host family's place, my roommate sneaked back onto my mind. Of course she'd be all right... She'd be back by now, right? Surely...

Thankfully, as I turned into my street, I saw our bedroom light was on. I ran the last twenty yards and managed the door locks (awkward sods!) the quickest I ever have, before calming myself as I headed up the stairs and greeting her with, "So just what time did you roll in this morning, then?"

Thankfully, she laughed. I think she's getting used to my Evil (If Flippant) Bastard (tm) sense of humour.

As it turned out, she had gone home with some new friends, drunk out of her mind, and arrived back at the ranch at around nine AM. Honestly, I think I got a better day of it by far, more so since I suspect she's the three-day-hangover type...

...I feel a need for some nice loud music tomorrow morning. For now, though, sleep is the order of the day. And tomorrow, I fully intend not to be up before nine at the earliest. So there.


( 2 writers — Leave a note )
Apr. 11th, 2007 01:46 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed reading about your trip up the mountain. I hope the description of the salt mine will be as entertaining. Thank you for the picture of local costume. You know my soft spot!
Apr. 14th, 2007 01:31 am (UTC)
I love those photos, and you always have an interesting way of putting things.

I miss talking to you! :(
( 2 writers — Leave a note )


City of Flowers and Shadows

Shadow's City

Welcome to the travel log of the adventures of one ShadowSaine, variously known as Zof, Shadow and Oi You, on a big city and bright burning lights adventure in Krakow, Poland, 2007.

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