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Published: April 4th 2011
The High Tatras
the ridge as seen from the narrow-gauge railway which scales it.
One little nugget of comedy from that horrible day at Demänovská Dolina last summer has been itching ever since, which was during my conversation on the train with the hung over Leeds United fans who had come to see Leeds play Košice, when I told them "I really want to go climb a mountain today", to which one of them gestured listlessly towards the perennially majestic backdrop of the High Tatras and replied "there's enough o' them round 'ere". I had never been to the High Tatras, with no real reason or motivation to go as well as the constant fear-mongering of locals in Prague about people dying there. Last weekend, I suddenly had a realisation that my life was the most boring thing ever, spending all day on a couch teaching people (or waiting for my next lesson) and weekends doing little. Last Saturday was so eventless that I was inspired not to let this happen again, and booked myself cheap zombie train tickets to Poprad online for the next weekend. No hostels, no hotels, just two nights on couchettes and one day in the mountains.
Even to someone now used to travelling overnight, I realised as I walked
down to hlavní nádrazí at 11.30pm that this was the first time I had caught a night train from Prague. We were entertained by a 10-man African drum circle on the platform as we waited for the late zombie carriages to arrive, whose music reverberated magnificently in the station building and made one wonder whether the train was bound for Košice or Kinshasa. Finally they came, and I was squished into the top bunk and left to make myself comfortable. Having now slept in a few couchette carriages, I can honestly say that paying extra for the 4-berth compartment than the 6-berth is really worth it - it's a tiny amount and gives you space to sit up without nearly breaking your spine (and a third less chance of being kept awake by a fight about whether to open the window)
The next morning, the outdoors seemed to only be half-rendered because of a thick fog enshrouding everything. No mountains were visible, and I was worried for a second. Stepping off the zombie train in Štrba it was still grey as one could imagine, but a ride up a neat narrow-gauge line later, the fog was below us and
and the blocked way up
the sky as clear as ever. The sun was ridiculously strong, and a few of the more lasting pistes were still full and their chairlifts still in operation - there were infact plenty of people with skis and boards knocking about on the train.
Walking through the ski resort, I suddenly remembered one of the many warnings issued by Czechs about the High Tatras in addition to bears, wolves and the weather suddenly changing is that it's generally better not to be alone. I still found myself more worried about the possibility of meeting four-legged carnivores, an obvious result of the faulty human mind since falling over and getting caught in a thunderstorm are probably far more likely. And though I did fall over a couple of times, nothing serious happened. As it did at Demänovská that day, it felt great to feel slightly on the edge the whole time.
Sadly, the best time to visit the Tatras to hike is when winter ends, and at this altitude, winter ends some time in June. The icy state of the paths made them slow and tricky to navigate, and also meant many paths were closed because of inaccessibility. Yellow
from the path up to Bystra Lavka. If I were a proper mountain climber I'm sure this would be heaven.
was my colour for the morning; my original plan from a glance at the map beforehand was to walk towards Bystrá Lavka, a peak above one of the operating ski resorts which lies on a path marked "one way" - this alone could have been an indication that this trail would NOT be accessible in winter, and sure enough, at about 1800 metres the yellow markings simply fell away into a 45 degree ascent that even a bear wouldn't have been able to negotiate in the snow. A sign stood hidden behind a big rock somewhere telling us the path was closed during the winter season to protect "a sensitive mountain nature", far more important of course than the lives of anyone who might go for it, such as the group of Slovaks in front of me who were attempting to scramble up the rocks waist deep in slush.
I simply went back the same way (a 500 metre descent proving far harder than a 500 metre ascent on the semi-frozen path) to Štrbské Pleso, the mountain lake with the ski resort and train station, and after some lunch walked up another path leading to nearby Popradské Pleso, a
larger lake which freezes over for over 150 days of the year, including of course today. This lake with its hotel and restaurant would be the meeting point for all adventurous hikers heading either to Rysy, the peak on the border with Poland, or across the lower ridge towards Gerlachovský Štít, the highest peak of the Tatras at 2654m, and accessible only to experienced mountain climbers.
I did as much as was open - the aforementioned "tatranská magistrála" across the lower ridge is closed in winter, and you can clearly see why when you look up it - a colossal winding ascent up a large piste between two huge peaks overshadowing the lake. The path, though barely visible, looked in the snow like a sort of escalator to certain death. The red path to Rysy itself was also closed, but the blue path which led to it was not, leading you down a relatively flat stream valley through a forest, constantly surrounded by enormous peaks. The view towards Rysy up the closed path was somewhat reminiscent of the view up towards Chopok from Demänovská - clearly a lot higher than it looks.
My final stretch took me once
Church outside which everyone was eating icecream in the mild mountain spring
around Popradské Pleso, a pleasant walk even in the snow, before I left on a neverending windy tarmac road leading down through the forest, then through the deforested wasteland which surrounds the national park, and down to the ominously named Popradské Pleso train station on the electric narrow-gauge line scaling the southern edge of the mountains - ominously named as it lies a good hour's walk from the lake itself. The electric train, bound for the nearby city and closest convenient centre of Poprad, took ages to wind through the deforested void stopping below hills lined with all manners of surreal shapes of apartment buildings, hotels and ski chalets. Plenty of people were still about as the sun was setting. I was getting very tired.
We finally pulled into Poprad, which seems at first glance to be like any other eastern Slovak city - crammed with prefabricated panel buildings themselves crammed with kids who love extreme sports. Knowing well the most honest way to enjoy a city (in Europe at least) is to copy what the locals are doing, and not having a BMX to hand on which to repeatedly fly off wheelchair ramps, I found myself blending right in sitting on a bench outside the church in the main square and eating an ice cream cone, despite the temperature being about 5 degrees and wearing three layers. Aside from the ice cream stalls on the main square, the city seemed still and lifeless for a Saturday evening. Nevertheless, it was alive with the vibe every Slovak city has which every Czech city lacks - peacefulness.
In the end, I went for some halušky, found an open pub in a cellar and drank, alone, sufficiently that I would be able to sleep well on the rocky ride home. It worked perfectly. And after slipping and sliding on the ice on the other side for a day, the first day of spring which happened to follow in Prague the next day was absolutely divine.
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