Across Slovakia, up high

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Surely, we’re having fun.  We’re working hard– not working, technically– but riding lots.  On occasion, we stop in bus stops to avoid the rain.  This time of year, the sun is high, the air is wet, and the afternoons are stormy.  It seems we’ve also encountered a wet week in addition to normal summer storms.  That’s alright, as long as we can outlast thunderstorms by taking cover under bus stops and eating lunch in our t-shirts, or less.  These are the summers of my youth.  We’re eating pickled peppers stuffed with cabbage.  Slovakia is still a dream.

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Since our first foray out of Bratislava following touristic segments of dirt through the Male Karpaty, we’ve pedaled upstream of the Vah River, toward our eventual goal.  Ukraine, and possibly a brief segment of Poland are on our horizon.  A mix of dirt and pavement lead through the wine country of the lower Vah River valley.  Eventually, we leave the lowlands for the mountains.

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Much of the population of Slovakia lives in a few major valleys, although many small towns exist everywhere else.  This is still a country of mountain people.

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Each town features a small food shop, called a potraviny.  This one is a relic of times past.  Most often they look like mini supermarkets, with a limited range of common goods.  Everyone shops every day and buys little, but always buys those little crescent-shaped white bread rolls.  The rolls are always a little dry, and cheap as dirt.  We’ve learned to stack them with olives and tomatoes and cheese and meat.

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Each town features a bar or a restaurant or both, sponsored with signage by one of the major beer manufacturers in the country.  Lael habitually asks for dve kava and jedin chai in the morning– two coffees and one chai.  In reverse– “chai and kava”– she calles this Chai-kav-skij.

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As often as possible, we swim.  Slovakia is laced with cold streams.  The lowland countries nearby, full of people, are different.  Here we find plenty of water.  

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Finally, we’re surprised to find castles everywhere.  It is unlike Poland or Czech or Ukraine.  

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We entered the country with new(-ish) bikes.  Searching for chain lube was more complicated than expected.  I passed the opportunity to buy WD-40 several times.  Finally, I bought some.  Chains are silky smooth, for now.  XTR and WD-40 are a winning combination.

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I also bought a pair of real shoes, after a week and a half in Birkenstock sandals.  I committed to only bring clothing which I already owned.  While I spent a grip on new bike parts this year (for fun!), I knew for certain all the clothes I would need were already in my possession.  Self-destruction is inevitable with clothing, so why not let them destruct, before replacement?

I found some proper bicycle chain lube at the Tesco superstore.  Free sandals and chain lube to anyone that walks by.

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We begin our path over the mountains on a route comprised of narrow grey lines on our road map.  It proves to be a signed cycling route, and a reliable route over the mountains on a maintained dirt road.  

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Climbing into the rain…

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We find a secure cabin at the top.  All locked up– except for the outhouse– we take cover under the porch for the night.  It is nice to cover ourselves only in netting, and to keep our things dry.  The daily process of drying our things is tiresome, and an uphill battle.

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The morning is foggy, without rain.

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We eventually descend to in Trenčianske Teplice, for groceries, coffee, and internet.  Lael loves this poster advertising regional Slavic mountain festivals.

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Finally, we connect with the 1000 Miles Adventure Route.  This is an annual race route created by Czech adventure rider Jan Kopka, across Czech and Slovakia  We don’t know what to expect. 

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It begins on pavement, climbing tertiary roads into the hills.

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Mostly, we’re following signed hiking and cycling routes along the way.

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Passing through the heart of Slovakia, through towns of wooden villages, old churches, and active farmland.  

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An apiary/treehouse, or beehouse– surprises us in the forest.  There are a lot of bees here, in managed bee communities, in converted trailers and raised beehouses.

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We connect to an historic road, cut from the hillside.  Up, and up, above 1000m.

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A hiking shelter.

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up…connecting a dirt road to a dirt road, via an unrideable hiking trail for a short distance.  We’re beginning to understand the “route”.  It is mostly rideable, but does not shy away from unridable connectors as needed.  This is our preferred mode.

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At the top is a small ski area and a seasonal hotel. It is barely open in the summer.  Winter must be busy here at about 4000ft.

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There are well-signed hiking and cycling trails in these mountains.  It is nice to see cycling trails comprised of rough, unpaved routes.  Slovakian cyclists are hardy.

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Follow the red and white, as ever.  Up and up, as ever.

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We’ll talk more about the bike later.  Yes, the main compartment of the framebag doesn’t have a zipper.  The seatpack conceals a MacBook Air.  I drilled a hole in the fork and several holes in the frame.  And yes, the bike still shreds.

Thanks to Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs for the design, creativity, and fabrication, and the dedication to do all of it at the last minute.  Thanks to him, I’m carrying a MacBook and the bike rides like a bike.

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Up over 5000ft, from the river valley below near 1000ft.  Our legs are figuring themselves out.  Rather, mine are gaining figure.  Lael’s have been ready to go since before the Fireweed 400.

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Down, down, down…

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Brakes are hot and our stuff is wet.  Swim in a stream and eat an apple.

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Of course, drink a beer.  Small drinking establishments are ubiquitous in Slovakia, as in Czech.  Beer is about $1, or less.

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The next day, we awake to sun and the opportunity to dry our things.

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The route takes a hike over some high meadows.

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And down grazing lands and logging tracks.

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All of this is adjacent to the Low Tatras National Park.  We soon learn that the logging continues into the park, although you are warned not to ride a bicycle on unstable soils.

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Up again, now on the red hiking trail, one of several national hiking trails across Slovakia.

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Don’t ride on fragile soils, say the signage.  Just drag some logs down the wet roads.  

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I do my best to keep the tires running through the frame.  Thanks to the new Fox fork and the Surly Krampus, even these muddy 2.35″ Hans Dampf tires keep rolling.  That was the plan.

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Six-wheel drive ensures the road remains a quagmire.

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Again, we wash in the stream, dry our things in the sun, and dine.  We refuse to get wet every day.  Lael says, “the forecast in Lviv calls for sun every day”.  We’re moving east.

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Out of the high mountains, between the Low Tatra and the High Tatra, we point towards Ukraine.  The 1000 Miles Adventure Route chooses some mellow dirt and pavement at the front range of the Tatras.

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Celebrating our last few days in Slovakia– not that we aren’t always celebrating– we fire a round of sausages over the fire.

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We enjoy a few more days in the country, before our focus leans towards Ukraine.  Considering our current location in the northeast of the country, a few days in Poland may be in order.  There’s something about Poland.  Namely, the Red Trails capture our attention. 

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Slovakia for a few more days.  Poland for a minute.  Ukraine, for a month or more.

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Some time in Poland

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Leaving Przemek and his Pugsley in the high country, Lael and I spend a few days writing and planning.  First, the next issue of Bunyan Velo is to be released in the upcoming month, and some time near a power outlet and wireless internet is in order to record some ideas that have been gestating all summer.  Second, my parents and my brother will soon arrive in Ukraine, where we will meet them to make a brief cultural tour around the country.  Our prime focus will be to visit the two villages where each my maternal grandparents were born nearly 95 years ago.  Finally, after a few more days on the trail without us, Przemek’s yellow Pugsley makes a quick trip home to return to the mountains as a hardtail 29er, where we will rejoin him for a few days of riding.  This leaves us with a week to go nowhere and anywhere.  We direct ourselves with our sense for great campsites, by our internal clinometers (up, always up); we shoot for small towns and trails in Poland and Slovakia, guided by an occasional glance at Google or a public map; and we do what (cycle)tourists might have always expected of their summer vacation– we spend some time.

Without a map or trail to follow, some real (micro)adventuring is in order.  The day is spent indoors writing; we mainly seek a campsite for the night, so we ride up.  Past a ski lift, one of hundreds that line the local hillsides, past ripening fruit and farms, to the low ridge that composes the border between Poland and Slovakia.

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Either side of this monument reads S and P, for Slovakia and Poland.  We have been following similar markers since the Czech/Poland border.

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This will do for a campsite.  Lael prepares a fungal watercraft dubbed the ‘Yankee Doodle’ to float down the stream.  This is how we spend at least some of our time.

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The following evening, following thundershowers and some writing, we go searching for a campsite.  We ride into some nearby forested lowlands, presented as a narrow green swathe on the map.  We enter via farm roads from the pavement, without a map or guide of any kind.  After a half an hour of winding routes, a small stream crossing, and a few dead-ends, we cross a small shelter perfect for a rainy night.

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No Polish shelter is complete without a shot glass.

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Lael was hiding something in her framebag to taste.  Sweet, but herbal.

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Public maps serve us well in many regions.  We habitually stop to see what kind of new information we can gain.  Much of this information could easily be learned from a detailed map or gps file, although the experience of piecing things together is interesting, if not always the most efficient method.  I’ve long considered a GPS on board the bike, although a cumbersome interface is uninviting.  And, I don’t already own an iPhone.  We use Lael’s Google Nexus 7 tablet to navigate some cities, or to find camping, although it is impractically large for full time use.  Solutions?

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The following day leads us toward the Tatra, a succinct range of the highest peaks in the Carpathian Mountains, straddling the Slovakian/Polish border.  Near or far, these mountains are stunning.  The peaks are clear — we compare to the Tetons.

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While looking for a market to pick up some food for dinner, we pass this red trail.  The church is alive with the sounds of mass.  Poland is a strongly Catholic country, and papal hiking routes in honor of John Paul II are ubiquitous in this part of the country.  A public map shows that the red route connects to Zakopane, 15km away.  Zakopane is a major international tourist destination, and a good place to replace our dying cookpot, we think.  It will also afford closer inspection of the mountains.

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Summer in Poland ends the same way as in Alaska.

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We settle on this hillside facing the High Tatra for the evening.  Not the flattest ground, but some of the best scenery of the trip.

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This local red route, unlike some of the sections in the high country, proves to be perfectly rideable with only a few steep pitches.  With my new 29×2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf tire, climbing incredibly steep pitches has become a part-time hobby.

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Over the last hill to Zakopane.

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We meet hordes of tourists.  Mostly, it is an innocuous crowded mountain town where local smoked cheese is sold in incredible numbers.  There may be more than 100 individual vendors in town with displays such as this.  Low-moisture smoked cheese makes for great bikepacking fuel, even in the heat.  About 3 zloty to the dollar, so prices are quite good.

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Sliwki is also in season, although most country people probably already have a glut of plums at home.  Fruit trees are found everywhere in Poland.

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Giant sunflowers and dill perfume Polish markets, and roadsides.

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The usual collage of tourists, pamiatki, and high-end retail merge in Zakopane.

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Lucky for me, Lael is cheap and settles for a 1 zloty strand of dyed wooden beads, and some colored leather laces that will eventually replace the broken laces on her shoes.  Between her weathered Clark’s boots and new adornments, she has developed an eclectic mountain aesthetic.  Bulging calves round out the look.

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We also spent some time looking for another skirt– something a little more like this.  Maybe in Ukraine.

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The main function of our trip to Zakopane was to find a new cookpot, which had recently revolted by souring a meal with the taste of aluminum.  Once coated with a hard anodized finish, the pot is now barely holding together.  We browsed dozens of high-end hiking shops stocked with footwear and outerwear, but little camping equipment.  Looking for a 1L stainless steel cookpot…

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Eventually, we find what we are looking for in a large cookset at InterSport, a large European sporting goods chain.  For about $40, we poach the smallest pot from a nice looking set of large, but packable kitchenware.  Unsure of what to do with the remains, we leave the box and its contents outside the store.  Hopefully some hungry backpacker will discover the prize.

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Quickly, to meet Przemek early the next morning at a distant train station, we exit Zakopane with fresh legs and lunch in our bags.  We will not have anything to do with this.

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But if we have to, we will do this.  Back through the countryside to rejoin Przemek.

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