How to cope with the Heatwave (3 steps)

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This is Sisi, my friends’ cat that I am currently watching in Vienna. She is clearly suffering from the heatwave, too. Her advice in this kind of weather: “Don’t move. Sleep as much as possible. And don’t go to work.”

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Posted in Austria, Photography | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Next trip: Antwerp

Another cat has contacted me, requesting me as her sitter. This time in Antwerp in Belgium.

I am happy to oblige, because I have never been to Antwerp. And hardly to Belgium either, to be honest, where I have only visited the EU institutions. Now, from 2nd to 17th of August, I will have the opportunity of getting to know one of the most important trading cities in Flanders.

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Loes, the cat, has planned everything so perfectly that I will be in town for the Night of the Museums as well as for the “Summer of Antwerp”.

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And as a history student, I naturally want to visit the memorials and museums at Fort Breendonk and at Dossin Barracks, too.

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I can already see that the two weeks won’t be enough by far. After that, I have to hope for a job in a remote village, so I can write the articles about Antwerp and Flanders without further distractions.

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Posted in Belgium, Travel | Tagged , | 4 Comments

A Walk along the Semmering Railway

At first glance, the landscape in the Vienna Alps looks idyllic.

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But the expert’s eye realizes immediately that something is missing here: a railroad!

Because how are the people supposed to enjoy the picturesque landscape if they can’t get there from Vienna main train station? This discontent about the lack of public transport boiled over into the revolution of 1848. Emperor Ferdinand I, himself a railway fanatic, was happy to heed the calls and initiated an engineering competition. The lucky ticket was drawn by Carl von Ghega, of Albanian descent, born in Venice, graduated with a doctorate degree at age 17 and thus a typically multicultural Austrian with the required academic title in front of the name. The only problem was, he had never built a railway. But more on that later.

As an avid train traveler, I could of course enjoy the way from the luxury and comfort of the train, but for people who are fit and have time all day long, there is a better option: a hiking trail along the railway line. If you are thinking,”what a stupid idea, walking along the railroad embankment all day and getting run over in the end”, I hope that this report will convince you of the opposite.

I start the hike in Semmering, the village that lent its name to the project and which is surprisingly small for its importance. But I guess there used to be more activity, as the overdimensioned hotels in Magic Mountain style suggest. Now, they are being used as retirement homes or not at all.

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At Semmering railway station, trains are leaving to Mürzzuschlag, Payerbach, Graz, Vienna, Ljubljana and Prague. For a village with just over 500 people, train connections to three European capital cities are quite good.

But the heyday of tourism seems to have left Semmering with a one-way ticket, because as I approach Kurhaus Semmering, I notice that it is deserted and uninhabited.

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In the lounge, neither hot chocolate nor Almdudler is served. Only a few mice scurry away.

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The railway, on the other hand, is shaped by progress. The old trains have long been replaced by modern ones and are only left by the side of the tracks for their museum value.

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As if to confirm that the ambitious timetable is no chimera, the first hyper-modern train whizzes past just as I am leaving Semmering, having taken a last gulp from the water fountain.

Zug in Semmering.JPG

Soon, I learn that the hiking trail does not simply run parallel to the railway tracks. In quick succession, I find myself walking below the tracks, on the other side of the valley, and then I look down on the railway from a mountain or a panoramic lookout, just like Peter Rosegger in his story Als ich das erste Mal auf dem Dampfwagen saß:

We walked across the Stuhleck Mountains to make sure to avoid the valley, in which, as people said, the devil’s carriage was going up and down. But when we were high up on the mountain and looked down to Spitalerboden, we saw a worm creeping along a sharp line, smoking tobacco.

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I have already lost any sense of orientation, because the Semmering Railway runs like a knotted ball of wool. The reason lies in the chief planner’s aforementioned lack of railway experience. Ghega didn’t know that railway lines are best built in a straight line or at least in wide curves that allow the engine to maintain a high speed. He was fascinated by the landscape and wanted to integrate the tracks into it, creating an artwork on a grand scale. His declared goal was to build the first railway to be recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

Thus, the Semmering Railway extends over 42 km, although the linear distance between start and end point is only 21 km. The line covers 14 tunnels, 16 viaducts and more than 100 bridges. Some curves are as narrow as hairpin bends on an Alpine pass. The combination of slopes and narrow arc radii was deemed to be insurmountable by most engineers at the time.

But it looks beautiful.

Viadukt1Viadukt2Viadukt3Kurve bei Gegha-Museum mit Zug.JPG

Construction work began in 1848 and finished in 1854. That’s only six years, which is an impressive speed for such a grand project. It’s an even more impressive feat once you consider that sleepy Alfred Nobel only invented dynamite in 1866 and thus far too late for the Semmering Railway. (Because of the lost bet with Ghega, he had to donate the Nobel Prize.) The tunnels were still blown into the rock with gunpowder. The resulting rock debris was then used to build bridges, viaducts, train stations and tobacconist shops. That way, Ghega not only invented recycling, but by constructing the buildings along the railway with material won from the immediate surroundings, he reinforced the interaction between nature and design. (This would have been worthy of a Nobel Prize for architecture, but Nobel was mean enough not to set up a prize for that discipline.)

One of these residences for signalmen now houses the Ghega Museum, but sadly, I have planned such a long hike that I don’t have enough time for a visit.

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The hike is very beautiful and varied, but also quite a challenge. Without any steam engine, I go up the mountains, down the mountains, up the mountains, down the mountains. Each stop is a temptation, because I could simply take the next train back to Vienna. On the other hand, I am worried about missing spectacular views. Through the trees or on the other side of the valley, I keep spotting cute little houses.

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Ok, maybe more than cute little houses in most cases. The location on the trade route between Venice and Vienna seems to have paid off for the robber knights residing in the valley. Just like the people collecting the highway toll nowadays.

Speaking of traffic, I would have expected to see only a few local trains all day, but every 15 minutes, a train is passing by. Passenger and freight trains non-stop. We all know that we need to move more traffic onto rails, here it is already fully in progress.

At the 20-schilling lookout, I meet a gentleman from Nippon who bought every photographic equipment that Nikon produces. He came here all the way from Salzburg, just to take this shot. To say something different from what I am really thinking, which is that I find his long journey for a photo a bit over the top, I mention: “There are quite a lot of trains passing by, aren’t there?” Unimpressed, he retorts: “You  think so?” Well, when you are from Tokyo, you probably have different expectations.

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The place is called the 20-schilling lookout because the view from here was proudly displayed on the banknote of that denomination. When Austria adopted the euro, it was so sad to lose this banknote, it insisted that henceforth all euro banknotes need to show images of bridges.

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20 Alpine dollars also happens to be the price for a return ticket to Vienna, which I would of course like to save. And topography is my friend. Because the hiking trail runs above the railway tracks from time to time and because the trains have to slow down in the narrow bends, I should be able to jump onto a freight train, just like Jack London.

Hopping a train would be easiest during a stop, but the freight trains all rush through from the Austrian Adriatic port in Trieste to Vienna. If I jump down onto the moving train from a bridge, I have to time it really well because I don’t want to land right between two wagons and get crushed to death. I need to hit the roof or the bed of the carriage.

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I have no experience doing this, but I did have physics in high school. Education really makes life so much easier. From Galilei, Brecht and Newton, I remember that objects fall at the same speed irrespective of their weight, given the same aerodynamic drag. So I collect a few stones and let them drop from a bridge onto the moving train. That way, I am trying to ascertain where exactly the carriage needs to be when I jump off, making sure that the stone or I safely land in the center of the wagon.

Because I am even smarter than a physicist, I also calculate that I have a similar air resistance to a stone, but a higher mental resistance. So there will be a longer delay in my jump, increasing the danger that I won’t land exactly in a wagon full of cozy mattresses or Slovenian Christmas trees.

And then the train is gone.

I guess I am more of a theoretical person, after all. So I walk the last kilometers to Gloggnitz quite conventionally, where I law-abidingly purchase a ticket to Vienna, having waved goodbye to my audacious plan. “But one day, I am going to jump onto a freight train and ride across Mexico, I swear,” I am still thinking, as I fall into my bed at home, exhausted from real and imaginary adventures.

Practical advice:

  • The railway trail from Semmering to Gloggnitz is signposted quite well, and there are plenty of interesting boards with information along the way (both in German and in English).
  • There is an alternative route from Semmering to Payerbach or in the other direction from Semmering to Mürzzuschlag. Naturally, all places can be reached by train. Even between these places, you could cut the hike short and catch a train at the closest village.
  • Here you find the essential information (in German only) and a map. If you read German, there is also a guidebook.
  • The walk from Semmering to Gloggnitz (23 km) took me 9 hours, but with plenty and long breaks. If you want a shorter hike, I recommend to walk only to Klamm, which is 15 km from Semmering. That way, you would cover the most beautiful part of the hike, because after Klamm, there is really not much more spectacular scenery.
  • There are only a few places offering food and drinks, so you better take enough with you. If you come by the Blunzenwirt in Breitenstein, only get something to drink. The food there was the worst I have ever tasted in Austria. (And I have cooked myself here.)

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Posted in Austria, History, Photography, Technology, Travel, Video Blog | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

My secular Shabbat

Readers of this blog will have noticed that I am a radical Atheist. But there is one religious idea that I have incorporated in my life, although in a secular version.

It’s the idea of the shabbat, the 7th day of the week, on which one is supposed to rest. I use the Jewish term for this day, because I think it’s the best known, but many other religions have similar recommendations/rules, following a 7-day rhythm, from the Buddhist uposatha to the appropriately named 7th Day Adventists.

The Bible says you are not to shear sheep or to plow the field, but as this wouldn’t really make any difference in the lives of most contemporary believers, there is room for interpretation. Have you ever noticed that theology is a lot like law, just without the democratic legitimacy? Contemporary disputes seem to focus on whether it’s OK to drive on shabbat or to use electricity.

But I am not bound by the Bible or others’ interpretations of it. I don’t have any gods to appease. I have adopted the idea for the sake of my own sanity alone.

So what do I do on my shabbat?

The first point is: no work. Now, most people will say “oh, I already do that. I have Saturday and Sunday off.” But that’s not what I mean. After all, I personally don’t work regularly anyway. I mean: not even thinking about work! And that’s a big difference.

In practice, this means that on my shabbat, I will not read any e-mails, I will turn off my phone, I will not go through any documents that are work-related, I will not try to improve any skills that can be put to use, and I won’t even think or talk about work.

The second point, and it aids the first one tremendously, is to spend the day in nature. It doesn’t need to be anything far or fancy. I usually just go out of the door and walk through the forests and across the fields, until it gets dark. If I felt that I can’t walk that much, I would go to a lake and read a book there (but nothing work-related).

I currently live in the countryside in Germany, which makes this easier than for someone living in Mexico City, I concede that. But when I have lived in cities, I just took the bus to the last stop and started walking from there. Or sometimes I take the train to a town 30 km away and walk back home. It doesn’t really matter, it’s not a sports day, it’s not a competition. The idea is to clear the mind from all the clutter. And you’ll be surprised how soothing nature is.

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The third point might be the most important one: no internet. I wake up in the morning, I pack my backpack and I leave the house without having checked e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. If this is a problem for you, then you are addicted. And most of us are. But once you are outside, enjoying all the shades of green, the fresh flowers, the chirping of the birds, or maybe talking to the farmer in the field or another hiker that you bump into, you will begin to feel the freedom that comes from lack of connectivity. And remember, until about twenty years ago, that’s how we all lived all the time. And we were fine.

Even if you are not into nature, you can follow the third point. You can go to a museum. Or to the library. Or fishing. Or race your bike around the island. Theoretically, you could also do it at home and read Russian literature or play the guitar all day. But at home, I find the temptations too many. There is the TV, there is the computer, there is the phone. And swoosh, you’ll have lost another day to mindless waste of time.

There are three main lessons of the internet-free day: (1) I don’t really need Twitter or Facebook or even the news. When I come home from such days, I realize how much you can get out of a day if you aren’t constantly online. (2) Nobody needs me or my opinion, either. The world continues very well, or just as badly, without my contribution. I am really not important. (3) Without the constant distractions and interruptions, I can have deeper thoughts, think about bigger issues, think differently. I feel that this has an effect on the quality of my thinking, as I am not torn out of any train of thought by a new tweet or a beeping cell phone every few minutes.

Hut von hinten Sierra Maria

You may have noticed that I prefer to do such activities alone, but that’s not necessary. Actually, when I look at many couples and how little they communicate with each other and their children, compared with the time they spend on gadgets, then maybe it would be healthy to spend a day outside, just the two of you, without worrying about likes on Instagraph, being happy to spot a squirrel instead. If that thought scares you more than it fascinates you, then it’s time to end the relationship anyway.

Even with all my skepticism towards technology, I make one exception when I walk around an area that I know and where the novelty effect is low: an MP3 player with one earplug, because one ear should always be open to the sounds of nature. The important difference to a phone or the internet is that I choose ahead of time what I download and what I listen to. I am not lead from clickbait to clickbait. I listen to podcasts about the history of the Incas or about Kant’s categorical imperative (I try to avoid current politics because a lot of it won’t matter in six months), rather than waste my time looking at the 112th photo of cute cats or girls in bikinis. (By the way, guys, you would be surprised how often you come across a secret lake or a secluded bay, with a naked woman walking out of the water, lasciviously asking you if she can use your shirt as a towel. True story.)

I personally don’t even have a regular day of the week for this. Sometimes it’s on the weekend, sometimes during the week, depending on where I am, what I have to do, and on the weather, of course. But it’s the one day of the week that I am always looking forward to. There is delight in being unproductive. After all, we are humans, not machines.

Actually, now that I am thinking of it, maybe I should extend this routine to one week per month.

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Posted in Life, Philosophy, Religion, Technology | Tagged , , , , | 40 Comments

Canmore, the better Banff

In every country, there is a place that everyone, literally everyone, recommends you to visit. Actually, recommend is too weak of a word for the obtrusiveness: “You have to go there!” Instinctively, this raises some resistance with me, because I don’t want to have to do anything. And many of such places are wildly overrated. It leads to tourists driving across the country for hours, only to visit Neuschwanstein or Bran Castle, although there are hundreds of other castles scattered across Germany or Romania that are equally interesting. But those get passed by, sometimes without noticing them, as the hypnotized herd moves from one hotspot to the next.

In Canada, this dubious role falls to the small town of Banff in Alberta. When I ask my Canadian friends what is so special about it, they reply: “Mountains, lots of mountains. And a lake!” Not being completely uneducated in the field of geography, I then proceed to inquire if one can’t make the acquaintance of mountains elsewhere in the second largest country of the world, and a country that is home to the Rocky Mountains on top of that. Bewildered, they reply: “But everybody goes to Banff.” And that’s exactly the reason why I won’t go there.

Granted, I am not very creative either. I simply go to Canmore. Coming from Calgary, that’s about 25 km before Banff. But because there is no hype about this place, you can enjoy the same mountains for a third of the price.

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first view in CanmoreBerge Wald Licht.JPG

I have just arrived, breathe the fresh air and soak up the mountain view (both all the more relaxing after three months in a large city), when a passerby addresses me: “Canmore, it’s a heap of problems.” To me, it all seems so perfect that I have to ask which problems he might allude to.

“Don’t you see the terrible traffic?”

Ehm, no.

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He explains that sometimes, the railway crossing is closed for five minutes and that the cars will then back up, even around the corner. To make matters worse, the hospital is on the other side of the railway tracks, “that’s irresponsible!” Small-town problems.

“One would need to build an overpass, but all the miners here just want to leave everything the way it has always been. I’ve got nothing against the miners, please don’t get me  wrong! After all, they built the town.” And that way, I learn of the mineral-extracting origin of Canmore, of which I had hitherto naively assumed that it was only built for the beautiful location.

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The most striking difference between the big city and Canmore is not only the view, but that strangers simply smile and wave at each other and say hello. Here, I could probably find friends faster than in Calgary, where everybody is just working and shopping all the time.

The most seductive smile is directed at my by a bookstore in the main street, Café Books, but I am already carrying more than enough books with me. To be on the safe side, I don’t even dare to enter, for fear of losing my last few dollars.

Cafe Books front Canmore

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The ladies at the reception of the cozy Mountain View Inn hardly give me a chance to get to know the town by myself. Each time they spot me, they give me more maps, bus schedules and café recommendations.

And every morning, they want to know where I will be hiking that day. “Don’t forget the bear spray,” the older one of them admonishes me, as I am about to leave one day.

“Oh. Where can I get this bear spray?”, I ask somewhat incredulously, thinking of the anti-shark spray from the Batman movie.

“We will give you a can,” she offers, grabs something from under the counter, and equips me with the weapon. Good that I am not a pacifist.

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Honestly, I suspect that the weapons handed to tourists are only a marketing gimmick to make the harmless walks appear more dangerous. Like the life vests on rubber dinghies.

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On the other hand, maybe the bears are real and come all the way into town. Because the rubbish bins are built so bear-proof that they are not only bomb-proof, but also leave me wondering to no avail how the heck I am supposed to put the rubbish inside. I give up.

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Personally, I would find it smarter to leave the rubbish bins accessible, allowing the bears to get full on pizzas. Then, they wouldn’t need to devour humans. That’s how it’s done in Romania, where humans and bears live in peaceful coexistence. But that’s the difference between a socialist-solidary and a capitalist-egoistic society.

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It’s only the end of March, but spring is already raging. The snow on the south-facing hills is melting. The bears are just waking up. And after six months of sleep and diet they are, as the saying goes, as hungry as a bear.

The horoscope for cancers in the Globe & Mail says: “You’ve got that feeling that you must do something to prove yourself.” I understand that as an encouragement to go bear hunting.

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On the bus to Canmore, I spoke with a girl who only went to Banff for one day. She would have a couple of hours to walk around there, before heading back to Calgary. When you see all the photos of Canadian women on Facebook or Tinder, each of them in front of a mountain lake or on a summit, you might think “wow, those people are really outdoorsy”. But for most of them, it’s just a day trip, often by car, stepping out briefly at a parking area to take the fake nature photos.

“I heard that the most beautiful hike in Canada is in Banff,” she explains. Just for that, she flew to Alberta. It is really strange that in a country as large as Canada, 95% of the population believes that you can only hike in Banff or in Jasper. A mere 10 km to the south or the east, they already think it’s a terribly stupid idea. Outdoor spirit this is not.

A friend from Calgary also once wanted to seduce me to Banff, but she only had time for a day trip. “For lunch, there are three options,” my guide began to plan, “there is a burger restaurant, where everybody goes when they are in Banff. Then there is …” I dared to interrupt her and point out that I would go to Banff for the mountains and lakes, the bears and the forests. Especially if I only had one day, I definitely wouldn’t waste two hours of the still scarce daylight in a restaurant. “I’d rather get a Snickers bar from the gas station and spend more time in the mountains,” I explained, but she didn’t understand.

Thus, I went alone. To Canmore instead of Banff. And for a whole week, not just a measly day.

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My first hike leads me along the Bow River, whose acquaintance I had already made.

Bow River (2)Bow River (3)Bow River (4)Bow River (5)Bow River duck

In this kind of nature, I almost want to get lost. Some of the river’s tributaries are still frozen over, granting access to islands or to the opposite shore, although sometimes, it crackles alarmingly as I run across the ice. Alternatively, I cross the river on toppled trees.

Bow River EisBow River Baumstamm

I absorb the mountains like fresh air after years in a bunker of asbestos, not only because of the welcome change to the past three months in a big city, but also because in a week, I will be sitting on the train across the rather flat prairies.

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And thus I walk and walk, always following the river. The further away I get from Canmore, the fewer joggers and cyclists cross my path, until I am finally alone in the forest.

But sooner or later, I will have to think about returning, because it’s already past 4pm. And exactly in that moment, I reach a road with a bus stop. An exemplary bus stop even! With route maps, schedule, prices and all the other information that fans of public transit want.

bus stop Canmore

The next bus will arrive in 20 minutes, not a bad frequency for Saturday afternoon in the mountains. Until then, I will try to get back into town by hitchhiking. After 25 failed attempts, a red BMW stops. The driver welcomes me with the words “usually, I never stop for hitchhikers”, and I thank him profoundly for making an exception. Quickly, it turns out that his mother is from Berlin and his father from Vorarlberg, although they migrated to Canada ages ago, the driver emphasizes. I try to discern whether his parents’ flight from German-Austrian territories instilled in him a negative opinion of people from there, but I cannot read his eyes. Like everybody in Canmore, the driver wears sunglasses at all times. Maybe this town is a nest of spies?

He recommends a certain hike and the Legion, a home for veterans, as the place with the cheapest beer. And then the ride is already over. It’s sad that hitchhiking has been made illegal on some roads in Canada, while not on others. That confuses drivers and they never stop at all. And it would be such a wonderful way to get to know the country and the people.

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From my spacious corner suite at the aptly named Mountain View Inn, I look at the most alluring group of mountains in the valley, the Three Sisters, each time I wake up and each time I fall asleep.

Three Sisters dayThree Sisters night

But these little Matterhorns are all too inaccessible, too steep and too dangerous for a hobby hiker like me, especially now that there is still snow. So, the rule for the Three Sisters is: I can look, but not touch.

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The next morning, on the bus to the Nordic Center, I meet a guy from Whitehorse, a small but capital town in the Yukon. “We are only 30,000 people, but”, he adds with pride, “we have a direct flight to Frankfurt.” He has been to Germany himself for a conference about wood-based construction and to look at a few factories. Industrial espionage, in other words. But now, he works as a wood-construction engineer and is in Canmore for a few months.

He uses his free Sunday to go cross-country skiing where the Olympic Nordic skiing events were held in 1988. In order to still have snow well into spring (it’s early April by now), huge heaps of snow are piled up on mountainsides that are not reached by the sun. Those are covered with sawdust to slow the melting process. The inventory is so enormous that there will still be snow from the previous year left in fall, allowing the skiing season to being in September.

ski cross-country Canmore

To prepare for the next winter, tons of sawdust need to be produced. Building the wooden houses is really only a byproduct.

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From the ski trail, I want to hike to the two Grassi Lakes, but the path leads through a conservation area, where deer is being reforested. I like to break rules, but in this case, Bambi rules, so I have to find a different way.

Luckily, there is a map at the skiing center. With its help and taking a close look at the surrounding mountainscape, I try to memorize in which direction the lakes are. I spot a gap between Ha Ling Peak and Mount Rundle. That’s where I need to go.

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The straight line to where I suspect the lakes is a bit steep, but it’s even steeper to the left and the right of it. Also, the map shows a creek, so it can’t be terribly steep.

Yesterday was that premature summer day, so the ice on a lower-lying lake is no longer strong enough for me to walk across. Or is it? No, with increasing age and weight, I am becoming more cautious.

See Eis

Hence, I have to circumnavigate the little Arctic Ocean, without losing sight of the destination. At that time, the question why I insist on climbing to the higher-lying Grassi Lakes when I have another lake right in front of my eyes, as legitimate as it may sound, doesn’t even cross my mind.

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The hillside about to be crested is facing north and thus still full of snow. Even more dangerous than snow, especially at an angle far steeper than 45 degrees, it’s covered in ice. I am pulling myself from tree to tree, rather than my boots finding a grip.

The little stream doesn’t run at ground level, after all, nor as peacefully as I had thought. In reality, it throws itself down a wall of rock with thunderous roars. The same wall that I am trying to ascend, so the water and me are competing for space.

Wasserfall1Wasserfall2

At the mountaintop, the heat of the sun is melting the snow, resulting in tons of water rattling down. As the sun will rise and become warmer in the course of the day, that should get even worse. I just hope that the waterfall won’t widen, because I can’t move to the right either, where there is a wall of ice, as hard as stone and as smooth as the Olympic toboggan track.

Eiswand mit Aussicht

Now I understand why Louise from the Tourist Information had said something about crampons and ice axes. Naturally, I was too stingy for either.

I am battling forward, upward, meter by meter. My hands are scraped by rocks. My breath is panting, probably more for fear than exhaustion. Remember, snow-melt time is bear-wake-up time. And in this terrain, I couldn’t run anywhere.

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Suddenly, the sun disappears. Everything is covered with clouds. First, it becomes foggy, then outright bleak and spooky. Is that already nightfall? I don’t think so, because it was still before noon when I began the climb. Following adventure rule no. 19, I didn’t take a watch.

Nebel1Nebel2Nebel Gipfel.JPG

So, now the waterfall on the left will soon freeze over, and I will be trapped like in the eternal ice of Antarctica, just vertically.

The wind is howling, the trees are creaking, the sky looks as grim as if it regards my little hiking plan as a great affront. The hillside is becoming ever steeper, gravity ever more of a lethal enemy.

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And that’s the end. Sadly.

From my position, I can’t tell how close I am to the lakes, or whether I am even moving in the right direction. But I do see that I can’t continue. The wall above me is now really too steep and too icy. Disappointed, I realize that turning back is the only way to save my life.

Ende Gelände 1Ende Gelände 2

Back to Earth, I slide with little elegance. Good that nobody sees me, except for a squirrel. But if I will receive any donations for this article, I will have to use them for a new pair of pants. At least the descent is pretty rapid, and the injuries limited to a few further scrapes and some bruises.

Without the bloody ice, I would have made it. I believe. Therefore, in summer, I can wholeheartedly recommend the path. Just follow the waterfall!

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The further hike does lead me to a lake, eventually, namely to Quarry Lake, the remnant of an exhausted surface mine.

Quarry lake 1Quarry lake 2

I am just as exhausted as the mine, fall down in the grass and celebrate having survived another folly by smoking a few life-shortening Marlboro cigarettes, which aren’t allowed to be called Marlboro in Canada.

But that’s a story for another time. Now, you want to hear more about the mines. In 1887, the extraction of coal began in Canmore. The main customers were the steam engines, which is why the transcontinental railway was built through this beautiful scenery and why even today, impressively long freight trains thunder past at least once per hour.

Eisenbahn1Eisenbahn2

Unfortunately, steam trains went out of fashion (probably the fault of Greenpeace or other tree-huggers), and on Friday, 13 July 1979, the mine closed. That established the superstition that Fridays which coincide with the thirteenth day of the month bring bad luck. But that’s an erroneous belief. In reality, superstition itself brings bad luck.

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The mine’s head engineer, Gerry Stephenson, was an enthusiastic angler and had a better idea than simply filling up the ugly hole. Finally, he would be able to fly-fish at home in Canmore. And thus, the lake was born.

In town, the building of the miners’ union reminds us of that not-very-old history, but to my disappointment, I don’t meet any miners there who could tell me about forgotten gold mines.

Miners Union Canmore.JPG

They are probably all taking advantage of the cheap beer at the Legion.

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Sitting by Quarry Lake, I finally ask myself why I didn’t walk here comfortably in the first place, taking a book to read by the lake, instead of hunting for lakes in alpine and arctic conditions. I don’t understand why I do things like this again and again. After all, I am really not an ambitious person. Higher, faster, farther was never my motivation.

Bigger, more, costlier, however, is the motivation of a couple, to whose argument I have to listen because they carry it out so loudly. They debate how big the new house should be, how close it should be to the lake and how wide the driveway has to be. Some materialists cannot even pause in nature.

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Speaking of houses: This blue lagoon looks beautiful, but it smells horribly. Through a pipeline, the sewage from the built-up areas, devouring ever more nature, is pumped into the ecosystem.

blaue Lagune.JPG

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In the evening, there is snow, even down in the valley. If I had stayed in the mountains longer, there would not have been a happy ending. Tomorrow, I’ll go for a relaxing day.

Schnee1Schnee2

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As I return to the motel, there is a power outage. “Because of some explosion,” as the ladies from the reception explain, inviting me to join them in the tea room around some candles, because “there isn’t any light or internet in your room anyway.” (Many people believe that internet would be necessary to survive.)

When they ask me about my plans for the next day, I have to think of something on the spot: “I guess I am going to walk to Banff.” That’s about 25 km.

They tell me that they once had a guest who ran all the way to Banff and back. Well, by comparison, my plan is rather relaxing then.

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From the motel window, I not only see the temptation of the unassailable Three Sisters, but plenty of rabbits hopping around. I will encounter them every day, everywhere in town.

KaninchenKaninchen (2)

21

So, the next morning, I set off early to walk all the way to Banff, to visit a place that everyone expect me desperately wants to see (oh, the things I do for you, the curious reader) and to save the 6 $ for the bus.

On the map, I saw that the Trans Canada Trail leads from Canmore to Banff. Irritatingly though, this trail also leads the hikers astray. Because this long-distance trail, crossing Canada from coast to coast, mostly follows highways or paths right next to highways. I don’t want to be too harsh, but this long-distance trail is the worst and most redundant hiking trail in the world. It is a big deceit, an annoyance, an utter failure.

This is how the Trans Canada Trail looks like in Banff National Park:

Autobahn1Autobahn2Autobahn3Autobahn4

And once on that path, there is no escape. On the right is the highway, on the left there is a high fence for many miles. It felt like running in a corral, except that animals in a zoo are granted more distance from the road. At the few points where there is an opening in the fence, you reach a railway track or would soon need to walk through a river.

Skelett BahnlinieFluss zw Canmore und Banff.JPG

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So, if you are planning to go to Canada for hiking, you better turn around right away and go to Britain or Austria, where hiking trails are really made for hikers.

If you do insist on crossing Canada on foot, look for an electricity route. They are wide enough for a whole army to march through. And you will always have juice for your cell phone.

Stromschneise2Stromtrasse.JPG

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Just once, there is a lookout point, where you are allowed to run around in the grass a bit, after entering through a grille with a bear warning.

The view is great from here, I readily admit that, but the only reason for the rest area is because it’s a parking by the highway. Canada seems to be a country for cars, not for people.

Still, I cherish the break, urgently needed after marching on concrete for hours. Before unpacking the lunch, just to be on the safe side, I take the bear spray from my backpack and read the instructions on the confusingly detailed bear-warning board.

bear warning Banff.JPG

First, it explains the difference between black and grizzly bears. I am advised to pay attention to the shape of the shoulder and the face, as well as the claws. Those measure up to 4 cm in the case of the black bear, whereas those of the grizzly bear measure at least 5 cm. Truly a very helpful piece of advice in the case of an attack! But what about a baby grizzly? In the end, it all doesn’t matter, because the zoological crash course also explains: “Both species are able to climb trees and to swim.”

Then, I am instructed what to do if I wanted to avoid encountering bears: walk in a group, be loud and not unpack any food. I happen to do the opposite of everything, which is just as good, as I really do want to meet a bear.

But what when the bear will show up? Then, I am supposed to differentiate between different moods that the bear might be in. If it makes noise, growls, snaps its jaws and charges at me, then – to my great bewilderment – it is a defensive bear. All of those are allegedly signs of a bluff charge, although the board fails to mention any good reason why the bear should do such a silly thing. In that case, I am supposed to retreat slowly and, if necessary, spray the bear spray into the bear’s face (if the wind is coming from the right direction, which I will still have to determine then, because otherwise the poison knocks me out instead of the predator). If the bear does touch me, I should fall on the ground and pretend to be dead. This position has to be maintained until the bear has left. If the contact has however made the bear aggressive (yes, that could happen too), then the advice is: “Fight the bear with any means!”

If, on the other hand, the bear is calm, watches me and follows me around, then it is an aggressive bear or, as it is called in diplomatic Canadian, a non-defensive bear (political correctness gone mad). In that case, I have to make myself as big as possible (how? by jumping up and down?), cause noise, proceed to a secure location (great idea!) and then fight the bear with anything I can find: bear spray, sticks, rocks. But: “Only use the bear spray if the bear is about 5 meters away from you.” The guidelines make no mention of panic.

I have studied law, but there are far too many ifs and buts, worse than in an IRS regulation. And how stupid do you have to be to lie down on the ground when a bear is coming closer? Especially when you are, as advised, hiking in a group. I would run as fast as I can. A new hiking buddy or a new girlfriend can always be found, particularly when you are a world-famous blogger.

Rucksack Rastplatz.JPG

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The rest area would also be the only place from where I could hitch a ride, but only in the direction which is not in line with the plan for the day. Because you can’t get to the other side of the road, and anyway, there is no shoulder for hitchhikers, nor for hitchhiker-friendly drivers.

This trail is such a dread, I am already beginning to dream of a bear eating me. But only a cute squirrel lies in wait for me.

squirrel

25

Looking at all the nature around me, you are surely wondering “Is there really no other way?” But it really isn’t that easy. In winter, I could walk on the frozen river, but too much of the ice has already melted.

The other alternative from Canmore to Banff leads across the massive Mount Rundle massif with its six summits. To the left of it is Canmore, to the right Banff, meaning that you have to cross all summits on the way. That really would be a bit of a stretch for one day.

Mount Rundle sunny.JPG

And today, it’s also rather foggy up there.

Mt Rundle fog.JPG

26

Judging by the pain in my legs, I should already be in Banff. But first, I reach a small cemetery in the forest. Or actually a large cemetery with a small occupancy. Just a handful of dead people are enjoying the sight of the mountains.

cemetry with mountain view Banff.JPGcemetery2

A wolf or a coyote is roaming around, hoping to increase the population of the institution. It seems to see a candidate for an imminent demise in me, because it keeps following me closely and curiously.

Kojote1Kojote2Kojote3

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A few more kilometers further, this time on a bike path, again directly next to the road, finally there is Banff, this most eulogized town in Canada. Tourism seems to be booming, because I see hotels to the left and the right, some of them as huge as if they wanted to compete with the mountains in the background.

After marching 25 km, I have earned a can of coke, I would think. But the shops sell only Fjällräven, North Face and Harley Davidson (offering 50% discount on motorbikes). Canmore also lives from tourism, but there, you have at least normal pizza and kebab places – and the bookstore. In Banff, that spot is taken up by jewelers. It is a show-off town, quite fitting for all the people coming here for a day, eating an overpriced burger, taking a snapshot in front of mountain background from the side of the road, feeling like big adventurers.

I never thought that I would one day have to explain this: If you can buy diamond diadems from Cartier in a place, then you are not in the wilderness!

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And there is another difference that I notice. In Canmore, people smile at me, the stranger, and some even say hello. In Banff, nobody does that. Here, people only look at me dismissively because there is a hole in my pants and because I take off my shoes while resting next to the lake.

Banff1Banff2

But because my articles only become interesting through interactions with other people, I chat up a lady walking around the lake. She has just arrived in Banff and therefore hasn’t internalized yet that hobos must be ignored.

Emma has left the cycle of stress and work, in her case at the BBC, because she “didn’t want to do what the masses do”. Thus, she ended up in Banff, Canada’s no. 1 tourism destination with more than 4 million annual visitors, and is now training to be a ski instructor. This is what all the “downshifters” from New Zealand, Ireland and Australia are doing here. Surprising, no shocking, how many of those super individualists are doing exactly the same as their colleagues.

Undiplomatically, I cannot fail to withhold my opinion, whereupon Emma accuses me of emitting “negative vibes” and walks on, probably to yoga or something else that is mighty spiritual or mindful.

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My advice to visitors to the Rocky Mountains: Canmore is the better Banff. The mountains are the same anyway. The weather is also equally unstable in both places. And there is a bus connecting both towns, for only 6 $, so save yourself that trail.

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The next day, I prefer to go hiking in the area around Canmore again. In Cougar Creek, there is, unsurprisingly, a warning of cougars. Damn it, I don’t have the right spray with me. But I am not even reading all the rules and instructions today. Probably, cougars are even more complicated than the already over-regulated bears.

warning cougars.JPG

I follow the path to Mount Lady MacDonald, because that sounds as if there will be a snack stall at the summit. The trail is quite steep, but not tough. A beautiful forest path with great views.

view from Mount Lady MacDonald 1view from Mount Lady MacDonald 2

There are more hikers here than on the other trails. Repeatedly, I pass young people sitting by the wayside, taking a rest. Others are already jogging down from the summit, those are the early risers. Two elderly men stand in the middle of the path, directing my attention to a chubby bird that doesn’t seem to be overly shy. On their phone, they have calls of the female wood grouse to attract the male grouse. But the bird is too smart to be fooled into boinking a smartphone.

Auerhahn.JPG

As we introduce each other, it turns out once again that everybody around here speaks German. László’s parents were Hungarians from territories that are now part of Romania and Serbia, respectively, and he himself was born in Bavaria at the end of World War II. But as Hungarians, his parents “of course” spoke German (Antal Szerb and his remarks about German as a Weltsprache come to mind), which they used to communicate when young László was not supposed to understand. So, he taught himself German with adventure novels by Karl May. Even now, 60 years later, he can recount some of the titles in German: Im Land der SkipetarenDurchs Wilde KurdistanDer Schut. The other gentleman, Chris from England, who also has been living in Canada for decades, is learning German because he loves to listen to Richard Wagner’s operas.

We notice that we could get along, and the two gentlemen are hiking together every week anyway, so they are happy to include me in their little hiking group. Both of them are older than 70, but they are noticeably faster than me. When I reach that age, I also want to be that fit.

Laszlo and Chris.JPG

But the conversation is so interesting that I don’t even notice the effort and the scarcity of oxygen. Both of them have traveled far and are well-informed. László has lived in Iranin Brazil and in Peru, and we talk about the world, about the European Union, about Romania, about right-wing parties in Germany, about universities, the elections in Alberta, about the Baltics, about Cuenca in Ecuador, and before I noticed it, we have reached the old tea house, of which only a wooden platform is left. Instead of McDonald’s, we have some apples, cereal bars and the view.

view from Mount Lady MacDonald 3.JPG

The actual summit is another few hundred meters higher, almost at 3,000 m, but it looks pretty steep and there is a very thin ridge up there. In consideration of the two elderly gentlemen, I unfortunately have to deprive myself – and thus you – of that adventure.

Ok, honestly, that kind of ridge wouldn’t have been for me anyway.

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The path down is of course easier than the ascent, but time also flies because of the animated debates we are having. This time, the subjects are cars, ecological taxes, the Treaty of Trianon, dual education and training, Canadian federalism, British industrial policy, traffic in Tehran, landmines in Bosnia and high-speed trains.

Only as I get back to town, I realize that we had been talking so much that I hardly took any photos of the hike. Well, it shouldn’t matter, you have already seen enough mountains and trees by now.

This encounter once again confirms my theory that traveling is best done alone. If I had been hiking as a couple or a group, I hardly would have spoken with strangers for hours, and I wouldn’t have learned anything new.

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These bicycle repair and air-pump stations are an idea that should be copied worldwide.

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Finally, one of the receptionists at the motel tells me the reason for the number of cute bunnies in Canmore: “Someone had a rabbit farm and went bankrupt. He didn’t have the heart to sell the bunnies,” (I wonder if therein lies the reason for the bankruptcy) “and released them all”.

Kaninchen (3).JPG

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After I have already explored as much as I could on foot, I finally need a car to get into the higher mountains. Renting is too expensive. Stealing could pose legal problems, and to be honest, I don’t even know how to open a car door without a key, let alone start the engine.

So I have to resort to a trick. I invite a friend to visit me in Canmore, allowing him to escape his children for a day. It works. The photographer Edward Allen, already an old friend to regular readers of this blog, comes to Canmore for a day and we go into the mountains south of the town, past the Grassi lakes, which had caused me so much suffering some days ago.

But today, we don’t care about these little puddles. We want to go higher, to bigger lakes, to farther views and into thinner air.

Photo by Edward John AllenPhoto by Edward John AllenHochgebirge1Hochgebirge2Hochgebirge3

In the ice-cold wind and the absolute silence, we both feel reminded of the Himalaya, where none of us has ever been.

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A snow groomer has drawn a trail around one of the lakes, which we follow appreciatively. In this remoteness, I would normally be afraid of bears, but Edward talks non-stop and so loud, that even Bigfoot would take to its heels.

And that way, I finally get some new outdoor photos of myself.

Photo by Edward John AllenPhoto by Edward John Allen

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For food, we finally go to Café Books to support the local literary scene. The whole week, I had been avoiding it, to not get tempted, and now I see that it is indeed a treasure trove. Luckily, I am broke.

The café is in a separate annex for used books, probably to prevent the new books from taking on the flavor of the curry.

Cafe BooksCafe Books survival books

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On the day of departure, I can still afford a taxi for the few kilometers to the Tourist Information, whence the bus to Calgary leaves. The taxi driver is still waiting with me for the bus, “because I don’t have any business that early in the morning anyway”, and we talk for about 15 minutes, during which he invites me to a cup of coffee, which takes up a considerable part of the fare I paid.

I really like small towns.

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Practical advice:

  • I stayed at the Mountain View Inn, which was cozy, spacious and affordable. If you use Booking through this link, you receive a discount of 15 €, also for all other hotels worldwide.
  • In summer, the cheapest ride from Calgary to Canmore/Banff is the On-It bus (10 $), in winter Banff Express (30 $).
  • In Canmore and in Banff, the local Roam Transit is quite good. Some of the routes go a bit into the mountains, from where you can start your hikes. You don’t really need a car.
  • One bus line regularly commutes between Canmore and Banff (for 6 $) and runs until around 10pm. Because accommodation is much more expensive in Banff, it even pays to stay in Canmore if you want to spend more time in Banff.
  • If, like me, you forget/lose your adapter for European appliances and need a new one, you will be helped professionally at “The Source”, opposite from the “Canadian Tire” in Canmore.
  • If you run out of books during your trip, your heart will jump with joy as soon sa you enter Café Book.

Links:

Posted in Canada, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Easily Confused (66) Influencer

People who call themselves “influencers”, but don’t influence me at all:

instagram-influencers-slammed-for-taking-sick-sexy-hazmat-selfies-in

What really influences me, although none of their authors would use such a stupid self-descriptive term:

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Influenza:

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The last one can be pretty influential, actually. It definitely impresses me more than girls with selfie sticks.

I myself am more of a thinkfluencer than an influencer.

Links:

Posted in Books, Language | 2 Comments

Ceaușescu in North Korea

When I lived in Romania, some people said about the long-term dictator, who was overthrown in 1989: “You know, in the beginning, Ceaușescu was not even that bad. After he came to power in 1965, he distanced Romania from the Soviet Union. And many things relaxed. Not dramatically, but it was a thaw of sorts.”

Internationally too, Nicolae Ceaușescu took Romania on a different course than most Eastern European countries, maybe comparable to Yugoslavia under Tito. Still a Warsaw Pact country, Romania did not participate in the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, and Ceaușescu openly condemned the intervention. He maintained political and economic relations with the West, receiving for example Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon in Romania.

“But then, everything changed in 1971.”

“Why?”, I ask, not being able to remember anything dramatic in world history from that year.

“Ceaușescu got invited to North Korea. And there he saw the personality cult for Kim Il-Sung, the total control of all aspects of society, the combination of nationalist and communist ideology, the idea of self-sufficiency of a country. When he came back, he wanted to turn Romania into a European version of North Korea.”

I am always skeptical of simple or monocausal explanations for historical developments. But when you watch a video of the reception in North Korea, you have to admit, one can see how that could go to Mr Ceaușescu’s head.

And indeed, just a few weeks after the visit to North Korea, Ceaușescu  published the so-called July Theses, rolling back previously granted freedoms for the press, for writers and other intellectuals, for universities. The thaw had ended abruptly.

If you have friends who are planning to travel to North Korea, better be careful! You don’t know how it will mess them up. (You should also be suspicious if your own president seems to be rather keen on getting invited to North Korea.)

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While the effect of the state visit by Ceaușescu in 1971 on Romania has been widely known or claimed, the effect on North Korea has been overlooked. Trying to impress the Romanian leader, the North Korean state spent almost one year preparing for the festivities. The expense in money and human resources (all the people in the parade could not work in the fields or in factories while rehearsing for the performance) was a huge drain on the North Korean economy, from which the country never recovered.

Nowadays, people don’t remember, but until 1971, North Korea was economically on par with South Korea.

For about 20 years after the momentous visit, you notice that the North Korean reported GDP is a flat line. Obviously that doesn’t reflect reality. It went downhill the year after everything was blown on costumes and balloons, but nobody wanted to admit it, so the North Korean chief economist simply kept using the numbers from the previous year. So, Ceaușescu not only ruined one country, but two. Good that he was executed.

But at least we got a catchy tune from the summit.

Links:

Posted in Cold War, Economics, History, Music, North Korea, Politics, Romania, Travel | 13 Comments