I couldn’t stay away from the High Tatras for long. Just three weeks after my first visit to Ždiar, I was longing for mountain air and alpine views. I was also pretty excited to curl up in my comfiest clothes and hot cocoa in the cozy Ginger Monkey common room.
The day we arrived in the Tatras turned out to be utter perfection. Crisp air, stunning vistas complete with character-adding cows, and sunrays streaming through mountain peaks like nobody’s business.
Once we were blissed out from a short trek through rural Slovakian perfection (which also included the hostel’s perfect dog, Wally), we decided we had to take on the Polish Lake hike the next day to continue our fantastic outdoor weekend, questionable weather forecast or not.
The drizzle and overcast that greeted us Saturday morning should have been an omen that this day would not be like the last. But ever the optimists, just before 10 a.m. we took a bus that took us to the Slovakian-Polish border. There we walked crossed a bridge over a small river into Poland. While it really is no different than driving, it just feels very dramatic to walk over an international border, and so, we documented with equally dramatic photography.
From the border we flagged down a new bus to take us to Tatra National Park, the location of our hike. This bus driver, as I suspected, had no problem taking my Euros instead of Polish Zloty. (Of course allowing for a horrendous exchange for me, but these are the sacrifices you make for the thrill of walking over ATM-less borders.)
Upon arrival we found the park to be unexpectedly packed for a dreary October morning. However, I always love to see people out enjoying their local natural treasures, and therefore I was more than happy to endure the crowds and traditional Polish horse carts near the park entrance. We walked alongside the crowds on a paved road for about 20 minutes before our the red trail we were told to follow veered into the woods. While we were somewhat wary that the masses continued on to what you would assume to be some sort of landmark (a Polish lake perhaps?), the directions seemed very clear and thus we began our trek up the mountain.
As soon as we entered the forest it became clear that the Polish Tatras were mystically beautiful. Nearly an hour up the mountain it became it also became clear that we should have stuck with the masses a little longer. The trail was intriguing, all shrouded in mist and fog, but it certainly wasn’t the route described on our map. (It’s funny how precise a small paragraph can for a seven-hour hike can seem until it’s not.) However, based on our limited map it appeared we may have been starting to do the route backwards, and based on our limited time continuing was the only way to go if we wanted to see any lakes. So continue we did.
Fast forward through three and a half hours of scrambling up and down rocky paths and sloshing through semi-frozen mud with a a growing feeling of dread that this path certainly is not the same route backwards. And that our evening may be spent huddling under some Polish boulders rather than curled up on the Ginger Monkey couch. Of course we came across beautiful and rugged Tatra scenery, but it was all tainted by a feeling this path wasn’t quite right. I was 90% sure we still hadn’t come across any lakes, but with visibility as limited as it was, we could have been walking on their banks and never known it.
Miraculously, after Chris and I were beginning to feel like Sam and Frodo wandering in circles in the rocky terrain of Mordor (sorry to drop too many LOTR comparisons, but this one is really spot on, bad attitudes and all), we came across a mountain refuge. Here there were real maps. Maps that highlighted just how ridiculous our map and our simple backwards trail hypothesis really was. The sprawling park’s color-coded trail system is far more intricate than we expected and we were much farther off-track than we hoped.
We resorted to finding an escape route that would give us a hope of making it back to Slovakia before the last bus left the border. So we trudged back bummed out and defeated by our lack of lake sightings and insufficient map reading skills. Our spirits were lifted only when we passed another supposedly stunning lake, only to see a sea of grey mist.
At least if we didn’t see any lakes, nobody was seeing any lakes. Bitter, but surprisingly encouraging.
After hour so more of feeling our way through the cloud-infested forest, and about seven and a half hours after our hike began, a wave of relief washed over me with the sight of a kitschy tourist center complete with buses back to the Slovakian border. All I wanted was warm, wooly socks on my wet, aching feet, a hot cocoa trickling down my throat and a furry dog laying in my lap. I dug through wrappers from nuts and cheese and wet gloves and pulled out some Euros for the ride home. I was prepared for a complete rip-off exchange rate and I wasn’t even mad about it. Three Zloty, the driver informed me. Less than 75 eurocents. Perfect, I pulled out a five Euro bill. He could keep the change for all I cared, as long as he got me to the border and made it snappy.
“No Euros,” he scoffed at me. “Only Zloty.” The four shopkeepers I asked in the area all gave me the same response. Even in a park that borders Slovakia, with no ATMs in sight, or in walking distance for that matter. After much pacing and frustration, one bus driver from another route, either out of kindness or just plain pity of our pathetic state, offered us a ride to the nearest town where we could withdrawal some Zloty and catch a bus. This resulted in some sprinting to various ATMs, then to the bus, and then a stressful, clock-watching ride to the Slovakian border.
We crossed the border in an even more dramatic fashion than at first. Sprinting with boots stomping, backpacks flopping and tired legs burning. But when we arrived at the bus stop, we found the vehicle sitting idle, not pulling away without us. It wouldn’t be the first time the schedule had been off or different on the weekend, so I mentally prepared to either fork out 1.5 Euros per kilometer for a cab or make a multi-hour walk back. But, as sometimes happens when most needed, a friendly, yet completely non-English-speaking Slovakian man happened to be waiting just a few steps away. Completely undeterred by our utter lack of Slovakian comprehension, he explained in a brief 20 minutes that he had been to Colorado and some English-speaking entity would be emerging from the woods shortly. (Chris claims he understood these things at least. I did not.) When someone, presumably his daughter, did come traipsing out of the wilderness, she used her translation and research skills and found the driver sleeping inside the bus. From the looks of him when he was abruptly awoken, he may have otherwise continued to do so for eternity.
Anyways, 30 minutes later, we were back at our beloved Ginger Monkey. Once our feet were dry and our bellies were full of wonderous Rustika Pizza, the Polish Lake failure became nothing but a reason to leave our soaked shoes near a heater for the night. The calm and rustic atmosphere of Ždiar soothed our wounded pride and sore legs, leaving the the whole scenario as a comic series of unfortunate events.
However, the quest to witness these Polish Lakes is not over. The scene below is just one thing that ensures return trips will be made to Ždiar, and a stubborn spirit and leftover Polish Zloty ensure that the Polish Lakes will be attempted again, and conquered.