July 14, 2021

Rocky Paths Deliver

Trip to Eastern Sudetes, proving that the hard way is often the right way.

A group of friends organized an extended weekend getaway in Czech Silesia. I have never been to this area before, so before the trip, I searched for some points of interest there. I found that the portion of the Eastern Sudetes where would we go, called Jeseniky, features Czechia's tallest mountain outside the Giant Mountains. "That could be cool to cycle there," I thought and subsequently learned that there are some praised MTB trails around. That's all I needed to know. We did not plan anything specific, but agreed on doing some mountain biking, enjoying the region's landscapes, and taking a break from the daily routine. That all worked, only in quite a different fashion than I imagined.

Improvisation was needed even before I left Bratislava: the rental branch where I booked a car told me that they didn't have one ready. I had to go to a different company, where I got something smaller but still sufficient to carry me and my bike to the meeting point, a ~ four-hour drive north:

Renting a car in any city with a quick turnaround of vehicles can be a thrill for the inner child in men, as the chances are, the ride will be the latest model with plenty of gizmos. The one I got had a dashboard full of large touchscreens and that system of cameras and computery witchcraft monitoring road signs to keep the car in a lane, in case you can't be bothered to drive fall asleep. As with most things, it is a double-edged sword — the touchscreens look sleek but hinder the ease of controlling the car. Each of the functions has a dedicated menu: It is either tuning the radio or changing the fan speed; to switch, one has to look at the screen to see where to touch it. Dedicated knobs in old cars are easy to locate and turn at any time, even bind. Still, by the time I got my head around most of it, it was remarkable. Just in time: I left the freeways to join some winding mountainous roads.

I got a reminder of how nice it can feel to drive.

Day 1

After my arrival and reunion with nice people I hadn't seen in a while, we wondered where to go. Bending over the map, a friend and I noticed a path on a map connecting two peaks near the hotel where we stayed, which looked like a neat introduction to the region.

The road took us into a splendid forest, where we passed rivers and charming rock formations. The air was clean and fresh, and the trees occasionally teased with fine-looking outlooks behind them. It was evident that there was plenty to look forward to tomorrow.

The evening came quickly, bringing more colors to admire and more friendly chatter.

When it neared bedtime, I realized that my last-minute packing bore fruit: I forgot earplugs, a grave mistake when sharing a room with a few snoring folks. Ah-uh.

Day 2


My friends' definition of mountain biking is different from mine. Instead of climbing and riding down some challenging terrain, they like to get from point A to B with ease. We share an affection for a neat wavy environment, but it was apparent that our ideas of the ideal route would differ. As they were in the majority, I joined them for an easy-going ride on well-graded forest roads.

The area is less touristy than other Czech mountain ranges, and when we met other bikers, some 4 out of 5 had e-bikes. All the locals we met were friendly and kind. One of them shared multiple tales about the local places and heroes.

Like many other Czech border regions, this place has a tangled history stained with the nationalistic struggles of the 20th century. At one point, we passed through massive former military grounds with ruins of ammunition depots.

Further into our trip, we continued the time-traveling theme as we entered an open-air gold mining museum with multiple replicas of buildings from the 14th century, the time of the greatest glory of the area. It was accessible free of charge.

Looking at this mill brought intensive flashbacks of the gold rush era structures that I saw in Colorado years ago.

After we got back to the hotel, we went to check out a city nearby with Vincenz Priessnitz's spa complex established in the first half of the 19th century, where we had a nice evening.

After dinner, one friend said that there's a ruin of a medieval castle, Koberstein, only a few kilometers from our hotel, and that we could go to have a look at it. Of course, I was keen. In the end, three of us headed into the dusk, while the rest stayed to chill with wine.

Somewhere three-fourths of the way, we entered a glade where the path got erased by the forest's services' heavy equipment; we had to make our own if we wanted to continue. While it was initially fine with only lots of sticks all over the place, it quickly changed into a mess of loads of uprooted trees from a recent storm. Remember how I said how e-bikes are popular here? Well, my companion contributed to this trend, each having an eb' weighing around 25kg. Not the best when you have to carry them on while climbing over logs. Therefore, my friends thought about bailing out. But I didn't want to call our evening mission off yet, so I offered help. Little did I know that I end up carrying their bikes on my shoulders for the next 100 meters of elevation. Take one, go back for the second... Talking about a proper workout right there! Yet, we managed.

Koberstein castle has no written history, but it was probably built at the end of the 13th century to protect the gold mines around.

The castle was delightful. The idea of getting back the same way was not, tho. I assessed the situation and saw on my map that there should be another path down, not as steep and hopefully without the fallen trees. So we went that way.

It was indeed better, but still a bit rocky, and the sun was long gone at this point. I did some night off-road rides earlier; my companion, not so much — Getting down was just as much of a challenge as getting up. But together, we conquered the hill and happily returned to the hotel. There, most found the desired rest. I, meanwhile, had a front-row seat for a snoring concert.

In meditation, many people focus on their breathing to train their attention, achieve greater awareness and a clear mind, and reach emotional calmness. But when someone, already sleep-deprived, is forced to listen to others' breath, a cacophony from hell, serenity isn't what comes to mind. But what do you do, when you want your friends to get good rest, perhaps to form pleasant memories on our evening adventure? It's either them or me.

Day 3

The next morning, folks didn't want to hear anything about roots and rocks. Pavement all the way. I was a bit grumpy from another sleepless night, but the road started in a forest so beautiful that I couldn't complain.

Still, I thought about the trails we are avoiding. Suddenly, we got to a crossroad where we could either follow a dirt road or join a parallel highway. The group wanted the highway. Oh, that was too much! Traffic, exhaust fumes... If I wanted this, I'd stay in the city. Don't get me wrong, cycling on asphalt is nice for commuting, but for pleasure?

Having a more challenging path to cycle on means that I get to play with the bike, engage in riding, immerse in a state of focus to choreograph movements, and get the timing right, which comes with a rewarding feeling of "I earned it." This concentration orchestrated in pristine mountains equals pure happiness. On the other hand, on a wide, flat road like the one we rode, one easily switches to autopilot. I don't even need to hold the handlebars; the bike goes itself. Relaxing? Maybe. But lacking all the joy of mountain biking.

As I cruised on what felt like a runway, I imagined us from the third-person view and heard a narrative like a TV documentary. That's the kind of stuff my brain produces when the road's this boring. The camera pans to show the group riding bikes, then focuses on me, and the voice comments, "Look at Jakub; he's on vacation, yet pissed off. Can you believe it?" Oh hey! I get back to the first person and reflect on what I just saw. "That's right," I admit, "it is stupid!" It is beyond belief how easy it can be to get annoyed. Friends might not favor trails, but I have friends who like to cycle. And I can afford a vacation, where I ride on a decent bike.. I am physically capable of riding. The longer this continued, the further I expanded the scope on a broader view.

As I reminded myself how fortunate I am, we entered the village of Mnichov with a well-known fish restaurant. They had a pond allowing people to catch fish to eat. We skipped the fishing part but ate trouts they prepared for us. Yum!

With my mind in the right place, I returned with friends to our accommodation. Halfway there, a few of us opted for a short diversion to a rocky formation called Lourdes Cave. Each place here has plenty of legends attached, so they fuel fantasy. I like that.

The day trip wasn't demanding, but I lacked the desire for another night adventure that evening. Friends planned to go hiking tomorrow, and I made up my mind to go ahead and try the famous MTB trails nearby. "Yey!" I think while I'm in bed already. "Let's get some sleep and nail the last da..." ~ "Snoooooor!" Kill me.

I surrender. Anger wouldn't make the situation better, so I opened a book that I brought with me and dove into wintry scenes of New York and the world of its inhabitants. Things got momentarily better, but tomorrow will be tough.

Day 4

I drove to Cerna Voda, a village where the MTB center's trailhead is. Driving a car on that smooth surface was finally the right tool for the job.

I tuned the radio, and they blasted the same hits as always. Yet, since I couldn't remember the last time I listened to the radio, I was okay with it. "I'm your Venus, I'm your fire.." they played, and I thought about how these songs defined moments for so many people. Not much for me, as pop isn't on my usual playlist, but they made for a nice driving soundtrack, and I got to Cerna Voda in no time. It was visible how the trail center brought an economic impact on the region; there were new holiday houses for rent, restaurants, and so on.

The parking lot was full of cyclists, some having bikes more expensive than the cars around. Some dressed up in colorful jerseys, others lubed chains, and there was a relaxed yet buzzing vibe.

Ready and set!

Right next to the parking lot are a few test tracks to get a sense of what is to be expected out on the trails. Some obstacles predict that I am in for a treat.

After I got down the test run, I set off to taste the real deal. One has to climb to get there first, and I felt that I should take it slow to save energy for the downhills. However, the road was smooth and tempted me to pop wheelies, until my inner voice interrupted again: "Didn't you want to conserve energy?" ~ "He's right again," I thought. "I'm glad he's tagging along with me."

Shortly, the road changed to singletrack; it crossed a river and included a couple of technical sections. It was super scenic, so the blogger in me wanted to stop and arrange for an action-filled selfie, but the rider in me didn't want to hear about it. It was too good to stop! I carried on, but I still thought that it'd be good to have some illustration of the trail, so about a kilometer later, I asked two other folks to pose for me; I took a quick shot and continued up.

It was excellent! Trail centers like this are common in Scotland, but they are rather rare in central Europe, magnifying the excitement of being here. Soon, the easy climb was over, and I entered a part made from boulders, many of which were scratched from pedal strikes and chainrings. I managed relatively with ease, but it kept me at the edge; I felt great.

Before the trail went downwards, there was a flat section with these rocks all over. The physicality of this terrain can't be compared with the smooth roads of the previous days, yet I couldn't get enough of it. That's a gym I like.

One thing that I love about MTB is the creativity it offers. One sees terrain, and it's up to them how to tackle it. As I went further into the woods, there was a rock garden in front of me, starting with a nicely shaped triangular stone. With a bit of imagination, that stone looked like a kicker, so I planned to use it to jump over the rocks instead of rolling over them. I preload the bike's suspension, pop, and I'm flying. Alas, my physical state had already passed its prime, and halfway in the air, I saw that I was not going to clear it. My rear wheel landed on the last pointy rock, the tire deformed to hug it, and a loud ding instantly resonated the woods — the unmistakable sound of a rim smashed by a hard surface. A few meters further, the rear wheel got familiarly wobbly. No worries, though; a flat tire is a simple fix.

I utilized the forced break and ate some of the pastry I brought with me. Later, I pumped the tires with a few more PSI than they had, to be on the safe side with pinch flats, and set off again. Then, the trail started to go downhill.

Dear me, if the trail was engaging and fun until now, the steeper declining gradient turned it into heaven. Gravity did the hard work of moving me forward, and I just focused on shifting weight side-to-side, front and rear. Rough segments mixed with banked turns and smoother sections to compose and hit the rocks again. The hard-inflated tires were at the edge of their grip, giving me enough traction to send the bike in the desired direction but still have some thrill in the corners. It felt fantastic.

When I got down to the base, I planned to get myself some refreshments at the local pub. It was a large, dimmed room where they played a mix of the early '90s Prodigy's records. Now that's more relatable than the pop from the radio! Suddenly I was back in my high school years, somewhere in a similarly dark basement with some amazing humans. Back when I could go on without sleep with no hindrance of the day later, regardless of what I consumed that night. Different times. I got a cake and lemonade now and went to the tables outside.

Right, let's get on the rocks again!

I joined a black route, but my fading physical state resulted in riding mistakes. When I saw a rocky staircase ahead of me, I did not think of jumping over this time. I just rolled over. Bash! One of the rocks is bigger than the others, and my chainguard made a mark on the stone. Here we go; I am one of them people. At least, I have that chainguard for a reason. I sensed that I lacked the fitness needed to enjoy the black all the way down, so I retracted to one of the smoother trails, and I was blown away. The trail utilized the local terrain into fab features; one sweet curve turned into another, fun jumps.. It was like a rollercoaster where you decide your speed and how much airtime you get.

Oooh, what a ride! When I got down again, I finally took a selfie, too. It isn't very fancy, but it shows a smile.

A full-face helmet: wearing it means one thing = excitement's around the corner! It's been ages since the last time!

Later, I drove to say bye to friends, we exchanged stories about our days, and I hit the road again to go home. It was already past sunset when I got down from the hills, yet the lower altitude increased the outside temperature. Speakers banged, "I got my head checked, by a jumbo jet, it wasn't easy, but nothing is..." and I contemplated how these trips serve me like sanctuaries to organize my thoughts and to make sense of my place in this world.

Like with biking, the more challenging life gets, the more memorable moments it generates. I got rejected from my first choice of university — thanks to this, I ended up going to the United States, where I learned more than I would ever do at that first uni. I wanted to finish my undergrad degree there, but I had no money to do so; therefore, I started an incredible job as a photographer instead. I'd probably still be doing it, but then I got denied a work visa extension, and I had to leave. Thanks to this, I set off to finish university after all. I wanted to continue in journalism, but the place I went to study turned out to be a disaster, so I quit it. Thanks to this, I expanded my creativity instead, and I ended up working on fab projects I'd never dream of if the journalism uni would work out. Then, Brexit caused the UK markets to, ummm, slow down, but as a result, I got to spend time in China. Then Covid came, and now I am in Slovakia. "Some of the best things that happened to me started as a failure," I thought while driving. But then, I was ripped from this train of thoughts as I get to the borders.

For Pete's sake, a police officer is stopping me. "Do you have the E-Form?" He asks me.

When I passed the border a few days ago, it was open like during the Schengen Area's good ol'days: working like a dream. But since then, the Slovak government has decided to close all small crossings from neighboring states and enforce checks of the form on the big ones in an attempt to stay on top of the Covid pandemic situation. I get that a form is easier to check than people's health. Still, there was an initiative to create a universal document that would restore the freedom of movement in Europe, but individual states rejected it, and here we come. So many countries, so many forms.

The form Slovakia demands asks where people spent their vacation and their current address, not if they are healthy. I don't have it. But it is midnight; "Everyone wants to go to bed, no?" I think and say, "I have the forms." ~ "Show me," the officer continues. Good grief. So I take a folder with my documents, including the vaccination record, a negative virus test result, and other official evidence that justifies my border crossings. I start browsing the paperwork, thinking about which one I will show the officer when he says, "You won't find it in the folder, mate. It is an online form." Hm, I guess I won't bullshit my way out of this.

"Okay, can I fill it here?" I ask. "Sure, we set aside this humongous parking lot for that purpose," the policeman says as he points to a murky asphalt sea where you'd typically imagine pimps walking in alleys of parked semi-trucks. Now, there's a convoy of police cars, along with several desperate folks typing into their phones. I pull over and join.

It is an utter waste of time: the form asks for an address where I will get checked by police on how I obey quarantining. Then, some 20 lines below, it says that I am, in fact, not subject to the quarantine order. I suck it, finish it, but nobody is controlling the data I wrote. I could have written this article in it, and the officers would be just as happy. But that's fine. It is another challenge to accept. I won't get mad for something this silly this time, no.

Time to finish the drive, think about the perks of democracy, and how obstacles form a prime environment to improve. Once again, I'm impressed that often the most significant thing we can do to change the world towards a nicer place is to change our minds. And how many opportunities to do so we have every day. Like during mountain biking, I sense a breeze of accomplishment that never comes when we get everything served.

Thanks for reading! See my blog archives for more topics and categories, or get in touch.

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories


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