My last week or so of travel has been one of the highlights of the trip thus far. After picking up my backpack in Sofia, Bulgaria, I spent about a day and a half riding the rails until finally reaching Zdiar, Slovakia. This traditional Slovak village is at the base of the High Tatras, the western edge of the Carpathian Mountains- the range forms a natural border between Northern Slovakia and Southern Poland. I spent a couple lazy days at a rural hostel there meeting some interesting travelers, watching Germany get beat in the world cup, and trying one of Slovakia's most well known beers, Zlaty Bazant (Golden Pheasant).
The extra time committed to traveling off the beaten path was very much worth it. The scenery in the High Tatras is absolutely striking--the only place I can think of for comparable views would be Glacier National Park in Montana. After acquiring a good map of the area and enough food for a couple days, I found an interesting trail that would transverse the Slovakian side of the range, summit Poland's highpoint, Mt. Rysy (pronounced REE-shee), and descend Rysy's north face into Poland and eventually the tourist town of Zakopane. A mountain chata (basically a chalet for those familiar with Alps trekking) was perfectly situated on the Slovak side of the mountain near the border and summit. The hostel staff in Slovakia offerred to make the reservation for me. Unfortunately, they could not get through the entire day prior to my departure. I decided to press on anyway, and when I arrived at the chata, after several hours of ascending, crossing stunning lakes and alpine snowfields (in July), the reason they were unscuccesful in contacting the chata was abundantly clear. The building had half the roof ripped off and was clearly under renovation. Fortunately, they were still selling drinks, so I bought a coffee (only one euro on top of a mountain, I was impressed), took a look at the map and decided to press on. It turned out being about a 10 hour hike to get to a bus on the other side, but fortunately Tony and I's time on the Lycian Way in Turkey made this trek feel like just another day at the office (4,000 feet of elevation gain, 23 kilometers). Although I will say the descent into Poland on the Rysy trail was quite challenging--the Park Staff has attached chains to the rock with stanchions to assist you during the descent--lots of exposure. One last note--I had the great fortune of seeing two fairly rare animals during the descent on the Polish side--a Red Deer (something of a cross between a Mule Deer and an Elk) buck with antlers in full velvet, and the Tatra Chamois, the Tatra's version of the Mountain Goat. Both greatly enhanced an already very rewarding trek.
After two nights in Zakopane, Poland, I caught a bus to Krakow where the plan is to meet up with Tony at a hostel just south of the Old Town. If all goes to plan we'll be catching up on the last month tomorrow over breakfast.