The Wessel Chamber in Wielicka Salt Mine

Blogspot: The adventures of fifteen days in a chamber, 135 metres below sea level

Written by Roger Hartopp

 

Welcome to a new blog for our learners of English as I look back over my three weeks in Wielicka salt mine, near Krakow in Poland.

I would like to say that the blog itself is not intended to be an advertisement or free publicity for the mine or the facilities it has, or a critique of its operations or staff, but simply this is just a story of my experiences of spending fifteen afternoons and early evenings inside a large salt chamber.

WEEK ONE: Settling in

DAY 1, 17 June 2019. Now suggesting that I'm spending fifteen days in a salt chamber is rather misleading (sorry about that). What I should say is that, as I write this, I’m in the process of spending the third of fifteen afternoons and early evenings in some salt mines near Krakow, Poland. I should also say that we – that is, my son and I – weren’t there for fifteen consecutive afternoons; we – that is, around sixty of us – will be let out at weekends for good behaviour.

The actual reason I’m here is that I’m allergic to dust and grass pollen, which if uncontrolled through the likes of using an inhaler or tablets, can result in mild asthma attacks that, for me, usually occur at night. It’s a condition I’ve had for some time, but was only really diagnosed recently. Only I’m not a chronic sufferer; both my son (who is also affected by pollen) and I have been prescribed treatment in the mines, as the salty air apparently is clean, bacteria-free and absolutely ideal for asthma and pollen patients.

The mine itself is based in Wielicka, and it covers a huge area, but I’ll discuss all this more on a later day in this blog when we get a less interesting day to talk about.

On arrival at the Regis mine – only been open for five years – we’re briefed about why we’re here (in the Polish language, of course), before being let down, around twenty people at a time, in a modern lift, about 120 metres. At surface level, it was 25 degrees centigrade. But down at the bottom of the liftshaft, the change in the temperature is pretty noticeable; it was down to about eighteen degrees.

 When we were all together and walked the 500 metres or so to our cavern – in fact, I should call it a chamber – the temperature dropped further to a mere fifteen degrees and, after shown around the Wessel chamber, as it’s named, along with its facilities, it was time to get out the sweaters and pullovers. (We were warned about this, of course, on the Saturday before when we were checked and briefed before our more long-term visit.)

After the rush to try and grab the best tables in the chamber – these were going to be our places for the whole time, so the more experienced knew where to get the best seats – we received another briefing from the doctor which was, I think, just the formalities of what we could and couldn’t do down there. We then all settled down to chat, play games, read or whatever anyone’s brought along to keep themselves entertained before waiting their turn for exercises. My set of exercises were a series of breathing activities and some waving of the arms. In truth, I was just following what everyone else was doing, but it was a little disconcerting to see that my particular sub-group consisted, from my perspective, of people older than me.  I suppose, at this point, say that the majority of the sixty people here are older than me, with a just a handful of children and young-middle aged women. Yes, the vast majority here are women. And one of them is a nun…

Like a low-budget airline, people were starting to wait at the main exit some fifteen minutes before time. This can be for two reasons; one is that they’re either keen, or, more realistically, they’re determined to be in the front of the line as we all march back to the lift to ensure that they’re the first in and so first out the shaft itself and to their cars and buses…

DAY 2, 18 June 2019. We arrive fairly early, and as a result we decide that, next day, we can afford to set off from home a bit later.

There are two entrances/exits into the cave: we go to the far one as this is where our lockers for our sports shoes, other belongings and our blankets are kept. Unless you go out and exercise regularly, you soon start to feel cold and – well, that’s where the blanket comes in.

It’s now a good time to describe my surroundings here. The Wessel Chamber – I think there are two such rehabilitation chambers here at Wielicka – is about the size of the interior of a large church, and just as, well, cavernous. Or should it be chamberous? (No, Microsoft has just red underlined that.) At floor level, I would describe the shape as being like some kind of elongated oval, the centre of which is a salt lake. I’m sitting, typing this, at one end of the oval, among the tables that we all raced for yesterday, and as I walk around in a clockwise direction, there is the main exit out of the chamber. I then pass some areas where you can lie down on a couch and just rest or catch a little sleep. Next, there are the medical facilities and administrative sections, all looking quite newly made and with shiny fresh wood. At the far end there is an open space that has been recently spruced up with lots of wooden panelling, and here is where the more rigorous activities such as dancing and stretching take place. There is a path leading off which is our main entrance, and this is where our lockers are.

Continuing my walk on a pakiet-boarded floor surface, I pass the mirror room where other stretching exercises take place – which I duly did my first set of exercises. Then there’s an area where all the static bikes and treadmills can be found, and then a kind of ‘dining area’, the only real clue of it being so is a cheap looking microwave, which I use to heat up our jar of soup: I learn that it has to be four minutes to get it properly hot.

As I get towards the other end of the oval, there’s a set of shelves that contain four kettles for tea, coffee and packet soup making, and then we finally arrive back at the tables. I estimate the whole walk is about 100 metres, which gives me some idea of what’s needed if I’m to attain my personal goal of making 10,000 steps a day. That’s assuming my Huawei phone is correct. Whether the Chinese government’s going to interested in my performance is another matter…

4.00pm. The doctor comes to our tables and announces she’s going to be talking about something. Fortunately, where I sit, my back is towards her. But for the first time I’m feeling rather tired and can feel myself drifting off. Finally it’s over, but the whole thing meant that I completely lost track of time while I was supposed to be getting on with my next exercise. Ooops. Only two days in and I’ve already bunked off my first set of exercises.

As seven o’clock rolls on, this time, there doesn’t seem to be as much urgency as the first day to leave the place. Half the group – including us – are still at the tables at 7pm.

 

DAY 3, 19 June, 2019. Today I’ve decided to take my laptop with me. I feel that in the gaps between exercises there’s plenty of other work that I can do and that there is sufficient time in the day in the chamber to do them. As I’m self-employed, I’m the only one responsible for myself and therefore, as my own boss, I feel guilty if I’m not doing something towards my business such as updating the website (there’s no internet down here, if you’re asking), writing and updating texts for my reading and comprehension activities, and writing the quizzes. The website update is easy – I’ve decided to blog my time here and report the whole thing from my perspective. I’ve also finally started work on the TEE Holiday Special cover ready for its Summer hiatus, although as I’m now planning to publish this in weekly intervals on the site, my proposed break from Typical Errors in English looks like moving forward a couple of weeks.

I’m also feeling a little guilty about yesterday – that is, not taking part in the second set of exercises, so I vow to put that right today.

Upon arrival, we decide to go straight to our tables to drop off all our stuff and then go to our lockers a few minutes later. We note that everybody seems to be choosing to get changed or put their sports shoes on as soon as they arrive, so it gets rather crowded there. I can’t help but observe that there are some regular faces who have also been trying to grab the couches as soon as they can (and I never really notice anywhere else). Not that this bothers me as such. It’s just an observation.

As I sign in for both of us – this is something I have to so at the beginning of every session to verify we are here – the doctor informs me that I have to take a deep breathing and blow test after the first set of exercises. (That alone ensures I can’t skip these exercises.) Handing me my own personal blow tube, which is mine for the rest of the stay, I have to give a short, hard blow three times and, in the process, register a mark of 500 and something which, at this stage, I don’t really know if that’s good or bad. Actually, I should have mentioned that on the first day, we all had to report for blood pressure tests. I left mine later as I waited for the pointlessly long queues to reduce.

And now, as I write this, there’s another doctor talk going on. Fortunately it seems to pass quickly and I check my phone to make sure I don’t miss my next set of exercises, which I’m going to do my best to describe to you when I get back…

 

With fifteen minutes until the start, I decide to do a little bit of warming up, which as it turns out, was a smart move. I decide to gently jog around the circuit (that is, around the lake) four times, which should cover a good 400 metres. And as I arrive a couple of minutes before we’re due to start, I decide to do some stretching exercises on the basis of those I learnt in front of the mirror yesterday and today. Shortly afterwards, Adrianna arrives (I’m assuming that’s her name as that’s her name credited on the English language PowerPoint handout she gave me), puts some suitable beat pop music on and we’re all doing those standing arm leg head etc. moving exercises almost consistently for 25 minutes, you know, the kind of thing you see on typical keep fit videos. I’m glad I did the warm-up; I was the only male to go through all the exercises.

 

 

DAY 4, 20 June 2019. Today is Corpus Christi, which is a public holiday here in Poland, and a deeply significant religious holiday too. So I’m not sure if everybody’s going to turn up, particularly the older generation, even more particularly, the nun. There’s no day off or long weekend for this treatment, although I notice the nun hasn’t made it here. Nor have the Kazakhs, but maybe yesterday was just a one-off, or Corpus Christi has affected their schedules.

Another disadvantage of this particular day is that all the shops in Wielicka town itself were shut, so any hopes of finding somewhere that might sell some snacks were to be in vain. Unless it’s a café, all the town centre shops were well and truly closed – and here was me hoping that, as it’s a tourist area, maybe a bakery or cake shop may even be open. Mentally, I try to put a positive spin on this situation in that I needed to lose weight anyway, and the fact we do have something that we could count as being a main meal (dinner), but will need the microwave treatment later.

As usual, we all check-in at around 1pm but we don’t make our way to the lifts until 1.30pm. As we’re a fairly large group, the modern lifts can take no more than about 20 people but they’re fortunately pretty quick, so as we join the second group, it takes no more than about thirty seconds to reach the floor level, where the rest have assembled and are waiting for the rest of us to come down.

The walk to our chamber is roughly 550 metres, and on our way we pass the morning groups making their way back. All fifteen of our visits to Wessel are in the afternoon, but it occurs to me that those morning groups would have to be down here by 7am. On the one hand, they’ve got the advantage of having plenty of day left, but on the other, if we were in this group, it would be 5.30am get-ups every morning.

Now I’ve tried to get into a routine where I leave all the shoe changing and blanket collecting until most have done this, and then the official signing-in until later to avoid the line of others waiting to do the same.

At the beginning of the day, there is a schedule (or what the Poles call a ‘harmonogram’) of activities for the session. I take a picture of the plan and then, with my cup of tea, see what my plot is. (I’m in the W2 group, which is, as I mentioned before, mainly ladies that are older than me.) Today I can see that I’m in the mirror room again at 3pm, and in the hall for those stretching exercises again at 5.15pm. I also note that at 6.15pm there’s ‘Indywidualne konsultacje fizjoterapuetyczne’ which, with my pretty rubbish Polish, seems to suggest that we’re getting individual physiotherapy consultation? I must admit I didn’t pay any attention to this yesterday, but since it hasn’t been highlighted with a marker pen that’s probably why.

As I complete my first set of exercises I now make it a routine of going to the doctor’s straight afterwards for my breath test. That is, the one that measures how hard I can quickly blow out air from the back of my lungs. Today it reaches 550, so I definitely want to target 600 tomorrow.

Later… still no idea what all that was as there’s no tangible evidence of anything going on, but at least today there hasn’t been a doctor to lecture us on whatever it is.

 At 7.00pm we’re all finally called to get back to surface level, and on this occasion I think we did lose a few to the public holiday. Normally our group fills the lift three times; on this occasion we filled just the two.

 

 

DAY 5, 21 June 2019. Today there are predictions of stormy weather on the surface, and certainly there were some clouds upon our arrival. I suppose I should mention that the last few days in Krakow have been pretty hot and sticky, and the fifteen degree temperature difference in our chamber makes a difference. Indeed, I particularly noted that it gets progressively colder as we walk our 500 metres. It may be officially the first day of summer outside, but the temperature stays autumnal all year round underground.

Looking around, we seem to have grown in number again as three lift journeys are needed. It looks like all those who bunked off yesterday for Corpus Christi have rejoined us today, including the nun.

As mentioned, we tend to go straight to our table because, as we walk into the main chamber, half the group take this opportunity to get changed and collect their blankets, and so causing a temporary blockage in getting through. Fifteen minutes later I go and do the same thing, but there always seems to be that carrot-topped lady there who’s still getting herself sorted out, and she’s sitting where I collect my sports shoes from my boot locker.

Having said all that, five days in and we’ve now definitely settled into our routine. Indeed, I’m now pretty content with our table position, even coming to the conclusion that we have made a pretty good choice. At one end, there’s a group of four elderly ladies, at the far end a mother and teenage son, and sitting roughly opposite us is a young boy and his grandma (who my son has struck up a friendly relationship). There’s also another older man who, I’m sad to say, looks to have the onset of Parkinson’s disease; with the noticeable shaking of his hands, he has to bring the kettle to his cup rather than the other way round.

Looking at today’s harmonogram (see yesterday for what that is), I’m beginning to believe that W2’s morning routine is probably pretty much fixed. I’m in the mirror room again at 3pm which, I have to say, I prefer to the hall area. I’m back there at 5.45pm with W7 and W10 for those dancing and stretching exercises, but am slightly envious that groups W1, W6 and W9 have the opportunity to visit the Smok Chamber (‘smok’ being Polish for ‘dragon’), the other cave used for rehabilitations. But there’s two weeks to go and I’m sure I’ll get the opportunity soon.

Breath test: still stuck around 550. I note that the visit to the Smok Chamber on the harmonogram is cancelled.

5.45pm routine: I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m very uncoordinated. These particular exercises are all set to beaty music (is that what modern kids call it?) but it also includes waving your arms and moving your legs in different directions which, for me, is almost impossible. This is just another indicator to show that I hate dancing, but I tolerate this as it is (meant to be) exercising too. Thankfully, the instructress is pretty lenient with us and lets us get on with things the best we can – that is, all nine ladies and me.

As I write this, there’s a short movie on the salt mines going on in the hall, but even with the English subtitles, I skip it – but I know in my mind that this is probably a bad move.

So that ends the first week and so far my son and I are doing okay. My only concern has nothing to do with being in the salt mine, rather, if things continue as routine, it could be a struggle for me to write something different in this blog. But if it does, then I know that’s the time for me to talk about the salt mines in general.

But damn – I didn’t watch the video.

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