Blogspot: The adventures of fifteen days in a chamber, 135 metres below sea level: Part 2
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.
The main exit leading out of the mine (there is a separate entrance for going in)
WEEK TWO: It may be hot on the surface, but it's cool down here...
DAY 6, 24 June 2019. An enforced two-day break as, quite simply, we don’t go down the mines at the weekends. But that’s not because everything closes at the weekends – indeed, the mines are still busy, perhaps even more so on Saturday and Sunday with tourists from all over the world, and is indeed one of the must-see places for people spending time in the Krakow area.
The rehabilitation caverns are still in use over the weekends, and there is one cavern that specialises in groups spending the night down there.
The two-day break had kind of given me a strange feeling over that weekend, in that I even have a slight feeling of missing the place (although my son is not too sure). Indeed, while we were waiting to go down, one of the ladies in our group even said that she kind of missed it all.
But even if I did kind of miss it, as we enter the lift once again I’m gripped with a very mild feeling of trepidation, knowing that I will be down there for the next six hours with no chance of escape unless I’m taken ill or make a complete arsehole of myself. But when we eventually enter, routine kicks in. We descend the 120 metres or so, get out and wait for the others, standing by some wooden supports which have since been covered by ‘salt cauliflowers’, that is, salt that’s built up by the moist brine air and since dried to form these cauliflowers. Then it’s the walk, through the locker path and then heading straight to our table and dump our things. As I set off to go and get my blanket, shoes and tea supplies, the new harmonogram has been put up (W2: Mirror room at 3pm as usual, but ‘dancing’ exercises at 4.45pm) and the queue hasn’t begun much for signing in, so I get that done immediately.
There’s one familiar face in the doctors and trainers that are with us today. I suppose I should note that these people change regularly – I suppose they enjoy the routine of different people and different times. The face is Magda, but as yet I don’t think she remembers me from my last visit as it was some six years ago. As I’m typing this up still within the first hour of the afternoon, there’s plenty of time for me to get reacquainted or at least, be remembered. And as I type the last characters of this paragraph, there’s just twenty minutes before the first of my exercises.
5.45pm. Just heated up my soup. (2 minutes on full power does a full mug just nicely.) Progress report: 570 on my breath test. Magda does recognise me! Or else, she’s been warned about me, but without saying anything as I turn up for my first set of exercises, she smiles and says ‘Pan Roger!’
I get acquainted with one of the younger ladies, Ella, who’s here for the first time this week, replacing Babcia who’s been looking after her son, with who my son has struck up a friendship. She’s a lecturer at the University of Technology, and says that while English is important, she believes she’s a beginner. I begin a level test which seems to bear this out, although she knows enough to be able to communicate at a basic level. But all this draws the attention of Isa, the other mum at our table, who I finally get to chat to. Immediately afterwards, we do one of my fun quizzes on the subject of getting old, in which they have fifteen questions, and they have to choose the best – or to be more precise, the most honest – answer that suits them. My son also played along and, not surprisingly, scored 9 points – the number that would be expected of someone of his age group. The two ladies – I’m polite enough NOT to ask their ages, although they both have teenage sons – scored 19 and 18 respectively, the result suggesting that they love a lot of the things that the youngsters do, and the point score suggests they’re knowledgeable with regards current trends and fashions, and generally keeping pace with what’s happening with everything in life.
“Did you write this?” Ella asks. I smile. I’ve got their assessments absolutely spot on.
Unfortunately, my questionnaire meant that I was late for my second set of exercises. I choose to ‘punish’ myself by doing a kilometre on the treadmill straight afterwards before enjoying my soup.
DAY 7, 25 June 2019. The temperatures at surface level today are predicted to be at least 34 degrees in the shade, so the salt mines do provide some welcome relief, even if it is almost twenty degrees less in our chamber.
One thing I never noticed when I leave the lift – but finally do so now – is the plaque on the wall that confirms that I am, in fact, here at Szyb Regis Mine, and officially 135 metres below the surface.
Today’s schedule has my usual mirror room at 3pm, but my dancing exercises at 5.45pm, the time I’m more used to, so I’m unlikely to miss it this time around. As well as doing the blog, I’ve got a proofing job to get on with in the gaps with a deadline for tomorrow, and so, with my nice hot cup of tea, I’ll finish this sentence and get on with the work…
4.12pm. A quick game of cards with the boys, and balabolkering the proofed text (this is when I get an electronic reader to read the text aloud to me). Only a handful of changes are needed, and so I am confident this can be submitted tomorrow, but with a few comments that need to be cleared with the text author..
I'm rather pushed to talk about anything interesting today without being repetitive, so I’ll write a few words about the Wieliczka Salt Mine. These days the mine no longer digs out rock salt (which naturally is of varying shades of grey, resembling unpolished granite), but instead produces table salt from the brine and moisture produced from those salt cauliflowers I mentioned the other day. Although I’m situated 135 metres below, the mine reaches a depth of 327 metres and has over 287 kilometres of passages and chambers. Tourists can enjoy a 3.5 kilometre walk through the mine (as well as relief from the heat outside in the summer), and even view dozens of statues – along with four chapels – carved out of the rock salt by the miners over the years. The mine was placed on the original UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1978. It is also one of Poland’s most popular tourist attractions, with 1.2 million people visiting the salt mine every year. Thanks Wikipedia.
5.20pm: My son’s about to go and explore the other chamber with others in his group while I’m still scheduled to go to my exercises at 5.45pm. I envy him a little as routine is slowly beginning to be replaced with monotony, and so have to admit that while yesterday seemed to pass by quite quickly, today seems to be dragging a little. With 15 minutes until my exercises, I’m going to stop typing and go for a running warm-up around the chamber.
6.15pm: Finished exercises (after my running/walking warm-up). Actually, for once I quite enjoyed this. After the usual warm-up and stretching exercises to music, we were then paired off to do all kinds of mini activities for about a minute: taking steps up and down on a bench, rolling a big inflatable ball on a wall, passing each other and/or bouncing a ball to each other. The session is finished with a kind of musical chairs, but without the chairs. We all have to pass a ball around while the music is playing, and then stop when the music stops; as a forfeit, the person holding the ball has to perform one of the breathing activities they have learnt over the past few days. There are eight of us, the instructor making sure we were all chosen at some point. One of the ladies who suddenly found herself as the focus of all our attentions couldn’t think of anything. Typically for me – either because I’m the Brit or the only male – I was the last with the ball. Fortunately, I still had two routines in mind that hadn’t been chosen or performed by the others, so I was able to perform the ‘forfeit’ with no problems.
As I walk back to my table I realise I haven’t done today’s breath test, but the doctor smiles and says it’ll be okay for tomorrow.
DAY 8, 26 June 2019. The midway point of my time here.
“Record high of 45C expected in France”, announces The Guardian newspaper this morning. As I check my phone for the general weather situation for where I am, it predicts that Krakow will reach 33 degrees today. It seems that in this period of near-record temperatures across Europe, Wieliczka couldn’t have come at a better time as we escape the afternoon worst to a positively nippy 15 degrees. Apparently it’s all due to the combination of a storm that has got stuck somewhere over the Atlantic, along with pressure over central Europe that is pulling up very hot air from the Sahara.
After arriving and immediately signing in, the same doctor who pardoned me yesterday for not remembering my breath test reminds me to do it, but do so immediately rather than wait until after my first exercises. I retrieve my mouthpiece and register 580. The harmonogram reveals the mirror room at 3 (as usual), but 4.45 as part of the first group for exercises. It also tells me that straight afterwards my group are invited, along with others, to visit the Smok Chamber – the same my son visited yesterday.
4.45pm – perhaps the most vigorous of all the exercises I’ve experienced so far. But I don’t feel bad about it – indeed, I felt I warmed myself up pretty well beforehand by doing three kilometres on that walking device where you have to push your legs to get a rhythm going. Mind you, I really only went to those as there was going to be one of those lectures in the main area, and I didn’t want to wait around there – last time, if you remember, I was almost falling asleep. That also marked the exact halfway point of our stay: seven and a half days done, seven and a half days to go.
6.22pm. Just arrived from the Smok chamber. This particular cavern is about a further 400 metres or so from Wessel, and I have to admit that it seems a lot more modern. The layout is made up of a few rooms as opposed to areas in one large cave. There is a place for your exercise bikes and treadmills; there’s also a spectacular two-level seating area where the walls of rock salt do make some interesting patterns and natural sculptures. There’s also a large room where the instructors can conduct their exercise routines for the existing residents. But what makes this particular chamber different is that it also has a brine pool that looks very artificial, almost like a shallow swimming pool, and which is surrounded by benches that resemble a small auditorium.
Now one room that makes this place truly exceptional is that it includes an area where there are a number of small beds that have been partitioned off into pairs. Before setting off for our visit here, we all brought our blankets with us, and so the next exercise was going to be the easiest of the lot – just lie down on the bed, cover yourself with the blanket, and doze for about half an hour, lights out, to a new age music soundtrack of guitar and background string synthesiser, along with a few sound effects from nature. I almost dozed off completely on a couple of occasions, but never enough to be aware that the music was fading out and the lights slowly coming on. I think one person actually dropped off completely – she had to be raised by our instructor as we were all about to leave!
So the Smok Chamber certainly has its plusses, but its individual areas makes it feel like an enclosed building. In comparison, the one big plus of Wessel is that it is a huge chamber, it has a feeling of space and – very important – you can use the 100 metre path around the brine lake as a pretty good makeshift jogging track.
As we emerge from the mine at the end of the day at 7pm, it’s still a baking 34 degrees on the surface.
DAY 9, 27 June 2019. Now I’ve often mentioned in previous entries that eventually you get into a routine about doing things. This is certainly the case when it comes to being in the mine, but at home…
Usually all the packing is done in the hour before we set off to the other side of Krakow, by car. Today my wife wanted to prepare us some hot food, or rather food that was hot when we pack it, but goes cold very quickly once we’re in the fifteen degrees that is the Wessel chamber. There’s also making sure we take the right cutlery (or even remembering to take cutlery!), clean mugs and various other food items. And the usual shouting: ‘Have you packed a bottle of water? Got your sweater? Get off that i-Pad!’
I'm the one who usually carries the load. My rucksack itself comprises of this very device that I’m currently typing this on, plus our medical paperwork (just in case), plastic macs (in case it does chuck it down with rain when we reappear on the surface), a bottle of water in the side pocket, drawing pad and pens. I’m also carrying our supplies bag with all the food items. Wrapped around my waist is a money belt – or if I use British English, it’s a bum-bag (cue sniggers from the Americans) or in American English, a fanny-pack (cue sniggers from the Brits). But not for the first time I’m reminding my son about things he needs to take like an additional pair of trousers and his sweater.
Unfortunately I’m someone who can only really think of one person at a time, and on this occasion I forgot myself – I didn’t take a sweater. I remembered this fact when we were ten minutes into our journey. Now I suppose we could have turned back and would have still made it to Wielicka, but after thinking about the situation I remembered that we have some pretty good blankets at the place, so my plot would be to use that to keep warm while sitting down. I’ll do plenty of warm-ups prior to our exercise routines so I don’t have to resort to covering myself with a blanket while we’re there. The mirror room is the usual time; W2’s other exercises are at 5.15 today. Here’s hoping the wife doesn’t read this blog for some time in order to chastise me for not bringing a sweater.
2.38pm: I observe that my son’s exercise group walks past as part of the exercise routine of doing a lap around the pool, but note that even some of the youngsters there are still quite happy in tee-shirts and shorts.
6.27pm: I’ve just completed a WHOLE HOUR of dancing and breathing exercises! Our group started out small when we began at 5.15pm, but was slowly joined by others until we numbered about twenty or so, and eventually the 5.45pm group simultaneously joined in – at 5.45pm. (We hadn’t actually finished). Fortunately for Magda our instructor, she’s got a whole repertoire for an hour, and I find myself roped in to all kinds of dancing, particularly with partners. I spend a lot of the time with one partner, Beata, who joined in with her husband, and with whom I finally get to talk to after a week and a half (as she’s parked around the corner from where we normally sit).
So as I come to the end of day nine, I’m still sweating and cooling down, typing this entry up in my tee-shirt, and already having changed back into my shorts. Now while I’m not intending to go back to the mine tomorrow without a sweatshirt – apart from the fact the blanket was useful for keeping warm while just sitting – I didn’t really miss not having a sweater of any kind at all. I ensured I’d warmed up before the exercises, and after thinking back over the day, I’d say the blanket was only used for half the time I was there.
And in addition, the day just positively flew by.
DAY 10, 28 June 2019. There doesn’t seem to be as many people with us today, although I’d be hard pushed to work out who’s missing as I very rarely see everybody; I only really know those around my table, and the ladies who I join for the exercises. Some are so well-wrapped up in layers of clothing that it’s often difficult to see their faces. But clearly some have decided to take a longer weekend off.
The routine I now have is this – I dump my stuff at the table, go and sign in and take my breath test at the same time, go and get my belongings and change into my shoes, get a picture of the harmonogram and then sit down back at the table, having a sandwich and a cup of tea before waiting for my usual 3pm in the mirror room. Interestingly, as I was taking my breath test (which today, I broke my record as I managed to blow 620), I could hear my son speaking English outside, along with one of the instructors. It appears that, somehow, while we were all walking to our chamber, we picked up a couple of American tourists. I have to compose myself slightly before my second breath as I felt the urge to laugh.
Today makes two thirds of our total time here, and I briefly speak to Beata who is looking forward to the end. So’s my son. While I will be glad when it’s all over, I feel sure there’ll be a tinge of regret after all this.
At the far end of the lake, the youngsters among us like to play ‘keepie-uppie’ badminton, with as many as six players at once, they take it in turns attempting to keep one shuttlecock in the air. Should a clear opportunity for a player fail to keep going, then that player is eliminated. Unfortunately, the supply of shuttlecocks have diminished somewhat – most are high up on a ledge above the hall, out of everyone’s access, and all the others in the pool. For some reason the net for retrieving the shuttlecocks has disappeared, or has been locked away and nobody has the key, so one of the boys puts together a makeshift prop and successfully retrieves three from the pool, only for the players to lose them on the ledge later. One of the shuttlecocks is successfully accessed from the ledge as it could just be seen (after putting three benches on top of each other and giving directions on where to move the makeshift prop). Eventually the game ends with just one shuttlecock available, the only other available stuck in the centre of the lake.
5.55pm: I’m beginning to feel the groin muscles a bit now with all those stretching, marching, lifting and dancing exercises. Although that session was only 30 minutes, I’m now beginning to feel the strain a little. Imminent weekend and two days off fatigue has set in. I don’t even feel like going on any of the exercise machines at the moment. But all the significant exercise activity has been done, so with just over an hour to go I intend to relax a bit, although I will at least walk around the chamber a bit.
6.55pm: Most of the elder guests here seem to have already made up their minds that it’s time to go, even though officially we don’t leave until shortly before 7.15pm. They start to congregate next to the main exit while I, and predominantly the younger members of the group, prefer to wait around until the instructors and doctors start to make their way – after all, there’s still plenty of space and sitting around, and even I don’t feel like hanging around in a queue doing nothing. In the end, most of us are not particularly bothered about being at the back of the line.
As we walk through there is one of our group who sneaks off the path to try and grab some salt samples from a mine railcar. We note that she seems to do this on a regular basis when we’re heading back.