Monthly Archives: September 2012

Wielizcka Salt Mine, Krakow

Normally I’m not one for the very touristy attractions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pretentious and think that ‘I’m a traveler not a tourist,’ or feel there is something inherently wrong with popular attractions. Do you know why visitors are attracted to certain places? Because they’re worth seeing, that’s why. No I’m not big on tourist attractions because they most often cost money and I am notoriously cheap. So I never planned on visiting the Wielizcka Salt Mine. But all my Polish friends said Wielizcka is one of the best attractions in the country and I would be missing out if I skipped it. So I went.

Constructed in the 13th century the mine continued to produce salt up until the mid 2000s. For seven hundred years it was a prime source of employment for Poles in the Krakow area. In the days before refrigeration salt was one of the best ways to preserve food. This made Wielizcka vital to generations of Polish kings and leaders as a source of wealth.

Wielizcka is a pretty easy day trip out of Krakow if you’re not stupid. Unfortunately that seems to exclude me. I was CouchSurfing in Krakow with a wonderful local student who helped me find the bus I needed to take from the city to Wielizcka. I jotted her instructions down and hit the road. The first leg of my journey was easy. I got on a bus heading out of town in the direction I was going. However I must have missed a stop because I rode the bus to the very end of the line and I did not see any mine. That was the first problem. After that the entire day was an adventure.

I trekked a bit back down the road we came in on to try and catch my bearings. Maybe the stop was close. I wasn’t able to find any help in the way of signs and being a stupid guy I didn’t want to ask for directions either. Eventually I found my way to a hotel where I swallowed my pride and asked for some help. The lovely lady working at the front desk spoke English and told me that I was close, only a mile and a half away from the mines. Well that wasn’t too far, so I started walking in the direction she pointed me to. In a bit I realized that she thought I had a car because her directions would have taken my on to a highway. I felt like I was being clever though following the highway on a little side path that ran parallel.

Eventually the path hit a split and I guessed I should take the route that took me through a small town. I didn’t have any idea what I was looking for and assumed that Wielizcka was located near a town. So I start walking through town and then realize I’m in the wrong town and I also had no idea how to get back to where I was. I might be not the brightest guy, but I did bring a compass so I could get a general idea of where I was going. South and west were where I came from so I started to follow roads that could take me there. There was a nice little Saturday market I found in the town, but no signs pointing me towards the mine.

After approximately two hours or so of meandering through the town I end up heading down a hill and guess what I found? The hotel I stopped in before! At least I knew where I was, that was a good thing. I continued my trek but this time paid more attention to the highway and noticed that there were a couple of signs pointing to the turnoffs drivers would need to take to get to Wielizcka.

I cutting this story short here because it’s not very interesting and I’m tired of writing about it. The basic version is that I got lost again trying to follow the signs and some wrong intuition. I hooved around some more and eventually I found myself orientated in the the right direction and got a bus heading out that way. All in all what should have been a twenty minute bus ride from Krakow took close to four hours. When traveling though I’m not one to complain. The weather was nice, it was good exercise, and it showed me a part of Poland I doubt most tourists see. The journey is half the fun right?

But it was worth it. Oh it was so worth it. Even though Wielizcka was probably the most expensive single thing (there’s no way to visit without an organized tour) I did in my entire trip and one of the largest pains, the reward more than made up for it. There’s a reason it was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. Hundreds of years of carvings and artwork by the salt miners has been preserved for your pleasure. With a guided group you get a chance to tour parts of the mine and marvel at statues carved from salt. Images of Polish historical figures are everywhere. The tour lasts a few hours and outside of the statues there’s an underground lake, giant chapel, light show, and journey back to the surface in a tightly packed elevator. Since it’s a mine it’s quite dark even with all the lights. It’s not dangerous or worrisome, but hard to get decent photos. So sorry about that.

Since I’m a bit of a nerd I immediately compared Wielizcka to Moria from Lord of the Rings. Not the Moria the fellowship went through full of orcs trying to kill them and a giant, fire whip wielding Balrog reasonably asking for a toll across the only bridge over a bottomless chasm. No, Wielizcka is what I imaged Moria to be like during the good years full of lights and history and carvings. Tolkienesque. Is that a real word?

While visit Krakow do yourself a favor and make a day trip out the mine. There are dozens of tour operators who can arrange it for you. Or you can purchase tickets online here. I simply arrived and bought a ticket from the counter, but that may not be a good idea during the high season.


Uganda Museum, Kampala

One of the last things I did while in Uganda was visit the Uganda Museum in Kampala. I originally didn’t plan on stopping by since my guide book talked fairly disparagingly of it. But I’m a museum nerd and I realized that the only way for this museum to receive more funding to get bigger and better would be to attract more visitors. So I did my duty and took a few hours to make the trek. Kampala may be chaotic but it is not so extremely big that it’s impossible to walk. Once you get away from the bus stations where it feels like just a swarm of humanity, Kampala is fairly calm and quite enjoyable. The hour and a half walk was no big deal.

I carried my backpack up there because I was leaving for Kigali that evening and had checked out of my guest house. One of the greatest things about Uganda is the people. Things may not be very organized all the time, but you can easily use that to your advantage. Just like my visit to the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, I just asked the people at the ticket counter if I could leave my pack with them. Of course they said yes and locked it up in their office and told me who to find to get the key when I left. So now it was time to start exploring.

The first thing you notice about the museum is that it’s no Smithsonian. I’ve been spoiled by having some of the best museums in the world available to me for free for so long that I inevitably compare any new museum to them. But don’t think this means the Uganda Museum is bad, it isn’t. There’s this haphazard charm about it that makes it interesting. One wing is full of artifacts such as baskets, musical instruments and native toys. Another focuses on the geology of Armenia. Make your way to the back to learn about local animals. There’s even an exhibit on the Bujugali hydroelectric dam and a Ford Model T. In my opinion however the most off the wall exhibition was a collection of Olympic posters commemorating all the modern games. These posters are one of the most interesting exhibits I’ve seen in any museum. Watching how art styles changed across the years and countries was eye opening. I took pictures of every poster so I look at them later, but the glare from the protective glass prevents me from uploading them to the world. All in all, a really fun museum. The exhibits are not the highest quality or super interactive, but still awesome enough to warrant a visit for any Kampala traveler.

However outside the museum is where it really shines. Mention ‘Africa’ to many Americans and they think of straw huts. While that isn’t exactly true any more, in the more rural areas these huts can be found. Or instead of going on a countrywide scavenger hunt you can see them at the Uganda Museum. There is an outside exhibit behind the building with a dozen or so huts, not models put full scale and livable huts. There are far more styles than I imagined. Ranging from the Hima style which looks like a giant mound with the straw reaching all the way to the ground to Ankoli with supports around the roof to make a sort of awning circling the structure, the museum has all the examples labeled with a small blurb about the architectural styles and where they are found. This alone warrants the small entrance fee; since the arson of the Kasabi tombs it is one of the better attractions in Kampala.

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Rwandan Rememberence

In the scheme of history, 1994 was just yesterday. Not even twenty years ago Rwanda was wracked by a civil war and a genocide that took the lives of approximately eight hundred thousand people, nearly twenty percent of the population. Think about that. One out of five people were killed. The country was a graveyard.

While this isn’t a post about the actual genocide, a brief and simple history lesson on how it all happened is not out of place. During colonial times, Belgium ruled over Rwanda and order to control the country the people were divided into the Tutsis and the Hutus. A Tutsi simply was someone who owned at least ten cows. The Tutsi people controlled power in the country for years and eventually the majority Hutus had enough of the tension and took over the country in the early 1960’s through a violent coup. However instead of using their new power to make peace, Hutu politicians and leaders continued to fan the flames of anti-Tutsi sentiment.

Later in 1990 Tutsi refugees launched an attack from neighboring Uganda that led to a civil war. Eventually a ceasefire was signed. Then the Hutu president and many high ranking officials were killed when their plane was shot down. All hell broke loose and then the real killings began. Evidence seems to implicate Hutu leaders in planning for mass killings before the assassination.

But that was then, this is now. As a tourist in Rwanda you would never think the country went through such a terrible phase so recently. The roads are nice, people friendly, buses run on time, and stores are stocked. There’s no feeling of danger or unease, but as a foreigner I couldn’t stop thinking about the history. This wasn’t like being in Armenia where the killings happened nearly a hundred years ago, or Poland where people were sent to the gulags under Stalin’s orders. During my first few days whenever I would pass a middle aged man I would ask myself, ‘What was his role?’ Victim? Perpetrator? Innocent bystander? I was in no position to ask.

Fortunately after a few days the thoughts faded and were replaced with optimism and hope. The lack of revenge killings leading to a continuous cycle of violence is nothing short of amazing. If Rwanda can move on after such a tragedy anyone can. After peace was restored Rwandans seemed to have taken a step backwards and saw the carnage they were responsible for and swore ‘Never Again.’ They will never forget. Nearly every town where the killings happened has some memorial, and not just a plaque or statue. Graphic memorials. The gorgeous town of Kibuye has a glass shed lined with rows of skulls in front of the local church. Kigali’s large genocide museum has pieces of clothing worn by victims especially small clothing for children.

But nothing compares to the museum in Gikongoro near the city of Butare. Site of one of the largest scale killings, mass graves are still being found today. What makes it intense is not the museum, it is the exhibition in the back. Originally a technical school, the dorms and workshops are now filled with bodies. Thousands of bodies were exhumed from the mass graves and preserved with lime. There are dozens of buildings in the Gikongoro complex and bodies are just stacked like firewood. The effect is beyond powerful. It is one thing to read a bunch of numbers, it is another to see a table covered with the bodies of children. Gikongoro was by far the most moving and hardest thing I have ever seen traveling.

It isn’t for the faint of heart but everyone who visits Rwanda needs to visit, even for just a moment.

Kibuye and Lake Kivu, Rwanda

Kibuye, Rwanda might be the prettiest town in the whole country. Built into a series of hills surrounding lake Kivu, it is extraordinarily beautiful. It is a bit of a resort town for more well off tourists, but there is a guest house on the other side of town, take the road down the right as you leave the bus station and reach the fork. Walk down until there is a shopping center to your right, across the road there is a guest house for an affordable guest house. I’ve forgotten the name, but here it is on Google Maps. And then you can go here for food. It’s a small buffet style restaurant where you can get lunch for about a dollar. It’s a local place so it’s all Rwandan food, lots of rice, potatoes, and matoke.

Kibuye doesn’t offer much in the way of attractions, just lovely hiking through the mountains and swimming in lake Kivu. There’s also a small genocide memorial in front of the church. So instead of wasting more time, here are a few pictures.

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