Wednesday, October 29, 2014

40 floors underground

Passion is one of those words which is better decoded with visuals than words. Every minute that I spent at Wileczka Salt Mine at Wileczka (A World Heritage Site), 15 KMs from Krakow (in Poland) made me soak in this deep thought of how passionate one could be? This mine is 541 years old, yes, No TYPO error, you read it right. Operations in this mine started in 1473. Now, a part of this mine where mining has stopped has been converted into a tourist attraction. The visitors have 2 options to choose from: The tourist’s route, where one goes around the mine with a guide and a miner’s route where one gets to learn some hands-on mining job, of course clothed in miner’s attire. I am here for the second time in the last 10 months since I moved to Poland and this actually tells nothing about my love for this place. May be the rest of this story will convey 1% of my love for this place just like the 1% of the mine which we get to see during the Tourist route. 

Get ready. You need not fasten your belts as this is not a roller coaster ride. You may need to go down with me but stay awake. Keep your eyes open to read and your mind open to visualise. Be in the present but connect to the past. I promise you, this is worth all your time. 

Level 1 of the mine is 328 steps below the ground level. The wooden steps were just wide enough to accommodate 2 people at a time. Swiftly our team of 27 people signed for the English tour followed Agnieszka, our guide and reached the level 1. This was the first of the 13 chambers that we would visit during this tour. Urszula Chamber built during 1649 to 1685 is a humble beginning to this mind blowing journey that would follow. Wooden logs closely packed as walls on sides and ceiling lead us through various chambers. All these blocks were painted white as a source of light by themselves since the time mining began. The mine is estimated to house 1.5 million cubic meters of wood in whole. 

All the wood in the inner chambers are painted white, the reason being easy way to keep the inside of the mine bright during the period before electricity was invented and also that the white calcium coating was kind of fire-proofing the wood. Accidents were very common as trapped Methane would be released during mining process. Experienced Miners would lead the way with torches with long wooden handles to burn methane. The display showcasing this with statue of miners gave us a first-hand feel how dangerous it was.

We pass through the salt statue of Kopernicus, (less know fact that he is a Polish scientist) which is one of the recent additions to the mine as part of the mine’s 500th anniversary in 1973. 

By now fellow visitors had tested and tasted the salty walls. With my camera, notebook and pen, I decided to ‘behave’ and not lick the walls.  The colour of the salt (almost dark grey) in the picture will give you a feel of the purification process that happens to make this salt edible and add taste to our meal. 

Here we are in front of these half a dozen life size salt statues telling us the legend of the mine. Kinga the daughter of a Hungarian King was married to the King of Poland. Centuries before, salt was very rare and Poland did not have any salt mines at that period of time. Kinga asked for a salt mine as her wedding gift. She dropped her wedding ring in the mine gifted to her by her father in Hungary. When she reached Poland she ordered miners to look for possible salt mines in Poland. When they found salt deposits, they also found her wedding ring. This is the tale of Kinga’s wedding ring following her from Hungary to Poland. The visual depicts the first chunk of salt being handed to Kinga in the Janowice Chamber.

I was curious to know how this whole deposit of salt formed in the first place. And this is what the guide had to say. 13 to 15 million years before there as huge sea in this part of the continent. Which, over time and tectonic changes, got buried. This huge frozen salty sea was eventually covered with hundreds of feet of particles like mud, sand and rocks making those layers on which the Wileczka town stands today. She confirmed that this is the scientific reason unlike the legend before. What is equally interesting is the fact that how the first miners reached to this reserve. It is said that during the early Stone Age, water from salty streams were left to be evaporated to obtain salt. These salt streams dried up. Humans started digging the source of these salty streams assuming that if the salty water originated from there, they may find some answers to why it had dried, ending up in a mission that will last half a century and more.

In the early days when mining began huge shafts were used to transport wood into the mine and salt and waste out of the mine. These shafts were operated by men or by horses. Horses were brought into the mine when they were young and spent 15 years working in the mine. When miners would come and leave during their shifts the Horses stayed back in the mine for all the 15 years. Though horses were slowly replaced by rails in the mine, the last horse ‘Barbara’ left the mine in 2002.

As we curiously looked around we could see salt crystallized on the ceilings and walls. There are different patterns of crystallization in different chambers. It was told that these formations are regularly removed. But just to add to the fun they had name these as cauliflowers and spaghetti. Just when I heard these words, my stomach rumbled reminding me that it had been an hour since we started and my body needed some fuel to keep my focus.

During the 14th Century the mine was owned by Kazimierza. A chamber named after him houses a 17th century Horse power gear which was operated by 8 horses. A working model is also on display. 

Down we go to the second level, 90 metres under the surface of the earth. I don’t think I would have ever made it in submarines. A punch in the air and I continue. This leads us to the Pieskowa Skala chamber: a marvelous breath taking 30 metre high chamber connecting the 1st and the 2nd level. We pass through the supervisor’s room followed by the statues of dwarfs. It is a belief that the dwarfs work in the mine during the nights making it easier for the miners the next morning. 

Hold your breath for this ‘out of the world’ but ‘under the world’ experience. The Holy Cross Chapel, built by 3 miners over 70 years. The biggest church in the mine which still hosts marriages and is open for prayers. Visitors coming to this church to offer prayers have a lift to reach to the second level directly. The last supper in salt was my favorite in the dozens of carvings on the walls. This is a COMPLETE salty place including the floor and the chandelier, everything is just SALT.

Generally mines are not considered very friendly places to work. They are not clean, adding to it is this strange feeling of change. Most of us have desk jobs, I am not sure if we can even connect to this fact of work location shifting constantly every day. After a week, I am not sure if I would be working 20 metres deeper or 30 metres further. The current Tourist’s route has clean and well maintained toilets. I am not sure what facilities were available to the miners hundreds of years before. To top it all, no one paid these miners for these so called “extra efforts”. They had to do their regular job of mining tonnes of salt and then carry on with their love for salt statues.

After half a dozen chambers, more than a hundred statues & salt sculptures, my jaw refused to drop further! I decide to close my mouth for a moment and let my jaw drop again for this 9mtr deep lake chamber of Erazma Baracza. There was display of lights with music which vibrated the water in the lake. How can I explain this experience of standing deep down 100 mts inside the Earth, in a dark chamber, getting Goosebumps enjoying this strange jugalbandi of water and lights.

The speciality of the next chamber Michalowice is that its ceiling is anchored by 8 to 10 metre metal rods inserted vertically into it at regular intervals to support the huge structure. Another 30 metre high chamber which connects the second and the third level. 

We pass through the Kazanow Chamber which was included into the tour in April 2014 as my memory reminds me that I had not seen this when I was here for the first time in November 2013. Yes. This is my second time here. I was so awe struck during my first visit that I did not make any notes. By the second time, I was quite aware of what was coming my way: so my hand bag was thoughtfully replaced with a shoulder bag, comfortable footwear to follow the guide through the long walk, Just enough layers of clothing as the temperature in the mine is controlled and though one may feel it is windy it is not cold (depends on what is cold for each one of us, it is 10 to 14 Degree Celsius). 

We end our tour in the Stanislaw Slaszic Chamber where there was Bungee jumping as an activity a few years ago. Not sure why, but they do not have this attraction anymore. As our guide leaves us with a smile, here is her answer to my last question, “Totally there are 400 guides who work in the mine: 200 Polish speakers, 100 English speakers and 100 others who speak different European languages.” We decide to rest our legs, stretch a bit, grab a bite and shop around (yes of course, someone had guessed it right that people can shop even after a 3 hr trip).  Zap! The lift carries us back to the surface where nothing seems to have changed in the last 3 hours. More shopping opportunities available for the ones who missed it.

For the one who love something more than shopping,and If I have managed to hold your attention till the end not to get into the next tab and Google, here you go

No comments:

Post a Comment

let me know what you want to say about this post