CzechoSNOWvakia

TransWorld heads East—way East.

By Jennifer Sherowski

The clamped darkness of midnight, deep in the mountains of Eastern Europe. A gutless white transit van carrying three Americans revs up the pass toward the Czech/Slovak border. We’ve left behind a Canadian and two Finns to fend for themselves in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. We’re on an all-out, no-looks-back mission to Prague—and plane rides home.

The past ten days’ tour through the area formerly known as “Behind The Iron Curtain” has been insane. Angry locals, evil drink, unforgiving ice, metal, and pavement—we met it all, but we were hunting the shred gospel of Eastern Europe and nothing could sway us from our search. Pro riders Robbie Sell and Janna Meyen sit wedged in the van with me. The sketchy Canuck about to spend several days in a Bratislavan hotel run by the Russian mafia is photographer Scott Serfas. His partners in crime on this venture are Finnish riders Kaius Korpela and Tomi Savela. Totaling six members, this is our crew.

So now the ten days are up, and we Americans are splitting to the Czech capital. It’s getting darker by the minute, and although I’m a little afraid of driving oversized cars, a stronger fear of never getting out of the foreign wilds makes my foot a lead weight on the gas pedal. Skidding around a turn, our van is suddenly dwarfed by a mean snake of big rigs backed up nearly a mile from the Czech border. It’s no match for our urge to get home, though. With barely enough room to squeeze by on the left, we thread the needle in and out of the other lane, around each corner, praying there’re no cars coming. Finally, the top of the pass and the border! The lights of Prague are a pink fog in the distance, and it’s all downhill from there—literally.

Prague

Flying into Prague from North America is an easy connection through Frankfurt or London. This city is the gateway to Eastern Europe—it’s both ancient and completely cosmopolitan. Weather-beaten turrets loom over walls of vivid graffiti. Imposing statues from another time stare down streets filled with sharp-dressed hipsters. Prague is worth a trip all in itself.

We spent a night or two running around Prague and getting into trouble at both the beginning and end of our trip. What we really wanted, which turned out to be the aim of every naive tourist wandering east of Austria, was some genuine absinthe. You know the stuff—a worm-wood liquor that supposedly causes hallucinations (Van Gogh allegedly cut his ear off after drinking it). But all we found was a cheap, made-for-tourists version so high in alcohol content you forgot to wonder why you weren’t seeing any visuals.

Spindleruv Mlyn

This little resort a couple hours from Prague received our crew kindly. Renda Hrone, editor of Czech snowboard mag Free, held our hands through every last detail: cars, passes, hotels, hooking up with the local heavies. As uninformed wanderers with clumsy foreign tongues, we could barely pronounce the name of the town we were staying in, much less find our destination on a map. But Renda took care of us like the children we were.

What became immediately obvious about the mountain villages was a basic connection between the people and the snow. No one cares about new equipment. No one needs to look cool. They’ve been moving around on snow since they were born—as have generations before that. Kids ride sleds home from school. Cross country skis are a legitimate form of transportation. And average, everyday people spend hours riding a 100-foot-long T-bar servicing an icy, flat slope—simply happy to be outside having fun with their families.

Left a little nervous about riding the actual resort after witnessing a lift evacuation when a cable derailed, we still wanteto tear it up in the snow like everyone else. Luckily, we didn’t need chairlifts for this, because steep hillsides plus towns equals an Eastern Bloc rail garden. So in true European fashion, we made the most of a few shovels and the last of the winter sunshine by driving around and getting our jib on.

For the most part, people let us ride in peace. If locals got mad, it wasn’t for safety issues or the fact that we trespassed or destroyed property. No, they got mad about practical things like snow being thrown on a newly shoveled staircase. (We became experts at communicating to stubborn old men that we’d definitely clean off the stairs afterward.) A particularly ugly incident involving the cops occurred at a church handrail Robbie was about to get in on. It turned out to be a sacred pathway to the cemetery across the street—we know when to back down.

At the end of each day, the lucky person behind the wheel got to perform what became known as “running the gauntlet” up to our hotel. To get the proper visuals, combine these images: rear-wheel-drive van with bald tires, steep hill, one-lane icy road, hoards of pedestrians, hairpin left hook into hotel driveway. Serfas was really good at the gauntlet.

Slovakia

Two things cropped up everywhere the second we crossed into Slovakia—the skeletal remains of stone castles on hilltops and references to vampires on the signs and billboards. Both reminded us that on a map of Europe we’d been traveling constantly east, which to our sheltered Western minds meant a steady course into the unknown. The words of Czech pro rider Martin Cernik hadn’t helped much, either. At dinner the night before he’d given Robbie and Serfas a funny look and said, “Why do I feel like this is the last time I’ll ever see you guys.” Great.

The resort we visited, Chopok-Jasna, was generous enough to plan a welcome party for us. Things got kind of ugly, though, when our innocent little troop came face to face with a line of stemmed shot glasses brimming with an opaqueliquid called Korenovica—a strong vodka distilled with a local root called Horec. Oh, it was vile stuff, but they kept forcing round after round until Janna started “spilling” hers under the table when no one was looking (and she drinks anything!). Things digressed from there until the Finns had achieved new shades of pale and one of the park workers tried to pick me up using the line, “You look like Christina Aguillera with brown hair.”

We all woke up in our clothes the next morning and waited a while for the fog to lift before going to check out the hill—a sprawling affair with rocky upper bowls full of potential but not enough snow to tap into them. The mountains loomed close and jagged—we couldn’t help but salivate over the possibilities this place might offer with a good six-foot dump. But it didn’t happen, of course. A regional Quiksilver slopestyle contest was on, though, so the Finnish kicker regiment went to work on some makeshift jumps and a rainbow rail.

When it came time to leave, the Slovakians seemed truly sorry to see us go. People definitely went out of their way to accommodate us—it really felt like we’d made their season by passing through. Everyone we talked to kept reminding us that the last American pro who’d ridden at Chopok-Jasna was Craig Kelly. We didn’t think to ask if they’d heard about Kelly’s death. In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t. Let the legend live on there, just like the legend of snowboarding will in one of its purest, most enthusiastic forms.

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Iron Curtain Calls

No trip goes completely according to plan, but there should be a statute of limitations on how confused things can get before the trip actually starts. Here are two phone messages every editor loves to hear before heading into a major travel mission:

Janna Meyen, 2:30 a.m. the night before we leave (I’m asleep): “Jen, this is Janna. I’m in Tahoe and I’m drunk. I think we’re supposed to be going to Europe soon, but I couldn’t remember if it was tomorrow or the next day. If it’s tomorrow, then I’d better stop drinking and get my ass up to Oregon, because I think my flight’s out of Bend, but if not, then we’re all going to go to Reno right now ’cause the bars are still open … ”

Robbie Sell, 11:00 a.m. the morning of travel (I’m flying to Chicago): Hi Jen, I’m at the hotel in Prague, and the lady at the front desk says you guys aren’t getting here ’til tomorrow. Did I get the dates wrong? Hopefully they have an open room here for tonight … ”

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Five Facts For Fascinated Foreigners

  • One of the Czech terms for “yes” sounds like the English word “no.” Apparently “no” still means “no” in Czech, but the word “no” that means “yes” is pronounced with a slightly longer “o” sound. Got it?
  • Fast-food joints like McDonald’s and KFC are considered “nice” restaurants in the CR because their prices are on par with American meals—which is damn expensive by Czech standards.
  • Czech women guzzle a dark beer called Krusovice, convinced that the brew will make their breasts bigger. Vitamin B is the supposed cause of the enhancement.
  • In an effort to preserve the amazing medieval architecture in Prague, buildings are carefully rebuilt from the inside out, leaving the original exterior of the structure intact.
  • Many mountain-town locals brew a plum liquor called Slivovice—a nasty, fire-breathing moonshine. Extreme caution must be used in the alcohol-making process—if the elixir burns, it could produce ethanol (a.k.a. grain alcohol) which causes blindness if you drink enough.
on:

Janna Meyen, 2:30 a.m. the night before we leave (I’m asleep): “Jen, this is Janna. I’m in Tahoe and I’m drunk. I think we’re supposed to be going to Europe soon, but I couldn’t remember if it was tomorrow or the next day. If it’s tomorrow, then I’d better stop drinking and get my ass up to Oregon, because I think my flight’s out of Bend, but if not, then we’re all going to go to Reno right now ’cause the bars are still open … ”

Robbie Sell, 11:00 a.m. the morning of travel (I’m flying to Chicago): Hi Jen, I’m at the hotel in Prague, and the lady at the front desk says you guys aren’t getting here ’til tomorrow. Did I get the dates wrong? Hopefully they have an open room here for tonight … ”

(sidebar2)

Five Facts For Fascinated Foreigners

  • One of the Czech terms for “yes” sounds like the English word “no.” Apparently “no” still means “no” in Czech, but the word “no” that means “yes” is pronounced with a slightly longer “o” sound. Got it?
  • Fast-food joints like McDonald’s and KFC are considered “nice” restaurants in the CR because their prices are on par with American meals—which is damn expensive by Czech standards.
  • Czech women guzzle a dark beer called Krusovice, convinced that the brew will make their breasts bigger. Vitamin B is the supposed cause of the enhancement.
  • In an effort to preserve the amazing medieval architecture in Prague, buildings are carefully rebuilt from the inside out, leaving the original exterior of the structure intact.
  • Many mountain-town locals brew a plum liquor called Slivovice—a nasty, fire-breathing moonshine. Extreme caution must be used in the alcohol-making process—if the elixir burns, it could produce ethanol (a.k.a. grain alcohol) which causes blindness if you drink enough.