You Are In A Maze Of Twisty Little Passages, All Alike

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Catskills, Underground

Just as we left Albany, the pouring rain actually began falling, as the rest of the group promised as they decided to leave and not even try camping another night. It wasn’t at all how I’d hoped this would go; I barely managed to keep the last meetup together, and this time we only explored one place before falling apart, albeit on mostly good terms. I didn’t really care anymore though, we were still trying to explore, and it doesn’t rain underground. I’d gotten decent directions from one of the cavers I met last month on how to see the Rosendale mines, so even without the 9 people we lost back to New York City, we gave it a try. My first interpretation led us into Widow Jane’s Mine, the touristy one on the property of a museum, made even more touristy by a half-set-up installation art exhibit. I didn’t want to stay too long just in case any of the artists were still around and wondering who would be creeping around the mine, so we tried the other one. I had to ask for directions again when my reading of them led into a deer trail and a swamp, but on the second try we were in.

DSC_3997B

While the cement supply ran out around 1900, these mines found (and some still have) other uses, being vast underground spaces with miles of passages, and acres of chambers, ranging from dry to flooded to completely underwater. This mine was once the nation’s largest producer of culinary mushrooms. Another one nearby was rumored to be an underground emergency shelter for the state legislature if Albany had to be evacuated — that one is now a data storage center for Iron Mountain, providing something a bit more down-to-earth than a cloud backup.

None of the mushrooms themselves, nor obvious signs of growing them, remain in the mine. However, there is still a slight infrastructure, in the form of downed power lines following some of the walls, and a few pieces of machinery left behind near the entrance.

DSC_4004B

Beyond that, the mine opens up into a dark, seemingly endless maze.

DSC_4017A

Not wanting a repeat of my last mine adventure, I approached this one with a working headlamp and fresh batteries, instead of a tiki torch. And this time there were no psychedelically-induced Lovecraftian horrors crunching underfoot with every step. But I still didn’t dare challenge the maze with anything more than the obvious, simple route following along one side of it. Not on a first venture into this particular abyss, and not with someone concerned enough about getting lost to be trying to make arrows in the ground with a tire iron to mark where we have already been.

The boundary, for this time anyway, was usually a shoreline, with flooded passages beyond begging for an inflatable raft, or a hotter day to make swimming in the flood zone more attractive than on this 48-degree rainy night.

DSC_4024A

The farther in we went, the less flooding there seemed to be, as the air thickened with steam and a miscellaneous sense of going deeper and deeper underground.

DSC_4009B

DSC_4013B

Each room was numbered, in more or less increasing order, counting how many chambers were between us and the surface, on a path not entirely different from the one we took to get that far. These markings, however, were far from reliable. This particular set of “OUT” arrows point directly into the mine. I have to wonder if the arrow pointers got lost, or if they were simply sadistic explorers who wanted to keep the less experienced from ever wanting to come back!

DSC_4023B

About 80 rooms, or nearly a mile, into the mine, there was a “shed” full of machinery. The need for a building in the mine somewhat confused me, with the entire thing already being sheltered from the elements, but it seems to have been a storage area for (mushroom-era?) farm implements of some type.

DSC_4031B

More troubling, though, was the passage behind this, with rising and falling ramps. Not only is this an enormous maze of twisty passages, but apparently it’s a multi-level vertical maze too! We stayed on the “center” level, and avoided any ramps, trying to keep this adventure relatively short considering we didn’t start until after midnight.

DSC_4035B

On the way what we thought might be back, we found a spot that appeared to be “raining”. I imagine it was actually cave drips, but it seemed like just the tiniest portal to the outside world, letting in the weather drop by drop.

DSC_4047A

As we continued, we eventually made our way to the exit — the same exit we came in through, no less — to find it was still pouring rain! I definitely need to go back here though. This was just one level, and counting only the ramps we could see, there are three more below, at least one more above, and plenty of buried river to take a boat out into…

DSC_4056A

#troating

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Denmark, Germany, Team Fail

Stuck in Szczecin with far fewer options than we’d expected, it became time to do something extreme. What it was, we weren’t quite sure, as we frantically Googled and asked around for any possible ways out of there. It seemed from what the information booth would tell us, that the only ways out of the airport itself were on a plane further east, on a train further into Poland, or in a cab, so we called one, and bought yet another bottle of cheap whisky at the duty free despite it being only 11am, chugged a few shots each, and hoped for the best.

About an hour later a cab showed up, and the driver knew there would be a train heading in our general direction – one problem, it’s leaving in 25 minutes, and the station is a 40 minute drive away! So the driver takes a swill of vodka, slams on the accelerator, and we’re off! We even offered him an extra zl. 100 if he could make sure we made our train, making him drive even faster, and straight through a speed camera – KURWA MAĆ! – at almost 200 km/h.

We make the train with plenty of time to spare, almost every second of which is spent on trying to get a ticket from a domestic station that clearly doesn’t see many tourists, and babble-fishing our way through the transaction with Google Translate, and more than a few incredulous questions of “train go to where?!” as the ticket office rightly thought the train was an absolutely ridiculous way to get to Stockholm.

We picked up a few źapiekanky for lunch, got on the train, and the journey began, rather too uneventfully, into Germany, a land apparently festooned with Dr. Seuss trees.

Where are all these solar panels in America?

Of course, it doesn’t take long for the trouble to return. We end up on the regional Re-Bahn, a network that could courteously be described as provincial, and worse yet, it’s a Sunday, so half the trains aren’t even running, and those that are, take leisurely routes to every stop in every tiny village.

And that wasn’t all – not having enough wrong already, DB also had major track works going on, and trains only ran one piece of the route at a time, with connecting buses in between where the single track was torn up. So we circled through the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern one piece at a time, from Szczecin to Angermünde to Päsewalk to Neubrandenburg to Greifswald to Güstrow to Bützow, and finally to Rostock, where we missed the train to Copenhagen by a full three hours.

The only positive about all this was the view – we truly saw the Germans’ Germany, which actually looked curiously like upstate New York, just with more abandonments.

We asked for directions at the station, and the only thing leaving Rostock that night was a Fußballzüg, a special party train bringing hundreds of fans out to an away match, in this particular case FC Hansa 3. supporters on their way to Schwerin. But Schwerin was a slightly bigger city, and quite a bit closer to where we were going (or so we thought – it never occurred to us that there’s a quick and easy ferry crossing from Rostock to Malmö!) so we got on the train, and did our best to get Eurotrashed on the hour long ride, polishing off the bottle of Scotch and picking up a few 1€ beers from the train bar.

From Schwerin, we actually caught the more or less right train to Hamburg, with a chance to make it to Copenhagen… of course, arriving in Hamburg, that one was sold out, and it would cost us 220€ each (first class, since that was the only seat left!) to get to Copenhagen in the morning. So we booked a hostel in Hamburg, and didn’t go much farther than the nearest bar, having no logical options but to drown this night in Erdinger, not even caring enough to check out the Reeperbahn.

In the morning, we got on the packed and expensive train to Copenhagen to do it all over again, on an international express this time. Shortly after Lübeck, they made an announcement in German that I was sure said we had to get off the train and onto the boat. Ben didn’t believe me, but when everyone else did the same, we followed, and realized that we were, in fact, on a train on a boat, about to set sail across the Kattegat.

It’s a train! It’s a boat! It’s a … troat? That’s it! We’re #troating! He’s on a troat, motherfuckers, don’t you ever forget, we’re going fast and (we’re on a troat)!

Soon enough, the troat parts ways, and the train goes on to Copenhagen while the boat sits in Odense without us. At least we had a long enough layover in Copenhagen to get some smørrebrød before the train to Stockholm… I’ll never have enough smørrebrød, and unfortunately the ingredients are even too weird to make them at home, let alone start a food truck selling them!

By this point, we’re both pretty much sick of the road and ready to get home, especially with our Team Fail luck, which Stockholm only delivered more of! We checked in at the hostel no problem, but trying to get dinner was nothing short of maddening, with no one accepting our credit cards, and the ATMs (Bankomats) spitting out our cards with some error message in Swedish. We finally convinced someone on the street to take out 500 krone for us for 80€, a terrible exchange for us but we were pretty much screwed otherwise, and hungry enough that we went to the first kebab shop we could find and bought an irresponsible amount of food.

Yesterday morning, we saw as much of Stockholm as we could with a plane to catch and still absolutely jaded… the highlight of it was lunch at a little cafe with Swedish-style smörgåsbord, a (nominal) salad with about eight different kinds of seafood on top, which was delicious!

Even the flight home was surprisingly challenging. Swedish customs gave me trouble about being born in 1955, a clear confusion arising from sharing a name with my dad, and refused to issue my boarding pass until they could contact him and clarify that he wasn’t in Europe and his son was. I have no idea why they needed to do that, because I clearly had a passport, MY passport no less, but they did, and it was a bit of a close call making the flight.

The flight, as most trans-Atlantic flights are, was long and boring, and I spent most of it writing for this blog.

Once we landed in New York and cleared customs, Ben went his own way to meet a friend in Brooklyn, and I went on to the JetBlue terminal for my flight home, and one last EPIC fail…

I got on the plane without incident, seated in seat 22D of a regional jet – window seat, last row before the lavatories – for the flight back to Rochester, just short of an hour of air time.

After takeoff, I noticed that something REEKS; a realization shared by nearby passengers, who complain, at least two of them, to the flight attendants, pointing in my general direction. They assume it’s me; the smell wasn’t exactly that of dirty backpacker, but it could be said there was some resemblance. Rotten cheese mixed with concentrated fart juice, left to marinate in a soaking wet hiking boot, might have been a better description. And I knew my feet did smell from two weeks of walking around rainy Europe, but they couldn’t be that bad…

As we’re crossing Long Island Sound, one of the flight attendants approaches me with a respirator mask and rubber gloves, and tells me that due to my odor, the flight might have to divert to Binghamton (remember, the entire flight should only take 54 minutes anyway) to deplane me, and if that were the case, I would need to find an alternate way home.

I try to explain to them that I barely have a sense of smell (caught a bad cold in Berlin) and still know how bad this is, and I maintain that it is NOT me, and they never would have let me fly Stockholm-JFK in coach smelling like this. She leads me a few rows up, and presumably noticing that the other passengers aren’t wincing in disgust as I walk by, takes off her mask, and agrees that the stench is not mine.

To placate the rest of the passengers, though, the flight attendant orders me locked in the bathroom for the remainder of the flight and tells me not to leave until the plane is on the ground and the jetway doors are open. At this point, I have to wonder if I’ll get a ride home from the airport in a police cruiser – and whether we will in fact be diverted to Binghamton to add insult to insult – but I more or less accept my fate, and ride out the rest of the flight in an airline bathroom. Luckily, it was a cold, clear night with no turbulence to be found… probably the one positive out of this experience.

The flight lasts as long as it should, a reassuring sign that we weren’t diverted.

Eventually, the seatbelt sign goes on, and I try to perch above the toilet just in case the literal shit hits the fan. When the plane lands, the flight attendant lets me out of the bathroom, and starts apologizing profusely.

It was in fact, partially, my backpack that unleashed the epic stink. But only because someone’s forgotten bag of Asian food stuff from weeks ago, including a burst bottle of something resembling fish sauce, and possibly “stinky tofu,” had been stuffed up and behind the last overhead compartment, and its contents had formed a semi-liquefied congealed mess all over the compartment, and apparently no one with a large carryon had sat in 22D for a while.

The flight attendants brought me to the gate, and after some arguing, agreed to give me a $100 voucher for the inconvenience. Not, mind you, for being stuffed into the lavatory for a flight back from NYC. Only for partial compensation for the damage to my backpack and its contents. But anything was welcome at that point…

By this time, I was just about the last passenger left at the airport. As I approached the taxi stand, the dispatcher shut the window in front of me, and said, “sorry, closed for tonight!”. I tried asking the cabs directly, since there were still about 6 lined up at baggage claim, and they responded that they couldn’t pick up airport passengers without a fare card from the dispatcher. The last one in line finally told me the obvious, that I’d stink up the cab.

While I argued, the last bus out of the airport left too, without me on it.

I got to enjoy a rather long, refreshing walk back from the airport last night.

Even if it was a constant cavalcade of fail, it really has been the adventure of a lifetime, and I would do it all again without a doubt! And maybe without all the fail this time, with a better idea how it works. Only this time, there better not be a general strike or fish sauce on the plane!

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin!

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Germany, Team Fail

After we finished exploring, we spent the rest of our brief visit to Berlin on the tourist trail seeing some of the actual landmarks, starting from the Alexanderplatz to Berliner Dom, a cathedral nearly destroyed during the war and rebuilt back to its original Prussian glory:

Opposite there was a museum of some sort that we didn’t have time for, but should probably have gone to… but our destination, if we could even find it, was the Berlin Wall.

Crossing back into the former West Berlin, we passed through Checkpoint Charlie. First, a picture from 1964, when my mom was a military brat stationed in West Germany:
1b35e2ee-3afb-4359-8020-81b4d7a9235b (1)

And now, what it looks like surrounded by modern Berlin with no wall anymore… I must say this is one landmark I’m glad is gone!

After a while longer, we found the one preserved piece of the wall, surrounded in Easternesque tourist traps like this one, ‘celebrating’ the infamous Össi car, the Trabant, the only new car available for the duration of the DDR regime.

Another look at East Berlin – these Communist concrete block buildings would have been the face of the East looking out over the Wall.

And the last of the wall itself, optimized for tourist viewing

Not far from there is the Holocaust memorial, with stone columns symbolizing every day of the atrocities

Finally, we passed through Brandenburger Tor, returning to West Berlin.

Crossing the River Spree brought us to the Hauptbahnhof and our train to Stettin/Szczecin, just over the Polish border, the one place we could find a cheap flight on to Oslo from!

After a two hour train ride, we arrived in Poland, and it became abundantly clear that we were in a completely different country. It seemed that no one spoke English, and we had no idea how to get to our hotel. Even trying to use the ATM in the train station to take out zloty, we were apprehended by Polish soldiers, who looked at our passports with some confusion, and went about their business.

Eventually, we flagged down a cab, with a driver who spoke some English, and seemed to know where the Marina Hotel was. He told us, quite insistently, about the local nightclubs, asking us after each one, “Taxi go to club???” as we circled around Szczecin. After taking half an hour to go what should have been only a mile or so, looking back at the map, he dropped us off at the hotel, and gave us a business card.

In the morning, we got a different taxi, who would not go to club, to go to airport. On the way there, we learned a few Polish swears, as he seemed to miss exits (and squeal the brakes and pull somewhat violent U-turns) as a matter of course, accompanied each time by at least “Kurwa mač!” and sometimes more.

We finally get to the airport 40 minutes before takeoff, and things are oddly quiet. For one thing, it’s a tiny airport, with only two gates. But, as we quickly learned, the real problem was the pilots’ strike had made it to Poland too, and nothing was flying north or west, just the Eastern airlines were still running!

Don’t Fence Me In

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Germany, Institutional, Team Fail

Once I got back from my Beelitz adventure, Ben was ready to see the city, so we got on the U-bahn and went to Charlottenburg for dinner. After a little bit of going around in circles, we decided on (delicious) Vietnamese food, then circled around some more looking for a massage parlor that made themselves nearly impossible to reach, “Good China Massage”. We both tried multiple times to call and make an appointment, but neither their English nor my German came anywhere near understandable, and all she would do on the phone was repeat “Güüte China Maßßadge” at us (we KNOW!) and hang up. Eventually Ben found the place, and I got to experience that German wonder, the Erdinger beer truck, while I waited for his back to get straightened out. Yes, beer trucks are just what they sound like – kind of like ice cream trucks here, but instead of crappy popsicles and tinkly bells, there’s cold Hefeweizen and (recorded) oom-pah music.

We spent the rest of the night looking all over for any possible jazz clubs, hopping around from one closed venue, or shitty rock band, to another, looking for islands of wifi in between to find a map of where to go next. We never did find any jazz, but we got the accidental tour of East Berlin and did see the Alexanderplatz, the Fernsehturm and the Holocaust Memorial along the way, so it wasn’t all in vain…

The next day, we decided to give exploring a try together, with another place the internet told us would be easy, Krankenhaus an den Weißensee, an East German children’s hospital closed in 1991. Getting there was a bit of journey, using all three Berlin transit systems, the U-, S- and M-bahne, then when we got there, we found the FENCE. Scheiß!

But I didn’t come all the way to Germany to get stopped by a little fence. We found a tree stump in the back, got over the fence (awkwardly for me), and into the hospital, which had its share of smashing and tagging done to it, but still has quite a bit of character.

This layout in the wards makes me imagine a warden standing at this end, looking down the line making sure no one tries to sneak out of bed. Probably just my preconception of what life in a Communist state was like, but the architecture lends itself well to my imagination of authoritarianism.

The hallways on one floor were painted in sheet music. I would never expect as much from an American tagger. Unfortunately I have no idea what the song might have been.

And despite being so omnipresent, the graffiti compares well to most buildings in America that I’ve seen.

That was even before we started finding Cory Arcangel-like rooms of repeated spray-paint leitmotifs

For a burned-out, trashed, well known place, this was getting to be pretty awesome!

Unexpectedly satisfied, spending most of the day at our first exploring destination, we decided to skip the rest and see the touristy stuff before we had to leave Berlin!

Betreten Verboten!

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Germany, Institutional, Team Fail

Just as one should expect by now for Team Fail, things were off track even by the time I woke up. Ben was sick and not really planning on going anywhere, and it was supposed to be our exploring day. I normally can’t stand exploring alone, not in the least because it’s never gone well for me before, but he insisted I give it a try, so I did, going to the easiest place I knew of, Beelitz-Heilstätten.

Beelitz is about an hour away, for one thing, in more or less middle of nowhere Brandenburg, but with this being Germany, it still had its own train station, so getting there wouldn’t be too much of a problem. And, from everything I could find about it online, walking around the grounds was legal, and going in more or less tolerated (which is the case for most abandoned East German sites, since they fell out of any ownership after reunification).

There was quite a bit of graffiti to watch from the train. Most of it went by too fast to get a good picture of, but I got this at least. I have no idea who these people are, but it seemed important.

Once I got there, it seemed obvious what to do. Go toward building, go in building, explore? Easy, right? This looks a little too good though, doesn’t it?

This can’t possibly be abandoned? But I’m standing right on the GPS coordinate from the UER database…

As it turned out, I was right. I found an open door, and walked right in on about 20 construction workers having lunch, and a foreman having a few choice words for me. And getting yelled at in German is just as effective as you might imagine… even only understanding half of it!

So I wandered around a bit more, and got to a shabbier, longer abandoned section. This time, there were more open doors, and the only people around were obviously explorers, although they seemed to only speak Russian. But they also looked like they knew their way around, so I followed them into a building.

This wasn’t the Beelitz everyone else got to see, but it was much better than nothing.

I’m pretty sure this is a Trabant. It’s also one of the most photographed abandoned cars on earth.

After that little bit of success, I was ready for a bigger building.

I get up to the roof, take one picture

…and then there’s a drone buzzing outside the window… It flies through the open window, oblivious of me, bonks me in the back of my head, and falls to the floor. I look outside, and the Russians are standing there confused. I bring their poor broken drone back down to them, and I can’t tell if they’re grateful, pissed off or both. They took the remains of the drone and worked on fixing it, and I moved on to another less awkward part of the complex. After all, this is the iconic building anyway…

And it was also fully, and freshly, boarded up. Again, of course it would be. I would be the one who would go all the way to Germany to find buildings that were boarded up probably only a few days ago, considering the construction crew was still on site boarding up the rest of the place!

Even walking around the outside was almost interesting enough though. It was my first time seeing a Communist statue – not quite a statue of Lenin but close enough.

But with only two days in Germany I decided I’d be better off going to something I could get in, so I went back to the train station. Which is just as abandoned as the rest of the complex, but still has two trains every hour!

I’m not 100% sure about this, but I think this is an advertisement left over from East Germany, promoting the various Eastern Bloc cities that it would have been possible for an Össi to travel to, with Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor and Fernsehtürm in the center?

Once I got back to Berlin, I stopped for some Currywurst and beer at a street cart, looked up another place to go (supposedly a children’s hospital), and tried to go explore that.

Something got lost in translation. The coordinates led me here, one block off the Kurfürstendamm, to a very not abandoned block in a very expensive part of town.

And that was well more than enough frustration for one day exploring alone!

Who Ate My Train?

Written by Concrete on . Posted in London, Team Fail

There was at least one positive to our bonus days in London: sunshine! Something not often seen in a British winter, and which we had yet to come across in four days in the city of fog. We tried to set off on another day of sightseeing, finally smart enough to take the train instead of bothering with the bus anymore, just to find that the trains weren’t stopping. Two of them blasted through the station at full speed, failing to make the Tulse Hill stop, with announcements counting down the minutes then apologizing for the cancellation of the train we just saw pass by.

After the second one, one of the frustrated passengers picked up the emergency phone and made a call to Transport, asking in classic British deadpan, “Who ate my train?”. and getting the answer that another one would be on the way.

The automated announcements counted down again, and finally said the train was in the station. If that was the case, it could only have been the Hogwarts express. There was nothing whatsoever at the platform, that was for sure. So he picked up the phone again, with a whole crowd becoming less and less gruntled by the minute gathering around, and inquired again, “who ate two of my trains?!” Predictably, the dispatcher was not amused, and told us that there had just been a train less than a minute ago, which was notably invisible, if it had arrived at all, a trait not usually seen on Southern Rail. Or any rail, for that matter. Eventually, she let us know that there was in fact a Train Eater, and it was located somewhere near Croydon, but getting farther away.

Eventually, one managed to get away from the Train Eaters and make its appointed run to London Bridge, and we finally got into the city. And were finally smart enough to take the Tube and not bother with the buses and traffic!

Just a little Shard:

Private Road — Children Dead Slow

With it being such a beautiful (and un-Londonlike) day we decided to go up to Primrose Hill and check out the city view before Camden Market.

Even more than the rest of it, Primrose Hill is a millionaire’s London.

And it’s a little too small to see in this picture, but we passed by Mornington Crescent and Cecil Sharpe House too. Just two minor landmarks for a geek with the epitome of two left feet…

After a beautiful sunset walk on the canal, we found Camden Town and we were HUNGRY!

First a little bakery that was painfully overpriced and had nothing of particular note except this poster…

Then toward Camden Market, and a vegan restaurant called inspiral foods that seemed oddly familiar. I figured out quickly enough why – I’d built their website about a year ago, and at the time never thought I’d be in London. Their food, despite being vegan, impressed me even more in real life than it already did just from having seen all those pictures at work. We also tried beer brewed from hemp seeds, just because the bartender pointed out to us it’s illegal in our country. But it was delicious too!

And then, we saw what we should have done. Half the price, twice the tasty. Street food stands of just about every country on earth, in a maze of indoor and outdoor stalls

After Ben’s performance at the Cambrian, he put me up to making a fool of myself on a piano in a little tea house, and butchering a few show tunes. Once we’d had enough of Camden (or, Camden had enough of us, as the case may be), we stopped by a pub with wifi to stress about the rest of the trip. In about half an hour, over one beer, we just reached the fuck it point, and booked a flight to Berlin, two nights there, a night in Szczecin, and a flight from there to Oslo on our way home. Without really giving any thought to anything, except no RyanAir was to be involved this time! With that out of the way, we embarked on our second mission: live jazz. We found a few places that should have music, but most of them were either far away or expensive, and there was still quite a while before midnight and our tickets to Ronnie Scott’s.

We settled for Charlie Wright’s, even though it was almost to Islington, and took the tube there, just to see that it was CLOSED. Of course. Team Fail!

Unable to find jazz, cheap booze or wifi, any of which could have led to a plan C, we just wandered around for hours until Bekki was ready to meet us, and then got into Ronnie Scott’s for the midnight show, with the same band we’d seen at the Cambrian, and some amazing guest musicians!

On the way back, Bekki helped navigate our drunk arses back to Tulse Hill on the night bus, and we got back at 4.30am to just about the one thing that could ruin this night… worried and angry emails from my mom, who had been wondering what happened to me, and calling bars, venues and hostels all over south London looking for me! Shit!

By the time that was settled, it was after 6am and people in the hostel were waking up already…

We didn’t have time to do much on our last (part) day in London except have lunch and go to the airport. On trains this time, without getting lost this time. The flight from “London” Southend (actually an hour and a half train ride away) to Berlin was quick and uneventful. And just like that, we were in Germany, a country we’d never even planned on going to!