Monday, April 23, 2007

Kopalnia Soli - Salt Mine

St. Kinga's Chapel

A little way out of Krakow is the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Operating since the middle ages, there are over 200km of excavated passages and chambers, reaching to a depth of 327m. Getting out to the mine took a bit longer than expected - Poland's roads are really bad.

Joining an English tour group for the descent (at approximately a 50% premium over the cost of a Polish-language tour), I began by descending a 380-step (about the same as a 20 storey building) wooden staircase. I think the idea is to get you so dizzy that when you reach the first level, they can say "tour over" and you believe them. After later descents to our maximum depth of 130m, I was sure that I'd run into James Mason and Pat Boone at any moment.

130m below ground; King Casimir the Great

A large portion of the group seemed to a stag party from the north of England, who lightened the mood and the deathly jokes of the tour-guide. After recounting an apocryphal tale of the creation of the mine, she said "of course, you can, as they say in English, take it with a pinch of salt": one of the the stags let out a faux belly-laugh at just the right time.

Through the mine there are quite a number of sculptures from rock salt, in fact we were usually standing on sculpted salt tiles or bricks. The most impressive room we encountered St Kinga's Chapel, with salt-crystal chandeliers and a saline John Paul II in the corner, had large reliefs on the wall such as da Vinci's The Last Supper. We also passed a grotto with the Seven Dwarves, a beer-stein holding Goethe ( a visitor to the mine ), and Copernicus ( ditto ).

Pass the salt

There's a chamber with a large shallow pond where we were invited to witness "a mysterious light show accompanied by beautiful music." The music was orchestrated Chopin (another visitor of yore) and the only thing mysterious about the light show was whether or not the mine operators thought it more interesting than watching salt crystallize. I recommend BYO flashlight and coloured cellophane for a more professional effect.

The tour, with 2km of underground walking, rather over-extends itself in terms of interest. The last 1/2hour of the 2 hours underground is actually a bit of a shambles of herding people through a to-be-avoided room full of awful tourist tat, along a corridor for about a km, then into a big waiting room and finally industrial lifts for the exit. It took so long to reach them, I wondered if "lift" was a Polish word for "gentle slope" and we'd eventually end up on the surface about 50km from where our cars were parked. They could certainly take some pointers from the Slovenian Piranske Soline operation, or for that matter, from Temple Grandin's designs for humane livestock handling systems.

More communist sculpture; 1788: Australia settled by Europeans but business as usual here

After my afternoon in the lair of the white gold, I raced through the last third of Paul Roberts prescient volume on black gold: The End of Oil. Apart from its handling of the dilemmas facing the world in terms of energy supply, climate change and geopolitical fallout from managing both, it also gives great insight into the inertia of companies, governments and people in general when facing the need for change. The section on "internalizing costs" of oil/coal products as many countries have already done for tobacco (ie making users pay for the health side-effects) is very illuminating.

Even though published 3 years ago (so probably written in 2003), the last chapter on prognoses for transition strategies is right on the mark, but sadly even some of the more pessimistic predictions weren't aggressive enough: today the BBC reports that China will likely outpace the US in carbon emissions this year rather than in 2010.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:52 pm

    Only you!

    though a stag party from Northern England in a salt mine even appeals to my sence of humour!