Missiles, Boar, Beers, And Bellyaches (Exploring An Abandoned Czech Missile Base)
Standing in what we thought was a missile blast chamber. We now know better.
I should have known I was in trouble when some asshole by the side of the road outside Černošice mocked me as I walked my bike up a steep hill.
"Want to put it in my car?" he asked, laughing.
"Fuck you, buddy," I thought to myself while contemplating a confrontation. I could feel my blood rising. That's a dangerous thing, when I feel my blood rising.
My cycling buddies were far ahead, much better climbers than I, a sometime-cyclist who hates hills like (bad metaphor alert) Mario Andretti hates speed bumps. I thought the better of a fight and kept slogging. I hopped back on my bike and pedaled for a few more meters before hopping off again, my quadriceps on fire. It was just too steep. It wouldn't be the last time I'd be pushing my ride.
When all was said and done, this day, this ride, would qualify as one of the toughest I've ever taken. (The others would have to be "A Ride For The Centuries," "The Boys Take A Big Bike Trip To Mělník & Kokořínský Důl," and "A Rock In A Hard Place").
I had suggested a bike ride to my pal Stewart Moore last week, who also mentioned it to fellow cyclist David Murphy (and occasional "Grant's Prague Bike Blog" guest blogger, such as here and here), who came up with the idea of trying to explore what he thought was a decommissioned Czechoslovak missile base near Dobříš, some 30 kilometers or so southwest of Prague.
In a nutshell, we wanted to see some launch pads.
On the train, and the journey has begun.
The Berounka River in sleepy Černošice.
Stopping to take photos of flowers gives me a chance to rest my weary legs.
It sounded like a very cool idea, but it also sounded ambitious.
I've either been on these types of rides before or heard about them later. The initial conversation goes something like this:
Them: "Such-and-such destination is only XX kilometers away. It'll be a piece of cake."
Me: "But I don't want to be back too late. I can't afford to be gone the whole day. I've got things to do. Dinner with the family, etc."
Them: "Don't worry. We'll be home by mid-afternoon. We'll take the train back."
In the end, I left my apartment at 7:45 a.m. on Sunday, August 11. I returned to my apartment -- dirty, bleeding, slightly drunk, and totally exhausted -- almost 12 hours later.
I should have known better.
OUR ROUTE (I FORGOT TO TURN IT OFF ONCE WE BOARDED THE TRAIN BACK HOME):
We all met at Prague's main train station. Dave's plan was to take the 8:54 a.m. train out of Prague to Branik or Modřany to get ourselves out of the city, and then to meander our way toward the military base along some cycling paths that he had scoped out ahead of time.
Except that when Stewart and I arrived at the train station a few minutes before our train was scheduled to depart, Dave was nowhere in sight. And he wasn't answering his phone.
Stewart and I made the executive decision to buy tickets all the way to Černošice, which we thought would not only get us and our bikes out of the city but closer to the military base and, in the end, more quickly home. We boarded the train, only to then receive a call from Dave, who was somewhere in the station and looking for us.
The route may have been all uphill, but it was undeniably beautiful.
Of course, we weren't on the train Dave wanted us to be on, but by that point, we didn't give a shit, frankly. We told him where we were and to hop on board if he wanted to ride with us that day. He found us, and we were off.
(Oh, it turns out Dave had changed his mobile telephone number but had neglected to tell anyone. Nice!)
We disembarked in sleepy Černošice. And after crossing the Berounka River we headed, well, up. And up. And up. Into the Brdska Highlands. I have never taken a bike ride where the route only went uphill for about 50 kilometers. And I never want to again.
(According to my Garmin GPS gizmo, we ended up with 3,068 feet, or 935 meters, in elevation gain on the ride. That seems like a hell of a lot to me.)
We passed through Jíloviště, where we enjoyed our first cold beers of the day (including Guinness on tap for 60 CZK, or $3, a pint!) at the welcoming Restaurance Pod Lesem, and then slogged our way – yes, all uphill but on some gloriously beautiful paths -- through forests to the village of Černolice.
And still the road went uphill.
From Černolice, a network of walking and cycling paths headed further uphill deep into the vast forest that hid the missile base.
Along the way, we discovered a serene little spot known as Skalka, on a bluff above the town of Mníšek pod Brdy. The site contains the baroque church of St. Mary Magdalene and the Stations of the Cross, as well as a lily pond, a rustic pub, and a few other ruins.
A blooming water lilly at Skalka.
The baroque church of St. Mary Magdalene at Skalka.
The beer garden at Skalka.
Stewart and Dave share a special moment above the lilly pond at Skalka.
It was a delightful spot. Kids roasting hot dogs over an open fire, chairs and benches hewn from logs, dogs running around, beer flowing freely, biker and hikers galore, and the occasional whiff of pot. We grabbed a few sausages for sustenance and a few more beers.
Back on the bikes now, we were on the homestretch. The missile base was only about six or seven kilometers away, along more forest paths.
Now, let me be the first to admit that, throughout this entire trip, I had been complaining. Loudly. Annoyingly. Vociferously. Mostly I complained about the constant hill climbs. I believe my laments were something along the lines of, "This is the worst bike ride I've ever been on." Or words to that effect. And I meant it.
I also offered a prediction that we would never be rewarded for our constant, crappy climbing by seeing any launch pads or missile silos because the base in question would naturally be surrounded by razor wire or an impenetrable fence and that we would simply have to be content with photographing some rusted old sign hanging on the main gate. I would have bet a good chunk of money on that one.
I was wrong. I admit it now.
Scaling the wall.
Our bikes went over, too.
Yes, there was a four-meter-high fence surrounding the base on all sides, but we found a place on the wall where others with the same urge to explore had left a sturdy homemade wooden ladder.
We climbed the ladder, hoisted our bikes over, too, and we were in.
The base was big and overgrown and crisscrossed by roads made of crumbling cement slabs. We rode around rather aimlessly, exploring a few abandoned buildings and empty bunkers, not a soul in sight, until...until…until we came across a genuine launch pad, complete with rail tracks leading from a storage bunker to what we surmised was a blast chamber for the missile's exhaust.
The rail tracks that guided the missile to the launch pad.
One of the three large ramps that Dave had seen on Google Earth. They originally housed some sort of guidance system or radar.
At the top of the ramp, where the guidance system used to be.
Coming down the ramp.
At the base of the ramp: NO ENTRY. CAUTION. POSSIBILITY OF COLLAPSE.
We were, as they say, chuffed. A real missile launch site! We felt like three excited kids. It's one of the wonderful things about cycling, that it can rekindle those feelings from childhood when you and your bike was all you needed to explore the world.
An S-200 surface-to-air missile. Note the rail tracks leading to what we thought was a blast chamber but which contains the launch mechanism. This is the exact same configuration we found at the abandoned missile site.
A closeup view of the guidance or radar system that was once housed at the top of the ramp.
An old photo I believe is of the exact same ramp we ascended, shown when it was still holding the guidance or radar system.
Dave had seen, on satellite imagery, what looked like three giant ramps somewhere on the base. After a further bit of wandering, we found one of the ramps. Ignoring the spray-painted entreaties to stay off, we rode up the ramp and enjoyed sweeping views over the old base. Could this be the launch pad for an ICBM, we wondered? It was so much larger than the first site we'd found.
Some sort of storage bunker. Nothing inside. Everything picked clean. Still cool.
These crumbling roads made of concrete slabs crisscrossed the entire base.
To make a long story short, after a bit of web surfing on all of our parts on our return, we discovered a few facts about his abandoned base:
- That it was code-named Klondajk (although I have no idea why).
- That it was never officially decommissioned, so the land is still owned by the Czech military.
- That in its day the base housed Soviet-made S-200 surface-to-air missiles.
- That what we thought was a missile blast chamber was intended to hold the mobile launcher for the missile.
- And that the huge ramp we ascended appears to have been designed not for an ICBM but for some sort of guidance or radar system for the missiles.
Oh, and I believe this is the site where the United States had intended to install a new radar base as part of a controversial European missile-defense system that would also have had a missile-interceptor component in neighboring Poland. The Czech Republic withdrew its support for the plan in 2011.
Oh, and did I mention that while we were riding around on the base, we startled two deer, as well as one very large boar, who snorted loudly after we surprised him (and he, us) as we rounded a corner. I stopped to take a picture of the snarling beast, who was probably 10 meters away or so, and while I was taking his photo he started WALKING TOWARD ME.
We surprised this very large wild boar (or should I say he surprised us?) on one of the base's roads. As I took this photo, he started walking toward me.
We encountered a herd of about a dozen smaller boar a short time later.
I'm used to wild animals being afraid of humans. We hightailed it out of there, only to come across a herd of about 12 smaller boar a short time later. They, too, just walked toward us, unafraid.
It was getting late, and we all had to be getting home. We decided to take a train from the nearby town of Řevnice, which Dave knew had direct connections to Prague's main station. Řevnice looked to be about seven or eight kilometers from the base. And you know what? IT WAS ALL DOWNHILL!
It was the longest, most exhilarating downhill ride ever. It never seemed to end. And when it did, we were in Řevnice. Magical.
From Řevnice, it was a short train ride back to Prague. But it ended, for me, at least, with another painful slog, from Dejvická metro to my home in the Vokovice neighborhood of Prague 6. I hate riding up Evropská. It's another five kilometers or so, it's all uphill, and it never seems to end, coming as it always does after a long ride. I despise it.
But there I go, complaining again.
Length of ride: 58 kilometers
Average speed: 11.7 kph
Maximum speed: 61.2 kph
Time on the bike: 4.37.38
Pivo index: 6
Distance ridden so far in 2013: 158 kilometers
We found this working weather gauge lashed to a railing on top of the ramp. So obviously *someone* comes around the base every once in a while.