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Asymmetric fates of rivers of Pilsen

There were only two rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, in a defunct multicultural city surrounding Saddam Hussein's summer palace 50 miles South of Baghdad but the number "two" was apparently sufficient to earn a famous song by the German band Boney M.

Rivers of Babylon. The description "German band" is a bit subtle if not amusing not only because of the racial laws of the 1930s but also because of the simple fact that only the producer was German while the singers were Britons from three Caribbean islands.

The rivers of Pilsen, my hometown, haven't generated any famous song yet despite the fact that Pilsen was cleverly established in 1295 near the confluence of a whopping number of four rivers. (A confluence of five rivers, an even larger number, was outsourced somewhere to India.)

I don't want to make your life harder by forcing you to pronounce four Czech names of the rivers (Mže, Radbuza, Úhlava, Úslava) which English speakers often consider a hard job. And even the German names may be hard and incomplete (only their name "Angel" for Úhlava is acceptable in English) so let me call the rivers Drizzle, Lovefaggot, Byhead, and Byfame which are lumoesque ad hoc translations of the Czech names that were created for the convenience of readers like you.

All these four rivers flow for about 100 kilometers before they reach the confluences in Pilsen. Drizzle, Lovefaggot, Byhead, and Byfame arrive from West, Southwest, South, and Southeast, respectively. They merge to the Berounka River (named after the town of Beroun near Prague) which continues to Northeast where it contributes to the Moldau (Vltava) river in Prague, also after 100 kilometers or so. All the four springs are located in Bohemia except for Drizzle which originates in Germany but just a mile behind the border.

In the recent year or so, I reorganized my understanding of the local geography. I would previously use man-made structures, usually at elevated places, as the main points of reference. These days, I partly think about the locations relatively to very different benchmarks, the one-dimensional rivers, whose altitude is naturally rather low.

One of the great realizations ;-) that have led to this paradigm shift was the idea that if you ride your bike near a river, you don't have to pedal uphill too much – because the rivers themselves don't like to do such things due to the bureaucratic constraints imposed upon them by the force of gravity (it sounds like a triviality but I needed experiments to be forced to realize or "discover" such a thing). And because most suburbs and villages in the Greater Pilsen sit at one of the rivers, one gets quite a nice grid that may be exploited to estimate the distances and quantify the coordinates.

In recent days, the Czech Republic and parts of Austria and Bavaria have experienced some mild inundations – which you've probably seen on your TV screen under the trademark "Armageddon" (even though the very throughflow is just 3/5 of what it was e.g. in August 2002). Four days ago, they would begin on the Gossip River (Czech: Klabava), the first non-Pilsner river that will become the fifth Pilsner (Berounka) tributary sometime in the future and where I spent lots of time during trips in April and May. Today in the morning, the weather turned partly sunny so I simply couldn't resist and had to inspect about 30 places near rivers in Pilsen.

Some of the changes made me excited; others made me impressed by the absence of any effect.

By the latter, I mean the Drizzle River coming from the West. It doesn't seem flooded at all. This is particularly ironic because those of us who have studied the industrial and agricultural history of the Pilsner region must know that the Drizzle River has been by far the most flooding one. Large areas near the Drizzle used to be inundated quite often which may look like an annoyance but these events were actually helping to improve the quality of the soil. The village of Křimice, now an administrative part of Pilsen, is a major example of a place that became famous for some of its agricultural products – cabbage, fruits, and so on. Byfame is often considered the least important one among the rivers of Pilsen and you may also see that the towns and villages on Byfame had to rely on some industrial (and not agricultural) production for more than a century.

(Oops, only in the evening I realized that the calmness of the Drizzle River has a simple reason: they decided to accumulate all the water – and there probably has been excess precipitation above Drizzle as well – in the Pealegumes (Hracholusky) Dam.)

Lovefaggot near the American Avenue is approaching the confluence with Drizzle. In the middle of the background: the Western Bohemian museum and the (green) Pilsen tower, i.e. the St Bartholomew Cathedral. The changing names of the American Avenue, the largest commercial street in Pilsen, represent a nearly self-satirizing testimony to the frequent changes of the political arrangement and the Czech opportunism. The avenue began as the Imperial Avenue in the 19th century to celebrate the Austrian Empire. In the early 20th century, it would be called the Jungmann Avenue to celebrate a 100-year-old patriot and a leader of the national revival. It would quickly be renamed as the Joseph I Avenue after a (then) 200-year-old emperor. After Czechoslovakia was created in 1918, it would be renamed the Wilson Avenue for 20 years to thank Woodrow Wilson for his contributions to the birth of Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis took over, the avenue would become the Charles IV Avenue, after a non-problematic and beloved 14th century Czech king and Holy Roman Emperor. In 1943, the Nazis optimistically renamed it as the Victorious Avenue but after the true victory in 1945, it became the Stalin Avenue. In the early 1960s, the Soviet leader became a bit unpopular so it was renamed the Moscow Avenue, before it turned the General Ludvík Svoboda Avenue after a war hero and a moderate communist president. In 1970, it was again the Moscow Avenue. In 1991, two years after the fall of communism, we had the American Avenue, with a short-lived confusion because some people wanted to call it the Prešov Avenue after a rather small East Slovak town (but a smaller street near the city center was ultimately named after Prešov). ;-) Just try to count the number of names! I must say that we have lived in the age of an unusual stability since the early 1990s.

It's helpful to know that Lovefaggot devours the Byhead river in South Pilsen (the Slovany=Slavs suburb) before it (Lovefaggot) reaches the most important confluence in Pilsen which is just 100 meters from the stadium of the Victoria Pilsen soccer team, the fresh Czech champion (the buildings in the right half of the map belong to the brewery). At this point, Lovefaggot joins Drizzle. Drizzle is the larger tributary so by the usual conventions, the resulting river should be called Drizzle. In fact, some Pilsner historians wanted to ban the name "Berounka" for the river between Pilsen and Prague and rename it to Drizzle again, while quoting some vague historical documents indicating that someone was calling it the Drizzle River even in places between Pilsen and Prague. They would even claim that Berounka was a nearly communist construct because the name only began to be used in the 17th century. ;-) Needless to say, their efforts to rename 100 km of a well-known river used by canoeists etc. had no chance to succeed.

When the river is already called Berounka – the major tributary of the Moldau River in Prague – it is going to devour the Byfame River in the Oakforest (Czech: Doubravka) suburb where I currently live. 10 km later, out of Pilsen, Berounka also devours the Gossip River.

So the most impressive negative surprise was the complete lack of a flood on the traditional flooding river of Pilsen, the Drizzle River. In fact, the confluence of Drizzle and Lovefaggot offered an unusually asymmetric perspective. Lovefaggot was boasting lots of excess water from the South. The water level was elevated by more than a meter and weirs became nearly invisible. The speed of the water may have been 3 meters per second and it was about 5 meters per second when I saw it yesterday.

On the contrary, Drizzle was nearly static near the confluence. I believe it was moving at 10 centimeters per second – and slower than normally because I believe that the normal speed is half a meter per second or so. How is it possible? Well, the confluence guarantees that the water level in Drizzle is elevated as well, due to the extra water in Lovefaggot, which increases the average cross section of Drizzle. Because the throughflow (volume of water per second) isn't really changed, a greater cross section of Drizzle translates to a much lower speed.

However, as soon as the Berounka River is created at this confluence, one may observe something I was already impressed by as a kid during the floods in the early 1980s - the Super Berounka River. Just imagine that most of the fields in the middle of this map became a part of the Berounka River.

At the end of the field, there is a bridge named after the nearby butchery which was closed due to some stability concerns; I knew it from the media. I also knew that the St George Church and Cemetery (center, just meters from the Berounka-Byfame confluence) became an island. But it isn't just an island in a peaceful sea. The water is flowing several meters per second on both sides.

I was sort of surprised that this pedestrian bridge at the center of the map was "naturally closed": about 50 meters of a vigorous Berounka River prevents pedestrians and cyclists from crossing this footbridge.

These are some exciting experiences just from several – or a dozen – of miles on four rivers. The inundations have affected hundreds if not a thousand of kilometers on dozens of rivers or so which means that what I have seen should be multiplied by 100 or so to get a realistic idea about the "geographic changes" that the inundations have brought us.

Let me mention that I described some factoids about the inundations in the box at the top of an article I wrote yesterday. The precipitation is pretty much over and places like Pilsen are already well after the peak; even Prague peaked around 6 am today. The excess water is moving to the lower portions of major rivers, especially Elbe (which has the Moldau as the most important tributary) and Danube. I don't expect any additional catastrophes. The damages are just a few billion crowns - multiples of $50 million. Six casualties – not necessarily people who were behaving safely. Lots of black humor about sharks and swimming races in the subway stations, a drunk president Zeman rafting near the Sri Chinmoy's statue to save the country, and many other things.

Mountain climbing in Antarctica etc.

Tonight, I attended a presentation by Mr Rudolf Švaříček (51), an adventurer, mountaineer, writer and publisher of travelogues, and owner of a travel agency called Livingstone that sells vacations in highly exotic destinations. It was an evening similar to one with Jakub Vágner more than a year ago.

He was a member of a small group – I didn't quite catch who did it and who didn't – of men who managed to walk from a sea shelf right to the highest peak of the Antarctica, Vinson Massif. (He has also been to most other countries in the world, especially those with high mountains.) Lots of amazing stories where they almost sacrificed their lives, extreme frostbite, lost toes, teeth, and so on.

I am not really following the world of the best alpinists and mountaineers so I don't know the names well. But of course I knew some of the people whom Mr Švaříček is really close to – the legendary old Czech traveler Mr Zikmund (his companion Mr Hanzelka died a decade ago), some top Czech mountaineers I don't remember, Dalai Lama who opened some exhibitions by Mr Švaříček, Karel Schwarzenberg, the unsuccessful #2 presidential candidate from the first elections a few months ago, and especially Dr Pavel Bém, the ex-mayor of Prague.

You may want to hear your humble correspondent as he boasts that he answered the highest number of quiz questions during the talk although it's not really my field. ;-) First, we were asked about the primacies of Antarctica. It's the coldest one. He wanted to hear it was the driest one, but I also added it was the most Southern one, and had to get some mysterious holy stone with some sacred scripture of some African tribes or whatever it is.

More seriously, we were asked how many Czechs have climbed Mount Everest from the Southern side. He previously mentioned many names of Czechs to confuse the audience. So for a minute, I was listening as the 100 folks in the audience were saying or screaming all kinds of integers you may think of. Six. Ten. Seventeen. Three. Eleven. Two. Twenty. I was thinking: Ladies and Gentlemen, please keep on talking all your gibberish, you have no chance. When the noise subsided a little bit, I loudly and authoritatively said: ONE. :-) So I won a plastic bag of Konyagi, a Tanzanian alcoholic beverage that Mr Švaříček was holding in his hands on a picture from the Antarctica's highest mountain (at least he claimed it was the same one) in order for the beverage to save his life whenever needed.

Of course, this ONE man is Dr Pavel Bém himself, the ex-mayor of Prague (now he is the ex-ex-mayor because his successor was made resigned a week ago, too, after a coalition in Prague broke down). In fact, it's plausible that this answer may be found somewhere on this blog. When he asked how many Czech people have conquered both Mt Everest and K2, I was listening to a very similar minute filled with random numbers. But I was already feeling painful to shout the right answer which is again ONE, of course, namely Pavel Bém again.

There was a different quiz how to find "six other months" in a calendar that apparently only shows 6 months out of 12. Ten people on the left side from me have been playing with the calendar for about 5 minutes, nearly destroying it. Of course I knew what to do. You may open it on both sides, including the edge where it seems to be bound. It's hard to say why one knows most of these things. I had to see a wallet using the same trick some decades ago or whatever it was. I am sure that some readers know what mechanism of the magic (flip) wallet I am talking about.

But back to more important things. The adventures that these people undergo are amazing and relatively speaking, I would say that these things aren't really too publicized, either. Although it's not exactly my cup of tea, I think that these extraordinary achievements or examples of courage don't get enough attention from the mainstream media and other resources most directly communicating with the public. It's a pity.

Mr Švaříček also talked about the importance of friendship in these trips and his love for the native tribes who can sometimes achieve more amazing things than the white tourists, without all the fanfare. We were also told that a mafia of gangster millionaires and mountaineers who de facto own the Antarctica and want to have a monopoly over flights going there was working hard to make the tourist achievement – walking from the sea to the highest peak – impossible by fudging the schedule of the flights. They failed, anyway.

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reader Jason said...

"a famous song by the German band Boney M"

To give credit where due, let it be known that Rivers of Babylon is actually by the Melodians (1970). Many bands including of course Boney M have covered it, and their version is excellent. If the video is unavailable in TRF readers' countries as it is in mine, they will have no trouble finding others on YouTube.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Interesting, I didn't know!

reader John F. Hultquist said...

Thanks for the tour. I used Google
Earth “street view” and found the pedestrian bridge you pointed
out being cut off because of the water. Although not a road, it does
show up from the west end approach – with a mud puddle a few meters
from the bridge. Image date is July, 2009.

reader Luboš Motl said...

You're totally right, it is on Street View from the White Mountain side:


But I would easily get through the small puddle on the picture above. The state yesterday was that the puddle was replaced by a 50-meter-long, 50-centimeters deep new part of the river moving at 3 meters per second to the left (as seen on the picture). ;-)

reader dalpezzo said...

And speaking of credit, the text is actually from the Bible (Psalm 137).