Friday, May 09, 2014

Czech trailblazing: 125 years

I am a patriot yet a realist. So I think that the Czechs are pretty much the ultimate example of an average nation when it comes to most benchmarks. There are not too many technologies or disciplines in which we are at the top. But one of them is just celebrating 125 years. My 10 years in the U.S. made me think: You're just troglodytes, Yankees! ;-)

What is it? Yes, it's the trailblazing system. By 1938, i.e. before the arrival to Nazism to Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakia had the longest, most sophisticated, and most extensive system of 40,000 km of routes for hikers that are marked by the unified, colorful, structured, yet simple collection of symbols.

Today, it's still 40,000 km which no longer makes us the #1 in the absolute sense but we're still enjoying the highest density of the marked routes in the world.

The technology began to appear in Austria and Switzerland a century before us but the evolution towards perfection was only taking place in our lands. In 1874, i.e. 140 years ago, there were some first trails marked in Slovakia, and the first route in Bohemia appeared exactly 125 years ago. It was in a romantic place somewhere near the Moldau River South of Prague – now the place is covered by the Moldau dams. The oldest still functional marked trail leads from Beroun to the sexy Karlštejn castle.

The territory of Czechoslovakia – now Czechia plus Slovakia – has 128,000 squared kilometers. If you covered it by a square grid so that the total length of the routes would be 40,000 kilometers, the side $$a$$ of each square and the number of squares $$N$$ would obey$N a^2 = 128,000, \quad 2Na = 40,000.$ Divide the first equation by the latter to get $\frac a2 = \frac{128,000}{40,000}, \quad a = 6.4$ kilometers. It's not bad. If you walk for six kilometers or so in a straight direction, you are more likely than not to cross a marked trail.

As some pages on the Internet tell you, the system is simple yet informative, easy to maintain, and unified. The basic omnipresent symbol – every 100 meters of a marked trail – consists of two white horizontal strips and one colorful one in between. These symbols are found on the trees, stones, anything. Don't worry, the trees think that the paint is healthy.

Sometimes there are more complicated symbols. The picture above contains the basic colorful band mark; an arrow; a band mark for several colors; a local symbol; the symbol of the end; a diversion leading to a peak or an observatory; a diversion to a spring or a water well; a diversion to another interesting object; a symbol for an educational trail; a tourist table telling you where you are; a table with directions. I have no idea how to translate these things properly.

In Slovakia (narrower fonts, bottom), the distances are listed in hours. In Czechia (wider fonts, up), we think that the right unit of distance is a kilometer, not an hour. But as these tables from the Czech-Slovak border show, the systems are pretty much the same.

The four different colors are not quite interchangeable. They depict hierarchies.
• red: the oldest, long-distance and summit trails. You may get from one region to any other region if you follow the red trails
• blue: significant trails
• green: local trails
• yellow: short or connecting trails and shortcuts
At any rate, the color gives you some extra information that you're not only on "a route" – "a route" is almost everywhere, after all. Instead, you have something like the 75% probability that you're on the right trail. With such a consistency check, you usually don't need a map. The colorful trails are nevertheless visible on tourist/hikers' maps, check e.g. mapy.cz at a random place.

This whole system is being refreshed and improved by a network of volunteers – loosely organized in the Czech Tourists Club – and it's not hard. Each trail is being verified by a Markers Squad every three years or more often. The Czech marker system has been pretty much imported to Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary, with attempts to do something like that in Romania, Croatia, the Canary Islands, and Germany.

In 2011, the system was introduced to Crimea.