First days in Krym

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Krym is the English phonetic spelling of the Ukrainian name for Crimea (the Crimean Peninsula, and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea).  It will be used in place of  the name Crimea, which seems out of place to my tongue in reference to the Ukrainian and Russian names for this land. Additionally, while it is still common to hear “the Ukraine” , the Ukrainian government has officially requested that the definite article be dropped from the name, and official writing style guides have been adjusted.  Ukraine and Crimea are now the most common forms in English.  I will use the Ukrainian name, Krym, written in Latin characters.

Boarding a train in Lviv, we arrive in Simferapol 24 hours later.  Bicycles are not charged as additional baggage on Ukrainian trains, although you may have to convince the attendant that such a statute exists.  The bicycle is expected to be contained, such as in a proper bike travel bag.  A tent or several plastic garbage bags will do.  We arrived at the station in Lviv from a connecting regional train, with only 20 minutes to prepare our bikes and board the train.  The attendant in our car was less than happy at the pile of dirty bikes and luggage we hoped to load onto the train.  She insisted we couldn’t bring them on board.  She conferred with her cohorts.  She asked her superior.  He looked scrutinously at ‘all three’ (sigh) of our velocypedy.  He became disinterested and left.  Our attendant then decided on her own that we could board with the bicycles if we cleaned them off.

We grabbed greasy rags and removed as much dirt as possible, however, they were anything but clean.  Moments before the train leaves, she hollers at us to board.  “Or you’ll miss it!”.

Alright, alright, we’re getting on.

I suspect she just wanted to make us work a little– penance for not being prepared.  As we board, she smiles at us.  Ukrainian women like a good fight.

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A third class sleeper (platzkart, from German) is the best choice when traveling with a bike in Ukraine.  First and second class sleeper cabins afford more personal space and privacy, although the luggage hold is not well oriented for loading and unloading a bicycle.  Third class cabins have a third bunk designed for storing luggage.  The open design allows loading and overloading– we readily stored three bicycle on two luggage bunks with wheels removed.  I can only imagine the kind of things that third class Ukrainian passengers have transported on trains.  This cabin space features six bunks, although only five spaces were used in our section.  During the day, it is typical to sit along the lower bench seat and to share conversation at the small table.  At night, slip into your Adidas track pants and slide into you upper bunk.  Plan ahead and get a lower bunk space if possible.  The price for a third class bunk on a cross-country 24hr train?– about $20.  By the end of the trip, you will feel like family with your cabinmates.

Second class cabins sleep four in a similar space, for twice the price.  First class cabins sleep two.  All cars feature a hot water tank for hot tea and coffee.  Black tea is complimentary on the train.  “Chai? How many sugars?”.  Ukrainian, like Russians, love sugar in their tea.  Some say that after sugar has been added, the teaspoon should stand in the cup on its own.  At major stops along the way, exit the train to purchase a variety of prepared foods including pyroshky (baked dumplings filled with potato, cheese, cabbage or meat), varenyky (filled dumplings, boiled), smoked fish, and sweets.  Cold beer is also on hand from entrepreneurial vendors.  Prices are competitive.

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Arriving in Simferapol, we connect to a regional train to Sevastapol at the coast.  We have plans to meet a host for the evening, a keen bikepacker named Vital with extensive knowledge of the area.  Sevastapol is an incredible city, featuring historic armaments and many signs of wealth.  Sevastapol, and Krym in general, have long been the playground of the Russian elite.  Krym was part of Russia until after WWII, when it was annexed to the Ukrainian SSR.  Today, 50% of the population identifies as Russian, about 25% as Ukrainian, and 12% as Tartar.  The peninsula operates as an autonomous republic within the Ukrainian nation.  Sevastapol was largely a closed city during the Soviet-era, owing to its military prominence.

Sevastapol is beautiful by night, although after a day and half on trains, I’m apathetic about sightseeing and taking photos.  In the morning, Vital takes us for a sightseeing tour in the hills.  We ride out of town, past vineyards, over crystal waters on ancient aqueducts, and into the mountains.

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Our prize for the day is a visit to a Cold War-era bunker, unofficially open to the public for lack of a door.  From the outside, it looks like a boring concrete building, with windows painted on the surface to fool curious American satellites.

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On the inside…

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Tunnels fit for vehicular traffic.

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Corridors in all directions.

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Leading to equipment storage rooms, and what appear to be housing for hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of soldiers.

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Watch where you step, or where you ride.  Nearly every scrap of metal has been salvaged from the bunker, including manhole covers and staircases.  If you fall in, you are not coming out.  Headlights and dynamo lighting lead the way.  Any thoughts on the warning below?

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Looks like a factory or an apartment building from the air.

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For contrast, a building with real windows, or at least a place for windows.

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As Vital returns home, we go searching for the town of Balaklava on the coast.  We find a deep-water harbor with a narrow passage, well protected from weather and enemy attack.  The harbor was once home to a secret submarine base, now operating as a naval museum.  The town was almost entirely populated by military families, and visitation rights were difficult to obtain  Today, pleasure craft originating in Gibralter and Italy fill the marina, alongside local touristic watercraft offering an evening on the water.  Tourists abound, and as on any weekend in Ukraine, the bride and groom aren’t far away.  A trance festival is happening on a remote beach nearby.  A young man plays the didgeridoo to earn a couple extra hryvnia for the train home, or a sack of weed.

And yes, those beloved cold-weather head coverings– balaclavas– originated here.  English troops first used them during the Crimean War in the 1850’s.

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While navigating the waterfront trials course, Przemek pinches a tube riding up some stairs.  A nearby boat is blasting techno music.  Two dancing fools patching a tube receive a 1 hryvnia donation from a sympathetic Kievan girl on her way to the trance festival.  Homeless, peddling our bodies at the waterfront for a $0.15 donation– these are reasons for a mother to be proud.

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Krym is responsible for producing most of the wine found in Ukraine.  Wine is also made along the mainland Black Sea coastline near Odessa, and in the Karpaty Mountains.  On average, Ukrainian wines are sweet.  Select a dry or semisweet wine to pair with a meal.  Dessert wines are also common.  Grapes are also grown on fences and trellises everywhere.  These traditional seeded grapes, as are used to make wines, are superb.  Several seeds are found within, and skins can be discarded after separating the meaty fruit from within.  The fruit is gelatinous, textured like a tapioca pearl.

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Lael holds the best part of the fruit between her thumb and first finger.

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Riding back toward Sevastopol to beat the rain, we stop and laugh at this Soviet-era mural.  We interpret: in the future, our men will be cosmonauts and our woman, well, they will still be stuck harvesting wheat.  What a bright future.  Nowadays, Ukraine has a bright future.

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Our future, however, is best considered with the help of these maps.  These excellent trail maps are well-scaled for human powered travel, and display a network of hiking trails first established by Czech hiking clubs.  Two maps are available, covering most relevant terrain.  From sea level, peaks rise above 1500m.  Some promising routes are found on these maps, which each cost about $2.  Look for them at the excellent outdoor store near the train station in Simferapol, only a few blocks away on Lenin Blvd.  The market near the train station is a great place to buy fresh produce and Turkish delights.

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Many thanks to Vital for hosting us in Sevastapol, and for his intimate knowledge of Crimean routes and trails, including some spectacular points of interest.  Not all Ukrainian bikepackers are riding  steel donkeys— his kit is dialed, featuring a locally made framebag.  Check out his blog, Burning Saddles (named after memorable trip with friends), for a tempting glimpse into the bikepacking potential in this area.  Google Translate dishes up some gems when translating this page from Russian– highly recommended.

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Looking for a little more lite reading?  Lael has a great post entitled “Bunkers and a bus stop”, cataloguing some of the more interesting concrete spaces we’ve encountered in Krym.

Our Bicycle Times, updates

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Some exciting news has found its way across the pond, across the European continent and through the spotty Ukrainian internet connections I’ve been using to stay afloat in the internet world.  The most recent issue of Bicycle Times features an article about my year touring and commuting on a Surly Pugsley fatbike, entitled “One Bike For All Seasons”.  Check it out in print at your local press stand, or from one of these digital sources.  The cover art by Kyle Stecker is worth the cover price itself– well done!

I’ve been a fan of Bicycle Times since I first spotted pages full of practical bikes and DIY advice.  Their acceptance of fatbikes into the realm of the practical is much appreciated, and is a strong signal of the changing bicycle times we live in.  In other news, I’ve heard rumors of an aggressive 29×3.0″ Dirt Wizard tire for Surly Krampus and ECR frames.  This tire, first designed in a 26″ model for the re-issued Instigator frame, greatly enhances my interest in the 29+ format, as I’ve grown accustomed to more aggressive tires such as 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent and 2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf.  A Krampus or ECR with such a tire might hit a sweet spot between my Pugsley and the current 29″ set-up on the Raleigh XXIX.

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Ukrainian update: We are enjoying our time on the Crimean Peninsula, in a magical climate between mountains and sea that harbors vineyards, ancient cave cities, Cold War-era bunkers, and a melange of culinary delights from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and beyond.  This is a special place, and the riding has been no less than stunning, while a history of hiking in the region means dirt roads and trails are accessible, and navigable.  I hope to share more words and images soon– in the meantime, we’ll be enjoying our last week in Ukraine before flying back to the US on Oct. 1, to Denver, via Moscow and NYC.  Note, the Russian airline Aeroflot operates inexpensive flights from JFK in NYC to Kiev and Simferapol, Ukraine, with no surcharge for packed bicycles.

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So, we’ll be in Denver on Wednesday Oct. 2nd.  We plan several days in the area to rest, write, and repair our bikes and equipment before embarking on two months of late-season riding in the SW.  The approximate plan is to tie up some loose ends– remnants from last summer’s dreams.  Roughly, we hope to begin riding near Grand Junction and Fuita toward Moab via the popular Kokopelli Trail (exploring trails near each end of the route), then south through the Canyonlands region of Utah, to connect with the Arizona Trail.  Eventually, we still plan to spend the winter in Alaska.  There are fatbikes in our future, once again.  

Anyone in the Denver/Fort Collins/Boulder area want to meet for a ride or a beer?  Anyone know of a good way to get nearer to Grand Junction from Denver?  We might ride part of the way if skies are clear, although our sights are set on riding into Utah sooner than later, as changing seasons prescribe.  Anyone want to ride the first leg towards Moab, sometime in the first week or two of October?  Keep in touch.

Polonina Borzhava, Ukraine

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From looking at a road map of the Karpaty Mountains in Ukraine, you might not realize that this area is so hard to access for most tourists.  Without a capable vehicle and a bit of time, some mountain destinations may be several days from Lviv, which appears relatively nearby on a map, as the crow flies.  Luckily, we have both time and capable machines, although several weeks of wet forecasts are closing in which threaten to stymie our time here.  Thus, our sights are set on riding one of the region’s polininas, or alpine meadows.  We begin from Volovets, riding up a series of roads marked as hiking routes that climb to nearby peaks.  Volovets is a popular starting point as it lies on a direct train line from Lviv.

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Passing a series of colorful above-ground pipes piques our interest.  These appear to be gas lines.  Clear plastic packing tape has some integral role in holding things together.  While we laugh at such things, it also amazes us at how resourceful people are– collecting wild food, reusing plastic containers, and even repairing bicycles to keep them riding for decades.

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This bicycle, for instance, has been welded five or six times– once on the left chain stay, once on the down tube, twice on the fork to install the rack mounts…

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Climbing– a series of active logging roads and old service roads.  Some of these routes would be challenging when wet.  Some roads are barely roads anymore, due to erosion and logging equipment.  Some roads are simply forgotten.

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The major part of our climb is on a high quality road, gaining elevation at a steady rate in the shade.  The total climb is about 1000m, or 3000ft.

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This is the last water source we know of before camping and riding above treelike.  We fill all of our bottles.  Lael and Przemek each have a 2L Platypus bladder for such situations.  Cooler weather means we won’t burn through drinking water too quickly– another reason I love touring in the fall.

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Now, where to hide 2L+ of water.  Low and center– it fits in the lower framebag compartment!

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Steep, loose and chunky, nothing my Hans Dampf tire can’t climb.

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The abandoned structure is an old dairy, nearly 500m above Volovets.

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Hikers sometimes ask where you are coming from or where you are going.  It seems as frequently, they ask for a cigarette.

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We stop to address Lael’s rear tire, which has begun to lose pressure.  The non-Snakeskin version of Schwalbes mtb tires are lightweight and pliable, although ultimately not ideal for tubeless installation.  We inject a shot of Stan’s sealant into her tire; Lael lightens her load with an early-evening nip.  She is committed to managing her packed weight.

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Back on the bikes, we shoot for the the peak of Plai, which sits just below the two taller peaks on the ridge.

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Up to 1300m, to camp in the shadows of the weather station.

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Our camp overlooks Velykij Verkh and Stij, at and above 1600m.

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The best camp of the summer, near the end of the season.

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We are rejoined with some back-up tent parts, which is comforting.  Including some repairs and replacement parts, we’ve been using the same tent for exactly five years and about 800 nights– the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2.  The interior mesh tent body that my mom brought to replace the damaged one had previously been repaired by Big Agnes in Steamboat Springs, CO.  Two zipper sliders were replaced and a tear was repaired, all for a modest fee.

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We begin the day downhill, to the saddle, followed by a steep ride/push to the top of Velykij Verkh.  I wish every day would start this way.

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Looking back on Plai, pushing up .

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Better to push at 1500m than to share the road below.  It is fun to think about how long it has taken us to get to this point– how our bikes have changed, and how our riding has changed.

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Singledoubletrack turns right toward Stij.  We turn left ’round the mountain, to follow the main ridgeline.

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Our route for the afternoon.

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Looking back, a short road makes a detour around the peak, while a steeper route climbs over the top.

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Riding along the ridge, along the polinina, is one the best rides of the summer.  The route is easy to navigate, the singledoubletrack is highly rideable, and the ascents and descents are challenging.

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The ridge is shared with an occasional all-terrain vehicle, like this Russian-made Lada Niva.  Hikers and parasailers also populate the ridge in summer.

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Signage like this is uncommon in Ukraine, but will develop in the coming decades.

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Lael likes this kind of thing, a lot.  After a few days away from real mountain biking, she gets really excited to be ‘shredding’ again.

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We pick a line down the mountain, to find water and camp for the night.  Storms are coming.

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As almost everywhere in Europe, every descent ends in a postcard village of the region.  This is no exception as we pass sheep herders, couples cutting hay, and cows grazing.  The town is littered with fruit trees and flowers.

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This mineral spring tastes like iron and sulfur, but is naturally gaseous.

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Old Soviet-era tiling can be found at bus stops along the road, or on the side of building in town.  This display serves as a basic map, and public art.

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We meet some bikepackers along the road.  We first met Stas and Ivan a few days ago– the guys from Kharkiv– and they are now returning toward the train to make their way home.  Ivan carries Soviet-era topographic maps encased in plastic wrap.

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Mongoose mountain bike, backpack, and Soviet maps– no reason not to get out and ride.  We decide to camp together for the night.  Camping in the mountains of Ukraine is easy, and camping on private property seems to be accepted, especially alongside a dirt road or in the corner of a grazing pasture.

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Looking for a place to camp?  A good method is to find a dirt road and ride uphill.  I remember the days when we toured on paved roads in valleys, looking for campsites.  This is much easier, even if a short climb is required.

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By morning, the ground is saturated and cows are led back up the hill to graze.

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These guys had planned to ride with another friend from Odessa, who claims some experience riding in the mountains.  He suggested they make a food budget to prepare their rations.  In his absence, they mostly ate candy and had a great time.  Planning for such a trip isn’t all that hard.

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We ride together toward Volovets, along a potholed ‘paved’ road over a small pass.  This region is familiar with tourists, but is still mostly the way you might have found it some decades ago.  Lots of old women look at you with that look, saying, “what the hell are you doing and why are you dressed like a cosmonaut?”.

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Each valley in the Karpaty has its own feel.  This one is quietly industrious, as the time is nigh to prepare for winter.

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In Volovets, each group plans the coming days.  We hatch an escape plan that ensures another few weeks of summer.  Stas and Ivan ride a few more days before boarding a train back home.  They hope to visit a German bunker in the region.

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Ivan also helps us source some alcohol for our cooking stoves.  Here, it is referred to as ‘spirt’ or ‘medichni spirt’ , available from the pharmacy.  No prescription is required, although you will have to pass the informal and judgmental gaze of the pharmacist.  Do your best to look sober and well-rested.  About $1 for each small 100ml bottle, which amounts to about $10 a liter.  This is outrageously expensive compared to the $2 we pay in French markets.  One quart costs about $6-7 in the US and Canada.  However, this is very good stuff– 96% ethanol, non-denatured, which means you can drink it.  We’ve heard from more than a few sources that it does the trick, and doesn’t leave a hangover.  I haven’t tried it yet, as I am only coming to appreciate the more palatable varieties offered at 40%ABV. In theory, this gives you fuel, liquor, and a disinfectant for wounds.

Loaded up on fuel, we say goodbye to the Karpaty.  We’ll definitely be back soon.  Ukraine is such a large country that we consider this a reconnaissance visit for future travel.  Traveling here is cheap, and our interaction have been lively.  American and EU residents are automatically granted 90 tourist visas to Ukraine.

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The vokzal is our ticket to a neverending summer.  Train tickets to Simferapol should do the trick.

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Karpaty foothills

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From Lviv, a regional train deposits us in nearby Strij.  Here, we wait out some rain and plan our time in the Karpaty Mountains.  This is the same mountain chain that we have been following since Poland, at the junction with the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  In each country and each region, the mountains possess their own character.  Moreover, navigating in each country is very different.  In Ukraine, we expect very little trail signage.  The maps that I am using are workable, designed to show some topographic detail of each oblast (region, like a small state).  At least they were cheap.  More detailed Soviet topographic maps can be found.  On these older maps, roads and trails may be out of date, although the topography is unchanged.  These days, gps files are becoming much more common for this kind of riding.  I’ll join the lot sometime soon.  

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Aside from practical matters, Strij is a lot of fun if you know the right people.  Przemek met a healthy group of locals in the mountains.  Even though this is our first time meeting them, we are quickly adopted into the family to celebrate a birthday.

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Naturally, lots of drinking, lots of toasts to everyone and everything, and way too much fun.  Homemade liquor infused with walnut shells does the trick.  Ukrainians swear by homemade liquor– it’s ‘clean’, they say.

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On its own, Strij is rather uneventful.  I enjoy discovering Soviet-era architecture and urban spaces, which celebrate both Ukrainian traditions and the ideas and heroes of the party.  This park memorializes Taras Shevchenko, the greatest Ukrainian hero– a poet and a painter, as well as an outspoken nationalist.

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Strij is a short ride away from clean water and green hills.  We leave in the late afternoon.

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Finding a campite in a dewey river valley, on the shore opposite a monastery.

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Unsure of how or where to find alcohol for our stoves, we indulge in a campfire.  We almost never make fires on the road.  Ironically, as easy as it is to find clear liquor in this country, it has proven challenging to find concentrated ethanol or methanol (70%+) for our stove.  

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A new day, riding into the hills.  After a long summer of touring, it can be hard to comprehend exactly how we got here– to this exact place and time.  It’s a strange and beautiful thing to connect the dots by bike.  Bit by bit, the three of us are happily homeless in Ukraine, sleeping down by the river, warming our food over a fire.  Longer trips like this are not only a series of places, but a sequence of personal changes.  

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Ukrainian roads are really bad, which is great when touring on a mountain bike.  The sign above reads (loosely) ‘have a good road or journey’, which is ironic for motorists in aging Russian automobiles on rutted roads.  Turning off the main road, be encounter a uniquely beautiful valley, satisfying my expectations of the region.  

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Inquisitive children on bicycles.

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Freshly painted churches.

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Sunflowers and wooden fences.

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Shiny domed churches.

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Hay, drying for the winter.

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An altogether simple life.  

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A chance encounter at a roadside spring earlier in the day has given us an approximate address to find at the end of the day.  Twenty-four kilometer later, and about 50 meters beyond the wooden church, we find Vera and Pavlo again, along with their dog Deek.  They welcome us inside, make a fire, tell us to eat and drink, then put us to bed.  Afraid of freezing and starvation, Ukrainian will never let you get cold or go hungry.  

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In the morning, buckwheat is served.  I am coming to realize this to be the most common Ukrainian breakfast food.  Too bad we all got food poisoning after eating buckwheat a few weeks ago.  

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The sun burns through, giving us a perfect day to ride up and into Zakarpattia, or the Transcarpathian oblast.

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Ride, and push, as we are following dotted lines on an old map.  In fact, I am not sure these lines were on our map.

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As we’ve seen elsewhere, in Alaska and Poland, these are the sign of summer’s end.

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Up and up, onto a ridge above 1000m

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Coffee and blueberries suffice as a cowboy lunch.  We find the sweetest blueberries of the year from bushes with reddening leaves.

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We push along the ridge, with some rideable sections.  We push, eventually, into wholly unrideable territory.  We spend an hour on foot to determine if there is a reasonable route down the ridge, without backtracking.  

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There isn’t, and without overstating the horrors of brambles and bee strings, we eventually backtrack and discover a loose, steep track in the direction we intend to go.  What luck!– just when we thought we would have to retrace the entire day.

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Hidden in these woods, are a few moments of riding that we simply did not think existed in Ukraine.

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Down towards town, to fill our empty bottles and our bellies.

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The trail leads directly to a mahazin, or a simple grocery, and a church.

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The night brings our first frost of the year.  This is my favorite time of year.

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The area is popular amongst Ukrainians in the summer.  Other are discovering the rugged roads and trails of the region as well, including motorists (mostly on motorcycles) from nearby Poland and Slovakia.  These young bikepackers are from Kharkiv, just a cheap 24 hour train ride away.  

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We ascend another ridge to find camp for the night.

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The next morning, several dozen locals pass our camp to collect mushrooms.  We eventually rise, long after they have crept into the woods, to ride over the pass towards Volovets.  There, we plan to begin our ride on the Polonina Borzhava, a rounded ridge above treeline, with some of the taller peaks in Ukraine.

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Lviv, Ukraine

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In and out of Lviv twice in two weeks, soon to be a third time, after a week in the high country of the Ukrainian Karpaty.  Lviv is a city that has waved many flags through the centuries, evident in the architecture.  The city looks some part Polish, some like Vienna, and only a little like other Ukrainian cities.  As a result, Ukrainians and Russians visit Lviv to experience a European city, especially those that cannot travel further west.  Western Europeans visit Lviv to see a version of Ukraine with narrow streets, museums, forested parks, and statues celebrating Ukrainian cultural heroes.  Most evident in Lviv, compared to other Ukrainian cities, is a softer presence of Russian in the language and fewer Soviet-era structures.  To some, Lviv is a very Ukrainian city.  Today, Lviv is a modern place, more engaged to itself than to foreign visitors.  On an early September day, the streets bustle with families in Sunday dress and schoolchildren preparing for their first day of school. Lviv, like the rest of Ukraine, will soon change.  It is a good time to visit Ukraine.

We first arrived in Lviv several weeks ago, riding from the Polish border.  A contact from helped arrange a place to store our bikes while we toured the country with my family.  We returned after ten days aboard trains, buses, hired cars, and our own feet.  Arriving by train at 6AM on a Sunday morning, we experience the city rising from sleep.  Without our bikes for one last day, we walk and discover.    

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Train stations and churches in Ukraine are beautiful.

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Lviv is full of activity– markets of various kinds, outdoor dining, pedestrian spaces, festivals, and a history of crafting beer, chocolate, and coffee.  This is not a typical Ukrainian city. 

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This church recently re-opened to the public after gathering dust for many years in the hands of the city library department.  It is shown in unrestored condition.

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Art nouveau architecture pinpoints a period of wealth in Lviv.  French words are also scattered through the Slavic languages.  France, and Parisian culture, were once dominant amongst the eastern aristocracy.

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Veiled by stucco, this advertisement signals a period of Polish rule.  The western border of Ukraine has been in flux for centuries, not officially grafted onto the modern Ukrainian nation until after WWII.

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Parks, statues, and a university commemorate Ivan Franko, one of the three most important cultural figures in Ukrainian history.  The names of Taras Shevchenko and Lesia Ukrainka are found all over the city.

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Festivals occur throughout the summer.  LvivKlezFest celebrates the region’s Jewish population and klezmer music,  a unique blend of ancient sounds fused with the essence of jazz that originated amongst Jewish populations in Eastern Europe during the first half of the 20th century.  It is lively stuff.

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More modern flavors are found throughout the city, including a proliferation of European-style sidewalk cafes.  This modern art exhibit and nightclub celebrates salo— unrendered pork fat.  Salo is frequently served with meals in Ukaine, especially with horilka (vodka).  It is so ubiquitous that most Ukrainians have a sense of humor about it.  Inside, you can view a rendition of a human heart made of pork fat, about 50 times the scale of a real heart.

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Markets are found throughout the city selling old books, cameras, coins and pins, as well as traditional Ukrainian crafts, including finely embroidered shirts.

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Sounding out words in Cyrillic uncovers some amusing titles, including Lawrence Hilton Jacobs and Peter Gabriel.

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And Steven King, the two on the bottom left.

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Negotiation is standard whenever prices are not displayed.  I have just enough facility with the language to strike a deal.

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Lael now regrets not getting this one.  We send a few home for later, including one for my mom.  Finding a company that will ship to the US is not easy.  

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Lviv is a great pedestrian city!

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Lviv is also a great place to buy maps for any region in Ukraine, especially hard to find detailed maps for the Karpaty Mountains or the Crimean peninsula.

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We encounter a familiar face in the city.  Przemek has spent the last two weeks familiarizing himself with the mountains, in some soggy conditions.  In lieu of crossing into Romania by himself, he jumped a series of trains to meet us in Lviv.  We are a traveling trio once again– three riders, four 29×2.4″ Maxxis Ardent tires, three Olympus cameras, lightweight bikepacking luggage from four different companies– these are some of the more curious stats of our group.  We speak four languages fluently, and can work with at least another five tongues, including some Ukrainian.

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Lviv is also a good place to buy disc brake pads, 29 inch tires, and some proper bicycle chain lube, to replace that stuff you bought in Poland that is meant for sewing machines, locks, and chain saws.  Action Bike is well stocked, and happily strored our bikes for us while we were away.  Car ownership in Ukraine is still relatively low, although it is expected to rise as the country grows wings.  Hopefully, bicycles will remain part of the fabric of Ukrainian life.  Bicycles outnumber cars in rural villages.

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Bicycles are most frequently called velocipedy, although the word rover is used nearer to Poland.  Bicyclette, or some variant, is also in limited use.  In English, a velocipede best describes a two-wheeled machine in use before the development of the chain-drive and pneumatic tires, c. 1875.

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Shipping a box to the US is challenging, but possible through a company called Meest Express.  The Carradice Camper Longflap doesn’t flinch with such a voluminous load.

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A train starts us out of the city, and toward the Karpaty Mountains.  We plan to ride from the foothills into some of the higher peaks in the range, nearing 2000m.

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If you don’t pay, a hefty fine is in order.  More troublesome would be the experience of dealing with the surly train attendants– these woman strike fear in my eyes.  Technically, you are not required to buy a baggage ticket to board a train with a bicycle, although many attendants do not know this.  Be prepared to argue, or just buy a ticket.  On local trains, the baggage fee is usually less than $1.

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A preview of riding in the Karpaty:

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Romanivka, Ukraine

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My grandfather was born in Romanivka during a brief period of independence in Ukraine, before the country was included into the newly founded Soviet Union, almost a hundred years ago.  He moved to the United States after WW II, where he met my grandmother.  My mother was born several years thereafter in Syracuse, NY.  He died in 2009, several days before his 91st birthday.  The following is a shorthand personal history, recently compiled by my mother from memory; from conversations she had with him in his final years, in moments of clarity; and from letters he had written to preserve his story, including some details he was afraid to reveal in life.  His name is Wolodymir Czerniha, although our visit to Romanivka has revealed that his birth name was actually Ivan.  He most likely changed his name after leaving the army, as he emigrated to the United States.  Growing up, we called him Didyc, which is Ukrainian for grandfather– this is how I knew him.

Much of the story is still missing, forever, while some details remain unclear.  Contradictions or confusion most likely come from his own written recollections, especially in recounting wartime details.  My notes are included in parentheses.

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Born February 18th, 1918, 3rd in birth order, in the village of Romanivka, Bershadskij rajion (region), Vinnitska oblast to father Boris Olekceevich (1891-1981).  Mother Elizaveta Stephanovna died 1924, when he was 6 years old, brother Simeon was 2 yrs old, and the oldest sister was 12.  There were 4 children: 3 boys (Deonsiy, Simeon) and one sister (Anna). The following year his father remarried to Kylyna who had 3 girls of her own (Evfrociniya, Franiya, and Sonia), so now there were 8 in the family.  

His father was arrested in 1930 and sentenced to 8 years and sent to the North/East (I assume Siberia).  In 1931 the oldest daughter, Anna, married and went to another village.  In 1932 they took Kalyna (stepmother) to a collectivization farm (kolkhozp), about the time that bread became scarce and the famine began.  By 1933 it became even worse and people were dying from hunger en masse.  In February 1933, the militia came and took the mother away from the 5 remaining children.  They took her to Vinnitsya, and without a trial, she was imprisoned, leaving the children alone.  They were half naked and starving.

After 5 months Kalyna returned home, but her oldest daughter had died in the famine.  The five children survived because of Deonysiy, who had found a way to feed his sibings. In 1934, Deonysiy was called to serve in the Army, but they do not take him because his father is imprisoned. He then took a job in the sugar beet industry, where he took a course to become a chauffeur. In 1938 his father returns home and goes to work on the kolkhozp.  When the war began in 1941, Deonysiy chauffered the director of the sugar beet factory, but never returned home.  It was thought he died on the front. Simeon fought in WWII and was decorated with many medals. 

At 20, he entered the Army and found himself in Central Asia: Turkmenistan, and after a few months went to a school in Tashkent, Turkey, returned to Turkmenistan, and then Uzbekistan until 1942.  He was near Moscow in Ulyanovskij rajyon when Germans entered, attacked Russian army, and occupied.  There was a war prison with about 10,000 soldiers.  He was there from Aug 11, 1942 for 3 days with no food or water.  On the third day someone he knew from Ulyanovska Orlovska oblast brought him some milk.  Then they took them to Belarus or Poland where they shoveled snow and fixed roads as prisoners of war.  Then taken from Warsaw through Austria to get to Italy.  He was in Piza Livorno near Napoli as a Geman war prisoner and worked on a building at an airport for the Americans.  He drove a truck from Napoli to Foggio as a chauffeur carrying materials for the building of the airport.  I believe it was somewhere here that he met Efimy (my mother’s godfather, who also emigrated to Syracuse, NY). The Americans ordered to have the people freed and sent to Germany where Americans were giving them work (post-war).  There were Ukrainians at the camp in Germany – Krawchenko, Stcherbak, Cherewko and then in another camp Zalizniak.  Americans were bringing them to America and giving them jobs.  He found out that Church World Service was bringing him to America.  He arrived in NYC on January 30, 1951 after most recently working for a farmer in Germany.  Zalizniak was already there and in a few days took him from NYC to Syracuse. Zalizniak was working for Stanton Foundry and tried to get him a job there.  He did work there for 3 months, then in May 1951 he started at Crucible Steel and retired from there in 1981.  The work was strenuous and hot, but he continued to work there for 30 years.  Met Senenko family in Syracuse and found the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  He met Sonia in 1951 and were soon married.  Had a daughter, Irene, in 1957.  He and Sonia lived in Syracuse for over fifty years.

Brothers and sisters: Anna died in 1933 during famine, Deonysiy died in 1941 in war, Simeon in spring 2005, Sonia and Frania died within 40 days of one another in fall 2005. Didyc died February 15, 2009. Brother Simeon visited us in NY state after Ukrainian independence in early 1990’s and was overwhelmed with America.  They had not seen each other in over fifty years.  

(Compiled by: I. Carman)

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From Bershad, the largest town nearby, we pile eight family members into a seven passenger van.  Turning off the main road and off the ridge, a sign points to Romanivka, in the valley.  Romanivka claims a little over 200 residents.  A cross and an icon guard the village from the road.  As we enter the village, we take on several more passengers.  It is not always clear to me how we are all related exactly, but we hug and kiss just the same.  Around here, everyone is family.

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In Ukraine, Lael is named Lesia.  It is easier this way.

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First, we look around the house.  My grandfather and his siblings grew up on this property, in a house that no longer stands.  This house was built by his brother Simeon, now in the possession of his son Lonya, and Lonya’s wife Lida.  They now live in Bershad.  Lida takes a bus once a week to tend to the garden and maintain the house.  Lonya does not speak, and has not been able to work for many years due to some physical and mental limitations.  They kindly hosted us in their home in Bershad for several days.      

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Next, we discuss and discover the few photographs that have composed our ideas of each other for so long.  My mom visited Ukraine in 1977 on an official tour, in a time when the Soviet government would not allow foreigners to travel to villages.  Some family members made the long trip to Odessa or Moscow to meet her.  

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My grandparents stand tall on the right.

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And my grandfather’s brother Simeon and his wife, on their wedding day.  The brothers look a lot alike.

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Simeon, in a photo taken in 1964.

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Me, on the far left, my two sisters and my younger brother.  Twenty years later, we find the opportunity to visit.

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Twenty+1– my brother Alex is just short of 21 years old.

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My mom, with Simeon on her right, in Odessa, 1977.

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With Halya on her right, whom we met on our trip.  Her sone Mykola died some time ago.  There are lots of sad stories to be told, although all are given the matter-of-fact treatment that comes with time.

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Lonya, as a young man.

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Everyone has stories.  Artom recites poems about beets and garlic.

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Lida leads us outside.

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This is the site of the old house.  Lida is a great host and guide.  No details are spared.

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Grapes are in season.

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Lonya walks slowly and quietly, stopping to sit and rest at every opportunity, even if for just a few seconds.

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The cellar stores food for the season.

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This secret storage was used specifically for beets.


An outbuilding also houses another kitchen, for prepping and canning, as well as cooking in the summer.  Attached, space to store wood and coal, and a small chicken coop.

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We walk into the fields, into the valley.  Plum trees nearly outnumber people in Ukraine.

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Beans climb corn stalks.  Corn, not yet ready.

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Beyond the fields, a small creek winds through brush and willows.  The family used to walk down to the creek to bathe in summer.

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Lonya grew up here.  He doesn’t talk, yet he speaks with his eyes.  

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Naturally, we visit the cemetery.  There are a lot of familiar names here.  Stories and stories…

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This weathered cross marks Kalyna’s grave, my grandfather’s stepmother.

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Feast.  Back inside, everyone gathers for a meal.  In addition to our visit, this day is also my birthday.  There is no better way to celebrate.  Halya, whom my mom met in 1977, sits in the brown dress.  

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Lida fills a bottle with homemade samohon (horilka, vodka) for the table.  No festivity is without a bottle of liquor in Ukraine.

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Compote is also common, made from fresh fruits.  In this case, cherries are on hand.

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This is nearly as many people as we could find in Romanivka that would claim to be family.  There are other relatives living in Bershad as well.

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Simeon and Nastia used this stool by the road when coming and going.  From here, they would wait for a ride, or sit and wave as guests depart.

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To church.  Each town has a church with brightly metallic cupolas, or domes.

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And a highly decorative iconostas.

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Around town.

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My grandmother was famed for making these little baskets by the hundreds, and gifting them with pysanky, or painted eggs.

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Bikes in Ukraine are typically quite old, originating from old Russian or Ukrainian factories.  Kharkiv had an especially productive factory.  Newer mountain bikes are common on the city.  A road bike would be pointless almost anywhere, as the roads are famously bad.

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Lugged steel, cracked headset– let me know if you have any idea why the spokes look the way they do.  Note, many spokes are also missing.

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Another bike.  This one has been repaired several time by welding.

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It was incredible to see places I’d only heard about.  More amazing to me is that I had little idea who we would find here, yet everyone seemed to know about us.  My mom and my grandparents would send letters, pictures, and clothes at Christmas.  Some of us had grown up in the same clothes and played with the same toys, or slept on pillows embroidered by my grandmother in Syracuse, NY.  For now, this is mostly an experience that cannot be described.

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After visiting my grandmother’s family in eastern Ukraine, near Russia, we’ll soon be back on the bikes in the Karpaty Mountains in the far western part of the county.

Український базар (Ukrainian bazaar)

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Crossing the border into Ukraine, we shoot straightway to Lviv, where we require a train to Vinnytsia and a bus to Bershad.  There, we will meet my mom and my brother at an approximate time.  Further, we don’t really understand where we are going, but some phone calls have been made and Lida is expected to meet us there.  An overnight Russian train en route to Moscow deposits us in Vinnytsia at 6AM.  Before deboarding, we are served black tea with more than enough sugar.  The stewardess in our train car, whose job it is to act like a caring but disgruntled mother or grandmother, hollers at me in Russian when I don’t jump out of bed the first time she calls, 30 minutes before our stop.  It has been a long time since a commanding woman has told me out of bed, and that’s part of why I am in Ukraine.  I’m still looking for the word in Ukrainian that can be used to express agreement and consternation simultaneously– ‘okay, okay, I’m up!”.

Squat toilets, kvass, and coffee at 6:30AM are our birth into a new day in Ukraine.

Vinnystia at sunrise from the train.  I always understood that my grandfather was from Vinnytsyia, although in fact he grew up far from the city in the southern part of the oblast, a political unit like a large county (or a small state).  He lived in the small town of Romanivka, with less than a few hundred people.

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A bazaar, by casual understanding, contains everything one might need in daily life, including: fresh fruits and vegetable, milk, butter, cheese, sausages and meats, fish, clothing, handbags and backpacks, cleaning supplies, cosmetics and toiletries, toys, electronics, school supplies, cutlery, bicycles, liquor, and anything else you might imagine finding in Ukrainian life.  Bargaining is standard for anything displayed without a price.  Many Ukrainian, especially outside tourist centers, do not appreciate to have their photos taken.  I presume these are habits from an era when being unknown was safer than being known.  I got hollered at by at least a few women, although I was judicious with the camera.  A few people asked if I was Russian.  A few people laughed when I photographed beans, or dill.  Nobody understands why the hell two Americans want to walk around the crowded market in Vinnytsia, but won’t buy anything.  I eventually bought some bread and cheese, apples, pyrishky, and a cheap Adidas backpack.  Ukrainians are really good at standing in line– don’t look away, or you’ll lose your place.

Dill, potatoes, onion, watermelons, cucumbers, tomatoes, and salo (unrendered pork fat) predominate.  Note: about 8 hryvnia to a dollar, so prices are quite good.

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