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 On these older maps, roads and trails may be out of date, although the topography is unchanged.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.
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.
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.
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.
Strij is a short ride away from clean water and green hills. We leave in the late afternoon.
Finding a campite in a dewey river valley, on the shore opposite a monastery.
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.
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.
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.
Inquisitive children on bicycles.
Freshly painted churches.
Sunflowers and wooden fences.
Shiny domed churches.
Hay, drying for the winter.
An altogether simple life.
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.
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.
The sun burns through, giving us a perfect day to ride up and into Zakarpattia, or the Transcarpathian oblast.
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.
As we’ve seen elsewhere, in Alaska and Poland, these are the sign of summer’s end.
Up and up, onto a ridge above 1000m
Coffee and blueberries suffice as a cowboy lunch. We find the sweetest blueberries of the year from bushes with reddening leaves.
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.
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.
Hidden in these woods, are a few moments of riding that we simply did not think existed in Ukraine.
Down towards town, to fill our empty bottles and our bellies.
The trail leads directly to a mahazin, or a simple grocery, and a church.
The night brings our first frost of the year. This is my favorite time of year.
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.
We ascend another ridge to find camp for the night.
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.