Western Ukrainian snapshots; August 2014

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Images from our time in Western Ukraine.  This part of the country is characterized by Euro-Ukrainian cities such as Lviv, Uzhorod, and Ivano-Frankivsk, with roots also in Poland, Galicia, Czechoslovakia, Austria-Hungary, and more; a narrow swathe of the Carpathian Mountains, forested and crawling with people growing things and herding things and collecting things, and some tourists like ourselves; and a unique take on the state and future of the country, naturally.  Most of our time was spent in the mountains, and on either side of the mountains riding to and from Lviv and Uzhorod.  We spent a few days in transit to visit family in the southwest, or perhaps it may be called the south-central part of the county.  It is closer to Odessa and the Moldovian border than I realized.  Technically, this is all from the western half of the country, at the crossroads of our lives and Ukrainian life.  

The billboard reads, “My dad protects Ukraine! Are you ready?”  

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29 years in Ukraine

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My birthday comes near the end of August.  Once again, I dine amongst distant relatives near the village where my grandfather was born.  Twelve months ago these people were all unknown to me, but we’re closer relatives than before, even if I still don’t know exactly how we’re related.  What I know is that when we arrive in town everyone wants to feed us, house us, and spend time with us.  That’s family. 

Overnight rain from Volovets in the Karpaty to Vinnytsia.  This is the Uzhorod-Kyiv train line.

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Bus from Vinnytsia to Bershad.

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You can take a bus from far eastern Ukraine all the way to Munich.  Or at least, at one time you could.

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First business in town is to visit with Lida and Lonya.  Lonya is my mom’s first cousin and our closest relative in Bershad and in the nearby village of Romanivka.  His father Simeon visited us in New York when I was young, shortly after Ukraine gained independence in the 1990’s.

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Last year, a kind young man drove us to Romanivka and patiently assisted us as we visited with family.  Not until the end of the first day did we realize that our driver is also our cousin, Yaroslav.  His mother Olya and his father Vitaliy provide a place to stay on our brief visit this year.  They have a simple house near the edge of town.  Their location allows them the space to keep animals and grow most of their food.  They buy bread and some specialty items.  

In addition to fruits and vegetables, they also keep cows, pigs, and chickens; make homemade samohon and fruit compote; and keep nearly twenty young pigs for sale.  Both keep jobs in the small city of Bershad as well. 

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No such thing as too much garlic.

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As in the mountains, I suspect the nearby forest is also a food source.  In the right season, mushrooms are abundant, although in general, much of Ukraine is hot and dry in the summer.

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We return from a walk to a house transformed, with a table set for 15 people.

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Even the kovbasa is made of their own pork.

Слава Україна!  Героим Слава!  

Glory to Ukraine! Glory to its heroes!

We all drink to Ukraine.  We all drink to my birthday, and to our family, and to Ukraine a few more times.  

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Moments before dark, we all find our way outside for pictures.  All throughout the day we’ve looked at every personal photo archive at each house.  For the older generation in Ukraine, and elsewhere around the world, real photos are powerful and memorable.  I’ve got to remember to print and share more photos.  The young people all want to know if I have Фейсбуки, or Facebook.  

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The young man on the left is on the right in the next photo, all grown up.

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Our hosts Olya and Vitaliy, and my mom.  

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High ISO, a 12-second timer, and a flash make 15 smiling faces.

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Inside for some cake, coffee, more samohon, sleep, and in the morning another 30 hours of travel back to our bikes.  It is a brief visit and at one time I questioned whether it is worth it.  It was.  

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Lviv, Ukraine; August 18-19, 2014

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Following a few days at the hostel in Kolochava, and a few more days of riding, I finally received word from my mom that she was coming to visit us in Ukraine, again.  Last year, as we selected an eastward trajectory from France, we conspired to set a date and she bought a plane ticket to Ukraine.  We would meet just before my birthday.  We planned to visit her father’s family in the southwest, and her mother’s family in the far east, near Luhansk. 

Last Monday she wrote, telling me that she would not be able to come visit again this year, regretfully.  On Wednesday she wrote again, telling me that she had bought a plane ticket.  On Friday, she and my brother arrived in Kyiv and immediately boarded a train to Lviv.  Lael and I composed a roundabout route back towards Strij though the mountains.  We boarded an electro-poyizd (regional electric train) for the final 60km to Lviv.

Lviv is busy and beautiful, full of pedestrian boulevards and sidewalk cafes.  There are tourists, but mostly they are Ukrainian or from elsewhere in nearby Eastern Europe.  The city is rustic but not rusting; while many historic structures remain, they are artfully maintained, not artificially renovated as in more popular destinations.  To my tastes the city feels more like an improvement upon Prague and even Bratislava.  The streets are narrow and cobbled, not wide as in Kyiv, part of which was planned during the Soviet era.  And while comparisons to both Paris and Prague are in order for any charming European city, I’d choose neither of those over Lviv. The time to visit Lviv is now, before Ukraine’s economy booms upward and the city becomes more expensive and the cafes are replaced with tourist shops and the Ukrainians are replaced by English and German and Japanese tourists.  I believe Lviv is experiencing yet another high period in its long history.  It is exceptional.  

Lviv may also be the most Ukrainian city, not because it is the most even slice of the country.  Rather, the people here intend to preserve Ukrainian language and culture more than anywhere else in Ukraine.  Western Ukraine– hundreds of miles from Russia– is also the most Ukrainian part of Ukraine.  However, Ukrainianism here is not without fault.  The popular red and black flag of the УПА  (Ukrainian Insurgent Army)– an organization notorious for fighting both the Nazis and the Russians during WWII, under the leadership of Stepan Bandera— stands as one of several symbols important to nationalistic Ukrainians.  This militaristic organization is also responsible for the death of coutless Poles in the region.  Nationalism, in almost any form, often has a dark side.  Incidentally, the grave of Bandera was recently vandalized in Germany.  And yesterday, several Ukrainians ascended a high-rise structure in Moscow, repainting a soviet star in the blue and yellow pattern of the Ukrainian flag, marking their work with a Ukrainian flag atop the 32-story building.  These are a sign of the times in this part of the world, although the actual situation is much more grave.  

We have been unable to make calls to our family in Stakhanov, in the Luhansk Oblast near the Russian border for several weeks.  We hope they are safe.

Into Lviv.

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This region is known for changing borders.  The former Galician empire included much of the Ukrainian Carpathian region, and some of Slovakia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary. 

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Someone has decided that smashing the windows of the Russian bank is a good idea.

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No military presence is felt in Lviv, although memorials are scattered throughout the city.  

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As is lighter fare, such as this toilet paper being sold at the touristic market.

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Mostly, life continues for residents of Lviv.  Tourism is down.  Young men and mothers worry about being drafted.  Over 2000 Ukrainians have died in the “anti-terrorist” conflict since this spring.

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A walk around the city reveals characteristic scenes of Lviv.  The aging Lada sedan is ever-present in Ukraine.

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Chruches are full on Sunday.  We’ve discovered that while riding through the country, we can visit as many as five or six churches on a Sunday morning, during active service.

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The Armenian cathedral in Lviv dates to the 1300’s.

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Taras Shevchenko is the most famous Ukrainian.  A poet, painter, and a fervent supporter of the idea of an independent Ukrainian nation, his likeness or bust stands tall in most every Ukrainian city.  He was born a serf in 1814.  He died briefly after a period of exile in Russia.  He died seven days before the official emancipation of serfs in tsarist Russia in 1861.

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Mostly, life continues as usual in Lviv.

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Return to Borzhava, Zakarpats’ka Oblast, Ukraine

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The discoveries of one day become the fuel for another.  For this reason, I have a tendency to revisit the same places and choose another path.  We’ve ridden up and down the west coast a few times, twice down the Divide, to Colorado and the southwest for a third season of fall riding, and to Europe for a second summer in a row.  Each ride leaves unridden routes.  When touring on pavement, we used to say that the world was getting smaller with each pedal stroke.  But the discoveries of off-pavement touring seem to make the world bigger.  These opportunities are not always apparent from afar.  Up close, they come into view.  Zoom in close on the GPS and a network or serpentine red lines appear.

Last summer, we hardly knew what to expect when we touched down in Amsterdam with our bikes.  We return to Europe this summer with the knowledge that there are overwhelming opportunities for off-pavement riding.  Last summer, we crossed borders from west to east until crossing into Ukraine, where things changed greatly.  This summer we return to the east and to Ukraine with an understanding of how things work, how some things just don’t work, and how to get around on two wheels.  We return to the Karpaty in spite of the cold rainy weather from last fall.  

This time around, being in Ukraine is familiar.  The weather is cooperating.  The roads and rides have been great, so far.  We’ve discovered that on Sunday mornings we can visit as many as a half-dozen churches, in active service, while riding through villages.  We also learned that the Ukrainian currency has plummeted in value by 50% in the last few months.  Last time we calculated about 8 hryvnia to the dollar, this time it is more than 12.  As such, a cup of coffee or tea is much less than a dollar, a cold pint of Obolon is often only sixty cents, and a cup of borsch is barely a full American bill.

Surely, there are reasons for this dramatic change.  We’re in Kolochava for a few days, enjoying the hospitality of a large guest house.  The televisor spits out images and details of the situation near Donetsk, in between dubbed American films, infomercials for butt-shaping walking shoes, and Russian soaps.  The Ukrainian border guard made jokes about Lael’s passport photo, calling out to his superior that she looks like a pro-Russian militant, laughing (she does).  The superior paused for a closer look, took a serious look at us, took another look at the passport, and waved us on.  There are some serious things happening on that side of the country, nearly a thousand miles away.  Not that nobody cares, but here it makes for small talk, mostly.  Tourism to this historic mountain village is reported to be about half of normal this summer.  For current English-language news from Ukraine, the Kyiv Post is a good source in addition to some major news organizations such as the BBC.  We’ve also discovered a substantial monthly publication entitled New Eastern Europe, full of essays and editorials from the region, in English.  The magazine is published in Poland, and the current issue focuses on the Ukrainian situation, through the lens of Polish, Georgian, Belorussian, and Ukrainan writers, among others.  The opening interview is with former Polish president Lech Wałȩsa.  

Riding from Slovakia, we detour though Uzghorod, and into the mountains on a series of forest roads and small paved roads.  We shoot for Volovets, to return to Polonina Borzhava.  Przemek led us up the mountain for the first time last year, before an impending thunderstorm sent us bombing down the mountainsides.  An long-term forecast for rain convinced us to catch a train to Crimea.  We intersect our route last year to follow an unfinished path through the Ukrainian Karpaty to Romania.  

Coming over the hill into Volovets.  One of the larger towns in the region, it features a regional train to Lviv for only a dollar or two, and more than a few food stores.  As such, it is a popular starting point for adventures.  There are nicer towns to visit in the mountains, although the setting is scenic.

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Soviet murals exist on large buildings and bus stops.  This is one of my favorites, featuring a couple in traditional mountain dress backdropped by sheep and a rocket and a radio antenna.  The man is holding a chainsaw.

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Packed with food for a day, we climb out of town to camp up high.

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Daily thunderstorms ensure our bikes remain muddy.  Logging trucks and six-wheel drive vehicles ensure some roads remain rutted.  

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We’ve been here before and know that eventually, the road improves.  The light improves as the evening passes.

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The mud ends, the sun sets, and we encounter a flat spot to camp.  Before dawn, people are quietly talking and walking up the mountain.  I suspect they are up early to pick mushrooms.  

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The next day, we discover that everyone is hiking up high to pick and rake blueberries.  These kids from Mukacheve are planning to haul a barrel of berries down the mountain at the end of the day.  They bring a sample of last year’s wine.

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We climb up the steep road at about the same rate as a 67 year old woman, walking.  Czechia?  Polscha?  

Amerikansky, I reply.  

Everyone thinks we are Czech.  In Czech, they all think we are German.  In France, they suppose we are Dutch.  In Holland, they know we are American.

She loves the Karpaty, and swoons when we tell her we have a whole month to enjoy.

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Plai is the first major peak at about 1300m, above 4000ft.  There is a weather station and an assemblage of antennae.

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From Plai, the trail pushes to Veliky Verkh, above 1500m, and 5000ft.

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Everyone is picking berries up high.  Dots on distant hillsides slowly work side to side, clearing only a fraction of the berries on the mountain. 

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This truck full of gypsies will spend the day collecting berries, before driving back down the mountain.  It is a steep drive up and down, especially with twenty people in the back of the truck.  The Ukrainian Roma are much friendlier than those in Slovakia, thus far.  

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Everyone is enjoying the weather up high, on Saturday.  People walk up from Volovets and Pylypets; motorcycles scream past, and a truck full of novice parasailers circle the sky.

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We continue on the polonina past our exit point last year.  The trail narrows as it descends into the trees.

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Our snack bags are nearly empty, and we point towards Mizhhir’ya at the end of this segment of the red trail.  Rutted roads, no longer is use by four-wheels vehicles, descend the mountain.

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Juniper.

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Eventually onto active farm roads into town.

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From here, a quick up and over into the next valley.  That road will descend all the way to Mizhhir’ya.

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Passing the first few homes, I stop to photograph an especially characteristic wooden home.  A woman calls out from the shade, “Dobre vechyr!”  I call back.

Within minutes, we’ve holding bowls of hot mushroom soup and bread.  She offers a bottle of cold beer.  No kidding.  We’re pretty lucky.

Soon, she’s talking about where we will sleep, and what we’ll eat for breakfast.  I compromise and agree to stay, but we will sleep outside, I tell her.  And for breakfast, we only want coffee and tea.  Don’t bother to make too much food for us.  She agrees, and we still awake to a feast of fried potatoes with salo, onion with salt and vinegar, tomatoes, and bread.  I oblige, out of necessity.

Христина was born here.  Her children live in nearby villages, and her mother died about five years ago.  She now keeps three small homes on this property, by herself.  She shows us pictures of her family.  We all sit down to watch the televisor, as she explains the complicated backstory behind Natasha and Mykyta’s love, and his relation to the other girl that lives on the Black Sea in a nice house, and the doctor, and the other red-haired woman and the attractive blond guy.  “Quiet.  Listen.”,  she says.  Then she continues talking about what is happening in the show.  The program captivates her imagination.  She turns it off and we sit outside on the grass for dinner.  

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Ukraine, so far

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This is when and where everything becomes more infrequent, digitally.  There is internet, but there are also lots of dirt roads and rustic crumbling paved roads and old churches and inviting groups of men with horilka at lunch, and woman selling mushrooms by the side of the road, and kids who chase on bicycles and just a few weeks of summer left.  We left more than a few weeks of summer in Alaska, and we’re chasing the last of them in Ukraine.  We climb up Polonina Borzhava again tonight, almost a year later. 

Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine:  Uzhorod, to the Karpaty via dirt roads, some small paved road, to Volovets…

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Across Slovakia, up high

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Surely, we’re having fun.  We’re working hard– not working, technically– but riding lots.  On occasion, we stop in bus stops to avoid the rain.  This time of year, the sun is high, the air is wet, and the afternoons are stormy.  It seems we’ve also encountered a wet week in addition to normal summer storms.  That’s alright, as long as we can outlast thunderstorms by taking cover under bus stops and eating lunch in our t-shirts, or less.  These are the summers of my youth.  We’re eating pickled peppers stuffed with cabbage.  Slovakia is still a dream.

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Since our first foray out of Bratislava following touristic segments of dirt through the Male Karpaty, we’ve pedaled upstream of the Vah River, toward our eventual goal.  Ukraine, and possibly a brief segment of Poland are on our horizon.  A mix of dirt and pavement lead through the wine country of the lower Vah River valley.  Eventually, we leave the lowlands for the mountains.

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Much of the population of Slovakia lives in a few major valleys, although many small towns exist everywhere else.  This is still a country of mountain people.

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Each town features a small food shop, called a potraviny.  This one is a relic of times past.  Most often they look like mini supermarkets, with a limited range of common goods.  Everyone shops every day and buys little, but always buys those little crescent-shaped white bread rolls.  The rolls are always a little dry, and cheap as dirt.  We’ve learned to stack them with olives and tomatoes and cheese and meat.

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Each town features a bar or a restaurant or both, sponsored with signage by one of the major beer manufacturers in the country.  Lael habitually asks for dve kava and jedin chai in the morning– two coffees and one chai.  In reverse– “chai and kava”– she calles this Chai-kav-skij.

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As often as possible, we swim.  Slovakia is laced with cold streams.  The lowland countries nearby, full of people, are different.  Here we find plenty of water.  

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Finally, we’re surprised to find castles everywhere.  It is unlike Poland or Czech or Ukraine.  

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We entered the country with new(-ish) bikes.  Searching for chain lube was more complicated than expected.  I passed the opportunity to buy WD-40 several times.  Finally, I bought some.  Chains are silky smooth, for now.  XTR and WD-40 are a winning combination.

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I also bought a pair of real shoes, after a week and a half in Birkenstock sandals.  I committed to only bring clothing which I already owned.  While I spent a grip on new bike parts this year (for fun!), I knew for certain all the clothes I would need were already in my possession.  Self-destruction is inevitable with clothing, so why not let them destruct, before replacement?

I found some proper bicycle chain lube at the Tesco superstore.  Free sandals and chain lube to anyone that walks by.

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We begin our path over the mountains on a route comprised of narrow grey lines on our road map.  It proves to be a signed cycling route, and a reliable route over the mountains on a maintained dirt road.  

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Climbing into the rain…

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We find a secure cabin at the top.  All locked up– except for the outhouse– we take cover under the porch for the night.  It is nice to cover ourselves only in netting, and to keep our things dry.  The daily process of drying our things is tiresome, and an uphill battle.

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The morning is foggy, without rain.

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We eventually descend to in Trenčianske Teplice, for groceries, coffee, and internet.  Lael loves this poster advertising regional Slavic mountain festivals.

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Finally, we connect with the 1000 Miles Adventure Route.  This is an annual race route created by Czech adventure rider Jan Kopka, across Czech and Slovakia  We don’t know what to expect. 

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It begins on pavement, climbing tertiary roads into the hills.

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Mostly, we’re following signed hiking and cycling routes along the way.

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Passing through the heart of Slovakia, through towns of wooden villages, old churches, and active farmland.  

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An apiary/treehouse, or beehouse– surprises us in the forest.  There are a lot of bees here, in managed bee communities, in converted trailers and raised beehouses.

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We connect to an historic road, cut from the hillside.  Up, and up, above 1000m.

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A hiking shelter.

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Up…

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up…

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up…connecting a dirt road to a dirt road, via an unrideable hiking trail for a short distance.  We’re beginning to understand the “route”.  It is mostly rideable, but does not shy away from unridable connectors as needed.  This is our preferred mode.

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At the top is a small ski area and a seasonal hotel. It is barely open in the summer.  Winter must be busy here at about 4000ft.

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There are well-signed hiking and cycling trails in these mountains.  It is nice to see cycling trails comprised of rough, unpaved routes.  Slovakian cyclists are hardy.

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Follow the red and white, as ever.  Up and up, as ever.

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We’ll talk more about the bike later.  Yes, the main compartment of the framebag doesn’t have a zipper.  The seatpack conceals a MacBook Air.  I drilled a hole in the fork and several holes in the frame.  And yes, the bike still shreds.

Thanks to Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs for the design, creativity, and fabrication, and the dedication to do all of it at the last minute.  Thanks to him, I’m carrying a MacBook and the bike rides like a bike.

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Up over 5000ft, from the river valley below near 1000ft.  Our legs are figuring themselves out.  Rather, mine are gaining figure.  Lael’s have been ready to go since before the Fireweed 400.

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Down, down, down…

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Brakes are hot and our stuff is wet.  Swim in a stream and eat an apple.

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Of course, drink a beer.  Small drinking establishments are ubiquitous in Slovakia, as in Czech.  Beer is about $1, or less.

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The next day, we awake to sun and the opportunity to dry our things.

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The route takes a hike over some high meadows.

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And down grazing lands and logging tracks.

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All of this is adjacent to the Low Tatras National Park.  We soon learn that the logging continues into the park, although you are warned not to ride a bicycle on unstable soils.

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Up again, now on the red hiking trail, one of several national hiking trails across Slovakia.

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Don’t ride on fragile soils, say the signage.  Just drag some logs down the wet roads.  

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I do my best to keep the tires running through the frame.  Thanks to the new Fox fork and the Surly Krampus, even these muddy 2.35″ Hans Dampf tires keep rolling.  That was the plan.

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Six-wheel drive ensures the road remains a quagmire.

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Again, we wash in the stream, dry our things in the sun, and dine.  We refuse to get wet every day.  Lael says, “the forecast in Lviv calls for sun every day”.  We’re moving east.

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Out of the high mountains, between the Low Tatra and the High Tatra, we point towards Ukraine.  The 1000 Miles Adventure Route chooses some mellow dirt and pavement at the front range of the Tatras.

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Celebrating our last few days in Slovakia– not that we aren’t always celebrating– we fire a round of sausages over the fire.

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We enjoy a few more days in the country, before our focus leans towards Ukraine.  Considering our current location in the northeast of the country, a few days in Poland may be in order.  There’s something about Poland.  Namely, the Red Trails capture our attention. 

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Slovakia for a few more days.  Poland for a minute.  Ukraine, for a month or more.

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