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.
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.
Packed with food for a day, we climb out of town to camp up high.
Daily thunderstorms ensure our bikes remain muddy. Logging trucks and six-wheel drive vehicles ensure some roads remain rutted.
We’ve been here before and know that eventually, the road improves. The light improves as the evening passes.
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.
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.
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.
Plai is the first major peak at about 1300m, above 4000ft. There is a weather station and an assemblage of antennae.
From Plai, the trail pushes to Veliky Verkh, above 1500m, and 5000ft.
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.
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.
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.
We continue on the polonina past our exit point last year. The trail narrows as it descends into the trees.
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.
Eventually onto active farm roads into town.
From here, a quick up and over into the next valley. That road will descend all the way to Mizhhir’ya.
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.