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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Cows.

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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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