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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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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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 Warmshowers.org 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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