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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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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