Always remember, nature can last without mankind,
but mankind without nature is lost
Entering Poloniny National Park on the other side of the border it’s all green and all downhill. Slovakia welcomes me with tarmac roads turned gravel. Only a faint, thin grey line bears the memory of more civilized times.
The only signs of humans being ever around are small summer cottages, apiaries and improvised recreation areas hidden in the trees.
Fresh running spring water included.
Soon I find myself riding the road that eventually will connect me to the Ukrainian border. Views are fantastic.
Having slept in quite comfortable conditions for the past few nights I’m in the mood to find something special for the night. A wooden arbour adorning the side of a hill seems perfect.
A room with a view.
Fresh produce abound in my bag will make for a delicious and sumptuous meal.
The night is fresh and calm. I’m only bothered twice. One time a Czech family comes into my kitchen while I’m busy preparing my meal, they wish me dobrou chuť. The other time a bunch of youths run off laughing once they see me sleeping comfortably in my bedroom.
The Poloniny Park is part of the dark sky preserve
– a world wide network of places where stars are always bright. With a scarce population in the area there’s close to none light pollution.
In the morning I have a coffee and watch the fog first settle down on the water then retract and crawl back up the hill sides.
From here it’s not far to the Ukrainian border – a tarmac road leads the way. Passing the Slovakian guards, just wave my pass and and bid Slovakia farewell. The Ukrainian guards are of a different kind. I’m approached by a bear-like man showing great interest in everything I have on the bike. Medication? Cigarettes? Alcohol? Drugs? Some of this I carry and have to open most of my bags to show him I mean no harm. I show him my plastic bag with my medicaments and he’s very thorough going through each and every pill inside. It seems logical not to mention the liter of denaturated alcohol mounted under my down tube… plain water.
Once he’s done with me I’m allowed to go, riding past the last guard house a soldier asks me where I’m coming from and most importantly how much did my bike cost. I built it myself I answer, so I don’t know… whether this makes sense or not he seems pleased with it.
I stick to the tarmac for a while, going straight for the mountains. It’s sunny and hot. Riding past a bridge I decide to follow a faint track going down to the river to catch some shade and cool down in the river. Ukrainians have a very interesting way of dealing with old bridges. They just build new ones right next to the old, letting the later slowly decay.
Seeing people crowded at the roadside is usually a sign there’s a source of fresh water – such springs are quite common in Ukrainian Carpathians.
At this well I meet Ihor and Laszlo. Ihor is Slovakian and Laszlo comes from Hungary. They both live in this area and as they say, nationality around these hills is a rather foreign concept. Years of turmoil and border push-pulling in the past has left many people living in a different country almost overnight. These times seem to be gone yet the feeling still seems to live on in many.
Before arriving in Ukraine I was quite terrified just thinking about cycling roads around here. As in turned out the drivers are usually very kind to cyclists. They don’t drive too fast nor too close like people in Poland. Reasons for that can be various, yet I think that potholed roads and old cars play a major role in that behaviour. What I’ve found most delightful was the ample space each driver left between me and his side mirror, most of the time I could hear a short, friendly honk telling me “be careful, I’m coming and I’m bigger than you”.
This is one of the best roads I’ve encountered.
It’s late summer and Ukrainian youths have already celebrated Vypusk, the end of their school education.
A lot of places I visit are poor villages, seeing a horse-pulled cart is a more common sight than a 30 year old Lada car. Many of those places are inhibited mostly by gypsies. In one of the villages a band of kids is first cheering me from afar, than they try to grab my helmet hanging of the side of my bike while I’m passing and finally throw cobbles after me. More of a show off to the other kids than a real attempt to do harm.
The colors of Svaljavskjj Rajon are sun bleached and dry much like it’s aura and the people living there.
But go one hill beyond that, cycle into Perechinskij Rajon and everything changes as if magically. The other side of the hill reveals a whole new land. Suddenly trees grace the road side more densely, every house seems to have their own fruit and vegetable garden and people smile back at me, always responding to my hellos. Kids are different too, a bunch of them takes great joy in riding up and down their local road and are very curious about my bike asking whether it’s a motorcycle or not.
Ukrainian bus stops are usually small pieces of art, valleys are lush even during a draught and roads end abruptly.
Entering the gateway to my new home.
Ukrainians come across as friendly and curious folk. As I’m riding past a young cyclist we gaze at each other and suddenly both make a u-turn. Ivan really want’s to talk and ask questions and I’m curious about him and what lays ahead. Although there’s a language barrier we make the best out of the fact that Polish and Ukrainian are a bit alike. Of course among others he wants to know the price of my camera and bike, and I give him the same elusive answers I gave to the soldier earlier the other day. In exchange I get to know there’s a grocery shop nearby and I have to restock.
Just as Ivan said, past the main road crossing and into the middle of the village I find the shop.
Looking down at Volovec where I shall begin my climb onto Polonina Borzawa, following very familiar trail signs.
Volovec can be reach with a train from Lviv, the ride takes approximately 3 hours and as every train ride is extremely cheap per distance travelled. It is a rather large place with tourist hotels, restaurants with access to free WiFi, drugstore and plenty of shops to restock on fresh produce and such – a great place to start cycling Ukrainian mountains when on a tight schedule.
All other people on the trail are carrying heavy rucksacks, seeing me approach on a mountain bike they often cheer with a joyful bicyclist! or maladiets!
While huffing and puffing up one of the steeper parts I ride past this bunch. I give my usual, bad impersonation of Ukrainian good morning and suddenly hear back Polish dzień dobry! from one of the girls. Her name is Julia, she’s Ukrainian of Polish descent and is a Polish teacher, her friend are Ira, Bendoz and Diorka holding a huge flask of Badjaha – their remedy for all woes. I’m invited to join them for a break and quite honest I’d be a fool to say no.
They offer me all their treats among them Bandjaha and sandwitches with tomatoes and salo (tasty spiced lard). As I fare them goodbye I leave a bar of chocolate saying we’ll eat this together.
Looking up my climb I hope I’ll be slow enough for them to catch up.
I stop at the water source just below the tree line – this is the last opportunity to resupply on water. I take a longer break and give my new companions a chance to catch up. And they do!
In exchange for their kindness I offer to boil some water for coffee and suddenly we open a coffee-on-the-go stand for hikers on their way up.
Suddenly Bendoz takes out a knife and starts shaving leaves of a branch. He produces a black and red flag out of his back pack and puts it on his new flagstaff. I know what this flag means. It was the flag of UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgency Army, now a sign for Ukrainian nationalists. This dates back to the late stages of WWII and to say the least, back then those people didn’t look kindly to Polish. Just to be sure I ask Julia about the flag and whether it’s OK for me to stick around any longer. She comforts me that it’s OK, that I shouldn’t worry and can stay as long as I want.
Bendoz is part of young western Ukraine, very patriotic and looking for icons of Ukrainian independency. Polish will strongly disagree but in Ukraine Stepan Bandera, the founder of UPA is treated as a hero.
Bendoz shows me his recent findings, small pieces of ore, fluorescent rocks and special shrub known for it’s medical uses. It’s not only his hobby, but hopefully future job as he’s studying to be a forester.
Yet again I say good-bye to them and continue up as the forests opens up above my head – entering Polonina Borzawa.
The final climb to the Wielkij Wierch is a real killer, it is much better to take the longer but mellower path around and approach the peak from its west side.
Looking back at the peak of Plaj and what’s been left behind.
People re quite excited to see me finally capture the peak, lots of pictures are taken among them this one.
Southern part of Polonina Borzawa as seen from Wielkij Wierch.
As I wait and see more people reach the summit I ask them if they have seen a bunch carrying a black and red flag. They know I’m Polish and they know what that flag means. I’m told who they are and I reply I know, but I just had a great time with them! Where are they?! I must be the only Polish person deliberately seeking a red and black in whole of Ukraine. After some time I see familiar faces appear on the hillsides just below.
We sit down among blueberry shrubs and prepare for a picnic.
We watch clouds roll by as the sun slowly sets. Slowly the wind picks up and without warm sunrays on our skin it’s getting chilly. Time to go lower and find a camping spot.
Once the tents are up and wood is gathered for the night it’s time to feast.
Ukrainian hospitality is boundless, I’m never left with an empty plate as we sit and talk all things Polish, Ukrainian and universal late into the night. The best strategy once full is to leave bits on your plate, otherwise there’s always another portion waiting.
Same applies to breakfast.
I join my new friends on the way down to visit the Szypot waterfall – a popular tourist destination just below Polonina Borzawa.
Although we only just met each other it’s hard to part and say good bye. Riding away feels empty and I miss Diorka’s anti-bear shouts Jaaaaauuuuuu! It feels just like this guy looks like…
The weather forecast for the next two days looks rather grim and eventually I decide to accept the invitation to visit my Ukrainians in their hometown – Stryj. It’s around 100 km away and I can cycle there in one day.
In Stryj I find the cheapest hotel there is to find. As long as I scrape off all the mud sticking to my bike I can even keep it the room.
We meet at Julia’s workplace, the Cultural Center in Stryj
, where she’s one of the teachers. Apart of giving Polish lesson the institute is busy organizing cultural events and field trips both in Ukraine and Poland.
Stryj is a special place for Polish cyclists. Once part of Poland it is the birthplace of Kazimierz Nowak an adventurer, writer and cyclist who in 1931 set out to cycle through Africa.