Meeting Robert over coffee and cake in Lviv, I felt I was in old-world Europe. All around us on Market Square were the magnificent buildings of the Baroque and Renaissance, which make the entire old town of Lviv a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I sliced at my apple strudel and swirls of cinnamon, raisins and apple were released to mix with the smell of coffee, chocolate and wafts of fragrant Balkan tobacco.
Robert had just flown in from London to join part of my ride from Moscow to Transylvania and was a little taken aback by the peaceful atmosphere of Lviv, which contrasted starkly with the images of war in Ukraine that filled the London papers. Making conversation, I asked ‘Did anyone try to dissuade you from coming to Ukraine?’
‘Everyone,’ replied Robert drily.
But here we were over 1,000km from the conflict zone and on our way to discover the Ukrainian Carpathians, one of Europe’s last great wildernesses. Tomorrow we would be back on the horses. I took advantage of a night in a luxury hotel, which was now very affordable due to the collapse of the Ukrainian currency.
The next few weeks in the saddle took us through fly-infested baking Ukrainian plains, which made the Ukrainian flag perfectly understandable: a strip of gold for the wheatfields, and a strip of blue for the sky. Happily, we were able to escape from the heat of the plain into cool, dark lavkas (inns) to punctuate the journey with dumplings stuffed with cherries, served in sour cream, strong coffee and cognac to help the morning breeze along.
As we entered the green foothills of the Carpathians we started to notice new flags: red and black representing Ukrainian blood spilled on Ukraine’s black soil. Originally this was the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a paramilitary organisation that engaged in guerrilla warfare against Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the Polish Underground State and Czechoslovakia during the Second World War.
Today, it symbolised Ukrainian nationalism and opposition to the separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine. The paramilitary group had continued to fight for Ukrainian independence well into the 1950s after this area had been incorporated in the Soviet Union, and only really died when its leader, Stepan Bandera, was poisoned with cyanide in Munich in 1959. But the movement continued and as war raged in the east of Ukraine, it was gearing up again to bolster the independence of Ukraine. Conscription had started, told a tearful shopkeeper who had waved off her sons to fight on the eastern front, while refugees from the east were starting to arrive, pale and thin in contrast to the Hutsuls, who were darker skinned with faces that smiled easily to reveal brilliant white teeth.
We were entering Hutsul land (the locals call it Hutsulschina). Slavik, our guide, was himself Hutsul, as were our horses, Dana and Disco – stocky breeds with a kindly nature. A higher altitude and the mountain terrain meant fewer flies and cooler breezes, which meant easier going both for the horses and for us. Slavik rediscovered the spring in his step, as did Dana and Disco, who drank in the mineral rich river waters as if they were an elixir of eternal life.
All through the arid surroundings of the Ukrainian step, Slavik had waxed lyrical about Hutsulschina, and we were not disappointed. The home of the Hutsuls, Ukrainian Highlanders and Ruthenians who, having survived the onslaught of the Nazis, were almost wiped out by Stalin’s juggernaut of collectivisation, before the regime decided to spare their way of life.
Today, the Hutsuls of the Ukrainian Carpathians and Northern Romania can be counted in their thousands (although their diaspora included well-known figures such as Andy Warhol), but as we rode through Hutsulschina, there was no mistaking who were the masters of this land. ‘Glory in the years of our Lord,’ shout the Hutsuls to each other in strong, confident voices, as they pass each other.
As we passed babbling brooks and fields of old-fashioned haystacks, we came across churches, their bells calling in worshippers, down from the hills and full of excited chatter. Men and boys in groups, all eyes for the women and throwing back their heads in mirth, and mothers and daughters in separate groups, the girls all glances and giggles. All were dressed in their Sunday best (a visual cacophony of red, black and blue embroidery over white smocks for the men and boys and long dresses and headscarves for the women and girls).
On other days, the highly-pitched strains of the Hutsul violin and cimbalom enticed us into street markets that overflowed with brightly-coloured woollen rugs, pan pipes, embroidered shirts and paintings of lofty mountains covered in mist.
The air was also full of aromas of those Eastern European staples: roasting pork with onion, cheese, and garlic, meaty mushrooms feasts served with more garlic and lashings of sour cream, finished off with yeasty poppy-seed buns and thick yellow honey. These smells conspired to tempt us into dark larch lavkas for our meals and to rehydrate with rich, unfiltered beer and thick black bread. In a day or two, we’d be high up in the mountains, above all of this, and so it seemed rude not to stop.
Russia had been characterised by endless fields of ruined mansions and decaying collective farms, with shops full of cheap vodka, cigarettes, processed meats and the ubiquitous hum of freezer cabinets full of bony frozen chickens and ice-creams. Belarus, meanwhile, was characterised mostly just by endless fields and bogs with hardly any shops at all. Hutsulschina, however, was like Switzerland of yesterday. All around us were well-cared for cottages, gardens overflowing with a harmonious chaos of cherries, plums, irises and marigolds, cabbages, potatoes and spiky climbing cucumbers. Rivers, their aquamarine waters thick with mineral salts, provided clean water for the horses to drink and for us to bathe in after the long days in the saddle.
Over the next few days, we rode higher and higher into the mountains until we were far away from the neat cottages in the valleys below. Here and there, Slavik pointed out forts perched on lofty peaks built by the Austrians at a time when all of this area was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. ‘Good builders,’ he’d say, full of admiration. Slavik also pointed to caves high up on the stony peaks, allegedly home to the Babai, the Hutsuls’ very own abominable snowman that was known to take off with naughty children and prey on mountain goats.
When we removed their saddles at the end of a long day’s ride, our horses delighted in rolling on their backs with their legs in the air, then feasting on the flowers and rich alpine grasses that surrounded us. The air was full of birdsong, the bleating of sheep and goats, and the tinkle of cowbells.
We were getting closer to Romania. ‘Beware the Romanians,’ say the locals, just as the Belarussians had told us to watch out for the Ukrainians, and the Russians had told us to watch out for almost everyone.
Numerous solitary border guards all sported rather incongruous bright purple lips. ‘It is the blueberries,’ explained Slavik with a laugh. The surrounding hillsides were covered with billions of the berries, as well as migrant workers filling their buckets with nature’s rich bounty.
It wasn’t just the border guards who were attracted to the blueberries though. We passed bear tracks that served as a handy reminder that the Carpathian mountains are home to Europe’s largest population of brown bears. Migrant workers tread a fine line between finding the richest areas in which to harvest (which are then sent to Germany to colour paint) and straying into the territory of the bears that can take you out with a single swipe of their paws. Not only bears, these remote mountains are also home to lynx, wild cat, deer, golden eagles and wolves.
However, apart from the occasional shepherd (lips also bright purple), the border guards and a high altitude milking station, there was no-one about. From time to time, we would pass a solitary cross staring into emptiness. The weather turned from sun and breeze to hail at the flick of a horse’s tail. Slavik prepared a fire as we set up our camp for the night. Supper was a simple affair of tangy brinza cheese and homemade bread bought from the milking station. Slavik also produced that ubiquitous Ukrainian delicacy of Salo (cured pork fat) to be washed down with the equally ubiquitous Ukrainian delicacy, Slavik’s homemade moonshine (gorilka) that makes you gasp and shudder before enjoying a warm afterglow.
It was now the end of July and the long, warm nights of the Eastern European summer were starting to shorten. As the sky darkened it revealed a Disney-like constellation of stars. We raise our glasses of gorilka to the heavens and knocked back the contents in one go. I wanted to stay awake to savour every last minute of this Earthly paradise, full of the scent of grass and horses mixed with wood smoke. Fresh air, clean water, good food and good company in the land of the Hutsuls. But it was useless, and I closed my eyes and listened to the horses munching oats and the breeze rustling through the thick mountain grass. ‘Do I really want to tell anyone else about this place?’ I wondered. But it is too good not to share. Before I could think of anything else, deep sleep was upon me.
This was published in the June 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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