A Travellerspoint blog


Heading to Ukraine tomorrow...!

Yes, I am staying away from the East, Mom...

overcast 79 °F

I had always called Ukraine "The Ukraine." Not sure why...maybe I just heard it referred to that way more than once. However, I learned during my research that it is just "Ukraine"...kind of like England is "England" -- not THE England. Of course, that immediately brings to mind a certain university in my hometown of Columbus that IS a "the"...ha, ha!

Anyway, I will be in Ukraine for two weeks, with most of my time in Kiev, Lviv, and short stays in the Carpathian Mountains and an incredible fortress town called Kamyanets-Podilsky. Lately, I've added another component to my research. I joined an internet forum run by expatriates living in Ukraine. They're mostly Brits, Americans, Aussies, and other Westerners. Not only have they given some great advice, they are incredibly welcoming. I met a forum member here in Columbus for a beer, and he regaled me with hours of stories and advice. Upon arrival, another American forum member will be waiting for me at the airport to show me the ropes of riding public transport to my hotel.

So, sit back and get ready for stories and pictures from my country #77 -- Ukraine!
Ukraine Flag.jpg?itok=3v4G9l0l

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:18 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Easing my First Day in Kiev

Knowing People can make all the Difference

sunny 80 °F

It took two tries, but I finally made it to Kiev. On my first day, my flight from Columbus to New York was cancelled. I spent two hours on the phone with four different Delta agents. Two were useless and unhelpful, one I was disconnected with, and only the fourth tried her hardest, but unsuccessfully, to find a way to route me there that day. No luck. I went home. My second set of flights went smoothly, though, and I touched down in Kiev-Borispol airport shortly after 1 pm on Friday.
Michael was waiting for me once I breezed my way through customs. I'd contacted him on an Internet forum before I left and he'd volunteered to help me around. He is a retired American who has lived in Ukraine for six months, and married a Ukrainian woman. I hit up the ATM, and bought a SIM card for my iPhone so I'd be able to use Internet to help navigate. It was an experiment to see how useful it would be -- particularly the Maps GPS function -- which allows you to zoom in and see where you are and which direction your moving. Michael's wife had arranged a cab for the "local's rate" of 190 Hrivyna -- as opposed to the 400 my hotel would charge, and the 550 another traveler I would meet later said he paid. The exchange rate is very much in the dollar's favor, right now, at just over 20:1. That makes the above fares about $10, $20, $27.
At the hotel, I checked in and then went up to my room and unpacked. Michael said he had free time and would wait in the lobby, then walk me around Kiev some, so I could get my bearings. Much as a nap sounded good (as usual, I could not sleep at all on the flights over), I knew I had to "power through" on the first day to avoid jet lag and reset my body clock by going to bed at a normal hour. That would turn out to be no problem, as I actually did not get to bed till well after 11 pm that night!
Michael navigated us towards the main thoroughfare in Kiev, a busy street with the tongue-twisting name of Kreschchatyk. We decided to stop for a beer. He had to phone his wife Anna, who was at work, to hone us in to the place he wanted to stop. We were only a block away, and I was happy to actually recognize the neon sign in Cyrllic first. Katyusha is a pleasant restaurant to dine or have a couple beers in -- something we ended up doing. Anna joined us, and suggested typical Ukrainian fare that fit with what my friends (unfairly) label my "picky eater's" palate!
After our meal, the couple took me on a walking tour of Central Kiev. We walked down Kreschchatyk, admiring the 17th-18th century architecture. We were hitting it at a perfect time, as the westering sun made the stonework glow. It was Friday evening and the streets were coming alive with strollers and entertainers. My favorite was the old man dressed up in traditional Cossack costume. He was playing a large stringed instrument and singing a folk song. In other places, there were people dancing as a crowd gathered around to watch, a young man on a guitar, and even a young lady dressed in a mermaid's costume!
Our first stop was Maydan Nezaleznhosti -- Kiev's main square, and renamed in honor of the 2004 Orange Revolution that essentially freed the country from its post-Soviet, Communist grip. All over the square and up the neighboring streets, official and unofficial monuments are set to honor the ordinary students, workers, and people who demonstrated and said no to continuation of control by the Kremlin's cronies. There were also displays honoring the soldiers fighting against the "Russian separatists" and actual Russian troops who have grabbed land belonging to Ukraine. This is actually one of the things that tipped the scale for me to come to Ukraine. I figured if any county needs my tourist dollars, it is one fighting off Putin's aggression and Stalin- like attempts to reconstruct the USSR at the expense of nations who have finally attained independence. The fighting in Ukraine is confined to the East, along the Russian border, where Russian "humanitarian aid" composed of tanks, armored cars, and soldiers can easily cross into Ukraine to support the Russian-speaking Ukrainians who have unwisely stepped forward to be the front for Putin's land grab. It is also why Ukraine is so inexpensive for Western travellers. The economy is suffering inflation, tourists are avoiding a "war zone," and hotels have slashed prices to encourage visitors. For example, my 4-star hotel near the center (Premier Hotel Rus), is costing me $27 a night.
The little memorials set up featured pictures of those who died in the fighting, along with implements like construction helmets, a bottle representing Molotov cocktails, and other improvised tools the rebels had available to fight the government during the Orange Revolution. It is always gets me to see the faces of those who later died in combat: grim, determined, happy, laughing...when those pictures were taken, did they have an idea of their fate? Anna told me Ukrainians want the street renamed in their honor and the memorials to become permanent and official.
We continued our circuit stopping at the Chimera House, a truly wild-looking building adorned with dozens of concrete animal "gargoyles" -- rhinos, frogs, elephants, you name it! Humorously, the animals stare directly at the Presidential Palace, which is next door. Anna and Michael turned down the streets that showed off their town's architectural flair. It was a great way to unwind after the stress of cancelled flights and acclimating to a new place. They were great unofficial tour guides, and very helpful. After awhile, I needed a break. I could tell Anna was tiring, too, as she had been at work early that morning. The couple graciously walked me back to my hotel, where I went in, finished unpacking, and rested up for awhile.
Later that evening, I went for another evening stroll. I ranged pretty far and wide, heading down to the Dneiper River, admiring the lights of the city from a pedestrian bridge. I walked back through the Maydan Square, had a beer in a cafe, and because I was so far from the hotel, rode the subway back and headed home for the evening. It was a great start to my two weeks in Ukraine. I was grateful to Michael and Anna for their help learning the ropes of their city. It usually takes a couple days before you really know your way around, but they shrank that process down to half a day. It had taken longer than I thought to get here and get my trip started, but I truly felt it was underway and going well, now.

Posted by world_wide_mike 22:42 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Diary From Chernobyl

Unquiet Dreams in a Nightmare Man Made Real

sunny 79 °F

This was supposed to be Day 3 of my trip, but with the cancelled flight, my day trip to Chernobyl would be the very next morning after I arrived. I'd arranged it ahead of time using New Logic Tours, who were recommended by my Lonely Planet guidebook. It was the single most expensive item planned on my trip other than airfare, at just under $150. It was slated to last almost all day, though, and was the only option I found to do the tour. Most agencies booked only groups, and New Logic let me join an existing group as an individual.
The bus would leave from the Maydan Square, so I left early to make sure I got there I time. The only thing I don't like about my hotel is the 20 minute walk to the center. I did two round trips yesterday, and would likely do the same, today. I showed the guide my passport and he gave me a cautionary statement to read when I got on the bus. It was actually kind of unintentionally humorous. No drinking the water. No eating any plants from Chernobyl. There are three sets of checkpoints we have to pass through in the "Exclusion Zone" -- called that because no one is supposed to live there except for people working there. It is only in the final zone that there are levels of radiation considered "unsafe." Your time is limited there. So, in the end, they say you are exposed to less radiation than you would be flying here from America.
We learned more about that in the documentary they played on the bus AV system as we got underway. Actually, it was a series of different video clips, beginning with a U.S. network news summary of the Chernobyl incident. The videos were fascinating, and I learned a lot that I had never known about Chernobyl and radiation. For example, There are strict rules for how many years an airline pilot can fly intercontinental routes. After five years of doing it, pilots may not donate blood. After 10 years, they cannot donate any organs. The most shocking and sobering part of the videos was how close Chernobyl was to becoming an even more severe disaster. When Reactor #4 overheated, and it's fuel was turned into magma, the super hot material began to eat away at the flooring. Had it reached the unspent fuel deposits underneath, it would have ignited a catastrophic explosion. The blast would have been 10 times as destructive as the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in WW II. The resulting radiation would have made the entire continent of Europe unlivable, it said. Imagine that! One of our wealthiest and most populous continents was almost wiped out in 1986. The effects on our world had that happened would have been staggering.
Equally shocking was the way the Soviets handled the disaster. I think no one was surprised that they denied it at first, and went to great lengths to conceal Chernobyl's magnitude. However, the callousness in the way they sacrificed their citizens' lives to put out out the reactor fire was appalling. Yes, they had to do it quickly to avoid an even greater disaster. But rather than ask the world for help, they ordered wave after wave of helicopter pilots, soldiers, miners, and firefighters in unprotected. They did engineer robots to try to use them to do the most dangerous work. The radiation played havoc on their circuits, though and they broke down. People -- or Bio Robots, as the documentary called them -- were ordered back in to toss sand bags on the fire, shovel highly radioactive debris, and more. The film interviewed some of the heroic survivors, and to a man, almost all admitted they had no idea how deadly the radiation levels were at the site.
Some of my fellow travellers on the tour had rented Geiger counters to measure the radiation. At each stop, the guide brought out his and showed us the readings. At each check point we got off the bus and the guards checked our passports against their list. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take pictures of the guards or the checkpoint. So, Soviet paranoia lives on in Ukraine! One of my fellow passengers was from Oklahoma City, and we hit it off really well. We shared travel stories on the ride and reflections after each stop. One of our first stops was at a formerly-secret, Soviet radio listening base. It's huge antenna array stretched on for more than 100 yards. It's task was to spy on Western radio transmissions. The base was abandoned during the Chernobyl disaster, and it is slowly crumbling and being overtaken by nature. We checked out a couple rooms, then walked through the woods to the antenna array. Each tower stretched skyward, and the patterns created by lining up identical tower after tower were cool. I snapped lots of photos, of course!
Our first abandoned village we stopped at had the requisite creepy doll lying abandoned in the grass. By the end of the day, I suspected these were being planted there by someone for atmospheric effect. I probably saw a dozen or so abandoned dolls during our visit. The first building was an abandoned school, and it was simultaneously spooky, sobering, and fascinating to see the detritus of a village full of people who had to pack up and evacuate, never to return. Broken glass crunched underfoot and rotting floorboards creaked ominously as we explored the school. Tiny metal frames of beds sat rusting in rows in two of the rooms. Schoolbooks lay open and yellowed, and everywhere was the dust of crumbling walls.
As we neared the reactor, we passed our final checkpoint. Simultaneously, all the Geiger counters on the bus started beeping insistently. The guide pointed out each of the six reactors as we drove into view of the facility. I was surprised to hear that, after the accident, the Soviets fired up two of the older reactors and used them to generate electricity. Two additional reactors under construction (#5 & #6) were never completed, though. Behind all six rust-streaked buildings was the gleaming, metallic structure that is being built now to enclose reactor #4. Cracks have begun to appear in the concrete and steel sarcophagus that has enclosed the reactor for decades. Once the new structure is completed in a few years, it will be slid on rails over the top of the existing structure, that was built at the cost of so many lives after the accident. This final entombment is supposed to seal off any leaking radiation forever.
Before we visited Reactor #4, our guide said he wanted to take us fishing off Catfish Bridge. He chuckled at our quizzical looks, but we duly followed him off the bus out onto a railroad bridge in the shadow of the reactors. He pulled out a bag of bread and tore off chunks and tossed them into the water. Monstrous catfish rose lazily to the surface and sucked them down. Were these nuclear, mutated monsters? No, simply a fish with no natural predator growing to its size -- or at least that is what he assured us. Some were easily three to four feet long. I would not want to go swimming in there! I took pictures of a memorial park nearby, too, and then we boarded the bus for the reactor.
Our guide warned us again to stay in the allotted area, and not to do anything foolish to antagonize the guards. We followed him to a monument to those who lost their lives to seal up the reactor. He pointed out the radiation levels on his Geiger counter, which were "beyond safety level." Workers rotate through the site, he explained, with those in the most deadly areas being able to work only a few minutes a day to avoid overexposure to radiation. The sealed up reactor itself looked no more dangerous or ominous than any other large industrial building. It was hard to believe that inside was a pile of deadly plutonium which would kill you if you got too close. We stayed for the allotted time, then reboarded the bus.
Our next stop was the town of Pripyat the "company town" the Soviets built for the workers of Chernobyl. For three days after the reactor explosion, life went on as normal in town. No one was informed that most residents were receiving lethal doses of radiation. No scientist or technician hurriedly abandoned the town, or even sent his family away to safety. To me, that is the most unconscionable part of the Chernobyl disaster. How could a scientist or technician working there NOT send his family to safety? How could he come home every night, kiss his wife and his children, and act as if all were normal? Knowing your family was going to die? It boggles my mind how servile and afraid of the government you would have to be to do that. How easy would it have been to say, "Honey, you need to go visit your mother out of town -- now!"...?
If a Hollywood set designer ever needs idea for what a post-Apocalyptic town should look like, Pripyat is where they should go. Trees and bushes randomly sprouted from concrete and even buildings as far as you could see. Patches of woods had overtaken neighborhoods so that they looked like forests instead of streets. Streetlights arched alongside the trunks of trees as if they were trying to revert to nature, too. Signs leaned drunkenly and broken windows gaped like the hollow eye sockets of skulls. And just to make sure everyone understood this wasn't make-believe, our group's Geiger counters measured their highest readings of the day. Although life and nature was attempting to reclaim Pripyat, it was a life with poison in its veins. I recalled the pamphlet's warnings about eating fruit from Chernobyl as I passed apple trees tempting us with golden apples.
One of the most atmospheric spots is the town's amusement park. A dozen bumper cars, are frozen in place as if the ride were stopped abruptly. Their bright yellow paint is scarred with rust and buckled with dents. Their steering columns lay broken across split vinyl seats. The Ferris wheel immediately catches your eye. It sits, in perfect shape, as if waiting for some ghostly operator to return and crank the lever to make it spin once again. The cars look inviting. What better way to survey Pripyat's state then to glide high above? A tilt-a-wheel is a leering skeleton next to the Ferris wheel, though, it's rusting bones mocking its hopeful and patient neighbor.
We explored the town's movie theater, where dust rose in clouds as we creaked along sagging, wooden floors. We climbed to the second story of the recreation center, walking across the warped and ruined basketball court to enter the town swimming pool. It's vast walls were peeling flakes of paint that were coming loose in Palm-sized sheets. The deep end of the pool, with its shells of diving platforms, was littered with garbage. Even more ruinous was the secondary school. Books lay strewn about the floors and were ankle deep in some rooms. Everything seemed to be aged with a layer of gray from the dust. A lump rose in my throat as I imagined my own 7th grade History room transformed into a ruined shell like this. What would survive? What of my things that decorate the walls and room would be crumbled and hidden in a blanket of plaster dust? Who were these teachers and their students that learned in these rooms before the disaster? Did they all die of radiation poisoning, or are some alive today, experiencing their invisible nightmare over and over again in their dreams?
We filed back on board the bus, some silent, some talking excitingly about what they had witnessed. From there, we drove past the first checkpoint, and each of us had to go through a radiation check. It was a device that you stepped up on, placed your hands and feet in the appropriate place, and a light would tell you in Cyrillic whether you were safe. No one failed the check at this spot, or at the five times more sensitive checkpoint as we exited the Exclusion Zone. It had been a full, but fascinating, day. Everyone seemed worn out by our explorations or perhaps the magnitude of what we'd experienced. I had fully intended to spend the two hour bus ride checking out my pictures, cropping them, and maybe even beginning this blog. My eye kept drooping shut, though, and I gave up. I sat back, let the gorgeous sunshine streaming in through the window bathe my face, and surrendered to unquiet slumbers of Chernobyl.

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:55 Archived in Ukraine Comments (1)

One Day to Lviv

Sightseeing in a gorgeous, Eastern European town

semi-overcast 79 °F

Rynok Plaza, Lviv's central square, in the morning
This might be my one and only day to see the sights of Lviv, Ukraine's most Westernized city. I lost day one due to the late flight. Day 3 was a Carpathian hiking tour, and Day 4 was unplanned, as yet. The thunder I heard rumbling as I dozed early that morning was accompanied by occasional flashes of lightning. Would I get rained on for the first time on this trip? As it turned out, no. The sky was overcast as I left my excellent hotel, Premier Dnister, and walked through the park towards the center of the city ("Bitterman, take me through the park...you know how I love the park!). It would steadily clear up all day, and end as another gorgeous sunny afternoon and evening.
a fancier example of Lviv's architectural decorations on their buildings
I was expecting Lviv to be a lot like Prague or Kraków, two popular tourist destinations in Eastern Europe. So, I wasn't surprised by the cool architectural flourishes they gave their buildings. First up was a door frame held up by twin Atlas statues. I decided to photograph the best ones and would end up taking pictures of fish, Egyptian guards, leering faces -- quite the imagination and variety. I made my way towards Rynok Square, which was quiet because it was so early. I made my way around all four sides, taking pictures. I particularly liked how each corner had a Roman God or Goddess presiding over it. The pastel colors of the three to four story buildings were muted in the overcast dawn. I would see them again later in the afternoon, though, when the sun struck fire to their colors.
The Goddess Diana guards one corner of Rynok Plaza
I decided to begin by climbing to the top of the tower attached to the city hall building. I paid the 10 Hrivna entry (50 cents) and broke a good sweat climbing the wooden staircase. Outside it was breezy, and there were only a few other tourists present. I pulled out my city map and began to line it up with the panorama below. I saw the big green expanse of Ivan Franko Park, with my 20 storey hotel looming behind it. More importantly, I picked out the sights I was planning on seeing. The rain looked to be holding off, so I mentally mapped out a route. I took a lot of pictures, of pictures course, before clomping down the 312 stairs to the 4th storey entrance.
The Gothic style Latin Cathedral seen from the tower, high above
I walked the short distance to the Latin Cathedral, next. The Gothic influences were especially noticeable inside. The pillars soared upwards towards the frescoed ceiling. I paced around quietly, as there was a service going on and quite a few worshippers were seated in the pews. I found the side chapel honoring Pope John Paul II, and tried to take pictures. The dusky interior made it difficult, though. Thankfully, pictures were allowed here, but with the rule of no flash. I took out my mini-tripod and tried with that. The elderly attendant was freaked out by the blinking auto focus light, but I assured her there was no flash. It wasn't equal to Kiev's incredible St. Sophia, which I saw on my last day in Kiev, but haven't blogged about yet. That church's 1,000 year old mosaics and frescoes were stunning, and gave me the impression of having stepped back in time to a medieval, Byzantine cathedral. Lviv's Latin Cathedral had a nice, smoky glow, but it was no St. Sophia.
The Dominican Church and its large dome
The day's only disappointment was that the Armenian Cathedral was closed for renovation. I peeked my head through the bars and recognized some Caucasus decorations, but wishing I could have gone inside. The Dominican Church was next,and it's massive dome dominated the small square it is located in. The words, "Soli Deo Honor et Gloria" are inscribed high and clear on the stone facade. This proclaims the Dominican order's focus on God's glory and honor. A rope was strung across the inside of the church, restricting visitors to the entrance. It was disappointing to not be able to wander around its vast interior, but it was fairly well lit -- and pictures were permitted!
A row if armor worn by Polish knights known as winged hussars
I indulged my interest in military history with a visit to the Arsenal Museum ("Susan, you're such an Arsenal!"). The displays made it loud and clear that this museum's focus is on weapons from the past. Dozens of dimly-lit glass cases displayed weapons from Middle Ages through the late 1800s. Although it began with Medieval Europe -- and a handful of two-handed swords from the later period -- it gradually got more and more exotic. Japanese samurai armor, an Indonesian Kris, yataghans, tulwars, Islamic Persian turbaned helmets, and Zulu stabbing spears all competed for space. My favorite was downstairs and the row of about a dozen full sets of armor from Polish winged hussars. The feather on the wooden wings protruding from the backplates of the armor were looking a little worn, but the armor gleamed as if freshly polished. I'd paid the $1 add-on to the 50-cent entrance fee to be allowed to take pictures. The dark museum and glass cases precluded flash, so I did my best. I was surprised how crowded it was. Maybe sightseeing in Lviv get people in a historical mood!
The view from Castle Hill
Next, I began the 20-30 minute climb to Castle Hill. This highly popular scenic vantage point allows a 360 degree view of Lviv and surrounding areas. I joined the throng spiraling upwards on the metal walkway and cobblestone path that circles ever higher. The wind was whipping as expected, and selfies were being snapped a mile a minute up here. Sometimes places like the suffer from being too high up. I feel this was the case here. You could pick out a few sites, but the houses and other buildings seemed to blend together too much to really make the view stand out.
Sheltered amidst groves of trees, Lychakivske Cemetery is a wonderful place to pass the time
The highlight of the day was next. My guidebook had urged that no visit to Lviv was complete without visiting Lychakivske Cemetery. I'd noticed that one of the tram lines stopped right outside its gates. My map had all the tram stops listed, so I navigated to the closest stop for the #7 line, making sure I was on the right side of the street so I'd head in the right direction. Trams are those Soviet era electric train cars that run on rails throughout town. I asked for some help in buying tickets, and was soon headed on my way.
Many of the graves feature moving statues, like this angel mourning
Without a doubt, this was the coolest, most fascinating and moving cemetery I have ever visited. They say it is Europe's oldest, and the range of styles in tombstones, mausoleums, and the graves definitely seems to range through the centuries. There were Roman-looking ones with the family depicted in togas. There were statues depicting angels, Mary, mythological figures, and the people themselves. Tears welled up in my eyes numerous times when I saw statues carved of family members throwing themselves upon the tombstone in grief, their heartache coming to life in stone. In America, grief is often such a formal, stylized affair. Our tombstones list names, dates, and the fact they will be missed. Here in Lychakivske, wives, sons, and other friends or family members pour out their heart before passers by for eternity. I openly sobbed when I got to a special section of the cemetery for soldiers who have given their lives fighting Russian, neo-Soviet aggression. The graves are merely mounds of Earth. They are festooned with flowers and floral wreaths that almost completely hide the ground, though. Framed pictures look back at you from each grave. Some are innocently and naively smiling. Others look grim or worried. Still others show steely determination -- not at all cowed by the fate they knew awaited them. I left Lychakivske sad, but in a way, uplifted. This is one of the ways we are who we are. We're humans. We mourn when we lose somebody dear to us. And the way Ukrainians mourned in this cemetery struck a note inside me.
These flower-heaped graves honor those who have died recently fighting Russian aggression
I used my newfound familiarity with the trams to ride #7 to the closest stop near my hotel. My feet had taken a pounding every day in Ukraine, so far. I needed a rest, and I needed to plan the rest of my afternoon. First item of business was to change rooms. My air conditioner -- essentially a dehumidifier with pretensions -- could not keep up. The Premier Hotel Dnister moved me to a new room with more modern AC. I love this hotel -- 4-star for less than $30 a night. Good location, awesome views overlooking the town. Heck, I'd come here just to hang out and relax! Reception even tried to telephone the next item on my list: Lvivske Brewery Museum and Brewery Tours. I'd read somewhere they were closed while remodeling, and sadly, this proved true. So, I spent about an hour trying to nail down an excursion for my final day in Lviv. I was unsuccessful, so decided I'd head down to the main square. I'd seen some excursion agencies there in my morning explorations. I was unsuccessful in booking anything, but I did find a place called the Beer Theater. Finally, theater up I can get into...! Seriously, it is a microbrewery and restaurant right on the main square. I chatted with the bartender/salesman, and picked out a rich and tasty dark beer to sample a pint. I will have to make it back for dinner here before I leave!
Lviv's slight fading, but beautiful architecture
My dinner for this evening was a little bit of failure paired with some spontaneity. I intended to check out an expat-owned (and hangout) Tex-Mex place. I managed to get completely turned around navigating my way there. I whipped out the cellphone with Apple Maps and was stilled uncharacteristicly wrong-footed. Honestly, I have a good sense of direction. I love maps, and am skilled at using them. Downtown Lviv threw a few Kryptonite weapons at me, though. Diagonal streets are my nemesis. Streets that change their name every couple blocks are also a challenge. My newest weakness in navigation is oddly shaped squares. Lviv has all three in spades and stripped me of my navigational superpowers. Every instinct was wrong, left was right in my guesses, and I was reduced to a novice traveller, a sidekick at best. Oh, and the restaurant I was looking for..? Closed for Monday when I finally got there!!!
More architectural decorations in Lviv
So, how did I end my day in Lviv? On my way back to my hotel, grumbling and stewing with that comic book dark cloud hovering over me, I saw a little Mom & Pop Doner Kebab place. I love Middle Eastern food, I was fed up with walking around town, and most of all, hungry. I've already tried Ukrainian food a few times, so I took the expedient option and ended my day in a delicious way. I would need every bit of fuel for tomorrow's hike in the Carpathian Mountains...

Posted by world_wide_mike 23:13 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

To the Mountaintop and Back

A day hike in the Carpathians

sunny 79 °F

Jelly donut, or not? When you read how far I hiked, you decide
All my friends know I'm a big history buff, and expect that when I go somewhere I will visit castles, ancient ruins, temples, churches -- you name it. I also am a huge fan of scenery, though, and like to get out and experience nature in person. So, I wanted to do some hiking in the Carpathian Mountains while I was in Ukraine. I found a company (www.inlviv.info) that booked one day hiking excursions from Lviv. They normally charge 400 Hrivna ($20) as part of a group, but they were apologetic they had no one else going during my four days in Lviv. I asked what the solo price would be. Only 700 Hrivna ($35) for a whole day, guided hike? Sign me up!

I met my guide Oleh in front of the train station where we'd be taking the 7am departure for Skole, about 2 hours away. From there, we'd hike to the top of Mt. Parashka. I had brought along my Keen hiking sandals because it rains a lot during the summer in the Carpathians. We had nothing to worry about with that today, though. It was perfect weather for a hike: high 70s, and clear, blue skies with no clouds. We set off at a fairly quick pace, and I trailed behind Oleh about 10-20 feet. That would be the standard for the day -- single file up the path, with Oleh ahead and setting the pace.
Carpathian Mountain scenery
The first hour and a half of the hike is through forested slopes. The path alternated between rocky, muddy, and a mix of dirt and grass. The hiking sandals were comfortable. They breathed well, and their solid rubber toecap saved me time and again from stubbing my toes on the rocks. The trail went mostly up, sometimes very steeply, other times on a more moderate slope. There were very few level sections. And since we were just hiking through woods, there really wasn't anything to stop and take pictures of in the beginning. It was pretty much an hour and half rapid slog uphill through the trees. Oleh doesn't do rest breaks, or he must have felt I was doing well enough, and did not need one.
Views like this are typical of the hike to the top of Mt. Parashka
On the steeper sections, I slowed down, plodding ahead one step at a time. I was huffing and puffing at those times. I could even hear my heart drumming in my ears. We began to break through into the beginnings of mountain meadows, and the trail teased me with a few snippets of nice views. When I stopped to take my first picture, Oleh promised we'd come to a good photo spot in 10 minutes. We could make a lunch stop there. I looked at my watch. It was about 10:30 and we had been hiking solidly for 2 hours. I considered asking Oleh how long to the top, but didn't want it to seem like I was tired ("Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"). The viewpoint arrived and it was nice. Forested slopes with cleared patches stretched away into the distance on both sides. We were ascending a wide ridge, and I could see deep drop offs and scenic views to either side.

The tour agency had reminded me to pack a lunch. The previous evening I had picked up some packaged peanuts and chips, also tossing two of my Power Bars in my backpack. As it turned out, Oleh's wife had packed him enough food for both of us! He handed me a sandwich, and urged me to eat the zucchini and apples he had, too. I guzzled about 2/3's of my first of two liters of water I'd brought. I was beginning to think I should have packed a third liter. This was tough going, and despite the shade and cooler temperatures, I was sweating freely.
Gorgeous mountain meadows and the only sign of habitation we saw on the hike
We started the second part of the hike after taking about 20-25 minutes for lunch. We were now ascending and descending various hills on our way to Mt. Parashka. About half of it was through mountain meadows, but the path ducked back under the trees from time to time. We began to see local villagers in the meadows, picking what Oleh called blackberries. These were different than our blackberries, though. They were individual balls a tad smaller than a pea, but dark black in color. Later, I tried searching the Internet to find what they're called in English, but was unsuccessful. Oleh would pick a few and pop them in his mouth as he walked. I was tempted to try them, but did not want to risk stomach troubles eating unwashed fruit. The view kept getting nicer as we climbed the ridge line. Far off in the distance to the north, we could see a river gleaming, and the sun flashing off windows or the metal in villages in the valleys.

We continued hiking up and up. Out of the shade of the trees more and more, I felt myself becoming soaked with sweat. I tried not to drink from my water. I remembered the scene in "Lawrence of Arabia" when Lawrence surprises Omar Sharif, telling him that he will drink only when he does. Oleh wasn't drinking as we hiked, so I would do as he did. As the hours wore on, I began to wonder if I'm getting too old for hiking like this. Then I remembered the two people in their 70s that I met on the Inca Trail -- a much more challenging hike than this! I told myself that I was just getting fat and whinny. A big jelly donut. Suck it up and soldier on, I told myself! I did idly wonder how much ground we were covering because we were still going at a good pace. On the steepest sections, I plodded along, taking short steps and watching my footing.
Up, up, and up the trail goes...
Finally, I saw a peak ahead with a cross on it. I assumed that was Mt. Parashka. Yikes, the last ascent looked steep! Sure enough, we crept closer and closer to the mountaintop. On that last section, my mind went back to the Inca Trail. I thought, "I made that trek, so I can do this!" I could hear my Inca Trail guide Casiano, calling out, "You can do it! Super hikers!" And I did. Two hours after our last rest stop, I stumbled up beside Oleh, dropping my backpack and camera bag. The wind cooled the sweat on my back, refreshing me. I guzzled some precious water and looked around. A 360 degree view rewarded us as the other peaks fell away below. The sunshine flashed bright green from the grassy slopes beneath us, while the deeper green of the trees made a speckled pattern on them. In the distance, the mountain peaks blurred to a blue color. Somewhere below us, an eagle or hawk cried into the wind. I sat down on a flat stone and soaked it all in.
Oleh relaxes by the base of the cross atop Mt. Parashka
What is it about mountains that make us want to climb them? Is enjoying a spectacular view unique to us humans? Or do other animals, when presented with a panorama, also pause and chirp/squeak/growl the equivalent of "Wow!"...? Oleh reminded me how lucky we were with the weather. Many times, he said, the people he guides are rewarded only with clouds for a view. As I looked into the distance in all directions, I sighed. My friends and I often joke how unlucky I can be, at times. However, I have learned that when it comes to the things that truly count -- family, friends, the opportunities I have been given in my life -- God has been very, very kind to me. I sent another silent prayer Heavenward, and enjoyed the amazing view.
Looking down from the top of the mountain
After about 20 minutes, we shouldered our backpacks and began the long descent. Halfway back, we stopped for "second lunch," when Oleh brought out even more food. He pushed hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and another sandwich on me. When he brought out the sweets, I rebelled. I was full, and was hoping to lose weight on this hike -- not gain it! He told me his wife would be mad if he brought any food back. In Ukraine, when you host, you are expected to put on a huge spread of food -- more than everyone can possibly eat. He laughed and said it is even worse in the countryside. They put out tables of food that are even more massive. Either way, our lunch made me determined to work off Oleh's feast. I idly wondered just how far our hike was today, but figured I'd have plenty of time to ask later.

It is a truism of hiking: climbing is the worst part...except for going downhill. Even Oleh mentioned hiking down on rocky paths can be harder on the body than going up. I looked at it this way, though. Ascending is harder on your thighs and lungs, descending hurts you knees and spine more. By the time we finished, I was worn out, sweaty, sore, and ready for a long hot shower. Oleh had the next best thing lined up, though. We hiked another 15 minutes to the village's favorite swimming hole! It was a river shallows beneath a bridge. There were several dozen people in the water or sunning on the rocks when we arrived. Oleh said most were actually people from out of town who come for a cheap getaway. We saw tents in a field, and Oleh said a room at the local guest house costs only 75 Hrivna ($3). Even to a Ukrainian, that is cheap!
Skole's swimming holes is a shallow section of river rapids
The only problem was no one had warned me to pack my swimming trunks. Luckily, I'd worn my lightest pair of zip off trousers. So, I zipped the legs off, took off my shirt, and I was ready for the water! The river bed was all rocks, and both of us slipped and stumbled on our way out into the stream. The water was cool at first, but I got used to it quickly. It was a wonderful feeling, letting the rushing water scrub away the sweat and grime of the hike. After a few minutes, I clambered onto a large, flat and dry rock in the stream, and stretched out in the sunshine. Coming down off the mountain, I had felt like one ball of stench draped in sweat-drenched clothes. Here on the rock, the sun's rays drying my clean skin, I felt human again. I complimented Oleh on a truly great end to a hike. After awhile, I sat up and watched the Ukrainians play in the water. The kids got a thrill riding the rapids while clutching onto an inner tube. They'd get to the end then rush back to ride it again, over and over.

As a final treat, Oleh and I walked to the village convenience store and each bought a beer. We sat on a bench in the shade and savored them. Finally, we made the short hike back to the train station. As we were getting ready to board the train, I asked Oleh what the distance was that we hiked. Not counting to the river and back, he said we hiked about 24 kilometers. My eyes widened as I did the quick math: 15 miles! No wonder I had felt like a flabby, jelly donut on the way back! A 15-mile hike on flat ground would be tiring...not to mention climbing to a mountaintop almost 1,300 meters high! Well, I had wanted to hike in the Carpathian Mountains, and Oleh certainly granted my wish!

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:21 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

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