Hiking on Frontiers (Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Montenegro)

August - September 2003


Then we entered Ukraine and headed towards Chernivcy. The Romanian fairly tale said there are gangs of gangsters and robbers waiting for people to enter Ukraine so that they can rob them, ask for "entrance" fees and so on. The international fairy tale said more or less the same about Romania. Well, I don't know about the international one and am not the right person to confirm or deny it, but the Romanian one was not true, being probably issued by people that only travel in their bed, in front of the TV set. We reached Chernivcy in one piece, got some advice referring to how to get to the mountains from the van driver, dropped our luggage in the bus station and found out that there was a van going to Kamyanetz-Podilsky immediately, but there was no seat left. Well, we travelled for 1 and a half hours snatched between an old lady and a young girl, in a hot and static atmosphere, as nobody wanted to open a window. Even though the city was pretty large and there were many inhabitants, the guy from Let's Go Eastern Europe was true: one could have easily concluded that the German troops had just left the city. The old quarters were deserted and only a few of the buildings looked cared about or restored. Most streets looked like after the war, with heaps of dust, scaffoldings, abandoned working sites and impressive monuments one had to look for carefully in order to notice them, simply because they were hidden behind some scaffoldings or demolished / ruined house. The local fortress was the only place where some restoration works were underdone, even though there was a funny plate saying "life danger" at the entrance to a wing of it. The only really refreshed site, also bearing that commercial look old buildings bear in all tourist places in this world, was the city hall tower. After enjoying a good beer in the very city hall building (which would have costed a lot in any other place, but was as cheap as plain water there), we quickly moved towards the bus station, where we had to wait for half an hour because the bus to Chernivcy was late. Eventually we we got to the city, picked the backpacks and started to walk towards the centre. We found a travel agency and a half drunk man there gave us some directions referring to how to get to one of the only two hotels in the city. yet we were to soon find out there were far more than two hotels there, i.e. three. We found the hotel, which was a concrete square and 70s typical building where the good and old double tier price system was still in use with loud glamours: we paid about USD 24 for a room which cost Ukrainians USD 15. Chernivcy itself had a quite large old centre with a big number of good-looking classical buildings, many of which had been restored or at least repainted. A few late 19th century churches, as well as some picturesque corners and ancient paved streets completed the image of a typical city postcard from the 20s. The city successfully fit southern Ukraine in the same way L'viv fit south-western Ukraine.

The only problem there was to explain the railway clerk that our passports had no page with Cyrillic translation, but eventually, with the help of a very nice man behind us in the line, we succeeded and beat the system. One more stroll through the city the following evening, on the way to the station, made the image complete: with an incredibly chaotic traffic (worse than Bucharest, and that means something), a great background for tourism and a good location (next to a major road and railway), Chernivcy was just a step away from prosperity: will and promotion, yet it was waiting for someone else to make the step and that was wrong. We reached Ivano Frankivsk at the break of dawn. The guidebook said nothing much, only that the city was a business centre. It might have been, but it was more than that. With an old centre fully restored a few years ago, neat terraces and great facades, Frankivsk was simply lying and waiting for tourists. It was the city that shocked me the most in Ukraine. Large hotels, well refurbished, fancy restaurants where one could eat a full meal for less than USD 5-6, cheap beer and good value tourist sights, everything seemed like prepared for a movie set or getting ready for an invasion of the Japanese. Yet nothing happened there except for the old babushkas trying to make a dime by selling vegetables and milk in the market place, respectively the young drinking to forget or forgetting to drink...

A few hours, we got on the morning train towards Rachiv. Isn't life funny? Just three days ago we were in Bistra Village, not even 20 km. from Rachiv and we had to go round for hundreds of kilometers just because of a simple word: "international" from "international border crossing"... Well, not that I regret going round. At first I thought it was a mistake that the train was supposed to make 6 hours over 100 km. or so, yet there was no mistake. The train never got over 20 km. / hours (if ever reaching that speed), stopping in any place that seemed to have been once inhabited by sheep or cattle. The train had open wagons with wooden benches. Fellow passengers included a whole social bunch, with very different types, from mountaineers to rightfully dressed old people, fashionable-meant-to-be middle aged provincial ladies or tired people probably returning home after the night shift. Their faces were telling stories that kept me reading for hours in that heat that was glueing down my skin to the wooden bench. Old women, the always surviving type, would come and go at regular times, offering passengers beer, snacks, delicious home made honey waffles, apples, donuts or sunflower seeds. A middle aged man came selling necklaces and bracelets. Then a couple of young Gypsies with two babies came along. The guy was playing the harmonica, with all of them singing something in Ukrainian that made some of the passengers start laughing. The heat got even worse, but I admit it kind of fit that train and that place, as we were crossing some desolate plains, where time seemed to have stuck centuries ago, behind the different rules the land had been subject to (Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, German, Soviet), behind the obvious poverty that existed there and behind life itself.

Somewhere to the back of the wagon a group of mountaineers were singing while one was playing the guitar. Despite the disconfort, the heat, the poor train and the slow speed it was moving at, I would say that the very same reasons made me enjoy the ride. Eventually we reached Vorochta and noticed that, just like in Romania, Bulgaria or other former communist poor countries where things are developing at a very slow pace, the tourism industry was organized - if ever - very chaotically or rather it was not working at all. Vorochta was a very convenient place to start to the highest peak in the Chorno Hora. Just off the railway station, apart from the people trying to make a living out of selling everything and nothing, there were makeshift taxi drivers offering rides to the base of the hiking paths but, of course, there seemed to be no regular vans or buses or oxen pulled carriages. In a quite poor area where infrastructure - if one could have called it like that - was old and hardly providing a way to go and where tourism was probably one of the few sources of income, this was an unpleasant impression for the first timer in Ukraine aiming at the country's highest peak. Thank God I was coming from a country where things were the same and even worse in some cases. Not agreeing to pay about USD 10 for a ride, we started hiking but were soon given a ride by a small van which dropped us by the entrance to the National Park. Rules to obey: camping was supposedly forbidden in the National Park, we could not overstay the 4 days we had paid for and on the ridge there was no hut. Fair enough, the Chorno Horas seemed just as restricted like the Alps, but - as always - what is written is not always what happens in the real world. Besides, we entered the park through the only place where one would pay such a fee for entering. The lady told us however that just after passing by the highest peak there would be a meteorological hut where we could find accommodation. As there were some grey clouds moving fast towards us, we decided to camp at the entrance to the park. When settling down, some young Ukrainians from a nearby tent came and very happily invited us for a drink. They were a very hospitable people and that made traveling much more pleasant. The evening ended with a camp fire, a lot of beer and ad-hoc burnt pork fat.

The following morning we started towards the peak and were lucky enough to be given a ride inside the park by a couple from Kiev. They were also going to the peak. The path was well beaten and there were many people going to this Ukrainian Mecca, groups of children, youngsters, old people, many of which wore tennis shoes, slippers, regular street shoes... The peak was a wide flat area with a stone pillar covered in graffitis and a monument in memory of the Ukrainian state independence from the former USSR. A few minutes later we had to start further, as the wind got pretty strong and a heavy rain started too. Even worse, a thick layer of fog covered the ridge so that one could not see more than 10-15 meters in front. Thinking of the "meteorological hut on the second peak after the Hoverla", we went on and made some Poles.

"It took us 3 days to get from the Pop Ivan here"

That sounded a bit too long, but the weather conditions were reason enough. After 3 hours of hiking (or rather surfing) through the weather and - of course - no trace of any hut, we heard some voices to the left and found a small lake and a tent. We camped there, cooked something and soon another group of 3 arrived and settled next to us. They were coming from Pop Ivan Peak and they had started that very day. In exchange for the food we had cooked, they offered some vodka and we chatted until night fell. I enjoyed very much this sharing of things and their generosity. The next day the weather was beautiful and we could see the landscape around us. The ridge was pleasant, being covered in grass and a few rocks at times, while the area, surrounded by lower wooden mountains, was quite picturesque. After noticing that we were among the few going to Pop Ivan instead of coming from there, we reached the peak about 4 hours later. Before being overtaken - together with the whole area - by the USSR, the peak and the whole ridge had been on the Czechoslovakian - Polish border and the Poles had built an astronomical observer on the very peak in 1936-1938. Just a few years later, the Red Army came and destroyed the huge building, as well as all of its equipment. Nowadays the stone walls remained like the ruins of a medieval castle, fitting a Dracula story much better than the crap people go to visit in Bran, Transylvania (and which has to do with the Dracu’s story as much as that building on the Pop Ivan has). There were a lot of people, Ukrainians, Russians and Poles on the peak. We had to start going down and so we did, passing by the ruins of a former Polish hut. After meeting alot of tents in the area, it was obvious that most of the people were going up from this side because there was no entrance fee to be paid. About 2-3 hours later we reached Dzhembronia, a small village with most houses spread on the hills in the neighbourhood and a lovely and remote atmosphere. There was only one bus to the outside world a day that that was going at 7 AM in the morning. There was one shop with cheap beer, one church and that was about it. The following morning we got on the bus together with a large Polish group and some local people that could hardly get on the bus because of the backpacks. The way out of the village was lovely, with small communities of 1-2 hours gathered in narrow clearings along the valley and people dressed up in traditional outfits. Finally we reached Vichodnia and got on another bus to Ivano Frankivsk again. Ukraine had been very welcoming so far and better was to come. On that bus, being quite close to L'viv and further to Poland, the idea called Crimea emerged. So, just taking chances, we asked whether there were any tickets left for Simferopol and, strangely, there still were, via L'viv. So we went. The ride took 7 hours to L'viv, one hour wait there and then 25 hours to Simferopol, all in platzkartni wagons, and all costing about USD 12 per person. On the way from L'viv to Simferopol we got our beds next to an Ukrainian old lady and her daughter.

They were both coming from a village just north of the Romanian border and were heading to Crimea as well. They were basket manufacturers and they were going to Crimea to sell their products. The very nice old lady offerred us some delicious hen roast, filled with polenta mixed with vegetables, as well as home made brandy and the ride seemed much shorter. Not everything was pink for her family though, as she did not have enough money and therefore her daughter could not go to university. Trying to kill the rage stirred by this situation, we reached Simferopol, the most busy railway station I had been to with thousands of people and their luggage waiting for trains which were coming and going every minute to many destinations in the former USSR and some East European countries. As warned by the old lady on the train, the first thing to do was to get return tickets.

"No tickets to L'viv until the end of the month" (which meant more than 2 weeks ahead)





"Chernivcy maybe?"

"No way either, all trains are sold out"

Well, that called for an emergency pull, so we went to the "Service Centre" I had previously used in Moscow and 20 minutes later, when we got in front of the tired lady there, we approached her differently:

"To what destination do you have tickets this week?"

"Well, there are still a couple of tickets to Riga"

"Good, and what route does it follow?"


"OK, two tickets to Kyiv then"

The tickets were more expensive (USD 16 per person), as the train was a charter of the Estonian railways. After a victory scream that made some people (probably not as lucky as we were) angrily look at us, we dropped the heavy backpacks in the station and got on a train to Balchihsaray: we had 4 days to spend in Crimea.

Four days which would be some memorable ones. We started by an electrichna train to Balchihsaray, where a Tatar palace was located. Crossing the dry and desert - like hills of south-western Crimea, the picture was not very appealing to me, especially when we got to this town. A small station, a few kiosks and cafes that had a lovely interbellum look, a few old vans going to Simferopol, Sevastopol or to some village in the neighbourhood and nothing much else. We took a bus to the local monastery, which once was the harbinger of Orthodox religion in the whole area. The monastery had been founded in some caves located in the dry limestone rocks, beautifully being surrounded by pine covered hills. It was not too big or overwhelming, but it had a special appeal of its own. Further up the valley there was the "Fortress of the Jews", a partly natural fortress consisting of a wide limestone plateau pierced of caves, having absolutely no water and a torrid summer sun dying one's blood out. Back to the town, we visited Khan's Palace. Its simple lines, pleasant interiors and beautiful garden were a nice refreshment after the Fortress of Draught. Going back to the station, I saw the places from a different perspective and I could not ignore the town, which attracted me even more than the sightseeing places it hosted. There were so many old and nevertheless small buildings, a few God forgotten terraces with old people watching draught fading the day away, the smell of the shashlik in the air and a few tourists, generally Polish or Russian, every now and then.

Eventually we started towards Sevastopol by a small van. On the way, while talking about the differences between the language areas in Ukraine, we almost started WW4 (because WW3 was already on the way), as an old man which obviously did not understand Romanian, told us very sharply that we should not mock at Russian, because it is the most beautiful language in the world. Well, those building up monopolistic groups of multiethnic and multicultural groups, on the "we are the best, *** the rest" principle had had no idea of the great damage their theories would have over people's minds. We reached Sevastopol ironically being called "strantzi" by the old man and some other fellow-travelers. We got off the van and were approached by an old man holding a piece of cardboard on which there was written "komnata u mor"; he asked whether we needed accommodation and we did. He said that his place was 10 minutes from that place by bus, while the price was USD 8 for a double room. However the location was about 30 minutes from there by bus, on the 9th floor of a concrete block. We regretted in the first place, but eventually accepted and even enjoyed the experience afterwards. When one says Sevastopol, he / she thinks of the military harbour, of the history book, of Crimea, but not about the way people live or about the fact that Crimea could be just as block filled as Bucharest or Moscow. Our host, that old man and his family (5-6 persons) lived in a 3 rooms apartment just as badly conceived and maintained as the ones back home, in Bucharest, but they played very nice hosts. Later that evening, sitting on a terrace close to the "komnata" and trying to figure out the menu, two young people approached us in Romanian: they were from Chișinău, Republic of Moldova and they were here on holidays. They gave us some useful advice on the things to see in Sevastopol, as well as a warning: "Yalta is going to cost you a lot of money". We chatted for a while and went home late at night. The following day, after a half an hour search, we finally got an old lady to give us directions towards Hersones, the ruins of the old Greek colony. On the way there, a couple of middle aged Ukrainians showed us a hole in the wall surrounding the old city and we followed them, saving the 6 hryvnas for the entrance tickets. Only foreigners used the main gate, while a line of locals did the same with us. The ruins of the Greek city were not either very well preserved or very well commercialized, but that was the very image of the Ukrainian tourism industry, with a very few exceptions we were to witness the days to come. However the city had its nice buildings and fine terraces along the quay. The time to leave arrived and we moved on towards Yalta.

Things took a dramatic change soon: the coast was very picturesque and the resorts, as well as the road, had nothing to do with my previous experience in Ukraine. Crimea fully deserved its self-promoted "autonomous" feature. The only disappointment in Yalta were the concrete blocks which spoiled the nice scenery, but everything else was simply impressive, starting with the fine hotels and restaurants on the sea quay and ending with the long and so pleasant palm trees-lined promenade along the beach. However people were still poor and the resort and therefore the resort provided places and offers for all pockets, as we found a room at an old lady's place, for the same UAH 40 rate. Yalta was not a place for the average holiday-maker, it was meant for either the very rich or for the very poor and not caring (like us), ready to sleep on a rug and live only on smoked fish and biscuits sold by babushkas forever.

From all official Ukraine, Crimea seemed to me like the place where real money were made day and night and where there existed the will and the know-how to create business, even if I personally prefer quieter and more natural, regular places where one can easier penetrate local people's lines. Our host - a woman in her 60s - lived together with her husband in a flat (again), being surrounded by cats. In the evening we discovered close to her flat, by mistake almost, an Armenian church. A middle aged woman invited us in and we went. It was not grand, but the building was well preserved, while its architecture had a lot of sense, fluidity and balance. The lady seemed to be a priest as well, as she put on the mass outfit and showed us all the church, said a prayer and told us the story of Grigor Narikatzi, an Armenian saint that had lived on Ararat Mountain in the times when it was located in Armenia. After spending more than a pleasant hour in the church, we surfed through the city until tired. The following day was to be dedicated to palaces, including Alupka, Livadia and Massandra. The first one seemed kitschy to me and the (real) hordes of tourists that would stand everywhere to get photographed at all times were not to my please. Mixing the Arabian style with the Tudor, hosting inside all those different pieces of furniture and planting palm trees on the porch stroke the eye in a spicy and bitter way. From all the visit, the only thing that got my attention was that, at a certain moment, a quite big part of the ceiling collapsed in one of the rooms. While the attending staff froze, a bunch of tourists immediately rushed there to shoot pictures. Livadia Palace was simpler in structure and more pleasant in looks. The main attraction was the round table which had once hosted the three people considering themselves important and smart while doing nothing but playing a dirty and unfair game with God's dice. I have never been to either Siberia or inside the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, and I think I shall never go there, but the pictures with Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin made me think of what their luncheon ended with. Up the hill from Yalta there was Masandra Palace, the most real one, might I say so. It lacked the awkwardness of the palace in Alupka and the "I am famous, aren't I?" feature of the one in Livadia. Instead it was normal, smaller and much more tasteful, a bit remote from the town and preserving that image of a countryside manor.

As the following day we were to leave and I stubbornly wanted to visit Aivazovski's museum in Feodosia, we went to the bus station in Yalta. A Russian habit, very civilized otherwise, but very inconvenient for those on the run like us, they did not sell tickets for a train or bus unless there are spare seats. So all we could do was to go to Alushta, from where we hoped to find something further to Feodosia or Sudak. All tickets were sold out, even for Simferopol. All we could get was sharing a taxi with 3 other Ukrainians. Because one of the fellow travelers was rushing to a train, the guy drove like crazy and in 25 minutes we got there, mainly sticking to a police led and guarded Hummer limo. Getting to the bus station, we saw a bus was leaving to Sudak in 5 minutes, so we went. The scenery was totally different. While on the coast the communities were much richer and there was tourism, inland there were only poor villages with old and small houses; roads were not as good either. The bus was to get in Sudak at about 9 PM, but we got there at almost 11 PM on another bus, because it broke down on the way. When getting off, we were approached by two ladies offering accommodation: they were Tatars.

"We even have a shower"

That sounded promising. Actually all they had was a not finished yet house made of two rooms. The wider one, bearing a garage-like huge metallic door, was made of a lower area which hosted a makeshift kitchen and an upper area made of a wooden podium on which there were pillows and 3 mattresses, that being the sleeping area. The smaller room was "normal", with two beds and some old pictures on the walls. The "shower" meant an outside cabin made of wood, on top of which there was a water tank which would be warmed up by the sun rays. Another wooden cabin was meant for the toilet, just like in rural Romania. The very welcoming lady of the house cooked some omelet and made a salad for us, as she said that at that hour the shop was closed. They were very nice people and their hospitality would have touched anybody. Unfortunately Feodosia remained out of the question the following day, as there were no buses running there soon enough for us to return at the right time. So all we could do was walking in the streets of Sudak (much poorer than the resorts to the west, even though preserving a desertic and otherwise desolate Turkish fortress) and enjoying some of the local cuisine in a bar next to the bus station.

Then we headed for Simferopol, where we had three hours to enjoy the 200 m. of pedestrian street in the old centre and its monuments. However the most striking thing about the city was the station, a large building with thousands and thousands of people hanging around and waiting for trains going all over Ukraine, Russia and some East European cities at every few minutes. The Simferopol Vokzal show was a must-see in Crimea for sure. But the time to leave arrived, with a platzkartni wagon to Kiev. Opposite to us there was a couple of very nice young people with which we had a nice time and plenty of beer. The following day we reached Kiev. I was very curious from the last time I had been there, to see the way the refurbishing works of the station were accomplished. Wow, the station looked more like a bank on the inside, with marble and huge chandeliers, lots of flowers and a very well organized space, with wide halls and very well balanced areas. We had the ticket to L'viv done in a few minutes and we went for the city, to soon discover that it was actually August 23rd (Saturday), while Ukraine's Independence Day was to happen on August 24th. The city was filled with people, parties were on the way, there were going to be concerts all night and the main avenues were closed to traffic, being filled with beer terraces and junk sellers. Even the stalinist architecture in the centre looked between in this celebration wrapping. Prices were higher, much higher than in Chernivcy or Ivano Frankivsk and the city, even in the middle of that party thing, looked proper and much cleaner than other East European capitals. Still there were few foreign tourists, even if the place looked vivid because of the holiday. Another night, another train and this time an almost suffocating ride, as we were next to these middle aged women that closed the window every time I tried to open it. Our Ukrainian leg was coming to an end, even if it wasn't to be the most pleasant of them all...

We reached L'viv in the morning, the morning of the National Day... (click here for the sequel)




Ukraine is a land of a unique diversity, where old cities, secluded villages, busy harbours, fancy seaside resorts, superb palaces, so beautiful churches and, most of all, warm and hospitable people join to create a unique experience. It is a land (I prefer this term instead of "country") where life is grabbed when it bumps into you, where one buys a salted, dry fish when the old woman comes to one's wagon window, for there won't be any other similar offer for hours.