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

August - September 2003


We reached L'viv in the morning, the morning of the National Day. The city looked almost the same as the first time I had been there and also as the very day Soviets took it from Poles., with old cobblestone streets, aging tramways making everything shake, but also with those small shops that looked so picturesquely. The centre was full of people even if it was pretty early, and there was some typical communist propaganda music, very loud, in some speakers all over the place. It was strange to see that type of manifestation in a Gothic city and the worse was even to come. This time I noticed a thing that I had previously ignored when visiting the city in 2000. Of the once many Roman Catholic churches in the city, only one still bore the same religion, while others had been turned into Orthodox or Greek Catholic churches. Being a person that does not believe in religion, but rather in the only God there is, this situation did not bother me, but the discordance between the Gothic architecture and frescoes, respectively the Orthodox altars was striking. At a certain moment an old and quite poor lady stopped us in the street. She was Polish and all her relatives had been sent to Siberia; ever since she has not heard anything of them and now she had to beg for a loaf of bread. This element, together with many others, made Ukraine a very complex experience, a country which one cannot just cross and come to a conclusion. It was getting late and there was another place to visit, the former Polish cemetery. Behind the well preserved gate, we saw some nice and also well maintained graves. But before going further, entrance was paid for. UAH 3 for adults, UAH 0.5 for students. Noticing we were foreigners, the guy there said that the discount was only for Ukrainian students, because we were in Ukraine and Ukrainians deserve everything there was. Well, thank you, merciful God for bread and the air was not also meant for Ukrainians alone, for we might have got a problem... Probably considering that he had not showed enough of his intelligent ideas, he went on very sharply, noticing that one of us was Polish, saying that L'viv was an Ukrainian city, all major buildings and attractions there had been built by Ukrainians. Not feeling like taking too much of his Ukrainian time, we went to the Ukrainian cemetery for an Ukrainian experience. And what a unique experience we had... The first graves looked well indeed, as hell is always wrapped up in pink paper. Many Polish graves had been destroyed, with broken funeral plaques; funeral monuments and crypts had been vandalized, while most of the kind of preserved ones lay under a mountain of especially brought garbage. Alleys looked like war ditches, while headless statues of angels accomplished a perfect apocalyptical image. If I had been for a second that man telling his crap, I would have stopped saying that everything in L'viv was Ukrainian, for he blamed himself in a mostly direct and straight way. The cemetery was the last thing we could visit in Ukraine, in the end of a 2 weeks travel in this country and it proved to be one of the saddest things I have ever encountered. If I had lead the Soviet occupation army, instead of vandalizing and messing up the cemetery, plundering history and indirectly throwing dirt on my own soul, I would have simply razed off the place, building concrete boxes instead. For this issue I give Ceaușescu (yet another idiot) more credit than that man at the entrance to the cemetery.

We rushed to the station and got on the bus to Przemysl on the last minute. Except for us and a guy probably going to work in nearby Poland, there were only smugglers on the bus. After easily going through the Ukrainian customs, we reached the Polish side, not such an easy place to penetrate. Half of the people on the bus were turned back to Ukraine for they had much more cigarettes than accepted by law. The funny (now) thing was that the punished ones were not those breaking the law, but rather those obeying to it, as the bus was turned back together with the smugglers, while we had to wait out in the cold for a next one with more conscious smugglers, traveling to Przemysl in one leg and with this old lady shouting for we were bothering her with our backpacks. We reached the Polish city at around 3 AM and our bus to the mountains was due at 8 AM, so we tried to go to the railway station, but (welcome, civilization!) it was closed from 10 PM til 4 AM. We waited in a small bar across the street from the station, to discover that (welcome, civilization!) beer or any alcohol drinks were forbidden from being sold near railway stations. The following three days were about an eventless hiking trip to the Bieszczady, over restricted mountains where one had to wait in line in order to follow the path at times, where buses come on time and tourism is rather making money and not necessarily people happy about doing it. Strangely, it seemed to me that the simpler things get when traveling, the worse, for one misses the real experience. When people speak English, when maps are easy to be found, when roads are fully asphalted to the last cottage and when there are no shepherds with which one can trade a chat for a piece of fresh cheese around a sparkling fire in the evening, when - going back home - one's clothes do not smell like smoke, mountaineering is no longer my thing.

After spending a few days in Krakow, as I had got back in the civilized world and paid about EUR 80 for a 2nd class ticket and I left Poland to Belgrade, where I was to meet some friends and go to the mountains in Montenegro. After wandering through Budapest for a few hours, I was waiting for the intercity from Vienna to Belgrade and, seeing its OBB wagons, I was thinking that maybe civilization also meant air conditioning on inter cities. It did not and a ride very similar to the one from Ivano Frankivsk to Vorochta in Ukraine followed. But the fancy OBB train was missing the old people selling everything, the cheering mountaineers playing the guitar, the gipsy family singing for a living, in a word it was missing being alive. After a dry and ever getting dryer ride, I eventually reached Belgrade, back to the normality I was already missing.

After throwing the backpack in Nenad's place, we went for a long-lasted-for Jelen Pivo, and a jelen always calls for a second jelen to come, so I woke up after the long nap I had taken after leaving L'viv. A few days in Belgrade were mostly welcome, crossing the city on the bicycle, watching people enjoying being alive in Kneaz Mihaila and on the beaches on Ada Ciganlija, enjoying pljeskavica after pljeskavica and burek after burek.

Eventually we left for the mountains, with a night bus to Berane. Then I entered an area with a very interesting people. Next to teh Albanian border and also not very far from Kosovo, we were traveling between Berane and Gusinje. Gusinje was a town inhabited mostly by Albanians, where everything was settled around a living axis, a wide street bearing a mosque at one end many terraces along it, separated by groceries. People would just walk by or sit at some terrace, meeting up friends and relatives, talking for hours as if nothing was going on anywhere, as if they were in the middle of a desert, with nothing around them and with no restrictions, laws, rules, work, worry or event to bother them. Life had stopped in Gusinje. After registering with the local police, as we were going to hike in the border area, we took a taxi and went to a mountain hut, where we dropped the backpacks and headed up in avery foggy and wet weather. At about 2000 m.alt. we got out of the fog and could see the impressive scenery Prokletije Mountains were offering us. A huge limestone mountain with glacial valleys and wild ridges, with huge rocks and lacking pastures, the Prokletije were simply impressive. We reached the highest peak and looked around us: score kilometers of mountains and nothing else, with very picturesque sights towards Albania, and with everything topped by the highest peak in the area, the Maja Jezerce, lying in Albania. We got down to the hut and, after discovering there were scorpions in the hut, our sleep was not very smooth. The following day we went hiking in the rain, rain that only stopped when we got very close to the sharp, steep and rocky Ochnijak Peak, the most impressive of the whole trip. In the evening we got down and sent an SMS to the taxi driver which came the following morning to pick us up. The whole area was arranged by taxi drivers. They were going anywhere there was a road or trail, they would come if asked by SMS... This unorganized, ad-hoc system worked much better than buses with precise schedules as they had in Poland or Slovakia, for instance. After crossing Gusinje once again and enjoying a great baklava in the local Mecca (nothing else than a confectionery, but a very lively and always full one), we checked out with police and left the town, going to Visitor Mountains. Getting off the taxi at the bottom of the mountains, I dropped my backpack on the asphalt to drink some water. A man which had some problems with his car stopped and, seeing the label depicting coat of arms of the Republika Srpska I had long ago stuck to my backpack and had also forgotten about, he shouted:

"Republika Srpska! Da li si ti Srpsku?!"

Both I and Nenad froze, realizing we were in a mostly Albanian area, just 35 km. away from Kosovo. However that man proved to be Serb and he was actually happy he saw that badge. We started hiking and reached a poor wooden cottage close to the main peak in a poring rain. After doing some more hiking in the Visitor through for and rains, and after not succeeding to buy some cheese from some Albanian shepherds, we returned to the hut and went to sleep, hoping it would not start raining seriously, for there were many holes in the roof. The following day, in a perfect weather, we hiked up the highest peak, which was partly grassy, partly rocky, and then we went down, took yet another taxi and reached the bottoms of Komovi Mountains, meaning that taxi drove over a poor trail up to 1800 m.alt. The mountain was going down along two foothills and each of them was host for a small village made of wooden huts belonging to two different (and enemy) families said to be Serbia's oldest. The same day we went on a 2461 m. high peak. The Komovi were very scenic, with very sharp ridges and huge, but few rocky glacial valleys. The following day we went up the highest peak in these mountains, Dom Kucki, after a short exposed passage, and we also went on the third peak in the area. We went down, washed a little and waited for the taxi that promptly arrived, taking us down to Kolasin, from where, after a great traditional meal in a fancy - we though at first - restaurant (we had to first go in without backpacks and ask whether they accepted us like that), we took a train to Belgrade. A few more days in Belgrade accomplished the trip before entering Romania, with those people hanging around Ruski Car terrace and talking forever, with old people reading newspapers over a cup of endless "Turkish" coffee, with the great smell of the pekara, with a ride to Rakovica Monastery. I left Belgrade towards Romania by car with a Polish friend. We had a long lasted for "Romanian traditional" meal in Timisoara. We visited Brancuși's park in Târgu Jiu at midnight. We entered a one way street in Pitești in full speed just passing by the police officer, because we did not see the signpost forbidding access there. We reached Bucharest in a massive rain at 4 AM. A few days later, we were denied entrance into Bulgaria because the Bulgarian customs officer would not understand that a car can have three owners, only one of them driving it at a time and we would not understand that he was expecting a bribe. We crisscrossed Romania, visiting God-forgotten villages in Transylvania and being almost killed on a mountain road by a truck, as its driver discovered that it no longer had brakes that worked. And life went on, re-discovering the place where I had once had the greatest meal in my life, in Oradea. And, while enjoying a shumyo galuska, I was thinking: "where next?". Well, life will tell...




There are still many places I haven't been to in Montenegro, or places I only crossed on a night train or bus, however wherever I might go, I get this sense of familiarity given by the landscape and by the people, a feeling that is rare, if not unique, in all countries I have gone to. For anything there gives me a home-related feeling, from the fog on Visitor Mountains, to the view from Prokletije ridge or the Nik I had with friends in Žabljak's Dvorište...