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Zaporizhzhya, the heart of Ukraine


This summer, instead of going to the Crimea as I usually do for vacations, I decided to explore the steppes of Ukraine. It was to be mostly a hiking trip  I strapped on a backpack, put on my walking shoes, and set out for a long walk across the plains overgrown with tall grasses and blown by hot winds. The hike lasted for many days, and every day I wrote down my impressions. What follows is based on my diary.


Zaporizhzhya from za porohamy (beyond the rapids)  is a geographical area that has a lot of historical connotations for the Ukrainians. Zaporizhian Sich, a Cossack republic, left an indelible mark on the Ukrainian mind and made an unforgettable mark on the Ukrainian history. After two centuries of military and civil glory, the Sich was suppressed in the early seventeenth century by the conquering Russian monarch and later in the century was dissolved under Catherine II. In the Soviet times, Zaporizhzhya was turned into a much polluted, grim industrial area.

I took a bus to get to Zaporizhzhya, the starting point of my hike. The road ran through the unending plain, overgrown with tall grasses. The banks of ponds were lined up with anglers; women, bent at the waist, were working in vegetable gardens near their houses; children were looking for berries in the bushes. I could see the smoking stacks of power stations and plants in the distance, and my heart was uneasy at the sight of these eyesores. But when the bus climbed to the top of a hill, my heart rejoiced  the fresh, gay, cool wind blowing from the mighty Dnipro rushed into the open windows, and something that had been living in the depths of my subconscious suddenly came to the surface. I was in the heart of the Ukrainian land, and the wind was like a powerful breath of the liberty-loving Cossack world.


The first place I went to after my arrival in Zaporizhzhya was the island of Khortytsya. Once there, I looked for and found the 700-hundred-year oak. My grandmother once took me to see it, back in my childhood. The oak is 36 metres tall and twenty metres in the girth. The mighty tree must have seen breathtakingly much in its life time of seven centuries! I was dismayed to discover that it seemed to be dead. Its branches were supported by ropes, and it gave the tree an appearance of a ship sailing through history. My eyes travelled from branch to branch and then  what a joy!  I did see green ornate leaves on one of the branches. There were even small acorns hiding among the leaves! The tree was not dead after all  it went on living, a living link with the past.

For many years the oak was looked after by an old man named Dykun, who could tell stories and legends about the tree for hours on end. He had no immediate successor and after his death several years ago, the tree began to die. In the middle of a summer it shed its leaves and then it stood bare for several years. Its bark began to fall off, the branches began to lean to the ground under their own enormous weight. And then a miracle happened  one of the branches came back to life. The sap ran through its veins bringing new life. It was considered a prophetic sign of something significantly good.

The oak is a tourist attraction. Local enthusiasts look after the territory where the tree stands. A chapel is being built at the stream nearby. In the summer, many Zaporizhians come to the island of Khortytsya to spend a day at the weekend. There is a shynok (tavern) catering to the hungry. Newlyweds come to the oak to lay flowers  for good luck. It is a sort of a local tradition now. Every autumn the Feast of the Acorn is held and the acorns of the famous oak are sent to those wishing to have them in other Ukrainian and foreign lands. The oak in its younger years saw the Zaporizhian Cossacks, and maybe its offspring could tell the ancient oaks stories to those who know the oak language.

The island of Khortytsya is connected to the city by bridges, but these bridges do not rob Khortytsya of its status of an independent island. The first known reference to it dates from a tenth-century chronicle. It was in that island that the warlike prince of Kyiv, Svyatoslav, was killed by the nomadic Pechenigs when he, laden with booty, was returning from a raid into Byzantium. Centuries later, Khortytsya became the capital of the Zaporizhian Sich, a Cossack republic. In the Soviet times, the island was given a status of a historical and natural preserve. After Ukrainian independence, the number of tourists who wanted to see for themselves the legendary Cossack island considerably grew. The local museum was renovated and expanded; tourists are taken on sightseeing tours around the island. It is planned to create a replica of a Cossack settlement complete with churches, kureni (Cossack tents) and other typical Cossack features.

There are no gender restrictions these days  both male and female tourists are free to come to Khortytsya to have a look, to take a walk or relax. In the days of the Cossacks women were banned from the island. Even Her Imperial Majesty Catherine II was not allowed to visit Khortytsya and she was reduced to looking at the island from a distance  she was taken to a tiny island, actually a rock sticking out of the water not far from Khortytsya. Later, she took her revenge on the Cossacks, dissolving the Sich and scattering the Cossacks. Anyway, that is what tradition tells us. The reasons for doing away with the Sich and its semi-autonomy were in all likelihood of a different nature and went much deeper than a personal offence. The Russian imperial policies would not allow for anything like Sich to exist within the borders of the Empire. Some of the Cossacks went to the Don and to the Danube Rivers where they settled down and continued their resistance to the invading Turks. Others found less warlike occupations and settled down in more peaceful areas in Ukraine and beyond its borders.

These days, there are several descendants of the Cossacks living in Khortytsya. They run a show, Zaporizki kozaky (Zaporizhian Cossacks). A palisade surrounds an enclosure where Cossacks, wearing their traditional garb, live. Their children run around barefoot among the cackling chickens and geese and squealing pigs and silent sheep; their wives majestically strut around sporting the traditional apparel. Young mens hair is cut pid makitru  the jar style, (a sort of undercut), the reference being to the hair cut after a jar is put on the head and the hair sticking from under the rim removed. The older men sport oseledtsi that is long locks of hair growing from the top of the otherwise shaved head. A hendelyk  tavern  offers beer at souvenir prices. The beginning of the show is announced by the vigorous Cossack march and the spectators hurry to perch on blocks of wood put upright  the blocks are used as seats. Eccentric horse riding, mock fights and vigorous dances keep the spectators spellbound.

After the show, the spectators are treated to a dish called Kozatska kasha (a porridge-like dish) and a charka (tumbler) of horilka (vodka). The drink and the thick nourishing kasha go well together.

There, in Khortytsya, I saw a hangar which houses a chayka (seagul) boat, the likes of which were used centuries ago for long journeys up and down the river or even across the sea. The chayka I saw was discovered in the silt close to the bank a couple of years ago. It has been carefully restored and put on display.


Among the places I visited was Berdyansk sitting on the coast of the Azov Sea. In addition to being a popular resort, Berdyansk is a venue of many festivals, contests and shows. Tourists flock to Berdyansk from Ukraine and from abroad  Berdyansk boasts an international airport, a railroad terminal and a bus terminal. Many come in their own cars. Annually, about half a million tourists come to Berdyansk which provides enough eateries and shows to feed and entertain these multitudes. Seventeen kilometers of beach offer enough space for sunbathers and the water is so warm that is often compared to soup.

The next stop was the town of Prymorsk (formerly called Nohaysk) where I stayed at the house of my friends. I went to take a swim late at night, and the shimmering path on the water reflecting the full moon was my guide. Early in the morning, right at the time when the sun began to crawl from beyond the horizon, I joined my friends in a fishing boat.

The garden near the house filled the rooms with the sweet scents of flowers, among which several hundred roses stood out in their dewed majesty.


The local residents are convinced that the shores of the Azov Sea are paradisiacal and ideal for rest  the salubrious air, gentle sea, abundance of fruit and vegetables, fish that jump from the water right into the skillets, all combine to lure many a tourist.


The village of Kyrylivka is a resort since the 1870s. The local rest and health centre provides treatment with curative mud and mineral water from the local springs. The mud and the water are good for treating the nervous system, bone-and-muscle diseases, gynecological and stomach problems. The air and the sea provide valuable contribution to health improvement.

The next stop was the town of Melitopol where I went to see Kamyana Mohyla, the place I wanted to see since my green years. Kamyana Mohyla is a jumble of rocks sticking out of the ground near the Molochna (Milk) River. These rocks are believed to have been left there by the retreating glacier thousands upon thousands years ago. Since then the rains and fluctuations of temperature broke the rocks apart, creating caves and niches. Geologists find imprints of fossil weeds  millions of years old  on the surface of the rocks, and archeologists and the curious examine the mysterious signs and pictures carved into the rock by unknown carvers millennia ago.


I saw a lot, but there was still left a lot more to see: Scythian burial mounds dating to the fifth century BC; archeological digs; natural preserves; museums and historical landmarks. The thing that impressed most was, probably, the hospitality and friendliness of people I met or at whose place I stayed for some time. Are they so hospitable because the sun shines in their land for about 300 days a year? Or because their land is so fertile? Welcome to try to find your own answers.


By Natalya Obolenska

Photos by Andriy Cherchenko

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