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The lure of the Carpathians
The Carpathian Mountains are inhabited by white elephants.
This challenging statement is likely to be immediately refuted by any zoologist, or just by anyone who has at least a general idea where, geographically, the Carpathians are situated. Do not hurry up with refutations — our opening sentence has been primarily designed to intrigue. We did not mean to mislead either. There is at least one White Elephant in the Carpathians — such is the name (Bily Slon) of an observatory sitting on top of one of the highest mountains in Ukraine, Pip Ivan.
In the heart of the Carpathians
These mountains do not attempt to reach the stars, their peaks are not snow and ice bound craggy masses of naked rock tempting the mountain climbers by their inaccessibility — the tallest mountain in the Carpathians is Hoverla of 2,061 meters (over 6,200 feet). “Gently undulating, forest-covered tall hills” would be a more or less adequate description of what you see when you approach the Carpathians. With the trees being mostly evergreen, the mountainsides look green in all the seasons. Alpine meadows overgrown with wild flowers, placid lakes in the valleys, turbulent mountain streams, the salubrious air, the majestic views that open from the top of the hills keep the traveller spellbound. The Hutsuls who live in the Carpathians are a people of many distinctive features — they have managed to preserve their traditions many of which go back hundreds upon hundreds of years into the pagan times. Their dwellings, their churches, their handicrafts, their dress, their legends and fair tales have been the source of inspiration for poets and prose writers. Feature films and documentaries are made about the Hutsuls. They speak Ukrainian but it will take some time to get the ear tuned to the way they pronounce familiar words — plus there are many dialectical words used only by the Hutsuls.
Hikes in the Carpathian Mountains do not require any special training or equipment. One of the most popular hiking trips is between Hoverla and Mount Chorna Hora. You can walk the distance of 23 kilometers in a couple of days. The usual starting point of walking trips is the town of Vorokhta to which you can get either by train or by bus. The 24 kilometers from Vorokhta to Hoverla can be travelled by car. Some of the roads are not asphalted but the gravel on them is good enough for regular cars to run on, not necessarily for 4-wheel drives.
The Hoverla Preserve is a majestic, primordial, dense forest whose somewhat intimidating beauty cannot fail to impress anyone who cares to take a walk or a ride through it. It can even awe you. At the entrance to the preserve you’ll have to pay a small fee and leave information about yourself. It may come in handy in case you get lost — in spite of the seemingly placid character, the Carpathians are nevertheless mountains and common sense and caution should not be cast aside on hikes through them. Every year, several tourists either disappear without trace or are discovered dead.
Mala (Small) Hoverla rises to the height of 1,700 meters and from its top the trip to “Big” Hoverla takes you through, first, a primeval forest and then through a belt of undersized pines and fragrant junipers. A little higher you enter the Alpine meadows with their flower-studded emerald green grass. The climb to the top of Hoverla itself hardly compares to conquering Everest but it is a vigorous exercise and several rests on the way may be required. Also, you should not attempt the climb unless the weather is fine — even in August the wind can attain the force of a hurricane and heavy snow is not something entirely unusual. While climbing, you should expect the air to be getting “thinner” as you get higher, and you may even start gasping for air — but you don’t really need a supply of bottled oxygen to get you going.
Once you get to the top, you are awarded with a gorgeous panoramic view. An addition to a breath-taking panorama, you’ll find there a cross, an obelisk and a yellow-blue Ukrainian national flag. Handfuls of earth have been brought to the top of Hoverla from all parts of Ukraine. There is some symbolism in it since Hoverla happens to be the tallest mountain of Ukraine.
Up and down
Up to 1939, the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia ran through the Eastern Carpathians. Climbing down from Hoverla, you will see the old-time border posts, reminders of the border that once ran through that part of the mountains (locally they are called koroli — “kings”). You can move along these posts, from one to the other. They will guide you in the right direction. On one side of them you’ll see the letter “P” that stands for “Poland” and on the other side the letter “C” for Czesko-Slovenska. Each post still has visible arrows pointing to the next post.
The Chornohorsky Ridge will take you southwards, with valleys on one side and dense woods on the other. On the slope of Mount Pozhezhevska you’ll see a meteorological station and a building housing a branch of the Institute of Ecology. If you are in the mood for it, you can pay a visit to the weather people or the ecologists. They will help if you need help, or you can make a telephone call from there if you don’t happen to have a mobile phone with you.
Between Mount Dantser and Mount Hoverla you’ll encounter the River Prutets Kozemsky and streams Tsybulnyk, Dantserok, Turkul and Turkulets. From Mount Turkul, which rises to a height of 1,900 meters, opens a view, pleasing to the eyes, in which you can find a blue spot that turns into a lake, if you look at it through the binoculars. It is this lake, Nesamovyte, that the River Prut flows out from. The local Hutsuls avoid the place believing it’s where the witches come to for their midnight Sabbaths. If you are not sure you want to meet any of them, take some garlic and a cross with you to ward off evil. If you decide to go down to the lake, you should be warned that the shores are inhospitable for tourists and you may find spending the night there uncomfortable. Many hikers do tend to choose the vicinity of the lake to spend the night since up in the mountains it may be even less hospitable for rest. Unfortunately, tourists do a lot of damage to the environment in spite of the area being a natural preserve. You may have to spend the night without a bonfire even if the temperature drops below a comfortable level — first, camp fires are forbidden but if you decide to break the law, you may find but very few faggots suitable for building a fire. It is evident that more stringent measures must be taken to protect the environment.
Two ridges to be found further on your way are Velyki and Mali Kozly (“Big and Small Goats”) with pointed tops and almost devoid of trees. A little further away stands Mount Homul rising to a height of 1,788 meters. You may find walking over the backs of the “Goats” a strenuous exercise, what with the paths going up and down — but you will never stop oh-ing and ah-ing and wow-ing as the scenic views will unfold practically at every step you make.
Walking along the once border line, you will get to Mount Rebra (“Ribs”) which does look as though the ribs of the earth are sticking out of the slopes. From the foot of the mountain you can get a glimpse of fantastically shaped natural pillars which are called Spitz. There is also a stream, Bystrets (“Fast One”), running down the slope. Close to it you can find a spring with crystal clear water. Incidentally, almost right next to the spring, there is a cozy place for pitching a tent.
Moving along the Ribs, you reach Mount Homul with the Stream Homul rushing down the slopes to reach the valley of Maryshevska, which looks particularly picturesque even by the Carpathian standards. There is a no-one’s house to be found there which can provide a shelter and fresh water — there is a spring close by.
Continuing the hike along the former border, you pass by several streams to the Lake Berbenesky and Mount Berbeneska which is the second highest in the Carpathians (2,036 meters). In its vicinity are situated impressive geological features known as cirques — semicircular hollows on the mountainside with steep walls formed thousands upon thousands of years by the glacial erosion. They look weird enough to take the trouble to have a closer look at them, and for those who like more ordinary sights little lakes dotting the mountainside here and there are a respite to the eye.
Once you are past Mount Munchelyk (1,998 meters) and Mount Dzembronya (1,878 meters), you spot Mount Chornohora (“Black Mountain”) that first looms on the horizon, then gradually begins to dominate the landscape. At Post 18 of the former border line you can see a ridge on your left with streams running on both sides of it. Mount Smotrych (1,898 meters) that comes into view in the distance is said to be the place where the notorious — or famous? — outlaw Dovbush, the protagonist of many Carpathian stories and songs, used to hide the treasures in the 18th century. From Smotrych you can easily get to the village of Dzembronya where the people are friendly and hospitable even to tourists.
A closer look at the mountain ridge locally known as Vukhaty Kamin (“Rock with Ears”) is a must if you are keen on unusual shapes that Nature sometimes indulges in forming — without stretching your imagination too far, you’ll see fabulous stone animals and human shapes, creatures and faces defying description in words. The place got its name from a rock that has funny stone ears sticking out of it. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the Carpathians.
Mount Black with a White Elephant sitting on top
It is only three kilometers (about two miles) from the eared rock to Chornohora (Mount Black), less than an hour of leisure walking. There are no water springs or trees on the top of the mountain, that is why it isadvisable to camp at the foot of it — if you intend to rest before the climb, that is. But though bold, the top of Mount Black sports the ruins of the Observatory Bily Slon.
The observatory was built before World War II, at the time when a huge chunk of Western Ukrainian land was under Polish domination. It is known that a great care was taken to provide comfort for the bodies and enjoyment for the souls of those who would work and live there — the interior walls were covered with a layer of cork which was held in place by tar that had been spread over the brickwork, and on top of the cork, panelling of precious woods was fixed; hot water was provided and delicacies regularly delivered. And all of it in the wilderness of the out-of-the-way mountainous terrain! The war destroyed the observatory beyond repair. Some of the tourists who come to the White Elephant to have a closer look wish the plumbing and water supply had been left intact — a hot bath after a long hike is a cherished dream.
Chornohora is also locally known as Pip Ivan, that is Priest Ivan. They say that the rock jutting out of the top once had a shape which was reminiscent of a priest in cassock, but now no matter from which angle you look at it, no priestly shape comes into view.
Chornohora is the end of the Chornohirsky Ridge and the end of our hike. If you continue walking you’ll come to Mount Stih (1,651 meters), to the area where the River Bila Tysa starts, and then to the border with Rumania. The scenery is probably even more majestic and more wild than anywhere else in the Carpathians — streams rushing down the mountainside into the valleys, dreamy lakes, dense woods with layers upon layers upon layers of dead leaves which make every step springy and light.
There are several ways of getting back to the civilized part of the world — you can proceed along the Bila Tysa River up to the town of Vorokhta, or through the valley of the Chorny Cheremosh River to the village of Zelena — or you can turn back and walk the same way you came. Your decision will depend on how badly you want to have a hot bath and how much tourist strength has been left in you.
A recently published guide, Dorohamy i stezhkamy Karpat (“Travelling along the Roads and Trails of the Carpathians” by Volodymyr Sobashko; Tsentr Yevropy Publishers, Lviv), can come in very handy, particularly if you read Ukrainian. The guide provides general tourist information plus detailed information about a hundred and fifty tourist routes through the Carpathians, complete with maps, descriptions of conditions on the route, convenient camping places, weather conditions depending on the season, best viewing points — and so much more. The trip we have just taken has been suggested by this book.
Based on a story written by Yevhen Budko
Photos by Viktor Solodky