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Caves in the Land of Ternopilshchyna and their wonders
“There, under the ground, in total darkness lies a world,
probably as great as the one you find on the surface.”
Alfred Begli, a Swiss speleologist
Some time ago, a friend of mine and a fellow tourist, offered to go to see a cave called Mlynky which is to be found in the Land of Podillya. My initial reaction was not that of an enthusiastic acceptance but he persisted in spite of my repeated refusals. “It’s dangerous, it’s dark, it’s scary, it’s damp and it’s cold in there,” I kept saying. In the end, he talked me into going. And I was not sorry I did go. Quite the other way round — it proved to be a great experience.
Olena KRUSHYNSKA and Volodymyr UDOVYCHENKO tell a story of cave exploration
How to get there
First you have to get to the city of Ternopil which is a convenient starting point in cave exploration in Podillya. Shortly after we arrived in Ternopil on a Saturday morning, I think I saw quite a few characters at the railroad terminal who suspiciously looked like amateur speleologists — soiled backpacks, safety helmets and other paraphernalia usually used in cave exploration.
While in Ternopil, you have to perform a number of rituals every tourist is supposed to go through. First, head straight to the centre of town where you’ll find a theatre which is a local architectural landmark. Once there, you can have your first picture taken with the theatre in the background. If you do a bit of sightseeing, you’ll easily find a nice-looking alley running from the centre. In this alley you can’t help seeing a metal lady sitting on a metal bench. This piece of sculpture is called A Chance Meeting, and after having a picture or two taken of you sitting by the side of the metal lady patiently waiting for a chance meeting, take a good look around. Some distance away you will see two towers sticking above the roofs of the buildings. The towers belong to a church that used to be part of a Dominican monastery. If you are history- or culture-minded, then maybe you will find that church and have another picture of you taken with this Baroque church somewhere in the background — “Me and a Baroque Church.” From the church you can proceed to a lake on the way to which you may pass what used to be a palace, now restored to look as though it had been recently built whereas in fact it’s several centuries old. The lake is the last must on a short list of places to be visited in Ternopil. The only thing left to do before you start on the next leg of the tour is to have a pint or two of the local beer called Mykulynetsky which I find to be quite good. With beer inside you, you can proceed in the direction of one of the caves that you plan to explore. The environs of Ternopil are famous for their caves.
Our train, Ternopil — Ivane-Puste left from the railroad terminal at 9 o’clock, It took a local train three hours to get us to the station from which we could go on on foot to our cave, but of course, if you come in your car, it can make things a lot easier…There are at least eleven caves, probably the biggest ones in Podillya, which are situated in that area. We did not find the three hours spent on the train tiresome or tedious, stuffing ourselves with salami sausages, playing cards, and guzzling beer, probably the best things you can do on a commuter train. Another option — staring out the window. We almost missed our stop, called Zalissya. As we got off the train in a great hurry, we realized that the first stage of the journey had been successfully completed.
The way to the cave
A forty-minute walk took us from the railroad station to the “speleological base” which is hardly more than a little house. At this “base” the speleologists from the Chortkiv Krystal Club provide advice, guidance and some basic equipment (special suits, helmets, flashlights and other similar things) if you need it (it is advisable to telephone the Club ahead of your visit and warn them of your coming)…
On our walk to the “base” we were not alone — several other amateur speleologists and two professionals made us company. These two pros kept spinning speleological yarns about their cave-exploration exploits, about the great dangers they had faced and accidents they had been in, and about how many people had fallen to their death and had disappeared without trace. Everybody listened, their mouths agape with admiration and horror. I was sceptical but even so their stories did not put me at ease. My friend reassured me saying that he had heard these stories many times over and that they, in their veracity, were very similar to fishermen’s stories about the great size of the fish in their catch.
At the “base” you may be offered accommodation at “a no-start hotel” — a small house with a stove, a bunk bed and a cold rill nearby to wash in and get water for cooking from.
Once a group of “cave explorers” is formed, equipment checked and instructions issued, you are taken to the cave. Its name Mlynky comes from “mlyn,” a sort of a mill, which was built at the brook in the vicinity of the cave a hundred years ago. It had something to do with extracting gypsum (colourless, white, or yellowish mineral, used in the manufacture of plaster of Paris, various plaster products, and fertilizers) for commercial purposes.
The cave was accidentally discovered in 1960 when a local boy who had noticed strange cracks in the ground which seemed to lead into deeper recesses, told his teacher about his discovery; the teacher did a little exploration of his own and confirmed the presence of a deep cavern.
Bits of geology
The caves in the Land of Podillya are believed to have been formed almost a million years ago when powerful many-metre thick gypsum deposits began to brake and the water that poured into the cracks created an underground labyrinthine series of corridors, chutes and caves. With the passage of time, the water that had accumulated in these corridors and caves sipped away into the nearby rivers, leaving behind a number of underground lakes. The “architecture” of the caverns was further shaped by earthquakes; in some caves stalactites and stalagmites adorned the scenery; secondary gypsum formed crystals of amazing sizes and shapes.
Plaster which is made from gypsum can be used for various purposes — for making sculpture or casts for broken limbs, for example. Gypsum offers even a wider selection of opportunities. In its “wild” state it provides wonderful shapes and colours to be enjoyed by the beholder — transparent incrustations in white, yellow, grey, purple, dark red, deep purple and velvety black masses of gypsum. On some gypsum walls thousands of scintillations sparkle in the light when it beams at these walls.
The more you wander through the gypsum caves, the more you are amazed at the variety and beauty of things that you see, and at the same time you realize how fragile this beauty is — crystals that have been forming for thousands of years can be accidentally destroyed in one wrong and awkward move. Even a light touch of your finger can kill the crystal you touch — the slightest of soiling prevents the crystal’s further growth.
The massive white scars on the crystal gypsum caused us a great pain and indignation to see — they were traces of vandalism left behind by those who wanted to break off pieces of crystal for souvenirs. Some of the places like Sribny dzvin (Silver Tintinnabulation) have been so vandalized that their pristine beauty has remained only in the memory of those who saw them soon after the discovery of the Mlynky cave. In the part of the cave, which was given the name of Kazka (Fairy Tale), only a little section of it can give an idea how gorgeously the whole place must have looked with dozens of brown and white stalactites around — they tinkled if lightly tapped.
Particularly disgusting are the idiotic graffiti, which disfigure many surfaces.
Away from it all
One can seek more than beauty in the caves — they are excellent escapes from the hustle and bustle and noise of urban life. Once inside the cave, you begin to feel the worries and troublesome thoughts recede and then disappear from your mind altogether. The silence and darkness (particularly if you turn off your flashlight for a few minutes) produce a soothing effect. The silence becomes so total that it seems palpable, and your thoughts in the cool pitch dark become purified and cleansed of the mundane.
Those who stay in caves for long stretches of time report highly unusual experiences — people adapt to 48-hour cycles of sleep and wakefulness; tranquillity enters the soul; the eternity seems comprehensible and attainable. Even a short stay deep in a cave makes the return to the surface a significant event — every breath of air, full of oxygen and smells of life is a joy, and the world around seems to be a rainbow of colours.
The Mlynky Cave is a series of underground chambers rather than just one cavern. Most of the caverns have names given to them by cave explorers — Tsentralny Rayon (Centre); Pivnich (North); Dyky Zakhid (Wild West); Peremoha (Victory); Shchaslyvy (Happy); Pioneer; Kazky (Fairy tales), and others.
The movement through this underground series of chambers is not exactly easy and carefree strutting. In some places you can actually walk without fear of losing balance or banging your head against jutting rocks or low ceilings; at others you have to bend low, or even go down on all fours; at some places the passage is so narrow that you have to actually squeeze through. Be prepared for many expletives, curses and swearwords coming from those who find the going and squeezing too tough.
Some names given to various places in the Mlynky Cave struck me as witty, funny or ingenious. Take, for example, a place called Roddom (Maternity Ward) — after climbing through a long and torturously narrow passage, you suddenly find yourself hanging over a crack twenty-something-foot deep. It must have reminded someone an infant climbing out of his mother’s birth passage into the hands of obstetricians. The obstetricians in Mlynky are the speleologists who help you get out of the squeeze and climb safely down. A lot of terrified screaming can be heard at that place too. If you are overweight, you definitely will not be able to get through the tight squeeze of the Press passage; Meat Grinder and Rolling Mill are eloquent enough names to give you an idea, even without any further explanations, of what kind of places these are. Chortove Horlo (Devil’s Throat); Sekunda kayfu (A Second of Euphoria); Teshchyn zub (Mother-in-Law’s Tooth); Slizny tupik (Dead-end of Tears); Baryer nevidomosti (Point of Invisibility) are good examples of speleologists’ wit.
On the way back from Mlynky you may want to stop at the little town of Chortkiv. There are several architectural landmarks and sites worth seeing there — the old wooden building of the city hall; old central square and trade centre; narrow winding streets; an eighteenth-century church on the opposite bank of the Seret River that runs through the town, and a couple of very old wooden churches.
Even if you did not have a camera with you to take pictures, the experience of your visit to Mlynky will be so firmly embedded in your memory, that even years afterwards the pictures in your memory will remain bright and vivid. I know many people who want to go back to the caves again and again.
We would like to conclude our story with several tips for those who have not been to any caves before.
While underground, make sure that those trailing behind you, follow you closely;
Never explore caves on your own;
Do not break off pieces of crystals for souvenirs lest you want to face the rage of the Ghost of the White Speleologist;
Do not disturb bats during their hibernation period; if they wake up, they will die of hunger;
Do not follow the advice to test the durability of your helmet by putting it on and banging your head against the rock.
Photos by Olena Krushynska