August 20th happened to be my 43rd birthday. The weather was forecasting for heavy rain, but I was very happy to wake-up to bright blue skies. In addition, I was on vacation in foreign lands beside a beautiful woman. So why not road trip around the Carpathians and maybe take a boo up the tallest mountain in Ukraine?
We set out from Yaremche, stoping for breakfast in a little traditional Ukrainian restaurant. I had blinis with jam and kashi with milk. Bellies full, we drove through the beautiful little town of Vorokhta.
The Carpathians are very beautiful in that stretch of Ukraine! Narrow winding roads crawl through small quaint villages. Farmers, cows, ducks, chickens and goats abound. At about 800 meters elevation in the low valley, the trees are just beginning to switch over to evergreens.
Driving on, we took a wrong turn and wound up in Bukovel, an extensive ski resort and mountain biking vacation destination. That really came out of nowhere. The roads in Ukraine are well-known for being poor quality and in the rugged Carpathians they really take a beating. Huge pot holes, no shoulder, stretches of dirt, stretches of cobblestone and almost no signage. To further complicate things, my companion only speaks a little English and I only speak a little Russian, so I at one point read our road atlas correctly only to call out the directions incorrectly.
It wasn't really possible to go faster than 30 or 40 km/h and increasingly rough and narrow roads when all of a sudden, a huge ski resort? There is money for the resort, but nothing for the roads. We watched one car in-front of us with it's hubcap about to wobble off after it took it hard in a brutal pothole. Overall, driving in Ukraine is pretty dangerous stuff. Drivers will sometimes swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid potholes, and impatient drivers will pass you on non-existant shoulders. So many drivers with no patience!
Bukovel's trademark is it's upside down house ...
Finally we make it to the border of national park. There is a gate and we pay a fee of a few dollars for a permit to enter the park. They warn us that the roads ahead are "much worse and very rough". Oy! From here on it's dirt roads, but it's typical to unmaintained forest service roads in British Columbia, so it's not really that bad. I navigate our Ford Fiesta rental car around the biggest rocks and being used to driving on dirt I end up being the one passing cars this time. After eight kilometers of that we arrive at a parking lot.
The trail leads through evergreen forest and into the alpine. The trailhead is typically eastern european, with a series of booths set-up as you leave the parking lot selling wares: fridge magnets, hand-made souvenirs, t-shirts, food and drinks.
We hike into the alpine and take a break in the meadows for rest and some much needed kissing. A large group of children and a scout leader march past us, signing traditional Ukrainian hiking songs as they go. My lovely companion is from the flat part of Ukraine and is breathing hard on the steep trail. She is also wearing modest footwear that isn't really appropriate for hiking. I help her the whole way by holding her arm and preventing any falls.
Ahead of us we can see the trail goes up a large steep headwall, gaining more and more elevation. It looks fairly ambitious for our afternoon hike, but we go for it. The trail is quite popular and there are many people struggling to climb up the steep rocky trail. For a British Columbian like me though, it's no problem and I bound up it, pulling my companion up alongside me. Finally we reach a sub-summit. There is a cairn, with someone sleeping against it, and the wind if relentlessly stiff now and quite cold.
We look ahead and there is one large push of about 150 meters elevation gain to the final summit, with Hoverla topping out at 2,061 meters. However, we are tired, under slept, out of water and cold. So we decide that the sub-summit is good enough.
We head back down, passing a group of kids as we reach the treeline who are pulling live branches off evergreens and trying to start a fire from that. Other groups are setting up tents at random flat spots in the woods. The park is mostly litter-free, but it's not got quite that same sense of regulation as Canadian parks.
We chow down on microwaved subs and bottled water in our car, and then stop at the first lodgings we can. A set of rustic, newly constructed cabins. With the exchange rate of CDN to UAH being very favourable right now, out lovely cabin ends up costing about $15 for the night.
Overall, a truly wonderful day. The Ukrainian Carpathians may lack any truly magnificently tall peaks, but it's very beautiful countryside. Everything is very inexpensive and being a tourist hot spot, the people are very welcoming and hospitable to folks there to spend tourism dollars. Driving on the roads is on the dangerous side though. A safer and cheaper way to travel is by train (Ukraine trains are very inexpensive), with the rail lines crawling through tunnels and stone bridges offering scenic views. And perhaps one day I will return, only to put the summit in the bag!