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by Joseph Hirniak
The first time I went to the Carpathians I was lucky enough to have been invited by the graduating class of School #8, Chervonohrad, Ukraine, some of whose students I taught in 1993 on a summerlong stint as an English teacher with the Ukrainian National Association/Prosvita project "Teaching English in Ukraine".
The above photos were taken on a hiking trip not far from the city of Skole, Lviv oblast. When I was invited on that trip, I was really excited because, having previously "studied" the Ukrainian Carpathians, I thought we would go to an area where there were "real" mountains. Although the mountains I saw on that trip were by no means artificial, I was a bit disappointed because I led myself to believe that we would be hiking up mountains with veritable timberlines, and in an alpine setting comparable to the Chornahora. To make a long story short, I was lucky enough to be accompanied, or "guided," by Ukrainian natives when I went in 1993. We camped in a mountain valley, sang songs at night, and essentially went for the social atmosphere, not the mountaineering. The students who I went with, accompanied by an adult, were very generous and provided me with food, shelter, plenty of horilka, and company. One of the students on the trip I came to know very well and consequently married her the following summer. This led to my 1994 trips to the Carpathians and Mt. Hoverla.
Check this photo of Joseph and Oksana Hirniak.
In 1994 I went back to get married and to teach in the same school. I spent the whole summer with my wife, Oksana, and her family. Our trips to Hoverla (we made two: one successful, one not) were fun but not advisable for others. We went very "local" and took buses and trains to reach our destination of Vorochta. From there it was a combination of hitchhiking (waving local buses down), luck, and generosity, until we finally reached the base of Hoverla. The way back was similar.
On my way up to Hoverla, I was surprised that many of the people hiking up the slopes were Belgians, along with a ton of chattering school children. When I went to Hoverla I hoped to avoid the crowds. On the way down we hitched a ride with the Belgians who brought us to their hotel in Yaremcha. They had obviously chartered a bus and Hoverla was on their itinerary. The drivers were, of course, Ukrainian. The best way to tackle these remote trips is to attempt the "local" way; it might take connections, a lot of luck, or whatever. Renting a car and driver is another option. I would recommend, if one is to go, that at least one member of the tour party be Ukrainian (excluding diaspora). They might have connections and/or local "knowhow."
The problem with going in a large group is that not everyone wants to "rough-it." This is understandable, unless the tour is for a group like PLAST scouts. If one has the opportunity to go with a group of Ukrainians to the mountains, this is probably ideal for those seeking a good dose of hiking.
For those who want to climb the Ukrainian Carpathians, many of the mountains can be accessed from the nearest train stop. This requires looking at a good map and if one has the guide book, "Mandrivka...", [see source list below] or something comparable, they will be able to choose a few hikes or mountains that are accessible without any transportation besides the train. For instance, anyone staying in Lviv can get an early train and tackle the mountain peak Parashka in a one-day outing -- no need for a guide. Perhaps a good command of the Ukrainian language, a little confidence, and some stamina is all that's needed. Staying in the mountain resorts of Yaremcha or Vorochta will enable one to climb nearby peaks.
If one has the resources, then a private tour/guide might be best, if one knows where and how to find a guide. Many of the things that my wife and I took for granted came to nothing. For instance, we counted on going for at least a week, staying in a hotel in Vorochta. My wife's father was a coal-miner, but despite his connections, we could not obtain any tourist vouchers for the local hotels. However, we had no problem finding overnight accommodations. As an American I kept my mouth shut and my wife did all the talking. We stayed in modest rooms with minimum facilities (i.e., the bathrooms were bad, no water, etc.) We found these accommodations no more than 200 yards from the train station in Vorochta.
Another complication which we surmounted is the Zapovidnik guard station that leads to the access road up to Hoverla. We were lucky enough to have been riding a local bus that carried kholhosp beekeepers to their hives within the Chornahora Zapovidnik/preserve. As you can see, my wife and I "winged-it" but with enough determination and luck, we did what we wanted.
On hiking the Ukrainian Carpathians: I wish it was as easy as hiking in Poland, but it makes for a more interesting story. Maybe one day Western agencies will have specific "ecotours" for hiking the Ukrainian Carpathians hassle-free. In conclusion, I really cherished my trips through Ukraine and look forward to returning, whenever that may be.
GUIDEBOOK: A very useful source is the small (about 4x6 inches) pocket guide to the Ukrainian Carpathians entitled Mandrivka do Karpaty by Yuriy Sitnitsky (Lviv: "Biblos-Bruk," 1993). It is in Ukrainian and it describes the routes up every major mountain in the Ukrainian Carpathians. It is also equipped with five basic, but adequate, fold-out maps to supplement the numbered-in-sequence hiking guides.
I was lucky enough to find this little guidebook while casually browsing in a Lviv bookstore. (I'm sure many stores have it). Although my Ukrainian is not too good, I read it from cover to cover and gleaned alot of information from it.
MAP: If anyone is interested in acquiring detailed topographical maps of the Carpathians, the best that I have encountered is the series "Yuzhnaya Chahst': topohraficheskaya karta," which has a scale of 1:200,000. Although they still have Russian print, this series, obtainable in many bookstores (I bought mine in a Lviv bookstore), features topographical maps on every oblast in Ukraine. They are very cheap and I imagine if something comparable were sold in the West the price would be at least $20.00 each. I bought mine for the equivalent of 25 cents.