Dumaniv, yaroslav, king of Bilche Zoloti, to the hutsuls in the Carpathians. (23/5/07)
From Dumaniv where I last wrote I travelled across the Zbruch river, and found myself in Tornopilskaya Oblast and all together another world. Colorfully decorated two storey village homes, old stone catholic and Ukrainian orthodox churches, and a distinctly Ukrainian language with barely a whiff of Russian influence. To Western Ukrainians the river Zbruch is the dividing line between Europe and Asia. This is so mainly because West of the river Ukrainians remained under Polish rule until 1939. Therefore they did not suffer the repression and destruction of the bolshevik revolution or the constructed famines by Stalin in the 1930s. During WW2 western Ukrainians united under a man called Stepan Bandera. Fighting from the strong hold of the carpathians they fought both the Russians and the Germans.
On wet and cold night I arrived in the village of Bilche Zoloti where the mayor of the region, Yaroslav was waiting. He was a man built like a bulldog with an equally large and intense face. There was an intensity about his movements, his words, and was always on the verge of talking aloud his thoughts over and above everyone.
"C'mon Tim, dismount, come and have dinner wit hthe verterans!"
It was the eve of the 9th of may celebrations (vitory day for the Soviets in ww2). Leaving the horses unpacked and tied outside I stepped into the warmth of a pub in an old stone, Austrian built home. At one end of the table sat war veterans quietly chattering among themselves, and at the end where I sat where the hosts and entertainment: the mayor, a quartet of women singers, and the director of the local musical school. A toast was raised and before I could even begin to indulge in a meal that made a nice change to my porridge, canned meat and macaroni camp food, the singing began. Yaroslav's face swelled an inky red as he sang his lungs out along with the women whose tones were sweet to anyones ear, let alone after a shot of home made vodka and three days in cold rainy weather on horseback. There was something about the faces of these people that fascinated me. i couldn't put my finger on it, but there was no mistaking them with the average Russian. I made my thoughts known and they laughed - 'yes well you see, we consider the Russians Asians. We are real genuine slavs!'
Asleep on my feet Yarolsav helped me lead the horses to the old football field opposite the local school. We lugged my gear into a 'sanitorium' where I was given a luxury room and I fell into the clutches of heavy sleep.
Early morning Yaroslav arrived as if the celebrations of last night were just rolling on. He laughed and talked loud, and took me to the kitchen of the sanitorium where he arranged a breakfast of wheat porridge and boiled sausages.
The program began to roll out. I was treated to a bath with special salts and pine syrup. The nurse who arranged it was apparently yaroslavs 'first love' and while I lay in the conveniently dark water they were snuggling, Yaroslav and his dreams of a womanizer not quite working out. "Yarolsav, I can't... that was 30 years ago! I heard her say before she giggled and Yaroslav retreated."
Yaroslav would often spontaneously say things like:
"Quick,m grab your horses. We will ride together through the village, yo uwill film everything. I will order a coach, we can drive you horses to here and there and here and there then..." It took some time to explain to him that my horses needed to rest and that to film I would have to walk anyway. Convinced of his idea though he rang his friend and ordered him to arrive with a coach and horses for a grand tour of the region. This like many of his ideas came and went just as quickly.
Yarolsavs office was decorated with portaits of Bandera and draped with the black and orange Bandera army flag. There was no sign of support at all for the regional party that the Russian government to this day supports.
In the evening we decided to have dinner at the schoold director's home and left the horses grazing under the watch of the local school security guard. At 9.30pm though when we returned I was alarmed to hear Taskonir (blackie) neighing wildly. I ran into the pasture and leant down to try and find the silhouette of my horses against the dark sky…. There was none. I ran around, but I knew that they were gone, and I knew they had been stolen. I went running back to the car:
“Two horses are gone, they have been stolen!”
Yaroslav and the school director and her husband were in disbelief.
‘Its not possible, no one here in our village would do that…’
I jumped on taskonir bareback and galloped off down the street which ever way he wanted to go. In his panic of neighs though it was clear he too wasn’t sure which direction to take. With no torch and no idea of the layout of the village I had to return.
The security guard said that about 10 minutes earlier the horse had been neighing but he didn’t check to see where the other two horses were.Yaroslav stood on the spot and tried to call the police. Everyone else was immobile.
“Cmon time is ticking, where should I look, where could someone go. There are people on the street, go and ask, someone must have seen them!”
“What, as this hour? No, o one could steal them. Its too late.”
Rode off again, but again with no torch or saddle or orientation returned. On the hills around the village you could hear the laughter and screams of youth around bonfires- a tradition on the 9th of May. Dogs barked everywhere, music played, but there was no sign of horses.
I ran to the sanitorium, found my torch, and saddled up. Yarolsav and I made a desperate on foot search but with no answers. Suddenly the man who had been telling me that ‘He didn’t answer to anyone and that he was the owner, the main man of the region’ didn’t have a clue what to do, and even seemed embarrassed to knock, on doors and ask. He began to blame me for not listening to him. I was getting increasingly frustrated as he talked about meat factories, and our search led nowhere. We ended up back at the school where there was some news. The director, a very kind, and mild mannered woman had discovered by asking people that the horses had been seen taken to the far side of the river and up the hill. The police were now on the case and a motorcycle had also been sent. I was now prepared to search for footprints and gallop after them. Unfortuntely the director’s husband car was out of fuel and there was no petrol station in the village.
By this stage it was probably midnight. I was just about to set off when suddenly came the sound of clopping hooves. From the dark Ogonyok and Kok came trotting and neighing. I ducked low and caught sight of the silhouette of a man running with them. It was the thief! I took taskonir out of the school gates and jumped on the saddle. In this split second though I lost sight of the shadowy figure and I galloped blindly off into the pasture before quickly stopping in front of a ditch. He had escaped, but at last he had left the horses.
As it turned out, the thief was a local called Ivan. He was a 26 year old orphan who was already on probation and had a drinking problem. Whats more, he was the nephew of the security guard, a close neigbour of the school director, and a relative of the local sheriff! Everyone said that when Ivan realized people were looking for him, he had no choice but to return the horses or face the prospect of 15 years in gaol because he was already on probation.
“Alls well when it ends well!” said Yaroslav. The poor director was a shaken mess as was her husband. I breathed a great sigh, and reflected that as usual, the villages are so much more tiring and dangerous than the open steppe!’ In a way though the experience just slotted into a routine of events throughout my journey- this was the third time the horses had been stolen and returned.
The next day the sun was shining and Yarolsav’s plans came into fruition. Radio, and TV crews were due from the capital in Tornopil along with a representative from the ministry of tourism. At nine o’clock a horse and carriage arrived, and two pretty girls from the school were waiting and ready in traditional Ukrainian dress. Here Yaroslav came into his zone. I sat in the carriage squeezed between the girls. Yaroslav sat in with the driver and as the horses clopped down the main street he gave all people of the village the wave of a king. He shouted out to people:
“Good morning, I am giving a tour to the great Australian correspondent. I am making a film about our village.” At different times he ordered the girls to sing. I sat watching this quaint village ride by, the voice of these tunes in my ear, and just marveling. The carriage climbed out of the village, along wheat fields and came to a halt on the top of the hillside. Below the local cathedral rose from neat looking homes. Plots of garden descended to the sleepy river that hugged the edge of town. I filmed the girls singing, took some photos, and then we returned to the school. At the school I gave a presentation, and as the film crews arrived, a concert especially for me was performed. The story of Bilche Zoloti (the village) was recounted in songs and poems. All the children were dressed in hand sewn traditional clothes. I was aksed to say a few words afterwords and outside the school there was a photo session with my horses and Tigon and the kids. Yaroslav suddenly jumped from the steps on the back of Taskonir, which just about flattened the poor horse. He then rode in front of the news cameras waving his hand like a king. The kids broke into racous laughter.
The news crew later took me aside for interviews, and the day ended with a yaroslav enforced vodka session with the journalists and locking the horses up at a pig farm near the sanitorium. I was meant to leave the next day, but the 9am departure became a 6pm departure. The local quartet performed for me (it turned out that the music school director was the enemy of Yaroslav and to meet with these singers I had to get there via the school director), and we spent a few hours trying to download as much footage and photos as possible onto the school computers.
The Yaroslav adventure seemed to be over when I left, but due to late departure I camped out of town at camp for medical students. Yaroslav turned up at 11pm, and had walked there by foot. He spent all night fishing and in the morning tried to convince me to stay another day so that I could film the camp, drink vodka, and eat fish soup. His intentions were always good, but I was getting worn down by the minute. My axe had been stolen, my horses almost lost, three days had passed, and I felt that I just had to go to stay in tact. As it was it felt as if everything had unraveled.
Unravelled was probably the right word, because for the next week I felt weak and slightly ill. Kok appeared with a swelling on his back unexpectedly, and a few days of sudden heat reminded me of the torment that summer brought in Kazakstan.
On the other hand, plans for an exciting journey across the Carpathians became clear as I crossed into Ivano Frankivsk province. On the bridge over the river Dnsitr, I was met with Yuri, a former mountaineer and specialist in the ecology of the greater Carpathians. We made camp on the banks of the river and spent all evening going over maps, and calling his contacts. In the evening we sat by the fire and he told stories of his harrowing ascent of peak Communism in Tajikistan, we tried some beetroot vodka, and in the morning were greeted by the Ivano Frankoss TV crew.
Things really changed in terms of environment last Thursday as I crossed the Prut river and arrived in the Carpathians proper. I rose gradually into wooded hills, and immediately found myself face to face with a herd of horses. I had arrived in the domain of the ‘Hutsuls’ a minority group of mountain Ukrainians who have preserved their culture and way of life through centuries of different rule.
Am running out of time now, have to go. On Saturday I rose up to about 1000 metrees through muddy tracks where horses are used to haul logs down from the alpine forest. I met some lads with strong horses, one of whom guided me through the forest to a saddle. The forest was thick and dark, the parth so narrow that the boxes on the horses scraped the trees. Steam poured off the horses backs in the cold air, and while traveling through moss encrusted stones in spruce forest, we ran into an old babushka with a bag slung over her shoulder. She said she was ‘going home.’ On the far side we were met with a cavernous valley. Draping the steep angling slopes were a mixture of forest and fenced off hay paddocks, scattered with quaint little homes. That night I stayed with a family whose home simply astonished me. Ever room was decorates with paintings, sewings, carvings, photos. Deer, horses, birds were carved into metal, wood, and painted onto windows. Without a second thought I was invited in and fed sour milk., fresh eggs, and lingon berry juice. There is a legend that when God was giving out land, the Hutsuls arrived late. They were given an infertile patch of mountains, but to compensate that, blessed them with extraordinary artistic talent. Here, more than anywhere in the Ukraine, the orthodox belief bonds the community, the people regularly proudly wear their national costume, and they take pride in everything they make and do.
On Sunday I arrived in Krivorivye to be met by the local priest, Ivan, a man almost two metres in height with a strong roman nose, deep set eyes, long dark hair and shoart beard. In his flowing black gown he cast quite a figure leading my horses to the church.
I am now staying in a house with an artist from Lvov. The horses are grazing around. There are so many stories from here already that I need to make a separate entry. Tomorrow (Thursday) Mike Dillon is arriving from Australia. He will be accompanying me for three weeks to film the experience. He has come at the right time when I am already cursing how much I am missing myself on film!
PS Listen out for an interview on with Macca on Australia all over this Sunday.
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