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After a day off by an isolated stream and abandoned wheat fields I
trotted into the village of 'Sledi' via a muddy track and surprised a
few sleeping dogs. As usual the first bark triggered an orchestrated
welcoming with a wave of noise, the gnash of teeth, and clang of
chains as the canines ran to the limits of their tied up existence.
Here the streets were cobbled, and the clopping of twelve hooves rang
out softly as we passed an old orthodox church, a statue of lenin, and
the odd Babushka stooped over in the barn or garden. I had only just
left the village when a car pulled up abruptly. The driver, a short
stocky man with a beard and popping forearms stood in the middle of
the road and asked almost short of breath:
'What is this!''
He was a Cossack and had himself traveled more than 5,000km by horse
in his younger years.
He introduced himself as Nikolai, a professional sculptor, and former
school director. He dreamed of one day retiring and spending his
elderly life roaming the countryside by horse. Right at this moment
now he was tailing a truck which was carrying one of his sculptures
that was to be assembled in the local regional centre in memory of
Chernobyl victims. Full of excitement he pressed on me that it was
compulsory that we meet up and spend time together. A few phone calls
later it was agreed to rendezvous at the village of Rovnoe, where he
promised there would be a warm greeting, lots of grain for the horses,
and an organized meeting with the local administration.
I set off with the confidence that comes with knowing where once can
rest their head at night, and the prospect of a day off for the
horses. I passed through more villages, descending on cobbled streets,
then raced across country following compass to the next dot on the
map. The river gullies where each village was nestled became
progressively more cavernous, and the horses worked hard to descend to
the bottom and climb out again. I covered about 40km to Rovnoe, one of
a string of villages on a river valley, and followed directions to the
local collective farm.
Soon Nikolai had roared in covered in white dust from chiseling away
at stone all day, and a large rosy cheeked man introduced himself as
the owner of the collective. A bag of barley was dumped by my horses,
I quickly washed my face and soon the derelict offices of the old
collective office came to life with a Ukrainian feast. Bottles of
samagon (home made vodka) along with pig fat, fried fish, mushroom
salads, pickled cucumbers, apples and oranges were ferried in by a
large bosomy woman with a bright pink scarf. A group of about six
assembled and the first toast was raised to the success of my journey.
The second toast was made standing in honor of women, and the third to
friendship. The fourth was my turn to toast and a different samagon
called 'medoukha' (vodka with honey) was poured. Nikolai warned that
it was so good that it would leave you without feeling in your legs.
Before it was raised they banded together in the traditional Ukrainian
manner and roared:
'Budmo, Hey! Budmo Hey! '
With that my endurance ran dry and I struggled not to fall asleep
having been up since before 5am. I checked the horses and was invited
to stay the night with Kolya, and his wife Ira. They were actually
from the North west of Ukraine and had moved to Rovnoe after the
Chernobyl disaster. They explained to me that even though the
Chernobyl reactor was close to their village they were not told until
two weeks after the explosion. Only then were they told to wear
protective clothing and cover their wells with plastic sheets to
prevent radioactive material entering their systems. It was only four
years later that people were advised that it was better to re-locate.
Ira, who now works as a local school teacher, told me that when they
arrived in Rovnoe their skin tone was that of concrete, and that kolya
suffered from chronic and constant nosebleeds. After sixteen years in
Rovnoe, their health has improved but Kolya has been left with a
damaged liver and kidneys.
For the first time since leaving Kodima I slept under sheets in a bed,
and in the morning woke to a full schedule.
The local region's vice mayor arrived at 9am sharp with a journalist
in an old Russian Volga, then it was off to the local school. The
school itself was a two hundred year old building with wooden stairs
and floors. Children flooded out as Tigon and I arrived on foot with
Kolya's twin sons. Basking in the attention Tigon was inundated with
children all trying to pat him at once. Tigon does tend to be one who
gets most attention! Back in the classroom I spent an hour or two
showing film and answering the unending questions of the children.
Rovnoe, like many Ukrainian villages is shrinking, and many houses
stood empty. There is a high proportion of elderly as the young move
to the cities. Groups of rather unhappy laborers stand around chewing
sun flower seeds and reeking of vodka- this is of course in stark
contrast with the optimism and excitement among the school children.
I spent two days in Rovnoe, the horses grazing around the old
abandoned tobacco drying shelters. Each night was the same festivity,
and before departure Kolya and ira decided on a special gift. Ira
produced a stitched artwork from a dusty old frame:
'Tim, one day a foreigner arrived in Ukraine on a horse. There he met
with a beautiful girl who gave him an apple in an orchard. This
stitching was done by Kolya's sister and we want you to have it.'
In such a short time I came close to this family and Nikolai. At the
same time, it was a very intense and exhausting experience demanding
all my attention and I felt I needed to get back on the road to recover!
A day out of rovnoe and already missing my new friends, I rode out of
the province of Vinitskaya and into Xmelitskaya. I crossed the border
in the hamlet of Matsiorsk that was crouched on the edge of a steep
gorge where yet another tributary of the 'Dnistr' river flowed. This
time it took over and hour to descend and rise up the other side, yet
from the plains above it looked like the kind of gully that you could
almost jump across! Green grass padded the banks of the river below
and among the trees were dotted empty cottages and the odd fenced in
plot or hay paddock.
For five days I continued west, rising from the tent in heavy frost
and at times moving into bitterly cold wind and rain. The most
spectacular village for me was that of 'ternavka.' This largely
abandoned village was tucked deep in bottom of a gorge in a world of
its own. While the wind roared above, here the sun shone unperturbed
and the grass was already significantly longer. A local man loaded me
up with a few litres of fresh milk, and I relished in crossing the
small river via some shallow, flurrying rapids.
Five days without a wash, and totally out of grain for the horses and
food supplies I arrived in the village of Dumaniv on the second of
May. I crossed a river and soon found a green shipping container that
was one of the local shops. Drunken laughter came from inside which
obviously meant it was still open. I stocked up and planned to return
to the river for lunch when a woman from the shop promised to guide me
to a natural spring. There, at the base of a small hill and at the
fork of two streams geese waddled about in the shallows, and goats
grazed on the banks. Nearby stood a large two storey home, and just at
that moment a car drove in. The lady suggested that I should ask if I
could spend the day resting here. She approached the driver of the
car, and soon I was unpacking my gear outside the garage. Valerie, a
man whose head rested solid as a rock on the mass of his body smiled
and said: 'Of course, you can stay! Why not' I have traveled myself,
worked three years in Spain in a factory, I know what its like to be a
What began as a day of resting the horses has become three days of
exploring the local region and coming to know a very unique family.
From the house stepped a babushka draped in a shawl that was just as
well folded and creased as the wrinkles and lines in her face. Her
eyes were blue with splotches of green and brown, and she looked up
from what seemed to be a shrunken yet fit and strong body. 'Where are
you from boy!'' she asked with a smile. Ferona was her name, and a
little later I filmed as she herded her small family of goats down to
the river and bashed in a metal stake with a rock. She took off her
slippers and walked in her socks, and then abruptly broke out in a sad
song about the misery of Stalin times when Ukrainians were oppressed,
many taken to labor camps in Siberia. She later told me about the
famine of 1933 when the grain yield was high, but was purposely kept
from the peasants so that they starved in their millions. Her father
had hidden a bag of wheat between the stones in the wall of his home
but the komsomolski men of the village had found it. Ferona survived
by eating grass and the leaves of sugar beets. On a happier note she
then told me that she was old but could still thread the eye of a
needle no sweat.
Her son Volodya arrived later that night. He was the very opposite to
Valerie in stature. His slender body fell away from a straight and
focused face. His shirt, buttoned up to the collar, and relaxed
stature oozed with humbleness. 'So traveler! Relax, tomorrow we will
have much to talk about!' Volodya as it turned out was a devout
Christian, and after a life of serving in the army from Siberia to
Belarus had resettled in his home village of Dumaniv. With pride he
told me that today in Ukraine everything is possible. He pointed down
to the rapids in the river, up to the grassy hill where he planned to
build a guest house, then to the well that they had just dug. The
water was clean, their backyard was one large vegetable garden, and by
keeping and selling pigs, this year they had had gas connected to
their new house. Every morning Volodya goes down to the spring and
washes his face and thanks god for the world and life that he lives.
In the winter he tells me that he even washes naked in the snow. The
family's energy and optimism and energy is really very inspiring,
especially among a society where doom and gloom is the usual
undercurrent of conversation.
Yesterday the head of culture and tourism, Viktor, from the nearby
city of Kamenets Podolskiy arrived with a journalist. After an
interview he took me into the city for a session with the national
television news reporters that happened to be in the region. There I
was given two guides and we set off on a tour of the city (with news
reporters in tow). Kamenets Podolskiy is a spectacular city built on
an island formed by an almost 360 degrees bend in the river ' '. The
only access to the city is blocked by a grand stone fortress. The city
itself has changed hands over history from Romans, to Kiev-Rus, to the
Turks, Polish, Russians, Soviets, and finally the independent republic
of Ukraine. This colorful history is seen in the architecture. The
Catholic cathedral boasts an Islamic minaret, and not far across the
river is its Orthodox brother with golden cupolas.
The fortress (which has become a very popular setting for feature film
shoots) was of course built as a reaction to the Mongol/tatar
invasions- another sign that nomads were the constant threat to
settled, sedentary societies. My impression overall being in Kamenets
Podolskiy was that I had now really begun to arrive on the fringes of
ancient European society. The sheer amount of water and fertile land
is of course the greatest sign that I have reached a land that would
have supported dense sedentary populations for millennia.
The news crew drove me home to Dumaniv where Volodya, Babushka Ferona,
and I were asked to re-enact my arrival in the village by horse.
Ferona sat by a table by the house with some pig fat, onion, bread and
garlic ready to offer me as I rode in with Tigon in the lead. As I sat
down my horses lunged forward to try and steal the bread.
Right now its getting dark and I have to prepare my gear for tomorrow
morning when we will move off again further east towards Tornopilskaya
oblast and ever closer to the Carpathians.
Hungary is finally coming into focus, and for the first time it
honestly feels as if I do not have too far to go.
At the moment I am reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
which is helping to give me a better grasp of the roots of why nomads
became nomads, and why they had so many advantages over the sedentary
world at many times in history.
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