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Sledi to Dumaniv in Xmelitskaya oblast (6/5/07)

(CLICK HERE TO VIEW FULL LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES ) 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 foreigner.' 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.

Tim



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Latitude: 48° 19 Min. 19 Sec.

Longitude: 26° 32 Min. 58 Sec.

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