Friday, August 15, 2008

UA - Vorokhta, Hoverla

The next day began too early. Most of the town agreed, as the local market was only just beginning to set up, the taxis hadn’t even taken position at the stand, and the sun was lighting the sky but had yet to clear the mountains. That point about the taxis, however, was the sticking point. We had hoped to catch a taxi down the road to Hoverla, the highest peak in Ukraine.

I wish I could turn the need for a taxi into an interesting tale, but we actually just waved down a taxi that approached along the main roadway about 10 minutes into our wait. He took us 9 km to the entrance to the park, and then another 12 km to the base of Hoverla. Here we disembarked and were on our way hiking up the mountain.

We made fantastic time: clearing the tree line with only one break. Generally the hike within the forest area is, to me, wasted energy. There’s nothing to look at but bark and undergrowth. However, this was an exception: the trail was cleared with a good width and the roots formed your footholds. The pattern of roots along the pitched terrain was pretty in its own right, but the path traveled alongside mountain streams and small waterfalls: further complementing the beauty of the hike.

The mountain was quiet so early in the morning: we saw only one other family leaving a picnic table just as we were approaching to take our break. Above the tree line – but still among the shrubs – we caught up to and passed this family. We moved through the shrubs pretty quickly with only a few intermittent breaks of a couple seconds each.

Our pace slowed when we rose above the shrubs and were surrounded by only rocks and grasses. Generally, this is when I move my fastest; but I welcomed the periodic breaks to stick with Anastasia. We’d both pause – for her to catch her breath; and for the wind to cool the sweat off of me. I was surprised by Svitlana’s ability to keep moving forward, motivated by her own excitement to finally be on Hoverla in good weather.

We spotted an apparently lone hiker on the summit as we were approaching. We had pondered whether we’d be the first for the day, but it appeared that someone had already taken that claim. It doesn’t matter how early you get up or how tirelessly you climb: there will always be someone who gets up earlier and moves faster; and usually that person is Swedish.

So when we reached the summit, we took solace in believing that maybe, just maybe, we were the second set of people to reach the peak that day. Within minutes, a lone backpacker arrived via another trail. Soon the family we passed arrived – the young daughter being carried, but their tiny yip-dog still on all fours. Then one of the lone backpacker’s buddies arrived. Soon a whole squadron of backpackers came. Next thing we know, the entire peak is covered with people. We looked over the edge and saw a string of people ascending up the mountain – it again reminded me of the crowds in Switzerland. If you want a peaceful hike, you need to start early.

After lingering around for a bit, we descended down toward the shrubline – prior to which we stopped to eat lunch. Lunch consisted of sausages, bread, and tomatoes; as well as some cracker/cookie things that only I ate (the same snacks as the dessert from my AeroSvit flight). During this time I opened up my second 2-liter bottle of water. I was amused when, during our ascent, Svitlana pointed out that the more I drink; the more I sweat. All I could think of was “that’s the point”. Sweat may feel icky, but there’s no denying that when the wind hits you: it feels bloody good. It’s a natural bodily function fulfilling exact what it’s supposed to do; and I’m well aware that you’re supposed to drink as much as you excrete. If you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.

During our descent, I did spot something that I did not see back in the Alps. That is, here, hiking fashion for women can apparently consist of bikinis or even just bras. That lent a new appreciation for hiking in Eastern Europe.

Continuing our descent, we cut right when the path to our left consisted of a narrow ditch which would have been tricky to navigate when traveling downwards. When we realized that this new path appeared to go off in its own direction, I offered to use a somewhat worn cut-through back to our path – delineated by red-on-white markings. Some nearby hikers indicated that our current alignment brought us back to where we wanted to go, so we kept going.

Just as we passed some backpackers heading upwards, the girls began to have doubts that we were on the right way. To be honest, the same thing was running through my head, too, but a leader must never show a second’s hesitation. I continued forward and espied some green-on-white markings. It was certainly a trail, but the girls didn’t take to the fact that it wasn’t our red trail. We turned back to head uphill again.

Right where we passed the ascending backpackers from that last paragraph, we now passed some descending backpacks; and the girls again asked if this trail reconnected to the base. These backpackers confirmed it did. Now with that, I could’ve really cared less which of the two trails we took. The girls debated amongst themselves about it while I stood several meters further up. They also debated about a third trail, which I was rather doubtful was even a trail. I certainly couldn’t see anything, and even if there was one: it only served to take us further away from the red trail that we were hoping to reconnect with.

I grew fearful that they’d opt for this supposed third trail. I’ve since come to trust that their sense of direction is not the best, so I attempted to interject that we only have two options. Their third option takes us the wrong way, if it goes anywhere at all; downhill may reconnect; and uphill we know reconnects. Out of the two reasonable options, I thought of my mantra that even a bad decision is better than no decision; and I worried that we’d sit here half an hour trying to decide what to do. Despite the additional effort of going a short distance back uphill, we ultimately went with that surefire option and returned to the very cut-through I’d offered to use during our initial descent.

The rest of the descent was a breeze, but the additional 12 km hike to the park exit was starting to get a bit taxing by the end. Along the way, I converted my hat and shirt into a headdress inspired by Middle Eastern attire – I must say that they work wonders. It helped keep my sunburns to a minimum (though my shoulders still got torched) and I felt relatively comfy, considering the temperatures and humidity, throughout the hike. Fortunately, a marshrutka was passing through just as we reached the park’s exit – saving us an additional 9 km of walking back to town.

Back at town, few words can express the glee of taking off your hiking boots after a day of journeying. Next came a traditional remedy which was certainly new to me. Back in Moscow, I tried this sour milk which is common to drink around here. It’s not spoiled milk; it’s not sour cream; it’s milk that kind of tastes like sour cream. Since sour cream is in pretty much every dish here, it’s no wonder that people enjoy the taste of this. However, since my experience with sour cream usually involves nachos or maybe dip for my potato chips, I can’t say I quite have the same fancy for it.

Now came the alternate use for sour milk: an aid for sunburns. Looking back, though, I’m not so confident it worked. I can’t think of any time I’ve ever actually felt pain from a sunburn – including last year’s trip when I actually blistered from one. Now, after having this supposed relieving ointment, of sorts, I can say that this sunburn downright hurts whenever I move. That aside, it was amusing watching the girls smear this sour milk on each other’s shoulders and faces; and there is no denying that it felt unbelievably good having Svitlana rub it onto my shoulders, too. However, I suspect this may have had more to do with the feminine touch rather than any effects of sour milk.

One by one we took our showers. Usually I like to shower just before bed, but this time I relented. Getting the temperature right was a bit of a trick, though. Not because of the shower, but because my feet cried for the loving warmth of hot water; whereas my sun-kissed shoulders appreciated the cold water more. I bit my lip and took the punch of the hot water until I didn’t feel any pain anymore, and from then on all I felt was the relief of happy happy feet.

We ate dinner at a restaurant just across from the train station, where I tried some local Hutsul cuisine (extremely tasty). Afterward, we returned to our rooms and retired to an early evening.

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