Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hiking And Chance Meetings

The Poles, living in a land that is mostly flat (Poland, essentially, means "Land of Fields"), appreciate mountains. The highest (reaching 2500m) and most popular, are the Tatras. In the far southeast corner of the country, poking into Ukraine like a cheeky finger, lie the Bieszczady mountains which hold a special place in the affections of the Poles for being the wildest, most inaccessible part of the country, home to bears, wolves, bison, deer and lynx among others. The sparsely-populated area is now a favoured retreat of artists and artisans, but up until the end of WW II it was the home of the Boyks and Lemks, two Ukrainian-speaking minorities that were forcibly removed by the Polish authorities at the end of the war following a Ukrainian-separatist struggle in the area.
The bare ridges (poloniny) of the Bieszczady mountains.
After 2 months of flatness I was hankering for some hills. Hiking the Bieszczady fit the bill perfectly. Not only that, but it would allow me to fulfil a small childhood ambition to cross an international border at some remote, wild location - a way to rebel against passport controls, immigration queues and the arbitrariness of borders themselves (of course, that is not really an issue any more within the Schengen Area, but it's the thought that counts). I was lucky that, before setting off, I stayed with Piotr, a local historian, in Sanok. As well as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area Piotr loves hiking, and so, over a couple of beers, he unfurled some maps and proceeded to describe various routes I could take along unmarked paths that would allow me to see the last, few vestiges of some Boyk villages. I'm glad he did because alone would never have found them and I love uncovering traces of history that are ignored or not talked about (for whatever reason).
The first day I saw only a handful of people and ended up sneakily pitching my tent behind a small village church after dark (a flat, well-tended lawn; bliss for the free-camper). The next day I hit the poloniny, the ridge meadows that afford unrivalled views for which the Bieszczady are famous. Upon reaching the ridge I was hit the halny, a strong, unrelenting foehn wind that gusted at well over 100km/h and didn't stop during the whole day, making the straightforward traverse somewhat dangerous with my heavy backpack. The next day was different again as the mountains were blanketed in low cloud that gave the beech forests an eerie, otherworldly feel. Part of the path followed the border with Ukraine and I amused myself by slaloming between the two countries before reaching the point where Poland, Ukraine and Slovakia meet and I descended into the latter, coming back out into civilisation a few hours later, looking decidedly bedraggled, muddy and in need of a shower. Although I'm still to spot some big game the spell in nature was refreshing and a welcome change.
Camping behind this village church it was hard to get to sleep because of the bright moonlight.

It was also relaxing to be in a country where I didn't have to worry about people being able to understand me (although Czech and Slovak are officially different languages they are so close as to be mutually intelligible) and so I revelled in my new-found intelligibility by asking people I met questions even if I knew the answers (like "where's the bus stop" even though I could see it further down the road). I made my way south towards the border with Ukraine, walking and hitching along the way - more walking than hitching to be honest, as that corner of the country is quite rural and doesn't see much traffic - when coming the other way, along a particularly deserted road, I saw, like a mirror image, a couple doing the same. Tim and Weronika were from Poland and had spent the past few weeks travelling through Slovakia and Hungary. I was glad of the company, and I think they were too, because they agreed to turn around and accompany me to the nearby village where I was headed (which was supposed to have a beautiful, old wooden church). We ended up getting caught out by a heavy storm and had to take shelter by a pub until it passed, by which time it was only possible to visit the church (once we had found the person in the village with the key) but not get any further. So instead we found ourselves a house under construction to spend the night and chat (it was too damp for a campfire unfortunately) before going our separate ways the next morning. It's the unexpected ephemera that make travelling so much fun and rewarding.

Abandoned houses and those under construction are perfect spots for free-camping (as you don't need to pitch a tent). Old Eastern Block countries are particularly well-endowed with them.

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