Rocky Road to the Carpathians
I needed an idea for my final Ukrainian destination. As much as I was enjoying Ukranian cities being so alive with the strong scent of revolution in the air I could use some fresh protest-free oxygen and going to bed without listening to every passerby scream ‘Slava Ukraini’ would be refreshing in itself. Since laying on Ukraine’s black beaches drinking cocktails wasn’t exactly logical in mid-december I decided to save Odessa for another trip. I had done some research on Ukranian winter destinations and there seemed to be a clear winner. Ukraine is hardly internationally known for it’s ski resorts but after some quick research it occurred to me that maybe winter sports in Eastern Europe is just another secret gem of this side of the globe. One name kept violating the top of my google searches: ‘Bukovel’. Ukraines biggest ski resort looked like a ski-lovers wonderland and no Ukranian winter trip would be complete without a glide down the pearly white slopes.
I did some quick research and getting a local staff member at my hostel to help book some a cheap bed in a hostel room in the area I was warned that the chances of finding English speakers on this adventure was extremely low but the chances of skiing were extremely high. I liked those odds. What I didn’t like was the lack of information on actually getting to this region… it seemed I had a day of relying on the kindness of Ukranian strangers ahead…
My alarm was set for 7am, I woke up at 6.30 to one of my roommates sleep-talking in Turkish. After slowly preparing myself for the long travel day ahead I jumped into a cab outside the hostel. Arriving at the train station I had to make a quick decision: bus or train? The line for the train tickets were as long as line for SA transport during lunch hour so I made my way through the crowd of persistent taxi drivers and headed for the cluster of large run-down looking vehicles that could potentially bring me one bus ride closer to Bukovel. I handed my piece of paper with the list of potential destinations to the lady in the ticket box and she immediately called over some locals to guide me to the relevant bus. Ivano-Franivsk was my first destination (I hoped). From there I was told another bus maybe going to Bokavel. ‘maybe…’. That was good enough for me. I was led to a small terrifying looking vehicle and the 3 men determined to help me, supervised by a strict-looking Ukranian woman, ‘secured’ my bag in the boot… (I envisioned it rolling out of the back somewhere through the journey but sometimes you just have to have full faith in nice people you can’t communicate with).
I was then told I had 20 minutes to spare and not wanting to spend a minute more than necessary on the not-so-sweet smelling bus I started wandering towards a small diner to grab a quick breakfast; I didn’t know how long the trip would be after all…. Before I had a chance to order, one of the men helping me earlier appeared at the counter beside me and along with the young waitress I was immediately interrogated about how I liked my coffee… melk!? zugar!? After a quick unnoticed attempt to order food I gave in and was shown to a table where a mug of Ukranian diner-quality coffee was put in front of me. I attempted to pay… ‘No, no, no!’ So I did as I was told and sat and my new friend joined me and together we drank bitter black coffee.
WIthout even getting halfway through the mug I was told it was time to go and rushed outside where I stood with my cossack-wearing bus driver as he finished his last pre-journey cigarette (I must have seen him chain-smoke at least 5 already) and then we were on our way. After one more stop in Lviv (where my bus driver and 80% of the passengers got off for a smoko) the journey really began.
It doesn’t take long for Lviv to quickly transform into Ukranian countryside and in no time at all we were overtaking horse and carts as we avoided the chickens and dogs that crowded the roads. These were the kind of villages where you didn’t have to lock up the chickens because the chickens know where they live… the towns were charming and each one, no matter how small and battered looking, featured it’s own beautifully coloured Mosk. Sometimes baby blue, sometimes a dark green, each bearing stunning gold domes.
Elderly ladies in headscarves and fur strolled along the roads carrying baskets or holding a friends hand, young children ran across streets waving up at the passing bus. Every few kilometres we would pick up hitchhikers who would just yell out when they wanted to disembark. Sometimes a package would be handed to the driver through the front window and some kilometres later the bus would be hailed to collect the mysterious boxes or bags.
We finally passed a sign (in cyrilic of course) that even I could identify as ‘Ivano-Franivsk’. Thinking that the small bus station must be where I needed to attempt to change buses I tried to get off the bus. I was pushed back down into my seat and told to ‘Stay’… I tried again… ‘Stay!’ I was being spoken to by about 6 passengers in Ukranian and I was so sure this station was mine, it even said ‘Ivano-Franivsk’ in English! I got out my scrunched up piece of paper and desperately started saying ‘Bukovel’ hoping that someone would understand I had to change buses here. The bus turned into a chorus of people repeating ‘Bukovel’ and the passengers debated about how I get there. Not understanding a word I waited for the verdict…
I gave in, these people were determined to keep me hostage on the bus and eventually a passenger said something I could understand “different station”. I smiled gratefully at her and relied on the population of the bus to demand me off when they thought neccessary. The bus bounced along further into the town and eventually I was told to get of… the bus driver helped my bag onto my back and pointed down the street saying ‘Bukovel’… I hope he didn’t mean i had to walk, from what I had heard it took a total of 7 hours to drive there from Lviv and we had only been on the road for 3…
After asking many locals who each pointed me further and further down the road I found a huddle of buses, I showed my reliable piece of paper bearing my final destinations to a local and he pointed to the bus which was about to depart,the bus driver who was just walking on the bus quickly looked at my piece of paper, sighed, grabbed my bag and threw it in the back and made me jump on… there were no seats left and people were already crowded, standing in the aisles… He sat down and pointed to the small platform next to his own seat, front and centre. ‘Sit.’ I did as I was told and when a lady came on board to what I assume was check tickets I sat quietly and unnoticed, not wanting to be discovered as the unintentional stowaway that I had become.
The drive was much like my previous one, bumpy and chaotic. Sometimes there would be so many people jumping on to get a lift up the road that the doors wouldn’t be able to close. The road had become so potholed that the driver had given up trying to avoid them and everyone just held on for life when we approached the particularly deep ones. The driver continuously chewed sunflower seeds between cigarettes and every now and again we would pass a pro-EU billboard that would spark up revolutionary discussions that I couldn’t understand.
Eventually our surroundings become deep beautiful forests which soon become blanketed in a thick layer of snow: beautiful, beautiful snow. The kind of snow that provokes images of snow-covered mountains spotted with skiers relying on faith and gravity to get them to the bottom of each slope with 4 healthy limbs.
Soon there was Chaos on the bus, people started jumping off and the bus driver ran outside… it seemed that the bumpy ride had taken it’s toll with one of our stowaways, she collapsed onto the snow-covered ground and I watched as fellow passengers poured cold water onto her face and hands. The bus was chaotic but it soon seemed to be decided that some passengers would stay with the poor woman and the rest of us would continue on our journey.
And then I saw it… ‘Bukovel’. It was real and just as spectacular as google images had promised. Eastern-European holidayers strolled pass cute holiday cottages in fluro winter-wear straight out of the 90’s; skis or snowboards under their arms strolling to the long ski lifts clung to the side of the mountains delivering it’s passengers to the top of the magnificent slopes.
I’m sure if I had some ability to speak or understand Ukranian or Russian my day would have been much easier, or at least more simple… but it turns out all you need is a destination and determination and you can find yourself in one of the most beautiful parts of Ukraine in a heartbeat.