Western Ukraine Road Trip

 Beautiful rainbow in Ukraine (by Peter Santenello)

“Western Ukraine, Western Ukraine, you have to see Western Ukraine.” Ever since I moved to Ukraine, people have told me this. I’ve heard repetitively that the West is different from the rest of the country. So finally… finally, I went. I’ve always been a huge fan of road trips. It’s that feeling of adventure, freedom, and the unknown coexisting with a gas pedal, music, and laughter. Living without transportation in Kyiv occasionally makes me feel confined, so trips like these are exceptionally special.

My girlfriend and I took the night train to Ivano-Frankivsk. There’s always the first observation when in a new place. Mine was the complete absence of the Russian language in the air.

VIDEO OF WESTERN UKRAINE

https://www.facebook.com/peter.santenello/videos/10156340151475661/

We rented a car and pointed it south. The open road, the fresh air, and the smell of trees instead of car emissions brought more awareness to my thought. The excitement of expanding into new geography brought energy into my soul. And connecting with my girlfriend outside of our normal routine brought an invigorating change.

The landscape started flat and transformed into hills. Copious amounts of churches dotted the landscape. Many of them looked different from what I’ve seen in the rest of the country. Ukrainians know this, but I didn’t know about Greek Catholicism and it’s prevalence in the western part of the country.

The trees came closer to the road and at times formed a partial canopy over it. Everything around us brought us into its world of healthy green. But to get deep green it takes grey, and for the next few days the skies darkened and poured copious amounts of rain.

We found a small break in the weather and made a dash for Mount Hoverla. We weren’t the only ones as we entered the full parking lot. The hike started with rays of sun filtering through tree branches and falling on the large ferns below. That fleeting moment disappeared as the skies opened up once again with precipitation.   The trail was busy, but nobody turned around as parts of it transformed into a river.

People put on their plastic raincoats and acted like it was part of the process. Hands and arms reached out on different parts of the trail as people helped each other over the slippery terrain.

 Peter Santenello on Mount Hoverla in Ukraine

We saw everything from an old man with a shopping bag and a cane, to a four-year-old make it to the top. And the top was a festivity. A large group of people had champagne out. The Ukrainian flags blew strongly in the wind. And overall there was a deeply connected feel like we were all in on this mission together.

Time and time again I’ve said the number one asset in Ukraine is the connectivity of the people. The Hoverla hike deeply reaffirmed this observation.

Days later we drove south toward the Romanian border. Before we got to Romania it felt like we already started entering the country. The Romanian language took over the radio; some of the people looked more Romanian, and the feel was somewhat foreign from the Ukraine I had seen up until this point.

Borders are always odd places, and this one was no exception. There are usually people making a lot of money from dodgy behavior. The huge houses on both sides of the road confirmed this. It’s not like there was a city or and big industry in this town where anyone could make any money; there was only a border to make money. Some of the houses looked like castles, many of them were incomplete.

We went into Romania momentarily, turned around, and drove through the late afternoon sun to our second accommodation in the foothills of the Carpathians.

We stayed at a guesthouse high up over the valley. The owner Vitaly built it during the last few years. The road was inoperable so we had to walk a kilometer to get to his place. Our room opened up a stunning view of the vast landscapes below.

No five-star hotel can offer an experience like this. Because the thing about money is that you can never buy passion and soul. And Vitaly has both elements in abundance; he cares for his guests and the world he’s created like they are his babies.

The Carpathians aren’t the Himalayas, the Caucasus, or the Alps, there aren’t any huge peaks with dramatic landscapes. But they are beautiful and timeless, rich in story and discovery.  In our short time, we only scratched the surface. Western Ukraine, Western Ukraine you are different… and I will return.

 Peter Santenello in Western Ukraine

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