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Hiking the Ukrainian countryside
“I’d rather be a forest than a street, yes, I would, if I only could I surely would…”
When you feel like getting away from it all, you don’t necessarily have to think in terms of going to exotic islands, deserted by people and by God, or of hitchhiking across Europe, to feel the gentle touch of life, to escape from the air-polluted drabness of the city streets, all you've got to do is get out of town, walk off the road and strike across the fields to meet the eternity.
Romko Malko takes a several-days trip through rural Ukraine to the places that remember Taras Shevchenko, a pivotal figure in Ukrainian culture.
As a rule the eternity turns out to be close at hand. Once, when I applied for and failed to get the Schengen Visa and with my plan to go to Amsterdam thus falling through, I crammed whatever I thought might be needed on a walking tour into my backpack, walked out into the street, got to the thoroughfare leading south, and hitched a ride. Three hours and several cigarettes later, with the trees by the side of the road, villages, lonely figures of people, gardens and fields, low and tall hills flicking by, and my ears plugged with tiny headphones, we got to the town of Bohuslav.
It was not my destination but the motorist who gave me the ride did not go any further, and I got out. According to tradition, it was there, in that small town, standing on the red granite, that a Ukrainian girl, named Marusya Bohuslavka was born in the times of old; the Tartars captured Marusya during a raid and sold her to the harem of a Turkish bigwig. She contrived to get the keys from the prison where a lot of the Zaporizhian Cossacks — prisoners of war — were kept and released them. The Cossacks captured a ship in the harbour and sailed across the sea back to Ukraine. The kobzars (kobzar is a bard who recites dumas — epic poems — and accompanies himself on the multi-string bandura — tr.) sang dumas about Marusya which have ever since been performed in Ukraine. In addition to being Marusya’s birthplace, Bohuslav boasts a fine, fast-flowing river, Ros, which foams through the narrow rocky defile. The rapids there are believed to be similar to the ones that once used to grace the mighty Dnipro river. Local kids — the most daring of them that is — squeeze into barrels and drift down the river and through the rapids doing the local “extreme sport.”
Walking through Bohuslav, I found it to be rather a picturesque place — granite rocks, little houses surrounded by orchards, an old church by a big market place. The market place — “bazaar” — merits a separate mention. Geese, horses, hens, chickens; basketfuls of fruits, onions, potatoes; bagfuls of flour, sugar and grain; wagon wheels, scythes, spades and shovels; old women wearing traditional headscarves, some of them several, one on top of the other; jars of milk, mounds of eggs and piles of cheese; bearded old men; Gypsies; young girls weaving their way through the motley crowd and among all these wares and stands; quiet calves and bleating goats; ancient trucks; peasant wagons with colourful women of different ages ensconced in them — all these animals and people make an amazing variety of sounds, all of them at the top of their human, or animal voices — bargaining, barking, calling out wares, shouting, screaming. The din was of so many decibels that I felt my hat would be blown off my head any moment. I don’t think any supermarket in Kyiv, even the biggest ones, can hold a candle to the selection of foods and things offered at the Bohuslav open-air market. Among the more unlikely iems you can find there ancient musical instruments, old photographs, faded decorative towels of the kind you see in the museums, plus so much more, all offered for a song since nobody knows how much these curios and antiques can actually fetch.
I go on
A small bus, a survivor of the era long gone, took me to a village sitting among the hills, and disappeared in a cloud of dust. The village is Stebliv, located at the junction of Kyiv and Chernihiv Oblasts. I decided I’d walk rather than hitchhike to the place where Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian Dante, or a Ukrainian Byron, or, without seeking any comparisons, arguably the greatest of Ukrainian poets, was born slightly less than two centuries ago. I figured it was not too long a walk to the village of Moryntsi, lost among the hills, gardens and groves.
It was so quiet, no cars in sight; several kids, squatting by a huge puddle, sailed small paper and wooden boats across the rippled expanse of the water. I walked but a short time before a car overtook me. The driver offered a lift. I climbed in and told him I was on a sort of pilgrimage to the birthplace of Shevchenko and to other places connected with him. The driver was definitely pleased to hear that. He turned out to be the head of a collective farm, on his way home from the market. He invited me to spend some time at his place, offering to “unwind, go fishing, and just enjoy yourself.” He related to me all the latest local news, boasted of the farm achievements, pointing to the fields and explaining which crops were being raised there. In fact, anybody who turns up there and announces their intention to experience “Shevchenko’s world” will be treated in such a hospitable manner. Several useful pieces of advice will also be thrown in — also for free.
One of my uplifting discoveries was that the people living there were very friendly, generous, and not spoiled by civilization, as a popular phrase goes. You will not be allowed to go starving, that’s for sure — knock on the door of any house and ask for directions, or for water “to quench thirst,” strike a conversation and almost without fail you’ll be invited to share a meal. You’ll not only be fed — you’ll be provided with food “for the road.” Neither do you have to worry about where to spend the night. There are no hotels in that area, but you will be a welcome guest practically in any peasant house. You’ll be provided with a bed, clean sheets, and you’ll be treated to so many stories, true and tall, that you’ll be seeing exciting dreams in Technicolour all night long.
Your two legs are probably the best means of transportation there; the locals also use bicycles and horse-drawn wagons. There is some bus service, but it would be a mistake to rely on a bus arriving or leaving on time. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to get anywhere — and there seems to be no reason at all to be in a hurry at all.
The scenery is strikingly familiar from the old pictures — the low, thatched houses with the walls prettified by white clay; tall poplars, fences woven from willow branches; ponds; rushes and reeds by the river; cows everywhere, not necessarily at the pasture; chickens scampering at your approach; dirt roads, soft dust and paths winding through the weeds — the time seems to have been standing still since Shevchenko lived there. Not quite, though — after a while you begin to notice modern houses, asphalted roads and streets, new stores and other signs that the world has entered the third millennia, but the general tenor of life does not appear to have changed much since God knows which time.
There’s hardly anything special about the village where Shevchenko was born — there are dozens of villages of the same kind to be found in the general vicinity. Moryntsi is a small place, with no particular landmarks, serene and picturesque. May be a little more “cultured” than the rest — probably because tourists come to Moryntsi from time to time, and even high-ranking officials deign to pay occasional visits. The peasant house in which Shevchenko was born still stands, though it’s more of a replica than an actual thing. There was a fire which did a lot of damage, but now everything has been restored. The house is, of course, a museum, with no one living there. There’s another house, an exact replica of the original one, standing close by. Here are no houses in the village that have been preserved from Shevchenko’s time. A garden has been planted on the slope of a nearby hill in the honour of the poet. I saw goats nibbling grass there. My attempt to get into Shevchenko’s house failed but I struck a conversation with a woman who saw me hanging around and came up to say hello. She told me that the people who had the key are in the fields working. The failure to see the museum had its compensations though — the kind woman who talked to me treated me to some milk — freshly milked by the way — and delicious home-made bread, and to stories about the way things go at Moryntsi. I thanked her and wandered about; my wanderings attracted attention of another person who offered to be my guide.
I visited the local cemetery which was the burial ground for those who died in the Great Famine of 1932–1933. There I saw several old Cossack stone crosses overgrown with ivy, and a great many little mounds over the mass graves, with no names on them; each of the graves contained the remains of hundreds upon hundreds of people who will always remain anonymous, with one big wooden cross standing among all these unmarked graves. One for all of the victims. The few survivors and the locals in general are reluctant to talk about those terrible times. In fact, they do not want to talk about the Soviet times at all. What’s there to tell, really?
When I spotted an old peasant riding in a horse-drawn wagon, I asked him where he was bound for. Budyshch, he said. It is another village connected with Shevchenko. In his young years he was a serf and was actually owned by a landowner, Enhelhard. Among the simple jobs he did was shepherding, and as the sheep grazed, young Shevchenko would sit on the grass, leaning against an oak and writing his verses. The oak is still standing, though its age begins to tell. The local people do what they can to prolong its life. Those boughs that become too heavy for the oak to carry and are in danger of breaking off, are provided with supports. Enhelhard’s mansion has also been preserved in Budyshch, but it is dilapidating and is in a bad need of restoration.
The road meandered through the woods and then among lakes. When I spotted a place I liked and fit to spend the night at, I asked the old peasant to stop. As I thanked him for a ride, he gave me some of his home-grown fragrant tobacco. I pitched my tent by one of the lakes and got down to making kulish. Kulish is an old Cossack dish made of millet and pig fat. By modern health standards it has too much cholesterol in it but it’s so delicious!
It felt so good to be sitting by that lake — spring in full bloom; what a bliss — no one around, no industrial or traffic noise; the woods, lakes, hills in the distance; periwinkles wink at me from the grass, frogs croak in friendly greeting, nightingales warble their love songs; the air is warm, the sky is mysterious, the fragrances emanating from the grass and leaves are wondeful; the murmur and smell of the water in the lake is soothing — a little paradise on earth…
It’s an old name of the village which has been renamed Shevchenkovo. As you approach the village, wind mills greet you. No one has been grinding flour in them for a long time and their sails are turning idly in the wind. They are like ghosts from the past who can still make some creaking noise. It was probably one of such windmills that Don Quixote once attacked — but they say he lived much too long time ago and very far away from the village of Kyrylivka.
There is a statue by the road — a bronze Shevchenko looking after his sheep. The peasant houses and their gardens and front yards in Kyrylivka are kept in good order and some reveal signs of some affluence. Curious children and women look out from above the fences and are glad to give directions. There is quite a good museum in Kyrylivka with all kinds of antique things displayed — old icons, old pictures, old rushnyky (decorative towels), an old cradle, old books, an old loom and yarn, yellowed documents, but there are no exhibits that are directly connected to Shevchenko who was taken by his master to St Petersburg when Shevchenko was quite young. The museum gives you a good idea of what the village looked like at the time when Shevchenko lived there. The museum house is surrounded by a garden full of flowers. Right opposite the museum stands an old, tumbledown house, leaning to one side, with small, blind little windows, with a rotting thatch roof — it must be several centuries old. Nobody bothers either to pull it down or repair, and it’s just standing there, a neglected reminder — of what? There is a house that actually dates to Shevchenko’s time in Kyrylivka — it was a sort of school then and he attended some classes there. It is probably the only house in the village which is over 200 years old and which is protected against ruin by a special structure that covers it on all sides to prevent the inclemency of weather from doing further damage.
There was no sense really to hang out longer in Kyrylivka and I boarded a bus that so conveniently pulled up to the stop right at the time when I thought I should move on. Incidentally, the bus comes to the village only once a day.
It was in Kaniv that Shevchenko wanted to be buried. His body was brought over from St Petersburg by his friends. Shevchenko’s grave is located on the top of a tall hill some distance away from the town of Kaniv. When I stood on that hill I could see very far around. It was a quiet day, with indistinct sounds coming from afar. To get to the grave you have to climb a great many steps which in summer attract a lot of vipers which crawl away with dignity as you approach. There are kobzars sitting by the grave who sing and play — for the tourists who come in droves. A big and really very good museum is situated close by.
At the foot of the hill there used to be a monastery in which aged Cossacks lived out the rest of their life. Legend has it that the monastery with its church and adjacent graveyard one day sank into the ground and disappeared without trace.
Kaniv is a regional centre of Cherkasy Oblast. It stands on high hills facing the Dnipro River. Many tourists come from Kyiv in summer by boats. In fact, Kaniv attracts people of Ukrainian descent from many parts of the world — they make their pilgrimage to Shevchenko’s grave. A great many Ukrainians want to come to Kaniv at least once in a lifetime to pay homage to the person whom they regard as the Prophet of the Ukrainian Nation.
In the small town itself you can always buy fresh fish, old-style embroidered shirts (and really antique ones too) and all kinds of souvenirs. The town boasts a big old church and nice sand beaches. Close to the town is situated a huge artificial lake which came into being thanks to a dam that was built across the Dnipro.
I spent the night in a pine forest close to the river bank. In the morning, I took a swim and then took pictures of beavers that were grooming themselves in the warm rays of the morning sun. I slowly walked along a road which I hoped would take me to the wharf. The small waves of the “Kaniv Sea” were lapping against the concrete waterfront, the sun was getting hotter by the minute, the crickets were chirping increasingly louder, and my pace kept slowing down. I could hardly move my legs. And then a small bus pulled up and a pretty, cheerful, dark-haired girl looked out of the window and offered a lift. I climbed in. There were several other girls in the bus, all wearing white overalls. They turned out to be quality inspectors checking the milk the local farmers sell to the dairy factory. As I settled down, the girls began to sing Ukrainian songs — evidently, not for my benefit, but just because they were in a mood for it. I thought to myself — You’d never experience a thing like this in Kyiv! It felt so good to be riding in that ancient bus, listening to the white-clad girls sing.
Later, I boarded a hydrofoil which would take me back to Kyiv. I stood at the stern, looking into the wake that was being left behind the boat moving at a great speed; a girl and a young man were standing at the railing and kissing, oblivious of everything around them; a boom box was playing music that was almost completely drowned by the noise of the engine and churning water; the sun was setting and the golden domes of the Lavra Monastery high on one of the hills of Kyiv, sparkled invitingly from afar…
Well, that’s all I wanted to tell you.
Photos by Romko Malko