After a few days in Brasov, Romania, I aimed in the direction of Moldova. Through the northeast of Romania the Carpathian mountains head north towards Ukraine. They’re much less dramatic than the southern Carpathian, but still pretty. Downstream of Red Lake is Bicaz Canyon, which is a passageway from Transylvania to Moldavia. Caves are hidden throughout the canyon.
Soon after you reach Bicaz Lake, the largest artificial lake in Romania. Nearly 20 villages had to be displaced for the project.
After camping along a peaceful river in the middle of nowhere, I made my way east towards Moldova and the border on the southern edge of Stanca Costesti Lake. I knew I didn’t require a visa for Moldova, but didn’t anticipate the motorcycle paperwork problems. I carry copies of my registration and don’t have the original with me, which had never been an issue in the first 27 countries I entered along the way. Also, I have Green Card insurance, which covers all the European Union countries. The ones that aren’t covered are crossed off on the slips. Sometimes when entering these excluded countries they will make you buy some cheap third-party insurance, but I hadn’t even had to do that yet. The border police never seemed to care.
The man at the Moldova border, in broken english, kept insisting on the original registration, which I don’t have. Then upon inspecting my green card showed me repeatedly that Moldova was crossed off, thus I couldn’t enter. It appeared I needed Moldovan insurance, but the tiny border had no booths selling it. After a long wait, he brought out a form he had filled out and wanted me to sign it before I left. It was strange and had something to do with being denied entry to Moldova, so I declined signing it. There is another border about 70 km to the north so I went there for another try. I was a little worried that they would notice in my passport that I’d just exited and re-entered Romania an hour before at the other border, but they were all super friendly on the Romanian side. I got to the Moldovan side and as soon as they looked at my Green Card I could see it wasn’t going to happen. They are very adamant on having insurance, and a bribe didn’t seem welcome. Being another tiny border crossing, there were no booths to buy any. So after exiting Romania twice, I was right back to where I started.
The mistake I made was using these borders. I should have used the main crossing, which heads to the capital, Chisinau. A buddy of mine used that one a few days later and he was able to buy insurance for $2.50. Moldova would have to wait and Ukraine was up next. Trying to cross the borders took up a lot of time and dusk set in quickly. I had some good luck and at the moment I started thinking about camping a pretty lake appeared. After following a rough farm track through tall grass, I found the perfect camping spot overlooking the lake. The flat still waters were only disturbed by the birds gliding in for a soft landing and reflections of the sunset and clouds.
The next morning I entered Ukraine, which is also crossed off on my Green Card, but they didn’t even ask for it. The young border police were friendly in every way and there were some of the prettiest women in cammo I’ve ever seen. When I was about to leave, the young guy who dealt with my passport came out and stopped me. He proceeded to take the badge off his uniform and give it to me. One of the coolest gifts I’ve gotten along the way.
After a few days in Chernivtsi, which is a great University city, I made my way to the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains. The Chornogora range is home to the highest peaks, crystal lakes, and some beautiful hikes. After getting hit by torrential rains and camping in the rain, I woke up to a gorgeous day for climbing Mt. Hoverla. The Chornogora range has unpredictable weather, which includes blasting rain, but I enjoyed nothing but sun. It’s Ukraine’s highest peak at 2061 meters, but along the range are others near that, like Mt. Pip Ivan at 2021 meters. The hike up Mt. Hoverla starts from Zaroslyak, a bumpy rocky ride from Vorokhta. It’s not a long distance to the top, but a steep thigh burning climb most the way.
The views get prettier quickly of the surrounding landscape. In May there’s still plenty of snow around with the first wildflowers poking through.
Once you’ve reached the top of Mt. Hoverla you are rewarded with 360 degree views. The Chornogora range stretches to the north and far to the south.
Some Ukrainian flags, memorials, and a giant cross are placed on the top. Locals bring up champagne and beer to celebrate being on the highest peak of they’re country.
A trial leads south along the ridge of the range following the peaks and passing alpine lakes on the way to Mt Pip Ivan. I continued along this trail and had it completely to myself. Almost everyone just goes to the top of Hoverla and then returns the same way, but there’s so much more beauty to see. Eventually I had to break off the trail and head back down. If you have the time, it would be a great place for a multi-day trek with camping.
Throughout the thinly populated Carpathian mountains are nice hotels set in gorgeous locations. Cozy cute places that are super cheap. A really nice room at this peaceful hotel in Yablunytsia cost me $6. A plate of food was under a dollar.
The region is home to the Hutsuls, an ethno-cultural group of Ukrainians who’ve called the Carpathian mountains home for centuries. They’re part of the broader Rusyn ethnic minority. The name Hutsul has a couple of explanations. One being from “Hotul” the Romanian word for “outlaw” or “the thief”. The other places their origins in the Slavic Kochul, “wanderer” or “migrant”, in reference to the semi-nomadic lifestyle. These are just assertions though and nobody has any real proof or theories. Traditional Hutsul culture is represented by colorful and intricate craftsmanship of clothing, sculpture, architecture, woodworking, metalworking, rug weaving, pottery, and egg decorating. When traveling in the region it’s not hard to find them selling their wares.
To the northwest of the Chornogora range is the Skydovets mountain range. Sometimes called the Ukrainian Alps, it holds small clear lakes and beautiful hiking between peaks. Names like Mount Blyznytsia, Dogyaska, Apshynets, and Vorozheske lure you up into this magical area. Most people start from Yasinia or Ust-Chorna, but I rode up a gnarly road to get a better start at them. An eight km bouldery steep road twists you up to Dragobrat Ski Resort area, the highest in Ukraine. A cluster of hotels sit at the base of some ski lifts where hiking trails head up into the Skydovets range and it’s peaks.
Going up along the ski slopes gets you to a point between Mt. Stig to the north and a chain of peaks to the south. The highest ones are to the south and I took this trail. You reach a few smaller peaks, each one getting higher, until making it to Mt. Blyznytsia at 1883 meters. An amazing area with views down over alpine lakes, which you can pass on the way out.
The trail takes you along some steep rocky drop-offs.
They love their crosses on top of every high point.
Down in an ancient glacial valley, the small lakes lye peacefully reflecting the surrounding snowy mountains. It’s a perfect day hike up into these mountains where you can explore all day and then easily be back to civilization when you’re ready.
I rode through the Borzhava range on my way towards Lviv. The mountain tops lower and slopes more densely covered in pine forests.
Lviv, in western Ukraine, is the second largest city after Kiev. Like another world from eastern Ukraine, it feels much more European. The cobbled streets are fun to wander and there’s a good vibe in the air. People here are very proud to be Ukrainian and patriotic about the war in the east. The war with Russia has had a very negative impact on the economy. I won’t dive into that though. My opinion isn’t important.
An easy walk from the old town (historic center) is up Lviv High Castle or Castle Hill. The highest point in the city is now in ruins, but the top has a nice area to chill and enjoy the views. Through a forested park, you walk paths to a metal staircase that leads you higher before doing a few circles up around the hill and coming out on top.
A big Ukrainian flag flaps in the wind over the city.
Lviv has a good nightlife and we had a few good nights exploring. Probably the most fun, and painful, was Masoch Cafe. Lviv was home to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Austrian author who’s name is used for “sexual pleasure from pain and subjugation”, aka masochism. The father of masochism is still alive in Lviv and his statue stands guard to Masoch Cafe daring you to enter. The dimly lit bar has a good atmosphere and big mugs of beer for a dollar. The cafe isn’t just a place to commemorate masochism though. The steely waitresses are still proudly practicing it. With a bull-whip, they let you know whose boss of the cafe with ten lashings.
While sitting around a large table, laughing, drinking, and being merry, she randomly would come over and poke an unsuspecting victim and demand they stand up. Throughout the night we were all treated in this fashion. After being walked to the head of the table, we were either bent over a chair or pushed onto our knees. Shirts had to come off and she would whisper in your ear a phrase you had to say after each lashing. It is no joke. She really gives it to you and thank god for the alcohol to ease the pain. Our backs were left badly welted with a little bit of broken skin. I was unlucky enough to go through the ordeal twice. A friends girlfriend was given the whip and allowed to choose one of us to take out all her anger on. Of course I was the choice. I was made to say “I love Frank” (a guy we were with) after each whipping. There’s a video and it’s pretty funny. We watched one lady get tied up, whipped, candle-wax dripped on her, and ice-cubes put in places. The boyfriend didn’t look too happy as everyone watched his girlfriend wriggle around in her bra, but she seemed to enjoy it immensely. Almost too much.
Another cool place we found was Kryjivka Cafe. A uniformed guard opens the peep-hole to and says “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine), that’s when you must respond with the code word “Heroyam slava” (Glory to its heroes). It was the greeting used by soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as they waged guerrilla war against the Nazis, Poles and Soviet Union from 1943-49. With this you are let in, and after a shot of hard brown honey alcohol, led downstairs. Inside it’s like an old bunker, probably much better decorated and lighted, complete with grenades, rifles and other military antiques. Good times with cheap booze and food. Every once in a while a guy in uniform fires a few blank shots from a revolver and scare the shit out of you.
Two thing that warm my heart are nice old ladies and flowers, so when you throw the two together I just can’t say no. There are little markets where women sell all kinds of flowers, but also on the streets there are lone woman trying to make a living selling bouquets.
Some of them look like life hasn’t dealt them the easiest hand. The pretty arrangements of different colored flowers are super cheap and I bought a lot of them just to help the ladies out and decorate the dorm room. They were always less than a dollar. Coming home late and drunk we always found good uses for them and would wake up in beds full of smashed petals.