The beaten track is often your best bet, even if you don’t know where the hell it is…
Borders are unnatural places. Arbitrarily negotiated by men in cities far away, borders girdle the earth, separating communities, currencies and cultures by barbed wires, Kalashnikovs and frowns. Be they grandiose or morose, borders nevertheless excite the traveller as they grant an acknowledgment of movement, a stamp in the passport that officially declares your spatial existence.
Borders attract their own populations: smugglers, hikers and bemused locals whose nationality has been dictated to them from above. And so it is in the Trans-Carpathian region, home of the Rusyn people. A mountainous zone in Western Ukraine, it once separated the Russian Empire from the Habsburg, and now separates the European Union from the former Soviet Union. Here, two Budapest-based tourists tried to find a "beaten track" in the remote hinterland.
Ukraine’s border town is Chop. We stood in a one carriage-long Hungarian train for twenty minutes while it rolled past military checkpoints and graveyards, until we were deposited at the passport check. A mild interrogation: "Turizm?" ended with a backpack search before passage was allowed. Beyond, two giant Soviet murals no one felt the need to remove celebrated the glory of socialism.
We settled on a park bench to plot our search for experiences over a cigarette. There was a stirring on the other side of the square, and from behind the trees emerged a bedraggled old lady. Stumbling and grumbling, dragging her legs slowly toward us with one hand poking out from her rags, she bared her teeth. "Tobacco," she murmured. We gave her a bundle of rolling tobacco which she shoved into her mouth. "Cigarette," she murmured less eloquently through her teeth as she munched. We agreed with the tacit understanding that she’d leave. Alone, we smoked, watching taxi drivers going nowhere, deciding to bus into the regional capital, Uzhhorod.
The hotel was encouraging… Rising to thirteen or so concrete storeys, it towered above the Orthodox Church opposite. For €7 each, the hotel’s information sheet promised to "put the part of our soul in service to each guest" and promisingly advertised its "modern interior" and "suitable location". Modernity? We found that "modernity" means that instead of going to the bother of verbally telling a chambermaid that we are leaving, a labour-saving phone provides this service at the end of the hallway.
Less promising… the restaurants nearly all closed by 10pm. We chose the only one available from the many restaurants pretending to be Italian. Having fended off starvation and being killed by Mafiosi in the ‘Cosa Nostra’ borsch house, we sat in pleasant sobriety, discussing life in Uzhhorod (versus Budapest), agreeing over our sour wine to leave earlier for dinner the next day and to try the mountains for beauty and adventure.
Being wannabe tourists, we asked Intourist staff about villages. Once learning that we spoke Hungarian, they confidently suggested Kostryino, about 90 km north. Hungarian is widely spoken there as an informal language for social interaction (swearing at foreigners on buses).
The journey into the mountains was hilly and the road ropey, leading one poor child to regularly vomit into a half opened umbrella presented by his patient father. Two hours later we entered fresh air and not much else but a single street lined with small bungalows, most with chickens running around, others with old women standing in front.
As if inspecting us, they watched with benevolent curiosity. The gate to a house with a hotel sign had swung open in the wind. The phone number of someone called Aniya was posted, but we were told that the hotel was closed. "Nyet sevodnya" she said, abruptly hanging up. Having little choice, we walked for half an hour in gathering wind, holding off rain with nothing but willpower. The weather went bipolar, one minute giving sunshine and the next lashing us with rain. We arrived at a bright blue building under a copse… a hotel. The outside of the building was festooned with flags from Slovakia, Poland and Hungary.
Luckily, the hotel had some sort of restaurant. Unluckily, it was rendered unusable by an international conference. A taxi driver took pity on us and in almost fluent Hungarian offered to take us back to Uzhhorod. Ten minutes later he returned to tell us that his bosses wanted a film crew taken into the mountains. Hungry, humiliated by our failure to find a good time, we sat by the side of the road in the damp and drizzle.
Thumbs out, we managed an emergency hitch-hike back to the capital. Along the way, we learned what the Rusyn people well know: In Trans-Carpathia, the only beaten track is out…
words and pictures Toby Youell