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Rakhiv to Meszgori: traversing polonino life in the high Carpathians ...


From the hot stagnant air in the town of Rakhiv we began rising, the horses sweating, Mike doing well to keep up with his backpack and video equipment. (For those of you who haven’t read last update, Mike Dillon, film maker, cinematographer, camera man joined me on May 24th for three weeks of filming). As we rose, the far side of the valley looked like fenced paddocks on the flats that had been turned up at right angles to the earth. Even the steep slopes here are fenced off for harvesting hay. Far above and beyond these hay plots lay forest, and beyond that, back lit by the sun, the open green alpine pasture (polonino). It took us until after lunch time to finally reach the alpine grass that covers the earth like a soft padded blanket. Up here the slightest breeze took the pinch out of the heat, and any hint of a cloud exposed the fragility of the sun’s warmth. It is here of course, on the polonino every summer that herders migrate to from the valley with sheep, cows, horses and even rabbits, chickens and turkeys.

You can hear a polonino ranch long before you see it. The animals all wear bells, and from the greatest distance there is a constant jingle. We soon passed families, the younger boys and girls running with long leather whips yelping with glee at sheep and cows to move on. Away from the fences, the heat, the road, there was something in these people’s faces, a lack of stress, a child like freedom, much like I saw time and time again among the nomads of the steppe. Further along two rough men with huge white shepherd dogs from the Czech republic were herding their sheep and came to greet me. Their hands were so tough and hardened that it was difficult to imagine that they had any feeling left in them. They had already been up on the Polonino for a month and would be up here until October. “You got any cigarettes? Coffee? Vodka? Give me a horse, sell me a horse! Give me a strap, a belt or something.” They asked directly. This also was much like the nomads of Mongolia and Kazakhstan who are deprived of the luxuries that those in the towns take for granted.

The air grew cool by evening and in honey sunlight we came over a rise to surprise a herd of horses grazing. They were scared at first but as I moved ahead of them they all began to follow me. This rush of hooves, and a view over both sides of the ridge that suggested we were walking on clouds.

By about 8pm we had arrived at ‘Stari Polonino.’ Overlooking a valley on the South-West side of the ‘Svedovets’ ridge, smoke trailed from several grey weathered shacks. Tigon was greeted by ‘Bossy’ a fluffy sheep dog who attacked, but was soon licking his wounds and being dragged back to his dog house. Fortunately the locals were much friendlier and offered us fresh milk and yoghurt! This first family were in charge of grazing and milking about 60 cows. Once a week a four wheel drive truck or a horse and cart would come up to collect the milk. Several hundred metres below was the sheep station. Three tiny shacks puffed with smoke, and a larger one was strung up with all kinds of cheese products in netting. We made camp between the two stations and soon the local horses had come to inspect my newcomers. Ogonyok, Tasjonir, and Kok were more interested though in munching away on the virgin alpine spring grass. The horses always calm down and eat well when the temperature drops below about 15 degrees, and so one had the feeling that the Polonino was the natural place for a horse in summer.

Before setting up camp we went down to the sheep station where the process of making sheeps cheese was underway. In the smokey hut a huge cauldron was bubbling with milk. Not being familiar with the process of cheese making, I understood that they separate the curds from the whey, and then from a tiny sheeps stomach they add culture. The cheese is then put in netting and drained. Down in the valley it is mixed with cows milk, salted, sometimes smoked, and sold as Brinza, the ubiquitous mountain cheese of the Carpathians.

What astonished me was that the wiry young boys taking charge of the cheese making, chopping firewood, herding sheep were not in fact helpers, they ran the polonino! There were three of them, Vasil, Bugdan, and another boy, all about sixteen or seventeen and had the responsibility of herding, protecting and milking 400 sheep! Vasil had a long face with the kind of humor and wise expression when he smiled of someone much older. He was one of eight children and you could see that not only was he aware of his future as a polonino herder, but was proud and enthusiastic about it. His huge strong hands dominated his tiny narrow shoulders and long wiry arms and legs. He took us to his hut that looked more like a tiny cubby house with just enough room for a wooden rack as a bed and a wood stove. He chopped more firewood and stoked his hut, telling and showing us that he slept with no blankets. He would just lie down on the wooden bed on an old woolen mat and sleep. He had to be ready at any time to wake and protect the sheep from wolves and bears. The three huts for these boys were set out in a triangle, within which the sheep slept at night. As the temperature dropped and the stars blinked on the polonino seemed more open and exposed than during the day. It was amazing, these tiny boys, in tiny shacks, in such a huge and dangerous world with such responsibility on their shoulders. What was more amazing they seemed to take this work in their stride, were happy in their role, and more than once I had the inkling that for these three boys they were living out boyhood dreams of adventure. Bugdan had a little radio, a bottle of vodka and a knife in his hut and was very proud of it- he built in in a day. They were little men playing adults in a real world.

Things got started at 2am local time (4am Kiev Time)- people in the far west consider themselves part of central Europe, not part of Ukraine and so everyone has their clocks on Czech an Hungary time, not standard Ukraine time. Not that Mike and I were really up to it. We rose, but decided that it was more sensible to film during the day. The boys must milk all 400 sheep three times a day- one at 2 am, one at 10 am, and once at 6pm. At a more human hour after the boys had already milked once and traversed half the mountainside herding the sheep, Mike filmed, while I watched and took part in a milking session. All the sheep were in a yard, from which the only exits led straight to a bench where the boys, and a fourth helper sat. An old man who was up on the Polonino for a week to help was in the yard pushing the sheep to the exit. I watched Bugdan’s skill as he smoked a cigarette, caught an exiting sheep by the leg, blocked the next sheep from running out, and then proceeded to milk into a bucket. At one stage the cigarette fell into the milk. He threw it out with an expression of ‘well, what can I say, I am only sixteen, I promise I won’t be so clumsy when I am an old and hardened herder!’ The four men/boys sat joking, laughing, never pausing from either their work or their humor, milking away as the flock of sheep gradually shrank inside the yard.  I had a go at milking too, and the boys found great amusement that my aim was so poor- most of the milk ended up on my trousers or on the ground and not in the bucket. Once the buckets were all full, vasil led the procession to the hut where the milk was emptied into a wooden barrels and prepared for boiling. It must have taken them two hours to milk all sheep after which they returned for a quick slurp of soup and headed off again into the hills with the sheep.

On the second night of our stay I slept terribly and tigon barked incessantly. Apparently there had been a wolf in the area and the boys had also been up most the night keeping the sheep from fleeing.

We also spent time with the family at the cow station, and after just 36 hours at the polonino we felt as if we had been there far longer. Tigon had been sick for two to three days, and was finally returning to life. We joked that he was love sick after having to leave his new found girlfriend behind in Krivorivnya. His sickness probably had more to do though with a combination of eating raw pig lungs, a stomach, and from drinking water out of a toilet in Rakhiv!!!

With Boris we set off through large green domes overlooking deciduous forests to which trickled untold streams down rocky gullies. We spent the next night with a family who adorned us with vodka literally. We had to drink a bottle at lunch, which they said would just get us through to dinner when another bottle would be opened. Banoch, which is a hutsul dish of corn porridge mixed with cream was served later, and it warmed our bellies and put the vodka fire out.

From here we rose beyond more Polonino stations to the high ridge where once again, as on the Chorna Gora ridge, we greeted descending clouds, mist, and rain. Soon visibility was down to about 50-100 metres and Boris was cold, wet and shivering. No one knew the way to Ust Chorna, the next town on our route, and now with heavy mist Boris was just guessing. Mike left him our poncho as a gift and he literally ran off, scampering down a steep slope littered with snow drifts desperate to get back to a Polonino and dry off/warm up. At this point I realized he had led us down the wrong spur and so we returned up to the top of the mountain into the mist and rain, and then took a different path. Every now and then the mist parted for a moment and tiny glades, thick boreal forest, and emerald green slopes came into view as if from the tiny window of a plane. The rain continued until well after midday by which time everything was drenched and even Tigon’s spirits were a little bit dampened.  As often happens in the evening though the mist began to be torn apart by wind, and as it lifted it revealed a serpentine shaped ridge with many rounded peaks. In the far distance flocks of sheep could be seen like schools of fish moving as one this way and that, sometimes idling, sometimes at great speed.  Towards evening we found a small flat area and parked out tents. The last of the mist was scuttled away by the breeze and we were left with a view of clouds nestling into deep valleys far below back dropped by a fiery sunset.

It took another one and a half days to get down to the valley and Ust Chorna. It was a different world with heat, dust, and log trucks often rumbling past on rocky roads. In Russkaya Mokra I  was tailed by children on bikes and foot who brought grass for the horses. Passed through an old German village, then again turned up to the mountains through a high pass on what was supposed to be a main road. It was actually two wheel tracks in a stony river bed (in which the water was running!)- apparently the map was made at the same time as the ‘plans’ were made for a real road. By sundown we arrived at a home on the outsikirts of Kolochava. Fedor and his wife who were busy cutting and drying hay took us in for a much appreciated night of luxury in real soft beds.

The following two days were stinking hot, and Mike joked that it was ‘national rake day.’ The streets and fields were teeming with people with wooden rakes and scythes, cutting, drying, loading hay, and often carting it off by horse. On Friday morning on the middle of the road we were shouted with fresh beer, Tigon with water, and the horses with hay. Meanwhile the cars had to somehow detour around out little party on the road. The men shouted ‘See, tell them in Australia that we Ukrainians are friendly and hospitable, we like guests!” Well, the Ukrainians may like guests, but in this valley finding a place for horses to stay overnight was another issue all together. Out of principle no one would even accept a good quantity of money to have my horses in their paddock, or to sell me hay for a night. This was despite the fact that their own horses were running around in their freshly cut paddocks, and the fact that in this area there is usually a surplus of hay. It was so ironic: in Kazakhstan where every blade of grass counted and hay was trucked in a great expense, and animals often died due to tough conditions, the locals always understood that my horses were deserving and offered fodder. Here I was surrounded by waist high green grass and stacks upon stacks of hay, but out of principle the people would not even sell me hay for one night! Would their animals really suffer from having three horses for one night? It is a mystery that I don’t quite understand, but as I move west I do have the feeling that individual homes are like individual states, fortresses, and the people isolate themselves, get jealous of their neighbours, and so caught up in their own worlds. It is a far cry from the open steppe and no boundary hospitality of the polonino, but it is still far more communal than the reality I know of in the Western world. Will this mentality of fences, defending private property beyond common sense be something that only increases as I venture further west?

Having had that whinge session, of course it was nice to arrive in Meszgori on Friday afternoon in the heat to be greeted by music, women in traditional dress, and a special guest bread. The local administration had arranged things with the Karpati tourist lodge, and there was great fanfare oiled with the usual vodka and pig fat. Soon the horses were grazing in the lodge’s own grassy yards, tigon was eating oily slops from the kitchen, and Mike and I were in an old soviet style room overlooking the horses. By morning a local had brought me a 40kg bag of oats as a gift, and I felt guilty for having bad thoughts about the locals in the valley of Kolochava at all. Things are changing though as I come west- the fences in themselves symbolize a very different world.

Mike left to Kiev on Saturday with about 25 hours or footage, and today flies out to Australia. I have really appreciated his company, and Tigon will sorely miss him. While I did much of the last three weeks on horseback Mike did it mostly on foot and filming at times in very difficult conditions. It was nice to be able to share such a special part of the trip with someone from Australia, and to know that it has all been so skillfully recorded. I have been filming the journey from the outset, and now a series of documentaries is planned. Anyway that is far from my reality now. I have to somehow get to the border with Hungary now, get my horses through the bureaucratic jungle, and finish the journey on the Danube. I am aiming for a finish in the second half of September.

A big thanks to Mike for his dedication, and to the many people including the Mesgori tourist lodge for making our stay possible, giving us so much insight into local culture, and most importantly helping to wine and dine my horses!


Latitude: 48° 30 Min. 22 Sec.

Longitude: 23° 30 Min. 34 Sec.

Click to see where Tim is on a detailed map.