We had not expected a border post. This was not a border. Way over the other side of a high pass through the Carpathian Mountains lay Romania, but this small village nestling in a valley by a rushing river was in Ukraine, wholly in Ukraine, and we were anyway not taking the turning for Romania but continuing only a few kilometres more up a side valley to what our guides, Stas, Elena and Igor, said was a ‘rough’ mountain hostel. ‘Not hotel – not hotel – understand?’ said Elena, in the confrontational way of talking that an Englishman might mistake for anger, but is just the way Ukrainians, who are rather mild and helpful people, speak.
There was no mistaking the boom-barrier over the dirt road, the huge military-style cap on the head of the official beside it, or his request for passports. Slightly less straightforward was the signal sent by his dirty white shirt, unbuttoned by the swelling belly, and by his trouser-flies, which were undone. He looked a little unfocused.
Passports were procured, a bottle of beer offered and accepted, and after a while the boom was lifted for our van. We continued up our track, taking with us, at his request, the border guard in his cap, now a passenger. He was holding some keys. It turned out he was also the warden of the hostel.
Set in a clearing by a stream in a high, dark pine forest, our destination looked, in the gathering dusk, like the Addams family mansion: tall, gothic, built entirely of wood, with turrets. Like so much in Ukraine it was not so much ruined as in a state of disrepair. The refrain of the Ukrainian national anthem translates ‘Ukraine is not dead yet’, and this is applicable beyond politics.
The border guard unlocked a series of rooms with sagging beds, one of which the border guard indicated – by gesture and grunt – would be his own. He was given another beer and stared at the wall. I made my room in a turret with what looked like a dead animal, and was in fact a bearskin complete with head, on the floor.
A fire was lit while hard-working Elena prepared the food: good cold meats and cheeses, black bread, plentiful fruit and the dish beloved of Ukrainians, called (I have no idea how to spell it in roman script) sallow. This is pig fat: pure, white pig fat, cut in great blocks, salted and served (with a sort of get-this-down-yer-neck-boy relish) in strips the size of Mars bars. You eat the whole strip, then, between unnumbered toasts (knocking back a whole glass of pepper-and-honey-flavoured vodka in one swallow), you eat another. You ingest, in an evening, something like the health-conscious Englishman’s entire annual intake of saturated fat. I mentioned the health aspect to Stas, who at once proposed more toasts – to the heart.
The border guard staggered around, staring in a distracted and vacant way into the middle distance. The next morning I saw him walking purposelessly this way and that in the dewy grass outside, same uniform complete with cap, but barefoot now. Gathering up our rucksacks and sleeping bags, we bade him farewell.
We spent that day walking uphill through forest, our Ukrainian friends diving off into it for mushrooms, into the banks by the side of the path for bilberries, blackcurrants, raspberries and cranberries, and over the rocks for a lichen which, boiled in milk, apparently cures colds. Ukrainians are relentless gatherers. Climbing 3,000 feet we emerged into alpine meadows and stopped at a wooden hut by a spring where a family who could have emerged from a 300-year-old time warp kept cows and pigs and made sallow and smoked cheese.
Just before sundown, on a high ridge which was once the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia, we reached a ruined stone military lookout. This place, too, had its resident oddball: a young outcast from Odessa who sat, 50 yards away from our tents, and stared. ‘Here we are,’ I heard my friend Jon mutter beneath the flap of the cold night wind on canvas, ‘in one of the largest and least populated countries in Europe: four people in a two-man tent.’ Stas and Elena gave us beer and sallow for breakfast.
A day’s walk up and over a nearly 7,000-ft bare mountain brought us, by dusk, stumbling down through the forest into an extraordinary place. In the middle of densely wooded and uninhabited nowhere, at the end of an ill-maintained track, stood a massive concrete construction built in the style of a bottom-of-the-range package-holiday ski hotel. It had been a ‘gymnastic centre’, said Elena, in Soviet days. On its many floors and endless, bleak, unpainted corridors, each with a flea-infested lavatory at the end, there must have been a hundred rooms, but the place was empty. We would be the only guests. We sat in a lounge as big as a small airport and twice as high, containing a single television and some old wall posters, and waited for our bed-linen, brought by an energetic lady with a steely smile. For dinner there was sallow. There were also many, many toasts.
‘The showers are cold until morning,’ said Elena, ‘but the sauna-room is being heated now. First the ladies, then the men.’ So we men drank another toast while Elena, little Oxana, big Oxana, and our friends Edwina and Sarah headed towards the smell of steam. More alarmingly, Stas, Sasha and Igor headed out into the dark with a small axe.
An hour later the women emerged flushed from the sauna, and the Ukrainian men emerged breathing hard from the forest, carrying boughs of pine. Hesitantly we followed them into the sauna and, with them, stripped naked.
I have never sat in a hotter sauna. I have never stood under colder showers. And I have never before been whipped with pine branches. When your tormentor holds the hot foliage to your back, you feel as a muffin must when the muffin-iron slams down. An hour was as much we could take, but it was marvellous. Beds had never seemed softer.
Breakfast in the concrete barn of a dining-room featured sallow. It was then that I noticed, staring out from the Soviet brutalism all around, an immense Virgin Mary, newly painted on the wall. As Anna Reid’s Borderland – the book which had brought me there – so vividly illustrates, this is a changing place: a contradictory, hard-bitten, generous mess of a country.
Ukraine is bewildering. Ukraine is bewildered. I will never forget our short walk in the Carpathian Mountains.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.