With an unexpected six days off and the weather tricking us into thinking it was getting warmer we decided to dust off our bikes and head out for our first trip of the year. As Sheena had not visited before, we took a train to explore the big beast in the east for a heavy dose of ladas, babushkas and Carpathian landscapes – hello Ukraine! Our aim was to visit Synevir National Park – in particular the parks jewel in the crown and one of Ukraine’s ‘seven natural wonders’ – Synevir mountain lake.
Hungary has an extensive rail network, and just about all routes have services that allow bikes to be carried aboard for a small fee. After darting through rush hour traffic in the rain, stocking up on supplies for the long journey and figuring out our train – we were on the way!
The 300km journey was due to take an almost unbelievable six hours – an average speed of just 50 kph and an unusual route that took us south east before heading north. It wasn’t that the train was slow, but because we stopped every few minutes in little used stations belonging to settlements with more abandoned and rusting machinery than dwellings. About an hour into the journey we were pretty much the only people on the eight carriage train as it rattled its way across the Northern Great Plain.
The weather in the proceeding weeks had been wonderful – cloudless blue skies and warmer temperatures had pulled the region out of spring early – flowers were blooming and Budapest’s street bars were open for business. Of course two days before we left a large cold front swept over central Europe sending temperatures plummeting back to minus numbers and depositing snow over the hills. It felt unusual to be cycling through orchards of cherry and apple blossom while wearing thick winter gloved and wooly hats.
The pace of life in eastern Hungary is pretty slow and relaxed – the remote region was once a wild, bleak land of shepherds and marshes, its now largely agricultural with few settlements – old people in small cottages and Roma settlements.
Crossing the EU border is always an interesting experience – its always a lot more intense than other European crossings and the Hungarian Ukrainian border did not disappoint. As a cyclist you are usually immune to the in depth probes that drivers seem to get, but here we had our bags searched and more questions than usual. Smuggling is big business in this part of the world (although not in this direction) – a packet of cigarettes is less than a dollar in Ukraine, about four in Hungary and up to 12 in western Europe.
After a short no mans land and a brief poke in the bags by Ukrainian guards we were stamped in and cycling free in Ukraine! Straight away the road surface turned to hell, the writing became difficult to read and the frequency of ladas went up considerably!
The Carpathian region of Ukraine (Zakarpattia Oblast) was part of greater Hungary for the best part of 700 years until their poor choice of WW1 buddies meant it was carved away and assigned to Czechoslovakia. A brief period of independence, ownership by Romania followed by the Soviet annexation into Ukraine has resulted in a fairly ethnically mixed region, but one that has only held its current identity for 70 years. The first villages we passed through were very much Hungarian in looks, with only the bad roads and ocational Soviet era imprint setting them apart from the other side of the border. The language spoken was the unmistakable sing song of the Magyar we are familiar with.
We passed through a number of Roma settlements in the region closest to the border, unfortunately the variety of social issues they face mean they don’t have the greatest lot in life – passing through resembled a life style more similar to Nepal than one you would expect at the fringe of Europe – living in simple shacks while subsisting on fuel collected by bicycle and salvaging from tips.
During Soviet times everywhere had its purpose, Ukraine was (and still is) a huge producer of different agricultural products and the remains and signs of the system of collectivisation litter the landscape, slowly decaying with abandoned gates, partially collapsed buildings and overgrown tracks a regular sight.
I had read about an abandoned Soviet airfield and radar station to the south of the first city we were heading towards so of course we took some detours down quiet roads to see if we could find them. The radar station was part of the USSR’s early warning system and has two huge 250 meter long arms, 75 meters high and designed to look like two huge apartment buildings – we managed to find our way through the first gates with no problems.
The long slab concrete road lead us past the village built to house the workers, typically drab and decaying prefabricated apartments blocks – some still lived in, some abandoned. We didn’t get a good glimpse of the radar station, it still seems to be in use to some degree – the internet doesn’t offer much information. The Russians continued to operate and fund the site well after Ukrainian independence, but pulled the plug at some point in the late 2000’s – there are reports of the site being repurposed for tracking space objects. Although there appeared to be no one at the gatehouse, it was very much locked with a loud barking dog present so we didn’t risk a closer inspection.
For our first evening in Ukraine we had chosen to stay in the city of Mukachevo – a pleasant town with an impressive castle and pretty centre. The cycling had taken its toll, what was meant to be a relatively short day morphed into something much longer – the uncomfortable surfaces meant we were pretty sore. We found accommodation next to the train station, sank a few beers and fell into a very deep sleep early.