The gorges dividing the largest highland pastures of the Ukrainian Carpathians hide untold secrets
The winter Carpathians meet us with a heavy rain. “This is something we’ve never seen in January,” the taxi driver repeats, bewildered. Right after the first turn toward Pylypets, a village off the Volovets–Mizhhirya road in Transcarpathia, small hotels and green-tourism homesteads start popping up. Pylypets is quickly becoming a centre of mountain tourism, and Borzhava is the main factor driving this trend.
ALMOST THE ALPS
Curved like a dragon’s tail turned to stone, the Borzhava Ridge rises over the rest of the mountains like an island over the sea. Its peaks, including Velykyi Verkh, Gemba or Mahura, offer breathtaking views—but the scenery is just one of Borzhava’s attractions. The slopes of the largest highland pastures in the Ukrainian Carpathians lure extreme skiers and snowboarders in the winter, and fans of hiking and mountain biking in the summer.
The last time I went to Pylypets was over five years ago. This time, I was surprised to find the fancy new five-story Grand Hotel Pylypets. Over the past five years, a dozen smaller hotels and motels, as well as a few private cottages have emerged in the village. From afar, the scene is reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. Yet the main accomplishment of the past five years is the chair lift that stretches almost 1.5km. A new rope tow spans the lower part of the slope.
On the day we arrived none of them were operating. Clouds the colour of dead fish loomed over the mountains. We had to postpone our ski plans for the day and wait for clearer skies over Borzhava.
The weather in the mountains changes quickly, and the sun was shining through the clouds by the evening. Even when the lifts are not running, Pylypets’ surroundings offer plenty to do. Less than a kilometre from the hotel is the beautiful Shypit waterfall. Pylypets and the neighbouring Podobiv still have wooden churches built in the 17-18th centuries and many other authentic sights. The town of Svaliava and Lake Synevyr are located a bit farther away.
As soon as the mountains started looking friendlier we headed for one of Bozhava’s peaks. As we ascended, the wind carried in pockets of fog. They wrapped around spruce trees and haystacks, creating a living watercolour landscape.
The ascent to Velykyi Verkh in good weather takes just a few hours – even older people can make the hike. Along the ridge, the wind blows the snow off blueberry and bilberry patches. Dry and frozen mountain blueberries—or yafyny in the local dialect—do not taste good, but bilberries from under the snow at the end of January are something altogether different!
As our small group grazed on yet another berry patch, the wind brought along the echo of human voices. Someone far away was calling for someone else. Then the wind changed direction and it was still again.
A group of exhausted people soon passed by– no one returned our greetings. The weather was getting worse and we turned to head back to the village. A few minutes later we caught up with a lonesome skier. He appeared out of nowhere, moving slowly along the plateau, bending occasionally and sticking spruce branches into the ski track. We soon found out that a rescue campaign had been on for several days here. We had heard in the news that two young snowboarders had lost their way on the ridge. It turned out that the rescuers had already found them, and even saved one. An avalanche had killed the other one almost immediately. This time, the rescuers were after two experienced alpinists – one 70, and the other 50. Both had climbed many mountains before, including peaks in the Himalayas. “Have you seen any tracks from the gorge? Or any gear?” Unfortunately, we hadn’t.
The questions made us uncomfortable: the mountain pastures always appeared so peaceful. As we descended, the skier’s advice repeated in our minds over and over again: when on a hike, stick to the watershed; keep within the plateau and snowfields, and descend as quickly as possible if you risk ending up in fog or darkness. Make sure that you have a navigation device and a compass with you. The latter is the only thing that can help you find your way in foggy weather: civilization lies to the northeast; in all other directions are impassable wind-fallen trees.
POTATO PANCAKES FROM ANYA
Our plans for the evening were entirely gastronomic. Transcarpathian cuisine is a mix of Ukrainian, Hungarian and Slovak traditions. Local restaurants, known as kolybas, all offer tokan, a Transcarpathian dish made of cornmeal cooked in sour cream and butter, and topped with brynza (a salty cheese similar to feta) or cracklings; its Hutsul variant, banosh; or deruny, potato pancakes traditionally served with sour cream or mushroom sauce.
For the last five years, I have wanted to try the deruny made by Anya at Pid Vodospadom (Under the Waterfall), a local resort. Coming from Central Ukraine, I think of deruny as the size of silver dollars. Anya’s deruny are the size of a skillet! The recipe mixes grated potatoes, eggs and flour. When the pancake is crispy and brown on both sides, our friendly hostess tops it with fried wild mushrooms, chopped sausage and bits of fried meat. Then she folds the derun and tops it with sauce and cheese that melts over this simple golden delight.
As we approach the hotel, a blond woman is seeing off the rescuers. “Are you Anya?” I ask. Her face has barely changed, but five years ago she was a brunette. My guess was right, and Anya looks very surprised, even moved, when I tell her that I had remembered her deruny all these years.
While the hostess is busy cooking, her husband Viktor offers us some wine with a slightly bitter taste and strawberry flavour, and we talk about the two lost mountaineers. The older one, Viktor Hryshchenko, had a house in Pylypets and everyone in the neighbourhood knew him. The name rang a bell even to me although I am as far from alpinism as one can be. Viktor Hryshchenko ascended the killer Ushba peak in the Caucasian Mountains and climbed summits in Pamir, Peru and New Zealand dozens of times. Mount McKinley was also on his list. Nobody around could believe that he had lost his way here at Borzhava, his homeland. Some told us about his dog that had returned home. Others said his wife got a text message saying “We’re on our way back”. There was still hope but the last time someone heard from the climbers was four days ago.
The following day was the first one forecasted to be clear and sunny. Indeed, everything was shining in the morning, revealing Borzhava in all its beauty.
There were also more people in blue uniforms in Pylypets that day as more emergency service workers arrived. Some were saying that the rescuers were finally going to go looking for the lost mountaineers in a helicopter.
Riding in the chair lift we glimpsed a miracle: the world was dressed in all shades of white glittering in pink, light blue, grey and gold. The sun was coming out from behind the white, greyish and rainbow-coloured clouds, only to hide once again. For a moment, this fairy tale view overshadowed the sad news of the climbers.
The routes marked for tourists are perfectly safe. I even wished there had been more snow in some places. But further lies a snowy Devil’s Triangle in the gorges between Gemba and Velykyi Verkh that buries everything and everyone under its avalanches. And it looks amazing and bright from afar, the treacherous beauty of Borzhava.
A few days later, the two lost climbers were found buried under snow in a gorge. Their friends believe that they had walked along a snowy ledge in the darkness or fog, and it collapsed.
Borzhava is a fantastically beautiful and friendly place. But just like any mount, it does not forgive mistakes. No one is allowed to break its rules.
HOW TO GET THERE
A taxi from the Volovets railway station to any hotel in Pylypets is the best way to get to the place. A one-way trip will cost you around UAH 120.
WHAT TO SEE
Take the chair lift to the top and a snowcat to the top of Gemba to see a breathtaking view. Remember that any winter tour should be authorized by a rescuer on duty. Make sure that you avoid avalanche zones.