It’s apple season in Ukraine. Apple and walnut and mushroom season. Trees hang branches over every garden fence, waiting for a hand to catch their mottled droplets. I pluck as I go, the ones that would fall to roadside space, and savour their sweet white crunch. Other people are collecting too, they scrape through the fallen leaves and pocket walnuts streetside, or drive to the forests, pull grimy white tubs from the boots of their cars and set out into the trees to search for parasol mushrooms.
This feels like the week that Autumn came. I left Kiev in hot sunshine, 25 degrees and me sweating in a heavy backpack, finding my way through gritty concrete, tower block suburbs, the people becoming noticeably less well-dressed as I left my fashionable hostel district. I’d been living the Western youthful travellers life, a hostel that could be found in any European city – WiFi on tap, breakfast pancakes, English on the menus. Kids staring at their phones, bonding in the cigarette area, coming into shared rooms at 4am and shagging in the bunk beds. This was the first world Kiev, the monied and glamorous Kiev, the impossibly fashionable, silk billowing, high heels clicking, coffee shop Kiev.
It took me three days to leave it, first to walk to the end of the metro line, then to walk out further from tower blocks to bungalows, still having to stick to roadside, no open land for me to turn away into. I was hot and sweaty the first day, made the mistake of walking towards a town in late afternoon, no energy to get to the other side and out and find a place to sleep, still intimidated by this new journey, the plunging in, the camping out. So I got a hotel in the town. My shoulders hurt a lot as I took the rucksack off, my face crusty with salt. I showered and talked to myself. Give yourself time Ursula, this is your easing in, this is your training period. Go as slowly as you need to, there is no rush. There really isn’t. Right now I have enough money, I’m at the beginning of my savings, my pot still brimming with gold. The only time limit is my visa – 90 days to leave Ukraine and 600km to cover in that time. Plenty of time. I’m not rushing to beat the weather either. People kept asking me why I was leaving at the end of the summer, waiting until the bad weather to start the journey. I already know I’m going to be walking all winter, it doesn’t really matter where that is. December in the Romanian Carpathians, maybe January or February in Bulgaria. Doesn’t matter. I’ll take as long as I need – walk where I like. This is my path this time, my choices. No guidebooks like there were in Wales, no signposts to follow. If I want to scale the mountains, I’ll scale them, if I don’t, I’ll stick to the valleys. At least in winter the bears will be asleep!
So there it was, on the third day that I really left the suburbs, walked out of the centre of a town called Boyarka and into the forest. I was following my compass, which is a new thing for me too, never needed that in Wales, I could always use footpath signs or match the shape of the land to my map contours. Maps not detailed enough here, I can only get 1:250000. That’s 1 cm equalling 2.5 km. It shows me roads and villages, no land heights, no paths or contour lines.
The land access is different here, I can walk where I like, as long as I’m not climbing into people’s gardens – forest and field edge are all free to roam. So I can set a compass bearing and find my way. It’s an incredibly strange way to cross land, the uncertainty of not knowing where you are (and if you think too much about it you’re in rural Ukraine which is pretty mind boggling). I have never had such a loose connection to being able to pinpoint my exact location all the time.
I can do it with my phone, but Google will quite often show me in a patch of grey or green, no further detail than that, no clue of how to proceed further. The land is mostly flat here so it’s hard to orientate myself in the landscape, to use clues on the horizon to tell me where to go. A far off treeline helps though, here’s more forestry on the way. The maps are good to show me which village to aim for next, they show black lines that are called ‘ground covered roads’ and dashed lines that are ‘field paths and wood path roads’. They’re usually tracks through the forest or field, sandy trackway, sometimes well used by car, the non-tarmaced back ways between villages but sometimes overgrown and branch covered. Trackway crisscross the forest – it’s managed pine plantation, although different to Wales, more of a mix of tree types and less stark and closely planted – it’s hard to tell if you’ve got the exact black line that is crossing the green patch to the village on the other side, there is only one black line marked and many many tracks, some much more well used than yours. But I stick with my compass bearing, stay stout and fixed ahead. The hardest part is finding the exit from the village. There are no road signs. None. Only on the main roads and highways and I’m very far away from those. Just crossroad after crossroad, empty villages, these are not bustling places so far. I try and match the roads to my too large map, make guesses. It’s worked, so far. The trifecta of compass, map and satellite triangulation. I only get my phone out every couple of hours, usually when I’m still in the bloody forest and am feeling uncertain – have I really come in the right direction? Am I not in the middle of nowhere? And up comes the blue dot, it’s moved away south west from Veprik and, zoom out a bit, oh yes, I’m almost at Skryhalivka. Back to the compass, heartened.
I’ve had my first few nights camping, glorying in the thrill of crashing into the centre of a pine copse and settling in the bare patch, tree shaded, safe from any casual passer by. There are none anyway, it feels like a very deserted country. The houses cluster in villages, I haven’t seen any outside them, the way there are houses everywhere in Wales. Nothing outside the villages but field and forest. The people I see are out foraging or farming, passing me in huge caterpillar-tracked tractors. The fields are huge, covering miles at a time, growing crops like sunflowers or yellow peas. There have been two nights of rain and one of wind, dampness creeping in at the edges of my camping kit – it’s hard to put away a wet tent, knowing you will sleep in it that night. I do my best, wiping it out with a flannel, experimenting with different ways of storage so wet outer doesn’t get packed with drier inner. I’m always comfortable and sleep well. It’s still early days for my system, my way of arranging everything at night, packing and unpacking the bag for easy access, getting used to my new tent.
Not understanding any Ukrainian makes communication tough. But it’s not impossible. There are ways. I’m used, by now, to entering into a kind of clownish miming communication, wriggling my fingers in the air to signify walking, pointing lots, sipping from an invisible cup. It works with some people. I have met a few people, had small conversations. People told me Ukraine was dangerous, it is, probably, but I haven’t experienced anything like that yet. People are living on very little money, their possessions are old and their houses are crumbling. But there are not vagabonds on the streets, drunks rolling in gutters, knives ready for larceny, hands ready to grab at me. None of that, is what I see, maybe there’ll be a man chivying his cow along the street, riding a bicycle very slowly at her side. He ignores me. Or a woman sitting at the bus stop opposite me as I stop for a rest, put my feet up and eat sunflower seeds – she says something to me which contains the word ‘autobus’ so I smile and shrug, thinking she’s probably complaining about it being late. A bus rattles up 2 minutes later so I think I guessed right.
Many people ignore me, or stare and don’t say anything. Walkers stand out anywhere, with their functional clothing, the bright plastics and thick boots. I have had a few nice interactions though – let me quickly tell you about three of them.
I walk into her shop early one morning, this one doubles as a bar at night so there’s a sign outside that says Kafa. Coffee. I’d love one, my first hot drink in three days. I can’t get the pronunciation right though and she has no idea what I’m saying until I mime drinking. When she realises she laughs and moves to make me one and I realise I’ve found a friendly person. She’s my age, with dirty blonde hair and a round face. Tiny village shops are like emporia here, with goods lining the walls. There’s usually a section of different boxes of pastries and biscuits, that can be bought by weight. I select things at random, one savoury with seeds and one sweet with fig. We try and talk and it’s mostly unsuccessful but we take our time, I show her the maps and explain where I’m going from and to. There’s one Ukrainian word I know already ‘chomu’, it means alone. “Chomu?” “Tak. Chomu.” And she looks at me in silence – I’m not sure yet if it’s awe or shock or incredulity. There was a man named Oleg who high fived me when I said this. Bravo, he chuckled. But Luda just looks and smiles. We go over to the stove, an immense rounded steel thing, it would need to be in this large room with thin windows and only lace curtains. There’s no deeper conversation, I don’t have any ability for that, but it’s nice to be welcomed for a short time.
I’m packing up my tent in the forest one morning, light rain is coming in patches so I’ve got up reasonably early. Cows! I see them as I get out of the tent, ranging through the trees not far away, slowly plodding and snaffling bites of whatever takes their interest. Then, immediately I think cow herder. And I scan the trees, searching for a human figure. There is one, cloaked in a big baggy coat and hat. He’s seen me and I raise an arm in greeting, to acknowledge that I see him too. I pack up slowly, pulling my bag out of the tent, leaning it against a tree, putting the final pieces in, beginning to take down the tent. Unhurried but always looking for him, keeping an eye on where this figure is. He’s coming over. His first words to me are with a smile, hailed from a polite distance, and I relax. I imagine it’s some pleasantry like ‘bit cold for camping isn’t it?’. As usual I am tongue tied for lack of language but manage to explain to him that I’m walking and from England. ‘Turista’ that’s a word that explains a lot, they usually do a little oh of understanding, knowing how to place me. He’s smiling, tells me he has a son who works in England. He waits and watches while I pack away and then walks with me back to the trackway nearby, points me towards the village. I want to ask him about his days, walking through the forest with his beasts, what he thinks about, but I can’t. We shake hands. He’s embarrassed by this, I think it’s not a natural gesture from a woman.
I am walking through the forest, wondering if I’m in the right place. It’s one of the first few times I’ve done this and I’m still unsure about my routefinding. I know that this track splits in two pretty soon and I want to make sure I take the right turn. I come to a clearing and there are three men squatting round a fire. They stare at me, one dragging on a cigarette, and I give a quick hello and walk past. This is a classic ‘do not get involved’ situation. But 20m on, the road seems to split and I am totally uncertain. I stand at the turning, paralysed. I decide to go back and ask the men. I don’t know why I do this but I do. They look rough as hell but so do most people here. One stands up to talk to me, I can do the basic asking for directions, as long as we can use hand signals for the answer. We don’t get very far in conversation, I can’t even make out one word from another at this stage but he directs me to go straight on and, only eventually, once I reach asphalt, to take a right turn. I thank them and walk away and then he comes over to the track again, starts giving me more directions, asking me what I’m doing. One calls over, ‘shashlik’ ‘bbq’. The food is ready, would I like some? I look at this man, clear grey blue eyes, smooth cheeks under his cap, a scar runs from the edge of his nose across his cheek, punctured with suture markings, he has gold teeth. I say yes. They slide chunks of meat from a thick skewer onto a plastic plate with their knives. There are no individual portions, just bread in the centre, sausage, tomato and a rice salad. We help ourselves, they encourage me to eat first, making sure I have the most. There is more meat marinating in a thick black metal pot at the other table. They will eat in stages, getting slowly drunk all afternoon. They are Nikolai, Ruslav and Victor. Nikolai pours us glasses of spirits, I take small sips. We try and communicate but it’s hard. Eventually I understand that it’s Nikolai’s birthday, he’s 52. These men can’t understand why I’m doing this. I tell them that I’m walking from Kiev to the Romanian border. “Chomu?” “Chomu.” “Chomu?” Holding up one finger. “Tak. Chomu.” They mutter to themselves, I think they’re talking about how dangerous this is. I get my phone out to try and translate a few sentences. They crowd round, I don’t imagine that they might not have seen this app before. I invite Nikolai to try typing something, not imagining that he might have trouble spelling. He tries but is incredibly slow and the words don’t make sense, nothing translates. One word does though – scary. I type that I know that it’s dangerous but that I have a good heart and believe that good things will happen to me. He looks at me silently, as if to say ‘oh my dear, you have no idea what’s out there’ and I feel a flickering of foolishness. It’s true, I have very little idea of what makes up Ukraine and its people – just a journey that I have imposed upon this country.
But walk through it I will, and I will keep doing what I’m doing – walking and assessing and judging when to trust people. Spending days and nights in forest and field, popping into tiny villages. Making a beeline for the border.
I walk away from the birthday BBQ. After a while there’s a buzzing, it’s Nikolai coming after me on a fantastically ancient motorbike and sidecar. He wants to give me a lift to the next village. I say no, tell him walking is my mission. We have a quick hug, a selfie and then goodbye.