I thought it was time to do a summary post of the shape of my journey across Ukraine, what it’s been like for me here and how I’m trying to approach this walk.
I’ve been walking for six weeks and I’ve covered almost 400 miles. It’s hard to say exactly how far I’ve walked, the above estimate is a very rough calculation using Google Maps. I’ve been drawing my route onto the paper maps that I’ve used to navigate with and I’ve got a record of the number of steps I’ve taken each day, according to my phone tracker. But neither of these measurements are going to be accurate either – and I don’t want them to be. The only reason I might need an exact number of miles walked is to tell other people, and I’m finding myself strangely unbothered by this.
I do look at the step tracker every day, it’s a way to judge how far I’ve walked in a day – I’m happy with 13 miles, 15 miles is great, 17 miles is too much. The thing I’m trying to avoid with the lack of a total distance is the competition, I think. The objective number that can be held up to allow me to be analysed against other people and, indeed myself.
I’m walking six days a week, with a rest day every 6th day. When I feel ready, I’ll push that to a rest day every 7th but somehow there hasn’t been the opportunity to do that yet. I wanted to this week but walked faster than I thought so the hotel came sooner than planned and ahead is a set of mountains that will take at least two days to cross, another 4 days before the next hotel, I estimate, so no sense in pushing on.
There are not many hotels here, usually only one in each big town and none in between. I’ve learnt to plan a route that goes between the towns that have a H marked on the map after I came to Kozyatyn ready for a rest day and discovered that this town, population 24,000, had no hotel. I’d walked there anyway because I thought that surely there’d be a hotel there but no, I had to take a bus for a half hour journey to the next town to take my day off.
One difference between this walk and the last is that I’m paying for accommodation a lot more often. I didn’t expect there to be the offering of beds and support the way there was in my home country, obviously I’m so much more anonymous here, so I expected a lot more camping. The thing I didn’t consider was where I was going to rest. I can’t, or let’s say I don’t want to spend an entire day in a tent when I need a rest day. I need to stretch, my body will become painful if cramped in such a small space for so many daylight hours, not to mention the drastic fall in body temperature from staying still in the outdoors. Then there’s the opportunity for showers and the washing of clothes. In Wales I used to go into leisure centres and take a shower, in Welsh cafes I would go to the toilet and surreptitiously wash my socks in the sinks. There are no facilities like that. No cafes outside the big towns and I don’t go near them until I’m having a day off anyway. And there’s no such thing as a public toilet! I’ve been washing my socks in well water, rinsing them out so I don’t go more than a day in an unwashed pair. I can wipe my face and neck when I’m at a well, but a full strip down body wash is mostly beyond me – it’s too cold to be naked for long, wrong time of year. So I am unexpectedly paying for hotel accommodation 2 nights a week, where I can buy washing powder, wash my clothes in the sink, spread my damp kit around the room to dry out, refluff my sleeping bag, recharge my phone, connect to the Internet, write blogs, upload photos and stretch and stretch and stretch.
It could be a lot worse, hotels here are around 8 or 9 pounds a night so I can do this and stay within my budget. I’m aiming to spend 50 a week for the duration of the route, it just seems like a basic benchmark figure to calculate from. I can do that here, two nights in a hotel and all my food for the week (with maybe one restaurant meal) is about 40 pounds. It certainly is not going to be this cheap in the future, certainly from Italy onwards, and I am so grateful to the people who have signed up to my Patreon to help ease the costs of this journey.
Another reason for keeping my mileage low and having regular luxurious rest days is to take care of my body. Anyone who followed my last walk or has read my book will know how prominent a role my feet played in the problems of my last journey. It’s been an interesting process to try and learn about my feet in the healing of them during the 3 years between my two walks. I ended up having a couple of great appointments with a physiotherapist in Usk who trained in myofascial release. The problem with the straining of my plantar tendons and resultant pain in my heels is not the tendons themselves but the fact that they are the final place for the stress to rest. When I have too much weight on my back, when my legs can’t swing fully because of a restrictive hip belt, when my stomach muscles droop through years of poor posture, perhaps because of abdominal surgery, when my thigh muscles aren’t strong enough to lift high enough with the tens of thousands of steps I’m asking them to do daily, when my calf muscles tense up and become solid – when all these stresses and strains distort my body then my feet are the absorbent point for each step and they take the full force of every one, unable to pass the tension up throughout my legs. I can feel it coming on, after six weeks of walking, I can feel the difference. As my body starts to solidify under the strain, the glimmers of foot and heel pain come into being. I am stretching a lot more than during the last journey – at the beginning and end of each day and throughout, at each rest point. But it’s not always possible to be thorough, rain outside the tent and cramped conditions within. Or maybe it’s too cold to spend time outside my sleeping bag at night and I must immediately cocoon myself, leaving no space for much except pointing and curling my toes (which is a great calf stretch but does nothing for my glutes!).
I’m not sure at the moment whether I’m simply delaying the inevitable or perhaps will be able to avoid it altogether but staying relaxed about my targets and making sure I take time to rest is the only way I’m going to be able to achieve this.
One thing that keeps me wanting to walk faster is the weather, that and the mountains. It’s been kind of a honeymoon period here in Ukraine, flat easy land to walk over with simple, straightforward land access, and the weather has been warm and gentle. Maybe a bit too warm actually, I didn’t pack any suncream and have a head like a baked bean. But it’s the 2nd of November and I’m aiming for the Carpathians – this lucky break isn’t going to last forever. I keep having visions of snowbound camping in Romanian mountains, fighting off bears. It’s been a looming fear and I have to keep staying conscious of being slow, otherwise I will walk fast towards what lies ahead in an effort to get it over with. But there is no getting this over with, I have 4 months until Spring, I cannot force my way through this. All I can do is trust that I have the strength and resources to cope with what is still to come – and if I don’t then I’ll escape to a hotel and tuck myself in there with a pile of food and warm blankets until Spring, like the little she bear that I am.
Speaking of resources, I’m pretty pleased with the kit that I am carrying. Part of my preparation for this journey was to invest in some very good, very lightweight kit and it’s working. My experience has paid off and I’ve been able to anticipate everything I would need for the journey so far. I’ve also got the bottom of my bag full of extra clothing for the snowy peaks to come. I’m carrying about 12/13 kilos, including food and water which, for me, is great.
Food! I’ve tried to avoid lots of processed wheat this time – in the form of noodles and couscous. I seem to have settled on instant mashed potato and salami as my main nutrition while camping. Mix into that some tomato puree, fresh cucumber and fresh tomato and you’ve got a pretty delicious meal. There are small packets of porridge on sale everywhere, so I can pour water straight into the packet and eat with a spoon, no mess. I aim to eat at least one banana every day. Then snacks like walnuts and almonds, peanuts, halva, whatever comes to hand in the shops. I have the occasional avocado or tin of tuna as a treat. The problems will come when I can’t face certain foods any more – I’m coming close with salami. It’s not that I go off the taste, it’s that I look at it and have no desire to put it in my mouth, a really strange feeling. Happened during the last walk with peanuts! And almost with couscous in the final few weeks but I pushed through the distaste at that point, unwilling to find new foods to eat while camping without a stove.
The most frustrating part of my journey has been the navigation – mainly down to the fact that I’ve only been able to buy 1:250000 maps, which in no way gives the level of detail that I’ve become accustomed to in the UK. The maps are sometimes inaccurate and I’ve noticed that they even differ between each other; when two regions overlap I can see that roads marked on one map do not appear or bend differently on the other! It’s been another thing to let go of, as well as the pressure to maintain a certain pace or mileage, the need to know exactly where I am at all times! Sometimes it’s been enough to use my compass and know that I’m heading roughly in the right direction, even if my expected village changes during the course of the day as I find myself unable to find a particular back road and resorting to another. As I come closer to the mountains though, I find I need to be more precise, I’m heading for particular peaks and I want to end up in a certain town. Fortunately, I’m finally in the area of Ukraine considered to be touristic and so I can get maps to a level of 1:75000 details and they have contour lines! Fantastic when, within a couple of days of leaving this hotel, I’m going to be climbing 1000m peaks.
But even in the frustration I’d still much rather be travelling this way than with some kind of electric gadget that I have to keep staring at (and plugging in). Paper maps and compass are very satisfying to use and it’s a liberation to let go of the control of exact longitude and latitude.
This whole journey seems to be a letting go for me, in order to achieve this I am deliberately staying vague. Unfocused would be the wrong word for it because I am very keenly aware of the state of my body and when I find myself walking until I sweat, in the trance of forward motion, then that is very focused indeed. I wondered if I’d still be able to walk without such a strong mission as last time, without a force driving me on. Yet somehow I find that impulse to walk is automatic, I don’t know why I’m doing this and yet here I am, doing it anyway, walking until I’m sweaty and sleepy and waking up with a grin to say good morning to the dawn, thank you to the place that held me while I slept, and setting out to do it again.
I’m finally here, in the foothill of the Carpathians. Over the next week or maybe two, I’ll be crossing them. I’ve decided to take a route that says it contains a marked hiking trail; I await with interest just how clearly marked that will be. It takes me directly up and over the highest nearby peak – Hoverla, at 2000m. Exciting! Again, I’m just going to be slow and steady, no forcing myself beyond what I’m capable of and no rush to walk a certain speed. When I’ve reached the other side of the mountains there will be a town called Rachiv and that’s where I’m going to take a week off, await my resupply package of Romanian maps and other exciting goodies such as hair conditioner and boot grease.
Ukraine has mostly been a wonderful surprise. I had no idea what to expect from this country and I have found calm, friendly and helpful people everywhere. I already want to come back.