We were driving through the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, just a few hours outside of Ivano-Frankivsk, and the world already looked refreshingly natural. I know that seems like a ridiculous adjective to use to describe… nature… but I’d been in Kyiv a while. I’d been planning this horseback riding trip in the Carpathians for months and now that it was finally happening I was staring around with the wide-eyed wonder of a city kid her first year up at summer camp.
I think Andriy felt this when he picked me up from the train station earlier that morning. “You look taller and younger in real life,” he told me. Probably my braided hair and bright purple rain jacket didn’t give me any airs of maturity, either, but I was mentally preparing for a weekend of dismal weather. Rain follows me wherever I go in Ukraine, but I wasn’t going to let it damper my attitude this weekend.
This weekend was for adventure, and a little mountain downpour would only add to the atmosphere.
Andriy owns Green Ukraine, which organizes private tours in Ukraine for basically every interest. I’ve been aching to do a multi-day horseback riding trip for years, and this was the first time it was an actual possibility. I proudly told Andriy that I had ridden horses for nearly a decade – then I remembered that the last time I had been on a horse was at least seven years ago.
Riding a horse is like riding a bike, right? Comes back to you immediately?
But I wasn’t nervous at all as we drove three hours from Ivano-Frankivsk to Verkhovyna, the Carpathian village from which we’d start our journey. There we met Slavic, horseman and mountain expert.
“Slavic’s skin is waterproof,” Andriy had told me in the car. “He doesn’t need shoes.” (And indeed, Slavic bound around the mountain wearing just plastic sandals the entire sopping, shivering weekend.)
The three of us headed off to the small market in Verkhovyna to get trail supplies. Even this mini-excursion was, to me, delightful. My phone had already lost signal, and I kept it in my pocket, swimming in the real life of a Carpathian village. A small girl wandered from her mother’s stall to her neighborhood’s, absent-mindedly picking a sunflower seed from a giant sack and chewing on it. Slavic was a local celebrity, and he led us through the market as he and Andriy negotiated with vendors for our supplies. Bread, smoked meat, salo, apples, bananas, chocolates.
Andriy and Slavic packed the provisions into the saddlebag while I tried to win Zirka’s affections with carrots I had brought from Kyiv. And then I was up in the saddle and Slavic was leading me on the main road out of town, cheerfully saying hello to his friends as they glanced curiously at the girl in the purple rain jacket.
Once we were off the main road and there were fewer cars, Slavic let go of the reins. He and Andriy walked beside me, which at first made me feel a little self-conscious. In the car, Andriy had made a joke about walking, but I hadn’t thought he was serious.
“It keeps the cost of the tour down,” he said. “And it keeps me fit!”
Occasionally he and Slavic would fall behind, catching up, and it felt like it was just me out in the rising foothills of the Carpathians. This was the feeling I had been yearning for when I decided to book this trip — a feeling of freedom, of discovery, of not just traveling but adventuring. Outside of the village, we passed few other people, just one man returning from the forest with a bag full of mushrooms he had collected.
We stopped for lunch in a little wooden shelter, since it had started to mist. Then Andriy and Slavic padded my pockets with snacks (mostly chocolate), helped me clamber back up on Zirka, and Andriy said, “Now, we go up.”
Here the path steepened into the forest, and I looked anxiously at the wet rocks and slippery leaves. It definitely looked like the path had been washed out by heavy rains recently. Maybe I should get off and hike up. I glanced down at Slavic, trooping alongside of me, to see if he had any advice.
He just smiled at me.
Ok, I thought, I wanted to trek up a mountain on horseback. If that also involves my horse slipping out from under me and a broken leg or two, the story will be even better.
Zirka hauled up that mountain path like a champ. I leaned forward, which is what I vaguely remember having learned to do from trail rides as a kid, hoping I was right about that making it easier for her, and tried not to close my eyes. For the most part I let her choose her own way, unless I can see down the path a particularly rocky patch or a murky puddle. We left Andriy and Slavic behind, and Zirka and I were adventuring on my own.
(Though in actuality, Slavic was just a short way behind us, nimbly scaling the mountain and appearing just in time to open the wooden fences that marked out expansive pastures.)
By the time we reached the top of the mountain, we were inside the low-hanging clouds. The other mountains, the few that we could see, were swabbed in mist. It was Middle Earthly, traipsing through fields, wandering past roaming herds of cows and horses. Slavic and I started swapping Ukrainian and English words, stick, horse, dog, flower – which of course led to him making me a quick roadside wildflower bouquet (a handy skill the modern man has lost). We met another man along the trail, and Slavic talked with him briefly.
Andriy translated for me, “He’s from a dairy farm. They’re missing a cow.”
The man seemed a bit despondent, and I could understand. With the thickening cloud cover, finding a lonesome cow was not an enviable job.
After about five hours of trekking, with my body aching and my fingers numbing from the rain and surprising cold, the path suddenly ended at a stout wooden house. I slid down off Zirka, hobbling while my legs protested. Andriy introduced me to Ivan, the dairy farmer whose hospitality we’d be enjoying that night. Dressed in camo, with a handshake that crunched my bones, Ivan had a kind face and a soft voice. He invited us inside, where he had already laid out massive plates of his homemade cheese.
Once we sat down, he pulled out the moonshine.
My training in Carpathian drinking customs began. Andriy explained how there was one bottle and one shot glass. The first person pours a drink, toasts an individual at the table, and downs the shot. They then refill the glass and pass it to the toastee. On and on it goes, a vodka-fueled domino effect, the three of us passing the bottle back and forth and teasing each other when someone took too long to ‘think of’ a toast.
I’m proud to say, that bottle only lasted about forty-five minutes.
Ivan didn’t join us in the drinking, but he did sit with us. He served us a traditional dinner, a sort of grits-style cornmeal heaped with his cheese, simple but wholesome and incredibly filling. He talked about the dairy farm, how he couldn’t take on as many cows this year because he couldn’t find enough help, about how he had tried to set up a milking machine but the cows hated it.
It struck me how, in some countries, traditional arts are kept alive for the sake of preservation. You can see someone hand-churning butter in a traditional way all over the world – well, in those places with butter as a staple. But butter and cheese production isn’t a passion of preservation for Ivan. It’s still a way of life, a reality, albeit one that might be on its way out. Of course his cheese, his butter, his sour cream was far superior to mass-produced versions – but I wondered if the dairy farm would be able to survive the morphing economy.
I was quiet, listening as Andriy translated for me, grateful that I could see the dairy farm as an active, breathing institution and not just as a museum.
“He is offering to let you help with the 5:30 milking,” Andriy told me, and I just smiled and said that sounded awesome, if I was awake.
In the morning, I heard them bringing in the cows, but I did not abandon the comfort of my duvet and bed. I did, however, eagerly agree to a fresh glass of milk at breakfast. I’ll be honest – the city girl in me did wonder if it was supposed to be pasteurized or something, even though I don’t really know what that means. The adventurer told her to shut up and drink. Getting fresh milk from a Carpathian cow? You don’t get these chances a second time.
It was delicious. Toasty warm but not off-puttingly hot, sweet but not cloying, it was perfect. Ivan offered us more vodka, too, but the three of us grimaced as we said thanks but no.
The weather had gotten worse overnight. The cloud surrounding us had thickened, erasing the world into white. I’ve never experienced visibility that low. We waited out the morning playing cards, talking with the teenage boy hand-churning butter, eating more cheese.
Eventually we decided it was time to head out. Even though the fog hadn’t lifted at all, at least the rain had let up for a minute. Ivan and his employees came out to see us off.
“Oh man,” I muttered to Andriy. “They’re all going to laugh at the awkward way I get on Zirka.” (Which was basically just Slavic tossing me up onto the saddle.)
“Just imagine being up here for the whole summer, only in the company of men,” Andriy replied, hinting they wouldn’t laugh at me at all.
If the ride up the mountains had felt like escaping real life, the ride back down felt like complete severance. Maybe I should have felt like we were searching for it, lost in the mists, but to be honest I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to the rest of the world, dealing with demanding students, worrying about if I was making the best life decisions, wondering if I was annoying my friends by texting too much.
The rains had completely demolished the steep downhill path, and I dismounted to make the going easier for Zirka. When we finally slipped below the cloud line, emerging out of the mist-shrouded forest into the fields of the foothills, the bright wildflowers eased the disappointment of being back in the real world.
“My house is just that way,” Slavic told me, by way of translation from Andriy. He winked at me (Slavic that is, though Andriy grinned). “Think about it.”
As we traipsed along the paved road, the houses slowly snuggled up closer to each other. We still passed other horses and the occasional goat, though they were roaming in backyards, not infinite mountain pastures. I had had a blast adventuring, but the real world was still there, nonchalantly welcoming me back to the party.
We left Slavic and Zirka in Verkhovyna and got back in the car for the three hour drive back to Ivano-Frankivsk. About forty-five minutes into the drive, we hit our first gas station and stopped for some high-quality gas station coffee.
Here’s a borderland, I thought, my phone still struggling to catch a signal. Even for a city girl like me, the lure of the mountains was strong. Peeking inside real life in the Carpathians was an experience I won’t soon forget.
“This is a free country for free people,” Andriy had told me in the car on the way to the mountains.
And he was right. Cut loose from people’s expectations, free from my digital connections, shrouded in the silence and solitude of the mountains, I too felt like a free person, in free Ukraine.
I sought out Green Ukraine for a partnership because this tour sounded like a one-of-a-kind opportunity. In return for providing coverage of the trip, I received a small discount. Opinions are 100% my own.
Andriy and Green Ukraine can organize your own horseback riding trip in the Carpathians or another fun outdoor adventure in Ukraine. Check out all their Ukraine tour options on their website.
Advice for your own horseback riding trip in the Carpathians (and elsewhere):
Take as little with you as possible. Because I was going straight to work in Kyiv off the overnight train, I had way more stuff than I actually needed. And even though it wasn’t very heavy and all fit into a pretty average sized backpack, my back ached by the end of the two days.
If it’s going to rain, prepare seriously. The best thing I did was buy a pair of waterproof pants. They’re tracksuit pants, which I may never wear again, but they were a lifesaver on the second day when it rained steadily. I would have been wet and cold and miserable if I hadn’t had those pants. Also, pack a serious rain jacket. The kind that lighthouse keepers wear during storms. I had bought a pretty flimsy waist-length jacket. Slavic was kind enough to lend me his knee-length poncho, while he bounded along in those bright blue plastic wrap ponchos you can get on the street.
Prepare your body. Oh baby, will you be sore after the weekend is done.
Want more? Here’s a sneak peek, video I shot while on my horseback riding trip in the Carpathians. Pardon the shakiness – that happens when you’re on a mobile mount.