Hand­made tourism

Where to go for au­then­tic and un­usual ex­pe­ri­ences in Ukraine

The Ukrainian Week - - FOCUS - Taras Har­mash

Khata-Maysternya, a work­shop cottage, is an old Hut­sul house turned into a mod­ern hos­tel in the Carpathian Ko­siv County, IvanoFrankivsk Oblast. Any­one can go there to live and work, or par­tic­i­pate in the var­i­ous train­ing ses­sions that are reg­u­larly held. All this ac­tiv­ity started in Rivne, an in­con­spic­u­ous city in north­east­ern Ukraine, where most founders of the So­cial Ini­tia­tives Work­shop come from. The or­gan­i­sa­tion ar­ranged in­for­mal ed­u­ca­tional events for seven years, un­til two years ago its mem­bers had the idea of cre­at­ing their own "sem­i­nar house". They were joined by a Be­laru­sian man, as well as girls from Donetsk, Crimea and Poland.

"We went on sev­eral ex­pe­di­tions around the Carpathi­ans, be­cause we wanted to find the ex­act right place," says Taras Ko­valchuk, one of the 20 founders. "This house was half-ruined and had sunk into the ground fol­low­ing flood­ing – no­body lived here. We made a long-term agree­ment with the owner to rent it free of charge in ex­change for tidy­ing it up."

The group has made the Work­shop Cottage into a real mas­ter­piece, though from the out­side it looks just like it did a cen­tury ago. In­side there are com- fort­able shower rooms with hot wa­ter, a pro­jec­tion screen, Wi-Fi, spa­cious rooms with the smell of fresh wood and a fire­place, a sep­a­rate kitchen, some rooms for classes. The or­ga­niz­ers plan to make a bar up­stairs, although the first floor is caved in at the mo­ment. But the most im­por­tant thing is the place where the Work­shop Cottage is lo­cated. Only moun­tains and the tops of hills can be seen from the win­dow and there are no paved roads – it is a half-hour walk up­hill from the vil­lage. Won­der­ful peo­ple who run their own farms and are happy to help with ad­vice live nearby. There are no fences around the houses; no one shields them­selves from their neighbours. Small groups of tourists have flocked to the area in the wake of the young peo­ple who un­ex­pect­edly set­tled there, which brings some in­come for the lo­cal Hut­suls too. Ev­ery day, the vis­i­tors buy home­made milk, sour cream, cheese and meat from the lo­cals. A few old ladies that knit socks and gloves live nearby, and the guests of the Cottage Work­shop Cottage are now among their main cus­tomers. That is how 20 young peo­ple made them­selves a coun­try res­i­dence and gave the vil­lage a sec­ond wind.

"Com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the vil­lage is very im­por­tant for us. We take some things from them, but have to give back too. Lo­cals are al­ways in­vited when we or­gan­ise events. We want to set up a summer camp that kids from the area will be able to come to. We seem to be hid­den away from civil­i­sa­tion here, but peo­ple that we con­sider our neighbours live just a few kilo­me­tres away. This is our com­mon home, our meet­ing point. Each of us is sup­posed to stay here at least a few weeks a year for main­te­nance."

The 20 founders chipped in about $2,000 each, in­vested a huge amount of phys­i­cal and creative work into the house, and in the space of one year turned an old hut into an in­cred­i­ble mod­ern and en­er­getic place that you can­not wait to hurry back to.

It has its own in­cred­i­bly in­ter­est­ing story that was un­earthed by Taras Hryt­siuk, a his­to­rian from Rivne who was one of the first to come up with the idea of restor­ing the house. It was built in the 1930s by Va­syl Paliy­chuk on land owned by his wife. Va­syl was from a poor fam­ily and could not af­ford what was at the time such an ex­pen­sive plot of land. But he fell in love with Ye­lena, from a wealthy fam­ily. They might never have mar­ried, but the girl had a se­ri­ous in­jury: she was blind in one eye. So her par­ents doubted whether they could give their daugh­ter away to a man as re­spectable as them­selves, and the poor Va­syl was lucky enough to marry wealthy Ye­lena. The wed­ding must have looked ab­surd: the groom walked to the church on foot, while his bride was on horse­back.

Va­syl was a car­pen­ter and builder. De­spite his man­ual work and hum­ble back­ground, he was recog­nised as an in­tel­lec­tual, hav­ing many con­nec­tions with lo­cal bo­hemi­ans. In 1935, he laid down the foun­da­tions for this house on one of the best pieces of land be­long­ing to Ye­lena's par­ents. In­ci­den­tally, in the very next year, 1936, Paliy­chuk worked on a con­struc­tion project that was ex­tremely im­por­tant for Poland – the ob­ser­va­tory on Pip Ivan moun­tain.

Va­syl was a "blog­ger" of his time and wrote about it in his di­ary: "When I got onto Pip Ivan, there was no ob­ser­va­tory. Two large stones were stand­ing there with branches on top of them, cov­ered by tar­pau­lin. I went in­side this hut, which was lit by an oil lamp... When I worked there, I spent the night in that hut. It was freez­ing, win­ter had al­ready started. We made a fire in the hut, but the wind put it out. I dressed up warm, nailed a board to the floor, put down some moss and slept there."

The very same Va­syl Paliy­chuk, builder of the ob­ser­va­tory, lived un­til 1999, and his descendants re­mained in the cottage un­til 2008, when flood­wa­ters washed away the soil and the build­ing caved in. Va­syl was closely con­nected to the in­tel­li­gentsia and held many open-air air fes­ti­vals there. He opened his doors to the fol­low­ers of re­pressed painter Mykhailo Boy­chuk and the Six­tiers. Priests and Ukrainian In­sur­gent Army par­ti­sans found se­cret shel­ter in his home. It had false walls that were used to hide food and books from the Com­mu­nists.

At a time when his­tor­i­cal sites in Ukrainian cities are be­ing de­stroyed to make space for aw­ful high­rise build­ings, some­where on the moun­tain­side in the Carpathian vil­lage of Babyn, a good half-hour up­hill from the near­est farm­houses, where there is no pub­lic trans­port and ac­cess is even dif­fi­cult on foot in bad weather, 20 young peo­ple have re­stored an or­di­nary ru­ral cottage with an in­cred­i­ble history. And not only for them­selves – they have not walled them­selves off from the com­mu­nity, be­cause that was never the way things were there. The house was re­stored not only as a nice piece of prop­erty – it now con­tin­ues the legacy of the man that built it. What Taras and co. have put back on the map of Babyn is not just an old shabby hut, but an en­tire in­vig­o­rat­ing or­gan­ism that in­ter­acts with the vil­lage, wel­comes guests and tourists, and is an in­cred­i­ble role model.

ECO­TOURISM

Michel has just turned 33. He comes from Kiel in north­ern Ger­many, be­tween Ham­burg and the Dan­ish bor­der. His par­ents are en­trepreneurs and have their own com­pa­nies, while his brother re­cently opened a fac­tory. The young man went down another path: he stud­ied to be a for­est ecol­o­gist in Freiburg, but saw no sense in re­main­ing in Ger­many.

"It seemed to me that in Ukraine I would be able to find the eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions of our an­ces­tors, be­cause they do not ex­ist any­more in Ger­many. Peo­ple are sup­posed to live near na­ture. That is what I want to show by ex­am­ple."

In Ukraine, Michel took an in­ter­est in buf­falo. He found out that at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury there were sev­eral thou­sand of them in just three vil­lages of what is now Khust County in Zakarpat­tia Oblast: buf­falo were kept in each yard just like cows were. But this tra­di­tion was al­most com­pletely lost af­ter col­lec­tivi­sa­tion. Buf­falo are too sen­si­tive to keep as pets and do not meet the pro­duc­tion needs of a col­lec­tive farm in the same way as cows, goats or sheep.

Michel now has two win­ter farms (in the vil­lages of Ste­blivka and Chu­malevo, Khust County) and one summer one (in the moun­tain val­ley near the vil­lage of Kvasy, Rakhiv County). His busi­ness par­tially re­lies on tourists and vol­un­teers.

The farmer is al­ways ready to take on those will­ing to work hard. He says this is an aw­fully tough job in it­self. Peo­ple are some­times harder to han­dle than an­i­mals, whose be­hav­iour is more pre­dictable. Vol­un­teers come for a short time, and have to go back home as soon as they re­ally get into the process. He is of­ten helped by for­eign­ers: French, Ger­mans and Amer­i­cans. They try to live like real shep­herds in the Ukrainian val­ley, milk­ing the buf­falo. Michel teaches every­one.

All of the buf­falo have names. The calf is called Romko. Michel soothes them in Tran­scarpathian di­alect. He tells guests about ev­ery fe­male and in­tro­duces them to the bull, although he ad­vises them not to get too close to him. Tourist groups visit again and again, bring­ing gifts to the Ger­man that looks af­ter Ukrainian buf­falo. Cof­fee and sugar are in short sup­ply in the val­ley.

Michel is one of the first to take in vol­un­teers and tourists in such slightly wild con­di­tions. But there are more and more eco­farms, just like peo­ple wish­ing to get out of the city, who, if they do not have grand­par­ents in the coun­try­side, are happy to do a bit of work on some­one else's farm. Af­ter all, Michel's oc­cu­pa­tion is not just work, but also has no­ble ob­jec­tive – the preser­va­tion of Carpathian buf­falo.

BED&BIKE

Alisa Smyrna and her hus­band for some time or­gan­ised cy­cling trips around the Carpathi­ans, then re­alised that they could make their own place to host guests. They owned an old col­lec­tive farm ware­house in the vil­lage of Dubryny­chi near Perechyn (Zakarpat­tia Oblast). On the ground floor, they have made a huge hall for ban­quets, tra­di­tional wed­dings or a sim­ple breakfast for those stay­ing up­stairs. A com­fort­able hos­tel with a mas­sive room is lo­cated on the first floor. There is an out­door shower in the yard. It is now known as Bed&Bike or Do­bra Nuć, which comes from name of the vil­lage.

ALISA SMYRNA AND HER HUS­BAND FOR SOME TIME OR­GAN­ISED CY­CLING TRIPS AROUND THE CARPATHI­ANS, THEN RE­ALISED THAT THEY COULD MAKE THEIR OWN PLACE TO HOST GUESTS

Af­ter a long day in the moun­tains, they are happy to wel­come dirty and tired tourists, trav­ellers and back­pack­ers who are used to sav­ing money on ac­com­mo­da­tion and are of­ten un­com­fort­able in tra­di­tional ho­tels. The eco-friendly Bed&Bike pre­serves the tra­di­tions of Zakarpat­tia, fas­ci­nat­ing for­eign­ers and giv­ing them the chance to cel­e­brate a high­land wed­ding with a proper Carpathian mar­riage cer­tifi­cate.

Alisa has also made a small "in­sect ho­tel". For now, it is just a box, but it will soon be home to sev­eral ant families. One time, the hote­liers found a wounded owl and nursed it back to health un­til it re­turned to the for­est. The wooden box, sim­i­lar to a bird­house, where it lived re­mains high up un­der the roof.

"We spent a long time ren­o­vat­ing the premises," says Alisa. "We in­stalled PVC win­dows in the at­tic. And then I re­alised that the bats had dis­ap­peared. I started to read about how to bring them back. I'm scared of these an­i­mals, but didn't want to dis­turb the ecosys­tem. I had to knock out a win­dow in the at­tic and let them live there again."

The woman says that al­most no Ukraini­ans stay there. She is, frankly, even a lit­tle afraid of do­mes­tic tourists. Ev­ery­thing at Bed&Bike is in sev­eral lan­guages: they know English and Ger­man well. You can rent a mo­tor­bike and ride around the pic­turesque land­scapes of Zakarpat­tia.

THE RIDER

Two girls, Ha­lyna Tanai and Olha Hon­char from Kryvyi Rih in south-east­ern Ukraine, came up with the orig­i­nal ex­cur­sions un­der the "Yizdets" brand. They tours are mainly lit­er­ary in na­ture, although the guides do not just talk about books: there is also mu­sic, ob­scure facts and history. To­day, they have a few ac­tive routes: Kyiv, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk–Buchach, Ivano-Frankivsk–Kolomyia and Uzh­horod. The or­gan­is­ers con­sider the lat­ter, led by well-known writer Bandy Sholtes, to be the most "in depth". New ones will be added in the au­tumn: Kharkiv, Za­por­izhia, Kram­a­torsk– Slo­viansk.

Ha­lyna and Olha at first had the idea of mak­ing a lit­er­ary guide. Two in one: travel tips and a col­lec­tion of short prose pieces by Ukrainian writ­ers about in­ter­est­ing towns and vil­lages. Then well­known writer Taras Prokhasko based in Western Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk be­came a Yizdets guide and the girls al­most com­pletely switched their focus onto the tours, leav­ing be­hind work on the guide­book. Now they want to go back and plan it again from scratch, guided by their new­found ex­pe­ri­ence.

"The over­all con­cept has not changed," says Ha­lyna. “But now I re­alise that there should be more text and information about each re­gion, be­cause it is im­pos­si­ble to fit Kharkiv Oblast or Zakarpat­tia into one story by one writer. In ad­di­tion, I see the end prod­uct a lit­tle dif­fer­ently: it should be a premium sou­venir with cer­tain extras, be­sides the texts and il­lus­tra­tions, and a mo­bile app.”

Olha claims that in­tro­duc­ing trav­ellers to lit­er­a­ture is the eas­i­est thing to do, be­cause this as­pect of Ukrainian cul­tural history has prob­a­bly been re­searched more than any other, and writ­ers' houses and apart­ments are usu­ally the best pre­served.

The hard­est thing that the or­gan­is­ers of these trips have to deal with is in­fra­struc­ture and the quirks of Ukrainian Rail­ways. They use pub­lic trans­port so that other trav­ellers can fol­low in their foot­steps.

"Tick­ets are an eter­nal headache for us, be­cause some peo­ple are not ready to plan a two-day jour­ney three weeks in ad­vance, and are then faced with the fact that there are none left. I won't say any­thing about coaches: they're more like a con­stant ‘an­thro­po­log­i­cal study’. It's not so hard when you go by your­self. But when you're in charge of a group, you see ev­ery­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ently. For ex­am­ple, there are some great buses to Kolomyia, where you have to give every­one an ear­ful, in­clud­ing the con­troller, be­cause they all ig­nore the tick­ets: the first peo­ple to sit in the bus get to travel. Every­one buys them from the driver, only we get them from the ticket of­fice. We were sort of lucky with ho­tels and hos­tels – the most strik­ing was a hos­tel in Vin­nyt­sia with­out a com­puter. The re­cep­tion­ists write ev­ery­thing down in a log­book, be­cause only the boss has a com­puter. And when they mix something up, there's an ideal ex­cuse: the other re­cep­tion­ist has bad hand­writ­ing.

Yizdets works with pub­lish­ers too. For ex­am­ple, dur­ing a trip to Lviv a meet­ing was or­gan­ised with the chief ed­i­tor of Old Lion Pub­lish­ing House, Maryana Savka. For pub­lish­ers, this is an op­por­tu­nity to sell books and com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with their read­ers. The trips are also a good op­por­tu­nity for Va­syl Karpyuk, writer and direc­tor of Dis­cur­sus Pub­lish­ers in Ivano-Frankivsk, to show the re­sults of his work and meet his read­er­ship. The girls are plan­ning to adopt another for­mat – ac­com­pa­ny­ing tourists to cul­tural events, and are de­vel­op­ing a pro­gramme for the Za­por­izhia Book Toloka fes­ti­val. These joint ef­forts ben­e­fit every­one: tourists and pub­lish­ers, as well as the ini­tia­tors and vis­i­tors of cul­tural events.

The or­gan­is­ers say that in or­der to pro­mote read­ing, peo­ple should be given more than just ad­ver­tise­ments for books. Every­one wants to touch, feel and be­come part of the process. In the fu­ture, Yizdets plans to run ed­u­ca­tional trips for schoolchil­dren, so that their lit­er­ary jour­neys can go be­yond their text­books.

An old new cabin. Time would have killed this Hus­tul house. But a group of ac­tivists turned it into a hos­tel

In search of a per­fect en­vi­ron­ment. Michel left Ger­many to set up a buf­falo farm in Zakarpat­tia

A two-wheel dream. The Bed&Bike hos­tel is a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for for­eign­ers, but few Ukraini­ans are fa­mil­iar with it

The mu­rals worth check­ing. Yizdets takes peo­ple on “city rock art” tours to help them un­der­stand mod­ern ur­ban spirit

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