By Steve Richards
A contrast in worlds not even 10 miles away.
My day began in a suburb of Kyiv about seven or so miles west of the capital city’s center in a pretty deluxe two-bedroom (aside from no hot water) in a high-rise apartment I scored on Booking.com (as I have most of my accommodations so far). It was a lovely sunny spring day in far contrast to the cold, drizzly day I hiked in two days ago, so that was nice. After my fourth meal of pasta and red sauce I had bought in the market downstairs, I was ready to hit the trail on what promised to be a pretty grueling ten or so mile hike to Bucha. Grueling because my pack weighs in at almost 50 pounds fully packed (my new Osprey bag is awesome), and because I’ve never carried it such a distance. But, I felt up to the challenge. It was a warmish sunny day, and, besides, my travel options were limited, and the terrain flat.
The first part of the hike was pleasant enough, though the pack was already making its presence known and I had just started. I walked through a lovely little neighborhood led by Google Maps in walk mode as my guide. However, Google Maps makes no predictions about the kind of road/path/trench-line you might traverse. It is just a blue line on my iPhone.
The blue line takes me down a paved road to a concrete barrier eight feet high–the apparent end of the road. Which is why driving, even if you could get a car, is not practical unless a local. The Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine have been VERY busy setting up all kinds of nasty surprises for Russian tanks, armor, and associated vehicles which simply aren’t conducive to normal getting around. However, there is almost always a pathway around these obstacles for those on foot. So around I go.
The new path was something I hadn’t experienced before. Trenches deeply dug, interlaced, and abandoned, they fortunately had planks stretching from one side to the other. Google Maps gave me no guidance as to how to navigate these–just the blue line that beckoned like Horace Greely, “Go West, old man,” or something like that. I worked through the maze, came out the other side, and found the trusty path only to come upon a water hazard in the woods which I started walking along looking for a place to cross. It was just a brook, but I didn’t want to get my Doc Martens wet as the water looked deep enough to make the rest of my hike miserable with soaked socks.
Surprisingly, and I keep remembering the guardian angel Father Yaroslav called down for me in Boston, I happened upon a family enjoying a picnic in the woods! Not speaking Ukrainian, nor they English, I motioned I needed a place to cross, and the patriarch of the clan showed me a bridge of old tires, a plank, and some foam rubber, and gave me a sign to skip right across. I thanked him and he left me to my own devices to face the next hazard. Dogs. Which I met as soon as I skipped across to the other side, no problem.
You see, there were any number of loose, perhaps even feral dogs that are extremely territorial along the blue line. And while they don’t generally attack, they let you know the place is under watch. I told the dogs that I was leaving as soon as I could, with an eye behind me to be sure one wasn’t sneaking up to take a chunk out of me, which surely would have ruined my day even more than wet socks.
I keep hiking only to confront a dreaded checkpoint consisting of several well-armed militia-looking fellas that told me the forested path I was about to try and enter “wasn’t gonna happen.” My trusty blue line was closed, and an unspecified detour was in my immediate future. They said it was unsafe (wouldn’t/couldn’t tell me why) though drivers were being let through. The English-speaking guard told me to walk down to the main highway several miles away to catch the bus to Bucha, or better yet, back to Kyiv. Not in any position to argue, I headed away from the trusty blue line, toward the road and promised bus. At this point, I got a bit disoriented without the blue line I knew and loved, which was sending me back to the checkpoint and through the forbidden woods. On the other hand, having the possibility of ditching my heavier and heavier pack was also motivating. So down the road I went.
Soon thereafter I spot another, even more formidable checkpoint a few hundred yards ahead. This one really gave me pause as I felt I barely made it past the last one. I also saw a little place to change money right about then and knowing that cash was likely king where I was going, I exchanged a few hundred-dollar bills from my reserve for local currency (close to 10,000 hryvnias) while I noodled what to do next. Here also were about a dozen people waiting at an obvious bus stop, so it occurred to me that maybe I could catch the coming bus to the Bucha bus down the road. But after I saw how crowded the little bus was, I just couldn’t bring myself to try and get on with my big pack and Google Translate. I decided I’d brave the checkpoint.
I was asked by the soldiers for my passport and what I was up to. I have this down pretty well by now: I’m an American documentary filmmaker and I’m walking to Bucha. I then show them my American passport, which all seem to admire the craftsmanship thereof, and the Ukraine page on the TheoEco website complete with a picture of Father Yaroslav and me next to St. Vladimir–the patron saint of Ukraine, I think. And after some noodling on their own, they decide to let me walk along.
Along I go, and sure enough, the blue line came back when I happened upon a new road going west if I just make a left down what looked like an industrial access road. So, screw the bus, I’m back on the trusty blue line!
This was the longest stretch of the day and the closest to a real hike in nature I’ve had. It went through fields and forests, more fortifications, a factory, and more forests. It was downright pastoral on this spring/summery day with birds, meadows, trees, a dog (a little non-threatening one going home), everything! It would have been perfect if not for that constant little fear in the back of my mind that I might at any moment step on a landmine, as the Russians have apparently laid many, but I figured this was never occupied territory and I was still far from Bucha and Irpin so I thought less and less about it. Besides, it was the trusty blue line I was on.
On and on it seemed to go and yet I wasn’t half through. But Google Maps is very accurate, so I could see the kilometers tick down ‘til I reached the road where I might finally find that bus to Bucha. But just before I stepped off the path and onto the road shoulder, I took off that pack and had a little picnic of my own. In the woods with blue skies overhead, I pulled out my last apple and a bottle of iced tea. After a good thirty minutes–I was in no big hurry to put that backpack on again–I hit the road on what would be the second five miles of the day still to come.
No more dirt path now–I was walking like a vagabond on a major road with cars speeding past, though not too many. I walked and walked with the occasional billboard to break up the monotony, and the traffic snarlers which were former checkpoints in the middle of the road. These consist of an assembly of concrete barriers placed on the road in a design that forces drivers–in both directions–to perform their most skillful S-curve Grand Prix maneuvers at the greatest speed possible. It is obvious that drivers who navigate these obstacles frequently are quite adept at speeding through as there are no police or anything directing traffic. Every driver for themself out here.
The kilometers keep rolling by towards a few buildings I can see on the horizon. Bucha, I figure, finally. I trudge along, though my pack is beginning to talk to me via my back and legs, saying, “Put me down...you know you want to.” And I did, as this was already about as far as I’ve carried the thing since leaving Boston and I knew I still had miles to go.
Then came a blessing from the guardian angel Father Yaroslav called down for me in Jamaica Plain. A car pulled over and beckoned me to ride! Since I had seen no sign of a bus stop and my pack was now insisting that any ride was better than walking, I scampered between the traffic and loaded my gear into the welcoming car, and sped off in a backseat full of supplies bound for Irpin, complete with a bag full of adult beverages which can’t be purchased around here.
My back and legs happy and hoping for a lovely ride to my hotel, their dreams are dashed as soon as I see the first signs of destruction, my first since arriving in Ukraine more than two weeks ago.
I had to get out and start filming.
A burned-out building and cars were the first things I saw. The first of so many it would turn out. You see, this is where the battle for Kyiv took place. This place and many others around the capital. This is where the Russians were thwarted and sent scurrying back to the Belarussian border.
As I went, I saw more damage–much, much more–including burnt-out Russian-armored personnel carriers and other vehicles now just blocking traffic. I also saw rebuilding, especially at a bombed-out bridge that had been destroyed by the Ukrainians to deny it to the Russians. Locals were still using it to the extent possible, having to drive far to the side of what was now an asphalt bowl to keep from falling in the gaping chasm of a road. Amazing. No orange cones or flashing barricades here.
Before long, Google Maps brought me to a dirt road that led me through heavily damaged, deserted, modern apartment complexes, complete with another particularly aggressive dog who charged at me from behind–but I turned just in time, and he backed off, barking at me for a good 300 meters until I was sufficiently unthreatening.
Now I was on a path through a wooded area, which could also be mined, I’ve been told. After all, this was Russian occupied for many weeks and they left a few mines behind, apparently. So, no more dirt roads for me, I guess.
There are few authorities around; this place is largely self-governed. There is almost no government assistance. No FEMA or Red Cross. No supermarkets as they’ve all been bombed and emptied anyways. Few gas stations. Just a few places where bread is being distributed.
Instead, the remaining and returning citizens–estimates are that 90% of the 40,000+ citizens evacuated–work together to get by. Electrical crews are out, natural gas crews are working. Contractors are beginning to clean up former offices, and coffee shops are cleaning up the broken glass and trying to figure out what to do next. The internet is out, but cell phones are working. 3G is the going data speed, though a little unreliable. It is anything but anarchy, though, with Kyiv about an hour away by car. The McDonald's stands undamaged though still closed. It will be very popular upon reopening I’m told.
My hike is coming to an end on this first evening in Bucha when I get to my hotel. The entire day I have been dreaming of the Victoria Park Hotel. Its website showed a fabulous restaurant and lovely rooms complete with monogrammed robes–the works. And while I could hardly believe it was open, Booking.com confirmed my reservation, so off I went. Just one problem–the internet is down at the Victoria Park Hotel and they had no idea I was coming. In fact, they are closed...still. But the proprietor Victor let me in and gave me a great room, slippers and bathrobe included! The hotel has electricity and heat, and though the restaurant is closed I’ve been invited to some awesome meals with the “family.” I get espressos and pots of tea every morning and have met wonderful folks who double as guides to show me the places we all see on TV. More on all this to come.
For now, I can say that Father Yaroslav’s guardian angel is really delivering. Not to mention Booking.com.