In 2013, myself and a friend traveled from Romania to the Polish Tatra Mountains, by way of Lviv and western Ukraine. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused me to revisit that journey and see my fleeting impressions of that country in a new light. Writing about the devastation of the thrilling country I briefly passed through was something I couldn’t do, because I don’t have the right; I was only a tourist there, merely seeing the surface of things. So this is a piece about the joy of travel and the wonder of unknown places, with the knowledge that one of those places is now transformed by war. One day I hope to return to Lviv and see things with wiser eyes.
We tried to hitchhike out of town towards the distant mountain range, the mountains we had come to climb. The Carpathians. The Tatras. No cars stopped for us. Just blank pink faces staring back. We walked slowly down the road, our thumbs at the ready. We were in fine spirits with the sunshine and the trees, away from the flatness of the steppe, with the promise of high ground ahead. Eventually a car slowed down and a hand waved through the window. A skinny man with a moustache. His name was Piotr, he announced. A crucifix hung from his rear-view mirror. At first the ride went well. But soon he stopped at a petrol station and we had to buy his fuel. Then he stopped at a shop and we had to buy his beer. Every few miles he would think of reasons to demand more cash. He wanted food. Cigarettes. He grew petulant and angry. His whining, persecuted voice twisted into nastiness, and when we said this was far enough he refused to stop the car, just sped on, ignoring us, complaining bitterly all the while, claiming that we were using him. We had no idea where he was going. Were we being kidnapped? He named a fee, which we refused. The atmosphere was horrible. At last he skidded to a halt and ordered us to get out. He swore at us and drove away. It was good to see the back of him. We had no ride, but we were free. Piotr. What a wanker.
Did we thumb another lift? I really can’t remember. By some means, that afternoon we reached the town of Zakopane, the gateway to the Tatra range. Wooden chalets, shingled roofs, pine trees on the slopes above. The evening sky was blue and clear. The next day it was pouring.
We climbed in rain through dripping trees, out of the trees, over dripping rocks. The sky was gray. We walked in cloud. There was nothing of a view. At last we reached a mountain hut that had been built by the communists, a sturdy stone-walled feasting hall. It was full of dripping people. There were bowls of hunter’s stew, sauerkraut and sausages, foaming pints of strong red beer. We slept among snoring bodies.
The next day began with rain again. The stone path stretched away. We followed spots of red and white daubed on rocks along the trail, heading for a higher hut. The rain stopped and the wind began. It was colder than we’d expected. Suddenly we came to snow. We hadn’t been expecting snow. It was summer down below. Up here it was winter. Then we found ourselves on ice. We were not prepared for ice. I didn’t even have hiking boots, just worn-away Doc Martens. My grip kept slipping on the rocks. There was still a lot of up to go. The cold wind hurt my ears. Up we went, up and up. Then it began to blizzard. The snow fell upwards, from below, surging in the rising wind, frosting the backs of our heads. Chris didn’t have a hat. Neither of us had gloves. My fingers hurt. We carried on. Now the snow was ankle-deep. The trail got only steeper. Then we came to metal chains bolted into the rock walls, a via ferrata, which we used to haul ourselves hand over fist. The path grew steeper, narrower. And the light was fading. The wind was rising to a gale, snow hammered down and stung our eyes, there was ice everywhere. We should go back, I thought. But going back was perilous. There wasn’t time. We’d climbed too high. The only thing was to go on. My stomach dropped with fear. We could die, I thought. It was a possibility. I took a step and slipped again. My fingers had grown so numb I could hardly hold the chains. The mountain now seemed monstrous, ice and rock, rock and chains, the screaming wind, nowhere to hide. To my right, a deadly void. One slip, that would be it. I realized I was panicking, not thinking straight, not looking at my feet, moving clumsily, hurrying to outrun my fear. Chris had been silent all this time. I forced myself to pause.
“Are you a bit scared?” I asked, glancing back at Chris. He scowled, as if it were a trick.
“Are you not scared?” he demanded.
“Yes, I’m pretty scared,” I said.
Huge relief. Somehow those words saved us.
Until that point both of us had been walking silently, not admitting to ourselves that we were scared and struggling. Once we’d spoken it out loud the fear became smaller. Now we talked constantly, a reassuring litany, as connecting as those metal chains: “Watch out for that rock, it’s loose,” “There’s ice there,” “More ice there,” “Carefully here, it’s slippery.” We talked ourselves up the mountain. The path of chains came to an end and there were walls of snow above. The light was fading rapidly. We walked in a stinging blizzard. A sense of dread came over me that we would never find our way, that this journey would not end. That last stretch seemed impossible. We reached a curving crest of snow. Ahead there were two people.
They moved like yetis, silhouettes, lumbering away from us. In moments they were out of sight, but they left their footprints. We tracked the path they had made through the deep drifted snow, exalted, no longer lost. Their trail led to the mountain hut that we were looking for.
Through a fog of sauerkraut, wet boots, warm bodies, melting snow, wood smoke, sweat and alcohol, we collapsed into coziness. We slurped on bowls of hunter’s stew and drank strong red beer. The stew was spicy and intense, with bits of cured sausage chewy with lumps of fat. It tasted better than anything I had ever had before. The beer went down easier than anything I had ever drunk. After one glass we were heroes.
Already we were telling stories of the things that we had seen, the places we had traveled through, inventing our own legacy. That woman in the scarlet dress. That one night in Lviv. Piotr. The electric train. That path of ice, and the moment – as I had glanced back at Chris – when I had snapped him on my phone, a photo of him standing there with nothing but a sheer drop inches from his boot, that boot resting on a rock that was clearly loose, about to slip. The fear apparent on his face. All around, a howling void. Are you not scared? It might have been the last image anyone ever saw of him, my broken phone discovered next to two thawed skeletons next spring. We laughed and joked about it now, with hunter’s stew to keep us warm, but at moments it hit home. The aftershock. We drank more beer. We smoked and told our stories.
It snowed heavily that night. We awoke to brilliant skies. Everything was blue and white, crystals sparkling everywhere, plump contours of untrampled snow. No wind. Not a cloud in sight. As we left the hut we trampled fresh tracks through the snow. Mountains soared on every side, gleaming in the morning light. We ran and slid, tobogganed on our bodies down the virgin slopes. We sang songs and took photographs. The Tatras! We were here. The trail ran up, down and across, between the mountains, under them. The red and white spots led us on. We had no fear that morning.
Above us towered Rysy, the highest mountain in the range, gray and triple-summited, with Slovakia beyond. By the time we reached its base it was afternoon. A rocky, upwards-leading path like a broken flight of stairs. Chris had trouble with his knee. The gradient was painful. Again we hadn’t been prepared. Non-preparation was our theme. Of course we came to ice again. My useless boots kept sliding. The feel of ice beneath my boots, the sight of ice ahead of us, the certainty of more ice on the sheerer slopes above – my body tingled with fear, the aftershock resurfacing. We were warned yesterday. We might not be warned again. We climbed as high as we could, a little further than we dared, perhaps two thirds of the way up. It was enough. We had arrived. We found a place to sit. We made a little ceremony. Both of us spoke some words. Chris said a prayer. We shared a final cigarette and tipped the rest of the tobacco out across the mountainside, watched it vanish in the wind. We gave a little of our food. Small offerings and thanks. Rysy. The Tatra Mountains. Poland, the Ukrainian steppe. Romania beyond the river, distant now in memory. From there we could look back and see them all.
Below the mountain is a lake, Morskie Oko. It means “Eye of the Sea.” Deep blue, with a turquoise fringe. Pine forest sloping down. Having made our offerings we descended to its shore, took off our clothes and jumped in. It was so cold it hurt. I only managed ten or twenty seconds before clambering out, my body stinging in the sun, pink and painfully alive, but Chris did his deep-breathing thing, slowed down his metabolism, floated there in meditation or in semi-hibernation, breathing slowly in and out, gazing at the sky.
Legend says that Morskie Oko is connected to the sea by an underwater passageway, that shipwrecks and gleaming treasures surface after distant storms. If we had dived deep enough we might have swum back to England. And in a few more days we would be back there, in our lives, in London, doing other things. No longer adventuring. No longer crossing borders.
But for now we are here. This exists and nothing else. The lake. Rysy in the sun. We have more roads ahead of us, and a glass of strong red beer.