“It’s good for your penis” said Jerom as we arrived in Ivano Frankovsk.
“what is?” I replied, with a sense of surprise and intrigue.
“The cognac (nastoika) they drink. They say it gives you special sexual powers. We drank it last time.” he explained as he smoked and laughed at the same time.
He refused to say if the results were good, but knowing that I would probably have the opportunity to drink some later, I wasn’t too bothered.
We were on our way to spend two days in the Carpathian mountains as part of a photo story Jerom was compiling for a Dutch newspaper. However, the focus of the article wasn’t the mountains – it was our hosts. The Hutsels.
Let Dr. Marko R. Stech eplain…
HUTSULS. An ethnographic group of Ukrainian pastoral highlanders inhabiting the Hutsul region in the Carpathian Mountains. According to one theory, the name hutsul was originally kochul (`nomad,` cf literary Ukrainian kochovyk) and referred to inhabitants of Kyivan Rus` who fled from the Mongol invasion into the Carpathian Mountains.
Many other Hutsul settlements and monasteries are mentioned in charters and municipal and land documents beginning in the 15th century…
Except for eight settlements in Romania, the Hutsul region lies within the present-day borders of the Ukraine.
The region is located in the most elevated and picturesque part of the Ukrainian Carpathians. The gently sloping mountains are densely populated, and the land there is cultivated to a considerable height owing to the moderating climatic influence of the Black Sea and the massiveness of the ranges, which make summers in the region warmer than in other parts of the Carpathians. Highland pastures (polonyny) are widespread, and herding, particularly of sheep, has traditionally been widely practised.
Until Jerom had invited me to join him and his wife Vika, I had never heard of these people, but on hearing that they live in the mountains for three months every summer – completely cut off from the modern world – I knew I had to go. My sense of adventure would never forgive me if I didn’t.
And, so it was. We took the train to Ivano-Frankovsk, then took a small bus that smelled of petrol fumes for another 1.5 hours until we arrived in a small but beautiful Carpathian town set in a valley, somewhere in a place whose name I cannot pronounce.
To be exact, we were heading here:
This is where the real fun started.
Firstly, we were greeted by Roman, our impossibly ‘1980s cool’ fixer who had arranged the trip for us. Roman was the son of a Hutsel shepherd who owns a number of tourist apartments in the local town. He was, characteristically impatient, and eager to dispatch us to the mountains as soon as possible, however not before he proudly posed for a few photos outside his guest-house.
He gave us one hour to shower, change and buy supplies.
Now we were ready to go, and Roman and his mate were waiting impatiently (Roman is obviously a very busy man) in a beige Lada.
Even though I love these box-shaped Soviet relics, I wasn’t convinced that this car was ‘man enough’ to drive up a mountain. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry, because we were soon transferred into another square but suitably manly soviet relic.
Roman dropped us, our luggage and all our food to two more locals whose job it was to drive us up the mountain. Slapping me on the back, he told them that I must have some of the ‘sex enhancing’ good stuff, and after some boyish banter, we all squeezed into this tin-on-wheels and drove off, up the steepest road we could find.
The journey was the bumpiest hour of my life. It’s impossible to describe in words, but it was the automotive equivalent of a 9.6 magnitude earthquake. Occasionally, we found some flat ground, but our driver compensated for this by driving eight times faster, ensuring that our shaking never dropped below unacceptable levels.
On the way up, we discovered Ukraine’s oil industry. It didn’t seem to be active, or highly developed, but as our driver demonstrated by turning the pump on – it was still working.
Minutes later we arrived. We had made it to Hutsel Hut ‘Kleva’. We were miles from anywhere, deep in the Carpathian mountains, but it was exactly where we wanted to be.
A small mountain pasture, a few hand-built wooden huts and fences were dotted across the hill and our Hutsel host Jure was there to greet us.
Minutes later, I was sat on a bench, still shaking, surrounded by people who I couldn’t understand – having my love-life and sensory systems ‘significantly enhanced’ with the help of a large glass of insanely strong alcohol.
It felt good.
To be continued…