Tag: Carpathian Mountains

In a hut with some Hutsels: Part 2

Dear all, I’ve been away for a long time because (sadly) I left Ukraine and moved to Brussels. Moving house, finding a new job, and starting a new life etc have taken up all of my time. However, I haven’t forgotten about Ukraine or this site – I’m just working out how to keep it alive. That’s why I was delighted to sign-in today and see that its attracted almost 95,000 visitors since I started posting last year! Thank you, all of you.

Anyway, here is the super-late second half of my Hutsel experience in the Carpathians this summer. You can read, or re-read the first part here.

Part Two.

I had no idea what our Hutsel home would look like, or where we would be staying. However, the site we arrived at was beautiful. Set on a ridge overlooking two mountain valleys, the settlement consisted of one small hut, three out buildings (a toilet, a shower and a store) and a large fenced off ‘pen’ area for the animals.

The hut

If I’m honest, I had been expecting some delicate traditional woodwork patterns and intricate traditional dress that the Ukrainians are so attached to. This wasn’t the case. The hut was a small wooden shack which had been knocked-up from the surrounding trees, and it was about four meters by six, has some kind of bed, some limited storage and a fire. Yes, a whooping great fire in the middle of the wooden house! There was no chimney, just an open section above the flames which did more to blow the smoke in your face than it did as a ventilator.

If you can see through the smoke – you’ll see the mushrooms

In short, it was a little wooden smoke box that burned your eyes and killed your lungs if you got anywhere near it.

Jure, our host, loved it. His son, a 19-year-old forestry student from Lviv didn’t, complaining that smoke was unbearable for the first month or so until you got used to it.

Amazed that anyone could live for more than 3 days in such conditions without dying from smoke inhalation, I vowed to avoid inside of the hut as much as possible. Thankfully, as it was a gloriously sunny weekend, this wouldn’t be a problem.

Little Jure didn’t seem to mind the smoke, but I don’t think he had much choice.

However, I did stay long enough to see the huge cauldron that hung above the fire (to make cheese) and long enough for Jure to proudly wave some of his smoke mushrooms in my face.

Outside was a small ‘garden’ area and a dinner table that would be the focal point of our whole visit.

After a few stiff drinks, Jerom and I discovered first that we are failures at erecting tents, and secondly that some local villagers travel around the mountains in the back of large truck.

Here’s the situation:

> Jure lives in the mountain for 3 or 4 months per year with his son and nephew, and they look after animals on behalf of the villagers.
> The villagers pay him per animal
> Jure milks the animals and makes cheese
> The villagers collect and sell the cheese and pay Jure for this as well.
> The day we arrived was also the day the villagers had come to collect the cheese.
> They arrived on the back of a truck

I was slightly worried that they were a local village mafia who were going to steal our beer and cigarettes and do nasty stuff to Jerome, but thankfully there weren’t. The villagers simple came, conducted business, took the cheese, paid Jure… and then sat down for a vodka-fuelled song fest!!


I don’t know if they did it for our benefit, or if they always sing and eat when they collect the cheese, but from nowhere a feast of salads, chicken wings, cheeses and breads suddenly appeared along with about 27 bottles of water and home-made vodka, all severed in old coke bottles which made it impossible to distinguish between the two.

So, hours after arriving, we found ourselves deep in song with a whole table of drunk singing villagers …eating, drinking and (in my case) laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing. It was big, friendly gold-teeth smiles all round and while we ate, the young kids chased goats and sheep around the field.

Little Hutsels

At least twice during the day Jure retrieved a small newspaper cutting from the smoky den which contained a poem that his family had published for him. Each time, he asked someone to read it while he would cry, then drink vodka and then start singing.

Jure, drinking and singing

Never try to beat Jure or any Hutsel at the after-dinner fighting games

It really was an experience that I’ll remember forever and I’m happy to say that we impressed the villagers too. As they left, they also said they would never forget this day. Then, we all took pictures (on and off the truck), said our goodbyes and waved as they climbed on the truck and vanished off into the valley.

Jerom waves goodbye to our village friends

The rest of the afternoon and evening was a bit blurry, but we did make it to the top of the mountain, and I remember enough to know that our Hutsel family showed us an incredible degree of hospitality. It wasn’t a culturally rich experience in an artisan, traditional way, but it was still a wonderful insight into a lifestyle that is a million miles away from Western Europe. As a boy who grew up on a village, I was even quite envious of them at times.

We even touched on political issues when Jure insisted that he wanted independence for his people, inside an independent Ukraine. It seems Jure was a federalist.

So, if you ever get the chance to visit this magically-bonkers part of the world – I highly recommend a weekend of drunken extravagance and Hutsel hospitality. It wont be good for your health – but it will do wonders for your soul. As for the penis-enhancing booze, I’ll save the results of that story for another post 😉


See more in the gallery…

In a hut with some Hutsels. Part 1

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.

The who?

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.

Roman proving that Hutsul men in Pink shirts are cooler than Englishmen in baseball caps.

He gave us one hour to shower, change and buy supplies.

A local ‘babushka butcher’ sold us some meat and then shouted (in a friendly way) at her husband until he had chopped it into small, BBQ-sized pieces.

Another babushka sold us beer with the help of her futuristic counting machine.

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.

Me, Jerom and Vika happily squeezed into the back of a 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.

Our limousine

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.

Rattling our way up a mountain

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.

A Ukrainian ‘Nodding Donkey’

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.

Our home for the next two days

The banquette hall

Jerom and our Hutsel host – Jure

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…

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