Dear Reader, my name is Alexander Stemp. I am originally from England. I live in Budapest, married with 3 children. Before, I explored Central Europe, mostly by myself, by bike. I covered a few thousand kilometres, saw many places and had a great time. It must be now about 10 years ago that I ventured to all of Hungary’s neighbouring countries, accept for Ukraine.
I knew nothing about this place and visas were still required. Soon afterwards, Eszter my wife and I travelled from Budapest to Lviv, Kyiv and Odessa by train and enjoyed this very much.
All I had for my solo travels to the Ukraine Carpathians was a road atlas with a photograph of Verecke Per/ Hágó on the front sleeve that caught my attention. I was told about this famous landmark by local people and friends. But few had been there; with this in mind, I had to go.
At that time, there was almost no information available in English, as compared to today. I only had mixed impressions to go with. Most were historical and political referrals and not inspiring. But I was determined to overcome any negative press and see the geographical side. Fortunately my efforts paid off. I have been there several times since then.
To begin, I always got the Budapest to Záhony train, bicycled across the border into Chop and overcame any prohibitions from the border guards. Unfortunately today, cycling across this particular border is not allowed. I was sent back last time!
After breakfast and changing money; I cycled 50kms across the dusty flat-lands to Mukachevo. The sun was rising and it was a pleasant ride. Palanok Castle, high on a hill, was easy to find and worth a visit before venturing into town.
Still knowing nothing, not all was a loss. I managed to use my distorted Hungarian from time to time for those who understood me. But not my English, this came later.
After finding requirements for a comfortable stay; I needed train timetable information to get me to Volovets for the next day. This was simple enough and required an early start on a slow train. I distinctly remember the atmosphere as the carriages were brimming with social chit-chat, music, coffee, smoke and had a high atmosphere! Most of the passengers were on their way to work the land somewhere en-route; Finally I was able to sit down on a wooden seat after a short wait.
Once I arrived in Volovets in a slight haze, I got off the train and cycled to the centre of town. Still knowing nothing about directions. I approached a policeman who was really helpful. At last, I knew where I was going. I was now in the wondrous, green filled Carpathian hills and valleys that are a step back in time. There was no traffic, I really had this place for myself. Eventually, I made my way to the Verecke peak to the famous stone where Chieftain Arpad stood a thousand years ago. I took photographs of the wondrous views and had a pick-nik lunch. I rested for a while before returning back to Mukachevo. I knew for sure I would return.
The next day, I travelled to Uzhgorod, briefly looked around the town, before crossing the border with bike to Slovakia en-route to Lake Zemplem and Kosice, before returning to Budapest. Once again, wonderful, tranquil scenery, many storks flying by and a perfect place to be.
It may have been tough at times. I had to carefully prepare in advance; carry spare parts for the bicycle, as well as food and drink. At difficult times, I communicated by means of pen/ paper and sign language. It was possible to get what was needed. I did not feel alone. Everyone I met was hospitable, despite language barriers and all was well.
After this brief first visit, spirits were high. With tourist information eventually found, I was making plans to go to Synevyr Lake. Once I returned home, a lot of people were surprised by what I had to say, some pleasantly so. It did not matter because I was presently surprised.
Did I get into any danger? Asked some sceptical people.
As much danger as anyone would be in London, Paris, New York, was my reply. Any villain would be better off chasing after someone else, rather than me. Accept for my passport, I carried no valuables and I went about my way much the same as everybody else.
A little while later, my ventures took me to Synevyr Lake, Lviv, and to Mount Hoverla, much the same way as before; all were most meaningful. However this era came to an end; I had children and for the next 3 years, I did not travel. With this in mind, I decided to take to writing as I felt there was much to write about and with the atmospheric photographs, I decided now was the time. The book is called “The Ukraine Carpathians: Europe’s last great wilderness.”
This took 3 years to achieve before self publishing in 2011. This was a personal and emotional triumph. However, after some media coverage and with a few private sales, this dried up and I was in not able to shift the the rest of the books. There was no choice other than to walk the streets of Budapest; to knock on doors and see what becomes. Most had no interest, some took the book, with promises of help, which never came. And after being told by some marketeers, Lovely book! But not fashionable. I was at a loss. Finally I came across the Ukraine Congress culture centre in the centre of Budapest. I knocked on the door unannounced and introduced to Jaroszlava Hartyanyi, the President of the European Congress of Ukrainians.
Not knowing who I was, and distracting her from her office work. The friendly Jaroszlava welcomed me as I showed her my book. Moments later, she told me about her English speaking Ukrainian friend Liliya; She promised to review the book and get back to me. This was the best news I had, but still I had to wait. Finally I saw them again and with much relief, both Jaroszlava and Liliya liked my story and promised to help. Now it begins!
This was 2012. Arrangements were being made to send me to Uzhgorod. I took to the nostalgic train with my bike and made my way to the Uzhgorod Administration office where I was warmly greeted and taken to Mukachevo. The next day I made my first presentation at the university with various officials and a TV camera. I must admit I was nervous. But all was well and further invitations followed; For my own personal satisfaction, the presentations got better as I went along.
This book has been generally well received by Ukrainians and outsiders alike. There was one small, controversial matter concerning the title; As a few people considered the word wilderness, to mean primitive. This is not the case, nor was this my intention. I wanted the word wilderness to relate to a freedom and a wondrous atmosphere.
My final feelings about this region are that potentially everything is more or less there for tourism. What is required is outside awareness from someone high profiled; An environmentalist like Prince Charles would be ideal. Should he visit the Carpathians, this would be an international event and tourism would surely follow as it did for neighbouring Transylvania when he visited there.
I once wrote to Prince Charles on Facebook, he replied with a FB smiley! Who knows, he may respond to this a little later when his schedule allows. I await!
I was now travelling to Uzhgorod on a regular basis. I was introduced to Michael Dankanych from Tysa TV who invited me onto Breakfast TV and this lead to more shows. As well as to Vita Munchak who involved me with local radio and introduced me to the Kobzar bookshop where I made a book presentation for local TV news. This was a dream come true. I am so grateful for being given these chances and I enjoyed every them all.
I say to my outside friends, visit Ukraine! It is a great place with rich culture and has much to offer. There are the challenges, as there are rewards. Come with an open mind.
There is an Ukraine motto that lives with me, It is OK to be poor: But it is not OK to look poor. Obviously much care goes into how they present themselves. Local people, in particular the women, dress very well.
I was intrigued to listen to their life stories; And there is no avoiding today’s political perspective; And at the end of 2013, troubles were looming ahead in Kyiv, Crimea, and East Ukraine with no end in sight.
It seems right and fair that Ukraine, as they wish, should join the European Union, as have done their western neighbours. I completely understand why they want their own identity that distinguishes them from their larger eastern neighbour. I still favour the EU regardless of any imperfections. I think England should stay in and all work together. England would lose later if pulls out now. This is very much sign of the times.
Fortunately for myself, I was invited back to do more Breakfast TV shows. It was great to return despite the troubles. But life in Ukraine, a place I have become so fond of, was not quite the same as before, for obvious reasons. But I was happy to be there and hope to return very soon.
During the recent disturbances, I have written a 2nd story called “A Promenade in Park Mukachevo.” This is an English story that travels to this part of Europe and is based with humour, psychology, crime and espionage. And finally, I have written a children’s story. More news on this will follow a little later.
Alexander Stemp. March 2015.