What happens when you put 11 artists and a Wild team in the Ukrainian Wilderness…

8th – 16th August 2018

Ukraine. We drove through Austria, Hungary and crossed the border into Ukraine, saying goodbye to the EU for ten days. And saying goodbye to the Latin alphabet. It was like we entered a whole new world when we got to the Carpathian Mountains. We drove past forested hills and clear rivers, and no clear-cuts in sight. I stuck my head out the window and dubbed it the ‘Ukrainian Shire’.

My first impressions were of the colourful culture. Our bus passed through villages where everywhere people were walking on the streets, and cows and horses grazed and wandered freely by the roadside. The houses were all different colours, with well-kept gardens rimmed in by fences. Buildings had ornate wood carvings and pointed roofs, and the churches has glittering golden domes. There were other vehicles, beaten trucks, old cars and motorbikes, but it wasn’t unusual to also see horse and carriages. Even on the highway! We jolted every which way on the roads, and it would be more appropriate to say there were roads in the potholes, than potholes in the road.

Why did we go to the Ukraine?

It’s not a place you ever imagine yourself visiting, but my team were in the country for a project called WILD Arts, which combines Wilderness with art. We took eleven artists from five countries into the Wilderness and let nature inspire their artwork. It was fascinating to watch them see and explore the landscapes with completely different perspectives, and to then create art from their impressions.

We stayed in Synevyr National Nature Park, in little cabins, and took the artists out during the day to discover Wilderness. Every day was an adventure, and over the week we knitted together tightly as a group to form a team.

There was a visit to Synevyr Lake, and an overnight stay at Wild Lake. We hiked through UNESCO World Heritage Beech Forest, met bears, shared stories round a campfire, took a ride in a Soviet Army truck, drank Palinka to celebrate local folk legends. Too many memories to squeeze into a single post so please, welcome to my photo diaries…

Our campsite backed onto a bear sanctuary. Curiosity came from both sides of the fence and both bears and humans returned every day to hang out with each other. These bears had been rescued from circuses and were well habituated to humans, and so they would calmly sit and snuffle, digging clumps of earth and licking the ants up. Ah it’s not very biological of me to say, but they were SO CUTE. And fluffy. They looked just like teddy bears.

 

The artists

During the week we had an overnight stay at the Wild Lake, which meant hiking with our big backpacks and then camping and generally having a merry time exploring. (above gallery)

We had such starry, beautiful nights, complete with milky way and meteor showers. In the evening a few of us laid on the decking, huddled like penguins and counting shooting stars. It was an incredible view, the night sky framed by the silhouettes of trees. I have the habit of blinking whenever a shooting star passed, but managed to see one (as opposed to the dozens spotted by everyone else).

P.S. The tree here has been struck by lightning!

UNESCO Beech Forest

We caught a ride in this army truck, stood in the back and bouncing along, where we had to duck and weave to avoid the trees whipping past. Excitement only increased when we arrived at our destination and there were so. many. wild blueberries. We had blue teeth, lips and tongues (especially me, but no regrets whatsoever).

And so it was a hike up, and then we came down through UNESCO Primeval Beech Forest. It was beautiful. Also steep, peppered with traces of bear and boars, no path, and a lot of time spent sliding on our ass.

A really excellent day. Finished with a beer and high spirits all round.

Vernissage

The last day we invited the park management team and local community to our campsite, where we had an exhibition of the artists work, our Wilderness areas and some large carnivore information in Ukrainian. Also craft workshops, local musicians and food… much fun!

Uzhhorod

We bookended our WILDArt week with an overnight in Uzhhorod, a border city. The drive was just too much in one go, especially when we factor in time waiting at the border (entering and leaving the EU so it’s a faff… plus with a bottle of vodka for 2 euros, a packet of cigarettes for 1 euro and a jar of caviar for 1 euro, border staff like to check we’re not filling up our cars and smuggling!)

It was surprisingly cosmopolitan and hipster, with a big café culture, funky street art and an old town with cobbled streets. The river Uzh dissected the city, and we spotted a black stork in the centre of the river. We stayed in a hotel run by the mafia (perhaps the safest place to stay in the city!) and it took me half of breakfast to realise that the classical music playing was not from a speaker, but that there was in fact a pianist hidden behind the food who played all morning.

The week was a big success. Wilderness was experienced, art was created, and friendships were formed. For the European Wilderness Society it was good to cement our communications with Synevyr National Nature Park, and this is the start of our future WILDArt projects all across Europe. I also learnt a lot personally, from the artists and from my team. This was my first time in Ukraine and actually in Wilderness. I was able to hike through my first UNESCO Beech Forest, and experience solitude in the Wilderness. The whole week made me feel so grateful to have this opportunity to work with the European Wilderness Society, and contribute towards the protection and communication of European Wilderness. It also reminded me of how good it feels to share different perspectives with people from so many cultures, and take a deep breath and look at nature with new eyes.

Thanks for reading!

*Photos taken by me and and other EWS team members.