Sunday, October 8, 2017

Since the abdication of President Yanukovych, the new administration has reflected the will of its people (H.Res.878)

Ukraine's Independence Day snuck up on us, so we didn't have any time to plan a trip during the long weekend. But I was glad we didn't leave because it was interesting to see how Kyivians celebrate their freedom from the Soviet Union, won on August 24, 1991. The 26th anniversary was recognized much like in previous years, with a series of military demonstrations on Independence Square (top). But for the first time, NATO member nations, including the United States, also participated. The troops lined the main boulevard, making it difficult to see the action (bottom left). After craning our necks for a while, we stepped on to side streets, where we could see cultural expressions of national pride (bottom right).
The night before, it was much easier to navigate the main drag downtown, even though it was full of people gathered near Lyadsky Gate, which marks the location of one of the city's medieval gates (left). Standing atop the gate is the Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Ukraine, who also is perched on Independence Monument. Over the weekend, we saw various people dressed up as the "angel of independence," including while we perused the many military machines on display (right). 
We strolled downtown after attending the Independence Day Concert at the National Philharmonic of Ukraine concert hall, a wonderful atmospheric and acoustic location for a music performance (top). The Wings of Dixie, a U.S. Air Force band, really wowed the crowd with some American favorites (bottom left). They nearly brought down the house with their extra-jazzy extended version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" (bottom right).
 
After independence, the country was led by democratically elected presidents: two Leonids, Kravchuk and Kuchma, then two Viktors, Yushchenko and Yanukovych. Viktor Yanukovych was stripped of his title after he fled the country during the Revolution of Dignity. The public protested again the government for many reasons, including Yanukovych's last-minute refusal to sign a NATO association agreement, but they also were displeased that leaders appeared to be diverting government funds to feed their own luxurious lifestyles. 

A lingering sign of this is Mezhyhirya, the estate where Yanukovych lived until he fled in 2014. The estate was built on the site of a former monastery and is now a National Park. The estate's main building, the Honka, was constructed over two years at an estimated cost of $9.5 million (top). Tours of the residence start through a door in the fitness center, where on display in a nearby window are a dummy of Yanukovych and a replica of a solid-gold bread that was reportedly found in his bedroom (bottom left). The tour, guided by a revolution protester who says he lives permanently on the site, ends at the front door of the Honka (bottom right). 
At the start of the tour, within the indoor four-lane bowling alley, you are instructed to don booties (top left), to help preserve what are billed as excessive expenditures, such as intricate hand-inlaid wood floors (top right). Besides the bowling alley, the fitness center includes an indoor tennis court; a full gym, which houses a boxing ring (bottom left); and a spa area, which includes tanning beds, massage tables, hydrobaths, and even a salt cave (bottom right).
 
The fitness center is connected to the Honka via a convenient underground tunnel (top). The residence includes all the trappings of a palace: multiple big-screen TVs and a media room, walk-in closets, bidets, silk carpets, marble statues, crystal chandeliers, and sweeping staircases (bottom left). Surprisingly, the kitchen was nothing more than a small galley, as food supposedly was prepared in the fitness center's industrial kitchen, which we didn't see. Unusually, the house includes a church, and on display in the main living area is a limited-edition John Lennon piano (bottom right). The guide said Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader who fled during the Battle of Tripoli, had a piano from the same series. Unlike Gaddafi, who was killed by rebel forces in October 2011, Yanukovych's whereabouts remain unknown.
The residence is surrounded by pristine gardens. At the front of the house is a manmade lake, alongside which sits a banya and sauna complex (top left). The rear faces the Kyiv Sea, a reservoir formed by the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in the Dnieper River (top right). We boarded golf carts to get the full tour of the estate grounds, which include, well, a golf course and the Galleon, a reception barge that now operates as a restaurant (bottom left). We also stopped at the Motor Museum, which displays dozens of cars from Yanukovych's personal automobile collection (bottom right).

Monday, October 2, 2017

Far away in the dim recesses of the Carpathians (92Cong.Rec.)

TJ has had his eye on Ukraine's mountains ever since we arrived in Kyiv. However, the main range, the Carpathians, are on the western border of the country, quite a ways from the capital. Getting there takes a good day, so doing a multi-day hike requires more than even a long weekend. So as a compromise, we used the three-day Labor Day weekend for a scouting expedition. We left work at lunch on Friday, so we could get to Ivano-Frankivsk by evening, to use as a jumping-off spot to explore the region. It was a bit of an expedition in and of itself to find our accommodations, Striha Apartment (left), conveniently located across from the train station (right). 
You can take an overnight train to Ivano-Frankivsk, but using public transportation to get to all the nooks and crannies of Carpathian National Nature Park would be difficult. From Ivano-Frankivsk, there are trains to Yaremche, where a park headquarters is located within walking distance of the station. Strangely, the headquarters are closed on weekends, so all we could do was glean some insight from the informational signs (left). We learned that there are lynxes and bears in the park, but we didn't end up seeing anything other than friendly creatures, including kittens and butterflies (right).
Just outside of Yaremche, attractive Hutsulshchyna restaurant sits alongside the Prut River (top left). It is part of a complex that has built up next to perhaps the area's most popular wet attraction, Probiy Waterfall, which has turned a bit too touristy for my taste. If you look upstream, it appears to be a calm natural retreat (top right), but the falls themselves are crawling with visitors (bottom left). The highest waterfall in the park, Trufanets Waterfall, also attracts its share of onlookers; it took some effort to get a photo without people in the shot (bottom right).
 
In fact, the natural wonders in the region that are the most significant are the least likely to draw much attention. The ancient beech forests on the UNESCO World Heritage List stretch across 12 countries. Right near our first campsite was a sign indicating we were smack dab in the middle of Ukraine's swath (left). Unfortunately, we didn't see one of the 16 wooden churches on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but we saw more modern versions built with the same horizontal logs and octagonal cupolas (right). 
 
The churches date to the Orthodox and Greek Catholic cultures of the 16th to 19th centuries. Even before that time, the area was home to Hutsuls, a hard-working and fun-loving bunch descending from the Romanians or Slavs, depending on who you ask. The horse-drawn wooden wagons certainly reminded me of those used by the Romani gypsy culture (left), which has grown to the second-largest ethnic minority in Romania today, after first entering the region during the 13th-century Mongol invasion. And the Hutsuls' woven goods seem to stem from a Slav-like resilience in cold, damp climates (right). 
Speaking of damp, the first campsite we used, in Kvasy, was sunny when we arrived, providing a nice vista of the Tysa River valley (top left). But the next morning, after 8 straight hours of rain, the same valley was full of puddles and mist (top right). The mountain fog made the abandoned military building next to the soccer pitch where we pitched our tent seem even more foreboding (bottom).
Before the rain, we enjoyed a respite in the village below. On our steep descent, we stopped to wave to the train headed to Lviv (top). Once at the bottom, we popped a squat at a picnic table associated with the original Tsipa Brewery (bottom left). The outdoor seating actually was more the purview of Hutsul Pizzeria, from whom we ordered a pizza and some "Hutsul ravioli," which were pelmeni with a cream sauce made from locally gathered mushrooms (bottom right).
The next morning, we set out to explore Ukraine's highest mountain, Hoverla (left). There are many paths leading to the peak, but we investigated the trailhead near Vorokhta. Some people hike from the city, which is connected by train to Lviv, but you can also catch a mashrutka a little further, to the turnoff toward Zaroslyak. Along that 6-kilometer-long mountain road, there are many pulloffs where you can picnic or camp (right). Since we had a car, we drove to the end of the road, where there is a small tourist complex with a chalet; from there, it is a 3-kilometer off-road hike to the summit.
Because we had Sage, we didn't hike to the top. Instead, we enjoyed a snack, then headed out to look for another campsite. We saw many good ones right near Hoverla, but it was early in the day, so we decided to push on toward Kosiv. There were quite a few spots right by the road near the Vorokhta Skijumping Center, where we stopped for coffee before driving toward Hoverla (left). We weren't sure if the jump was closed for the season or simply not even usable anymore, but the lift to the top was operational (right).  
 
After a long scenic drive and some backtracking, we decided to camp at a developed picnic spot right next to the river outside Verkhovyna. But by then, the rain had begun again, and as we waited it out in the car, hail started to hit (left). With already soaked gear and little motivation to spend another night in the rain, we opted to check into Art Koliba, a complex of tourist cabins down the road. Sage supported our decision 100 percent (right). 
Not only did Sage enjoy the comfort of a cozy cabin, but he made some friends with the complex's dog pack: a corgi, a shepherd mix, and her two puppies. The mama dog was a particularly good host, showing us to our door and guarding us on the balcony through the night (left). The next morning, during a walk with the pack, they tried to persuade Sage to cross the river to the banya, but we wouldn't let him follow on the unstable wooden bridge (middle). They got along so well that Sage didn't even seem to mind when one of the puppies snuggled up with the resident cat right outside our door (right).
  
Throughout the area, there are many signs reading "koliba," which indicates a traditional sooden hut that likely once was used for both room and board but now is more specifically an eating establishment, with sleeping cabins perhaps nearby. There were more mushrooms than men at the evening meal at our koliba. We started with a "hot" salad of mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, oil, and cheese (top left). TJ had a pork steak with a mushroom sauce; I had mushrooms in smetana, a delicious fungi pudding; and both of us had potatoes mixed with butter, mushrooms, and other vegetables (top right). We enjoyed them so much that we decided to buy a kilogram (a little over 2 pounds) of freshly picked mushrooms from a roadside babushka on our way home (bottom).