Goverla – 6,762ft
Date: October 4, 2014
Bicycle Tour Leg 1: Cluj-Napoca, Romania to Solotvyne, Ukraine
Oct 1 – Oct 4
Listening to the news these days, you might not think of Ukraine as the greatest country to visit for a vacation. Luckily, though, if the goal of your trip, like mine, involves country highpointing, Ukraine is an excellent destination. Goverla, the highest mountain in Ukraine, is nestled safely in the western corner of the country, near the Romanian border and far from any conflict.
I flew to Cluj-Napoca Romania, the closest international airport to Goverla, at the end of September, arriving just after midnight on Oct 1. Goverla would be the first mountain of a string of country highpoints in Eastern Europe I planned to climb over the coming months. I was only lacking 13 highpoints before I’d finish the whole continent of Europe, and hoped to finish most of them off on this trip.
To get between the trailheads I planned to bike. Biking would be considerably cheaper than renting a car or taking trains and taxis (in fact, basically free except for buying food), and would allow me to experience all the countries at a slower pace. Moreover, border crossings should be super easy with no vehicle documents required. The main disadvantages of biking were the extra time required, and the extra discomfort I would have to endure in rain or snow. But I had plenty of time on my hands, having just finished up grad school, and hoped I’d squeak through these countries just in time before the winter snows started.
As I got off the plane in Cluj-Napoca and picked up my bike, I realized my plan of sleeping in the airport til sunrise wasn’t going to work. The airport was so small the only place to sleep would be outside, but there were enough sketchy people walking around that that didn’t seem like a good idea. I tried taking my time putting my bike together, hoping maybe the activity would die down, but by 3am with no change I decided to just start biking and maybe find some campable woods outside of town.
Cluj-Napoca is actually a very large town, with few easy camping opportunities. Traffic was light at night, but the vehicles that did pass were all, surprisingly, tractor trailers. By 3:45am it started to rain, and by 4am I finally found a workable spot in a field next to the road where, thankfully, no dogs were barking at me. The spot seemed very close to a farm, though, and I suspected I’d be quite visible come daylight. I didn’t want to pitch a tent and possibly get noticed, so I just curled up in a ball next to my bike and threw a small tarp over myself to keep dry.
That night set a new personal high-water mark for most miserable time attempting to sleep. The cold rain and loud but inconsistent whirring of passing tractor trailers made sleep all but impossible. I shivered, awake with my eyes closed for three hours until finally, thankfully, the eastern sky started to brighten.
I noticed then that I was, indeed, very close to a farm, but luckily they hadn’t noticed me. With everything already packed I quickly stuffed the tarp in a panier and started biking, slipping away from the farm as unnoticed as when I had arrived. The cars and tractor trailers could see me now on the road, and there was actually a reasonable shoulder. But the rain was as intense as ever.
I headed north on E58 until reaching the town of Dej, where I stopped to rest at a gas station. I found a map inside and started making a game plan for the rest of the journey to Goverla. The map showed that, of the five different tiers of road in Romania I was on the second largest. This matched the fact that there was a lot of traffic on this road. Ideally the best biking roads in a country are somewhere in the middle tier – not too high up where there will be a lot of traffic and not too low where the road might be gravel and rough but just right in the middle. I found a set of these goldilocks roads that would get me to the Ukraine border, and dutifully began following 18B north.
This tertiary road was perfect – basically no traffic but still a nice smooth road! The only real disadvantage, I would discover, with these tertiary roads is that they tend to target the highest mountain passes to go through instead of going around in the flat lowlands. But the passes generally have awesome views and easy stealth camping availability, so it was a tradeoff I was willing to take.
The rain continued unabated as I biked north. After a few hours I came across a gazebo on the side of the road in Magoaja and turned inside for another break. It’s not often you come across such a perfect place to take a rest. I has a roof, a place to sit, a table, and it’s free! As I was eating, a construction worker walked by and asked where I was headed. We talked for a while (he spoke perfect English), and it turns out Carrol had actually worked in the United States for a few years in Montana, but was settling back in Romania now to raise a family.
Carrol was extremely generous, giving me his spare orange construction vest to make my bike more visible, and a big loaf of warm bread from a local bakery. I snapped a picture of us both next to his big red surface grader, said goodbye, and then continued biking.
The road weaved in and out of farm country, passing through the occasional apple orchard (which I may have snuck an apple from), and up and over some minor mountain passes. I noticed a few unique aspects of the Romanian countryside. In the fields farmers stack their hay very differently then in the US: they stuff it around a big 15ft tall pole in a tight 4ft diameter cylinder, apparently to help dry it out. Also, outside every farm or house is an extremely intricately-carved wooden gate. It reminded me of Norway, where gates and mailbox racks are similarly carved from wood. By sunset I reached a nice wooded area outside the town of Cavnic and pulled over for the night.
My biking schedule over the rest of the trip would follow roughly the same pattern. Start biking at or just before sunrise after a good 10-hr sleep, take a first break after 30-40 miles (usually around 11am), then take a second break around 60 miles (usually around 3pm), then try to get to 100 miles before sunset (around 6-7pm). Usually I’d only hit 80-90 miles before it started getting too close to sunset and I’d need to find a place to sleep. The end of the day was always the toughest. I really wanted to cross the century mark, but also really didn’t want to bike at night when it was more dangerous and finding a good stealth campsite was tougher. In the end I usually ended up settling for 80-90 miles when a good camping opportunity presented itself.
This night I banked a solid 13 hours of sleep, which put my internal clock back on schedule with the new Romanian time zone. It had rained all night and continued raining as I began biking. I crossed a chilly mountain pass above the Cavnic ski resort, and then descended to the border town of Sighetu-Marmeti.
It was no coincidence that I chose to cross into Ukraine at this particular spot. Back in August Matthew and I had tried to cross into Ukraine on foot through Slovakia at Uzhhorad and the border guard told us no pedestrian or bicycle-riding crossings were permitted, only automobiles. We managed to get across by finding a nice driver who let us ride in his car, but I didn’t want to repeat that debacle with the added complication of trying to fit a bicycle in someone’s car. Looking online I found the Sighetu-Marmeti crossing is actually one of the few into Ukraine that allow bicycles and pedestrians.
After some wrong turns in town (there are no road signs telling where the crossing is), I managed to find the crossing around 2pm and got in line behind two other bicycle riders. They weren’t long-distance cyclists, though, just some local women on their single-speed bikes. It looked to me like they were perhaps just going over to Solotvyne, Ukraine on the other side of the river for the day to buy some cheap food.
The border agent waived me through with no problem, and I biked across the bridge into Ukraine. The Ukraine border agent was very surprised that I was from America. She asked what was my business in Ukraine, and I told her I came to climb Goverla, and then return to Romania.
“Ohh yes, Goverla,” she replied nodding. I got the impression she may have climbed it herself, or at least had heard of the mountain. She stamped the passport and then waived me through. In all the crossing took about 7 minutes, a far cry from the 2 hours Matthew and I had spent the previous time!
Even though I had only biked less than a mile, there was a noticeable change in the scenery. The first thing I realized was how much worse the roads were in Ukraine. I like to think of them as quilted roads – patches on top of patches on top of patches. It’s pretty bumpy to ride a bike on, and I imagine similar difficulty in a car. The houses on the Ukraine side were either extremely fancy mansions, or run-down buildings seemingly under construction. For some reason the only license plates I saw were either from Ukraine or the Czech Republic. Could Czech people have second homes here where the cost of living is so much lower? I never found out.
I biked up along the Tysa River through the never-ending rain until sunset caught me near the town of Kvasy, where I managed to find a nice wooded spot to camp.
Saturday morning the rain finally stopped. My biking clothes were soaked, but I knew they would dry soon by my own body heat and the passing breeze. I biked up and over a high mountain pass to the touristy town of Vorokta, being passed by several busses full of happy waving school children. As I would find out, they were all heading to Goverla just like I was.
I soon reached the edge of Karpats’kyi National Park and paid a small entrance fee of about $10 to pass inside. From the entrance gate the road turned to rough dirt/rock for 8km to the trailhead. Climbing up I actually ran into another cyclist coming down. He appeared to be a long-distance cyclist, but unfortunately we didn’t speak a common language. He was very surprised to hear I was American (he was Ukrainian), and tried to warn me that the road ahead was a dead end. (Of course I knew it was a dead end.) That was about all the information we could exchange with our different languages, so we shook hands and then waved goodbye. He would be the only other long-distance cyclist I would see for the rest of the month.
At the trailhead I weaved around a dozen parked buses and tried to find a safe spot to put my bike. There’s a small ski resort at the trailhead and a security guard came out and said he could lock my bike in his shed, if I paid 15 hyrvnia (about $1). I was hoping to just hide my bike in the woods, but given how crowded this trailhead was and how cheap the price was I gladly obliged. We didn’t speak a common language but managed to agree that I would come back for the bike in 5 hours. I noticed, though, that he hid the key to the shed under the doormat to a guardhouse, so I knew I could always get my bike at a different time if I really needed to.
I quickly took out my rolled-up drybag backpack, stuffed some supplies inside, and headed off to the trailhead. Goverla is really a popular mountain, at least on the weekends. To even get to the start of the trail one must pass through a corridor of 20 different trinket stands selling everything from “I climbed Goverla” finisher medals to fur blankets to mushrooms and pretty rocks. I couldn’t find any personal need for any of these items, so passed through and finally began hiking.
The trail up Goverla is very well-worn, and must see a lot of traffic. Most people I saw seemed dressed in everyday city clothes, probably not too prepared for any bad weather, but I soon ran into two people wearing mountaineering-type boots with trekking poles and real hiking clothes. We said hello and it turns out they were two Germans also working on country highpoints! Matthias Fieles was working on a project to finish all the European countries, and Goverla was number 43 for him. It’s amazing how, even though there aren’t very many people working on country highpoints, we still seem to bump into each other. A few years ago in Belarus I bumped into two other British country highpointers Bob and Mark McCallister.
As I continued higher up the mountain I eventually popped out of the trees and ran into a huge crowd of hikers. I was feeling strong, so passed everyone on the steep grassy slopes. Dozens of middle schoolers in thin blue ponchos filed down the mountain as even more hikers climbed up. I’d never seen this many people on one mountain, even on Mt Washington, and I hadn’t even seen peak crowd of Goverla.
When I finally reached the summit I was met with literally hundreds and hundreds of happy Ukrainians, many wearing Ukrainian flags around their shoulders, and singing the national anthem. Is this Independence Day, I wondered? (I later learned that no, it was just a random Saturday in October that was no particular holiday). Ukrainians must just be very patriotic, especially on the tallest mountain in the country.
It was kind of fun wandering around through all the singing people, looking at the various summit monuments. Even when it started raining nobody’s spirits seemed damped. I snapped a bunch of pictures and one movie of the signing, then started my way down.
Halfway down the clouds broke and I actually had a great view of the mountain range. It reminded me of the presidential range in New Hampshire, with long stretches above treeline covered in the orange/brown grass and rocks.
I reached the trailhead after 3 hours, and spent considerable time wandering through the trinket stands trying to find the one thing I would see myself buying – hot food. But somehow no place sold anything other than trinkets I didn’t need, candy bars I already had, or food I would need to cook. I bet I could open a hot chocolate and pizza stand there and really make a killing.
I found the security guard and he just shook his head in surprise that I’d already made it down. I guess I beat the “book” time by a factor of two. I would later learn on future mountains that dividing the predicted time by two was usually pretty accurate for my time.
I loaded up my bike and started back down the road. While it was unfortunate that I would have to backtrack all the way to the border crossing at Sighetu-Marmeti, at least I had already scouted out all the potential camping places so could push the biking all the way til sunset and know exactly where I would camp.
I had a particularly good spot in mind between Vorokta and the park gate, and made it there just before sunset. I cooked an amazing meal of penne pasta with red pepper tomato sauce and was fast asleep by 8pm.
The next day marked the beginning of nearly 2 weeks with no rain, and I had an easy ride back to the border. The only thing that slowed me down was a single police checkpoint (which I passed through easily), while several factors sped me up. First, a pack of angry dogs outside Vorokta got my speed up pretty high, and second, this time my route when downriver meaning almost 30 miles of slightly downhill riding!
I reached the Romanian border by midafternoon, and was quickly waved through. Now I could start planning for the next highpoint on the trip, Mt Balanesti in Moldova.