Although significantly smaller than how it appeared on the Risk board, Ukraine is now an independent country – the second-largest in Europe, in fact. But while some parts of the former Soviet bloc – Prague and the rest of the Czech Republic, especially – opened immediately to the West, others warmed up more slowly, partly because of their continued domination by Russia. As a result, many Americans' knowledge of Ukraine can be summed up in one word: Chernobyl, site of history's deadliest nuclear meltdown, in 1986.
A lot has happened since then. After languishing in Russia's shadow for decades, even after the fall of communism, Ukraine burst into the world spotlight in 2004, when its massive Orange Revolution upended the corrupt Russian-backed regime that had ruled the place since the Soviet collapse. After a presidential election marred by fraud, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in support of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yuschenko, a popular, pro-Western politician who survived poisoning, allegedly at the hands of his political rivals. The Russian-backed candidate was eventually defeated, and Ukraine erupted in celebration of its first truly elected government in a long time.
The capital city, Kiev, Europe's seventh-largest, was already a town on the make, flooded with American and Western European businessmen jockeying for advantage in the post-Soviet market, and the Orange Revolution cranked it a gear higher. In the bustling streets shiny cars dart between Parisian-style townhouses and golden-domed cathedrals as the famously gorgeous Ukrainian women clack their Prada heels on the winding cobblestone streets. (A cursory Google search of "Ukraine Women" suggests that one of the country's leading lures for Western businessmen is something euphemistically referred to as "romance tours.")
The attraction is mutual. Although America is more hated abroad now than at any point in its 230-year history, over in the former Evil Empire – where they are fawning over their newfound liberty like a child unwrapping a pellet gun under the Christmas tree – the natives actually seem to like us. At least one forward-thinking firm has cashed in on the pro-Western mood by introducing a popular new beer, called Hike, in an orange can, the color of the revolution. "Freedom is your way," the label declares in English, at once capturing the moment's plucky optimism and also, perhaps, betraying a Borat-like misread of the West it is trying to imitate.
Signs of westernization disappeared once we left Kiev, and so did the rusted-out Soviet-era factories dotting the plains. I soon forgot that I'd chosen to go hiking in a country most famous for a toxic disaster. On our first night in Crimea we camped above a run-down vineyard overlooking the sea, and at sunset we were serenaded by farmers in the back of a flatbed, bumping over a dirt road, calling their hogs. Shucks to your global economy: Down here, when you buy a bottle of Hike at the local market, the babushka rings you up on an abacus.
There were 12 in our group: Rob, photographer Andrew McGarry, and me, as well as four clients who had presumably already tasted Rob's brand of freewheeling exploration. Our Russian coordinator was Gia Ksnelashvili, a 41-year-old native of Georgia who lives in St. Petersburg and works for one of Russia's oldest outdoor outfitters. A veteran mountain guide, Gia has climbed Europe's tallest mountain, 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus, 61 times. Most of his clients are Westerners (he knew Rob and three of the Sobek clients from a previous trek in Georgia), and as a result he has learned to speak very good English. For this trip Gia had contracted a small army of local outfitters: a guide, a cook, a driver, and a helper.
We began the next morning by hiking from our camp in the vineyard into the Valley of the Ghosts, a steep limestone ravine studded with flat-topped Crimean pines that looked like overgrown bonsais. Eagles and ravens soared overhead. Our local guide was Sergei Kalinin, a 55-year-old former mechanical engineer; since Soviet times he's been leading hikes, which had long been his passion. Sergei had black shaggy hair, glasses that darkened in the sun, and a stoic, weathered face. Every now and then he would point at a tree with his walking stick and sheepishly tell us something in Russian, knowing that unless Rob or Gia was nearby to translate, we wouldn't understand a word. Somehow we managed to get the gist. We reached the top of the ravine and peeked over a ridge, where bright yellow hollyhocks swayed in the wind and, far below, the sun skittered over the sea.
By the time we reached our destination, after plodding through a shabby village with a small church on the outskirts, the crew had already set up camp; they'd made their way via backroads in a groaning old bus, a squat blue cupcake that did its best to euthanize its occupants with clouds of diesel smoke and carbon monoxide. Valiery, the driver, was a stocky middle-aged man whose wrinkled forehead gave him a look of constant amusement. He smoked cigarettes and poured out shots of honey vodka while the others prepared dinner. Olga, the cook, a bubbly 18-year-old too young to remember communism, worked as a beautician most of the year and wore Calvin Klein T-shirts. She was chopping potatoes and shredding cabbage with the help of Roman, a 20-year-old college student who wore full camo fatigues all the time.
The next day we crossed a green plateau broken up by limestone benches, then dropped into a thick deciduous forest where ferns and mushrooms sprang from the ground and springs bubbled up into stone troughs. We rappelled into a chilly cavern in which ice clung to the walls all year. We came across a series of seldom-visited war memorials engraved with the hammer and sickle, honoring Stalin's troops who resisted the Nazis in World War II. Sergei had done this route more times than he could count, and he breezed from trail to road to doubletrack without ever consulting a map.
As we traversed the mountains we ran into only a handful of other hikers, all of them Russian or Ukrainian. Sergei told us that a pair of Canadians did one of his Crimean treks, but as far as he knew we were the first Americans. Indeed, eco-tourism has made little headway here. We came across two young soldiers dozing in the afternoon shade of a lone cypress tree on the side of a narrow jeep road, purporting to monitor some clunky tin boxes sprouting antennae that looked like leftovers from World War II. They said that artillery practice was underway and advised us not to walk on the road. So Sergei led us through the grass about 100 yards to the side of the road, which didn't strike me as much safer.
Despite all the cultural gaps, a few days in the woods brought out some essential similarities between us and our hosts. On our final night in the mountains Valiery built a big fire; once it had burned down to coals he erected a small grill and covered it with skewers of cubed pork. "There are three things a man can watch forever," he said, grinning. "River running, fire burning, and another man working."
He sat on a stump by the fire and meticulously drizzled the shashlik with a vinegar marinade. (Earlier he had tried one of the folding camp chairs and immediately crushed it. "But they're guaranteed to 90 kilos," said Gia. "Ha!" said Valiery. "I weigh 120.") The grilled pork was tender and tangy. After dinner we sat around the fire with a guitar, swapping cowboy laments and Russian folk songs. Valiery broke out the vodka and we all took shots, chasing them with small slabs of salo, a Ukrainian delicacy that is essentially raw bacon fat. When Valiery produced a second bottle I crawled off to my tent. When I awoke hours later with a bad headache, I could hear the others still laughing and drinking and telling stories.