Mountains and magic: The Zakarpattia region's Lake Synevyr

by Ksenia Rychtycka

Zakarpattia. Like the region it depicts, the very resonance of this word when spoken aloud in Ukrainian conveys a sense of allure, magic, music and, yes, overwhelming beauty. Zakarpattia - the land that lies beyond the Carpathian Mountains. Somehow the English equivalent, Transcarpathia, does not set the same ambience.

Last summer, before floods and tragedy struck the residents of Zakarpattia, I had an opportunity to visit this scenic region of western Ukraine where life slows to the beat of an earlier century, an outmoded pace of living, in many respects a more rustic yet somehow satisfying existence that has long been extinguished in much of the modern world. Horses, geese and ducks amble along the side of the road, cows graze only a few feet away from the path of automobiles, dogs race through the countryside in a carefree and lively manner - this is an area where spontaneity and an easygoing simplicity exist side by side. Houses, located against the backdrop of mountains and rushing streams, are tidy and well-kept, and even when passing through the smaller cities and towns, rows of windowbox flowers frame each dwelling along the street, lending a Western European air.

Although newcomers are observed with precision in these parts, the stares are ones of friendly curiousity as one drives past a group of men standing in a circle, all sporting close-fitting "kashkety," caps that resemble Greek fisherman caps. The men's faces are dark and heavily creased from the sun and it is easily evident that these are robust and hardworking people. The women are no less curious or stalwart, gold teeth glinting in the sunlight as they ride past in horsedrawn buggies, prod cattle on with a stick or sit with their neighbors, flowered kerchiefs tied tightly underneath their chins.

The atmosphere is so far removed from the bustle of the 20th century that I had to keep reminding myself that I was not on the set of a movie and that no director would dispel the pastoral scene before my eyes by yelling out the words "CUT!"

My destination was the mountain lake Synevyr, known as the blue pearl of the Ukrainian Carpathians, located 20 kilometers from the town of Mizhhiria, which literally means "between the mountains."

Considering Ukraine's poor economic state, the roads in this part of the country are in fairly good condition until one reaches the final 10-kilometer stretch that leads to the Synevyr resort. Here the road turns into a dirt track where boulders, wide gaping holes and puddles makes it nearly impossible to navigate a bicycle, let alone an automobile. The endeavor becomes worthwhile, however, when one finally makes it to this lake, whose very existence is amazing, given its location in the mountains at an elevation of 989 meters.

My traveling companions and I arrived in the evening and walked up the paved road to the lake as the sun was casting a glow on the surrounding mountains lined with rows and rows of spruce trees. It appears as though the tree tops are tapping the sky. At the edge of the lake is a large wooden deck. When one stands there, one feels the rushing water from the three streams that flow into the lake create an uncanny sensation of movement.

The lake was formed about 10,000 years ago when the river valley was dammed in the post-glacial period. Today, swimming is prohibited, due not so much to the icy water as to the dangerous undertow. At the edge of the path, not far from the steps leading down to the lake, I spotted a large, wooden house that was lit up, casting an air of coziness and reminiscent a Victorian bed and breakfast situated in some New England village rather than the pristine wild of western Ukraine.

After venturing up to the house, a man who was sitting on the porch asked me in half-Ukrainian and half-English if I happened to speak "anglais." When I responded that I did, he sprang to his feet and greeted me as though he were a castaway on some far-flung isle. Sixty-year-old Gale Jamsen was a Peace Corps volunteer who had been in Ukraine for a year and, by coincidence, hailed from my home state of Michigan. Although he had great difficulty in learning Ukrainian, he claimed that Ukrainians are the most hospitable people in the world and that the locals had taken him under their wing.

There is no plumbing at this B&B, but there is a sauna of which Gale, being of Finnish descent, took great advantage and highly recommended.

He told me that one of the first words that he did pick up in Ukrainian was "dosyt," means "enough." As visitors quickly discover, in practically every region of Ukraine, it is almost impossible to refuse heaping quantities of food and drink, Zakarpattia is no exception.

After serving as an interpreter between Mr. Jamsen and the B&B owner, I and my companions headed back to the Synevyr resort, where we were staying for the night. In total darkness, with no lights whatsoever to guide the way, the road down was uneven and even somewhat treacherous, but the sky above us was glorious and clear, filled with masses and masses of stars.

Our journey in the dark, however, did not turn out to be our biggest obstacle that night. Although its rugged grandeur and overwhelming atmosphere of peace and calm make Zakarpattia a good tourist retreat, a sense of adaptability to the existing, sometimes even primitive, living conditions is an absolute must. For instance, hot water is more of a luxury than a basic in these parts.

Then there is the matter of making tourists feel welcome rather than like intruders. The idea of making paying guests happy had not fully sunk in with the employees at the resort where we were staying.

We made it back that evening only to find that the doors were locked and there was no one on duty. Even though it was only 10 p.m., we were effectively locked out for the night. The entire building was suspiciously dark, making us wonder if we were the only group of tourists in the entire complex. Trying to remain calm, we finally saw a light on in one of the rooms off to the side. Through a window we spotted a woman sitting. Two of us crawled up onto the ledge and began knocking on the window, asking her to please open the front door. The woman saw us and stood up. Assuming she would let us in, we traipsed back to the front of the building.

After about 15 minutes, it became obvious that she had no intention of letting us inside. So I headed back to the ledge and once again began knocking on the window, telling her that we were guests here. After a few more minutes, she flared up, grabbed the keys and finally opened the door for us, screaming that she was not on duty and that we had disturbed her child. She also claimed that if she hadn't locked the door, we would be complaining about thieves coming in the night to rob us. Nothing like encouraging tourism, I couldn't help thinking.

The next day we found out that indeed she was the one on duty, however when we ran into her later, she was a different person - smiling, friendly, pointing the way to the dining room.

Finding a working telephone to call my sister back in Ivano-Frankivsk on the following morning turned into another two-hour trek. The phones at the post office and city hall had been out for two weeks and we ended up driving to the town of Synevyr, where there is one phone line, one that can be used only by state officials. We, however, were allowed to use it since the state official also happened to be from the Ivano-Frankivsk region, the region of my family's roots.

Afterwards, we headed back to the resort and went for one last look at the lake. The Peace Corps volunteer was giddy about being able to converse freely for the second day in a row and told me that although he greatly enjoyed his work here, he was concerned about a few things, such as tha fact that trees are still cut down in the national park and that the locals don't yet understand that conservation is essential.

In a few months, Mr. Jamsen said, he would be leaving Zakarpattia and Ukraine for good. We were also getting ready to explore other areas in this part of the country, but he wouldn't let us depart without filling us in on the legend of Lake Synevyr.

"You know the locals say everybody who falls in love at Synevyr will never break up," he told us, grinning. "It's all part of the legend." As we listened, intrigued, he told us that according to legend, a long time ago, the mountains here belonged to a rich count who forced the mountaineers to work for him. One day, the count decided to inspect his lands and see how his woodcutters worked. His young, beautiful daughter, who was named Syn (blueness) - since her eyes reflected all the blueness of the endless Carpathian sky - went along with him.

Her father, busy with his own work, didn't notice when Syn, enchanted by the beauty around her, went out to the mountain meadow. She sat down under a spruce tree and suddenly heard the soft, haunting melody of a sopilka (wooden flute). When she looked around, she saw a gorgeous boy who played the sopilka and herded sheep. His name was Vyr and when he noticed Syn, he stopped playing. The girl asked him to play some more and listened to the magical, beautiful melody as he played until evening.

The next time her father went to the mountains, Syn went along to meet Vyr and they ended up falling in love. However, someone told the count that his daughter and Vyr, the poor shepherd from Verkhovyna, were in love. And as is the case in all such tales, the count forbade his daughter to meet Vyr. The lovers paid no heed.

One day, when the couple was supposed to meet, Vyr came to their usual meeting spot and began playing the sopilka. The count's servants snuck up and threw a large stone at him from a cliff, killing him instantly. When Syn arrived, she saw what had happened to her love and began sobbing. A lake formed from the tears that she shed and swallowed her up. People named the lake Synevyr (Syn and Vyr) and say that the water in this lake is as blue as the Carpathian sky, blue as the eyes of Syn.

"That's the legend around here," Mr. Jamsen finished, still grinning. We agreed to pass the legend on to other tourists, acknowledging this could be a good promotion for a honeymoon getaway. As we drove away from the blue pearl of the Carpathians, I stole one last look behind. Beside the looming spruce trees and greenery, I spotted Gale Jamsen standing alone, his hands bulging with cookies that my aunt, an Ivano-Frankivsk local, had enthusiastically pressed into them, while he helplessly uttered the word "dosyt"' over and over.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, July 18, 1999, No. 29, Vol. LXVII

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