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June 7th, 2024 - A Polish Welcome Home


Drop Everything and Head to Bieszczady


In a pocket of Poland between Ukraine and Slovakia lies Bieszczady. Nearly emptied of its population during the Second World War and the Communist years, the region is slowly and carefully being resettled by families. One such family, the Myślińskis settled in here more than 30 years ago, and Staszek, his son Jasiek and his wife Agata, and other members of a large and outdoorsy family are busy breeding huçul horses and promoting the Tabun method of riding in the mountains: bareback.

Huçuls are a breed of horse native to the Carpathian Mountains, and their territory ranges from Romania in the East and Poland in the west. Stocky little mountain horses, they’re incredibly adept in this terrain. Their lore tells that they’re loyal, brave enough to fight off wolves, and tough enough to survive drinking from small natural springs in the muddy forests here. If we were to add a new member to our team, it should certainly be a huçul.

Brando, we met not at Tabun but at a nearby farm; nine years old, he’s worn shoes and a saddle before, and spent the past year taking tourists out for one-hour rides. Before that though he adventured with his old owners all over the Polish mountains. With a mischievous eye, he is the same size as Chai and has the same rhythm. If our Kyrgyz horses will accept him, he would be suited to join our journey as a pack horse. Secretly, after the death of Tian, I don’t really want to add a new horse to our family. But Fidel and Chai have different plans. We take Brando back to Tabun and they accept him immediately into their herd. Aside from one three-hour solo-adventure where Brando, and only Brando, escaped the paddock and went a-wandering in the woods, he’s been a joy to welcome into the family.



Soft Beginnings


A tearful goodbye to Agata, Staszek and Jasiek and we leave the boundaries of Tabun behind. Through forest paths and gravel roads our caravan winds, nearly three months after we left France, we’re finally on the way home.


Staszek helped us map the first four days of the trek; each night, we had somewhere with a roof to sleep. Between forest service designated shelters, studentkas and friends of the Myślińskis, our horses have knee deep grass every night, and we don’t even have to pitch the tent. The first night out camping after departure on a horse trek is always the hardest. As in Albania, and in Kyrgyzstan, we barely slept. But for a totally different reason. We weren’t nervous, or anxious. We left Chai loose in the field, where we were sleeping under the stars. He decided the best place to lie down to sleep was 2 meters from us. Cute?


Chai is a deep sleeper, and like humans or sometimes dogs, he can talk in his sleep. Or more precisely, whinny in his sleep. He woke us up on several occasions during the night by letting out a high-pitched dream whinny, while splayed out flat on the ground in a deep sleep! In the morning, while we rubbed our sleepy eyes, he stood over us, bright and happy, and seemed to be asking why we hadn’t set up a mattress for him too.



Into the Woods We Go


The Carpathian forests are nature in its extremes: shading us from the hot sun, the wind, sometimes soft, sometimes gusting, keeps air moving around us. It keeps the bugs off the horses and pushes storms away. But the trails can be steep, full of mud, poorly marked, and the days we get rinsed by thunderstorms we’re soaked to the bone. Sometimes the forest roads that were once on the map don’t exist anymore. Then you end up on bison trails - our name for what happens when you’ve totally lost the trail and the trail you are currently following is the pathways tromped down by bison. You can tell you’re on a bison trail when the path makes lots of little loops and is marked by bison poop. After an hour lost on one of these, you’ll never stick your nose up at forest roads again.


From Stary Lupkow, where we spent two wonderful nights with Andrezj and Kashka, we finally reach the border road. A trail along the Slovak/Polish border, it’s wonderful to turn off our brains and follow the horse track markers. In Poland, marked horse tracks are not uncommon; what a treat. At the Jasiel wild campsite we’ve landed in paradise; a vast prairie for the horses and for us a grassy spot underneath the trees, where we string up our tarp and settle in for a summer shower. In Olchowiec, we set up camp near the village community center. A neighbor offers to open up the town’s Greek Catholic church, one restored and preserved, typical of the Polish mountains. Outside the dark wooden building is assuming, but inside, warm and sparkling clean.


Banica is the next resting point we’ve set our sights on but before that we must cross the Magura National Park. Horses are forbidden in the park, so we can only travel along the marked horse trail. Only the hic is that the marked horse trail in the park hasn’t been maintained. After a morning walking along the road, we try following the horse trek into the forest - a short cut according to the map. In reality, anything but. Every 500m or so we can spot the dot. The day’s rains flooded out the streams, and there is no walk around the fallen trees blocking the trail. Sticky mud sucks us down and all five of us fall into mud up to our knees at some point. After two hours to advance three kilometers, we come to the edge of the forest. An escape route: we take it. The next five kilometers we walk along the road before turning off to take the last toe of the park towards Radocyna. Two days before I’d spotted a studenka cabin on the map here. It’s another 8km and we’re all knackered - the horses are moving about as fast as slugs and we can’t blame them.

At 8pm, we finally reach the cabin. Surrounded by plenty of grass, Quentin opens the door to find a simple cabin stocked with dry wood, enough space to lay out our sleeping mats and a table for dinner. The sense of the word refuge has never resonated so clearly for us. Usually in the Alps nowadays, you plan to reach a refuge, you reserve your bed, and there’s a hot meal at 7pm. But here, tonight, we find real refuge: the possibility to dry our sopping clothes, and to sleep in a warm dry space with a view of our horses just outside the window.

The Polish Carpathians have been kind to us so far: next week, we’ll discover what the Slovak side has in store.

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