Finding Relief, if Not an Escape, From War at Ukraine’s Ski Resorts

POLYANYTSYA, Ukraine — Children in snowsuits wait patiently to board the ski lifts, clutching their poles. Some families ride horses to the top just to breathe in the fresh mountain air and hike among the tall pines that surround the valley below.

Ski instructors in red pajamas guided students down machine-made snow-covered rabbit-shaped slopes, as the real ones were in short supply across Europe in winter. This. The teenagers squealed with delight as they skated on the ice of a nearby skating rink.

It is almost easy to forget that this idyllic scene — at the ski resort of Bukovel in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine — is taking place in a country at war, with fierce fighting between forces Ukrainian and Russian forces took place on the front lines several hundred miles away.

Some Ukrainians on crowded slopes are trying to escape the stresses of life under siege. Some are simply trying to find a place to work with reliable power.

“It’s a way to get back to a normal life,” almost an act of defiance, said Yana Chernetska, 30, who went to the mountains from Odesa for a few days with her 4-year-old daughter and husband. “No rocket can strangle my child’s normal childhood.”

But for others, the battlefield is never far from their minds.

Taras Bihus – traumatized mentally and physically after his months as a soldier in the east – hopes to rest and recuperate at the resort.

Before the war, he said, the mountains were like home to him. He spent the winter learning to ski here, eventually turning pro. Then he became a ski instructor at Bukovel, in the village of Polyanytsya. But when the war started, he volunteered to join the army.

After several months of training, he was sent to the southeastern front of the county. He struggled to describe what he saw.

“You sound like you’re ready,” he says, “but you see a very different reality when you get there.”

He was discharged from the army this past fall when an old snowboarding injury flared up and left him barely able to walk. After some physical therapy, he returned here in December to continue his work as a guide.

“It’s all a person needs to stay awake,” said Bihus, 29, of his job at the resort. “Here, it’s like heaven. When you go up the mountain, you will see the clouds roll out right in front of you.”

Many people who visited Bukovel in mid-January reflected on the complexity of being here when the country was still under siege.

Last year, when the war started in February, she fled to Italy, where she lives with her two children except her husband, who like most Ukrainian men of combat age cannot leave the country.

“I was here two years ago and it was completely different,” she said. “Everyone is having fun, everyone is drinking mulled wine. Now, a lot of people have left the country.”

While Bukovel is Ukraine’s flashiest ski resort, the more rustic alternative is the nearby Dragobrat ski resort. It can only be reached by an unpaved road with successive bends that climb towards the summit, but when it finally snowed so heavily in early January, families flocked to the slopes of the mountain. It.

Artem Mitin, 35, owner of a ski shop in the mountains, says the customer base has changed. The Eastern Europeans did not come. Not a big group. And there are a lot of new arrivals.

“It’s not just about skiing,” he added, “I think they come here to forget.”

On a recent afternoon, a couple, both military, were skiing on the last day of a short vacation with their twin sons. They said it was a way to relieve stress but added that it would be difficult to leave the mountain as it was uncertain when they would all meet again.

At the start of the war, many Ukrainians fled from frontline areas for the relative safety and stability of the Carpathians, away from the constant threat of strikes.

In the fall, Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure across the country paralyze the national power grid and left residents struggling with near-constant air raid warnings. The threat of aerial attacks forced many people to regularly flee to bomb shelters, making remote work difficult. That brought a new wave of people to the mountains.

Ski resorts in the area have combated the rotating blackout by using powerful generators that allow them to make snow, operate lifts, and light runs — while allowing everyone to worker.

At the Baza Smart Hotel in Bukovel, dozens of IT professionals and creative kids gather daily at a restaurant that has become a temporary co-working space. Electricity is provided by generators, and even during a power outage, a backup satellite internet connection allows them to stay online. Sirens rarely go off.

“It really feels like an island of stability in all of this,” said Lera Diachuk, a graphic designer who has worked at the hotel for weeks. “We’re trying to live our lives and do our best to work.”

Ms. Diachuk, 23, works for Headway, an educational technology startup that moved staff from its office in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, last fall. Each employee was allowed one more person, so Ms. Diachuk brought her 14-year-old brother, who had fled their family home in an occupied Kherson region. Their parents remained.

Mr. Bihus, the soldier, was renting a room for the winter in one of the pinnacle log cabins scattered across the mountainside, living with other skiers.

But after his battlefield experience, he finds it hard to empathize with his old friends. They see him as a hero, but he feels uncomfortable with that notion.

“There is a gap between us,” he said.

He doesn’t feel like a hero, he explains, as he rubs the bracelet’s wooden beads between his thumb and thumb, until they rest on a small cross. . Before the war, he said, he hadn’t prayed since he was a child, but he started going to the front lines again.

Mr. Bihus is currently in the army’s reserve, so if there is a full-scale Russian offensive in the spring, as many have predicted, he could be called back into service.

But he tried not to think about it. For now, he’s focusing on simpler things: hiking mountain trails, swimming in cold mountain streams, and reading more.

On the afternoon of the Orthodox Epiphany celebration, he walked to a lake on the edge of the village to participate in the annual tradition to mark Christ’s baptism.

He made the sign of the cross as he walked slowly into the cold water, taking a deep breath before sinking completely. He bounced back to the surface with a heavy breath, clapping his hands and feet.

When he appeared, Mr. Bihus said with a smile: “It’s a cure for the body and a cure for the mind.”


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