My Travels: Tunnel of Love, Tunnel of Fear. Klevan, Ukraine.

The location of my next travel story is somewhat unusual: in June 2016, as we were making our way through Ukraine, seeing as much as possible in three weeks of this amazing, huge country, we decided to visit the place called “Tunel Kohanya” – the Tunnel of Love. Even before we got there, me and my partner had the feeling it might be a bit less “unexplored” than what we usually prefer, due to being featured at least once in a mindless blahblah on some social media feed. In order to find it, one had to travel to a small town of Klevan in Western Ukraine – and then literally go to the middle of nowhere, into the fields, marshes and forest.

What were we planning to do in our chosen location?

Walk it. It was the Tunnel of Love. The tunnel that was believed to bring luck to any couple that would decide to walk its whole length, five or six kilometers, grasping each others’ hands in a loving touch. Well, we weren’t really planning on that as we were tired, sweaty and with all our backpack weight on our backs. Conditions less than romantic.
Some of us were also interested in more prosaic activities, such as taking fantastic photos of the place, with golden afternoon sun trickling down through tight branches, rising high as a vault of this green, living cathedral. Others (read: me) were just interested in switching off mind and enjoying the greenery, with the occasional wild berry consumption on the way. This was our stop in green and light after the whole day of exploration, just to relax.

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What is the Tunnel of Love, you might ask. Once upon a time, there was a little Klevan town. In the Soviet past, that town was connected with another nearby town and its factory via a little train track (offshoot of the main line nearby). On that track a huge tall train would pass a handful of times during the day. Over time, the trees from both sides grew over the track, connecting above it and creating a living, breathing vault. The fact that the train continued to pass very seldom would ensure that the trees did not grow over the whole track, but that a light and space has been created, matching in size exactly the dimensions of the train. At the same time, this huge, green aedificium stood undisturbed as the rare traffic would not do it much harm. Through opposing forces, nature and machine, movement and rooted growth, a tunnel was forced onto an otherwise wild world of the forest. It was not throughout the whole length of the tunnel that branches would close off the sky and horizon, but a big part of it nonetheless – and it looked amazing.

We managed to get to that little part of the world just before 5 pm, running from our earlier unexpected and unplanned exploration of the castle and synagogue ruins in Dubno, another tiny town in Western Ukraine with narrow streets and huge history. Now that we were here, the first surprising sight that welcomed us was a guy with Security engraved on his chest (in Ukrainian and English), with a huge megaphone, yelling either into the tunnel or at a huddle of little babushkas, sitting right behind his back, at the entrance to the tunnel and selling Kvas. Noteworthy, he continued to use his megaphone to yell at them. Babushkas were paying him in precisely the same currency, screaming either at him or to us, in Ukrainian, something to the effect of “Go! Go! do not listen to him! Go! he has been yelling all day! he has no right! you can go! “ Perplexing to say the least, such scene of conflict in all this greenery. We approached this Slavic pandemonium warily.

From a couple of random Ukrainian words (I was getting pretty good at understanding Ukrainian thanks to my native Polish, though the deeper into Western Ukraine, the more complicated it was becoming), and random broken English sentences we learned that our dreamy oasis of peace, calm and love for that particular day became… the location of the Bollywood movie production! There goes wilderness undiscovered, we thought. A bit dismayed we tried to venture into there anyhow, constantly yelled at by the Security guy to stick to the path on the side, so that cameras won’t see us, and not actually walk on the (luscious, green) tracks. After about 20 meters, we had enough. I considered turning back, as this whole setup was just making me feel annoyed and stressed. However, if my partner is known for anything in our circle of friends, it would be his stubbornness and perseverance (and really, really good steak). In this case it appeared as outburst of childish foot stomping and declaration of “I am going around looking for a path and getting on that track behind that film crew, because I did not come to Ukraine and to Klevan to just turn around and leave after being yelled at by some Homo Sovieticus!”*

So off we went, into the bushes, up and down on tiny hills, until we found a path through a field around the forest that seemed to be leading alongside the track. We walked around that whole Bollywood production, teaming with music (very random experience, Bollywood movie shot literally in the middle of nowhere, tiny village, forest and mosquitoes, Ukraine), and finally got onto the track right behind their backs. Since their cameras were only shooting in the direction of the entrance to the tunnel, no one minded us anymore. We were left alone to explore. As we checked in our guide book, the train passed only in the morning, so we went ahead undisturbed and joyful.

We walked a kilometer or two. We looked around. Ate random wild berries growing in between the tracks. Touched the greenery. Marveled at the trees. Listened to birds. Walked some more. Put that physical effort into our tracks to make muscles img_20160624_191825tired and soul empty with light. We took photos. Found more wild berries, the taste of childhood, the soul food. Run forward, and then looked back. Found a way to jump in between tracks, walked on grass, walked on stone, fought mosquitoes. Fought more and more mosquitoes, as the sides of the track were slowly changing from forest and becoming proper marshes. Observed flowers on the marshland. Waited for each other and kissed. Walked a little more. Listened to the birds, listened to the trees, smelled the golden sun trickling through leaves…

In our oasis of harmony and peace suddenly we heard something that sounded like a very faint horn of the train. We looked at each other, pretty certain that it must have come from another direction (nearby where we were there was a regularly used large train track for passenger trains). Then we looked in the distance. It seemed like maybe, possibly, on the other end, there was something green. It was next to impossible to distinguish it from the trees and bushes. And it was very far. So we shook our heads; impossible, it was supposed to be only once a day and with that whole Bollywood production behind our backs? Surely they knew no train was coming. We continued walking, glancing in the direction of (what we could see was) the end of the tunnel. The moving shadow continued. It seemed to have grown a bit bigger. And then, another horn. Much, much closer. This time it was unmistakable.

We were on the path of the oncoming train.

What does one do when facing a train full steam on the other end of the track? First, randomly, I had to fight the urge to stick my ear to the track, like in a Western. Then, I helplessly looked around. By that time the side of the track became a proper marshland. There was no forest bed onto any side, only murky looking, dark and weird water. Then I yelled at my boyfriend, because I noticed that he positioned himself comfortably on the side of the track, camera in hand and big smile on his face. Then, finally, I scrambled.

I jumped to my side, onto the only slice of steep, inclined but not fully wet land, hugged the tree (trying to hide my face behind its trunk, reasoning that if the tree was still standing there, it must have been safe behind it) while constantly fighting the weight of the backpack pulling me down into the marshland.

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This was probably the scariest and least comfortable ten seconds of my life. I continued to randomly yell in the direction of my boyfriend to “hide” and “be safe” and “stop recording” (all of my yells were beautifully preserved on his video, screechy and anxious) and continued hiding my face behind the tree as I was afraid that the moment I stick it out there to look at the oncoming train, it will be literally torn off my head and I would end up faceless. “At least you did not run in front of it as all characters in all cartoons do since the beginning of time!”, I congratulated myself in my mind, still fighting the gravitational pull on my backpack and me. Then, after what literally felt like eternity, the old-school, heavy, industrial looking train came.

It was not going at full speed. But when it was rolling its mass in front of my face, literally maybe 50 centimeters from me, and the ground was shaking underneath its wheels, it felt like the most amazing monster, a giant of steel and iron, heavy machine crushing everything in its path, with earth-shattering breath and iron muscles. I looked amazed at this mountain of heavy metal rolling in front of my face. My eyes watered, trying to focus on heavy wheels and then traveled higher, peeled to the side of the train, up to its windows and roof, while I continued to clutch the tree, trying to save myself from drowning and praying in my soul that my partner was fine.

And then it was over. The mountain of iron has moved on and continued on its path. The giant was moving away from us. I stood on shaky legs  between the tracks, feeling adrenaline traveling all over my body, and looked at the back of the train, half-expecting to hear faint cries of the Bollywood troupe getting squished in the middle of the romantic scene they were shooting…

Nothing to that effect happened. As we slowly made our way back on the track (keeping a watchful eye on the train, should it start to suddenly back up – not that trains are known for that… – but just in case), we realized that the whole crew with cameras was set on the bogie (undercarriage), so the train was used to just push them out of the tunnel. Attempting to squish us in the process. Oh well : )

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This is Ukraine for you, folks. The land of no health and safety. The country for no faint of heart. Incidentally, one of the most unusual and amazing places I have ever been to, and even if somewhat similar, at the same time absolutely different than my home country.
On our way through Ukrainian reality we walked on two closed-off bridges (one hanging very high, over a deep precipice in Zhytomir, the other one, unfinished and crumbling down, standing watch over Dnipro river in sunset skies, like a ghost of a rainbow), but probably nothing throughout that whole trip gave me more adrenaline than this iron monster in the Tunnel of Love. Tunnel, which for us turned out to be not so romantic but full of suspense and sheer terror  : )  Very Ukrainian!

In my travel stories I will bring you over to all these other places and attempt to tell you about people of Heavenly Sotnia, killed during Euro Maidan in winter 2013 and spring 2014, whose stories we heard from two kind souls in Kyiv, volunteers during those long scary days and nights in the center of Ukrainian reality – but for now I leave you with the Tunnel of Horrors and a question: have you ever run away from an oncoming train?

If not, try it out. In Ukraine. It might be fun : )

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* Homo Sovieticus – the creature still relatively ubiquitous in Ukraine, especially in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country.

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