Riding westward on the edge of Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains in a beat-up 80s Volkswagen van, I fell asleep. The overnight train from Kyiv, with its ancient curtains and four-to-a-room compartments, is rarely an easy sleep, but the previous night’s voyage had been punctuated by an unruly companion returning with yet another bottle of vodka and four female Ukrainian journalists in tow just as I thought we might get some sleep. Hours later, after being voted only the second-most handsome of our group, I petulantly sent our newfound friends back to their berths and tucked in for a few hours.
My bleary-eyed group of five (four journalists, one with a brother in tow) arrived in the western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi at dawn. After a stop at a characterless fast-food restaurant and a short rest in the cavernous bunkroom of our $2-per-night hostel, we headed out.
As I slowly regained consciousness in the van, masked faces floated by the window in the thickening snow. Some of the figures held rifles and were trying to block our car by standing in the road. Checkpoints are frequent occurrences in Ukraine’s war-torn east, but that was hundreds of miles away, and these men weren’t separatists or government troops. They were taking part in a festival of the Orthodox New Year so obscure that most of my Ukrainian friends weren’t aware of it.