IN western Ukraine, the side of the highway offers more unusual scenes than many performance-art pieces. On one spring day, an old woman cradled what looked like a baby but was actually a newborn lamb dressed in baby clothes.On another day, a young woman strutted down a dirt road in a micro-mini and precarious heels. Nearby, a pair of young dandies cruised in an ox cart.
But I wasn’t driving the back roads of Eastern Europe for the people-and-lamb-watching. As I rounded a corner, the dense forests of the Carpathian foothills opened up to reveal my goal: a tall bell tower, leaning slightly askew, crowned with a furlike layer of wooden shingles and topped with an Eastern Orthodox cross. I parked, grabbed my camera and set off for a closer look.
Zakarpattia, the western region of Ukraine that abuts eastern Slovakia and northeastern Hungary, is home to a number of unusual wooden churches dating from the 15th to 18th centuries.
After years of neglect, the churches — rough-hewn, idiosyncratic wooden structures with surprisingly tall spires — seem to be in danger of disappearing.
“They’re like fantastic dinosaurs, covered with wooden shingles that look like scales, which hide them in the fir trees,” said Olena Krushynska, who started a project to promote and protect the churches, when I called her a couple of weeks before my trip to ask for advice about visiting the region. “You will not see something like that in other countries — nowhere.”
Folk architecture and odd roadside scenes aren’t the only intriguing things about Zakarpattia, also known as Carpathian Ruthenia.
Its rolling hills and dark forests are believed to have been the inspiration for the mythical kingdom of Ruritania in Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, “The Prisoner of Zenda.”
Even by European standards, Zakarpattia’s back story is rather remarkable: once part of Austria-Hungary, it became part of independent Czechoslovakia after World War I, then part of Ukraine and the U.S.S.R. after World War II.
The area is also believed to have been the only province of the Soviet Union that was ever governed by an American, Gregory Zatkovich, an ethnic Rusyn — or Ruthenian — from Pittsburgh who was appointed governor in 1920 when the region was still part of Czechoslovakia.
So last spring, after hearing so many strange stories, I decided to make a trip in search of the churches, driving from Hungary as part of a longer journey from my home in Prague.
Leaving the comfortable European Union as I headed into Ukraine, I thought the border felt militarized, even tense, with an invasive car search and inspection unlike anything I’d seen in Europe.
Also unlike the European Union: the roads. Driving north from the Hungarian border, it was not so much that the road had potholes, but rather that the potholes had only the slightest bit of road left to stitch them together, requiring numerous lurches from side to side as I tried to make my way forward.
Eventually, however, I found myself in the dark mountains, stopping when I saw a church in the hamlet of Izki.
As with a few of the churches I’d seen on Ms. Krushynska’s Web site, the tower of this church had been partly covered in tin, and the entrance had something like a front porch that was enclosed in glass.
The doors were open, and I walked in to find an elderly couple cleaning up, the babushka sweeping briskly at the threadbare carpet with a broom.
The altar was lovingly decorated with religious icons painted on wood panels, some charmingly naïve, some quite accomplished.
It would have felt more vibrant, I imagined, during church services, when a full congregation would chase away the chill of a cold day.
The old woman finished her sweeping and explained, as close as I could tell, that I could attend services at the wooden church in Bukovets, a nearby town, the next day.
I checked into a hotel in the nearby larger town of Volovets, where I awoke early, then drove through the mountains.
Even in mid-April, the weather was surprisingly brisk, and snow flurries were falling as I drove along the emerald Repynka River.
My GPS unit had thrown up its hands after the Hungarian border, declaring all of Ukraine terra incognita, and without satellite navigation the 12-mile drive seemed to take a long time.
Along the way I passed villages that looked like open-air museums: dozens of perfect log cabins without a trace of modern construction nearby. I saw eagles swoop from far above to land near the water.
Eventually my map led me to a settlement where I stopped to ask a villager for directions to Bukovets. He smiled and pointed farther on up the road.
A few minutes later, I saw a small wooden structure that could have been a cabin or even a farm shed if not for the soaring spire on top.
As tiny as it might be, plenty of people were already in the church, and I took a place in the back as the services started.
The language was impossible to understand, but the building itself communicated in a clear vernacular: thick columns, coarsely hewn and partly painted white, were topped with gold-haloed icons and lovely scarves that must have been embroidered by hand.
The ceiling in the back was only an arm’s breadth above my head, but on the other side of the crowd of kerchief-capped heads the space opened up, with a golden chandelier hanging down from the tall ceiling.
The building was obviously hundreds of years old; it practically felt as if it were alive, and I felt a chill as the congregation began singing the familiar words of the Kyrie eleison, an important prayer in Eastern Christian liturgy.
After the service, I headed south, passing by the town of Mizhhiria, where I discovered the second logistical problem with my road trip: the Ukrainian police.
Pulled over by a plump, pink-faced officer, I was told that I had been speeding and that I would need to pay a fine of 100 hryvnia. I would not, he said, receive a ticket or any form of receipt or paperwork.
I thought of arguing, then realized two things: first, that this would require extensive communication beyond my skills at charades, and second, that the amount that he was asking for was about $12.
After he took the money, the officer smiled grandly, offering me a fleshy handshake.
Fortunately, I missed any further encounters with the police: the road soon became so bad that speeding was impossible, to say nothing of normal driving.
By the time I passed the dusty town of Vinogradiv, I was exhausted, and as I swerved from side to side up another hill, an old man in a flat cap on the hilltop above waved, while his small herd of underweight cows grazed.
Soon I came to the village of Novoselytsia.
High overhead, the wooden spire had a walled-in platform that looked as if it could accommodate a brigade of archers just as well as it could bell-ringers.
At its base was a roofed fence surrounding a small lawn. The gate, however, was locked, and I could only peer in hopefully from the outside.
A few minutes later, a broad-shouldered young man walked up the road with a big smile.
He was, he said, the mayor of Novoselytsia, and he spoke enough Slovak to understand my Czech. The church was not open, he said, but he would try to find someone to open it.
A few minutes later, he returned with a sad shake of his head, offering a small amulet apparently made by schoolchildren as an apology. It had an image of the spire on it, and was dated from 2009.
“It is beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked, pointing at the church.
I told him it was, adding that they were lucky to have such history and culture in Novoselytsia, but he corrected me.
“This isn’t our culture,” he said. “This is everyone’s culture. It belongs to the world.”
He said that the church had spectacular murals and icons, all original, hundreds of years old, and I simply had to come back again to see them when the church was open.
I thought about the bad roads and the Ukrainian policemen, about the stress of crossing the border — not even knowing that getting back would involve a four-hour wait at customs the next day — and, weighing it all, I told him I would.