Crimea - Part 1
- Categorized in: August 2011
There is a whole different mood as you step into Ukraine.
I suppose it depends where you’ve just come from, but a new atmosphere of levity struck me from the moment I passed through the Ukrainian passport control.
Landfall in the Crimea (Ukraine)
People were smiling as they waited in line to come through the other way (i.e. back on the ferry that had just deposited me on the Kerch Peninsula, the eastern extremity of the Crimea); a man spoke out of the crowd, asking where I’d come from and what I was doing, and then helped me by directing me to a currency exchange.
It was still late afternoon and as I pulled away from the little port of Kerch to head into the main city, the evening light was golden, despite a thrashing easterly wind that helped on my way. Meanwhile I was allowing myself to splash around in the warm waters of self-congratulation – if only for a little while. My plan – such as it was – had worked. Being a British passport holder gives me 90 days of freedom to roam wherever I wished in the land of Ukraine, visa-free, and as far as I was concerned, home and dry, with clearance to travel all the way home to the UK simply on my passport.
Definitely in the Crimea - that's what the sign says...
The not insubstantial bureaucratic headaches of fitting together the puzzle of crossing overland from Hong Kong at least this far were now at an end. It was done. Phew!
So in a very buoyant mood, I crawled over a little rise away from the port and then began a 15km trundle along the unexpectedly long city of Kerch. Passing little gatherings of Ukrainians amusing themselves by the sea’s edge, cooking barbecues, or wandering around with their kids, drinking beer, and generally laughing and smiling in a way (it seemed to me) very different to their cousins across the little stretch of water in Russia, eventually I arrived at what seemed to be the centre of the old port of Kerch.
The city dates way back, originally one of several trading colonies in the Crimea set up by the Greeks as long ago as the 5th century BC. It is an archaeological gem (apparently), with rich pickings for the many archaeological projects that continue to go on in and around the city. Kerch’s more recent history earned it the honour of being named one of the “Hero Cities” of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. By all accounts it was the centre of one of the more brutal struggles between the German and Soviet forces during the war. It was captured by the Germans, retaken by the Soviets in a daring naval landing, then recaptured a second time by the Germans, which led to a second naval landing by the Soviets. Finally in August 1944, it was liberated for good. But not before more than 150,000 Red Army troops had been expended, and nearly 30,000 civilian citizens killed or deported by the Nazi occupiers.
You can still go and visit the catacombs under the city, from where the local population carried on a resistance movement against their occupiers, and where large numbers died from poisonous gas attacks.
All in all, it sounded bloody and unrelenting – so you can well imagine the city deserved its “hero” status.
My reception was very different. I stopped at a nice looking hotel and paid too much for a room that was also too nice for me. The middle-aged lady at reception was friendly and chatty, and all the service staff actually smiled and communicated. My faith in the Slavic people was rapidly being restored to what it should be.
This was all great in its way. Yet in addition to being friendly, the Ukrainians like to party. I knew this, but it was a little to my cost when I was kept up half the night – in my very comfortable bed – by the pounding dance music that was blaring out from just below my bedroom window. I’d failed to realise the wide open space in the courtyard of the hotel was in fact a dance-floor in the summer months, and the fact that it was a Friday night meant it was only going to go on longer.
The Mithridates Staircase, Kerch
The following day I thought I’d better visit at least one sight before moving onward so I climbed the old city stairs that led up to a lookout point, on the top of which is a monument to the fallen in the Battle for Kerch. During this minimalist sight-seeing I met a couple who had just spent a week (or perhaps more) in a meditation retreat on the northern shore of the Kerch Peninsula. I hadn’t realise such things went on in the Ukraine. The man was an American and the lady an Australian. They were extremely friendly, amusing and good company.
Doug, Sarah and THRB on top of Mount Mithridates
We had a very interesting and intense conversation about new age spirituality (I guess naturally enough since that is what they’d been thinking about for the past week), American politics (of which I know very little) and the impending environmental disasters of our time. And conspiracy theories too. While fun to discuss, I think I was left none the wiser. All these subjects are rather murky, with all the innocent allure of quicksand. Once you step into them, it is almost impossible to find solid ground and before too long one is desperate to come up for air but finds there is none.
Nevertheless, one thing I was encouraged to do was to try to meditate whilst cycling – that is entirely clear my mind of all thoughts, past and present and just be in the present.
I can see that this kind of exercise in detachment from the "noise" of one's relentless thoughts must surely be beneficial. But this is easier said than done – or perhaps it’s just me. If I do manage to empty my head, it is only for an instant before my mind starts calculating distances to the next stop – and the next bottle of ice cold Coca-Cola. This no doubt highlights the unhealthy addiction I have developed this year. A desire from which more mediation may be able to eventually free me, but not without a good deal of rear-guard action put up by my sugar-dependent body.
I feel at least somewhat vindicated by the fact that every other cyclist I have encountered along the way is also in the thrall of a serious Coke habit, so there is at least strength in numbers.
Anyway, this is all someway off the point.
By the time I’d left Doug and Sarah, the afternoon was pressing on and I’d only left myself 4 hours of daylight to reach the next port of Feodosia, about 80km down the coast to the west. While the sun was shining, there was quite a gale blowing, and I was delighted to realise that it was squarely behind me (for a change). This was a great blessing since I would have arrived probably well after dark without it.
But it gave me a chance to see the landscape of the eastern Crimea, as I whizzed along over 30kph.
From Kerch right up to the port of Feodosia, the terrain is all steppe. Similar to the vast tracts of land that cover the transition from Asia into Europe further east, the steppe country encroaches onto the Crimean peninsula in places as well. Rolling brown grassland, dotted occasionally with a few grazing animals, but very little agriculture, spread all around, and the road unfurled like a black ribbon ahead, waving left and right and up and down with the contours of the land.
The last of the steppe - galloping towards Feodosia
The Mongols rode this way.
You probably have never heard of the little city of Feodosia – tucked away in a quiet little corner of the European continent – but certain events here had a massive impact on the rest of Europe. Feodosia (which used to be called Theodosia under its original Greek name) was, like Kerch, founded by Greek merchant settlers in the 5th century BC. It became an important trading town, situated as it was at one of the hinges if you like between the eastern caravan routes bringing goods from the heart of Asia along the Silk Road, and the fleets of merchant ships that would link these routes to the great metropoli of Europe and the Mediterranean world. The city flourished, and much later, the Greeks sold the city to Genovese traders, as merchants from this Italian city-state grew in wealth and power.
During the period of Genovese control, the marauding Mongols arrived like a scourge from the east, in the last years of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century AD. They laid siege to the city which held out for a long time. So long in fact, that there was an outbreak of a terrible plague in the camp of the Mongols which began decimating their ranks.
In one of the first (historically) recorded examples of biological warfare, the Mongols catapulted the bloated bodies of victims of this virulent plague over the city walls into Feodosia. People began falling sick. In a desperate attempt to flee the doom that had befallen them, several merchant ships managed to escape from Feodosia on the seaward side, and returned to their homeland port of Genoa, in northern Italy.
Disastrously, they seemed to have brought the disease with them. In Genoa were the first recorded cases of the disease that would become known as the Black Death. During the early 14th century AD, this is estimated to have wiped out around a third of the population of Europe, and remains the worst epidemic in European history.
With this story in mind, as I sped across the final stretches of steppe before coming to this port, I couldn’t help imagining the ride of the Mongols - the clamour of shouts and galloping hooves, long greasy black hair (perhaps not unlike my own) whipping in the wind, maniacal sparks flashing in the dark pool of Mongol eyes, teeth set against the rush of air, with the clatter and creak of the leather of 10,000 saddles as they rode their horses into a lather, shrieks of ecstasy and mayhem goading each other on to the blood fray.
(OK – you get the idea.)
Suffice to say, a sensation of speed may have been all that the Mongols were really after – and how better to achieve this sensation than by terrorising and ransacking entire continents, eh?
Nowadays, Feodosia fulfils a quite different role. It is home to the low end of Slavic holiday-making. The 10km of road that runs along a very attractive, if narrow, sandy beach on the approach to the city is backed by dozens of hastily erected beer tents, tacky restaurants, and a thousand little signs offering “Zhilye sdayootsa” or “Kvatira nye doroga” (Accommodation to rent; Rooms not expensive).
"Zolotaya Beach" - the golden sands of Feodosia
With no great plans for my own accommodation, I took up one of these invitations to treat at the recommendation of one of the more curious individuals I have met along my way.
The man’s name was Vyecheslav and he was just a day short of 65. He wore a thin looking red vest, and an old pair of grey work shorts, held up by a leather belt. His skin was brown as the leather on his belt, and he had a shock of bright white hair and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Not quite knowing whether he was the owner of some rooms to rent or just another holiday-maker, I took his advice and went and checked in to the very cheap place near the beach that he mentioned, where I was allocated a bed which for sleeping had all the comforts of a wooden table, and didn’t inspire much confidence in a good night’s sleep later.
Meanwhile, Vyecheslav had turned up and explained that he too was a cyclist. He then wheeled out his bike, a mountain bike in reasonable nick, and his “luggage”. His luggage – for a journey of several thousand kilometres (according to him) was a plastic bag, tucked behind his seat. The only clothes he had were the shorts and vest, and one waterproof jacket. And he was very proud to show me the speaker system he had arranged on his bicycle. He said the earphones I sometimes use to listen to music or books were dangerous. It was much better to be able to hear everything that is going on around you, he said. He showed me an old yellow connectable speaker which sat wedged between his handlebars pointing straight at him, and which he rigged up to his phone/MP3.
He then proceeded to show me it working. So carefully selecting a track which (I presume) he thought I would like, I was suddenly regaled for the first time with a track that I was to hear again and again through the Crimea. To say it was a hardcore dance track is probably an understatement. It had an unbelievably loud and particularly noxious and repetitive back beat (with unforeseen electronic beeps occasionally chiming in) overlaid with the voice of a slightly gormless sounding Spanish girl saying strange phrases in different languages which the Ukrainians probably didn’t understand. One of which is in English and is rude – so those of a sensitive nature turn away – “What the f----?” Over and over.
(Incidentally, I never ceased to find it strange to be sitting in a Crimean café at different points in the coming week, when this track would come on, and this phrase would be repeated several dozen times loudly in my ear as I tried to satisfy my Coke addiction.)
Perhaps more alarming was the image of this wizened old Slav, cranking his legs up and down to get over the rolling hills and valleys of the Crimea with hardcore dance music blaring in his face. When he went on to tell told me that he was a four-time ex-prison convict, nothing would have surprised me, and nor did this.
He reminded me of another Ukrainian I had once encountered on an early morning train from Simferopol to Sevastopol (also in the Crimea) five years earlier. I had to invoke immense reserves of self-discipline not to laugh at this man sitting opposite me – probably no less than 50 years old with jet black hair swept backwards, wearing wrap-around shades above a very sharp jagged nose. His jaw was masticating a piece of gum to death at the rate of perhaps 100 “clamps” per minute, and over his head and ears he wore an old style (so dated!) Sony Walkman – the kind that everyone else in the room can hear too. And from these headphones emanated the reverberating and relentless beat of dance music I doubt even the most rebellious teenager could have tolerated for more than a couple of minutes.
It almost felt like I was encountering a psychotic episode as I watched his knee thumping up and down in time with the beat, except that it was 8am and everyone else was doing a 30minute commute to Sevastopol to start their working day. As the gurning continued with impressive energy, I couldn’t help but imagine his jaw muscle must be working off the effects of some (perhaps several) illicit substances he had consumed earlier in the night and still coursed through his aging veins. Or maybe he was just really excited to be going to work. Who knows? Whatever gets you through the day, I suppose.
Anyway, much as Vyecheslav was good value for a conversation or two, I was momentarily concerned he might suggest we do our riding through the Crimea together. This would have been slightly out of kilter with the “serenity” of the Crimea which I was hoping to enjoy. As it was, he was off and away bright and early, towards the town of Sudak, and we were able to say a cheery farewell and good luck to one another.
The Feodosia cycling fraternity - one of us needs a bit more sun...
A little later in the morning, I set out, hoping to pass through Sudak – one of the obvious ports of call along the Crimean southern coastline – and then make some distance on the other side towards Yalta.
That morning, I left the steppe landscape behind and entered the more dramatic landscape for which the Crimea is well-known, and well-loved.
It really is lovely too. The climate at that time of year is perfect for riding. After the 40plus degrees in the Kazakh and Uzbek deserts, the low 30s in the Crimea just felt nice and warm. Incredible rock formations break out of the surface as the land closes in on the sea, creating jagged mountains and rolling hills. All the valleys are filled with woodland or vineyards, and the land is green, green, green. It was the last days of August, with the grape harvest only a month away so the landscape looked at its fullest and most fertile.
The road weaved up and down through these hills and valleys, occasionally breaking over into a pass from which quite breath-taking views fell away to the deep dark blue of the Black Sea, and the soaring sheer cliffs faces that rose out of its waters. I had to work hard to get up and over these hills, but I didn’t mind. This, in many ways, was exactly what this trip was always intended to be about.
My memory of the Crimea as a beautiful place was a compelling reason for the route I had chosen, and indeed had been a source of encouragement through the harder and more desolate periods in western China, or under the unforgiving sun in Uzbekistan and over the rubble of a road in western Kazakhstan. The Crimea was the image of a kind of paradisiacal haven, which – if only I could reach it – would be a delight to the soul and weary body.
And so it was. Rarely has the weight of expectation rested so heavily on a place, only for it to be discarded and exceeded as if it was nothing. Reality overtook and extended the dream – outstripping it because it had the additional virtue of being real.
And so, thoroughly hot and sweaty and exhausted, but undeniably happy, I free-wheeled down the valley past its spread of vineyards towards the town of Sudak.
Intense relaxation on the beaches of Sudak
Sudak, I have read, is a “must-see” for anyone following the lore of the Silk Road. Another important trading port over the centuries, it too was originally a Greek colony, later superceded by the Genovese and later Turks, and finally Russians. However, I have my doubts that the swarms of holiday-makers filling up the streets and promenades and beaches of Sudak have paid the slightest thought to the Silk Road, or any other aspect of historical note about this place.
You certainly wouldn’t want to make this your main base for a Crimean holiday being so busy, but it was fine to grab lunch by the sea and watch people going about the business of enjoying themselves in this seaside resort. I even met a friendly bee-keeper called Nikolay – on holiday from the east of Ukraine – and whose big belly was as round as one of his pots of honey. He explained how I could get to the one historical place I did want to see – an old 15th century fortress, built by the Genovese with its perimeter walls still in remarkably good condition, and built in such a way as to take advantage of the natural defences of the massive rock formations that tower over the rest of the town.
Still a long way to go on my belly...
I went up there to have a wander around. Although not gleaning a great deal of historical value about the place, it did allow me probably the most beautiful view of the Crimean coastline that I had during my whole time there.
There’s not much to say about this except that it was one of those rare moments in life of absolute serenity in nature. From my high vantage point, I could look down with a kind of detached benevolence on the tiny specks of the people way below, splashing around in the sea or lying on the beaches. Boats and parasails passed before me like little toys on the blue water, and the sea and sky merged into an azure infinity off to the south.
Further west, shielding my eyes against the splinters of the setting sun as it split around the rocky peaks, I could see the curve of two more bays, the second of which holds the tiny village of Novy Svet, home to the most famous “champagne” in the Crimea. The vineyard that produces this undeniably tasty sparkling wine (purists I suppose could not say “champagne”) was the “labour of love” of a Russian nobleman back in the late nineteenth century.
Novy Svet - the "New World"
His name was Prince Lev Golitsyn, and the vineyard and the bottles of bubbly it produces still bear his name. He became obsessed with the idea of effecting a cultural (seismic) shift in Russians’ drinking habits. So sure was he of his product that he believed if he sold his “champagne” at a price lower than the prevailingly populist vodka, he would eventually turn the Russians away from their coarse vodka-drinking into more refined drinkers of wine. Old Prince Golitsyn must have let his sparkling wine go to his head while he was doing his market research if he thought this was a good idea. The net result was that he quickly went broke with this endeavour.
However, he must have been a man of some sort of hopeless charm, since Tsar Nicholas II baled him out and instead set him up as a kind of Royal Sommelier, with a commission to establish a royal vineyard and wine-maker just outside of Yalta. Whatever his financial misadventures, Golitsyn’s name is still remembered with great fondness by all those Russians who do have a taste for the Crimean grape.
Since the day was running on, I decided I’d only got time to pedal the few short kilometres over to Novy Svet and spend the night there. This proved a sensible move – to escape the throngs in Sudak, see this charming little bay first hand, taste some of Golitsyn’s delicious legacy, and spend an enjoyable evening chatting with the two young couples who were staying in the same guesthouse as me.
All in all, it was merely a glimpse of this nice little spot, where apparently there are wonderful walks to be done, quiet secluded beaches to visit, and lively restaurants and clubs to frequent. But despite my hostess’s protestations that my stay of a single evening was far too short, I was adamant I must keep going on my way.
“I have an appointment with my brothers and friends in Vienna at the end of September. I have to keep going. I’d love to stay a bit longer, but time is running on.”
And so it was.
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