Crimea - part 2 - on the way out...
- Categorized in: September 2011
I was up and away from the little seaside village of Novy Svet on a greyish morning before any of the rest of the household had stirred. I had about 140km to get done that day to reach Yalta – probably the main city on the southern coastline of the Crimea, and a place rich in history, natural beauty and what you might call leisure pursuits, meaning anything to keep the Slavic holiday-makers entertained.
Bye bye Novy Svet...
From Sudak to the next biggish town Alyusha there are long stretches of open road, climbing up and down over sometimes quite challenging mountains – or hills. The road bends inland a few kilometres rising steeply past little woods and the open patchworks of vineyards, before plunging down into precipitous descents and then curling back out to the sea. Although it was the main road along the coast, there was little traffic and I was left to enjoy the physical challenge of overcoming this terrain as the day, slowly slowly, began to warm up again, and the listless film of overcast cloud eventually thinned out into another clear and bright afternoon.
Under the duller light, the rocky promontories of the Crimean coast looked sombre and understated, only regaining their dramatic aspects again when the sunshine returned.
By this time I was getting pretty tired, but was thoroughly enjoying myself. My body and legs were dying happily, doing what they love doing (for reasons best known to them). There often comes a satisfying moment when you realise that with the time and distance remaining, you are going to make your destination before darkness covers everything.
Stopping only for a bite to eat in the rather less pleasant town of Alushta, I climbed up onto the wide shoulder of rock that carries the main road around a massive headland of the coast for the final run-in to Yalta. By this time, the road is flawless, lined with pine and cypress trees, interspersed with characterful looking restaurants and guesthouses, and old men and women selling pots of honey, and strings of an elongated kind of onion (a local Yalta speciality apparently). The road sits quite high up from the sea and when there’s time to grab a glance away from the growing traffic on the road, the views are inspiring.
The roadside restaurants getting cherrier...
This was what you might call a “joyride” – meaning it was an example of exactly why I like doing this kind of cycling. A benign feeling of peacefulness everywhere – it’s the summer holiday season after all – natural beauty, physical exertion and the knowledge I was about to arrive (at speed, since the last 15km are all downhill) into one of the cities I’d often looked forward to reaching on this trip.
Yalta spreads itself out from the shoreline of a bay perhaps 5km across, and back up the slope some way towards the massive wall of rock formed by an escarpment which rises close to 1000m high behind. The whole effect is one of a big amphitheatre, with the main events – so to speak – going on by the sea.
The city of Yalta
Although the architecture within the town is not particularly striking or beautiful, the whole ambience of the place is quite attractive. Considering what it might be, given its total saturation as a holiday resort, it has retained a relatively dignified air. People are there to lie on the beach, sunbathe, eat ice cream, go on day-time excursions to places of local interest during the daytime, and sip on slightly overpriced drinks and stroll along the esplanade by night. And yet they do all this with a calmness and moderation that I couldn’t really imagine possible for a similar collection of English holiday-makers for example.
In this environment, the Ukrainians and Russians who come here realise the simple ideal of contentment. And to this extent, Yalta is an enjoyable place to be.
Beyond the simple pleasures of swimming, sunbathing, eating, drinking and dancing, Yalta is also extremely interesting if you have the energy for it. There are palaces, galleries, museums (including one for the writer Chekhov who spent much of his life here), cable cars up the mountain, boat trips, caves to explore, wine-tasting, trekking, water-skiing and even local flights around the area. It would be as hard to get bored here as it is to hold onto your money. (I guess that’s the idea.)
Yalta - as it was...
Anyway, I had to be a little selective as I only had a single day off there. I chose to visit the Livadia Palace – a beautiful white mansion set high up on a shoulder of land just to the west of the main city – which was built for and used by the families of the final Tsars of the Russian Empire, ending with the tragically doomed family of Tsar Nicholas II. One may wander through the personal apartments of the Tsar, the Tsarina and all the little Tsarinis (OK that’s not actually the word) – the Prince (Tsaravich) and Princesses. The walls are adorned with many photos of the family in relaxed holiday moods, on walks, playing tennis (in full military uniform) or sitting by the seashore. Whatever his short-comings, it is abundantly clear from these photos that Tsar Nicholas himself was a deeply committed husband and father. Even in an age of stiff-necked formality, especially in set piece photos, his gentleness and obvious love for his children literally shines out of the sepia shots.
The last royal family of Russia
The air is thick with pathos by the time you read the final little caption which describes, with not a little sensitivity, the murder of Nicholas and his family in Ekaterinburg at the hands of the Bolsheviks, and how this marked the “end of the epoch of the Empire, and the beginning of the epoch of revolution”.
Of course, most English schoolchildren (at least in my day) are likely to have heard of Yalta for only one reason – that it was the site of one of three very important conferences held between the so-called “Big Three” Allies during the Second World War – that is the Soviet Union (represented by Stalin), the United States (represented by President Roosevelt) and Great Britain (represented by Winston Churchill). The three conferences were held in Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam respectively, with the representatives of both the US and Britain being replaced with President Truman and Clem Attlee for the final Potsdam talks.
Churchill and Roosevelt share a joke with the special envoy from Norfolk...(Stalin left out in the cold)
Yalta in a sense was the most significant of the three because it was here that an agreement was thrashed out about the division of Europe, once the Axis Powers had finally been defeated. Here, the destiny of Europe for the next half century was sealed, with the east and much of central Europe being given over to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, and the west, in particular the whole of the Mediterranean, remaining clear of their control. Such were the pragmatic necessities and relative bargaining positions of the day.
Livadia Palace, Yalta - site of the 1945 conference
I’ve read somewhere that Churchill described Yalta as “the Riviera of Hell”. But since the conference was held in February of 1945 he couldn’t have been talking about the weather. Indeed in most of the old photos, all the leaders are bundled up in heavy overcoats, and look cold despite the warmth of their smiles. So perhaps he meant this in a more abstract sense.
With all this in mind, the Livadia Palace is well worth a visit, and it feels steeped in history and events of weighty importance.
The other place I had time to visit later in the afternoon is called the Swallow’s Nest castle. This is the iconic image of the Crimea, and is the subject of untold numbers of both good and bad pieces of art that appear in the open-air galleries that line the walkways and promenades of Yalta in the evening.
Swallow's Nest Castle, Yalta
Its distinctive silhouette suggests an impressive (and impregnable) cliff-top fortress, but in fact the whole construction is really a gimmick. It was commissioned by a German industrialist in the late nineteenth century as a present to his mistress (of the time). No doubt the lady’s vanity might be offended that even though hordes of people flock to admire her gift, no one seems to know her name. Then again, being only a mistress, perhaps it is just as well that a modicum of discretion is retained.
In fact, the “fortress” is tiny, barely big enough to house the Italian restaurant for which it is now used. Be that as it may, it is certainly worth a visit, if nothing else because it is so aesthetically pleasing to look at. One can only applaud the architect for creating something so arresting to the eye which manages to evoke something so distinctive about the Crimea.
Enjoying the sunshine in the shadow of the Swallow's Nest
Leaving Yalta behind me, the next day was a shorter ride, though the landscape and scenery were no less dramatic. I was pushing on to reach Sevastopol where I was to stay with the parents of a good friend of mine from my time in Xi’an – a Ukrainian teacher who had also given me a few lessons in Russian before sending me on way along the Silk Road all those long months ago.
Ay-Petri Escarpment, southern Crimea
But before I reached Sevastopol, being a good British citizen and a Flashman aficionado (amongst other things), I had to stop off and spend a short while surveying the land that had witnessed the Charge of the Light Brigade. Perhaps you know the poem by Tennyson – “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred…” etc.
Generally accepted as one of the most glorious blunders in British Imperial History – of which there seem to be a good number – this [eponymous] realisation of everything that represents the British “stiff upper lip” was in fact a calamity of miscommunication and dunder-headed stupidity on the part of Lord Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade – the light cavalry forces of the British Army - at the time. For reasons too spurious to go into here, the British, French, Turkish and Sardinian forces had undertaken to besiege the Russian port of Sevastopol. They’d set up their base of operations in the little fishing village and secluded haven of Balaklava, just 5km away from Sevastopol.
The Battle of Balaklava was an action in which the Russian forces attempted to cut off the besieging British and French forces from their supply lines in the village. During the Battle, there were in fact three famous episodes which came to be known as the Thin Red Line, the Charge of the Heavy Brigade and the Charge of the Light Brigade. The first two, in which the British forces acquitted themselves well, are less well remembered, while the last is immortalised in poetry, literature and film.
Battle scheme of the Battle of Balaklava,
if you can figure it out you're doing better than me.
In a word, misunderstanding an order from the allied commander Lord Raglan to attack a detachment of Russian artillery situated on a promontory of land on one side of the horse-shoe arrangement in which the Russian forces were deployed, instead Lord Cardigan led six hundred lightly armed cavalrymen right into the heart of the horse-shoe to attack the guns at the centre of the Russian line, bombarded from the high ground on three sides at once by heavy artillery. To say this was a suicide mission was something of an understatement. Once they reached the centre, with massive casualties, they realised they could achieve nothing in fact without any infantry support, so all they could do was turn around and ride back. Something under a third of their number returned.
As a French general observed at the time, “C’est magnifique. Mais ce n’est pas la guerre.”
Anyway, if this piques your interest, read Flashman at the Charge which is the best fictional description of these events I have read.
The so-called Valley of Death is still there, with its three sides of higher ground visible and the central channel of ground where the horses’ hooves must have thundered. Now the land is covered with neatly arranged vineyards spread across the entire area. It’s hard to imagine these bloody events amid the peaceful afternoon air, with the smell of the sea blowing up from the little village of Balaklava to the south.
The Valley of Death - where blood has become wine...
This wasn’t the end of the blood-letting in this area. It was also the scene of more brutal attrition between the Soviets and Germans during the Second World War as the Germans sought to cut off the Soviets from their Black Sea fleet. Once more the Soviet resistance was dogged and, in the final analysis, successful, and Sevastopol was duly honoured with “hero city” status.
My stay in Sevastopol was all too fleeting. It is a big city by any standards, and it is some kilometres from the outskirts before one reaches the true centre. Here you find a spacious, clean lively heart, with elegant architecture and light coloured facades – theatres, smart looking restaurants, a busy waterfront of clubs and bars looking out over the dignified looking Second World War monument set a little way out in the harbour, official looking buildings housing the Russian naval administration for this Ukrainian port, which the government still allows its Russian cousins to use as their southern naval base.
I spent the night as a guest of my friend Sergey’s parents who were very kind hosts. I don’t think I’d been looked after like that for my entire trip. I was fed, showered, all my clothes were cleaned, chatted to, stories were swapped, driven about. They were so kind, and I felt a bit rotten for refusing their hospitality a second night and insisting I had to keep moving on.
As well as meeting his parents, I went out for a few drinks with a couple of Sergey’s local friends, who showed me around the town centre a little and then introduced me to some other young Ukrainian students. Some of these people surprised me when I tried to get them to explain to me the so-called Orange Revolution and its effects.
They said that what had really happened during the heady days of the Orange Revolution, when mass peaceful protests went on over several days in Christmas 2003 and reversed the rigged election of the pro-Russian incumbent Yanukovich over the pro-Western candidate Yushchenko, had been hugely overblown by the western media. The reality was that the country was pretty evenly divided over these two candidates – in particular the predominantly Russian ethnic strongholds in the east and south of the country were definitely in support of a more pro-Russian president – and whatever credibility and democratic capital Yushchenko had gained through his popular support and marshalling of this peaceful coup had more or less evaporated in more recent years, with his reforms and credibility disappearing in the murk of his political fall-out with his former ally, the formidable braided “blondinka” Yulya Timoshenko, and general scandals of corruption.
So in 2010, the Ukrainian electorate more or less reversed the outcome of the Orange Revolution and elected Yanukovich as President after all. He immediately began his programme of closer ties with Russia – for example by extending the expiring lease of Sevastopol as a naval port to Russia for another 25 years. Yet he too continues to be tainted by charges of cronyism, corruption and moderate level political repression. (Timoshenko, his political arch-rival is currently either in prison, or just recently out of it.)
All in all, these young people were not particularly optimistic about the opportunities for them in Ukraine while the country remains mired in corruption, although they are still proud of their country – and in my view rightly so. There is plenty to like about Ukraine. What they could all agree on was that they were looking forward to hosting the European Football Championships next year. With a bit of luck, this will showcase what fun people the Ukrainians really are, and some of the interesting cities in which they live.
Meanwhile I had been looking at my map. Between Sevastopol and Odessa, further round the Black Sea coast to the west, there aren’t so many places of interest.
The city of Simferopol, the big central hub for the Crimea, to which all roads seem to lead, is unexceptional by comparison with everywhere else on offer in the Crimea. I rode over there in three or four easy hours from Sevastopol, bidding “au revoir” to my very generous hosts.
From Simferopol, it is approximately 470km to Odessa. In between lie two biggish cities – Kherson (260km away) and then Mikolayev (only another 60km further on). I looked at the map and thought, “OK – the furthest you’ve ridden in a day is 224km. I wonder whether it is possible to make it to Odessa in two days. One day to Kherson. Then a second to Odessa.”
There was only one way to find out.
Managing to set off before 7.30am the following day, I was – shall we say – up for it. The main reason that this might be possible at all was because the land between Simferopol and Odessa is almost entirely flat.
Although I know practically nothing about geology, it seems kind of obvious how the land lies in the Crimea. If you imagine a big slab of ice that has cracked and is tilting ever so slightly down at an angle: one edge will be jagged, uplifted and exposed; the other significantly lower and submerged. But the surface from the jagged edge to the submerged edge will remain as smooth as it was when the ice was unbroken. This is something like the earth’s crust forming the block of land that makes up the Crimean Peninsula. The southern coastline is the jagged edge, with high cliffs, even mountains, dramatic rock outcrops, and a plunging coastline. From the top of this massive escarpment back to the swamps and marshland in the far north of the Crimea is one continuous and reasonably flat plateau. Which get flatter and flatter the further north you go.
In other words, the riding was easy. With the exception of an hour or so riding into a headwind before lunch, I was churning along. The vines of southern Crimea gave way to acres and acres of sunflower fields, mostly standing ready for their immanent harvest, interspersed sometimes with the baled wheat and barley fields that had already been cut.
Sunflower fields awaiting harvest - on the road to Odessa
It is not interesting to describe this ride to you. But a strange little event did happen to occur along the way.
About 30km after lunch, with over 100km still to go to Kherson, I stopped at a little wayside shop, set up to sell drinks. As I made my purchases (there are always several), a man approached me and asked how I knew Russian if I was a foreigner. I told him who I was and what I was doing. He then broke into English and introduced himself as Victor.
He seemed very forward and eager to talk. I remember one of his first questions was “how do you cope with so many days on the road without sex? Or are you a Christian?” This was one of the oddest segues into confessing my faith I’ve ever heard. But I answered straight forwardly, “Yes, in fact, I am.”
This released him into saying that he too was a Christian and he was involved in preaching, writing songs, raising money for the poor etc. etc. I was still a little suspicious of him, but as if to prove his point, he started singing in a kind of rapid-fire medley a bunch of lyrics from worship songs he’d written in English.
We talked a little more and he said meeting me now made sense to him. He said he’d been sitting at home that morning but had felt “led by the Spirit” (let us say inspired) to leave his house, and come and hang out in this roadside café/shop and wait. He didn’t know why. He just did it.
And then I turned up.
This didn’t lead to anything cataclysmic. We talked, he prayed for me, blessed me; I prayed for him and blessed him. Then he said, “You know, we will almost certainly never meet again. At least not in this life. But I believe we will in the next, and today you have blessed me and I have been encouraged.”
I felt exactly the same. He didn’t want anything from me. And I don’t know what is expected to come from this, if anything. But it is hard to explain away, and it left me with the clear impression that somehow, unseen perhaps, God is involved in every little detail, every moment and the timing of every event in this journey. You can call it coincidence that a Ukrainian who speaks excellent English happened to place himself somewhere where he would meet an English cyclist in the middle of a 17,000km ride from one side of the planet to the other – even though he didn’t know himself why he felt compelled to put himself there until I showed up. But the result is simply the belief that God really is there; and He is for me. Just as He is for Victor.
Put at its simplest – I guess that is faith.
So strangely natural did this event feel, that in fact I quickly forgot about it within a few more kilometres. Instead, I was intent on getting to my destination. It was approaching 10 o’clock by the time my incredibly weary legs creaked their way up the last inclines along the dimly lit streets of Kherson –for a while vainly trying to find anything that looked like a hotel or hostel.
In this state of exhaustion, it came as a little shock to pass a traffic light at a junction and see a little gaggle of people gathered along the pavement, with a police van stopped in the middle of the road. Just in front of it, lying on the ground was a white sheet, and out from under the sheet protruded four purple and naked limbs. It took half a moment for me to realise what I was looking at – and I found the sight a grisly reminder of ….what? Death? Danger? Finality? I didn’t know quite what. Just that one minute there is life. And then – wham! It’s over. A human being has become a lifeless corpse, lying naked on the asphalt. A white sheet covering the shame that the end has come.
My mind was as tired and empty as my legs and I just sort of left this thought sitting there in my head. I didn’t take it anywhere. I still haven’t.
When I finally found a hotel hidden away amongst the dark streets of Kherson, the distance meter dial rolled onto 266km done for the day. The furthest I ever rode in a day.
Perhaps it was a lack of imagination on my part that the sense of morbidity that seeing this corpse induced in me didn’t stay for very long.
Instead, I was up again the next day and ploughing along on my way – this time only needing to cover 200km to Odessa, according to my best estimate.
What happened on this day? Very little that sticks in my mind. The landscape was similar to the previous day, with many sunflower fields, and then the beginning of a new feature in the Ukrainian countryside – walnut trees lining the sides of the road. These stretch on as initially rather attractive avenues, across the network of roads in southern and western Ukraine, and also throughout the country of Moldova. But after dozens and dozens of kilometres of these, the avenues become monotonous to ride along.
Simply put, I ground out another 200km – legs and bottom beginning to bellow for some respite by the final 40km or so, and my mind started to lock for the first time into a habit which seems to have stuck until the time of writing: counting sets of 20 leg strokes. Over and over and over.
Perhaps it is a sign that I’ve done all the thinking and reflection of which I am capable in the 13,000km that have gone before, but counting to 20 again and again seems to be something for the moment, of which I never tire.
Evidently I have OCD issues.
But let that be a worry for another day.
At the very least, the 20s got me to my sign – and I was D-E-L-I-G-H-T-E-D.
Was I ever glad to see that!
For the statisticians among you, these figures may be interesting.
By the time I had ground to a halt in the centre of the city (another 10km further on it turned out) I had covered 215km for the day; 481km in two days; and 665km in four days.
If you think you can top that, by all means give it a go!
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