Transition - from the Caucasus to the Crimea
- Categorized in: August 2011
This article is going to be uncharacteristically short, as I really don’t have a great deal to say about the slightly odd few days of travel to get from Batumi – the last main stop in Georgia – all the way through to the port city of Kerch which marks the beginning of the Crimean peninsula in the south of Ukraine.
Having almost been reduced to piping my eyes at having to say farewell to Georgia, I had a curiously empty heart as I entered Turkey. Immediately my Russian no longer had any use, and for the first time in almost the whole trip, I had to fall back on mumbling words in English and making hand gestures for what I wanted (if anything).
I didn’t like this feeling of being completely cut off from communicating with people in general, though of course there are many Turks who can speak a few words of English. As it happened, in the short time I was there I only met two.
The ride to Trabzon, the Black Sea port 200km from Batumi, along the coast was a flat and in many ways attractive ride. The green hills roll in from the south as the road weaves in and out from bay to bay. This creates a beautiful effect as you look ahead down the coastline of varied headlands projecting out into the sea. Often you can see a town coming up almost hours before you finally reach it, because it is located on the tip of one of the longer projections.
View along the Turkish coast as the sun falls...
At the same time, the frequent churches filling up the Georgian landscape are replaced by almost as many mosques, both great and small, sometimes battered and neglected, sometimes ornate and splendid. Though the mosques varied enormously, there was no doubt about the convictions of this nation. As I was cycling all day, the trumpet-shaped speakers clamoured the call to prayer at least three times during my ride, pell mell, along the coast.
Call to prayer - "Prayer is better than sleep (or cycling)"?
I sped along making good time, intending probably to stop for the night three quarters of the way to Trabzon and then complete the journey the following day. But as the day went on and the distance was eaten up I realised if I pushed myself I could probably make Trabzon itself by nightfall, if not a short time afterward. And this is what I did. The weather didn’t always help with some showers and the wind often against me, so by the time I was pulling into Trabzon to find a hotel for the night I was pretty shattered, but had no regrets about actually getting there in one shot – a distance of just under 200km.
I’ve really nothing to say about Trabzon as a city. A simple port town with a few beaches just outside the city, and a large number of hotels spread throughout, as well as a jumble of market stalls in the centre. My objective was simply to be on my way to Russia as fast as possible.
Although it required a bit of a wait, I eventually did get on the hydrofoil service that runs just twice a week in the summer between Trabzon and the city of Sochi, on the Russian Black Sea coast, about 250km away. There is always a thrill for me about finally carrying out a section of the journey that I have pondered on for a long time. The question of how to continue on after Georgia so I could pursue my route across the Crimea and the Ukraine into Western Europe was finally answered. With a Russian visa and a ticket to the hydrofoil, the way lay open once more.
The hydrofoil itself was not huge. A low-lying boat by the quayside, once up to speed it sits up out of the water and above the waves, tearing along at an impressive rate. Meanwhile, if you want to move anywhere on board you have to hang on tight to the railings that run up and down the length of the interior, or you’re liable to get thrown into the lap of some unsuspecting Russian. And you know this won’t produce a sympathetic response.
In only 4 hours, the engines slow and the hull sinks once more into the sea. At this point, we could step outside and survey the coastline and the evening night lights coming on along the sea-front of the meandering city of Sochi.
Seaward approach to Sochi
Sochi is Russia’s premier summer playground on the Black Sea, catering (very democratically) for all – from President (sorry Prime Minister) Putin himself, whose villa stands off a little way north of the city centre, down to the most proletarian kind of holiday-makers. Certainly, one of the reasons to come to this city, and the various other holiday resorts further to the north is that here the Black Sea coast really is lovely. Stretching to the horizon in either direction, the deep green of beech and oak forests roll down from the Caucasus mountains till they appear to spill into the dark blue waters of the Black Sea.
A couple of years ago, Russians were as surprised as anyone at the announcement that Sochi would have the honour of holding the 2014 Winter Olympics. As everyone knows, Sochi is a summer town – what on earth could it do for the Winter Games? It turns out plenty. Only 60km away from this absolutely typical seaside urban sprawl, set back in the Caucasian hills is the resort of Krasnaya Polyana – where all the skiing events (and many others) will be held.
It struck me if you like outdoor activities, Sochi might be just the job to keep you entertained all year round. If you believe the propaganda billboard: “Sochi has it all” as well as being the place where they are “building a better life”.
Although there are many rapid building projects underway in Sochi to effect the “Olympification” of the city, these weren’t immediately obvious to me. But apparently new hotels are going up, and old ones are getting the cosmetic make-over to look at their finest when the world arrives in just over two years’ time.
Meanwhile, the holiday crowds carry on oblivious to any of these developments around the city.
The hydrofoil disembarks immediately in the city centre. I intended to stay in a well-known “stylish” old Soviet hotel called the Primorskaya Hotel, and was located very close to the landing point. So I spilled out into the early evening just in time to be swamped by wandering couples and families and two’s and three’s of determined-looking young women and men, promenading along the sea frontage. The dark complexions and colourings of Georgians (and Turks) were immediately replaced with white blonde Russians wherever I looked. Long-legged glammed up Russian beauties, accompanied by their sun-burnt men in football shirts strode along, while cheeky looking kids with buzz-cuts, clutching a toy gun in one hand and an ice cream in the other, chased about around everyone’s legs.
Tacky looking stalls selling t-shirts, sun-hats and day-trip excursions broke up the long row of bars and cafes and even outdoor billiard bars, and the occasional fashion shop selling mind-boggling swimsuits that only Russian women could find completely normal to wear on the beach.
So this was a pretty full-on introduction to the new land into which I’d been despatched. I must have made an odd sight weaving through this mass with my full-laden bicycle.
As it was, I didn’t hang around in Sochi. After my stop-over in this over-priced and very ordinary battered old Soviet hotel, I managed to slip away from Sochi shortly after lunch.
What I discovered, somewhat to my consternation, as I set out north along the coastline was that the flat meanderings of the Turkish coast were definitely not what I could expect in Russia. Instead, I made very slow progress, going up and down, up and down, on segments of usually no more than a kilometre or two at a time, at the same time as the road moved inland and out to the sea again and again. Although the topography made the ride extremely hot and sweaty, the scenery was an unexpected delight, as the road rolled along under the leafy boughs of beech trees that made up the woods either side of the road.
Typical view along the Black Sea coast in Russia
For all my enjoyment of the passing scenery, and I suppose a certain satisfaction from knowing all this climbing would soon have me fit as a fiddle once again, I made amazingly slow time, and by the time I came to a halt towards sunset in the town of Lazarevskoye, I’d only gone 70km.
Beautiful as the sunset was (almost as beautiful as the sun-downer beer that accompanied it), I was determined to do a bit better the following day. This started much cooler, which I was quite happy about. But the coolness soon turned into pretty torrential showers which had me soaked through in moments. Although the temperature was warm enough only to be wearing a thin sports-vest on top, the intermittent showers meant I rode wet most of the day, culminating in a good 45 minute long drenching in the early evening as I climbed up over one of the three low passes I had to get done before I reached the next big city of Novorossysk.
Sundowners at Lazarevskoye
Deciding after 120km that I’d had enough for the day, albeit 30km short of what I wanted to get done, I chanced upon a delightful little hotel in the town of Arkhipo-Osipovka – another beachside resort - which had a very comfortable room and was got up with a slightly Tyrolean theme (I’m not sure why since the owners were Russian, not German or Austrian).
Despite the comfort of this inn, when I got up in the morning and tried to eat breakfast something didn’t feel right. As I sat at the table, I started getting stomach cramps and felt very nauseous, so I went back upstairs and lay down. Once I did this, I couldn’t get off my bed all day. It was very strange. It wasn’t food-poisoning since I was never really ill in my stomach, nor was it flu or anything like that. I thought maybe I was just being lazy, but I really couldn’t get out of bed. I just slept and slept and lay there waiting until I felt like I had some energy again.
Perhaps I caught a chill from being wet all day the previous day, but whatever it was it appeared to have gone completely by the following morning. I got up to a beautiful crystal clear day, feeling ready to make some distance and enjoy my progress along the road.
I was aware that nothing really eventful was happening through Russia. I wasn’t meeting anyone. People gave me not the slightest bit of notice. In China, a European speeding through a town on a bicycle was an event, but here the natural public frigidity of Russians meant I would go long periods with no meaningful communication at all. Russian service staff are famously poe-faced as well, and all this was combining together to make me feel less than warmly welcome in Russia. At least in contrast to the other countries I’ve passed through.
This effect culminated in stopping for a bite for lunch in a roadside restaurant just a few kilometres short of Novorossiysk – Russian’s biggest Black Sea port. Here the waitress had a face like an axe, so sharp was her nose and her thin lips screwed up into the most shrewish purse I’ve seen in a long time. I’d obviously upset her by turning up to her restaurant and ordering some food.
The city of Novorossiysk is one of several cities in the region honoured as a Hero City. During the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War as the Russians call it) the German forces pushed eastwards, occupying the Crimea and much of the south of Russian Caucasia, including Novorossiysk. In 1942, the town was occupied by the Wehrmacht, but a small unit of Soviet sailors defended one part of the town, known as Malaya Zemlya, for 225 days, until it was liberated by the Red Army on September 16, 1943. The heroic defence of the port by the sailors allowed the Soviets to retain possession of the city's bay, which prevented the Germans from using the port for supply shipments. Novorossiysk was awarded the title Hero City in 1973.
I ploughed on past this city though, and ended the day 50km further on at yet another beach resort – this one called Anapa. Apparently as pleasant (and certainly as popular) as Sochi, I got to see almost nothing of it, since instead I spent the evening amongst the first friendly company I’d come across in Russia.
Finding accommodation along this coastline is not hard. Almost every abode in the shady streets of low-lying houses displays a sign offering rooms for rent. At many of these resorts, on the road into town stand row after row of people holding similar signs, saying “Accommodation by the sea” or “Deluxe Villa” or “Room to let – inexpensive & comfortable” and more besides. One is entirely spoilt for choice. However, on this occasion I was wandering a little aimlessly, looking more for a bank than a room, but something grabbed my attention about one little dwelling, and I went through the gate.
Despite some initial suspicions as to who I was and why I had snooped onto their property, when I suggested I was nothing more than a simple tourist, the frown was quickly replaced with a beaming grin from the owner, Sergey.
Sergey was a tall man, with a wonderfully shiny bald head, and an equally gleaming smile. He was extremely welcoming, together with his wife, with whom I had my first decent conversation since stepping off the hydrofoil. His other guests, two young couples, one of whom also had a very sweet little girl, invited me to have supper with them there at the house. We spent a very enjoyable evening talking, drinking local “champagne” and the occasional sip of some kind of cherry brandy (as far as I could tell). They were all good fun, and very accommodating of the sort of half-fluent Russian I can manage.
The happy household "chez Sergey"
As much as the Russian I do know has been extremely useful since stepping over the border into Kyrgyzstan back in June, I found myself a bit frustrated that I still can’t understand a good deal of what is said. The young Sergey (one of the couple with the daughter) works for a SWAT team (police special forces), and he had some interesting stories to tell. Yet try as I might to follow them, probably 70% of the detail is still lost on me.
I guess really nailing down a language takes a lot more time.
So I was, after all, treated to some very warm Russian hospitality, and I would not dream of complaining. It is very obvious that (if one can generalise) Russians have a public face, and a private face – the one cold and slightly inscrutable, the other beaming and generous. To that extent, when you do get a smile from a Russian, it really can warm your heart.
The following day was my last in Russia. Though the wind was up, for the most part it was in my favour, and I bowled along passing huge vineyards, and wide open fields of tomatoes and watermelons. The melons were clearly in season (are they ever not in this part of the world??) as once more fruit stalls with a king’s ransom in this juicy produce punctuated the roadside.
Finally, the coastline bends round to the west, and thins out into a lengthy peninsula of maybe 40km long. The last 10km of this narrows even more to a strip of land no more than 400m across – the break between the Black Sea to the south, and the Sea of Azov to the north.
The last sliver of Russia - Ukraine visible in the distance
I was heading for the passenger ferry terminal at Port Kavkaz, which transports cars and people from the eastern Russian peninsula the two or three nautical miles across the Kerch straits onto the peninsula of the Crimea.
As I stood on the upper foredeck of the little ferry, leaning against the railing, the late afternoon sun shone bright and warm, and the wind blasted my straggly hair all about my face. I smile to myself once more.
The route was accomplished. I was now about to enter a visa-free zone, that will take me freely all the way home. No more contingencies. From this point on, I could go where I will.
The tip of the Crimean peninsula
For many months I’d been looking forward to crossing the Crimea, where I had spent a short trip some five years ago. I was sure it would be one of the highlights of the whole journey.
I was not to be disappointed.
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