Tuesday, September 21, 2010


God was in a hurry when he made Ukraine. He just slapped on a bunch of chernozem, rolling fields and a few forests; but at the end of the day realised that he had forgotten to put in the cliffs, karst mountains, vineyards, and Mediterranean climate and so quickly put them in a rhomboid piece of land and stuck it to the southern end of the country with a piece of plasticine and voila, Crimea was born. OK, geologists may be able to explain it better than me, but Crimea is different to Ukraine in almost every way imaginable: its vegetation is dry and scrubby, not verdant and rich; its mountains are sheer and craggy, not old and rounded; and its history is Greek and Turkic, not Slavic (although, thanks to our old friend Stalin, the entire historical Tatar population was deported following World War II to be replaced by Russians). The whole Ukrainian-Russian dynamic is most marked here as the province (actually an autonomous republic) is effectively Russian, with Russian flags and billboards proclaiming faith in the (Russian) motherland all very prominent. Ukrainian symbols are relegated to official buildings and signposts.
Before the Russians and Ukrainians started vying for Crimea it used to belong to the Crimean Tartars. This is the mosque of the Khan's Palace in Bahcisaray. Few now remain as they were all forcibly removed by Stalin and current authorities are loathe to let them back.
During Soviet times Crimea and its Black Sea resorts of Yalta and Alushta were the proletariat's summer paradise where everyone dreamt to holiday among the socialist realist concrete sanatoria and workers' clubs. Little has changed in that respect and it is still the number 1 beach destination for Russians and Ukrainians. With the influx of money brought about by the advent of capitalism did not come a commensurate influx of better taste and the beachfront is blighted by boxy concrete and glass hotels and apartment blocks that thumb their noses at any building regulations. Luckily the economic crisis brought a swift end to the property speculation and many building projects sit idly unfinished and unprofitable (not that this is a uniquely Ukrainian phenomenon mind you). Luckily some pre-Soviet gems still exist amongst the concrete, most notably Livadia Palace. Built for Tsar Nicholas II and his family, they only got to use it 4 times before the messy business of the October Revolution. And although the lion's share of the palace tour (in Russian) is devoted to the fun and frolics of the Romanovs, the international visitors i.e. a couple of German girls and me, were far more fascinated by a later trio of visitors, namely Franklin Roosevelt, William Churchill and Stalin. In those halls and ante-rooms a new world order was thrashed out and the fate of tens of millions of souls decided with the stroke of a pen. Solemn indeed, if somewhat marred by a duo of ladies that kept posing in front of every conceivable object to have their photos taken by each other.
The Yalta Conference table where the fate of the second half of the 20th century was sealed.
Another historically significant spot on the Crimean coast, at least for Brits, is the town of Balaklava close to Sevastopol. It was in this sheltered bay that the British set up their headquarters during the Crimean War (with Florence Nightingale, the Charge of the Light Brigade, et al.) against the Russians. I didn't particularly care about the Crimean War (though I do like the poem), but was far more interested in the secret, James Bondesque submarine base hidden in the side of a mountain there. Unfortunately I didn't have my Walther PPK with me. But I was happy to leave the coast to the tourists, as for me the greatest charms of the peninsula were those of the stunningly beautiful karst mountains and rugged interior. The gentler slopes are home to a multitude of vineyards, whereas the steeper, more inaccessible ones are a hiker's paradise, criss-crossed with paths through forests filled with walnuts, hazel, wild pears and apples, rosehip and sweet-smelling mint. Unfortunately, like with most of Ukraine, the reality doesn't live up to the vast potential: paths are poorly marked (if at all) and the many local and Russian hikers who do come don't seem to treasure the natural beauty so much, as the place is littered with shocking amounts of refuse and litter. Also, hidden away amongst the valleys and canyons are ancient troglodytic towns, carved into the limestone cliffs as protection from enemies. There are scores of them dotted around the peninsula and make perfect locations for free-camping, although luckily I didn't need to as from my previous trip I have a contact in Ukraine. I met Sasha whilst in Darjeeling some four and a half years ago and although we only spent a few days together have remained in contact ever since. When I knew I'd be in Ukraine I dropped him a quick message, only to find that he was now in New York. However he did let me use his little cottage in Crimea. He gave me the number of his friends who look after the place while he's away, who showed me around and gave me the keys. So for 5 days I could relax and not worry about accommodation or where to pitch my tent - sheer bliss. I'm routinely amazed by the kindness shown to me throughout my travels by strangers and people I barely know and keep wondering what sort of reception someone would have back home.

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