Saturday, July 2, 2011

Rushin' Through Russia, Crawling Through Crimea

Odessa, July 2nd

Terri and I are in Odessa, a very European-feeling cosmopolitan city, after a long night bus journey from Yalta. I ordinarily avoid all encounters with public transport, but the ferry that we thought would take us from Yalta to Odessa didn't exist, so we were reduced to the ignominy of a night bus.

Since I last wrote, Terri and I rode eight days from Sochi to Yalta, along the northeast coast of the Black Sea. It was a lot harder going than I had expected, for a number of reasons: extreme hilliness, heavy traffic and a day and a half of crazy winds. We were quite relieved to make it to Yalta when we had planned to, and also quite happy to take a couple of days off the bike before heading off towards Moldova tomorrow.

Terri and I were quite happy to have a leisurely couple of days off in Sochi. I was able to find a local bike mechanic to rebuild my back wheel with a new rim, and we were able to enjoy the wonderful sets, great lighting and fabulous voices of the local opera company performing Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades. By coincidence I had just read the Pushkin short story on which the opera is based, so I could follow the story. Terri was entranced by her first-ever opera. On the second day, we were able to lounge by the pool at our swanky hotel, getting ourselves psyched up for the road ahead.

Our first day out of Sochi was perhaps the least enjoyable of the eight days. The traffic was relentless, with endless trucks grinding by noisily, covering us with diesel fumes. The road was a constant roller-coaster, climbing up hills and then diving steeply downward to cross rivers. We had hoped to make it to Tuapse, or perhaps beyond, but we had to stop at the small beach town of Shepsi, after 103 hard-fought kilometres and 2300 vertical metres. Terri snapped a spoke within an hour of starting cycling, and I was lucky to be able to fix it, as she had no spare spokes. Luckily, it was the spoke nipple that snapped, and not the spoke itself, and my spare nipples fit. In Shepsi, we enjoyed the cultural anthropology of watching the Russians at play on the beach: it was like every carnival sideshow strip in the world rolled together into one. People were firing BB guns at tin cans, trying to win stuffed animals; punching electronic punching bags; having their hair done in cornrows; barbecuing kebabs on the rocky shore; posing in the waves for sunset photos; being fired into the air by bungee catapults; having their fortunes read; buying hideous souvenirs.

The next day began with more of the same: heat, hills and hideous traffic, as far as the important road junction of Djugba. Towards the end of the day, the hills relented a bit, but we only covered 80 km and climbed 1500 metres. We stayed in a small tourist apartment run by a cheerful local family, had a dip on the local beach, and went out to a local nightclub to dance to Russian pop tunes. One of the songs had the chorus line of "Dolce e Gabbana", appropriate given the Russian love of name brand consumer items. I tried a Dagestani brandy that tasted rather like distilled sweet sherry.

On the third morning, much of the heavy truck traffic and some of the tourist car traffic vanished as we passed the road junction to Krasnodar and the cities of central Russia. The road flattened a bit as well, and we made good progress through a prosperous-looking countryside full of fruit orchards and roadside fruit stands. We had a lovely lunch stop beside a pretty waterfall, swam in the swimming hole below and enjoyed being out of traffic and in nature. The ride along the coast to Novorossiysk was pleasant and gave great coastal views. We stopped for a beer at a cafe run by a very personable Ukrainian named Stepan, who regaled us with tall tales. A few minutes later, a former professional cyclist named Edvard, a very well-preserved 72-year-old, stopped us to ask Terri if she would sell him her bicycle. He wasn't impressed with Terri's touring setup, or my cycling style (seat too high, not perfectly level). We rode through the immense industrial sprawl of Novorossiysk looking for a place to stay and for a bike shop to buy Terri some spokes. We struck out on spokes, but found a pleasant hotel in a forest behind a soccer stadium to sleep the sleep of the dead after 115 km.

The last day in Russia was an absolute marathon. We climbed up over a hill to get out of Novorossiysk and entered a landscape transformed. Gone were the Caucasus, my constant companion since Gori, replaced by the great Eurasian steppe: rolling treeless plains stretching off to Manchuria in the east and Hungary in the west. The advantage of the steppe for cycling is that it's pretty flat; the disadvantage is that there's no shelter from the wind. We had several episodes of tough headwinds, but they were compensated by long stretches of tailwind that allowed us to rack up an impressive 145 km to the very end of the road in Russia, a 10-km sand spit leading to Port Kavkaz, a ferry port leading to the Crimea. We were shattered after nearly 9 hours in the saddle, especially as the last 10 km were into a ferocious headwind. We caught a late ferry and slept on the Ukrainian side in the "VIP lounge" at the ferry terminal, on some very comfortable couches.

We awoke to a howling gale, and were told that this was pretty usual for this corner of the world. The difference in temperature between the Black Sea (to the south) and the Sea of Azov (to the north) creates constant screaming southerly winds that rake this barren, treeless corner of the Crimea. We battled gale-force crosswinds all day, finally giving up the fight after 73 hard-fought kilometres in which Terri (whose lightly loaded bike cut through the wind better than my heavy bike with its big front panniers) spent a lot of time trying to break the wind for me. We searched for a place to stay, but in this bleak Mongolian landscape, there were few people living and no hotels. We searched a nearby village for a place to put up our tent, and were shocked by the bleak, grinding rural poverty evident in the houses. We were relieved to find a nearby Uzbek chaikhana open, and slurped down lots of mutton and potatoes before putting up our tent in the shelter of their rose garden.

We awoke to more howling winds and cold, grey skies. It took more hours of struggle to finally reach the coast near Feodosiya, where it was a shock to the system to find vast holiday hotel complexes; it was a world away from the Hungry Steppe we had just crossed. We had a lavish lunch at a posh restaurant, watching dolphins frolic offshore, and enjoyed being out of the fury of the tempest. We rode along, in calm air, past Feodosiya and over a hill to the small, pretty bay of Koktebel, surrounded by the vineyards that produce its excellent brandy (a huge step up from the Dagestani stuff). Although we had only done 60 km, we stopped early to let ourselves recover from the wind. We wandered the boardwalk, eating pizza and shashlik and (thanks to my mistranslation of a menu) chicken livers before turning in, hoping that the next day would be easier.

It wasn't. We had a day equally vertical (2300 m) as the first day out of Sochi, although with much nicer views and far fewer cars. The hills were ridiculously steep, and we spent a lot of time far above the coast, in a landscape that seemed out of the Greek islands: limestone, vineyards, sparse savanna, golden grass. Occasionally we would dip to the coast, where Russians and Ukrainians were camping on the nicest beaches we'd seen yet. The day ended with Terri almost mutinous at the thought of yet another climb, but we set off and found a lovely beach at Ribache waiting for us on the other side. We devoured huge quantities of noodles, dumplings and shashlik before collapsing into bed in a fancy tourist apartment with wonderful sea views.

The last day into Yalta had another fantastically vertical morning, but then, after fortifying ourselves in the town of Alushta for more of the same, the afternoon featured only one big climb and then a more-or-less level traverse, looking down on pretty bays and up at high coastal mountains. We dropped into Yalta, found a place to stay, and set about trying to find the ferry that was going to take us to Odessa. We quickly found that it didn't exist, so we changed plans and, after an enjoyable evening taking in the atmosphere of the boardwalk, yesterday morning we got bus tickets and then set off on foot to visit Yalta's most famous attraction, Tsar Nicholas II's summer home at the Great Livadia Palace. It is more famous as the site of the Yalta Conference, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt decided the fate of post-war Europe. After a long walk through the post-Soviet concrete disaster zone that is southern Yalta, we came out at the beautiful palace and enjoyed the views.

By complete coincidence, a month ago I was at the site of the last great WWII Allied leaders' conference, at Potsdam, outside Berlin, where I kayaked past the houses used by Stalin, Trumana and Attlee during those talks. And a couple of weeks ago, in Gori, I walked through the rail car that Stalin took from Moscow to Yalta (well, to Simferopol) for the Yalta Conference. World War Two is dogging my footsteps, and will continue to do so as I cycle onwards this summer across what historian Timothy Snyder has dubbed the Bloodlands.

We had a lovely day off in Odessa today, walking the streets, checking out the Pushkin Museum (he was exiled here for a year early in his career) and the famous Potemkin Steps and soaking up the lovely atmosphere. Tomorrow, it's back to the bikes, and an early start towards Trans-Dniestria (another slightly fictional ex-Soviet pseudo-state) and then Moldova, where Terri will head back to work, leaving me to continue northwest into Romania, Hungary and Slovakia before coming back to the Ukraine.

1 comment:

  1. Crimea is a magic piece of the world really worth to visit, but hotels are rather expensive there. If you need a cheap accommodation in Crimea, it is better to rent an apartment. I gathered some contacts of Crimea apartments in Ukraine Travel Guide  to facilitate people’s search of Crimean apartments. If you know other good accommodation, you can submit it to the directory and make Ukraine tourism more comfortable and safe.