Monday, September 25, 2006

Crimea Peninsula (I Cried A Peninsula Over You)

So I was walking down the main street of Kiev, and all of a sudden... Was that Indian food? I followed my nose over to the left and upstairs to the second floor, where I chowed down on all my favorites. At $20 it was more than I usually spend on Indian food, but less than the Sbarro's in Moscow.

Then I found myself an internet place (not that easy to do) and typed away for just under an hour, finally stopping at around 7:40. Let's see, the train to the Crimea leaves at 8:20... Holy crap! That leaves no time for error!

Rushing to the Metro station, running down the 300 steps, making sure I got on the right train headed in the right direction, finding a vacant seat, so far so good.

At 10 cents a ride, the Kiev subway is dirt cheap. It's also a lot dirtier, slower, and more crowded than Moscow's. A minute before my stop I realized that with the incredible crush of humanity in the car, I might not make it out. Drawing upon all that I had long ago learned in India, however, I used my superior heft to advantage, and successfully staggered out onto the platform.

Up the stairs. Over to the train station. Up the stairs and across to the other side for my left luggage. Back to a kiosk for some bread and water for the train. Down to the train platform. And...

My travel angel was there. I was right at the right carriage, and I had eight minutes to spare.

Once on the train I found that the first class beds weren't that much nicer than the kupe ones. But it's a lot easier to be considerate to others when there is only one of them. It was a restful night.

The next morning I was up long before any of the Russians were, and I sat alone in the restaurant car, nursing a small coffee, and discovering that endless flat fields of brown Ukrainian dirt didn't make for great pictures.

We pulled into Simferapol (not to be confused with Sevastopol) right after 11 am. By noon I had gone through the left luggage procedure and was ready to board the world's longest trolley ride (60 miles!) to Yalta.

I was kind of expecting a quaint wooden contraption of the Toonerville variety, chugging along on little steel tracks and going clang-clang-clang. It turned out to be an old bus with a cable catcher on top. The novelty had worn off before the ride had started.

I was also expecting fantastic craggy mountains and a gut wrenching narrow mountain road. Hardly. The bus went ever so slowly and for the first hour or so there were just small wooded hills.

When we finally reached the summit and started downwards, the scenery did start looking mountainous, and when we hit the coast it had taken on the aspect of one of the better Turkish mountain/seaside vistas. The real mind twisting aspect was that this was actually part of Russia.

(Politically the Crimea is now Ukrainian. But both the locals and tourists are overwhelmingly Russian.)

But it didn't end until 3 hours later at the Yalta main bus terminal. Which was a mile away from downtown. Fortunately it was downhill, so I walked it, noting that I was finally in a place that was a little down at the heels.

When I got to the center of town at the bottom of the hill I turned left and tried to follow the xeroxed map for another half mile to the left, passing both a small patch of truly decrepit merchanting and another film crew, this time working on a gritty Russian police drama. I was searching for a hotel that the LP said was quaint and $20 a night and had an English speaking staff that could help me plot the rest of my Crimean vacation.

I did find it, but it was lifeless, $46 a night, and the one girl there spoke not a word of angliski. Why do I keep believing these guys? Okay, now to trudge back to the center, where, given that Yalta was 100% tourist town, should yield at least one or two hotels.

After a fruitless hour of searching I was starting to wonder why I had gone 1000 miles out of my way for this. Then I finally came across the appropriately named Hotel Krum, a Soviet era establishment right smack dab in the center. The nice lady at the reception desk told me that they absolutely had no rooms. But knowing how this worked, I just stood there looking dejected for a few minutes until she allowed that, yes, if it's just for one night, she could help me out.

While she was writing me up for the $11 room, I decided that I actually wanted the $26 one that included a toilet. Tough, I was already written up for the $11 room.

I climbed the four flights of stairs, walked down the long corridor, and opened the door. Inside was a small bed, a small sink, and a small color tv, which actually worked. Lying down for a few minutes, I now prepared for my shower, which was available from 5 to 10 pm up some more stairs and down the hall.

Okay, here's my shampoo, and the soap is... Oh no, they didn't provide any and my bar was back in Simferapol at the left luggage. Barefoot by now, I went downstairs and asked the nice lady for some. She said I could walk a block down the street and buy some. I showed her my bare feet. She relented, went into the back, and brought be a tiny bar.

Okay. Back upstairs I got everything together, and... Oh no, they had a postage stamp sized towel, and mine was back in Simferapol. Ever resourceful, I took along the giant bedspread.

Thankfully, they had plenty of hot water, and later, as night was falling, refreshed, I went out to hit the main drag, which is a 'beachfront' promenade. Except that there's no beachfront, just a tiny unused port with a couple of small rusting freights over there. Never to mind, even though it was Sunday evening and the end of September it was still packed with Russian tourists.

And what did they have to divert themselves? Mostly eat at snack kiosks and restaurants. And walk up and down the quarter mile of promenade. Tonight, however, there was a large stage set up, as this was either the start or the finish of the Yalta Auto Rally. I walked past some paid girls dressed up as biker trash and gyrating next to a car with a giant bottle of energy drink on its top.

I cruised the area as the night began. At the end of the area, under bright lights, were set up elaborate 'sitting rooms' where tourists dressed in fancy 18th century gowns to have their pictures taken. For the guys there were biker duds and mock Harleys with giant Confederate flags.

Past this, with their own little klieg lights, there were a couple of guys dressed up as ersatz American Indians playing new agey stuff on wooden flutes. Expecting it to be ridiculous, I actually found their music quite beautiful. The Russians were a tight crowd, though, and although they were all appreciative and clapping, I didn't see anyone putting money in the cup.

In the soft night air, though, I was startting to fell sympathetic to the Russian yahoos. After all, they were all from some Nowhere Zemlya town in the boondocks, and if this is how they had a good time, who was I to criticize? So they all stood there with their videocams and digital cameras taking shots of the musicians that they were getting for free. And I decided to head on back to the Krum.

The next morning I awoke to a glorious morning and a glorious view from my hotel window. I went downstairs and around the corner to where the mashutras were waiting to take me to Alupka and the main tourist attractions of the Crimea.

As we headed out of town, I could see that this little part of coastline really was special. It was 'Black Sea mountainous' which is kind of like 'Mediterranean', only much more humid and much more heavily forested. The minibus passed the famous 'Swallows Nest' which looks like an enchanted castle on postcards, but is acually only about 20 feet square and surrounded by souvenir stands.

A couple of kilometers later, I was deposited at the foot of the cable car ride. But after standing for 20 minutes in a long line that hadn't moved, and noticing that the clouds were rolling in, I decided to give up on that idea. Instead I took a leisurely kilometer long walk to wear Alupka's main palace is.

Once there I noted that it was closed on Monday, so I flagged the next returning minibus #32 for the ride back to Yalta. My tolerance of the night before notwithstanding, even though the Crimean was rather pretty, the plain fact was that it was filled with Russian tourists, and after about 10 days of nonstop Russia it was starting to wear thin.

I had something to eat, picked up my small overnight bag at the hotel, and took the minibus up the hill to the bus station. It was now after 1, and my train to Odessa left at 5, which should have given my lots of time.

But the mashrutka to Simferapol only left when full, and after waiting for a half hour I realized that I'd better hop on the dreadful trolley, which by now would have just gotten there in time. Fortunately, while searching for one a guy came up and said that he only had one vacant seat for his mashrutka to Simferapol. I jumped in.

Finally a hair-raising ride! Even stopping for 15 minutes to pick up his girlfriend, this guy went the 60 miles or so in an hour twenty. And that was with a lot of traffic and a two and a half lane road.

Back in Simferapol with two hours to kill, I saw a couple of East Indians. Aha, they'll speak English! They did, and directed across the street to an internet place, where I successfully killed those two hours. Then it was over to the station and on to Moldova.

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