Sunday, August 31, 2008

UA - Kyiv

We're riding back to Kyiv from Crimea, and all I can say is: what a cold night! I suppose this could be a welcome change from the hot nights we’d had on the previous train rides, but my sheet and blanket just weren’t cutting it. After waking several times and reforming myself into the fetal position for warmth, I finally gave in at about 7 am or so and got my towel out of my backpack. The extra blanket power of my towel was all I needed: now my body was keeping near the warmth it was working so hard to create.

I’d also put my shorts back on, and then gone on to add the pantlegs onto my shorts, put my shirt on, and put on socks. That should give you an idea of how cold I was. I think anyone who knows me is well aware that I produce heat in abundance, and if you’ve ever shared a bed with me: you know that it’s like having a space heater laying beside you. So when I’m cold: it’s cold. And furthermore, I can sleep with shorts and maybe pajama pants on, but that’s solely as a social courtesy and I’m certainly not comfortable doing so. It’s boxers and that’s it. So when I put on shorts and my pantlegs, that means I’m cold. I never wear a shirt to sleep, so when I put on my shirt, it’s really cold. And lastly, I don’t even wear socks during the daytime when I’m cold because my feet just simply don’t get cold… so when I put on socks, it's really really cold. That’s how cold it was, but now, fully dressed and with a towel as an extra blanket, I was warm. Always bring a towel.

This all made it particularly difficult when, at about 11 am, I was faced with the dilemma of having to go to the bathroom. As it so often does, the Simpsons once again serves up a perfect example of this dilemma. Basically, here I am wrapped up in this cocoon of warm happiness, but there’s this need to go to the bathroom. So unless you want to wet the bed or pee on the floor – both of which are not exactly socially accepted – you have no choice but to get up and go. However, in those first couple minutes you’re awake, one always feels like maybe… just maybe… this time you’ll stumble upon the perfect solution where you can go to the bathroom and not have to get up and stay perfectly warm. So I eventually relented and got myself up. At least by this time, the sun had warmed things up to a more bearable level.

Svitlana awoke right about the same time and we both ordered tea (I proudly took the lead and ordered it for the both of us, in Russian). As the tea arrived, Anastasia also woke up and got some coffee for herself. We gorged on our groceries and then sat about for the remainder of the trip. Along the way, the train traveled through sun, clouds, rain, lots of rain, sun again, and so on. I half expected to pass through a snowstorm at some point.

After having left at nearly 11pm the previous night, we arrived in Kyiv at nearly 7pm. We immediately returned to Svitlana’s new apartment so Anastasia could get her things and so we could sit down and have a farewell snack. The three of us then returned to the train station to see Anastasia off – another night and day awaited her on her train ride from Kyiv to Moscow.

Svitlana and I returned back to her apartment, where I tried not to bother her too much because by that point it was about 11pm and we had to catch a taxi for Bosipol Airport at 4am. Whereas I can sleep in a plane tomorrow, she starts classes tomorrow and actually needs any sleep she can muster. Therefore, I am pulling an all-nighter – partly so I can pack without rush, partly so I can stitch photos, partly so I can write in this journal (notice I just changed from past tense to present tense… I’m finally caught up!), and partly due to a lack of beds. Granted, a bed has since become available, but I figure I’ll end the trip the way I began it: wreaking havoc on my sleep schedule before jetlag gets a chance.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

UA - Simeiz, Nikitsky Botanical Gardens

For the first time, I was the first one awake. Actually, to be more precise, I was the first one up. Almost everyday I’d been in Ukraine, I was the first one awake, but I usually just rolled over and laid there until someone else (always Svitlana) would get moving about. I just woke up at 7:00 am and was wide awake, so I grabbed my laptop and started working on photos and catching up on this journal.

It was about 7:30 when the girls began to wake. Our plan was to head down to the wild beach in the morning, come back and shower, then vacate our apartment by noon. However, a late exit at about 9:00 meant that spending 30 minutes each direction to reach the wild beach wasn’t really worth it. I was a bit disappointed to miss out on new coastline, but I’ll take any beach over no beach. We went to the public beach and splashed about in the water til 10:30, came back to shower and pack, and were out right at noon.

Off to Yalta, we dropped off our bags at the main bus station and I led us into town. I led them to the central bus stop, where we anticipated catching a marshrutka to the Nikitsky Botantical Gardens. However, just as I said that it was their turn to lead and work their magic: I looked over and recognized the name of the gardens in Cyrillic sitting in a marshrutka windshield. I pointed and said “Nikitsky Gardens” and felt proud with the impressed response I got back from the girls. This time even I had doubted my ability to find the right bus, and here I managed to do it. Boo yeah, I’m becoming a pro at navigating Ukraine.

The Gardens were surprisingly pretty for August, which is usually a dud month when it comes to admiring foliage. Indeed, that had been the problem with all the gardens thus far: they come off as little more than pretty forests with paved trails. The gardens included a variety of trees, including a bamboo forest. Now bamboo grows like a weed back in America and can be a bit annoying at times, but there’s no denying that a bamboo forest looks pretty neat.

There were also arrays of flowers which bloom later, helping to add color to the gardens well into the later summer. Topping it all were the cacti, located just south (or downhill) from the gardens. There was quite simply a lot of cacti in the cactus garden: some flowering and some twisting all about.

I was amused with the girls manner of saying “cactuses”, which Microsoft Word seems to think is a proper pluralization of “cactus”. Here I thought it had to be “cacti”. Hmm… anyways, the when the girls say “cactuses”, with their accents I first thought I heard them ask if I wanted to see “cockteases”. This ranked right up there with, perhaps a week or two prior, Svitlana was taking a couple photos of me and I thought I heard her say “take off your clothes”, when in fact she just said “come closer”. This is why I love hanging out with people have aren’t native English speakers.

With the gardens done, we returned to Yalta and did a quick walk along the waterfront promenade. We grabbed some groceries for our pending 20-hour train ride and also grabbed some shawarma at the same place I’d eaten a couple days prior.

Time was beginning to run short and we needed to get back to the main bus station to catch our bus to Simferopol, having booked seats on it when we’d arrived in town a couple hours earlier. I tried to lead the way back to the main bus station, but the girls paused at the central bus stop to try and track down a marshrutka. I was trying to explain that if we continued along vul Moscovska we could just catch something along there – there are plenty of marshrutka and trolleybuses along that road, which leads directly to the bus station; but the girls just weren’t listening.

We spent about 10 minutes wandering about the central bus stop trying to find something before they finally relented and took my advice; and voila we were soon on a marshrutka that we got along vul Moscovska. As I’ve validated repeatedly over the course of this trip, when I say “trust me” it’s because I really mean it: trust me.

It wasn’t long after until we’d grabbed our checked bags and were sitting on our bus. I’d lucked out once again, getting the frontmost lone seat: beside the window, beside the aisle, and right at the entry door so I could stretch out my feet. I fell into a deep sleep and woke up to find we’d arrived at Simferopol. The girls seemed surprised when I asked if we were in Simferopol, but it felt like the trip only took maybe 30 minutes; not more than two hours.

With an hour and a half until our train, we loaded up on even more groceries at a nearby market; then chilled in Chelantanos (a pizza joint) for awhile. I grabbed some pancake thingy with chicken and cheese inside it. It was tasty, but I would have preferred that there be more chicken and more cheese: it was stuffed a little too lightly for my tastes.

There were now 20 minutes remaining until our train departed. Anastasia and I waited for about 5 minutes as Svitlana ran off to buy something to read, and by that fifth minute we were starting to kid about how it felt like a tradition to have to run for the train; and here we might have to run for it even though we’d been right next to it for an hour and a half. There was no running about, though, we got on with several minutes to spare.

Our fourth cabinmate consisted of a girl whom I assume was traveling with family and/or friends located in adjacent cabins. I was particularly fond of our cabinmate’s Asian-looking friend – there’s something just so exotic about an Asian woman speaking Russian.

We piled up our collection of food on the little table and all collapsed into a pretty quick slumber. This was our final night as three, and here we’d spend the next 20 hours in about as close quarters as you can get.

Friday, August 29, 2008

UA - Eski-Kermen

At long last: an excursion worked out! At 9:15, Svitlana and I walked down to the town’s roundabout to catch the hired marshrutka. I got on without any particular hassle, though I grew a bit concerned when Svitlana and the tour guide were talking for a longer time than I would have thought necessary. I soon realized she was discussing what time the group would rendezvous so that I could roam about on my own, and I was quite disheartened to learn that there was no such time – the group was to stay together the whole way through.

Now as I’ve mentioned before: I hate being a follower; as an only-child, I’m just simply used to doing things on my own and in my own way. I was now quite worried that the group would move at the pace of the tour back at Chufut-Kale, where they moved at a snail’s pace; but I was able to go off on my own so it didn’t matter.

Seating arrangements couldn’t have been better for me: I was front and center. Well not front as in sitting right next to the driver, but the first row – I could stick my feet out between the driver’s seat and passenger seat. I had a good view out the front windshield and could lean over to my right to look out the sliding door window. A good air supply came from the driver’s and passenger’s windows, which made me particularly happy seeing as there were no other opening windows in the van. I kind of felt bad for those in the back… but alas, they sat there first.

The tour guide sat just behind my right shoulder and as she spoke a bit of English, she’d go into her tour guide spiel for several minutes in Russian; then lean forward and give me a synopsis in English. I couldn’t have been more grateful: it cut out the rambling on that consists of 99% of chatter from microphone-wielding guides; and it cut straight to the point… and more importantly it wasn’t me just sitting there trying not to fall asleep.

Our first stop was at a little pond with some horses beside it. There were some horses grazing nearby. I’m not quite sure I followed it correctly, but apparently German settlers had first come here and became renowned for their iron-working abilities. Then the Turks or Tatars (or somebody) came along and killed them all. There was probably more than that, since we were there a good 10 minutes; and my English description took a whole 30 seconds.

Along our way to our next stop, which was a cave city known as Esky-Kermen, we passed by a number of vineyards and some sheer cliffs containing cave cities of their own. The guide noted one particular area which I was somewhat familiar with: an area known as the Valley of Death. This dates back to the Crimean War, where a misunderstood order sent a British brigade charging directly into an area surrounded by the enemy – leading to the demise of about a third of the men. From our marshrutka, there really wasn’t much to see other than grapes; but it was neat to see the area where the event occurred – particularly as this event is pretty much the only even I know of the Crimean War.

The path to the Esky-Kermen led us onto some dirt roads which slowed our van’s pace to a crawl. Eventually we arrived and started our hiking. As with Chufut-Kale, the hike was really quite painless. The ascent is at a relatively comfortable gradient such that you feel more like you’re hiking rather than climbing, except there a couple spots where it would certainly help to be able bodied (though steps are worn in if you just look for them).

One area in particular included an extremely narrow footpath, and to my surprise a handrail was provided. This surprised me on two ends: firstly, this is Ukraine. There are countless tourist attractions where I could quite easily take one step and go falling to my doom, with no railing present to stop me. Now here I am at a place which, while a tourist attraction, is certainly not nearly as popular as others; and yet there’s a railing in place. Secondly, in Liechtenstein I was on a path a lot like this and while there were handholds along the cliff face: there were no railings. Slip off the handhold and there’s nothing there to catch you… it’s just you and gravity.

There were a couple isolated caves prior to the aforementioned narrow spot. These caves were well-hidden and low to the ground, consisting of stairs leading down a couple steps; or perhaps just dug into the side of a small hill. They consisted of one room each and were really quite disappointing. I worried that they’d all be like this. After clearing that narrow edge, however, I was happy to be wrong.

What we saw was not only an amazing view from the vista, but a whole array of cave rooms dug into the cliff located beneath our feet. These caves were interconnected such that they tended to have more than just 1 or 2 rooms; but rather 3 or 4 or more. There were distinct paths along the cliff face and it really started to feel like a city rather than just a couple cave-dwellers.

Eventually we reached a road worn into the rock face: a clearly-defined roadway carved out of the rock with two grooves for wagon wheels. One of the caves here was clearly a church: it had a forum with seating wrapping about, and a couple small rooms coming off it which served as chapels. The sheer number, size, and density of the caves made it easy to picture this as a bustling place.

En route I started talking to Vladimir, a boxing trainer from St. Petersburg. He spoke very little English – partly from what he remembered from school, and partly from what he’d acquired from his wife, an English teacher. His wife was off visiting Paris, but he preferred mountains so opted for Crimea. He clearly shared my penchant for photography and was fun to try to talk to, but language barriers made it a bit tricky. As he noted, his wife would not be happy that she teaches English and here he was having such difficulty. There was no denying, however, that he could still speak English far better than I could speak Russian.

During our descent, I also started talking to two amazingly beautiful girls that I’d been staring at pretty much whenever I wasn’t staring at the caves. Oksana and Lena are both students from St. Petersburg in the Ph.D. program for Integrated Coastal Management. I think I have that name right… maybe. Basically, it’s the same thing that Anastasia’s cousin works on, relating to resource claims between various countries as the North Sea’s waters become more accessible. Between the two of them, they spoke English quite well.

There was also a younger boy whose name I did not catch: I think he may have spoken English the best, except he was rather quiet much of the time. He looked to be in high school, so I believe his English knowledge was still fresh in his mind; whereas with people my age it tends to have had a couple years to fade away due to a lack of use. He was there with his mom and I noticed that he tended to be near to me – I suspect he may have been interested to hear English being spoken from a native. Or maybe I’m just being self-righteous? He was a nice kid and offered up some vocabulary when Lena, Oksana, and Vladimir fell short. I kind of feel bad I didn’t really try to talk to him much.

After the caves we went to a forested area and began hiking along a stream. If I understand correctly, we were on the northwest side of Mt. Ay-Petri, so I figure the stream was coming from one of that mountain’s springs. We reached an area where the water formed into a small pool, into which Vladimir promptly stripped down to his swimsuit & leapt in. We soon continued upward and eventually reached a larger pond. Here, we halted to swim for a couple minutes.

Many people were already wearing their swimsuits. Then again, I was still a bit surprised when some guys whom I thought were already wearing swimshorts would pull them off to reveal Speedos underneath. Fortunately, I was not alone in the need to change. However, I was alone in the sense that the others needing to change were there with a significant other whom took on the role of holding up a towel for privacy. I thought about asking one of the girls to hold up a towel, but figured that with a grand total of 20 minutes of conversation: that’d be way too forward.

I’m impressed I did it, but I managed to wrap my towel around myself & change right there in front of everybody. I don’t think there was anything shown more than what anyone could regularly see, but it’s possible there could have been a gap in the towel I wasn’t heeding. Ahh well, I try not to think about it; nor do I really care. If people want to look, they can look.

Oksana, Lena, and Vladimir told me about a Russian tradition: you hop into the water and dunk yourself three times. That was enough to convince me to dive on in, though I chastised the girls a bit when they refused to do likewise. There really wasn’t much to it other than the nerve-numbing cold of the fresh mountain water. I think I was in for about 30 seconds, but that was all it took for my limbs to cry for warmth. It was also temperatures like that which made me glad to have baggy swimshorts and not a Speedo-like swimsuit.

We continued on just as I was beginning to get warm enough to jump in again, so I was a bit disappointed to have only been in once. The girls had offered to film me jumping in and I now missed out on that. The hike continued until we eventually arrived at a Tatar restaurant. The girls helped translate the menu for me, except the ultimately recommended the two words I could actually recognize: borsch and plov.

Had I translated the menu on my own, I surely would’ve chosen the same; but their recommendations were perfect. I sat with the girls as well as Vladimir and ate my borsch, plov, and some more Crimean baklava. The drive back included a brief stop for honey as well as another stop at a panorama near one of the few tunnels in this mountainous area. As we arrived in Simeiz, I passed my email address onto the girls and also handed it to Vladimir. The girls continued on to a later stop, and I chatted with Vladimir a bit until we parted ways in town.

I pondered heading directly to the beach or heading up to the apartment first. It was about 18:00 and I was expecting Svitlana and Anastasia would be back at the apartment at about 20:00, so I was a bit surprised to go to the apartment and find them there. We sat around a bit until heading into town to eat some Tatar cuisine. Svitlana had had a craving for good shashlyk for a couple days now, so it was time to enjoy our last night in Crimea.

And enjoy we did. Sitting on lounge benches (not quite sure what to call them, but your divet-style Middle Eastern sort of dining arrangement), we gorged on soups, salads, shashlyk, and ice cream. I initially ordered a soup which tasted like a soupy chili – very good. The salads were OK, but I discovered I do not much care for one of the herbs, and they were a bit short on the more traditional veggies. The shashlyk was absolutely fantastic, the bite-size pieces having been cooked on embers glowing just behind us. Then the ice cream was also quite tasty. We were there a long time and ordered plenty, resulting in us having to hobble uphill back to our apartment. What a fine end to our time in Crimea.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

UA - Sudak

This day began with an earlier than early morning. Today’s excursion to Sudak was to leave at 6:30 in the morning, which meant waking up even earlier to ensure enough time for breakfast and walking to town. Would you know it, just as we were about to leave, we get a phone call: no seats. Sound familiar?

These trips were being arranged by a woman located just downhill from the Simeiz bus loop. On the west side of the loop, one road heads uphill; and right on the same corner another road heads downhill. The excursions were arranged by the woman just a 30 second walk or so down this roadway, along its right side. That’s two cancellations in a row, and this time no alternative was offered.

Svitlana and I made the best of the morning: we grabbed breakfast at the same buffet we’d previously gotten dinner; and we decided to go climb up the mountain located just beside the beach. It was up here that she pointed me to where she and Anastasia had been going to the beach, and it was here that I learned that it was a nude beach. With that, I can’t deny that a whole array of hormonally-induced thoughts flowed through my head, with the foremost thought being “why didn’t I decide to stick around town to go with them?!” Nudity aside, the view from this peak was pretty, and it was neat to look down upon the morning swimmers below. Among the clear water, they looked like little bugs skimming about.

After a little bit of lounging about back at the apartment, I decided that I’d make my own way to Sudak. Boosted from my success with reaching Livadia and Yalta, I decided I was ready for a longer trek. As I was boarding the marshrutka, the look on Svitlana’s face was priceless: the look of a mother about to send her firstborn off to the first day of school – utter dread and worry that she’d never see me again. The door shut just as I said “I’ll be fine” and I was on my way to Yalta.

In Yalta, I did a quick scan of the buses to see if there was anything for Sudak. Nada. However, there were plenty to Simferopol, which has far more buses that run to Sudak than there are in Yalta. I walked up to a driver and – using Russian – learned that I needed to get a ticket in the office; I couldn’t just pay on the bus.

Into the office I went, where I joined a queue that lasted for an hour. I’m amazed that in a country where you queue so regularly, the people here don’t seem to know how to organize a queue. When I reached the counter, I – again in Russian – managed to obtain the times for the next buses to both Sudak and Simferopol; and then proceeded to book a ticket for the next bus to Simferopol. I was on a roll.

The bus to Simferopol was simultaneously hot and uncomfortable. Granted, those both tend to go hand in hand. I had an assigned seat for the perfect spot – that lone seat that’s both aisle and window at the same time; but there was a woman there and I thought I’d be nice and let her be. Bah to kindness! My left leg can’t sit still well ever since my fall back at Kamyanets-Podilsky, so cramming myself into a toasty window seat was not the best idea.

Arriving at Simferopol, I immediately got onto a bus for Sudak & paid right there at the bus. I took back and center so that I’d have the aisle as extra leg space. The ventilation was, initially, great; but then the women on my right closed her window and the guy on my left pulled his curtain across it. Those curtains catch the wind far too well.

When the bus driver called out Sudak and most of the people disembarked, I looked out the windows at all the signs reading Sudak and still found myself wondering “is this Sudak?” It feels like the bus station is in the middle of nowhere. Indeed, it is located a bit north of town. Taking to the same concept I used in Yalta, I looked at the mountains and decided to move away from them.

My idea worked again: I soon arrived at town and could periodically espy the sea between the buildings. I was in Sudak looking for its Genovese Fortress, and figured I’d be able to see the fortress from town. That theory also worked: when I got to town, I saw the fortress perched up on a cliff; and then I just walked directly toward it and was there soon enough.

As with Kamyanets-Podilsky and Chufut-Kale, the Sudak Fortress is free reign: wander where you want; climb what you want; and don’t fall. There are some great views all around the fortress is a good mix of preservation and ruin. One of the buildings on the site has some photos showing both destruction and restoration efforts.

It’s possible to climb the peak to the top tower, but I ultimately wussed out of this climb. I was carrying a bottle of water in one hand and trying not to lose my shirt with the other, which I’d taken off early on to bear the heat of climbing about; and the breeze was constantly attempting to whisk it away from me. Had I brought my 5-10s, I most certainly would have made an attempt on this climb. Even with my current hiking shoes, I’m sure I could’ve done it had my hands been free. This just gives me a good reason to return to Sudak.

I did a quick walk along the waterfront – nothing spectacular. It’s actually a lot like Yalta: lots of pay beaches, crowds on the beach which weren’t worth people-watching, but crowds walking the waterfront which made sitting at a bench with a drink more-than-justified.

Returning to the bus station, I finally gave in and, for the first time, paid to use the toilet. However, my specific rule is that I don’t like to pay for things I can just as easily do without paying. So in countries where it’s socially acceptable to be in public: why pay? This is why I once peed right on the side of the building of pay toilets.

A couple days ago I described one of the less-tasteful anecdotes, noting I still had one more; and here is that second one. This time, however, I dearly had to do something that is not socially acceptable to do in public; and all I can say is that one hryvnia was well worth what I did in there. This was also my first time using a squat toilet – that is, basically a hole in the ground. All I can say is that it was actually quite nice. Basically you don’t have to touch anything and gravity does all the work for you.

I sat at the bus station for an hour and a half. I immediately bought a ticket for the bus directly to Yalta, opting not to go by way of Simferopol (for which I could’ve left right away). That route took far too long and was way too uncomfortable. The direct route would take me along pretty coastline and was much shorter, though the rarity of such buses is what made me sit around for an hour and a half. It actually wasn’t so bad: I watched two dogs playing nearby, and that managed to keep me entertained for about an hour.

Leaving Sudak at 19:30, I arrived back in Yalta at 22:10 (about an hour and 20 minutes sooner than what was shown on Sudak’s timetable). Svitlana was correct: earlier she said that a trip to Sudak was an all-day affair, and right now I was appreciating the truth to that statement. When I walked down the stairs to the marshrutka stops, I noted that there was a big “22:00” on the bus stop signs. Considering there was no one else waiting and the bays were unusually empty, I could only assume that the word before the “22:00” means that service stopped at that time. I saw one other person start waiting at the Simeiz stop… but she soon got up and walked away from the station completely. So I had no marshrutka back to Simeiz.

I headed up to the office and asked – in Russian– whether or not there were any more buses. Nyet. No marshrutka? Nyet. So I have to take a taxi? Nyet. Now that last one confused me, as I knew there had to be a taxi stand right around here (the next day I noted that it’s along the side of the bus station). I suspect the woman thought I was referring to the marshrutkas again when I asked about taxis, as the marshrutka are considered a form of taxi.

For the next 30 minutes or so, I would stand alongside the marshrutka bays watching people walk up only to leave soon after. I’d also periodically run back up to the regular bus bays to scan for a bus to Simeiz, even though I was under the impression that there were no more left. I couldn’t spot any on the time table, though Yalta’s time table is a bit convoluted.

I was eyeing a couple waiting at the Simeiz marshrutka stop for several minutes, when all of a sudden I heard a woman yelling at them from the stairs up to the bus bays. The couple got up and started heading toward the stairs, so I turned to do another scan of the buses. There is was: a bus to Simeiz. Not just that, but actually the same bus and even the same driver that took us from Simferopol to Simeiz on our very first day in Crimea. My ride home had arrived. I walked back into the apartment at about midnight: another navigational success story.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

UA - Bakhchysaray

The previous night, Svitlana had checked with a person in downtown Simeiz about excursions throughout Crimea. So that same night we booked myself on a trip to Bakhchysaray which was scheduled to leave at 9:15 in the morning. I had to arrive at 8:45 to pay, so we were up at about 7:30 to get ready, eat breakfast, and walk to the downtown.

Everything went smoothly right up until the rented marshrutka arrived to pick us up. It already had people on it from previous stops as part of the excursion. A couple other people boarded before me and then… no seats. No seats? Yeah, it felt like an airline: I guess they sold more tickets than they have seats. How? No idea.

The person arranging the excursion was there the whole time and immediately rebooked me on another excursion leaving at 13:30. Not shabby: now I had the morning to enjoy. Waking up early is only bad the first few minutes; after that you find yourself with plenty of free time to get things done. So with our newfound free time, I returned to our apartment and sat… stitching photos, typing in my journal, and otherwise enjoying the air conditioning. In retrospect, I should’ve gone to the beach; but oh well at least I got things done that I needed to get caught up on.

As 13:30 nears, Svitlana and I again made our way down to town. The marshrutka arrives and I board, albeit I’m the last to board. I had a ticket for 9:15, whereas the others had some green ticket for this 13:30 trip. No problem: they board first and then I get on, taking a seat with the window to my right and the aisle to my left – a perfect arrangement. I love those lone seats, where you get the best of both worlds.

However, Svitlana seems to be talking with the guide a bit more than I would expect considering all I figured I had to do was board a bus. I then learn that the marshrutka had one more stop in Foroz, and when those people got on: I’d have to take a little seat that folds down into the aisle. Now I’m a bit perturbed… but at least until then, I could keep my current seat.

It was when we arrived in Foroz that I became annoyed. The fold-down seat gave me nice legroom, but now I had zero view out the windows; and the backrest was horridly-sized. I was pretty discontented the entire ride to Bakhchysaray. Even upon our arrival, I was still a bit bothered that we got a mere 15 minutes to explore the grounds on our own; and then we were stuck with the group for the remainder of the palace tour.

Good PR would have been to let me have first dibs on seating for that second trip, but alas I learned that this backup tour was actually with a different company. I guess that’s an OK excuse… for now. It still doesn’t change the fact that I’m paying a lot of money solely for transportation, since I don’t know the language of the tours; and now my transportation doesn’t seem to be working out so well.

The palace was the residence of the Crimean Khanate of the at-one-time ruling Tatar kingdom. The Tatars are an ethnic offshoot of the Genghis Khan’s Mongolian conquerors, also once closely allied and related to the Ottoman Turks. Hence, there is significant resemblance in style and architecture to the Turkish buildings back in Istanbul. However, continuing on that same thought: this palace offers nothing in comparison to Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. Some rooms are neat, but neat rooms don’t result in a neat palace.

Bakhchysaray is certainly an interesting stop if you’ve never experienced Turkic culture, but otherwise it’s really only a stop on the way to more interesting visits. That is, our next two destinations: the Usensky Monastery and the Chufut-Kale cave city. The monastery is on the way to the cave city and is, itself, partly a cave monastery.

The path up to Chufut-Kale winds along a valley, with the monastery occupying both the base of the valley with more standard buildings but also occupying the sides of the valley with a mixture of standard buildings and cave dwellings. Of particular interest is the church, which has an entrance way at the top of a steep flight of stairs perched along a cliffside.

One can go through this entryway in regular clothes, but to go any further you need to have proper Orthodox attire: no shorts, no short skirts, headscarves for women, etc. An active monastery, there is a constant presence of monks and pilgrims, with the latter seeming to rival the population of tourists. As I was dressed for hiking and not church (although who’s to say God isn’t an avid hiker?), I didn’t want to test the welcome of the monks and pilgrims.

Continuing onward along the path, it wasn’t long before we arrived at Chufut-Kale. This was my first experience with a cave city and it made me immediately want more. Dug out into the side of a cliff are a bunch of small rooms. Really, that’s about it. At most, there were generally 2 or sometimes 3 interconnected rooms, but they were all generally individual units with spectacular views. The city is free-roam, so you can go wherever and climb on anything, though it’s your own responsibility not to fall off an edge (and there are many opportunities to do just that).

Going higher up are a couple buildings and some walls. I particularly liked the gatehouse, which has some stairs hidden along the left side which enable you to climb on top of it. The view from here is wonderful: you can see in all directions.

My hike back down was quick and easy, and I soon arrived at a restaurant – our tour group’s rendezvous point – to eat some Tatar cuisine. I ordered pelminni (Ukrainian) and plov (Tatar), and wow were both ever tasty. I had an English speaking waiter whom was very helpful & courteous, so I left a hefty tip.

I finished eating at about 20:10, thinking our rendezvous time was 20:15. However, I was a bit concerned when I was finishing my food and still didn’t see anyone from my group. When they started rolling in right as I was finishing, it then occurred to me that the time was translated to me as 20:50 rather than 20:15. I had tried to clarify it at the time, then curious to see if I was hearing fifty of fifteen; but I guess they didn’t notice I was emphasizing the words differently & I ultimately left with the wrong time. Ah well, better early than late.

Whereas my drive to Bakhchysaray had been bothersome due to the circumstances, over the course of the day my company made themselves out to be quite courteous. When I first got on, I had been so nervous that I’d basically be the slow kid of the class… flashbacks to the Simpsons flowed through my head: “I’m from Canada and they think I’m slow, eh.” There were two different people, both from Kyiv, whom provided some English-speaking accompaniment. One person went above and beyond to make sure I knew the critical details of our excursion (specifically: when to meet up again); and another (whom had hurt his leg that morning) provided some conversation. The latter’s wife also gave me her seat so that she could sit with her husband. Even those who didn’t speak Russian would periodically tap me and point me in the direction of whatever attractions the guide was speaking about.

The road between Simeiz and Sevastopol is phenomenally beautiful – just as beautiful by night as it is by day. Granted, I generally missed any good photos by day, again due to my seating location; but during that night’s return trip: I had a great view of all the stars in the sky and all the city lights along the coast. The shape of the coastline and distribution of the towns makes these neat pockets of light along the shore. Looking up at the stars, I was particularly excited to see the Milky Way again. I even spotted two shooting stars on my walk back to the apartment.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

UA - Livadia, Yalta

At breakfast this morning (omelets again), the girls decided to stick around town and go to the beach. As much as I would love some beach time, however, I was in Crimea to explore; not sit about. This was my first time navigating on my own since my failed attempts back in Illichevsk. However, this time around I knew where our bus stop was located.

Without any problem, I boarded a marshrutka headed for Yalta. My first stop would be Livadia Palace, located before reaching the city. I listened to the driver as he called out each stop, hoping to hear my bus stop the first time around; or otherwise I’d just get on another marshrutka in Yalta and ask the driver to see that I disembark at Livadia.

Just before entering into a daydream, I thought I heard the bus driver call out my stop. I’d already thought I heard it once before, but opted to stay on board; taking mental notes on where exactly I’d thought I’d heard it called out for if I had to come back from Yalta. This time I left the marshrutka and immediately went down a path nearby, as my guidebook said there’d be a downhill path; and frankly I knew that if I went downhill: I was boarded on all sides by places I knew. Yalta to the east and Alupka to the west; the upper road (which I was on) to the north and the lower road to the south.

After descending down a bit I came to a gated apartment block. There was a well-worn path around the turnpike, so after a moment of hesitation I decided to keep on going past the apartment block. Worst thing that happens: I turn around and ascend back to the bus stop. You’re never lost if you can undo everything you’ve done. The street wrapped around the apartments and emerged on the other side at a small grocery store, where the road continued downhill again. Trying to correlate what I was seeing with the instructions in my book, I tried a nearby set of stairs; but climbed back up after it didn’t feel like the right thing to do.

I just stuck to this descending street all the way until I reached the lower road. Here I had to make a decision… give in and board a marshrutka back to Yalta, then turn right back around? I tried asking for guidance, but apparently my Russian wasn’t up to snuff; or the guy just had no interest in helping me. Actually, I think the latter was more applicable. I was feeling pretty confident with saying “gdye Livadia Dverets?”

Just as I was about to take a seat at the bus stop – located at the intersection – and catch a marshrutka back to Yalta, I spotted a mother and daughter whom had been on the marshrutka I took to get here. They got off when I did, and here they were again. They asked somebody something and I saw the other person’s arm go up, pointing down a nearby downhill path. Then it struck me: my book’s directions aren’t for somebody coming from Simeiz & getting off the bus at the upper road; they’re for somebody coming from Yalta and getting off here.

There could only be one place the mother and daughter were headed, so I followed them down the path and, having caught up with them, asked if they were also headed to Livadia. I soon learned that not only were they headed there, but the mother spoke some English. They were visiting from Moldova, and now I had someone who could keep asking for directions to Livadia.

This downhill path had a lot of construction, which is why I suspect my Lonely Planet guide may have been – once again – woefully outdated. It said to take some concrete steps at a pinkish-orange building, but I think that either the building has since been destroyed; or an even better route has since been built. A construction worked directed us down a set of steel steps just around the first bend in the path, except these steps continued only for a couple stairs and ended into a dirt path. It certainly didn’t’ feel like the way to a grand palace.

The steep dirt path soon gave way to what felt like a person’s backyard. Then again, a lot of paths in Ukraine do that. A person there directed us on, and we followed the pavement (if you could call it that) around to a dilapidated alley which was oddly beautiful for its rustic look. At the end of this alley: tour buses, and lots of them! We’d made it.

After parting ways, I grabbed some ice cream from a nearby stall and found my cold treat amour of Ukraine: Maxibon. It’s half cookie filled with ice cream; half nutty chocolate covered ice cream; and the ice cream is straciatella – perhaps the finest of all ice creams apart from Turkey Hill Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup and maybe Cookies and Cream. Dagnab this thing was tasty.

I toured the grounds around Livadia Palace a little bit before soon deciding to head inside. For those unaware, Livadia is where the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States met to divvy up Europe following World War II. This is where the iconic photo of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt was taken. Specifically, Livadia was where the American delegation was accommodated: the other two nations were at other palaces in the area; but this is the location that these historic moments are best associated with.

The interior of the palace is pretty and it retains a good amount of information on its role in the partitioning of Europe, keeping a lot of furniture in place and providing lots of photos; oftentimes with English translations. This was good since I ditched my Russian-speaking tour group within the first 5 minutes. Upstairs, the palace traces its history as the summer palace of the tsars in the few years before the Bolshevik Revolution.

It’s a bit haunting looking at the photos, thinking of the doom that would come to the family only a couple years after the photos were taken. The photos of the children, in particular, make one think about the brutality of the revolt; and how while there are benefits of being a part of the social elite (such as the palace I was standing in), there are the risks (such as being hunted across your homeland, with your children sharing your doomed fate).

After the palace, I left to tour the gardens a bit. I decided to make my way downhill toward the sea, since the shoreline always offers great views. The way down consisted of many sets of stairs as well as some downward-sloping pathways, and I eventually took notice that the stairs would sometimes have numbers on them. They started at just shy of 700, counting downward. I soon figured out that they were counting the number of stairs, so I dearly hoped that the view from the shore would justify the hike back up.

By the time I reached the bottom of the nearly 700 stairs, my legs were beginning to waver just from going downward. Would you know it, however, upon reaching the bottom: a pay beach. I couldn’t even get to the sea without having to pay cash. I’m sure it wasn’t much, but I refuse to pay for beaches like I refuse to pay for toilets. I couldn’t even get a decent photo from the stairs because of the beach’s buildings; though I still made an attempt at a photo, anyway. Better than nothing. If I was going to hike back up, then dagnabit I was going to leave with something.

The return trek back up was… well it wasn’t as bad as one would think, thanks to the frequent provision of benches and nearly constant presence of shade. That still didn’t take away from the fact that it was hot, humid, and there was not much of a breeze at this particular location. Nonetheless, I survived. If I can hike Hoverla, the Swiss Alps, or up the towers of an array of religious constructs: I can certainly manage an upward trek through a palace garden. It really wasn’t so much the number of stairs as it was that I knew the number of stairs. Seven hundred just seems like such a big number.

I dawdled around a little bit more before making my way back up to the lower road bus stop, from where I hopped onto another marshrutka destined for Yalta. I was a bit disoriented when I first arrived in Yalta, as at that moment I didn’t realize that there was a central bus stop as well as the main bus stop. The latter is located on the northeast side of town and is what I was familiar with; the former is located right in the center and is where I’d just arrived at.

Surrounding me was what felt like an endless marketplace. Sure I could’ve just looked at my guidebook’s map, but that’d be too easy. You’re never lost when you’re on holiday: I came to Yalta to see the city, so the best way to see it was to wander aimlessly about. I knew I wanted to see the waterfront, so using my advanced knowledge of Earthen geography I knew that mountains indicate land… so if I could see mountains, there probably isn’t sea there. Secondly, since water flows downhill and water is what carves up mountains, I knew that downhill would not only lead me away from the mountains; it would also lead me to the sea. So, I generally oriented myself to go downhill and away from the mountains.

After meandering about a little bit within the market areas, I was at the sea in just a couple minutes walk. Had I skipped the market area, I’d have arrived in about 2 minutes – the bus stop really is central: it’s right at the meeting point between the paved waterfront & docks to the west; and the beaches to the east.

My first trek was along the beachfront, which seems to consist entirely of pay beaches. This all comes as a surprise since I can’t quite recall ever seeing a pay beach. Now I’ve seen beaches where you can pay for added perks, like getting to reserve a lounge chair instead of having to fight for space on the ground. Indeed, the pebbly beach in Simeiz has that, most beaches in Europe have that, and even a number of beaches in the Americas have that. However, here, you had to pay just to set foot on their shore. The water wasn’t even particularly clean, so nuts to that.

The walk along the beachfront was more than enjoyable, as peering onto the beaches: the crowd generally seemed to consist of families and babushkas. Along the walkway, however, was an endless stream of gorgeous woman after gorgeous woman. When I’d gone far enough east that the crowds and snack stalls seemed to be disappearing, I turned around and made my way westward to the waterfront and docks.

By this time I was starting to get hungry, but from strolling along all of Yalta’s coastline: one would be led to believe that the city survives on nothing but ice cream and soft drinks. There was no food anywhere, apart from the highly sporadic café that charged obscene prices for what one would be hard-pressed to call a menu. You could get 90% of the same food from the ice cream & soft drink stalls.

I eventually happened upon a place offering what appeared to be tasty shawarmas and had a small crowd around it (no crowd means bad food that no one wants; big crowd means trendy, expensive, and probably not all that good… and you’ll have to wait forever; small crowds are perfect). Overall, while I enjoyed my walk along Yalta’s shoreline, it really is a place that can be skipped. It’s the attractions outside of Yalta that make it special; not the city itself.

After a pleasant stroll back to the main bus station on the northeast side of town, I boarded a marshrutka back to Simeiz. About half an hour later, I’d arrived proud that I’d successfully navigated by bus throughout the Crimea. I can’t even figure the buses out in America.

Monday, August 25, 2008

UA - Simeiz, Mt Ay-Petri, Swallow's Nest

Our breakfast was prepared by our landlady, eaten up at the café area with its lovely view over the town and sea. Here I had the first omelet I’ve had in a long time which I actually found to be quite tasty. It had tomatoes and ham cooked into it, and when spiced with some black pepper I found it to be a great morning meal. Generally I’m really not an omelet fan – or a fan of any dishes made primarily of eggs, really – but this was good.

The intention was to ascend Mt. Ay-Petri by cable car, as we were a bit short on free time to go about hiking it. When we got off at the marshrutka stop, however, a man approached us with an offer to drive us up the mountain, stopping at a couple sites along the way. Such self-operated businesses are common throughout Ukraine, perhaps moreso in such a tourist hotspot as the Crimea.

We agreed to the offer and I believe it was well worth it. The viewpoints on the opposite side of the mountain were certainly pretty, but I particularly liked the drive itself. As with many mountain roads, the street winds about back and forth, except this road just happens to be two lanes wide in only the most liberal of definitions. It’s really more like one and a half lanes… except at the switchbacks where it’s pretty much only one good lane going around a blind curve. Then imagine a rally race being held here… as one will be in September. Fantastic. I was looking at each and every curve, trying to spot which series of S-curves would probably throw the most cars off the road.

Our driver was very kind and excitedly offered to take us anywhere else we were interested in, including offering to eat Tatar food at the to of the Uchansu Waterfall – even though they were dried up at the moment. Alas, our time in Crimea was too short to be meandering about, so we declined the offers.

The highest point you can reach – not too far from the summit – is littered with souvenir shops and food stalls. Don’t pass these over too fast, though, I actually felt like they were rather neat. The Tatar souvenirs are significantly more exotic than the other souvenir shops throughout Ukraine and Russia. Like I said earlier, one of my biggest issues with souvenirs is that many of them are cheaply-made things that you could buy anywhere, albeit with a different city or country name stamped on it. These Tatar gifts were uniquely Tatar… or at least uniquely Middle-Eastern, which is certainly more exotic than Europe. The only thing that really caught my interest were the caps, but I couldn’t find one I liked which would fit on my Easter Island sized head.

The food… ahh, the food. The scents of spices was fantastic. This was my first introduction to Tatar cuisine, of which I decided to start with the treats. I tried the equivalent of Turkish Delight, called Rakhat-Lukum; and also Crimean baklava. The Rakhat-Lukum was good in the same sense that Turkish Delight is good. If you like one, you’ll like the other. However, I found this Crimean take to seem a bit more approachable – it was a bit more moist than the Turks’. The baklava was also tasty, but moreso in the sense that baklava is always tasty. Crimean baklava is rather plain, whereas their Mediterranean counterparts add a whole array of nuts and sweet fillings that make baklava among the finest desserts there is.

The summit is just a short hike away, so after several minutes of movement we had made it to the top. It’s really an easy hike if you cheat and take the cable car or drive most of the way, and you hike up the windward side so the breeze helps to keep you cool. Sure there are railings and the sporadic signs saying that people are not permitted to pass beyond the railings, but few seem to heed these warnings; and we certainly didn’t. The views from the railing are fantastic, but the views from the death-defying edge of a potential high-speed & low-cost descent are even better. Poor Svitlana, who took on the mothering role as Anastasia and I moved about near the edge – albeit always making sure we were both sturdy and had a place to fall. It really is a long way down.

After fulfilling our craving for heights, we opted to head to the two caves located nearby. From my trip last year, I got used to caves being a long hike away – you really have to earn your entry into those caves. These two, however, are just a couple minutes of almost flat hiking away. The first caves we entered consisted of a large room which was discovered in 1999. I think the recent time of its discovery considering it’s almost right next to the touristy area is the more impressive, as the caves themselves really aren’t much to see (and certainly not worth the price of admission). This was the first cave Svitlana had ever been into, so it is particularly unfortunate that she had such a lackluster introduction.

The other set of caves is another couple of minutes hike away, again along almost flat terrain. These caves were known as the ice caves, which immediately drew memories of the ice cave back at Jungfrau. I was expecting a series of corridors where the walls were ice, the ceiling was ice, and even the floor was ice. Alas, at about a fourth of the height of Jungfrau and a temperature of 4 degrees Celsius rather than double-digit negative: I should have known better. This ice cave consisted of a single mound of extremely dirty snow that, over time, had solidified into ice. Really the only reason to visit was to spend a couple of minutes with some natural air conditioning.

Headed back to the cable car to descend, it was right about this time that we took note of our decreasing supply of cash. There were no bankomats on the mountain nor were there any at the bottom of the cable car. This became a bit more of an issue after we each spent 50 hryvnia on the cable car ride. The cable car ride gives some great views, by the way, but is just about as comfortable as those in Switzerland: you’re packed in like cattle on their way to the slaughter.

Expecting to take a marshrutka to Yalta, where there are bankomats-a-plenty, I wasn’t concerned with our money supply in the slightest. That’s why I even ordered a pizza cone (yes, pizza in a cone… tasty, but not as tasty as real pizza) and a bit to drink. Alas, when the girls got up and departed the marshrutka well before we were even near Yalta… now I began to worry.

We disembarked at the bus stop for the Swallow’s Nest, which was to be our destination after reaching Yalta. We were going to walk around Yalta a bit & reload our wallets, then hop on a boat to Swallow’s Nest. However, the girls decided it didn’t make sense to loop about so much. I didn’t quite agree with this theory, seeing as there was not guarantee of bankmats at the Swallow’s Nest and the best views of the Swallow’s Nest are supposedly from an arrival by sea.

Just what is the Swallow’s Nest? It’s a castle-like tower perched on the edge of a cliff, making it an absolutely must-see for anyone visiting the Crimea. The only catch is that when you get closer and are told you have to pay 5 hryvnia to enter: don’t bother. The building is not at-all interesting up close and is actually much smaller than you’d think. The views from the surrounding walkway really aren’t wholly better than you can get outside the gates, and for that matter the views themselves are better nearly anywhere else along the Black Sea coast. Not to say the view is bad – it’s beautiful; but after being elsewhere along the coastline, it just didn’t take my breath away like the other areas had.

There were two bankomats within the Swallow’s Nest area. However, the one right at the entrance wasn’t working; and I guess the other one down toward the parking lot wasn’t working either (or at least we were turned away when we tried to get there). Our hike back up to the bus stop was tormenting as we weren’t even sure whether or not we could afford water in addition to transportation back to… anywhere.

Expecting we’d now continue on to Yalta, I was a bit surprised to find us taking a marshrutka westward back toward Simeiz. Either way, there’d be a bankomat on the other side. I felt relaxed when I had the cash to pay the fare – I’d made it.

However, what didn’t occur to me was that we boarded on the lower road; not the upper road. The road higher up the mountain is a higher-speed arterial, whereas this lower road is a more local roadway and is where you’ll get to see plenty of opposing vehicles trying to fit around each other. Marshrutka on this lower road stop at Alupka and don’t continue on to Simeiz. That meant we had to transfer, which meant I still had one more fare to pay.

The stroll through Alupka was lovely and there didn’t seem to be any entrance fee, which made it even better considering the circumstances. After walking from the east bus stop to the west bus stop, we caught another marshrutka out to Simeiz. Fortunately, I actually had plenty of cash left over. I paid my fare almost completely in coin and still had about 15 hryvnia left over (though I think the girls were in much dire straits). Upon arrival in Simeiz, I immediately went over and embraced the bankomat. We grabbed some chow at a nearby buffet and returned to the room.

That night we left for the pebbly beach to do some nighttime swimming. The water was still just as good as it was before, and the air was still plenty warm. I was surprised at the number of people on the streets, and the beach was still buzzing. For such a small town, it seemed like the entire town was there; but the crowds didn’t seem at-all surprising to the girls. It was fun to swim out away from the bright lights of the shore, hiding in the darkness a bit further out. From here, I could see so many stars and could even espy the cloudy glow of the Milky Way’s band. I hadn’t seen so many stars since I was driving Jenn out to her horse-riding classes back at Penn State. When I wasn’t trying to hurl Svitlana or Anastasia into the air, I was generally floating about staring upwards.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

UA - Simeiz

As we arrived in Simferopol at about 12:30 in the afternoon, we still spent several waking hours on the train trying not to roast. The train was back to a more typical cabin format, but it was an older car without air conditioning and we couldn’t open the window. The first thing I noticed about Crimea is that the temperature is in a totally different league than anywhere else we’d been in Ukraine – it’s hot, it’s humid, and when you can’t tell where the sea becomes sky: that’s hazy.

Arriving in Simferopol, we quickly switched over to a bus headed to Simeiz, albeit with a brief stopover in Yalta. There were absolutely amazing views from the highway to Yalta – a vastly different landscape from what I’d become used to. The trees and foliage were now more typical of the Mediterranean, and the mountain plantlife more quickly gave way to small shrubs – rock and sand were the predominant colors of the horizon.

Specifically, I quickly recalled my day in Morocco: the glaring sun and brutal temperatures, the large homes set among a landscape that’s half-Mediterranean and half-desert, a populace speaking a language I can’t understand, and the Tatar presence added that Middle-Eastern touch. In the cities, the air smells of spices; and in the countryside, vineyards appear periodically.

The roads in and out of Simferopol are geared toward higher-speed travel. The roads in and out of Yalta most certainly are not, except perhaps the higher road connecting to Servastopol. Most of the roads wind along the mountainsides and are two lanes wide, at best – often only wide enough for a car to pull all the way to the edge such that an opposing car can pass. When there are parked cars – and there nearly always are – then it can really become amusing; unless you’re hurtling down the road at a high-speed around a blind curve when you find yourself in this confrontation (as happens extremely frequently). Throw in hordes of people everywhere, and you have yourself a fun time on the streets.

Simeiz is a small town built up along the mountainside. Its downtown smells absolutely wonderful (so long as you’re not standing right beside a bus) thanks to the scents of Middle-Eastern spices wafting through the air. Going back to the aforementioned traffic, it’s fun to watch traffic compete at the small connector between the main roundabout (east side) and the bus loop (west side).

Our first task was to find somewhere to sleep, which is always an easy task since there’s pretty much always someone at the bus or train stations seeking to rent out rooms. We soon had ourselves a room which is among the higher ones in the community and includes air conditioning. The interior is decorated with light wooden colors, making it feel like a beach sort of room; and it includes a modern bathroom as well as a television, mini-fridge, teapot, and closets. While there is a kitchen for general use, the caretaker also prepares meals at the top of what I like to call a compound of apartment units, and she always seems readily available whenever we need something. At 350 hryvnia a night (roughly $70), it certainly feels like we’re getting our money’s worth. I’d say this place is more like a hotel than a rented apartment.

I christened it in the traditional way of christening a new home, by which I don’t mean throw a big party or smash a bottle of booze against the side (the latter is what you do with ships; not homes… or maybe the side of buildings if you’re a wino moving into a new alley). The only catch was that I was done with this christening; it occurred to me that there was no toilet paper – a realization that occurred to me right when I really needed it most.

Seeing into the future a bit (since I’m typing this a couple days after this all actually happened), I should warn you this will probably rank as the second most disturbing entry of this entire journal. Not only is it a subject that many would probably not type about themselves, but this also doesn’t really have a happy ending. Basically, with a lack of toilet paper, I sat there about 10 minutes pondering just what to do. I settled on taking a shower so that I’d feel cleanish, and ultimately a swim in the sea put my mind at a bit more ease. When we got back, we had a roll of toilet paper waiting for us. I only find solace knowing that the girls were surely dealing with this issue, too.

There are multiple beaches in Simeiz, basically consisting of ones with pebbly shores and those with nothing but big rocks (no pun intended, considering I’ve since learned this one is a nude beach). While the girls have been going to the latter since our arrival into Simeiz to dodge the crowds, for our first visit we opted to go to the pebbly beach.

The pebbly beach is located pretty close to town and is effectively one of the town’s primary public beaches. It’s rather narrow, however, and not particularly long; so there weren’t too many people as a whole; but it was still absolutely packed. I can’t say I blame them: the view is lovely with the cliffs all around.

The water is just a tad warmer than that of Illichevsk, which was already a fine temperature. It still nipped a bit the first split-second that sensitive body parts hit the water, but it wasn’t cold enough to slow down the entry into the sea. It was blue and clear: I could see down past my feet. However, when the ground dropped away suddenly, not far from the shore, I could no longer see down to the bottom. It wasn’t as crisp as the water in the Caribbean, but certainly the best looking sea I’ve been in since… well… I think since I was in Aruba, and that was a bloody long time ago.

There were far fewer babushkas than Illichevsk, but also far fewer neck-turning sort of women. It was really just sort of an average crowd. I was a bit confounded that it was not a topless beach, though. Now I don’t mean to come off sounding like some sex-crazed male who needs a topless beach; but it’s just that in this country: women seem to walk around wearing next-to-nothing on a casual basis. It just strikes me as odd that out of the two beaches I’ve now been to, both required total coverage. Even in the more conservative parts of Europe I’ve been to, topless beaches seem to be the norm rather than the exception; but Ukraine is surprising in that it seems to be the other way around.

Dinner was obtained at the little café, or sorts, at our apartment complex. Our landlady cooked me Otbivnaya, which seems to be Ukraine’s equivalent to Wiener Schnitzel. I can’t say it was as tasty as the perfected concoction of the Germanic folk, but this Slavic take still made a fine meal.

The initial plan was to settle into bed early, but this plan soon fell apart once the little “uh-oh” sound of Anastasia’s ICQ rang on her phone. This whole trip, she’s been getting a pretty constant stream of messages from somebody which often seemed to keep both girls amused. This time around, one message put them over the top with laughter. They finally let me into what had been so entertaining.

The simplified story is basically that Anastasia has a male friend back in Moscow whom seems to think their relationship – which is just to go rollerskating together – is much more than it is. Now this is despite the fact that Anastasia already has a boyfriend, which should lead one to rightly suspect that she is not at-all interested in this guy. Well it ends up with the guy coming to Crimea and insisting that we stay with him… then it changed to him asking if he can stay with us… and then he was trying to find us here in Simeiz… and now we haven’t the faintest idea what’s happened to him.

Once he confessed his love for Anastasia via his little messages, she stopped responding; which kind of saddened me since I’ve been really curious what’s happened to him. Seriously, stalkers are kind of fun… but I guess since it’s not me that’s being stalked, it’s easy to say that. Also, the guy has a short temper – as evidenced by the back-and-forth tone his messages take: sometimes insulting and using profane language at Anastasia’s dismissive responses; other times apologetic for what he’s said before. I guess it’s not really the guy you want trying to track you down. It was certainly entertaining while it lasted, though.

This guy only speaks Russian and not a word of any other language, so I really wanted to answer the phone when he called and go “Howdy! Ahh, Deutsch? Mein Deutsch ist gud, ja?” and then take it from there.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

UA - Odesa

It was one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had this whole trip: good temperature, my feet could stick out into the aisle… ahh. I only awoke 3 times:

1 – When Svitlana was standing beside the beds (she was roasting up on the top bunk) and talking to the person on the opposite top bunk.

2 – When our wagon was switched to a new engine – involving a stop of nearly 2 hours. All the other wagons were headed to Kyiv, with ours being the sole one destined for Odesa. The normal Odesa train passes through Moldova, which I can’t go through without a visa.

3 – And finally when a baby in the next bunk room over began bawling loudly. This ultimately got me up and moving – just when I thought the baby would stop, she’d start right back up again. I decided to give in after perhaps 15 minutes.

Our time in Odesa was cut short as we immediately boarded a marutshuka bound for Illichevsk. This is a mid-sized beach town north of the considerably larger city of Odesa. I had planned to return to Odesa early so I could explore it a bit, since I’d hate to come to Odesa and not see Odesa. However, as we were walking from Illichevsk’s arrival bus stop to the beach, Svitlana forgot to show me where the departure bus stop was located. For some reason, they were not located at the same place (this is why I hate buses), and since I thus didn’t know how to leave town: this set the stage for the drama to come later.

We initially laid down in the shade, up at the top of the beach’s gradient and furthest from the water. I watched our bags while the girls went to swim. During this time, my Jersey beach bum roots came back and as soon as they returned, I relocated myself right beside the water. The shade is for retirees; not me (yet).

This part of the beach was terraced, and I settled on the first terrace above the water with my feet dangling over the edge. The sound of waves (albeit very small) breaking on the shore made it all so perfect. The view over the Black Sea was lovely. Sure, it was just water all the way to the horizon, but that in and of itself reminded me of the shore back home. Throw in a horizon full of massive freighters and now you’ve just got yourself one cool view.

The land was made of sand. The water was the perfect temperature: a slight shock when you first get in, but warm enough that I didn’t have to inch my way in. I could see down about 5 feet, which certainly beats Jersey. There was a sand barrier a bit further out after a portion which was about 8 feet deep), and this sand barrier was a mere 3-4 feet beneath the surface. I found whenever I’d evaporated off the water from my previous swim & was beginning to feel toasty again, a swim out to the sand bar and back was the perfect amount to cool myself down.

The scenery on the beach… well… any warm-blooded male that enjoys the opposite sex is dearly due for a visit to Ukraine’s beaches. This country of beautiful women has thoroughly embraced the tanga bikini. In every direction I saw the Moon Over Miami; a total eclipse; and a downright cheeky view. At one point I noticed my sun was blocked… I opened my eyes to find I was being eclipsed by Venus… except Mars was laying just behind me.

The caveat, however, is that Ukraine also has an abundance of perhaps the most ripply babushkas I’ve ever seen… some of them also embracing the tanga bikini (or their rolls of cellulose achieving the same effect). This was also the first beach in Europe that I’ve been to which wasn’t topless, with the exception of women laying face-down and the aforementioned babushkas being unable to contain themselves within their tops – not really topless per se, but again the same (unsettling) effect. This all really helped to keep the libido in check.

I was ready to return to Odesa at 1530, after about 4 hours of sun. Leaving at this time meant that I should be in Odesa by 1700. I got up and went back to the shade for the girls, with whom I left my camera, wallet, and passport. Can’t leave without the passport; not going anywhere without cash; and I keep my camera closer to me than I do my passport. They were nowhere to be found, however.

So now I’m a bit worried. Did they leave? Did they move to the sunlight? If the latter: where? I aced one way and didn’t spot them among the crowds; I paced the other way – nothing. After a couple minutes of trying to think of what to do, I put my stuff back where I had been laying – it was a great spot and I figured that if I was going to have to spend more time here, I might as well at least enjoy it. I returned to the next terrace up so I was plainly visible and could always keep watch on my stuff.

Svitlana came walking up after about 15 minutes total of searching and standing. They were seated in the direction I first looked, but even with Svitlana pointing toward Anastasia: it was still like Where’s Waldo. I hopped down to grab my stuff and, after only seconds had passed, turned around only to find that Svitlana had disappeared. I was hoping she’d show me where the bus stop was located, but even after going over to Anastasia: Svitlana was still nowhere to be found.

I left my things with Anastasia then went to change back into my regular clothes. Upon my return, I was further confounded to find that Anastasia had also disappeared. Fortunately, all the stuff was still there. With adjacent sunbathers staring at me like I’m a criminal (albeit doing nothing about it), I pulled my camera, wallet, and passport from Svitlana’s bag and was on my way. I had left those items with the girls for protection, and here I easily snatched them and departed. That was a bit disconcerting.

Where was I going? No idea. I walked back to the main street where the marshrutka had dropped us off. I just couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t be able to catch a bus at the same approximate place as where it’d dropped us off. I hailed a marshrutka with a sign that had a sign with Illichevsk on top and Odesa on bottom, the driver responded “Odesa, nyet.” So I tried a marshrutka with Odesa on top and Illichevsk on bottom… “Odesa, nyet.” I was further confused in that both of these marshrutka were going the same direction. Giving in to the very reasons why I despise bus transport, I made my way back to the beach.

Upon my return, not only are both girls still missing, but now their stuff is gone, too. No towels; no bags; they’re gone. I contemplated splurging for a taxi, but I knew that it’d readily become apparent to the driver that I didn’t speak Russian. While I’m confident I could get by with just saying “Odesa”, when it came time to pay: I’d have no idea what price he was trying to give me.

So I’d probably do what I’d been doing with the marshrutka and buses: just give a large bill and let them give me the change back. A taxi driver, with their variable prices, would surely give me a higher price in the end. The only alternative would be to try to negotiate a price before we left, using my guidebook’s number translations to make the offers; and judging the driver’s facial reactions as to whether or not I was in the right ballpark.

Just as I was about to turn and leave, I hear a stranger’s accented voice behind me asking “Hi… Andrew?”

“Yes” or “Da,” I replied. One of Svitlana’s friends recognized me from photos. She called Svitlana – reaching Anastasia – whom instructed me to wait for them. They had gone to the showers (which you have to pay for: bah to that). I waited… and waited. The friend and her other friend left for the water, so I moved out of the crowds and waited some more. At about 1715 they arrived & we walked half an hour to the bus stop – no where near where I’d headed, though I think it may have at least been the same main street I’d reached earlier.

In Odesa, we walked along the road from the train station directly into town – vul Pushkinska. This street was absolutely beautiful with its tree-lined corroder, and I yearned to have more time to explore the side-streets. However, Svitlana pointed out that the other streets are all the same. I later realized she was right: all the streets between the train station and historic core really do all look the same. If you’ve seen one; you’ve seen them all.

We parted ways in the core – they headed toward the shopping core and I headed to the historic core. We agreed to meet at the train station at 2210, that is 10:10 pm. I explained that was happy time – if you look at a clock face at 10:10, it just looks happy. Clock stores even exploit this, often setting static analog clocks to 10:10 to try and, psychologically, make their customers happier and hence more willing to spend (or so the thinking goes).

The girls didn’t seem to amused by this anecdote, which again reinforced why much of my time with the two is spent wishing I could be on my own: I can’t be myself. It often doesn’t feel like there are three of us on this trip, but rather two of us and one of us.

- As an only-child, I’m fiercely independent; but when I’m with them I end up depending on them for everything.

- I say lots of off-the-wall things and like to act weirdly, as I believe that everybody needs a daily dose of weird; but cultural and language barriers don’t help on that end (such as with yesterday’s talk about my running for President in 2020 and whole taking over the world bit).

- I like to add on to conversations, but because they talk to each other in Russian: I have nothing to play off of.

- In Russia and Ukraine, it seems, people don’t tend to go outside between 11am and 3pm during the summertime, as it’s too hot. This is in stark contrast to westerners, where this is often the time of day where it’s best to get out and explore. So right when I anticipate I should be hiking far off in some remote area, they anticipate being somewhere air conditioned.

- We have totally different interests. As I said before, I like history; they don’t. I’ve noticed that the Slavic people love to take photos of eachother, and a photo just isn’t complete unless there’s somebody in it; but I tend to feel like people get in the way and will wait several minutes for a room to clear just to get that perfect shot.

- Our interpretation of this holiday is also completely different. They see it as a chance to relax from a hectic schedule of work and school. I see it as a chance to finally live vicariously, in contrast to my relatively boring life as an engineer and student. So I always want to move when they just want to stop.

On my own in Odesa, I excitedly went to the attractions and toured the streets – trying to make the best of what little time I had. I thought back to my visit to Montreal in July: this Quebecois city was neat in that it had an active industrial port, but still drew tourism to its piers. Odesa’s port is even more industrial, but still draws the tourists down to its central pier; and the cranes and chimneys were all surprisingly beautiful against the setting sun.

After photo ops at the landmarks, I searched for food with my Lonely Planet guide leading the way. Not one of the places in the guide was still around. I couldn’t find a single one. I spent so much time getting photos and searching for food that I ran out of time to eat, anyway. I grabbed a shwarma at the train station – always tasty; but not exactly local cuisine.

Friday, August 22, 2008

UA - Kamyanets-Podilsky

Rolling into town in the morning, the girls opted to take a marshrutka closer to the Old Town rather than spend 20 minutes or so walking across the New Town. The marshrutka only saved about 10 minutes or so, as we still had to walk another 10 minutes to the bridge between the two areas.

The view from the bridge immediately made me think of Bern, Switzerland. Both cities are located within the confines of a river which wraps around the town almost in its entirety, forming a natural moat. However, Bern really looks like a city perched above the winding river, whereas this looks more like a small village. There are a couple buildings here and there, the Black Tower off one direction, and some more modern towers dotting the skies of the new town; but otherwise it’s forested all around.

Walking around town, I soon got the feeling that the whole town is under reconstruction. There are many roads closed, many buildings covered, some buildings gutted, and even both of the main town squares (the Polish and Armenian squares) are littered with work zones. I suppose reconstruction is a good thing: a sign of growth and redevelopment; and as applied to tourist attractions: a sign of prosperity in that the government can afford to preserve them. However, in the short-term, it’s a particular hassle for tourists. It effectively made my map nearly useless, as many of the streets were closed off and in some cases I even had to question whether they would ever be reopened.

There are a couple streets which are rather pretty whilst preserving a bit of rustic character. When I say “a couple streets”, though, that pretty much refers to the entire old town. I walked every single pathway in the old town during the day and still found myself with a couple hours left over. The Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul isn’t the most fascinating inside, but the exterior is neat if just for the minaret – a relic of the period when the city was controlled by the Turks.

Then there is the fortress – the reason you come to this town in the first place. Every single view of the fortress – and there are many if you’re willing to venture and hike around a bit – is fantastic. The Turkish Bridge leading up to it further complements its aura. The farm fields to the southwest, beyond the fortress, further complement its position as a defender of the city. One could visualize the smoke of a camped army rising from the other side of the hills, waiting to march on the city (or in my case, someone had a fire just beyond the hills… which is probably why I thought of this).

Inside, the fortress actually feels a bit small – I’m used to western fortresses which include castles. The sheer number of rooms of the castles & the amount of clutter within the fortresses tends to make them feel huge, even if they’re actually about the same size as this fortress. This, however, was specifically a defensive structure – not a royal residence.

Now I don’t intend to discredit the fortress’ interior at all, as it has one major perk: it is almost completely free-roam. You can go down nearly every passageway and into almost every room, with only a couple ways closed off (most of the closed areas are just the levels of towers where there isn’t a floor).

I particularly liked the warning signs, which are numerous. There are two that I specifically remember… one read “LIFE DANGER”, as the area beyond the sign & rope was one of those aforementioned tower levels where there is no floor to keep you from falling down to the first level. I think a “closed” sign on the rope would have sufficed. Another sign showed a guy falling upward – I think the arrow was backwards.

There was one place open for access, however, which probably should have had a sign of some sort. Then again, perhaps I should have used my own brain instead of entering a pitch-black tunnel without a flashlight. The gentle downhill slope gave way to a set of spiral stairs, and I learned this when my feet failed to connect with the ground in the manner I anticipated. My flip-flops ended up flush with the angle of the steps, and down I went; no handrails to grab onto. I slid down a bit, then after coming to a halt: slowly worked my way out of the darkness. My left knee was aching much of the remaining day.

The next destination was to explore the north side of town, eventually winding about to explore the western shore. This route took me through the Windy Gate first, which is apparently notable solely because Peter the Great’s hat blew off there (I guess they were having trouble thinking up a name?) and then further down to the Polish Gate.

There were several times when, en route to the Polish Gate, I pause to look around for a real road because the one I was on just didn’t feel quite right. This has been a frequent problem. As my map is three years old (a lot has changed since 2005, when my guidebook was published), a lot of roads are either closed due to construction; or because this is not the wealthiest of countries, a lot of roads are indistinguishable from private driveways. This has even managed to confuse my hosts on a couple occasions.

The road I was on was indeed the correct one, taking me to the Polish Gate – right beside the western bridge. The Polish Gate was kind of neat simply because it consisted of ruins that you were free to explore. Now this isn’t a huge set of ruins that you could spend hours on; it’s really just one building with a couple arches leading off in one direction. You can’t even get too far in that one building, as the tiny stairwell hidden in a corner only goes up to the second level, where you are confronted with no floor and no additional stairwell to continue on. This would definitely be a cool place to visit with some ropes, a harness, and my climbing shoes.

Before I got here, looking at the way the streets were arranged on my map, I suspected the portion of the city on the outside of the river (the “new” side) would consist of dense city with your typical towering skyscrapers. The east side, to some degree, fit this description with a couple taller buildings; but the west side was all-residential and all-low level buildings. I was a bit taken aback by this, but it certainly made for a nice stroll along the western shore.

I made my way to the Church of St. George, where I smiled at a cute nun. Well, she was working on the garden there and was in conservative dress, but I have no idea whether or not she was a nun. I also don’t even know what religion the church was devoted to. I also haven’t the faintest idea is Ukrainian Catholics or Ukrainian Orthodox even have “nuns” per se.

We were to meet up at 1700 for dinner, but it was only 1500 and I felt like I’d seen everything. I was only 40 minutes from our meeting point, so I took my time on the return trip. While approaching the bridge to the old town, I looked to my left and there was a white goat strolling along beside me. A man was herding his three goats to graze near the Polish Gate and one of them began to follow me instead.

They split off toward the gate and I continued on a few meters more, where a man walking his dogs took some stairs upwards. Since I didn’t think these went anywhere important the last time I came through, this time I followed along. They take you up to a pathway just behind the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul. Along this path, just where it turns to come up along the side of the cathedral, is an amazing view of the fortress.

I relaxed on the cathedral’s grounds for a bit before making my way back toward the fortress, where I relaxed some more on the city gate. At dinner with the girls, somehow we got onto my plan to run for President in 2020. However, while I do indeed intend to run, they didn’t seem to find it as amusing as I do.

What party was I in?

Which would I join?
None; I’ll make my own.

Where would my money come from?
I thought about saying “extortion” but instead said that I have 12 years to figure that out. Of those two responses, at least the latter was the better choice.

Why did I want to become President?
For fun.

They just didn’t get it. Now, I’ll admit that I have plenty of valid answers to that last question, but when I get on a roll with my political rantings: there’s no way I could slow myself down such that my current company would be able to understand me.

Given the seriousness with which the girls were handing these questions, I probably shouldn’t have continued on with “I want to take over the world.” From the mix of scared, angry, and bewildered emotions I could see on their faces and in their voices, it was clearly that they haven’t grown up with Pinky and the Brain.

The sleeper car this night was of a different style. Previously, we’d had our own cabin of four beds – so at most we’d have one unknown bunkmate (and I’d lucked out in that of our three nights in this format, we’d had no 4th bunkmate one night & girls the other two nights). For tonight’s trip, however, we weren’t able to book a cabin car. Instead, we had a wagon which I could best liken to that of a military troop ship.

It was sort of broken up into cabins, albeit without the hallway wall or door. There were four beds in the same positions as if a cabin, but then there were also two more beds (1 bunk set) along the hallway area. So basically you had compartments of 6 beds each, with a doorless hallway connecting them all. We were fortunate in that we had the same positions as we’ve had in the cabin cars: 2 lower bunks, 1 upper bunk; all in the “cabin” area rather than the hallway beds.

Our 4th bunkmate within our cabin area was, again, a woman – continuing my streak of a 3:1 female to male proportion. A fine balance, indeed. However, the two hallway bunkmates were a couple traveling with their family whom occupied the next compartment over. They were both rather large, and when the male decided to take off his shirt… well, he was one hairy man.

Our compartment was also the last one in the car, and on the worst side: the toilet side. That means that not only do you periodically get the smell of the toilet wafting through when both doors happen to be open at the same time, but you can also get the smell of smoke from the smoking area just beyond the toilet – again, when both doors happen to be open. The worst part, however, is the almost endless traffic of people going to and fro the toilet or smoking area.

I just envisioned it as I described it: like a troop ship. It’s easy to fall asleep amongst the noise and light if you just set up your dreams the right way. This is where it’s easy to be male, with an imbedded taste for war movies. I was out in no time.

However, before I went to sleep, I came up with an ingenious idea that I’m sure no one in all of history has ever thought of before. I doused the washcloth included with the bed linens provided by the train. I was initially startled when I poured my bottled water onto the cloth, as it started to hiss and fizz. I wondered what chemicals were on this cloth or, worse, what chemicals were in my water?! Seconds later I remembered that I had carbonated water.

After dampening my washcloth, I proceeded to clean my feet. After having gone two days without showering, my feet had turned black due to all the walking in flip-flops along construction sites and unpaved streets. The rest of me was feeling pretty greasy, too (insert racist joke about Italians here). I used one half of the washcloth on my feet, then spun it around & refolded it to rub down my head, arms, and legs. The foot side was a nice dark mess of dirt, and the body side was a scented shade of oily brown. Lovely. I still had another two days without a real shower.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

UA - Kyiv

Back in Kyiv, I scuttled out the door to give Svitlana the freedom to go about her business with moving into her new apartment. I offered to help, but was instead directed to go out and enjoy Kyiv. Therefore, having felt like I’d seen most of Kyiv already, I decided to go out and see some of its less popular destinations.

Babyn Yar is where tens of thousands were slaughtered by the Nazis, so it’s a sure draw for a World War II guru such as myself. It is also a cinch to reach: a Metro station is right there at the park. However, without a map to guide me to the memorials, I really didn’t have any particular idea in my head as to where to go from the Metro station. The station lets you out at a corner of the park, and it is a much bigger park than I thought – well-forested, at that. I spotted the memorial to youth right at the station and eventually found the Jewish memorial; but ultimately missed the Soviet-built memorial.

I went clear through the park and ended up at St. Cyril’s, located along the west side of the park and dedicated to the same saint who brought the Cyrillic alphabet to the Slavs – hence the name Cyrilic (in case you really needed me to point that out for you). The interior is lovely, with four beautiful icons on the iconostasis. There are amazing works up in the choir area (a steep staircase away) and also some neat works dealing with Judgment Day (a spiritual fascination of mine).

While there were still a couple museums I’d missed – specifically the Chernobyl museum and the World War II museum – I also missed exploring the interiors of the St. Sophia area. A ride on the Metro later, I was back at St. Sophia’s and this time made my way up the bell tower to get a great view over the city. It’s not too far from the tower at St. Michael’s, but the view is still different enough.

The interior of the church itself has a neat mix of restored areas and areas still awaiting restoration, though it’s possible that restoration has been delayed indefinitely to provide just such a comparison between old and new. Continuing on my Judgment Day kick, there are some great paintings on the 2nd level; also including one of Noah’s Ark.

Time was running short, but I knew I needed to eat something now or risk going the rest of the night without any chow. My nearest Metro stops were either the one I came from or the one right in the center, and I fortunately knew a place right in the center with a menu I could read, translate, pronounce, and I knew to be tasty enough: Mister Snek (Мистєр Снєк).

I ordered the Hot Dog Picant, which is not only the literal letter-by-letter translation; but is fortunately also how it’s pronounced. As one might guess, it’s a spicy hot dog. Granted, “spicy” in many northern-European countries is basically anything more than “not-at-all spicy”, and sure enough I’d classify this as mild; but it nonetheless had a good flavor. The mustard, in particular, was exactly the kind of mustard I love. Actually, I was just happy to have mustard at all – that’s a rarity in many countries (though what’s more of a rarity: peanut butter).

The main street, vul Kreshchatyk, had been closed – alone with some of the side-streets leading into it. The side-streets were closed by the police, but it appeared that the army had shut down Kreshchatyk. This delayed me slightly, which was problematic in that I was supposed to be back at Svitlana’s apartment at 1800; and by the time I got on the Metro: it was 1805. It’s about a 20 minute Metro ride… and a 10 minute walk. I made it in 25 minutes, my delay ultimately partly my fault and also partly that of the closure. I’d say I did rather well, though, considering the only clock I saw was when I first walked into the Metro at 1805.

Fortunately, the girls had been working during that extra 30 minutes, anyway. I was ready to go within 3 minutes after my arrival – having prepared everything before I left. All I had to do was put everything lined along my bed into my small backpack, slide that backpack into the big one, tie my shoes onto the whole thing, and then head out the door.

We first moved Svitlana’s things down to the taxi, below. Svitlana and her roommate, Victoria, took the taxi to their new place; and Anastasia and I both went back to grab our bags, then to Metro. Neither of us had ever been to the Pozniki Metro station before – the stop just before Svitlana’s initial residence right near Kharivska – so going off Svitlana’s quick directions (told only in Russian): we looped around a little bit before we got ourselves on the right track.

With all the bags dropped off in the new apartment – which I personally thought seemed rather nice, though Svitlana disagrees – we sat momentarily as per the tradition that one should always sit before a journey. In my head, however, I’m thinking about how we’ve been rushing about since we have a train to catch later tonight. Ahh well, I sat right between Victoria and Anastasia, crushing both their thighs with my super-sized American behind. I was expecting some traditional farewell speech, but instead all it was was a sit: a second after I sat, I was directed right back up again. We were on our way.

Back at Pozniki Metro, I inquired about how much time we had to make it to the train station. “30 minutes” was Svitlana’s reply. I responded with “plenty of time.” She went on to clarify how our next 30 minutes would break down, and sure enough the same thoughts were already running through my head; but you all know me: I’m always positive. It could be the end of the world and I’d still talk about how neat it is to get to experience such a once-in-a-lifetime event. However, in my head I was thinking about the 25 minute Metro ride to the station… the 5 to 10 minute walk to the train… and… that’s already a 5 minute overage; and I’d have dearly loved to purchase some water before the trip.

At the Metro station, Svitlana and Anastasia exit like a rocket; but I get bogged down by crowds (no help to the bulk of my pack). I keep them in sight, but drop quite a bit behind – particularly on the escalators out of the Metro, where I didn’t know how to ask people to step aside to let me pass. I was relieved when someone finally get up, said the magic phrase (like “friend” in Elven), and I followed in their wake.

Emerging from the Metro station at the train station, we immediately crossed over to the stairs that lead to the tunnel which usually lead to the trains that we’d want. Now by “crossed over”, I actually mean that Svitlana was running and both Anastasia and I were chasing after. There’s a board above the stairs which shows which trains are at which platforms, but our train wasn’t on it. We had four minutes.

Svitlana runs back outside and into a ticketing office just beside the Metro’s entrance. This office, however, is for regional trains; not longer-distance trains such as what we were taking. Fortunately, the seemed to give Svitlana the right advice. She ran back out and next thing we know, we’re chasing her all the way around to the train station’s main entrance. En route, a friend of Svitlana’s freshly back from abroad just happened to be there; and I see this unknown girl join our running behind Svitlana right up until they do a running hug. We continue on our way into the train station – the clock says we have three minutes.

The escalator up to the platforms was packed and had a lengthy queue, and Svitlana nimbly managed to get around the queue and jump in. Anastasia and I were struggling to navigate around the crowds, and I more-than-rudely pushed aside several people as I tried to cut onto the escalator. The clock changed as we stood on the escalator… 2 minutes.

It wasn’t a long escalator, but it felt excruciatingly slow. I’m sure it wasn’t any slower than any other escalator, but time seemed to be flying whilst the world seemed to be moving in slow-motion. Fearful we lost Svitlana (which would have been very very bad), we were relieved to see her at the top of the escalator. Once again, she led the chase with Anastasia and I close behind – no more crowds in our way, thanks to the escalator metering the mob.

We spotted our train and I watched as the conductor moved onto the steps to board the train. Svitlana yelled something, which I can only assume translated to something like “wait for us!” We got on, with the doors closing right behind us and the train beginning its movement seconds later. Sweet timing. Moving through the cabins, my body was in overdrive from the adrenaline of the chase, and combined with the heat: I was pumping out sweat. When we got to our cabin, I right-away ordered two liters of water; and I downed a ½ liter in about 5 seconds.

Compared to our sprint across Kyiv, the remainder of the night was relatively calm. Our fourth cabinmate was a girl about our age, and I felt bad that the three of us barged in just when she was probably getting comfy with the thought of having her own cabin; and we hadn’t said anything at all to her. I tried, but she didn’t speak English, German, Italian, or Spanish, so I smiled and said “Russky, nyet”.

This was an older car without air conditioning, but we could open up our window to let some air in. With the curtain the way it was, all the incoming air was directed directly onto my head. This felt absolutely fantastic following our frantic running about earlier, but dare I say that I started to become cold later on. At some point in the middle of the night, I tried to finagle with my blanket; but after 30 minutes I just couldn’t seem to get it in a way I like.

When I sleep, I like conformity: my mattress sheet needs to be smooth, and my sheets & blankets need to be balanced. I can’t have a sheet here, a blanket there – the unequal weight distribution and sheer imperfection of it all bothers me. So for 30 minutes I was trying to get my sheet and blanket to match up, except that I’d manage to roll myself up in the sheet, and I had some mental problem with the thought of my blanket’s extra berth daring to touch the dirty floor. Throw in the itchiness of these blankets and you have a whole bunch of constraints that made it pretty difficult to get myself comfy. I pulled it off in the end, but I really haven’t the faintest idea how I ultimately arranged everything.