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.

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