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.

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