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.

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