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.

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