The elektrichka bumps along the tracks, passing endless fields of sunflowers and small villages, and my girlfriend asks, “Do you know where we get off?”
“No,” I say, “I don’t know where we get off.” I ask the wagon attendants, but they’re too busy looking at passengers’ faces, trying to recall if they’d already checked them for tickets. When one does respond to me, I don’t understand his mumbled Russian, but I feign understanding so as not to make myself out to be some sort of idiot.
“What did he say?” My girlfriend asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. So I ask a woman sitting near us if we’re on the right elektrichka. In Russian I ask, does she know if this elektrichka is going to Yasinovata?
“It will go to Donetsk,” She says.
This is good, I think. Yasinovata is just north of Donetsk, where we’re heading. And supposedly it’s a large station, which is odd, because Yasinovata is nothing, barely a town. I heard it was turned into a large station so as to keep some of the traffic out of Donetsk. Good idea, I suppose. But because I’ve never been there, and because it seems no one on our elektrichka is getting off there, I don’t know when we’ll be stopped there. So every time the train begins to slow, the metal on metal screeching us slowly to a stop, I get up from my seat and walk to an open window to peak out. I don’t know what I’m looking for, just a station that’s larger than the previous stops, I guess.
And then the wagon attendants come by again. I lean from my seat toward the aisle, and before I can finish what I’m saying one of the men says to me, “Two more, then the third.” And that’s all. I think he’s just told me when our stop in Yasinovata is. I’m surprised he remembered me. I suppose I was just annoying enough not to forget. A few minutes later the lights of Yasinovata shine through the elektrichka windows.
We’re aboard our train now, the No. 224 to Simferopol, leaving from Yasinovata at 2:18 a.m., arriving nearly 10 hours later at 11:35 a.m. The wait at Yasinovata was five hours long. With not much else to do, we played cards at a small table in a waiting area outside of a much nicer and pricey waiting area called The Hall Of Expectations Of The Raised Comfort. I love direct translations. A peak inside the doors showed oversized leather sofas, a bar, television sets, paintings hung on the walls and large candlesticks sitting atop antique-looking desks and side tables. There’s no doubt in my mind we could have caught a bit of shut-eye in there. But where we were, the wooden chairs with the arms on either side of the seats, making it impossible to lie down, people stirring all around, feral cats strolling up and down the aisles, meowing for food scraps, sleep was out of the question.
But we’re tucked in our top-bunk beds now, aboard the No. 224. And it’s not so bad. We’ll drift off to sleep soon, waking up every so often throughout the night when the train lurches to a stop. But that won’t be so bad. And in the morning we’ll awake in Crimea, on our way to Simferopol and then Sevastopol and the Black Sea.
The taxi leaves us in front of a Soviet-bloc style apartment building. The number on it says 48, but we’re at the wrong entrance. I know this because we’re looking for apartment No. 26, and in front of me are mailboxes that range from 1 to 10. So I call Anna, the young woman my girlfriend and I have asked to stay with for the next five days. We found her on CouchSurfing.org. Her current mission, it says on her profile, is to ”Swim in all four oceans, visit every continent and find the meaning of life”. Her profile also said we’d have our own room. So Anna answers her phone and says she’ll meet us downstairs in a minute, that the front door is locked, anyway.
Anna’s apartment is quaint, cute. In typical Ukrainian fashion, rugs are found not only on the floors but overtop the sofas, too. Photographs cut out of fashion magazines and others she’s taken of friends are displayed on shelves. In the corner of our room is a small aquarium with small bluish fish. The fish are also transparent, and with the sun shining in from the open balcony door I can see their diminutive insides. My girlfriend and I are settling in, unpacking some things from our bags – changes of clothes and whatnot – when Anna speaks up from the other room.
“Would you like to eat lunch?” she says. “I can make lunch and we can eat here, and then I can show you where the market is.”
What she prepares is fried potatoes, thinly cut, a salad of heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and basil. Everything, she says, came from her parents’ garden.
I offer to wash dishes, tell her I’d be happy to clean up, but she insists, “No, it’s OK.”
A few minutes later we’re at the market. Kiosks of produce and other products all around us. My girlfriend and I pick up some things to snack on later and then make for the beach. Anna said it would be just a ten minute walk, and it is.
At Omega beach, it turns out, my good friend Igor and his girlfriend Ira are relaxing. They’ve also come down to the sea from Artemovsk. Together we make for the westward-facing cliffs. It’s sometime in the early evening. The waves of the Black Sea are crashing on the rocks in front of us. There’s a cool wind blowing, but that doesn’t stop me from getting in the water. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.
This first evening in Sevastopol, we drink beer and watch the sun sink below the horizon. Then we go back to Anna’s apartment and turn in early, exhausted from the journey down here. Tomorrow we’ll do some exploring.
There’s no need to rush, but we wake up before 8 a.m., anyway. After a breakfast of coffee, fruit and yogurt we make our way to the bus stop around the corner. Our mission this morning is to take the local No. 109 bus to a stop called “Tsum” and ask around until someone can point us in the direction of Khersones. This is the gist on Khersones, it’s a nearly 2,500-year-old Greek settlement on the shore of the Black Sea, it was once a democracy, the architecture is mixed with Greek, Roman and Byzantine influences, and Volodymyr the Great was baptized into Christianity there, paving the way for what later would become the Russian Orthodox Church. Today it’s all fascinating stone ruins. With limestone columns perched just meters from the shoreline, it’s an opportune place to snap a few photographs. So we do just that, and then we spend an hour or so relaxing on its rocky beach and jumping into the breaking waves.
I think it’s also the No. 109 bus that takes us to the Sevastopol city center, where we eat lunch before finding our way to the bay and the ferry boat. The boat takes us to the north side of the city, where we spend some time soaking up the sun and napping on the sandy beach, away from the hordes of Russian tourists. But we don’t stay too long, we want to stroll about the city. It’s our one full day to do it. So we see the main drag, Bolshaya Morskaya Blvd., and we take that up to the park and the Painted Panarama, we spend some time around Lazareva Square, too, and then we make our way back to the beach, where I drink a beer and the girlfriend drinks a gin and tonic and we watch the sun paint the sky all sorts of pastel hues as it sinks below the horizon.
We grab a bite at a seaside cafe. Ukrainian shashlik and Georgian-style plov. We wash that down with another drink each, and then walk the 10 or 15 minutes back to Anna’s. We’re in bed before midnight. I wonder if this is a sign we’re getting older.
I’m always up first. So I start the coffee, prepare the breakfast. We don’t fiddle around the apartment too long before we’re out the door and on our way to Balaklava.
I suppose now’s a good time to tell you this, that Sevastopol and Balaklava, before the fall of the Soviet Union, were closed off to the general public. The reasons being that the Sevastopol bays were home to the the country’s Black Sea Fleet, while Balaklava housed and repaired its nuclear submarines in hidden mountainside tunnels. Only military personnel and immediate family members were allowed access. Nowadays, however, the cities are two of Crimea’s major attractions, and it’s easy to see why.
The Black Sea isn’t really black; it’s a beautiful shade of blue. And it’s clear. Surrounding the bay of Balaklava are the Crimean Mountains, and perched atop them sits the ruins of an ancient Genoese fortress. Docks jut out from the shore, mooring wealthy Russians’ yachts and locals’ charming wooden motor boats. The water in the bay is calm and the morning sun is a warm 80 degrees, or so.
I’ve always had a thing for boats. So my curiosity gets the best of me and I set off down the dock. Inside one boat is an old man with his hat over his face and his feet kicked up on a seat. Two young men sit in another, Russian hip-hop playing loudly on the radio. A man leans toward me out of a boat on my right and asks if I’d like to buy any sea products. And at the last boat is a smiling man who asks if we’d like to go for a ride.
We agree on a price before we set off. The man will take us around the bay and out to sea for a little longer than a half hour and it’ll cost us just $15. Cruising through the bay, he points to a row of large houses with large yachts parked out in front. He tells us they’re Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s. We wind our way through the bay and then out to sea, where the landscape is even more striking. Jagged cliffsides as far left and right as I can see. The skipper turns the boat off and pulls out a fishing rod.
“You like to fish?” he says. “Watch this. You don’t even need bait. Drop the line in and pull it up. A fish every time.”
He drops the line in. On it is a single weight and a barbed hook. He gives the rod a few jigs to let the line out.
“Now you watch,” he says.
And I watch.
A few minutes go by, the boat rocking with the swells, before he reels in the line to reveal a small fish. “They’re not always big,” he says. “But you get one every time.”
My girlfriend is enjoying just being out at sea. She’s taking photographs and shooting video. She watches as the skipper pulls me behind the wheel and hands me his binoculars, encouraging me to act out a scene in which I’m driving the boat, using the binoculars to discern what’s up ahead. Then he hands me the radio, and in a nasally voice I say into the thing that the Footloose is on the run, being chased by pirates or something, not sure if we can outrun ‘em, it’s gonna be close.
I’m stepping away from wheel when the skipper points and shouts, “Opa! Dolphins!” And sure enough, about 20 meters starboard, two dolphins are swimming in sync, fins breaking the surface, backs glistening in the sunlight. We watch them for a minute, and then my girlfriend tells me she could almost cry.
Reentering the bay I can see that more people have begun to show up in Balaklava. It turns out today is the birthday of the local winery, which means tasting booths will pop up all around the bayside streets and Ukraine’s most popular band, Okean Elzy, will play a free show in the evening. But before all that, we want to stroll about town, hike up to the ruins of the Genoese fortress, find a place to eat some seafood.
With our bellies full – we ordered a large, assorted plate of fish, all served with the heads and tails still attached – we set off for the wine kiosks. For less than a $1 we’re poured a glass of sparkling wine. First we try the white brut, later we’ll try the red brut. And then we spend some time people watching. Also, there’s the final of the Miss Crimea Pageant happening on stage. We turn our attention there, where a young blond girl in a white dress is singing a rendition of Marilyn Monroe’s “I Wanna Be Loved By You” at the end of the stage. I can tell she doesn’t know all the words. Luckily, for her sake, the volume is turned up enough to drowned her voice out. But I don’t know if the Russian-speaking crowd would have noticed, anyway.
Tired from a long day in the sun, and with a belly full of wine, we make our way back by marshrutka to Anna’s apartment in Sevastopol. Again we turn in a bit early. Tomorrow will be another long day.
After Sevastopol, my pal Igor had moved on to stay with some friends in the nearby town of Alupka. On the phone the night before he’d told me Alupka was a beautiful place, that we should see it. So, eager to see more of the Crimean coast, my girlfriend and I set out to meet him.
The bus ride along Crimea’s southern coast is perhaps the most beautiful in the country. The beauty of the mountains, cliffs and shoreline visible from our seats on the bus are only matched in exuberance by the precariousness that is riding public transportation in Ukraine. An hour into our ride we passed two smashed-up cars that had collided head-on. On the ground laid a bleeding man covered in bandages, past him was another being tended to under the shade of some trees, and inside one of the cars was a deceased woman sitting alone, eyes open and mouth agape, a stern reminder of the fragility of life.
Sure enough, Alupka is gorgeous. My girlfriend described it as a giant treehouse, and in a way it is. A myriad of trees abound, enveloping the town. We stroll around for a while, down cobbled alleyways, past hidden cafes and quaint homes, eventually arriving at the Vorontsov Palace. The palace sits in the middle of a large garden of plants, fountains and lion statues. It was built between 1830 and 1848 for Prince Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov. Some years later, during the 1945 Yalta Conference, it was the short term residence of Winston Churchill.
After visiting the palace grounds we meet Igor and his friend Dima for lunch. We drank some beer, eat some shashlik and chat for a while. Afterward, worried we wouldn’t be able to get a ticket back to Sevastopol in the evening, we go to the bus station. As it turns out, buses from Alupka to Sevastopol are few and far between, but a number of buses from Yalta leave for Sevastopol every hour. And so we decide to move on to Yalta.
There must be 50 people on this marshrutka. We’re crammed in like canned sardines. A sign above the driving says the maximum number of passengers is not to exceed 26. If we crash, we’re all dead, I think. I’m pressed up against the front door, peering out at a 500-foot drop to the sea as the marshrutka lurches up the hillside and onward to Yalta.
Turns out we don’t have much time to spend in Yalta. The only tickets we can get to Sevastopol are for a bus an hour and 15 minutes later. Our visit to Yalta will be a whirlwind tour. We take a trolley to the center, where we walk past a theater, a square and a monument of Lenin, eventually finding our way to the seaside. We have only a few minutes to take in the view. The sea this evening is a calm, dark blue. Behind us are the Crimean Mountains, looking like edges of a serrated blade. We have just enough time to consume an ice cream before we make our way back to the station and board the return bus to Sevastopol.
We take it easy our last day in Sevastopol. We were going to try and visit Bakhchisaray before leaving Crimea, but we’re exhausted. So we spend the late morning and early afternoon on the beach, relaxing, eating some plov and shwarma purchased from a beachside vendor.
In the evening a bus takes us two hours north to Simferopol, where we wait seven hours for our 1 a.m. train to Donetsk. We pass the time by eating, drinking, playing cards and people watching. Where are they all going, I wonder.
Inside the station, people waiting for trains contort their bodies in the wooden seats, trying to catch a few winks. I’m watching four men to my left, all in different, awkward positions, sleep when over the loudspeaker the arrival of our train is announced.
My girlfriend and I board the No. 278 from Simferopol to Donetsk, make up our beds and turn in. In the morning we’ll be back in the small, eastern Ukrainian city of Artemovsk, where the closest bodies of water are ponds created out of old mining pits and reservoirs used for irrigating crops.