My journey to Crimea began Friday afternoon, first taking a bus an hour south of Artemovsk to the city of Gorlovka, where my train would depart at midnight. Because the last bus from Artemovsk left at 3:20 p.m., arriving just after 4 p.m., I had almost eight hours to kill, and so I called a volunteer that lived in town. She was kind enough to entertain me, showing me around the city, taking me out for pizza and letting me hang at her apartment listening to Russian hip-hop till it was time to take a taxi to the train station. At the station I was stopped by the police, who asked to see my identification. This is a typically routine, and usually they pick out people that look foreign. Certainly in black Beatle boots, a stylish cap and shirt, I wasn’t looking very Ukrainian. After looking over my documents, they asked me a few questions before handing them back to me. All was well, and after boarding the train, settling in and nodding off to sleep, I was on my way.
I was awaken the next morning by the woman working on my wagon. Car supervisors come around up to one hour before your stop and let you know it’s coming up soon. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, stowed away my bedding and gathered my things. In Djankoi I met three friends at a nearby cafe who I was to stay the weekend with. Together we caught a bus to Aryansk, the last leg of our trip. Two hours later, we arrived at our other friend’s apartment, where he and his girlfriend were waiting with fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. I unpacked the bottle of champagne I’d brought from my city’s local champagne factory, and we toasted to the weekend.
That night we made a big dinner and drank loads of beer and vodka. We talked about our experiences at site, the unusual encounters, life outside America, the language barrier. We strolled through town, ending up at an outdoor discotheque. There, we were greeted warmly by the young proprietor of the club. I said what I could to him in Russian, gesturing the rest, and he offered to by me my first beer. After a few cold ones, we hit the dance floor, grooving to the sounds of Yolanda Be Cool and DCUP. The dancing lasted till early in the morning, then we walked home, finishing off a few more drinks each before heading to bed. I retired to the floor, but the booze helped keep my eyes shut and my body relaxed.
The next day we gathered food and skewers for barbecuing and made off for the canal. We ate, drank, played (American) football and Russian card games. In the eve, another giant dinner was prepared, drinks were drunk, hookah was smoked and plans for the follow day’s adventure were made. We’d leave at 7 a.m. to go to Yevpatoria, a city in western Crimea that sits along the shore of the Black Sea.
It was more than a three-hour bus ride, but we made it to Yevpatoria. Arriving at the station, though, we found that all the direct return tickets had been sold — nothing would be going back to Armyansk that night. So, we did what we thought the next best thing was, and bought a ticket to a city nearby. In Ukraine, there are plenty of ways to get around, mainly because not nearly as many people here own cars, like in America. Many people in Ukraine travel by public transportation.
After a stroll around town and asking for directions, we made it to the beach. The white sand of Yevpatoria stretches for kilometers down a half-moon shaped shoreline. Ports with large ships and wooden piers can be seen jutting out from the beaches. So many people gather on the beaches in Crimea during the summertime that one is never more than an arm-length away from another person. But everyone is friendly. We spent most the afternoon swimming and drinking some homemade wine that we bought from a vendor walking the beach. Afterward, we drank beer at a cafe and ate shwarma before setting out on a bus we could only hope would bring us close enough to Armyansk.
Of course, it didn’t, and we ended up in a city further east than we’d hoped. However, a quick twist of fate(?) occurred that would eventually get us home. A man approached one of the girls asking if we needed a taxi. When we began speaking with him he realized we were American, and immediately he called a friend of his. The woman picked up, and he handed the phone to me, but I deferred to Michael, since he knew the area best. It took all but 10 seconds to realize the woman on the other end of the phone was — like us — a Peace Corps Volunteer. She told us that there’d be a bus arriving at 9:30 p.m. that could take us to Armyansk. The taxi driver kept us company for a while and showed us where we could wait the next two hours. We settled into a small, dark bar near the train station, where we were the only patrons, and drank cheap draft beer while we waited.
About an hour later, with new, full beers on the table, the bus arrived. Our new taxi driver friend called for us to hurry, the bus would leave soon. After bargaining with the driver, we were let aboard. We positioned ourselves in the aisle-way where we’d stand the remainder of the trip. At station stops the driver’s attendant would shout at us, “America! Edete sooda!” This meant we were to get off the bus, walk to the station exit and wait for the bus to return for us, open its rear doors and let us aboard again. At each stop tickets are checked and passengers are counted. No ticket, no ride. Since we were unofficial passengers, we could not be seen on the bus during station arrivals. So, we’d be let off and picked up at each stop. Some time later, after maybe an hour or two, we approached the city of Armyansk. My friend who lives there had an idea. Tapping me on the shoulder and leaning up to my ear he said, “We should see if the driver could drop us in the city center, that way we’d only have a few minute walk.” A terrific idea, I told him. And so he squeezed past us and up the aisle to speak with the driver’s attendant. I could tell from where I was standing that the answer wasn’t what we wanted to hear. But it wasn’t until my friend returned that I new how the idea had gone over.
Me: “So, what’d he say?”
Friend: “He said, ‘Niet, America. Nielziya. No, America. That is impossible.”
Thirty minutes later, after driving directly through the city center, we were dropped off at the main bus terminal.
The next morning we laughed about our adventure over a breakfast of blini, eggs and instant coffee. We found both hilarity and intrigue in the words the driver’s assistant chose to use. That afternoon we packed our things, said goodbyes and set out to tackle more of Ukraine’s modes of public transport.