So, what did we see and experience while driving through Crimean peninsula, what kind of adventures except the bicycle theft we embarked on?
Keeping in mind that the border crossing procedure could easily be very long and tiresome, we woke up quite early. But fortune had something else in mind for us – during the night a Crimean mouse had chewed a hug hole in one of our panniers. The damage was done so the hungry Crimean mouse could get to our food supplies, but fortunately the mouse was content with just bread and did not try to taste the rest of our food reserves. This little incident set us back for about an hour as we had to seal up the hole. But we managed to do just that and were eventually ready to conquer the border.
As this was already our sixth day on the bicycles and we (Laura and I) had started to experience slight pain in our knees, we decided to try to catch an afternoon train from Crimean border town – Armyansk. Surprisingly we managed to clear both sides of the border (Ukrainian and Russian) without any delay. We did not have to go through any special security checks and they just asked us the usual questions – are you carrying weapons, drugs or other illegal stuff.
While still on the Ukrainian side, the customs officer asked us if we’re planning to return to Ukraine through the same exit/entry point, as we already knew the correct answer (according to Ukrainian law it is illegal to travel from Crimea to Russia, as that would be considered as illegal border crossing), we decided to give it to him an affirmative answer. In order not to complicate the matter we said that after visiting Crimea we plan to return to Ukraine. Travelling further to Russia will ban us from entering Ukraine in the following 5 years. But as we had no other option we decided to proceed with our initial plan.
It was only a ten kilometres ride to Armyansk and we arrived there at 10 a.m. already and had to wait almost four hours for the train. Oh, right… Crimea operates by the Moscow time now so it was actually 11 a.m. here. We went to the railway station, purchased the tickets and met some senior lady who gave us a mini-tour around Armyansk and its history. She got excited when we told her we’re from Latvia and recalled the good old (USSR) days when she had visited Riga. She told us various historic facts about Armyansk but the one I remember best is the story about the town’s name – it’s got its name after the huge Armenian market, that used to be in this place. Finally, she showed us a diner where we supposedly could get a cheap meal. We only had 300 rubles (~5€) on our hands so this place came like a blessing. All three of us managed to eat a meal for this amount of money and then we only had an additional hour to kill until we could depart.
The train we boarded turned out to be the fanciest elektrichka we had been on – it had seats with tables in separated compartments, and it was really well heated. Every lady who stepped in the train car, was exclaiming: “Ого, здесь тепло!” (Wow, it’s so warm in here!) This train was taking us to the city Dzhankoy where we switched trains and went further to Simferopol. Other than getting a shawarma, we didn’t do anything else there – We needed to get on the third train – to Sevastopol because the nice and cosy couch of Andrey was already calling us.
The hilliest city we had visited beforehand was Kiev, but whilst still sitting on the train it was evident that Sevastopol will be the next winner with its ups and downs. The distance between Andrey’s house and the train station was only 5,6 km but after cycling through some steep and winding streets for about 10 km we arrived at Andrey’s quite exhausted. As neither our Latvian sim cards, nor Ukrainian sim cards were functioning in Crimea, we ended up standing at Kolobova Street 21 without any possibility to contact Andrey (we did not know his apartment’s number). It was fairly late, almost nobody was entering or exiting the house, so we did not have a possibility to ask if anybody knows our mysterious host. We came up with an ingenious plan – while one of us will keep watch, two us fill try to buy a Russian sim card. The problem was solved as soon as we came up with the mentioned plan – a man came out from the house and he happened to be our host Andrey. We had already considered the possibility to camp somewhere in the city and to take a shower in the sewers, but here we were in a cosy apartment, with a warm welcome, shower and everything else.
The situation in Crimea with mobile networks is kind of peculiar – Ukrainian mobile networks are not working anymore and most of Russian networks are not up and running yet (with one notable exception). You can connect to this one Russian network only with a local sim card (no roaming apparently), there is no roaming for Latvian, Ukrainian or the rest of Russian mobile operators. With this in mind we decided that we have to get a local sim card, but as we found out this is not an easy task. In the local retail store of the mobile operator MTS, we found out that only nationals of Russian Federation can buy a pre-paid sim card. Without any willingness to apply for Russian nationality we dropped the whole idea about getting our phones operational. After a while we were just walking around the neighbourhood when we saw a small kiosk with a sing in one of its widows. As the sign said “start-up packet MTS” we tried our luck and asked the man sitting in the shack if we can buy a start-up pack without Russian passports. His answer was priceless: “Well, actually you cannot, but in my kiosk you can, only if you are not terrorists.” Of course we promised him that we are not terrorists and thus we acquired 2 MTS sim cards for a 100 Russian rubles each.
Another problem in Crimea is that it is practically impossible to pay with a European bank card. Maybe there is a magical place where it is possible, but at least we did not succeed in finding such a place. Regarding the supply of products, the problem was that a lot of the shelves were half empty – the supply of Ukrainian products was scarce and Russian products were more expensive and thus not so popular. Prices for food and other consumer products had risen considerably and therefore the best place where to buy groceries was the market.
While in Sevastopol, we also managed to see the most popular touristic landmarks of the city. One of these was Chersonesus – a ruin of an ancient Greek city which was established at 6th century BC. This historical site in 2013 was recognized as a UNESCO “World Heritage” site (Ancient City of Tauric Chersonese and its Chora). People call it “Ukrainian Pompeii” or “Russian Troy”. Of course it is a very beautiful place with all its historical value – the ancient fortification tower, Roman amphitheatre and the Greek temple with its famous columns which have become a landmark of Sevastopol and Crimea. Unfortunately I was not one of the visitors with deep interest in the history of Ancient Greece and thus this historical site did not leave a deep impression.
At this very same place stands “monuments” from more recent history but with substantial history value nevertheless – the Bell of Chersonesus and St. Vladimir’s Cathedral. Even though the history is more recent, the story about it was more interesting to me. The Bell of Chersonesus is around 2,5 tons heavy and has been cast from Turkish canons captured during the Russian-Turkish war of 1768–1774 and is also one of the most popular symbols of the city. The bell formerly was located in city of Taganrog which, at that time, was considered the main base of Russian navy. When this title was claimed by Sevastopol, the bell was moved to this Crimean city. A century after the bell was moved to Sevastopol it was captured by the French during the Crimean war and sent to Paris. The plan was to melt the bell and use the metal to cast cannons, but eventually it ended up at Notre Dame in Paris. In 20th century, after some diplomatic negotiations, as a sign of friendship and unity, France sent the bell back to Russia and it was placed at the shore of the Black Sea as a fog signal bell.
Even with all these man made historical artifacts and their beauty, it was the coastline of Black Sea which was the most admirable place in Sevastopol for me. The yellow rock formations together with the blue waters of the Black Sea reminded me of Ukrainian flag and the coastline is now the only place in Crimea where you can see this combination of colours.
It is almost impossible to see the blue and yellow together in the city of Sevastopol, the Ukrainian flags on the licence plates have been covered with stickers in the colours of Russian flag. Russian flags are flying next to all governmental buildings, but at some of these, traces of Ukrainian coat of arms are easily visible. On one hand Sevastopol in winter may seem kind of depressing, but this is true only as long as you have not seen Fiolent promontory. Our wonderful hosts took us to the promontory and finally we could fully appreciate the breath-taking beauty of the place. While climbing the narrow costal paths we saw caves on the surface of the rock cliffs and people living in these caves.
It turned out that during summer almost all of these caves are inhabited and from time to time somebody tries to live there also during the winter. The weather was exceptionally warm that day and thus we decided for the first time in our lives to take a swim in the Black Sea.
As already described, at the day when we had planned to leave Sevastopol we woke to discover that two of our bikes have been stolen. For this unfortunate reason we had to linger in Sevastopol for few more days.
“The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts” -Yvon Chouinard
As sitting and whining usually does not solve anything we had to try and find the bright side. And actually it was not so hard to find it – this unfortunate event gave an opportunity to give well-earned rest to our knees and to see southern cost of Crimean peninsula (together with Laura we had planned to travel through central part of Crimea, using train transport). And, we visited the place which our ‘guide’ from Armyansk described as “the only historic place really worth visiting in Sevastopol” – memorial of 35th Coastal Battery.
The last day in the city was a national holiday in Latvia – Day of Lāčplēsis. As a large portion of Latvians don’t even understand the historical significance it would be imprudent to ask something like that from people in Crimea. It was a special day for Latvia and for Latvians so we decided to do something special. The weather had started to get colder and keeping that in mind we decided to do something “heroic” – we decided to go swimming in the Black Sea for the second time. This time we took with us a miniature Latvian flag. Our performance was witnessed by locals who seemed kind of amused about our crazy actions, but we did not meet with any hostile reaction.
We left the packing for the last evening maybe because we did not want to confront the fact the two of our beloved bikes are gone or we were just lazy. It is hard to decide. We finally had to do it – we had to pack all of our stuff in two huge backpacks to see if it is possible to put them on our backs. After we had packed all of our stuff we had to find out how much exactly does it weight. Laura’s backpack weighted 30 kg, since it had the capacity to hold the tent and food, mine was somewhere around 22 kg. We decided that it would be a good idea to switch bags before starting our adventure through the Southern coast of Crimea.
How it was to travel separately during the day and meet only every night? Can you actually hitchhike across Crimea? As we only have a bit more than one week left in Georgia, we will try to tell the untold stories as fast as we possibly can.