I woke up on 14th November, not having a clue where I was. This was definitely not a tent, since then I would be squeezed between Dainis and Ivars. I had so much free space around me, so we were definitely not Couchsurfing or staying in anyone’s house, there was ceiling… which meant we had not slept under the starry sky. So where..? After these and some more thoughts had run through my head in a split second, it all came back to me, we were in Yalta, Crimea (Ялта, Крим) and had just spent the night in a furniture shop. The uncommon spot probably did it, since it does not happen very often to me and thus it has definitely stayed in my memory.
Soon after I had recovered from my morning confusion, we were running around the still closed furniture shop and gathering our stuff to be packed away in the back before the store opens up for the day. Shortly after we were picked up by Marina, the owner of the shop, and taken to her house for a much needed shower and a cup of strong Turkish coffee. Enjoying a sunny, warm morning on the balcony of her flat, overlooking Yalta and the shore of the Black Sea… bliss.
We did not have much time to linger, however, since we had planned to cover a good distance this day, so soon we said bye to Yalta, or tried to, anyway.
Dainis had cycled away a little while back, but Ivars and I were still hoping for a Good Samaritan to stop and give us a ride, hitchhiking was not going as fast today. We had just about given up and considered taking a маршру́тка (marshrutka is a mini-bus/town transportation going a particular route but stopping anywhere the passengers would prefer) which would take us to the central bus station from where we could get a bus out of town and try our luck there. We did not particularly like the idea of taking two separate busses just to start hitchhiking again from a different part of town, but were ready to accept our defeat… just then, a car stopped at the last minute, win!
We had heard about the Crimean Tatars, of course, but had not actually met any yet, now, however, we were sitting in a Mazda, decorated with the flag of Crimean Tatars, shooting across the southern coast of Crimea and being told stories about their past, repression and how enormously proud they are. Also hearing occasional honking as a cheerful greeting from other cars recognizing the flag.
Having not had the best of luck in the first part of our day, we did not think it would be wise to stop just a few km later to admire the famous Ayu-Dag – in Crimean Tatar (a.k.a. Медведь-гора – in Russian) it literally means Bear Mountain. Our driver kindly explained the legend behind it: Once upon a time, a huge bear lived in Crimea. The bear fell in love with a beautiful girl, she, of course, was scared of the huge animal, so the bear kept her by force. One day, the girl managed to run away on the ship sailing by the coast. Having lost its beloved one, the bear longed for her dearly and searched and waited for her by the shore until finally it turned into stone out of grief. Believe this or believe a somewhat more scientific explanation of it being an underdeveloped volcano, formed millions and millions of years ago, you may choose, but it is still considered one of the biggest landmarks of Crimea. We also dropped our hopes of exploring the reservoir and the mountain ourselves after hearing that a few years ago hikers had climbed to the peak of the mountain only to discover they could not get back down and had to call for a rescue team. Not as adventurous as that just yet.
After a few turns here and there we passed Dainis taking pictures of the coast, we were finally in the lead, as it should be, since we were in a car, not cycling. Having gained some kilometres over Dainis, we soon jumped out of the car by a city called Alushta (Алушта), since our ride was going further to Simferopol – the central Crimea but we wanted to stick to the coast.
Truth be told, it seemed that all the cars were turning here and our desired Southern coast serpentines were going to be much, much quieter. We had been warned about this before – not many drivers actually choose to go the winding roads by the coast, but favour the safer, wider roads, even if it means they would miss out on the best sights.
After walking for a few kilometres we were eventually at the right spot to start hitchhiking again, without much luck, of course, the few cars that did drive our desired direction seemed to show signs that they would be turning off soon anyway and so on. The realization, we had been totally outplayed by some more experienced locals only came about an hour or two later, when we saw a girl getting a lift with just putting up her arm up once, about 50 metres before us! Dainis caught up with us soon after and the first thing he said was something in the lines of… “Did you know there is a bunch of people hitchhiking cars just around the corner, 100 m before you?”
Funnily enough, as soon as he arrived, a car pulled over and we arranged a ride some 7 km further. Since our driver was heading to a nearby town called Luchyste (Лучисте), we had to jump out again, between mountains and vineyards in a warm afternoon sun, we were hoping that there would be at least a car or two passing, we could flag before it gets dark, apart from a road-works truck whose driver was asking us for directions, and didn’t have any free space in the vehicle.
Luckily, about half an hour later, the second or third car, stopped and offered us a lift – a black Zhiguli no less! (To flag a Lada Zhiguli is a must, and this should be one of the first points on everyone’s to do list, whilst hitchhiking through this part of the world.)
Somehow we managed to squeeze our bags and ourselves in the car, this proved to be more difficult since there was a huge sound system in the trunk. Dima and Olja happily took us up and down some crazy serpentines to their home town. Quite frankly, they seemed quite eager not to let us leave beforehand, when we expressed the idea, since we were a little worried Dainis might have to cycle a few good hours in the dark if we went all the way to Solnechnogorskoe (Cолнечногорское) down by the sea coast. So arrived we had, and even got offered to stay at their guest house, since the vacation season was long gone, it was now empty. We accepted the invitation with a maybe and went on to look for our own camping site on the beach, which turned out to be full with dubossari (stray dogs – just a reminder, if you have not caught up on that one yet). We soon decided that Dainis too, would be most happy to spend a night in a warm room and soft bed, even more so as a surprise, and decided to accept the offer.
Dima and Olja had left us directions for their house, we found it easily and were accepted once again. The dusk had already set in and it was turning pitch black, yet there was still no sign of Dainis, which meant he would have to cycle the last leg of the distance on narrow serpentines in darkness. Easy to say for Ivars and me, we were just exploring the small, forgotten resort town. By the time Dainis arrived, we were all hungry and exhausted, of course, so went to sleep shortly after to recharge our batteries.
We woke up in early dawn, and were on the road by 7 a.m. having said goodbye to our unexpected hosts, with arms full of persimmons and chilli from their garden.
An early morning start is a great thing for cycling, not so great, nor productive for hitchhiking, since there are no cars about at 7 in the morning on a Saturday of all days! So Ivars and I started a slow morning walk carying our super light bags and watching the sun rise, knowing that today we would need a good lift, to catch up with Dainis ahead. With no luck in getting a lift from the occasional passing car, we entered the neighbouring town and then exited it. Trying out our luck on the way, we walked for a while, when a car stopped that had seen us beforehand, when it was still going the other direction, and with luck, we got ourselves a ride to the next town, whole 3 km further!
Blaming this only on the early morning hour and hoping, thinking, knowing there would be more cars going in between towns in the early afternoon, we walked again, since it was not 10 a.m. yet. We ended up climbing silent serpentines all the way up, and decided to kill some time and go off the road and climb a small mountain peak Japul Burun.
This ended up being the perfect spot for our first placed geocache on the trip, well… Ivars’ geocache. Overlooking the mountains on the North, the previous visited town Rybache (Рибаче) below on the West, sea on the South and never-ending vineyards on the East.
It seemed like summer, in mid-November, apart from the harvest season being long gone and the few grapes still left on the vines, had turned into sad little raisins. Utter silence and peace felt great, apart from the tiny voice at the back of my head saying: we could easily be stuck here for a day or even more, since no public transport goes here either.
We went back on the road after this and we could have been sleeping on the road itself, apart from the fact that it looked warm in the sun but actually was not. There were no cars. Every time we thought we heard a car, we hoped it would go the right direction and then we would hope it would stop. The actual hitchhiking ratio would be very high, if one would only count the cars driven past, not the half day, we waited. Enough of complaining, it was a beautiful day, and we were lucky to get into a car after a while.
Having finally hitched a ride, we were now storming in a pretty good speed and hopefully catching up with Dainis. The initial plan to get to Sudak (Судак), spend some time there, changed after a little phone call with our cycling team mate ahead of us and we decided to go straight to Koktebel’ (Коктебель), where some friends of friends would host us.
About 75 km from where we got picked up and an hour or two later, from mid-Summers day we found ourselves kicked in the butt with some nasty wind, rain and cold. Such is life, we bid a quick farewell to our Good Samaritan No. 7 and before he was back in his car, Ivars was already reaching for socks and shoes in the rucksack, since sandals did not seem quite appropriate for the weather anymore.
Eager to meet with our friends’ friends, we soon got in touch, just to find out, they were not home, but in town, a few km back from where we had just come from. Back we went, into town, no loss, it is always interesting to visit new places, even if they are completely deserted summer vacation towns with empty water parks, beaches, private beaches, empty hotels, closed restaurants… closed, closed, closed and empty. It seemed that hardly any locals live there over the winter either.
As soon as we got to the beach, I started to understand why would people want to spend their whole vacation here? Which was my initial thought, since I did not find it particularly fascinating.
Hidden before in the thick fog and rain, now – on the coast line openned a wonderful view of Crimean cliffs and the Black Sea this particular one – Karadag (full – Karadagskiy prirodnyy zapovednik), possibly the best sight I saw in Crimea, even with the fog and rain and cold around. This also explained a comment a friend back home had made in a message to the boys: “say Hi to the Karadag from me!”
We eventually met Pasha and Mongol, a friend staying at the place for the time, who just wanted to be reffered to just like that. And back again we go, to the house, we had been left at in the first place, but not without stopping at a store first, of course and getting some vodka and drinks.
The boys were working on the house to be finished, so we were told, better for all of us to sleep in the same room, which was fine with us, it would be warmer this way. They started making borscht and were excellent at it, since, well, Pasha is Ukrainian and it is one of the traditional dishes and well, Mongol has been around. Meanwhile Ivars and I were staring at the spot tracking page, trying to figure out, how far Dainis was and for how many hours he would have to cycle this night…
A few vodka shots in and Dainis was slowly approaching Koktebel, however, it was long dark outside. During this time I found out the story of Pasha and Mongol, Pasha is a 100% Ukrainian, however, having overstayed his allowed time now in Crimea is forced to pay for various paperwork to be done and let out of Crimea, and is under the impression he would definitely be called in the army if he does return to Ukraine and he does not want war. And Mongol – he just does not have the money to get out. Shame. Both felt quite strongly against the situation that had happened in the past year and were unhappy about having been stuck where they were. But up until now, I still do not know if this was just vodka talking in their place or vodka listening. Dainis arrives exhausted, and no wonder.
But it was a school night for our hosts since they had work in the morning, even though it was the weekend, and Dainis has arrived exhausted – no wonder there, we could not wait to sleep so we set to bed soon after. The morning came, all of us felt a little battered, but we set out on the road to get to Feodosiya (Феодосія) where we would spend the day and explore a little.
So that later we could hitchhike to another town and catch a train the next day from from Vladyslavivka (Владиславівка) to Kerch (Керч) and then to Port Crimea (Порт Крим) from where we could take 30 min ferry to Port Kavkaz (Порт Кавказ) in mainland Russia.
After getting to Feodosiya bright and early, I realized it was Sunday and a no-post day for me, again, since I had not been that successful with post offices in Crimea in general, few of them are closed now and the remaining have queues that make you start thinking a post day should be the 8th day of the week, so it was no surprise my luck didn’t come this time either. We were ready to get out of town after a short stroll around, Dainis was off on his bike. Ivars and I – walking out of yet another town.
I have learned the name Vladislavivka very well, since we hitchhiked for a while and the pronunciation of it was the main part of entertainment during our unsuccessful attepmts. After a little while we got into the car, they would take us the mere 15 km or so to the town and we met Dainis there, already rested.
Deciding it would be smart just to double-check the train departure time for tomorrow, we went to the station and it turned out, we could still make it to Kerch the same day. Feeling lucky, and very smart of course, for having checked once more the train schedule (since they are often incorrect online) we boarded the slowest train in the world.
We arrived at Kerch late in the evening. After waiting for about an hour for a tramway, which turned out to have crashed somewhere a couple of hours ago, we decided to test our luck with marshrutka that would take us to the central bus station and then take a bus to Port Crimea and the ferry, since hitchhiking in the middle of town could be dangerous and unsuccessful. After speaking to many people who tried to tell us, we had long missed the last bus going to the port, just so we would jump in their overcharged taxis, we did eventually meet a man who seemed to know every bus schedule and managed to make it to the very last bus of the day. Dainis was already waiting for us at the port, once we arrived, proving once more that bicycle travel is definitely much more efficient than public transport in cities and after a quick purchase of tickets, we were ready to get on the infamous overworked ferry, now the main commute from Russia to get in Crimea. We were about to break away from Europe and were not entirely sure – what to expect.