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Published: September 3rd 2012
Train stations in former Soviet countries are not the sort of place you would want to subject children to for aтy longer than absolutely essential. Nevertheless, every available inch of seating at Kiev station is taken up by families who, according to tradition, have arrived many hours before their departure time and sit there meekly doing nothing while they await their train. The waiting hall is an enormous, high-ceilinged cavern of a room but only a small proportion of its floor has been installed with seats, which are super-densely packed together and leave those early-arriving families clumped together like a blob on one side while the rest of the room remains empty. Those without sufficient foresight, or who simply cannot be bothered, to arrive hours before their train are left to explore the station’s array of cafes. They are dingy little places with tables but no seats, offering a fine assortment of beer, vodka and junk food, populated by men with skin so darkened from drinking and eyes so squinty that they look almost Asian.
An eighteen-hour ride south, however, brought me and my girlfriend Alisa to a station of an entirely different nature – that of Simferopol in the
Crimea, Ukraine’s southern, diamond-shaped peninsula on the Black Sea. The station’s whitewashed pillars and arches shone in the dazzling sunlight while a light breeze made the intense heat pleasant even while carrying a heavy backpack. Beer taps and vodka bottles behind bars had been replaced by rows of 5-litre see-through plastic bottles of red wine on the street while hot dogs and pizzas had been replaced by shish kebab and fresh salads. Many of the people really did have slightly Asian features, being Crimean Tartars, descendants of the remnants of one of Gebghis Khan’s Mongol armies that for many centuries ruled Crimea.
While sitting in a cafe just outside the station, eating a salad and sipping a glass of red wine, I was convinced by watching passers by on the street that the pace of life here really was slower, that people really were more relaxed, than in a capital city like Kiev. Even their walking speed seemed to be lower, the calm strolling on display here utterly different from the hectic dashing one sees in a capital city, particularly one like Kiev where people are used to trying to get out of the cold as soon as possible.
Perhaps it was just me and not them that was feeling more relaxed, due to the change of scene and the wine, but either way I am certain that climate has a massive effect on people, places and culture. And right now, judging by my surroundings alone, I could have been in the Mediterranean rather than Ukraine.
That illusion was quickly dispelled when a bus ride across town took us past plenty of dilapidated Soviet architecture, the low-quality five-storey apartment blocks flung up all over the USSR under Khrushchev.
Another bus took us out into the countryside, through an arid semi-steppe landscape covered in yellow, brown or dull green grass deprived of enough rain to make it verdant, and delivered us to Bakhchisaray, the former capital of Tartar Crimea. From there a third and final journey on a tiny, rickety bus with seating torn to shreds took us back out into the countryside. The gasping yellows and browns of the steppe suddenly rose up into mountains and plateaus towering hundreds of metres above us on either side of a crumbling asphalt road. To our left the ground rose upwards right from the edge of the road in gravelly,
boulder-strewn slopes but to the right the mountains were further away, on the other side of a small valley through which a narrow river flowed, and their slopes were densely covered in luscious, dark green forest. On both sides, peaks were invariably formed by long, sheer, flat-topped cliffs that extended vertically from the upper edge of the slopes.
We descended from the bus at a point were a track branched off perpendicular to the road and led into the village of Bashtanovka. It crossed the shallow, gurgling river on a little stone bridge and, lined by shade-giving trees, continued straight as an arrow past a few fields and into the village. Under the trees a grizzly-faced man in dungarees and a straw hat sat watching three cows grazing in a field of the same parched steppe grass that held sway in this landscape everywhere but the mountainside forests.
We entered the village and walked into the dusty, one-storey huddle of whitewashed, tile-roofed buildings separated by disintegrating asphalt or earthen back lanes, a gentle breeze bringing scents of lavender and honey drifting in from nearby fields. The track continued through the village until the point where the ground started
to slope upwards towards the mountains and the forest began, where we turned left at a junction and walked down a level street protected from the sun by the first rows of overhanging trees on its right-hand side. On the left were a few houses, well-spaced out from one another, several with signs hanging from their gates to advertise the fact that they sold milk, cheese, sour cream, honey or other home-made products.
We drew level with an old lady who was walking down the street dressed in a long purple skirt, a plain red blouse and a headscarf. Her skinniness, slightly hunched back and wrinkled, puckered old face suggested she was well into her eighties. We asked if we were going in the right direction for number seven on Pervomayskaya Street. She replied that we were, explained how to get there from here and offered to take us, keeping pace all the way and telling a lively story about how she had got caught in the rain the previous day while walking home from the shop but hadn't minded as rain was rare around these parts and the crops needed as much as they could get. The difference
between her and people the same age in Kiev or Moscow, where pollution, low-quality food and the cold lop a decade or so off people's lives and leave most people making it to their eighties semi-debilitated, was staggering. I couldn't help comparing the spring in her step with the slow shuffling and hobbling one sees among the very elderly in Moscow, her accuracy of hearing and clear, concise answers with their near-deafness.
My super-granny illusions were dispelled when she directed us down a side street to the right and it turned out to be the wrong one. We returned to the main street and crept along it some distance behind her in the shadows so as not to cause embarrassment. Eventually, however, we came to a dusty little lane leading off to the left in the direction of the river and headed down it, being pretty sure that this was where our guest house was, ripping off whole handfulls of bitter red cherries from overhanging trees as we went.
And that was the start of our stay in Bashtanovka. We spent four incredibly relaxing days in this calm, quiet village, during which we ate traditional Tartar food, swam
in the alpine lake a five-minute walk from the guest house, explored the ancient, still partially inhabited cave towns and went hiking through the forests or along rocky cliff tops in the surrounding mountains.
We then moved down to the coast and rented a small room in Cape Fiolent from an old man who dressed permanently in a smart shirt tucked into smart trou and was never seen without a straw hat on. He owned an enormous garden where he grew some of the most delicious fruits I have ever tasted, and invited us to eat as much as we wanted - peaches the first bite of which could drench your shirt with an explosion of juice if you weren't careful, huge bunches of cherries so tasty that we ate them till are hands were stained a deep, dark purple. He spent all day hanging around the nearest bus stop, waiting for tourists to arrive and, when he found them, driving them 50m down a dirt lane from the bus stop to his house in his old Soviet banger. Near his house a monastery stood on the edge of a near-sheer cliff, down which 800 steps somehow found their
way to a beach where we spent most of our time.
After several days at Cape Fiolent we continued East down the coast to Alupka and Yalta, with their endless castles and palaces, crowds of Russian and Ukrainian holidaymakers, dolphins playing off the coast every night and babushka accommodation mafia who pounced on tourists the moment they descended from the bus with offers of rooms and apartments for rent.
Then it was back to Simferopol, twenty four hours to Moscow, one night there and another two and a half days to the Russian North. Six weeks later, while still traveling, I sadly lost my memory card with all the best of my Crimean photos on it, leaving me with only the few that I have included in this blog.
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