Actually, it might indeed prove too good to be true, at least as far as we Westerners go. If Russia again claims the peninsula, a new visa regime will put us ex-pat Crimea-users out of business. But until the Russian marines seize the KerchStrait and storm off their bases in Sevastopol, you might visit the following, non-Yalta, locations and tell your grandchildren you did so. Yalta’s for suckers.
If the lost mountain cave city of Mangup Kale were located in the West a swarm of hippies would be occupying it, tripping out of their gourds and communing with the weird local vibrations, snuggling up to the crumbling stone walls. Actually, hippies do in fact occupy the dug-out stone caves of this ancient clifftop fortress, 600 metres up in the strange inland Crimean air. This eerie network of rooms chopped into the wind-swept plateau not far from the Tatar town of Bakchisaray (great name, as Pushkin knew when he exploited it in a fine orientalist poem), came into being in the 6th century when the Byzantine emperors decided they wanted a Crimean stronghold with which to intimidate Turkic tribes who might have contested their regional authority. Over the centuries, until it was finally depopulated about 200 years ago, the Khazars, Ottoman Turks, Karaites, and other groupings occupied this atmospheric, and from a military perspective quite near impregnable, point.
Whether the sky is brilliant with sun or, as often happens in this micro-climate, scudding with clouds, Mangup Kale is ghostly. Spiritual energy seems to seep out of the ground here and crackle in the air like radiation. That’s what draws the hippies, who are Ukrainian and Russian kids who call themselves ‘Indians’, and who live in the same vaguely disquieting caves the city’s ancient population lived and fought and died in. The Indians have earned a reputation for hooting at the region’s occasional tourists, trying to intimidate them into handing over sandwiches and hryvnyas and such: it’s their way of welcoming you, I guess. When we visited, one of our number from Kyiv turned out actually to be friends with an Indian chief, which means we had the mixed pleasure of sitting down with them, in their dreadlocks and blackened bare feet and stoned, sweet eyes, for a grimy sort of powwow. When the wine bottle was passed back to me, moving from mouth to mouth, somehow I didn’t want to swig from it so much anymore. No more for me, thanks, I’m fine. Tucked behind one of the cliffs is an Orthodox cave monastery that you can climb a ladder and visit, and that’s so strangely beautiful that I might as well shut up and not try to describe it. Dress yourself accordingly.
The village of Mangup Kale, at the plateau’s base, is where you can get good Tatar food, like that wonderful lamb stew known as lagman, served by good Tatar people. You can also stay with former Russian northern fleet submariner Boris Nikolaevich (or maybe it was Nikolai Borisevich, or even Sergey Ivanovich – I forget), who moved to Crimea to thaw out and rents out clean rooms for cheap, or who did the last time I was there. He’ll show you his collection of shells (as in explosives) that he dug up around the area, some of them dating to the Crimean War, and let you taste his homemade wine, even if you show up before breakfast.
Koktebel, Sudak, Noviy Svet
What I like about the Crimean south coast’s small towns is how low-rent they are. These places are the anti-Yaltas, there’s no pretention in them. Josef Kobzon isn’t appearing in them anytime soon; no chump is tooling around them in a Bentley. There’s just, on the one hand, the old sanatoria and the beaches and the water; and, on the other hand, lots of sunburned guys standing around in sleeveless t-shirts in their run-down yards, smoking Kazakh cigarettes and messing around with ancient Volgas propped up on blocks. The yards are littered with busted appliances; grimy hounds sleep under trees bursting with lemons. You’re in the Slavic version of the Deep South. Everything’s sleepy, slack, rusty, dusty, comfy, and good.
Koktebel is one of these towns, with its rink-a-dink boardwalk, an extremely pleasant shabby arcade that lines a beach swarmed with everyone from the inevitable fat guys in their shorts to pensioners casting for whatever fish swim the local waters. Koktebel would fit right in on the American South’s Redneck Riviera on the Gulf of Mexico, except that in Crimea they don’t allow pick-up trucks on the beach. (At least not yet.) But wait, Koktebel’s got some serious claims to high culture too: visiting the house (now a museum) of the Silver Age Russian poet Maximillian Voloshin, with its views of Kara-Dag mountain down the coast, is a pleasant exercise in what my fourth-grade schoolmarm called ‘cultural enrichment’.
Sudak, not far down the coast, is a more tidy locality: all gleaming sub-tropical gardens, each rose and cactus flower dewy and gleaming. An atmosphere of whitewashed purity reigns here. I get the sense down there that this is what the Soviet UNI0N was like at the height of the Stalinist era, when sheer terror kept the proletariat in shape and the landscapes tended: you can be sure the gardeners were out in their white smocks at dawn, making sure every rose shone like a 60-watt bulb. Even the old Soviet sanatoria, and there are a lot of them, are well-kept. Get a load of the luscious grounds of the official vacation facility for Lviv railroad workers, over on the extreme westward part of town, if you happen to be over there. The place might as well be in Biarritz.
Sudak is well-known for its 14th and 15th-century fort, erected by those enterprising trading people known as the Genoans back when their commercial city-state was making its presence known throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea region. I couldn’t give a damn about forts in general, but this one is a doozy, its walls and towers draped over a huge amount of tall-grass hillside, and peaking out atop a huge limestone knob that rises over the Black Sea. Climb to the highest point and look over the sea and along the coast, if you’re like me, something like vertigo spins your head.
Beyond looking at the fort, what do we do in Sudak? My climber wife and her friends scale the cliffs that loom right over the water – if climbers were to fall off these rock walls, they’d fall right into the Black Sea (good), or close to it (not so good). As much as possible I try not to climb, but spend my time running in the hills, and swimming, and communing with the juniper trees that seem to comprise about 70 percent of the vegetation in these Los Angeles-looking hills. (The junipers make this area a martini-drinker’s paradise, or hell, as on a sunny day the air smells like gin.) We camp wherever we want, and would have even camped right on the beach, had our spot not been taken. This is the true land of the free, and the uptight, overregulated West has little on it.
Noviy Svet (New Light) is a ten-minute bus ride down the coast from Sudak, and worth a visit. The cliff grottos over the sea are a tourist attraction, and rightly so. You can’t miss them: all Noviy Svet signs point to them, all overweight Moscow and Kyiv tourists lumber toward them. After checking them out, continue walking the path through the coastal hills to CapeKapchik, which juts into the water into the distance. The light, the subtropical colors, the splendor, the glittering water – it’s psychedelic. Kapchik separates Blue Bay from Light-Blue Bay (it sounds better in Russian), and as you sit at the end of the high, narrow ridge of it, a million miles above the sea and surrounded by water glistening in twenty different shades of turquoise/blue, you think life’s not so bad after all. Walk back from the cape to town through the ancient juniper forest (in the West these trees would all be behind barriers) and buy some wine in a BonAqua bottle from a Tatar woman near the fruit market, and the day is done.
Gee It’s High Up Here
Foros is a snug seaside hamlet over which loom mindblowing cliffs over which form masses of cottony cloud. If you’ve ever driven the coast road either to or from Sevastopol you’ve seen the tiny Foros Church, perched way up high above the town and under the cliffs – as if a fragment of Kyiv’s Saint Andrew’s church had migrated southward like a bird.
The church is your landmark for getting to some of the best camping and hiking in this country. Shoulder your knapsack after getting off the marshrutka at the Foros stop and head up the road cliff-ward and you’ve got two choices. One, you can bear right onto yet another mountain road that winds up for 40 or so sweaty, sun-baked minutes until you’re at the base of cliffs where, tucked into the woods, there’s a shady campsite inhabited by rock-climbers and watered by an underground spring that emerges nearby. (To find the spigot, look for the big piece of graffiti written on the road that says, in Russian, ‘USA: THE VOMIT OF HUMANITY’. It’s right near there.)
That’s one campsite, but there are many. Instead of taking that rightward turn-off, you can also bear leftward instead, toward the church. About ten minutes above the church you’ll find the head of the trail leading up to the ocean-sized, windswept, sun- plateau atop the cliffs. You can camp in the woods there and spend days exploring this challenging paradise, heading northward into the mountains if you wish. Everything’s empty on the plateau; no one’s there except the reptiles and the rock-climbers, who pop up above the lip of it sometimes and throw themselves into the grass to recover above the sea before gathering their ropes and hiking down for beer at the café at Baydarsky Pass, which is also a geographic feature worth taking a look at. This being Ukraine, you can camp anywhere you want in the nearby and wake up with a view of the sea smacking your in the face. At night, take the 40-minute walk down to seaside Foros and swim. If you’re soft, hire a local with a car to drive you back to your campsite.
I could go on, but the point is that there are about a million Crimean places to go that don’t involve the corruptions of Yalta and that put you in the presence of the hot, dusty, ramshackle heart of Slavdom, far from where the western tourists go. Everything is so cheap that, even if you’re tentless, the experience of them borders on free – such hamlets are still the land of the $10 rent-a-room deal. You eat roast meat in the local cafes, you swim where you want, you build campfires, nothing’s a hassle.
One detail, however: it’s difficult to access the Other Crimea without some Russian. I say ‘Russian’ because I mean Russian; the Diaspora Ukrainian you use to speak with your immigrant grandmother back in Toronto will get you by, but this area is culturally Russian to the core, and not shy about that. It’s in fact hard for me to accept that the south Crimean coast is part of the same country as Kyiv, which gives me one thing in common with the boys in the Kremlin, though I still hope they keep their hands to themselves.
Anyway, Crimea is a troubled, complicated paradise. Get down there and get into the provinces, so to speak, bypassing the trough for pigs that Yalta has become. You don’t need it. No one needs it.