Continuing the recount of my tour of Ukraine over a decade ago. See my previous posts from Odesa, Sevastopol Arrival and Balaklava.
Khan Do Attitude
Bakhchiseray is a stop off on the main line from Sevastopol to Simferopol in Crimea. Back we went to the scene of the previous day’s hell. I was pleased to see that Dora was still dishing out her own unique style of public relations, but less so to see that Anna was absent.
The platform was extremely crowded as people waited for the train that shuttled back and forth all day, to arrive. It slowly crept in and many passengers had no time to disembark before the impatient waiting hordes started to board.
In the ensuing scrum, Hamish and I managed to get on quickly enough to get a seat. Dozens of others were not so lucky. The train itself was vintage – wooden carriages, slam doors, large opening windows, hard wooden slatted seats. It cried out for our engine to be of the steam variety but alas diesel was the fuel of choice.
Our co-travellers were all locals, mainly in the pensioner bracket. Many had come to the city for a big shop, so were now weighed down with countless bags filled with shopping. As we progressed and stopped at tiny stations, the shoppers disembarked to go back to their villages to re-stock their larders.
Other pensioners going in the opposite direction, probably to do their shopping in Simferopol, replaced them on the still crowded train. One guy boarded with two crates of chickens to add to the mayhem. The fowl clucked and pecked anything they could stretch their necks to reach, including the ankles of already stressed fellow passengers! The smell was not too great either.
All things considered, we were delighted to arrive at our destination. We realised that there had been more foreigners aboard than we thought as around forty camera wielding travellers alighted with us.
Bakhchiseray station was a run down local affair that shared the proximity with the local bus station. Our main purpose for travelling here was to visit the Khan’s Palace or Hansaray to give its proper name, a throwback to the Turkish Ottoman Empire days when large swathes of the Crimea followed the Islamic faith.
Turkish influence and Russian expansionism were underlying reasons for the Crimean War. At that time (1853) the Ottomans included Jerusalem within their empire, which was ruled by an Ottoman pasha.
Russia saw the Orthodox-Catholic spat that centred on control of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem as an opportunity to intervene and draw Turkey into a war it really didn’t want. The idea was that Russia would inflict a crushing defeat on the Turks leading to the break up of their empire, with Russia benefiting from more territory, whilst also enabling them to boot the Islamic Tatars and other Muslims out of the Crimea.
As the row escalated, the French decreed to come to the aid of the Ottomans, honouring a treaty they had together. After a lengthy spell of diplomacy, the French persuaded the British to join them to crush the Russian Empire with the aim to make them powerless to aggress anymore.
Regardless of the war’s result, the Tatars were now seen as the enemy in Russia, leading to them being mercilessly persecuted. Many were murdered and their communities destroyed. Ethnic cleansing (what a horrible term) has been around for a long time. That the palace survived almost entirely intact is something of a miracle.
We took a minibus with other camera toting day-trippers to the Khan’s complex, a large collection of Ottoman buildings, which included the main palace, two mosques, a harem and a cemetery, all enclosed within a high perimeter wall designed to keep the outside world out. It was this wall that was the key to its survival, as it made defence of the settlement possible.
We were certainly glad that it survived as we viewed the impressive multi-coloured
buildings set within a peaceful flower garden complete with ponds and fountains.
The area was still home to many Crimean Muslims and a couple of dozen prayed in the mosque whilst we were present. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours wandering around the grounds & buildings before it was time to get physical.
Next on the list was the Orthodox Monastery, two miles up the road. We lunched on the hoof on crisps and cake – Hamish having a huge slice of sickly gateau for his dessert, me favouring an enormous rock cake. This proved just about sufficient fuel for the hot march in the midday sun to the monastery, the last mile of which was through some welcome woodland shade.
It was well worth the trek as the secluded church atop a steep path gave wonderful views over the surrounding countryside and up to our third and final destination, a cave city.
The monastery itself was a typical affair so we did not stay overly long before continuing our ascent to the caves. The climb was steep and winding through a rocky landscape. It was still 30+ Celsius as the clock struck 2, so hat, sun cream and water were very necessary.
After what seemed an age we finally arrived. We could see our destination for a long while as we zigzagged along the path, but it seemed we would never reach it.
To an archaeologist no doubt the site would have been captivating. People had lived in the caves for centuries. Petra it wasn’t though. Whereas the Nabateans had left us wonderful rock hewn mega structures, here we were expected to imagine churches, shops and houses from a few rocks and boulders scattered about the place, plus dank caves that were dotted around. Not really worth the effort in my opinion, even though the views from the top were wonderful.
The walk down was hard on the knees and burning to the feet, but at least we were able to get a bus from the end of the woodland path. Back to the station in plenty of time, but frustratingly the train was to be two hours late.
Whether information was available or not we did not know, so we just waited and waited and waited. Hamish used his train spotting skills to announce that the track bogies had changed after an hour to indicate the imminent arrival of a train on our platform at last. Blast, it was a freight train.
We had to wait for another hour for Hamish’s bogie skills to come to the fore again, happily this time heralding our passenger train.
Road to Nowhere
When we got back to Sevastopol it was pitch black. No problem, all trams go to the centre. Wrong! We realised something was amiss far too late and alighted who only knows where. Furthermore we didn’t even have a tram ticket to take us back from whence we had come. Drat and double drat!
We were at an intersection of several roads, each containing tram lines, surely one would lead to the centre? In the gloom we could not make out any tram stops so walked in what we hoped to be our desired direction.
We struck lucky after five-ten minutes, coming across a stop that had a tram every thirty minutes to the centre. We waited twenty minutes and then our carriage arrived. Two conspicuous ticketless travellers alighted praying that there would be no ticket inspector. No worries as it happened, despite the fact that we did worry all the thirty-minutes we were aboard.
At every stop we craned our necks to spot the people alighting lest one or two looked like inspectors. Ten minutes into the journey, two guys wearing identical blue jackets and carrying clipboards did get on to send our hearts pounding. When they started talking to the passengers, we started planning our rapid exit at the next stop.
The pressure was eventually eased when we realised that they were handing out political leaflets. Never before have I been so glad to be given a glossy sheet with words on it that I did not understand!
Saturday night in Sevastopol, party time? Not really. There were quite a few bars, but most young people seemed to just like strolling to see and be seen. You will have probably gathered that we are neither party animals nor foodies. A pizza, a couple of beers and something interesting to look at is pretty much all we need.
Tonight would be no different. There was a strip of bars near the aquarium and we could hear that one was playing pumping music. Further inspection showed a couple of energetic podium dancers strutting their scantily clad stuff in front of about twelve middle-aged men sat in ones and twos about the venue. That’s entertainment!?
The only other fun that seemed to be on offer was a few pier type games. One such game involved darts and balloons, with the aim to throw the arrows and burst the balloons that were attached to a wooden board.
We watched some drunken blokes fail dismally. We feared for the safety of passers by, so wild were some of the throws. It was pretty funny to watch and when one chap managed to somehow burst one, he acted like he had won the World Cup such was his over the top celebration.
Next day was Sevastopol day. I had read all about the siege that took place during the Crimean War. The Brits and French bombarded the strategically important city, so the Russians built huge barricades using whatever they could lay their hands on – trees, furniture, building materials – and dug in for the onslaught.
After twelve months, their resolve finally buckled and anticipating defeat, they sank several of their own ships to block the harbour and prevent their enemies using it for themselves.
Sevastopol itself was completely obliterated and the impressive white buildings, parks and boulevards we saw now dated back from after that time when new Sevastopol rose from the ashes.
Now a pleasant place, we counted eight brides using the backdrop of the sparkling Black Sea for photographs. Amazingly we took in another museum, the military one recounting mainly the Crimean War and of course the siege. Having seen quite enough replica galleons, we sped around, but thought two museums in three days must be a record for us. Oh yes we forgot, apart from that time in Tirana.
All in all the day was a good R&R day in preparation for the next day’s twenty-seven hour marathon. This was our second longest train journey ever behind my trip from Arctic Circle to the South of France and Hamish’s trans-Siberian adventure (I must stop mentioning that trip)!
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