I’d like to take you back to the year 2000, I was a relative novice on a bike but I was overcome by some uncontrollable urge to don some Lycra and commit to a 300km bike ride for charity around the Crimea. This was my first real exposure to the delights of two wheels and I was hoping for a life changing experience. I had agreed to raise funds for a relatively unknown Charity which helped burns victims in Russia. I satisfied myself that this was loosely related to my occupation. Ok, my job is to actually try and prevent fires and the subsequent burns but hey only a minor oversight!
My knowledge of the Crimea was limited. I knew it was in the Ukraine and was the location of the infamous Crimean War. My limited wisdom had been acquired at school and I was amazed with the useless information I had actually remembered about Florence Nightingale and her amazing lamp, Balaclava and its bloody battle and the Charge of the Light Brigade which was famous for being completely disastrous (EPIC FAIL). Actually, on reflection I was pretty clued up on this part of the world. After checking the travel guides, I discovered the Ukraine is the largest Country in Europe and the Crimea is located in the south and on the Black Sea. The currency is the grynia but dollars are widely accepted. The water should be regarded as a potential health risk but alcohol was plentiful and people usually drank vodka. The local cuisine stems from peasant dishes based on grains and staple vegetables like potatoes, cabbages etc. Most worryingly I had read that the sacred dish was Salo, which is basically pig fat. I was hoping that I would not encounter this dish as I did not want to offend any national pride. That was a concise insight into the Ukraine and what lay in store.
We flew to Simferopol and our first hotel was located in the tiny hamlet of Sudak. I should explain the ‘we’ consisted of 16 cyclists from across the UK. We were from a diverse array of backgrounds but with one ultimate goal to raise money for a worthy charity and also to explore the delights of the Crimea on two wheels.
Day One – Sudak
The journey began, after all the talking, all the money raising and all the travelling. I was eager to get out on two wheels and introduce my Ukrainian bike to my skinny legs. It was bike allocation day and I was hoping the bikes were of a reasonable standard and not like the type I used to purchase from a large national toy retailer. I was pleasantly surprised by the condition of the bikes, they were basic MTB with 18 gears; not exceptional but more than adequate for ambling around the coastal resorts. Importantly we had highly skilled mechanics on hand to deal with any technical problems, as well as a doctor who was also a masseuse and several translators. Weren’t we lucky!
Once everybody was happy with their bikes, we headed off on a 10 mile orientation ride along the coast to Novyi Svit. The roads were extremely quiet and the bike was performing well, it was relatively light and easy to manoeuvre. The weather was positively warm considering it was October and the views back towards Sudak and its Genoese fortress were absolutely breathtaking. As the afternoon progressed it became obvious that the groups abilities were varied and small clicks were already manifesting, mainly around age but also physical capabilities. The ride was comfortably achieved and the masseur’s services were not needed, not yet anyway. The evening was quiet, we ventured to the only drinking establishment, conveniently opposite the hotel for some quiet sedate drinks. We happily swigged beer, ate piles of extra salty crisps and chatted about the task ahead and what we were hoping to take away from the experience. It was not surprising that the crisps made us drink more, well that’s my excuse, it was obviously all that salt. The early night I had wanted did not materialise and I stumbled back to the room cursing my lack of willpower.
Day Two – Sudak – Rybachye
We set of early after a rather substantial breakfast consisting of fried chicken followed by a rather substantial portion of porridge with butter, confused so was my digestive system. Our route was along the beautiful coast road, we spent most of the time riding at a moderate speed through lovely surroundings. We passed a continual conveyor belt of glorious views of the coastline and refreshing groves and vineyards. The lovely weather was a welcome surprise and added to the enjoyment of cycling along the deserted roads. The route was lined by a plethora of beech trees and my legs and lungs appeared to holding up comfortably to the constant physical demands. We stopped for a brief rest and lunched by the banks of the Black Sea, it was a wonderful peaceful enclave set amongst the backdrop of some atmospheric surroundings. After we had eaten I stripped down to my underwear, not a good sight more Mister Muscle minus the aerosol can and duster and swam in the refreshing water, it was so invigorating. After the morning exertion and the hearty lunch, I easily fell asleep while sunbathing on a patchy section of sand, if Carlsberg ever produced the best siesta, this was probably it.
We continued on towards our destination Rybache with extra vigour courtesy of the energy recharging nap.
The afternoon was much of the same but with several climbs up to 400m and freewheeling happily downhill, dropping deeper into the endless valley below before we turned towards the sea and Rybache. We stopped for a brief beer in a seafront bar. Our hotel was extremely promising from outside but it was a different story inside, bare walls, dated decor and minimal amenities. This I found similar with all the accommodation we stayed in throughout our trip.
The showers were located in a block separate to the main building and the experience was slightly unnerving. There were no lights and it was now early evening so obviously pitch black. Not ideal when you are butt naked and in a completely unfamiliar environment. The water was sporadically hot so thankfully my time naked not being able to see was limited. After a lovely meal, our jovial support crew took us to a local nightclub which was another completely surreal experience. The interior was an exact replica of my Grandma’s living room, obviously minus the disco ball and the rather retro looking, slightly washed up DJ, actually he did bare some resemblance to my Granddad. There is still this recurring memory of my continually annoying and repetitive cry of ‘Rebrov’ and ‘Shevchenko’ (to explain both were Ukrainians footballers plying there trade in England at the time) I was being the stereotypical British holidaymaker abroad, I bet my mom would have been so proud.
Day Three – Rybachye – Dubrava
We left Rybache and continued to follow the deserted coast road, heading west. I had hoped another early start and another cholesterol filled breakfast would set me in good stead for the expected arduous terrain. We steadily climbed, the scenery was wonderful and the autumnal surroundings were beautiful. We glimpsed Mount Demerdzhi with its stunning weathered rocks, one is supposed to resemble the profile of Catherine II who conquered the Crimea for Russia. The skyline was shaped by the evocative contoured rocks. After a well earned lunch we continued to climb up lovely narrow quiet roads to approximately 1200m above sea level, there were frequent stops for dried apricots and walnuts. At one point our childish nature took over and we decide to challenge each other to cycle as far up a muddy incline without falling off. Surprisingly no one fell off and the distance we achieved was minimal but importantly we were now beginning to gel as a group.
We entered the Crimean Reserve which used to be a favourite hunting ground for Russian elite. The reserve is usually closed to the public but due to the nature of our event we were granted access. The nearest you can get to experience the reserve is at the Museum of Nature in Alushta which offers a glimpse into its history and plant life. The landscape was completely immersed in beech, oak and pine trees and the beauty was only enhanced by the time of year. We followed a selection of maze like trails wonderfully flanked by an abundance of greenery. There were traces of centuries old inhabitants everywhere and we stopped at a wonderfully simple old monastery. In the grounds was a lovely spring, the whole area exuded a mystical feel, the location was idyllic and the silence was so comforting, if slightly creepy. The Monastery was simple in construction and décor and there was a stunning array of beautiful Russian Orthodox Icons on display. The peacefulness was only interrupted by our large group enthusiastically clicking away with cameras in hand.
We reached our secluded accommodation without any incident and feasted on potatoes, bread and extremely large tomatoes; they were easily the size of my fist. We were staying in a lodge deep in the forest; the homely atmosphere was greatly enhanced by the raging log fire. Everybody appeared relaxed and chilled, maybe due to the amount of time spent in the saddle and the effects of copious amounts of alcohol and bulging bellies. I noticed earlier as we initially approached the lodge a substantial property which was set back slightly secluded in the woodland. I had been informed it was Brezhnev’s Country Retreat. After several large glasses of Ukrainian wine, our confidence increased, mine especially, so a group of us decided to wander over to the property and have an impromptu look around. After a heated conversation with a slightly officious guard, access was granted. I don’t think it helped that the dialogue was in two completely different languages. The interior did not match the exterior and we trudged through non-descript room after non-descript room. The only item of interest was Brezhnev’s personal chair which was still in situ. It was actually not that impressive and not a patch on Jimmy Saville’s iconic version. Suitably deflated we left as we had more important matters to concentrate on, like SLEEP!!
Day Four – Dubrava – Yalta
It was noticeably colder this morning. From the window the sky was hazy and there was a constant annoying drizzle in the air. We started to cycle on the plateau and climbed smoothly along the Al’ma Valley. We cycled past the Monastery of Kozma and Damian and took a short apricot and walnut break. The weather improved as we pedalled past a lovely ornate war memorial. It was at this point we passed close to Mount Roman Kosh which is the highest point in the Crimea at 1545m. Our progress became slow as this section was mainly steep inclines and my legs were definitely working overtime. The sun had started to fade and was rapidly replaced by wintery surroundings, the temperature had significantly dropped and there were icicles hanging delicately from the trees. At this point I had to don my wet weather gear for the first and only time. We eventually arrived at the glorious Windy Pavilions which were built in 1956 and consisted of a stone colonnade under an ornate dome and gloriously provided some stunning panoramic views from the cliff top over Greater Yalta to the sea, it was supposedly a favourite location of Nikita Khruschoyv. Its beauty was astonishing. We decided to rest for a while and replenish our energy levels. I took some memorable photos and left. It was the first occasion that I had some consistent mobile phone coverage, four bars to be exact so I made several calls only because I could. I felt like a teenager with their first phone.
From the Pavilion we cycled past the Nikitsky Pass which was the highest point we would achieve on this trip at 1446m and began the lengthy but exhilarating descent down through some lovely pine forests. The weather again changed dramatically, the sun began to shine and I shed my rain gear as the temperature rapidly increased. There were some worryingly sharp u-bends and the thought of me over-running a corner was holding me back from letting rip. We freewheeled passed an array of amazing views, the most memorable being Canyon Uch-Kosh. The rock formation was impressive and oozed wild ruggedness, it was breathtaking and the image and experience will stay with me forever.
The descent continued and eventually we arrived in Yalta. I was shocked by the amount of vehicles and the extensive road network. I was not used to this much infrastructure after the completely deserted roads of the previous few days. Yalta is a lovely City which is spread over a large area and is best known for being the location of the Yalta conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in February 1945. In the summer the place is a magnet for holiday makers from inside the Ukraine and also Russia. During the majority of the 20th Century Yalta had been the principal holiday resorts of the Soviet Union population as foreign travel was forbidden. As we cycled through the busy streets it appeared not much had changed.
As we approached our accommodation for the evening I thought how nice the weather was for October, it was in the 20c and had been for most of the trip, the hotel was located close to the waterfront. There was a beautiful embankment following the contours of the glorious Black sea. The whole area was buzzing with people, the atmosphere was so relaxed, the locals were just happy strolling along and animatedly chatting. I had felt a slight twinge in my legs after lunch so before dinner I located Demetri, dubbed the Doctor with the magic hands, who expertly delivered a relaxing massage to my thighs, hamstrings and carves. I then decided on a well overdue early night and feel asleep as soon as my weary head hit the pillow.
Day Five – Yalta – Sokolinoye
We left the urban surroundings of Yalta and rode into the shade of the pine trees up to Al-Petri plateau at 1200m. The views of Yalta were again stunning; we pedalled enthusiastically along the plateau before we passed an imposing observatory. From this point we proceeded down at speed, again freewheeling most of the way. Eventually we approached the Great Canyon; it’s up to 350m deep and no more than 3m wide. I stood on the edge and imagined jumping off with a bungee rope attached, the location would have been ideal. It was at this point I was introduced to my worst nightmare, the dreaded Salo. Whilst we were taking a break the local support crew asked if I would like to try their national delicacy. At first I was tempted because I didn’t want to offend but the sight of the lump of salo was so off putting, so I graciously apologised my excuse being I was full. The image of a slab of lard, (it is actually commonly referred to as low-meat, high-fat bacon), balancing precariously on a slice of slightly stale bread wasn’t that appealing but the locals happily devoured it with gusto.
I was feeling lethargic today, there was nothing physically wrong, maybe the late nights, copious amounts of alcohol and the inevitable early mornings were starting to take their toll. As we made our way through a lovely tiny hamlet, we stopped at a small grocery store. The whole area was completely engulfed in shadows provided by the imposing domains and was a welcoming respite from the sun. The staff were friendly but their range of products was seriously limited, the shelves were sparse, it reminded me of images from the news in Moscow of locals fighting over small rations just to stay alive. Today the only exception was the broad smiles instead of stern moscovite facial expressions, I purchased some Russians snacks and left. We happily cycled past the house belonging to the Prince who killed Rasputin and encountered some lovely small villages, that’s when I noticed a weird phenomenon. Every village had its own friendly babushka (old grandmother) who would wave animatedly as we enthusiastically pedalled by. It had not gone unnoticed that they all looked exactly the same, maybe they discovered cloning in these parts. It was only a short distance to the hotel in Sokolinoye.
The hotel was like the rest but with probably the worst toilet of the lot and that’s saying something. Our accommodation was always completely deserted apart from our group, to be honest I found it rather eerie, every movement or noise in the empty corridors was amplified, and at times it was chilling and reminded me ominously of ‘The Shining’. We sat for a couple of hours in the communal corridor drinking and chatting about nothing in particular. After a basic evening meal I was introduced to the drinking culture of our hosts. The Ukrainians drink of choice is Vodka and it is always taken with fruit, yes fruit! They assured me that the fruit counteracts the strength of the Vodka, allowing you to drink more and for much longer. I did not disappoint!
Day Six – Sokolinoye – Sevastopol
I made a rather sluggish start to the day and breakfast was definitely not going to happen following the events of the previous night. We set off downhill following the contours of the River Bel’Bek. The landscape was completely covered by mountains, they weren’t as hilly as we had already encountered but they purveyed a ragged persona. My water intake had noticeably increased. I wasn’t sure why? We turned right towards Novoulyanovka and cycled happily past the Bel’Beck gates where the valley ran through the stunning white rocks. Our group meandered through lovely narrow, deserted roads, dissecting tiny quaint villages, vineyards and poppy fields. A couple of miles out of Chernorechye we rode up to a small monument in the shape of an obelisk, this is the Valley of the Death near Balaklava.
The monument is located in a typical, uninspiring vineyard and commemorates those who died at the Battle of Balaklava in 1854. This is also the location for the infamous ‘Charge of The Light Brigade’ where Lord Lucan instructed the Earl of Cardigan to lead 673 cavalrymen straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights and to their ultimate deaths. This was dubbed the ‘Valley of Death’ by Alfred ‘Lord’ Tennyson in his famous poem.
We spent sometime walking through the vines taking in the peaceful surroundings, it’s hard to believe that this was the location of such horrific events. The only noise was generated by the local birdlife. The Crimean War is now recognised as the first of the ‘modern’ wars fought using rifles, artillery and steam battleships. It’s also has links to everyday pieces of clothing that have undoubtedly brought misery and ridicule to children across the globe, me being one such child. Cardigan is named after Lord Cardigan, Lord Raglan who ultimately gave the dodgy orders to Lord Lucan is associated with the Raglan sleeve, a baggy sleeve which was created to hide the fact that he had lost an arm, that was a bit clumsy and Balaklava, the obvious favourite choice of all bank robbers and big issue sellers.
Our group leader then read the Tennyson’s poem out loud, the silence was only broken by the occasional chatter from the birds, it evoked so many emotions and the words were easily digested. It was a strange and mysterious place. We jumped back on the bikes and headed in the direction of Sevastopol, the roads became increasingly busy. We ascended for about one mile up to Mount Sapun and the Memorial of the British Army and Navy who fought in the Crimean War. The site included a stunning monument in the shape of a needle and the panoramic views were amazing. I took the chance to replenish my flagging energy levels on the usual apricots and walnuts and just sat and simply daydreamed.
The last stretch into Sevastopol was rather uneventful. The City was busy and bustling with vehicles and pedestrians. The roads were laid out in imposingly wide boulevards with statues associated with the communist era on each intersection, one especially caught my attention, it was a statue of Lenin surrounded by soldiers, peasants and workers. Sevastopol was home to the Black sea Fleet and was up until 1995 a closed City, for all but military personnel. The residents are predominately Russian and they are not afraid to admit their loyalties still lie with Moscow.
As we climbed for the last time I caught a glimpse of the port which appeared extremely busy. Overlooking the harbour was an absolutely astonishing statue; it is called ‘The Soldier and the Marine’ and was built in 1988. I cycled right up to this imposing structure it depicts a soldier looking out over the harbour, on watch and ready to protect. The ride had now come to an end.
I had experienced a once in a lifetime opportunity. The Crimea was an amazing place, the scenery was stunningly diverse and people were extremely welcoming. The cycling was a wonderful mixture of off road single track roads and flat tarmac roads. What I enjoyed the most was the mix of urban lifestyle comfortably married with the simple country life. It gave me an insight into a once closed and guarded part of the world. The chance of me ever visiting this area were very slim, it doesn’t appear in the regular Thomson or Thomas Cook brochures. Throughout the duration of my trip I kept revisiting certain questions that my sub-conscious needed resolving, Why was I here?, Why was I doing this?, What was my motivation?. I never did find an ultimate answer. It just felt good that I had raised thousands of pounds for a worthy charity but more importantly I felt that I had found myself, I know that is slightly clichéd but I was so comfortable and at home on my bike.
I was so proud of what I had achieved and pleased that I had allowed myself to encounter the delights of this ex Soviet state with an open, unbiased viewpoint and it didn’t disappoint, it delivered more than my wildest expectations. The only downside was the accommodation but that was a minor inconvenience compared to the rest of the amazing experience.