Short Escape to Ukraine. Day 5/6: Crimea back to Kiev and Home

25.03.2014: Asleep by about 2am. Remembered to switch the headlights off by about 3am. Found the seat reclining lever by about 4am. Woke up at 6am to the realisation that I was in quite an active bus station. I looked at Mike Tyson’s face on the side of my Black Energy drink and swigged large. Turned Radio Crim on to find them playing Tetris, that europop version. I switch Radio Crim back off again, for the final time. This new dawn.

Just as an aside: Leisurewear. It’s still massively, massively in vogue out here. The two piece tracksuit seems to have held its appeal like no other garment. It speaks volumes about the wearer: I am street; I am a contender; I am ready to get athletic at any given second; my logo’d brethren and I belong to the same tribe and we care not for taste.

Well anyway, I had to return the car by lunchtime so unfortunately most of the day revolved around that and therefore having to hang around the railway station until my 17h10 overnighter. Just before I made the train, I wanted to load up on food and drink for what’s going to be the next 14 hours. First two machines weren’t taking my card then I noticed other people struggling to take money out also and there was a queue coming out of the bank over the road. Was this what they call a ‘run on the banks’? Never one to miss out on a decent queue I went over to join them where smugly, my money was offering itself out. So because no one else could get any cash, I somehow thought I should stock up on their behalf. I now have several hundred hrvina that I will need to change up when I get back to Gatwick. Tit.

26.03.2014: So I came to Crimea straight after it fell back into Russian hands and from where I’ve been standing, everybody down there seems pretty cool about the situation, in fact more than cool, I get the feeling that the vast majority of Crimeans are actually pleased about the annexation. It’s only Kiev (and the rest of the country?) that isn’t. When Cornwall goes, will I give a shit? Yes I think I would actually, but I like the idea of union not division (although that could be an argument for Putin), which is why I’m pro-Europe and anti- Scottish separatism. I refer you to my former comment: Why can’t we all just get along. Come on guys, let’s go down the pub.

Short Escape to Ukraine. Day 4: Yalta, Feodosiya and back to Simferopol

15h02, 24.03.2014. I come downstairs to the addition of a British flag alongside the other two. I feel honoured. They also have pictures on the walls of the famous names who have been here. Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Vladimir Klitschko (although to be fair he’s all over the shop around here) but more importantly: only Gloria Bloody Gaynor! Yes her, she who will survive.

So after a full belly load of breakfast, waiting for that to go down then a 50 minute in-room workout session, I came out for a stroll along the prom prom prom listening to my tunes, feeling supercharged, feeling happy as a pig in shit actually. I’m so pleased I made this trip. It’s a zero cloud, blue sky day. That sunshine feels good.

Meanwhile, “The Ukraine acting President has ordered all Ukraine troops to withdraw from Crimea due to threats to life.”, so that’s nice.

I kept on walking and found this lone guy, doing his flipping parkour on to the beach at the west end of the front. Cool as the cucumber. Was happy for me to take some shots, will upload when home. Heading back to the car with the intention of getting on my way, I came across a statue of Lenin, at the foot of which a large tent with various documents pinned on to it, lots of red, white and blue and supporters hanging about, chatting away about it all. Ironically, Lenin’s gaze was straight at this here McDonalds, so I grabbed a coffee and some WiFi under my comrade’s direction. Power to the people.

18h43 24.03.2014, I’ve been driving for some time along the wiggly mountain roads head east along the south coast towards Feodosiya. It’s dark but I’ve pulled up by the sea which I wanted to touch before I leave this part of the world. Repulsed by the quality of music on the radio, I’ve been playing whatever I’ve got on my phone, although we’re already doing the second round. ‘Careless Whisper’ has just come on and quite frankly I wish it was something a bit more relevant.

Feodosiya turns out to be a large, neat enough, port town, this place along with the rest of the country feels safe even at night. I take a long walk around the place, grab some substandard sushi and cherry juice before deciding that this morning’s events have been and gone. But still not ready for sleep, I decide the drive the remaining two hours back to Simferopol where I pull over, take my blankie out and try to get comfortable.

Short Escape to Ukraine. Day 3: Simferopol, Savastopol and Yalta

08h05, 23.03.2014. Slept better. The bald bloke with the ‘tache is really good at snoring. He’s also really good at attempting to fix the compartment door throughout the night. I awake just outside of the peninsula with less than 2 hours to go. Fairly non-descript scenery, fog, fields, the odd concrete bridge here, disused farm building there. The women next door have already started their gassing for the day. Like their lives depended on it. Women and talking, we’ll leave that one there for now.

Taxi over to the all but dead airport. As expected, Budget Hire Car (along with every other main brand) are shut as (despite my travel agency double confirming “no, no the car is definitely booked and ready for you.”). Just opposite the main International Departures building though I found a local one, nice bloke, good English, explained to me that the banks are now playing up as things change over to Russia and that the deposit that they block authorise from your card  – they currently can’t unblock it, and it could be like this for some time. Not a problem, let’s just get the car shall we. Russian state TV plays out in the background of his office.

Posters up all over the place reminding everybody of the March 16th vote. Most flags down here are Russian (95.5%?). On buildings, cars, shops, posters, wherever I go it all appears to be pro-Russian. I asked the cabbie whether we were in Ukraine or Russia. He gesticulated by covering his ears and shaking his head that he’d just heard too much about it already. Or that he hated my company and I should never ever question his politics again.

17h44, Savastopol, a pleasant cafe near the Black Sea. In fact I’ve been to about 4 of this chain now, couldn’t tell you what they’re called as it’s in Cyrillic but they’re all beiges and browns. All very professional and they don’t ask me what my name is. Very brief power cut. Drove around the city twice trying to locate something other than every day life, but somehow somewhat disappointingly, that’s all there is. People strolling along the promenade, lovers canoodling, a steady flow of traffic going about its business.

  • The Russian rouble is the official currency here as of today.
  • Bypassed the road to Balaklava. Fact: Balaklavas were a British invention, they were knitted by the soldiers’ old dears and sent out to keep them snug during the Crimean War.

Been listening mainly to Radio Crim and Shiyeet FM, both given carefully considered names. Lots of rhetoric about Ukraine, Russia, Villiam Hague, Americanski, Obama. And then a Ukrainian radio play which sounded good too. Same shit, different frequency. Art imitating life imitating…

01h39, 24.03.2012: Spent about 2 hours trying to work out the roads into and around Yalta. Nearly slept in the car until I found the Oreanda Hotel at about 00h30.  Yalta seems a nice quite upmarket seaside town. They (the Yaltese?) are however trying their best to naff it up with brightly coloured, badly placed children’s play areas and fairy lights. I’m flagging, best go to bed, will get some phys in tomorrow morning. On the front desk downstairs there are two miniature flags in a little stand, one Russian, one Ukrainian. Looks like someone’s hedging their bets. Choose a side. Or don’t. Whatever really. Night.

Short Escape to Ukraine. Day 2: The War Zone and the Sleeper down to Crimea

16h23, 22.03.2014: A cafe just off Tarasa Shevchenka Boulevard. Big old walk around town. Legs feel well utilised. Tried to follow a map, failed but meandered about enough to get an ok feel for the place. Nothing amazing but a nice enough place. Quite a bit of wealth, quite a bit of poverty, nice buildings, everybody seems happy and friendly. Some bloke tried to pull a scam on me that started off with him making out that he’s just found a roll of hundred dollar bills. Pull the other one Vlad.

Nothing abnormal looking about the town so was thinking that would be that, then turned the corner into what looked like ‘Main Street’ and came across The Barricades. The whole length was occupied with large tentage; loads of soldiers hanging about; shed loads of tyres piled up as some kind of defence; yoofs hanging around playing ball games in the street, thousands (no exaggeration) of Ukraine flags giving it the Blue and Yellow; bricks and mortar strewn around the place; people chopping wood to throw on the makeshift fires; merchandise trestle tables selling more flags, ribbons, caps, badges; and then what I think is a water cannon truck which must have been involved in the goings on weeks back, left there smashed in from the front at a jaunty angle like it’s going nowhere soon. But surrounding all of this, daily life and shopkeeping continues as normal. I snapped away happy that I’d come across a bit of what I was looking for and went away to find an overdose of caffeine. Two nights in a row on about 4-5 hours isn’t ideal.

18h30, Right, this stuff I didn’t see enough of on the news (BBC pictures from 19.02.2014). And I just didn’t expect that the aftermath would still be all around. I came back to where the action had been and explored further down into and around Independence Square, the part I originally found was only the start. Parts of the city are a war zone. The vibe is like the calm after the storm before the storm. I’ve left my main bag at the hostel but have no concern for any of the camera kit I’m carrying (famous last words) as with such shit having gone down, there seems to be a collective feeling of peace and good will hanging around the air. The soldiers are mostly sans weapons, they just chill, waiting. There’s a lot of people on their soap boxes telling others how it is and everybody seems to be in agreement: it’s not good. There’s a large pro-EU bit. There’s Christian leaders who seem to be rallying to keep others happy. There are thousands of flowers all around, where people have fallen. Sometimes there’s an outline of stones where a body would have been. There’s a large building headed ‘TicketsUA’ that’s been blown to fuck. There’s a tent city within the city as people stand by, unprepared for the next move. It seems as if people haven’t cleared up perhaps because they see it’s not over so why do a job twice. This city isn’t how it wants to be. Why can’t people just get along. I have another coffee and walk away from it all to go retrieve my main bag just as it becomes dark.

19h44, My sleeper is due to leave in 15 minutes. Found an outlet to catch a quick blast of power for the phone and laptop before I board. Quick look through my camera at the day’s phot. I think there’s some good ones in there. Shame I can’t get any uploaded until home (cleverly didn’t bring my CF card adapter, amateur). Really pleased with the day’s discoveries.

The train is due to arrive in Crimea at 09h42. I love long train journies. I guess I need to look ahead already to how/when I get back here if Simferopol Airport is on lock down. First thing I need to do as soon as I’m in tomorrow morning is to locate a car. Once I’ve got that I should be at liberty to be at liberty.

20h34, Boarded the train hassle free. Clean, tidy and the 3 others in my compartment seem fine and are behaving themselves, so far. I’ve ordered a coffee and a beer. Time for a read then sleep.

Short Escape to Ukraine. Day 1.1: Kiev for the Night

Modern airport, middle aged bloke with a hip Klitschko beanie hat, uninterestingly shaking hands with someone he’s introduced to in the currency exchange queue at the airport. Lots of neatly presented young women on their phones. Fat, grumpy, older women serving behind counters. Language may be a bit of an issue here, this isn’t like the rest of Europe where you can rely on the fact that everyone speaks a modicum of English. They don’t. I locate confirmation from Ukraine International Airlines that there will be no flight into Simferopol until April. So putting aside any forthcoming admin nonsense for a potential refund on that part of the flight and my hire car, am heading into Kiev. But I change up the £30 I had left in my wallet and move outside to locate the 322 into town.

18h46, 21.03.2014: Am on the bus. Clean straight road heading into central Kiev, about 45 minutes away. To all intents, just another prosperous eastern European city. Going to go straight to the railway station in the hope that I might be able to catch a sleeper south this evening or suss out what options there are. And surely someone there would know whether I’d be allowed into Crimea (‘Crim’ they pronounce it).

At the railway station I’m immediately accosted by various hawkers with alcoholic breath, I play hide and seek with them for a bit then queue at a ticket window after seeing that there’s a train that leaves tonight bound for Simferopol. After 20 minutes queueing I’m told by another fat grumpy lady that it’s sold out so I go down to the platform to see if I can just get on anyway. I once, maybe 1997, got a train all the way from Mumbai to Calcutta for free this way but no luck here. Every entrance to the train has a guard wearing a really large hat, indicating that they mean business so I retreat back upstairs for a ham and cheese roll (bonus: coriander), beer and a Bounty then queue for another twenty minutes for another fat and grumpy lady to see if I can get a ticket for tomorrow. With a bit of help from a kind woman who clocks the communication breakdown, I walk away a little later, ticket in hand. Looks like I’m going to Crimea after all. And this on the day that the BBC has as its headline: Putin Signs Crimea Annexation.

I haggle for a 40 hryvnia taxi (started at 100, thank you) to the Chillout Hostel not far away. Settle into a dorm, head to a 24 hour coffee shop for a couple of hours so find myself up until 03h20. The guy in the bunk below has obviously been placed there to test me.


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