I slept poorly in the Hotel Fantasia in the sleepy Crimean town of Krasnoperekopsk. Typically I have been waking up about 6am, but not today. I lay in bed drifting in an and out of sleep till well after 8. There was no fantasy sleep that evening. In fact the only thing with an air of fantasy to it was the decor the women who ran the cafe had taken the time to put together for their side of the business.
By the time I had had a long shower and a pancake and tea in the funky cafe, it was well after 9. I stopped to chat with a old Hungarian guy who was driving a van back to Budapest to talk about I dont know what. It was just that we were the first europeans either had seen in over 24 hours, so might as well see if we have anything interesting to say to each other. We spoke in a mixture of German and Russian, but alas, there was not a lot of value there.
It was spot on 10am when I pulled out the the secure parking lot beside the hotel for a day on the back roads. The first 100 km gave me plenty of opportunity for filming as the roads I had chosen were pretty deserted. The country side over most of Crimea is very flat, contrasted with steep rocky mountains in the very south. I dont think I had been more than 75 metres above sea level since entering Ukraine 4 days ago.
The first sign that I was entering the lands of the Crimean Tatars was the town of Saki, which I apprached from the North. Mosques could be seen around the town and the people had different faces. As I travelled further south, through villages on my way to the former Tatar capital at Bahchisaray, the culture changed from a predominantly Russian one to a Crimean Tatar one.
Historically speaking, the beginning of the Tatar history in the area goes back to Genghis Khan. While Genghis never made it quite this far, the next generation did. Most of the population of present day Russia and Ukraine lives in the lands taken by Genghis’s son Jochi and his offspring Batu and Berke Khan, and later Nogai and Chaka Khan. This offshoot of the Mongol empire became known as the Golden Horde and ruled these lands for the nexxt 300 years. As was always the problem for the mongols, internal squabbling rather than external enemies was their undoing and the as the Russian princes began to claw back territory form the Golden Horde (known to the Russians as “Tatars”) the Horde split into 3 … the Kazan Khanate on the VOlga (Kazan is now the capital of present day Tatarstan), the Astrakhan Khanate down by the Caspian sea, and the Crimean Khanate in Crimea.
To this day, the Crimean Tatars are treated as a separate ethnicity from the other Tatars in Russia and Ukraine. All of the Mongol offshoots became increasingly Turkified with time, due to the large availability of Kipchak Turkic troops willing to follow them and the small number of Mongols to rule such a huge empire) but the Crimean Khanate became far more Turkic than the other two branches. As the Ottoman empire grew, the increasingly Turkic Crimean Khanate became a key ally and vassal state ensuring Ottomn control of the Black Sea. This ultimately led to tensions with Russia and then the Crimean War, charge of the light brigade, Balaclava, Sevastopol, etc etc.
Back to today then … I wanted to take in some authentic Tatar villages and photograph the locals, and that meant venturing off the main roads. I took directions from 3 lads on a scooter, one Russian and two Tatar. After some fun back roads, I headed to Bahchisaray to see the former Khan’s palace, now a museum complex, for some lunch. A Tatar girl outside the complex recommended me a nearby restaurant and I had a couple of Tatar dishes that have become Russian staples – Shashlik (barbequed meat – usually lamb / mutton – on a skewer) and Chebureki (a semi-circular fried dough pattie filled with spiced meat).
Over the last few years I have taken a much bigger interest in ethnicity and I hope to visit many nationalities within the former Soviet Union. Each group has their own language, history and culture, yet we in the west have a simplistic tendency to view Russia as a monolithic slavic bloc. In fact, Russia is the most naturally ethnically diverse country in the world. There are literally over 100 different indiginous nationalities in Russia. One of the most densely packed regions in terms of nationalities, is the North Caucasus, where I will be heading after I leave Crimea and Ukraine.
Over the centuries, as the Russian empire expanded, scores of smaller states were pushed up against the Caucases mountains, to allow for the Russian farmers on the plains. Now the Caucasus region is home to scores of nationalities, of which the Chechens have in recent years become the most well known. While Chechnya is predominantly Chechen, neighbouring Dagestan is the ultimate melting ground. There are 31 official nationalities in Dagestan alone, out of the total population of 2 million. 9 of those nationalities have their own daily newspapers in their respective languages. Most people there are predominantly one nationality but with traces of many of the others.
Incredibly, these groups (which include Chechens and obscure Mountain Jews) have lived together in relative peace and harmony for centuries. The North Caucasus is however a volatile region that can break out into conflict between powerful families within a nationality. More rare is conflict between nationalities, but as was the case with the Chechen conflict, there are tensions in some nationalities about remaining under the Russian umbrella.
I have digressed again. Back to the motorcycling. As I left Bahchisaray, the flat boring plains that had been my Crimea geography experience so far, changed to one of rocky jagged mountains. The south of Crimea, on the Black Sea is very rugged. The roads transformed from a boring strip of shoddy asphalt into motorcycling excitement.
There was one more stop before I headed to the summertime vacationing capital of Yalta, and that was the coastal village of Balaclava. I had no interest in the Crimean war history of Balaclava, but something far more recent. Carved deep into the rock in Balaclava Harbour was a secret Soviet nuclear submarine base, just a few hundred kilometres from NATO Turkey. The full details only came out after the cold war ended and the Ukranians closed the base. A curved tunnel, partly above water level and partly below, goes right through a rocky outcrop, starting in Balaclava Harbour and ending in the Black Sea. Th submarines entered underwater, surfaced inside the tunnel, were serviced and re-armed under hundreds of metres of solid rock, and could re-enter the world underwater, unseen. Until the end of the cold war,, even the local villagers did not know what lay behind the soviet fences. Now you can pay a guide to take you through the facility, but I had time only for a few snapshots before I had to get to Yalta, to meet a guy recommended to me by the Off Road Russians in Moscow.
I had only a phone number and GPS co-ordinates with which to locate Valeri, said to be a first class off road motorcycle mechanic and KTM afficianado in Yalta. Not surprisingly, as i left Balaclava my GPS stopped working, for the first time in the trip!!! I stripped the bike by the side of the road, checking fuses, wiring, everything, but the unit wouldnt turn on. I gave up an just put it all back together figuring I could look at it tomorrow. Valeri was expecting me this afternoon so I had to get on with it. The windy mountain road from Sevastopol to Yalta was fantastic. High speed curves as the road twists around the rocky Crimean coast would have been best on a sports bike, but I still had plenty of fun on my X-Challenge. I pulled into Yalta, and passed a guy on a Chinese brand off-road bike. I waved at him and asked if he knew of the KTM guy in Yalta. Alas he didnt, but I gave him my phone, called Valera and the two guys chatted and worked out what to do with the foreigner who could find his way to the GPS co-ordinates because his GPS stopped working. I was told to stay put and Valeri would come and get me within 10 minutes.
While I waited I took out my tool kit and decided to take the battery out of the GPS unit … maybe water had got in there? There was no water, but when I put the battery back in, the damn thing worked and I realised I was only a few hundred yards from where i was supposed to be. He led me down to his garage, under his house, and wow … it was full of KTMs in there. I havent seen any BMW’s or KTMs apart from my own since I said goodbye to Marcin and Jon … in fact I dont think I saw any other KTM’s since leaving Touratech, and here was a guy in Yalta with over half a dozen on his garage. He asked what I needed done, and said no problem to everything, asking only that I had the oil filter required for my oil change. Next he set me up with a neighbour who had a granny flat that is normally rented out in summer season, but was quickly made habitable for me. So I am all set. Just need to try and find an internet connection and the world is well.
Thats me signing off from Yalta.
PS … one final bonus. i finally worked out how to link larger pics to the blog. So click on a pic and you get a larger version. Hover your mouse over the pic and you should get a description / title of the photo. Its progress of a kind. I will go back and do that to all the other posted pics too, but that will take some time. Bear with me.