Category Archives: Ukraine

Route Thoughts

Tashkent:  09.05.09

(note track maps now updated in the Trip Data section)

One of the principles behind choosing the overall route was where possible I was going to try routes that I felt were lesser travelled or untravelled by western motorcycle travellers … in doing that, documenting them will expand the knowledge base on sites like Horizons Unlimited.  I also had the chance to explore some regions that have had a long standing interest to me, like the North Caucasus, Kalmykia et al.  So this is a chance to review some of those routes as alternatives for those planning on heading out on the great trek east, to Mongolia, Vladivostok, Magadan or wherever.

Lets start with the Balkans.

Its a bit out of the way for most people heading east thru Ukraine, but our experience in the Balkans was very good.  Inexpensive food, accomodation, great biking roads, plenty of good fuel and a real sense of adventure going thru places like Albania give the Balkans a real thumbs up from me.  Sure there are a couple of highlights heading thru Czech Republic and Slovakia, but in general its all over very quickly and its all very tame.  The Balkans was better preparation for conditions in the CIS, while still remaining very close to EU countries in case of problems.  Borders were no problems at all … very quick, and the only  point I would make is definately take a green card from your insurance company.


Certainly more interesting that the Ukraine in general.  Ukraine lasks the diversity of Russia and for me is just one of the countries I push thru on my way to Russia, tolerating the overzealous cops and border officials as par for the course.  (in terms of dodgy cops and border officials, recent years has seen a marked improvement on the Russian side, while the Ukraine is still dodgy as you like … such that Russia is notably more transparent, open, efficient and less corrupt than Ukraine)  Perhaps the main areas of interest in Ukraine are the Carpathian mountains in the east and Crimea in the south.  I missed the Ukrainian Carpathians (having seen them in Romania) and the interesting scenery and ethnic history of Crimea definately helped break up the Ukraine.  Travelling that way also allowed me to head pretty much directly into the Caucasus once I entered Russia.  Also found a cracking bike mechanic in Yalta … that alone could be a reason to have Crimea on a route east.  Any teething problems can be nipped in the bud there at Valera’s place.

North Caucasus:

This has largely been avoided by western bikers, partly because of a lack of knowledge about what is there and to a lesser degree a fear about safety.  I hope this blog has shown how much interesting peoples and cultures can be found between Adegeya in the west and Dagestan in the east.  On top of that you have Europe’s highest mountain range.  Considering how dull a long ride across Russia can be if you stick to the main routes I personally thing taking in interesting regions like the North Caucasus should be compulsory.  The last thing you want from Russia is an endless chore of just eating up miles for the sake of getting across the country … one of the most interesting counties in the world in terms of both peoples and geography.  If I could only recommend one thing from this trip so far, its to go to the North Caucasus, with a bit of knowledge about the region and you will get a hell of a lot out of it.

The Beyneu Route:

The two main routes to  central asia for western motorcyclists are to go via Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan or to go down Kazakhstan thru Aktube to Chimkent.  There are plenty of reasons to look for alternatives, such as the Beyneu route I took.  (a) the ferry from Baku to Turkmenistan has no schedule.  Its not unheard of to wait 3-4 days for the ferry, spend a day or more on the ferry and then wait in harbour at Turkmenistan end for another 2 days before unloading.  On top of all that uncertainty, Turkmenistan may give you a 5 day transit visa, and may insist on a tourist visa.  The Tourist visa requires you to be escorted thru the country at great expense.  in any case, the visas are not that easy to get, and the only thing worth seeing in the country is the Darvarza burning crater, I can think of 100 reasons not to travel thru Turkmenistan.

(b) travelling via Aktyubinsk (Aktube) means you miss the highlights of Uzbekistan.  You wont see Khiva, Bukhara or Samarkand.  You wont see Khwarezm or the Karakalpaks.  Of the 5 central asian republics, 3 are countries I reckon you definately want to see … Uzbekistan for the culture and food, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for the mountains and mountain roads.  Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are (in my book) “missable”.

Putting that all together, and the route through Beyneu should be the main route.  The route of first instance !  I would recommend it.  The Kazakh side is pretty dull, but you do get to take in all the interesting bits of Uzbekistan without going out of your way.  And it is a route that is reasonably well used by Russian and Kazakh bikers!

Russia at Last

19.04.09 Tekos, Russia

My day began in the Hotel Kerch by taking advantage of the finest shower I had found in the Ukraine. This was followed by an hour or so to take advantage of the wireless internet in the hotel lobby. I was paying up for these things, so I might as well use them I figured.

Eventually, after my complimentary omelette breakfast, I packed up the bike and headed out towards the ferry to Russia, 15 km out of town.

I arrived at the port at 10:00, only to learn there was a ferry at 10:15, but the customs and immigration process for that boat had closed and the next one was at 1:15pm. Bad start to the day. Wasting 3 hours at a sleepy Ukranian ferry port was not something I was looking forward to. I found the ticket office … it would cost me about 3 EUR for me and 4 EUR for the motorcycle. I returned to the motorcycle to get my documents to find a traffic police officer waiting for me. I had apparently crossed a railway crossing with a flashing red light 500 yards before the port, and he was determined to nail me for my last 500 yards in the Ukraine.

The customs guys came over to see what the fuss was about, thought my motorcycle was pretty cool and pleaded with the traffic cop to let it go, but the cop was having none of it. It took about an hour to write out my ticket in duplicate, write out the penalty in duplicate and for me to go the the bank, change money, pay the 32 EUR penalty, get a receipt from the bank, get a receipt from the cop etc etc etc. About 50 forms and an hour later and he was done. After he was gone, I bought my ferry ticket and spent my last 3-4 EUR worth of Ukranian Hryvna on fruit juice and bounty bars. Having seen me go through all the drama with the traffic cop, the customs and immigration guys were apologetic and sped me thru to wait for the arrival of the 1:15 ferry.

The ferry eventually loaded up and pulled out about 2pm … which translated to 3pm in Russia … the Russian port of Port Kavkaz was an hour ahead of the Ukranian Port Krym. The crossing was only 20-30 minutes, but I wondered when I would clear the Russian port, bearing in mind I was arriving at 3:30pm.  To my pleasant surprise, the Russian side was far more efficient than my arrival in the Ukraine at Reni 8 days ago. Immigration only looked at my passport for a minute (unlike the 15 minutes of scrutinising every stamp and every blank page that the Ukranians did). As for customs, a kind motherly woman shepherded me thru the whole process, and tho she spoke no English, helped me fill out the forms and arranged my insurance.  Note for budding travellers … Russia accepts the Green Card insurance set up too these days and they actually asked for it … implying they would have happily honoured it. As I didnt have that I took 5 month insurance for about 50 EUR. That should cover my whole travels in Russia.

I was out of the port and on the road by 4:15pm. I was amazed at how relatively efficient it had been, particularly compared with the awkward guy I dealt with at Reni, who I suspect was awkward because he wanted a bribe. In contrast the Russians were relatively efficient. I had met a couple of guys on the ferry deck, one of whom was on my route and invited me to stay with him that night, 300 km down the road. He gave me his phone number, but now that I was out of the port, I called it, and it seems I had the wrong number. Oh well.

15 km down the road from the port and I stopped at a police checkpoint to have my documents checked for the first time in the trip. A quick glance at the International Driving Permit (IDP), the International Certificate for Motor Vehicles (ICMV) and my Passport and he waved me on my way. No long lingering glances or shaking of the head implying problems (really implying bribe time) … so far I was glad to be out of Ukraine and into the relative civility of Russia. Even the roads were better here.

I motored thru the summer resort city of Anapa, then the major industrial centre and port city of Novorossiysk before finding another great road south from Gelendzhik. The road was not busy and wound past valley streams and really quaint villages. Immediately I began to think of camping for the night. It was after 7:30pm now and the sunlight was just about gone.  A few km past the village of Tekos, I saw a campfire next to a cottage up on the hill. I slammed on the brakes and rode up the dirt track to the cottage. Around the fire were 7 or 8 Kolkhozniki – guys who worked together on a small communal farm. They told me to forget the idea of camping as it was too cold in the night, and to stay in the cottage instead.

In the soviet times, farms were either of the Kolkhoz or Sovkhoz variety. The Sovkhoz farms were fully state owned and run and larger, while the Kolkhoz farms were semi private, smaller and the kolkhozniki (people who worked the kolkhoz) had to provide a set amount of produce to the government – the remainder was theirs. The ultimate Soviet idea was to move everything over to the sovkhoz style farms, but successive soviets realised the partially privatised kolkhoz farms were far more efficient and never got around to sovkhozing the lot.

The kolkhozniki plied me with chai (tea) plov (meat and rice) and stories. Let me digress from the story here for a second. I will post a picture of my meal. Partly to show how simple life is in a kolkhoz and partly because I have recently received a request from a “high ranking official” to post more pictures of food. Apparently a picture that doesnt include food or a motorcycle is a wasted picture. Yes, I know what you are thinking, this sounds like a man with some strange fetishes, and you are probably right, but never-the-less, I feel obliged to honour the request – thus the picture of Kolkhoz dining service plov above.  Gordon Ramsay eat your heart out baby.

For a cityboy, this was an evening out of a fairytale for me. I was in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, set in wild forested hills, clear water streams in a small cabin / cottage with the kind of guys who more than any I have ever met, are the real salt of the earth. These guys had very little in the way of posessions, but beamed happiness at having all they need. All the fruit, vegetables etc they need come from the kolkhoz, and its all very fresh. They also kept bees and cut some huge chunks of fresh honeycomb for me. very tasty. Many of the kolkhozniki lived in nearby villages and went home about 10pm, leaving me in the company of a family from Dagestan who lived permanently in the cottage. As is typical of Dagestan, the family was completely mixed ethnically. The father was Tatar, the mother Russian, the son and daughter mixed and the daughters boyfriend was Tabasaran. They set me up in a small room complete with power socket to recharge all my phones, laptop etc etc. Fantastic stuff.

– – –

I woke up after a fantastic nights sleep, on a very dodgy bed, was cooked breakfast and chai by Mama-san, and packed up my gear and hit the road down to Tuapse, before I turned inland and through the mountains. The road from my overnight kolkhoz to Tuapse was by the coast and motels and restaurants lined the route, tho many were not yet open at this time of year. By mid-May it would be really easy to have a wide choice of places to stay if motorcycling in these parts.

I needed to change some USD, as I only had a couple of hundred rubles on me, and I would soon need some fuel. Perhaps tonight I would also want a hotel and some food. It was sunday and the policeman I spoke to in Tuapse said there was nothing open today, and tomorrow is a holiday. I was unlikely to last till Tuesday without rubles, so needed to find something. The cop said it was possible I would find something open in Maykop, the next big town I was heading thru, and though it would be a stretch for the fuel tank, I had a few rubles with which to top up with if things got close. So I turned inland and headed for Maykop. The road was another great riding road. In fact I will add the whole section from Gelendzhik – Tuapse – Apsheronsk to the recommended roads section. It was through forested hills, following mountain streams the whole way. It really fitted in with the whole back to nature feel I had since arriving in Russia.

One of the things I love about this country is it has so much wilderness and nature, and the Russians love that and use it. People are always out picnicing in the forest. There are a little more than 2 times as many people in Russian as in the UK, in a country hundreds of times the size. There was no real chance to shower with the kolkhozniki, and having seen their latrine, I decided to wait a while and find my own location somewhere down the road. Being in the forest and the mountains, hundreds of opportunities persented themselves and eventually I turned off the road, down a track that led just 30 or 40 yards through the forest to a mountain stream. There is something “back to nature” about taking a dump in the woods. Maybe I have been cooped up in the city too long, but that and washing in a mountain stream, on the rocks, in the sunshine, in the forest, was extremely liberating. I had only been in Russia less than 24 hours, but the whole exposure to nature has been incredibly uplifting.

After my little break, I got back on the road, got to Maykop, which is the capital of the Adegey Republic, one of many semi-autonomous republics for the many nationalities in the North Caucasus. I found an open “obmen valuti” (currency exchange booth) in the centre of town, just as my fuel warning light came on and got myself some much needed rubles. Apart from topping up with fuel, I also took the chance to grab some lunch and chat with an Adegey father and daughter who had also stopped at the same Shaurma stall. I only went another 40 km out of town, where I saw a modern looking hotel. It was only 4:15pm but I thought I might as well have an early day.

I was the only guest in the hotel, so could afford to take a bed in a shared room knowing I would have the room to myself. It was only 8 EUR, and had a nice open fireplace. Allegedly it had internet and a sauna too, but the internet was only for the expensive rooms (more like 45 EUR). And the Sauna took 3 hours to heat up so they decided not to turn it on for a cheapskate in a shared room. I chatted with the receptionist, a cossack girl, about Adegeya.

Historically the cossacks were native Ukrainian horsemen who were loyal to the Russian Tsars and were instumental in the expansion of the Russian empire. The Tsar had promised them land just North of the Caucasus and the cossacks went in and took it, pushing the native peoples up into the hills and mountains. Accordingly the cossacks and the North Caucasian nationalities have historically been on opposing teams, and that history seemed to remain in the receptionist who clearly had no intention of mixing with the Adegey, despite being born here and having lived here all her life. She didnt go to Maykop when she wanted the big city shopping trip, but to Krasnodar, an ethnic Russian city 4 times further away. “Too many Adegey in Maykop” she said.

A note for travellers to Russia / Kazakhstan … the russian words for Cossack (pronounced kaZAK) and Kazakh (pronounched kaZAKH – with the KH being like the gutteral ending to the scottish ‘loch’) are remarkably similar for two completely unrelated peoples. If you dont make the effort to clarify the ending and say the work ‘Kazakh’ as we often do in english, you will likely be confused as to meaning Cossack. Similarly, the words for a female of each is also remarkably similar. A female cossack is a ‘kaZATCHka’ while a female kazakh is a ‘kaZASHka’.

As I suspected, post oil and tyre change fuel economy on the bike has returned to normal levels, around 25 km / litre (4l/100 km or 70 mpg). I filled up earlier today with 20 litres, having just done 500 km, much on twisty mountain roads.

Facing up to Russia

16 April 09:  Feodosia, Crimea

I left Yalta knowing the bike had been pampered this week.  Electrical love on Monday in Odessa and a full mechanical service in Yalta on Wednesday.  My last act was to give Valeri a Sibirsky Extreme sticker. He beamed a smile as  he prepared a spot on the back of his transit van for the treasured item.

On the road, the bike was humming.  Maybe carrying the extra tyres or the old oil was causing me to have had poor fuel economy for the last few days but after the oil change and the new tyres fitted, the bike was flying!  I felt a real difference in the performance of the bike and without the weight of the tyres sitting high up on top of the rear bag, it was much lighter and more flickable.  The road from Yalta to Feodosia was a real gem, especially east of Alushta, and the lighter, higher performance bike gave me a real buzz.  My only concern on the windy hilly roads was how quickly I had been wearing through front brake pads.  The XC had a dirt bike front brake set up – a single small disk and small caliper … nice and light and not too grippy in the dirt, but not as durable or secure on twisty mountian roads.

About 5pm I pulled into Feodosia, headed for the centre of town and called Yuri, the guy on the R6 I met yesterday at Valeri’s garage.  He said he could actually see me. In a city of 100,000 people I had apprently pulled up right outside the front of his apartment.

He took myself and the bike to his lock up garage (where it became apparent he also had a couple of KTM dirt bikes) and then zoomed me around town in his brand new Lexus.

Yuri confirmed that he drove all the way to Yalta to get Valeri’s advice on a mechanical issue and said he is the best bike mechanic in the Crimean Peninsula.  I have to say I have never had such a feeling of confidence in a foreign mechanic before as I had in Valeri.  Anyone heading this way should track him down.

Feodosia is one of the oldest towns in the former Soviet Union, being originally a greek settlement over 2500 years ago.  There is a lot of history there, including a 13th century Genoese Fortress, and Yuri made sure I saw it all.

– – –

17 April 09:  Kerch, Crimea

The day started in Feodosia by giving Yuri a coveted Sibirsky Extreme sticker, then off to the hairdressers.  I got what I feared … a mullet.  Seems to be the style here if a guy has longer hair.  I had to insist on a few alterations to the back to avoid looking like a complete tool.  Now, hours later, I am sitting in a cafe in Lenin  Street, Kerch, having just collected a new bank debit card.  Only problem was there was no PIN code with it.  I have sorted out something with the bank staff tho to get it forwarded to me.  So almost back to normal on the funding front.  Actually there is a lot of Lenin-abilia around these parts.  Not only is the main street in Kerch still Lenin Street, I am in the Lenin Region, and passed through the town of Illicha and Lenino earlier today.

UK radio is playing on the stereo here … must be internet radio.  Not sure what the locals make of all the “” insurance adverts with silly Russian accents, but its reassuring to hear English voices again.  I havent met a native speaker since saying farewell to Jonathan over a week ago.  Speaking of Jon, I just heard he has safely arrived back in blessed England.  Take a break mate, you deserve it.

Took a bunch of back roads here, some dirt, some blocked due to recent installation of Russian military sites.  Kerch is the last stop before Russia.   Its 5km away across the Kerch Strait, so i might as well enjoy this internet access and make sure everything is uploaded and up to date.


15.04.09 – Yalta

This was the second day of the trip with no miles to  cover.  The bike was with master off road mechanic Valeri, and I was going to help, film and generally get in the way.

First up was to remove the front forks, and service them.  While doing so he noted a lot of dirt had got under the dirt seals and was scratching the chrome on the forks.  I had planned to fit some socks / gaiters anyway, but this convinced me it had to be done now.  The only pair Valeri had around were KTM ones.  I had no choice it had to be done.  I now have KTM socks on my BMW.

Next job was to fit the Touratech handlebar risers.  Every other set of bar risers I had seen are neat little extenders that are a 2 minute job to fit, but the ones for the XC require fork removal.  Ever since laying eyes on them, I had shoved them away in the bottom of my bag (the “too hard” basket) for a time when the forks would be out.  That time had come.  It was also a chance to straighten my handlebars.  The only dropping of the bike so far was gooning around in Romania, crossing a bunch of railway tracks with Safran.  I fell at the final hurdle, and broke a pannier mount, a brake lever, dinged the front rim and ended up with non-straight bars.  Not really worth it for the few seconds of cheap thrills.  the brake lever was no drama – it broke after the useful bit anyway.  The pannier mount was fixed with a custom steel part in Odessa, and now in Yalta I could straighten the bars and sort the rim.

Front and rear tyres came off, and Valeri attacked the rim with a mallet and makeshift anvil.  He was stunned at how soft it was.  3 bashes and the rim was good.  He said if it was an Excel rim, he would have been bashing for 10 minutes.  And after schlepping (along with Jonathan and Marcin) my two Mefo tyres round Europe for over 2 weeks, I finally put them on the bike and ditched the original fitment Metzeler Saharas.  I have a new set of tyres waiting for me in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the Mefos will get me that far no problem, so no point carrying them as spares any more.

Next job was to shorten the sidestand.  Valeri welds steel, but the sidestand is alloy.  We cut a slice out of it and jumped in the van for a drive to the nearest argon welder.  10 minutes (and 3 EUR) later, and its job done. While out in the van we went down to the Livadia Palace, a former summer playground of the last Tsar, but more well known as the place where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met in 1944.

The air filter came out.  I had  changed the standard paper one for an oiled sponge type filter before leaving England and it was getting pretty dirty.  Insects and dirt were all through it.  Out came the hot water and detergent and the filter was cleaned, dried and re-oiled.

Overview Panorama of Yalta ... uncanny resemblance to the South of France

Final job for the day was an oil and filter change.  Having not done one on the XC, I decided to sit back and watch and learn from Valeri, who also had never done one on an XC either, but totally knew what he was doing.  The first problem was oil.  Valeri recommended his favorite synthetic oil that he used in his KTMs, just a slightly different temperature grade for the BMW.  It was the most expensive oil I had ever bought.  We went down to the oil retailer, who had just about every high perfomance oil under the sun, for cars, trucks, bikes, whatever.  The stuff I needed was 19  EUR a litre.  And I needed almost 2.5 litres for the XC.  I would have to buy 3 containers and it would add up to 80 USD.  But at least the bike now has the very best Motul synthetic oil.

Draining the oil made me happy I watched Valeri do the first oil change.  Valeri removed the sump plug and wailed.  The oil was as black as the Ace of Spades.  After draining the oil from the sump he immediately looked puzzled.  “Its not 2 litres” he said as he looked for a second drain.  Finally he found it.  The XC is a dry sump bike meaning there are two oil drains.  The main one at the bottom of the engine, and the reservoir drain tucked away on the side of the bike in a hard to see and harder to get to place.  Glad I saw him figure that one out.  If it had been me I would have ended up changing only half the oil … basically wasting new oil and a new filter.

While I was ready to test ride the bike and fill it up with fuel, a guy rode in an a newish Yamaha R6.  He was from Feodosia, 150 km away, and had popped in for some mechanical advice from Valeri.  Seems Valeri is the top bike mechanic in the whole of Crimea.  I found the right guy.  The young guy on the R6 introduced himself as Yuri and invited me to stay with him tomorrow night.  As I am headed that way, I took him up on it.  After spending 80 bux on engine oil, I could use a little hospitality.

Finally with all that out of the way, I headed into town to find internet.  There was allegedly free wi-fi internet at McDonalds, but I couldnt get it to work yesterday, and I noted that the fancy hotel at the other end of the esplanade was sending my wi-fi phone into a frenzy, so I popped in for 2 EUR an hour high speed wi-fi.

Had a few requests for track data.  I have it all  (apart from the 75km leg from Balaclava to Odessa when the GPS mysteriously stopped working … maybe the soviets left some electro magnetic GPS disabling device at Balaclava.  Or maybe Garmin is just not what they are cracked up to be.)

I have sent the track data  to Jon “Baltic Extreme” Fox who is almost back in the UK … he will look at ways to get it up on the website.  – Probably in the data section (which is blank at the moment – while we work out how to populate it)

Crimean Tatars

After grabbing a few gratuitous sunset pics just before the internet last night, I grabbed a quick dinner and had an early night.

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.