Sunday, November 6, 2011

A hike to the pristine wilderness of Crimea

Anastasia collecting water at a spring with her 14-year-old brother Oleg.
The fog begins to lift.
The distant peaks of Babugan.
Fog rolls back in.

With my hiking companions--Oleg, Anastasia, and Alex. My PCV pal Cheryl was also on the hike.
Cheryl makes her way down the "trail."
Vineyards provided our snacks at the end of the hike.
Demerdji Mountain in the distance.

It’s a chilly Saturday afternoon in November. Winter seems to have come early this year, as we’ve been having cold temperatures consistently now for a couple of weeks. Finally the heat was turned on at the library so I no longer have to wear multiple layers. My lovely room at home is still cold, though, and will be all winter as it is over an open porch with no insulation. But I can always go downstairs to warm up, and I just bundle up to work on my computer…or sleep.
Before the experience recedes too far in my memory, I wanted to write a few words about a hiking trip I did two weekends ago. I had contacted the woman I met when I went to the library in Alushta, a town on the coast. She grew up there and is very familiar with the surrounding mountains, plus her fiancĂ© is an ex wilderness guide. Anastasia and I had been hiking once before, but Alex ((the fiancĂ©) didn’t make it on that hike, so I only heard about him, especially as it was his directions we were following on the hike. We always had to go where “Alex said,” even though sometimes it didn’t seem to make much sense, and one time I refused because it was more of a rock scramble than I wanted to do.
So I was a little bit hesitant about the upcoming hike we planned together, because I knew Alex would be accompanying us. I kept saying, “no intense climbing, rock scrambling, etc.” And sure enough, they were true to my request, as the hike was on relatively easy trails…going up. But on the way down, Alex decided to veer off into a trail less area, and we, of course, had no choice but to follow him. So down we went, bush whacking our way along a steep creek bed filled with fallen wet leaves which obscured the footing underneath, climbing over fallen trees blocking our way. I was so grateful that I had brought my hiking poles back from the US and had them with me. I’m sure they prevented many a fall as we slogged our way down. What is it about these Ukrainian men? Alex was a nice guy, but it reminded me so much of how we (me and the family) travel with Neshet, when we just basically go where he wants to go without much consultation with the rest of us. The first part of the hike took longer than expected, and at some point we had a choice of a shorter route, which seemed to me would have been the wiser decision, but there was no discussion, we just went where Alex went, and it turned into a very long hike—eight hours or so. It was pretty dark by the time we got back to Alushta.
But, in the end, despite all my grumbling of once again finding myself in the very unfeminist position of following some guy on a mission of his own choosing, I was so glad I had the opportunity to do that hike. Grateful because it took me to a place that I would guess few foreigners ever get to experience. We went to a large mountain plateau called Babugan, at the end of which is the highest peak in Crimea. Once a hunting reserve for Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, it has been declared a nature reserve and closed to the public for many years. Which doesn’t mean the occasional hiker doesn’t go there, especially the locals like Alex and my friend Anastasia, but it does mean that it is the most pristine wilderness in all of Crimea. And that was so evident—few trails, no garbage or other remains of humans, no big crosses marking the peaks (as is common here). Unfortunately, fog engulfed us as we got to the top of the plateau and hiked along the edge to a peak at the far end called Kush-Kaya. The views on a clear day must be spectacular. But as if a gift from the heavens, for a few minutes the fog lifted as we sat there having some lunch, and we could see all around us the rolling landscape of the plateau and the distant peaks. What a beautiful, desolate place it was. Once again I found myself filled with a deep joy and gratitude that at least for now, this land of Crimea is what I call home.
Despite our tiredness, the day ended well, as we spent the last hour or so walking through the large commercial vineyards surrounding Alushta, snacking on the leftover, very delicious grapes. As we all parted at the bus station—Alex and Anastasia to their home in Alushta, Cheryl and I to the bus back to Simferopol—we made plans for a spring hike to the other end of the Babugan plateau where Roman Kosh, the highest peak in Crimea, is located. And hopefully it will be a sunny day with the views we knew were there behind the fog.
Much love from Crimea.

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