Friday, April 27, 2012

Return to Paragilmen

Mt. Paragilmen
I think we might be jumping right to summer here. Sure warmed up fast, but these beautiful sunny days are such a treat after our long drawn out cold winter. Last weekend I made it out hiking once again with my PCV pal Cheryl and our “protégé,” as Cheryl calls her, Lilya from the library. This time we went to Mt. Paragilmen down on the coast where I had gone with Safie and her classmates last fall. Then we never made it to the top of the mountain, as fog descended and obscured the plateau in a thick wall of grey, and our guide wisely (as it turns out because later we encountered a pair of hikers who had come down from the top and said it was snowing up there) chose to keep his charges on a path at the base of the mountain. So I resolved to go back when the weather was better and there was a chance of hiking to the top.
Here we are at the top!

Anton, one of our new hiking companions.
As usual, I only vaguely knew where we were going and the maps I had were of little use. But we got off at a trolleybus stop somewhat after our original destination along with a group of backpackers who also didn’t seem to know where they were going. But after rearranging gear from our long trolleybus ride, we all started trudging back up the highway to the turnoff that I remembered from my previous trip. We soon lost the backpackers as they appeared to be going somewhere other than Paragilmen, and Cheryl and Lilya and I started searching for a trail that I was sure must exist somewhere that would lead us to the top. On the map, Paragilmen is marked as a botanical reserve and I had read a brief description of it on the internet that talked about the rare plants found on the plateau.  So I assumed there would be many trails leading to the top, and we just had to find one. But apparently that isn’t the case, as we started off on several trails that looked promising but then just petered out in the forest. Eventually we just took to bush whacking our way up, something that Lilya wanted to do from the beginning but was held back by Cheryl and I’s cautiousness. Ah, the optimism of youth—“Get lost? What’s that? We can’t get lost…”

As it turned out, it wasn’t too hard going. I could tell from our map that the back side of the mountain gradually sloped upwards and the woods were not so leafed out that we couldn’t mostly continuously keep the peak in sight. Finally we arrived out on to the openness of the plateau and were greeted by magnificent views of the sea in front of us and Babugan plateau—the area of the highest peaks of Crimea—behind us.
There was only one other group of people up there—a woman and her two young sons—so it was not the popular hiking destination I thought it was, and thus the lack of trails. We asked the woman how they came up to the plateau, and she told us of a different approach which sounded a lot more promising, trail wise. We determined to try it on our way back. 

But first we took some time to roam the open plateau, amazing at the beauty of the surrounding area, taking many pictures, and eventually settling down to some lunch. This time Lilya did not bring a whole feast and just brought things to share, obviously with the idea of depending on food we would bring too. Maybe that first time with us she wasn’t sure us Americans would bring any food!

We searched some for the 1000-year-old yew tree that was supposed to be nestled in a crack in the rocks on top, and finally realized it was probably the sprawling tree in front of us. Most of it was clinging to the rocks over the vertical cliff face, so we really couldn’t see its thick and gnarly trunk without leaning over a very scary precipice. But it did remind me some of the very ancient trees you sometimes find in the high mountains of California. 
Dima with Lilya.
The weather started to turn windy and cold and it looked like rain might be rolling in with darkening clouds, so we decided to try and find the trail the woman told us about and make our way back down. They had long gone and we watched in what direction they left, but when we tried to head that way too, it seemed a mystery about where exactly this trail was that they were talking about. But while searching we came across a clearly well used trail that seemed to be going in the direction of the Babugan plateau behind Paralgimen, and we decided to take that, thinking it would eventually hook up with a trail that would take us down to the sea. As we went along, it continued to be a well used trail which was reassuring, but it continued to go in the direction of Babugan, which was not so reassuring. However, we didn’t want to turn back and end up bush whacking our way down, so on we went.

 And as fate would have it, we happened upon two young men—Anton and Dima—who were coming down from Babugan and knew the way out, and we ended up hiking with them the remainder of the afternoon. I mostly hiked with Anton who was eager to practice his English, and what a sweetheart he was. He grew up in Crimea and talked about his love for the land and how so many people did not understand that. When I told him how much I loved Crimea he seemed grateful that I recognized the beauty and specialness of this place. I didn’t get much of a sense of his companion, Dima, but Cheryl spent some time hiking with him and also said he was delightful. Much to everyone’s surprise, when I parted I asked Anton for his phone number with the possibility of arranging for all of us to go hiking again. He was excited about the idea—kind of an English language hiking club—so we made some tentative plans for a future hike. I’m not sure exactly how Lilya felt about them, but it turned out they all went to the same university and shared the profession of computer programmer, so had much in common. That and the fact they liked to hike! I’m thinking, “Here are some nice young men for Lilya to get to know (who doesn’t have a boyfriend).”  But they aren’t Crimean Tatar, and I know most Crimean Tatars (96% is the figure I remember reading somewhere) marry within their people. But hiking partners? Seems that could be anybody. Well, I am sure I will have some interesting stories to report from our future hikes.

Love to all from Crimea where it is finally spring and my circle of hiking companions is ever expanding.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mangup Kale and a new hiking pal

It’s Wednesday, the day I usually stay home, walk to the bazaar, cook dinner. All of which I did today—made chicken chili, one of my better family pleasers. Some of the things I come up with aren’t always too popular.

Stormy weather today—a blasting wind rattling the roofs, debris flying around. Indeed, Serdar called from the center to say that a roof had blown off one of the buildings, smashing some cars (hopefully they were parked and without occupants), and one of the cables for the trolleybuses had snapped. Neshet isn’t home yet and it is getting kind of late, so probably the traffic is a mess too. We have winds like these in Crimea somewhat often—no tornadoes I don’t think, but very powerful winds that can cause a lot of damage.

Been trying to figure out at the library exactly what I am going to do in this upcoming—and last—year as a Peace Corps volunteer, what I want to accomplish. We still have two PC funded projects to complete, and the possibility to apply for another one in the fall. Along with my English teaching, blog writing, and various other tasks, I can keep myself fairly busy, but I still feel the need to focus on a larger goal. So I decided I am going to put a major effort into raising funds for the bookmobile project. I don’t know if I will be able to accomplish it—I don’t think the odds are on my side and I’m not really a very good fundraiser—but it is an idea I so love and I want to at least give it a try. I don’t want the year to be over without at least having made that attempt. I have this continuous vision in my head of a brightly painted “bibliobus”-- as we call it in Russian-- with Gasprinsky Library in big letters on the side, tooling over the countryside, serving those remote Crimean Tatar communities scattered across the peninsula.

The other thing I decided is that I am going to go hiking every weekend, unless I have something else I need to do or no one to do it with. I know it is what I love the most, what feeds that deep love I have for this land. I am lucky that I have such a willing hiking partner in my PVC buddy Cheryl, and now I have found a new hiking friend, one of the young women at the library. After a weekend outing, I would come into the library and tell about my adventure, and she kept saying she wanted to come too. I wasn’t sure how serious she was, but then last weekend she said, “Okay, when are we going to go? How about this weekend?” So I said, “Sure, let’s go.” Called up Cheryl and made a plan to go to Mangup Kale, a place Cheryl has wanted to see and where Lilye (the library friend) had never been. It’s one of the renowned “cave cities” of Crimea, which aren’t really cave cities but the ruins of ancient settlements high up on plateaus above the surrounding valleys, with caves carved into the cliff walls. I had been to Mangup Kale once before but would gladly go again.

Our plan was to go on Monday because it was a holiday (Easter the day before) and everyone had the day off from work. By Saturday the weather was looking iffy, and Lilye called to ask if we were still going. I said “Yes, Cheryl and I will probably go no matter what,” so she said, “Okay, I’ll be there.”

I didn’t really know what to expect of Lilye as a hiking partner—she hasn’t worked at the library very long and I barely know her. She is in my little English class and does speak some English and is eager to learn more. But I wondered how it would be with a pretty much non-English speaker all day and Cheryl and I’s not so good Russian. But it turned out just really wonderful. She was a great sport—didn’t have the proper shoes or clothing, of course, and carried food in an oversized purse—but that didn’t stop her from merrily trudging along wherever we led her. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t always the best idea. I couldn’t exactly remember how to get up to the plateau so we got off on a trail that ended up being very difficult at the end—pretty much straight up on a slippery muddy slope. We were all breathing hard, clinging to roots and rocks trying to get a footing, constantly peering up at the plateau top which never seemed to get closer.

But made it we did, and of course, it was so worth it—what a beautiful, magical place. We walked around a bit in awe, but then decided to rest awhile before we really started exploring and have some lunch. So Cheryl and I got out our usual cheese and bread and fruit. But Lilye opened up that purse she had been lugging up the mountain and in typical Ukrainian style, pulled out a feast for all of us—a loaf of bread, a large bag of boiled eggs, a Crimean Tatar dish called burman which is a layered pastry with vegetables, bags of cookies and candies, a can of something that we didn’t open. We all shared everything that we had brought, but Cheryl and I’s offerings looked pretty pitiful in contrast to Lilye’s banquet. We Americans really don’t know how to prioritize things—like the importance of having lots of food no matter where you are.

After totally stuffing ourselves, we spent the next couple of hours wandering around the plateau, climbing into the caves, taking lots of pictures. Reluctant to leave, we had to scurry down a not-quite-so-steep trail (the “right” trail) to make it to the one bus that leaves the nearby village in time for Cheryl to get back to Simferopol and her bus home. We all agreed that it had been a wonderful, glorious day and Lilye said, “Next time you go to the mountains, can I go too?” And of course we agreed—she was a joy to be around and having a Russian speaker came in handy when we were trying to figure out exactly where that “right” trail was. She said she doesn’t have any friends who like to do this kind of thing, and when I think about it, I bet that’s true. Though quite beautiful in the way young women are here, I have never seen her in a dress or high heels, the typical attire for many of the women at work. She is always in jeans and looks like she could bound out onto a trail at any moment. So I am glad that we can give her that opportunity. And next weekend we are off together again on yet another adventure.

Love to all from Crimea.

Which way??
Lilye, our new hiking partner.
Remains of a 14th century fortress.
The three of us gather in front of a "window."
Looking out from one of the caves.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Back to adventuring

And on with my life here. The visa registration process is over, now I can focus on other things. And the weather has finally moved a little more towards spring. Not that we aren’t without cold and sometimes windy and rainy days, but we do have some bursts of warmth and sunshine, and I am determined as always to take advantage of them.

Besides as many local walks as I can fit in, I am starting to do some hiking in the mountains. But first, there was a trip to Yalta for a day with Nadjie to celebrate her birthday. Nadjie has a friend who lives in Yalta whom I have met several times. He is always inviting us to come and visit, so for her birthday, Nadjie decided to take him up on it. Luckily, he wasn’t busy and agreed to meet us at the bus station.
Nadjie and Stanislav on the terrace of his cafe.
His name is Stanislav—mother Russian, father Kazan Tatar. He was born in Siberia but has lived in Yalta for 35 years. I don’t know how he ended up in Yalta or what he did in the years previously—he is my age. Someday I hope to get more of his story.
I have been to Yalta several times but only with other Americans or stumbling along on my own with a guidebook. So it was a real treat to be shown Yalta with a native, someone who lived there before it became so developed. Though I didn’t always understand what he was saying, I was able to absorb enough information that the next time I take a visitor there, I can be much more helpful.

We took the trolley bus--free for us pensioners (basically anyone over 55)-- down to the water front and spent the day strolling from one end of the boardwalk to the other, Stanislav pointing out different landmarks along the way. Though it was windy and a bit cold, it was still pleasant to be there. We finished our excursion by ending up at the café he owns. It wasn’t open—is only open for the season—May through September—but he broke out some champagne and cognac in the typical birthday celebration style here, and the toasts began. Nadjie pretty much doesn’t drink, so we kept it to a minimum, but I could tell she was pleased by the attention. She kept saying that Stanislav and I are her only true friends, which though I don’t like to think of that’s true, perhaps it is.
Stanislav's cafe.

The following weekend, Cheryl and I took off for a true hike. The weather forecast was iffy, but more and more I realize exactly how unreliable the forecasts are here, so we just decided to chance it. She got an early morning bus into Simferopol (a 2-hour ride for her) and met me at the train/bus station. We also took off for Yalta, but instead of going into Yalta, we caught another minibus once we got there to the Uchan-Su waterfall and an 8 km. hike on the Botinsky Trail. We had heard about this hike and been wanting to try it. And I’m so glad we did—what a stunning trail along the mountains high above Yalta with magnificent views of the surrounding countryside and the Black Sea.

We started the hike at Uchan-Su, the highest waterfall in Ukraine. I had been there once before but there was little water running then. But in Yalta the weekend before I had seen how high the river was that comes down from the falls, so I wanted very much to see it again. And we were rewarded for our efforts.

Uchan Su means “flying waters” in Crimean Tatar and what an apt description it is of the water bursting over the mountain top high above us and “flying” down to the rocks below. As is true of many famous sites in Crimea that are accessible by car, there was a small admission fee to take the path to see the falls. When we came to the gate, the woman there said something to me about “souvenirs,” or so I thought, but I realized after a few minutes she was saying “pensioners,” and that I could see the falls for free! Yet another reason to keep my grey hair here in Ukraine, despite probably being the only woman I ever see without colored hair.

When we left from the falls area, she gave us directions on how to get to the beginning of the trail, and off we went. And miraculously enough, we were able to find the beginning with no detours and indeed, never got lost on the entire hike. A first for us, I think. Trails here are poorly marked, if at all, plus there are numerous side trails that don’t appear on the maps, destined to confuse us map oriented hikers.

The weather was beautiful—at least at the beginning. Later it turned windy and cold and rainy, but we were near the end of our hike by then. We passed many waterfalls and rushing creeks which we crossed over on poorly maintained bridges—missing floor boards or holes in the floor boards.
The trail wound through forests of tall pine trees—what looked like red pines—and out onto exposed bluffs high above the valley. We encountered a few other hikers, but mostly we were alone to soak up the brilliance of the day. The trail is named after the physician of the last czar of Russia—Nicholas II—who “established” it (in reality it was probably used for centuries by Crimean Tatars and other early inhabitants of the peninsula) and exhorted Nicholas and his family to get out and hike for their health. He also established another trail below their summer home of Livadia Palace (the site of the Yalta conference) which I hope to hike someday.

It made me so happy to finally be out in the mountains I love so much after such a long and hard winter. Spring wildflowers were starting to come up, the birds were chattering away, and the water was running. Kind of like Minnesota, though below me was not Lake Superior, but the Black Sea surrounded by a world far different from Minnesota.

With love from Crimea.

Monday, April 9, 2012

In Pursuit of a Visa III

My visa quest is over!! After a final return to one of the two passport desks Nadjie and I had been frequenting, I received the final stamp on a document that says, yes, I can be a volunteer in Ukraine. Though, unfortunately, only for one year--which means I have to go through this process all over again next March in order to stay to the end of my service, three months later. Sigh… But’s that a year away and right now, I am very happy to be done with it all and not have to think I am going to spend yet another afternoon in yet another government office.

As for Nadjie, I am sure she is even happier than I am. I knew of the difficulties of dealing with any kind of government agencies in Ukraine and the rampant corruption (as Serdar’s cousin told him: “Want a driver’s license? You can take the driving course or buy one which you probably will have to do anyhow because unless you slip the examiner a LOT of money, you won’t get a license no matter how well you drive.”). But actually experiencing the bureaucratic mechanisms here created a whole other level of understanding of just how very difficult it can be to be a Ukrainian citizen. And here’s why:

The physical space: The offices were invariably open only for a few hours two or three days a week and even those hours weren’t sacrosanct—twice an official up and left in the middle of the two hours the office was open despite lines of people waiting to see him. Usually the hallways were crammed with people. No waiting areas, sometimes a row of chairs in an already small space, no organization of the waiting process (numbers or sign up lists), few or no signs explaining processes, documents needed, etc. Though obviously people were used to the situation and there was a certain etiquette about the waiting process, something I have observed in other places. People always asked who was last in line, and for the most part, followed the waiting order. Except when someone with more “pull” barged into an office in front of whomever was next in line. Much grumbling occurred among people still waiting, but, clearly, that too was a common event and like so much else here, was accepted with a sigh of resignation-- “What can you do?”

The officials: Well, I guess it goes without saying—unfortunately-- that they were almost without exception rude, unfriendly and unhelpful. As an example, an official in one office approved some form that required our “landlord” to be there for the signature. A couple of days later, an official in an office across the hall said angrily, “No, this form isn’t correct. You need do redo it.” Which required the landlord to make yet another trip in his oh-so-kind agreement to help us. And on it went.

But what I found really hard was the affect it all had on Nadjie. Her hands would shake; she would frantically stumble through her previously organized documents looking for the right form; she would just quietly acquiesce to whatever demands were made. At the first office we went to when the official clearly didn’t understand what visa I needed, it was I who had to say to the woman, “No, you are wrong. This is what I need.” Nadjie told me later that if she had said that, the official would have thrown her out of the office. And whether or not that is true, her fear and aversion to the whole process were very real. At some point in the weeks it took for all this happen, she said to me that because I am an American, I am receiving my visa very fast—that it took ten years to get her son registered an a Ukrainian citizen when they moved here from Uzbekistan. And, indeed, everyone I told about our registration attempts, just rolled their eyes and said, “Yes, of course, this is Ukraine. You should have seen what it was like when we came here from Uzbekistan.”

And so, despite the immense frustration I felt with the whole visa registration process, what it really became for me was an intense learning experience that gave me yet another bit of understanding of what life is like for all Ukrainian citizens, but especially for that “other” class of citizens, the Crimean Tatars.

Here I am all legal in Ukraine!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

In Pursuit of a Visa II

Eskender, a grizzled older man I estimate to be in his late 60’s, owns an apartment building--of sorts—more of an overgrown house--in Kamenka, one of the five compact Crimean Tatar settlements on the fringes of Simferopol. I had heard of Kamenka but had never been there, as it is on the opposite side of the city from Ak Mechet and a long bus ride from the center. It took us a while to get out there and then it was some time before we actually found Eskender’s apartment building. We wandered around the unpaved courtyard looking for him, trying not to bother a woman who was washing her clothes at an outdoor spigot (no water in the apartments?) and finally gave him a call. He pulled up in a beat up old Soviet car and escorted us down to his “office,” which turned out to be a dirt floored room underneath the building that you had to access through something that looked like a coal chute. We sat down at a makeshift table, and I looked around, trying to make sense of the place. Someone, at least some of the time, seemed to live there. Whether or not that is Eskender, I don’t know. There was a cot covered with old blankets, a hot plate, the little table we gathered around, several rickety chairs, and stacks of papers, books, boxes, foodstuffs, cups, and all kinds of other odds and ends everywhere.

Eskender and Nadjie proceeded to totally converse in Crimean Tatar so I was left out of the conversation even more than I usually am. But this wasn’t deliberate, I’m sure. As I learned more about his life, my guess is that Eskender always communicates in Crimean Tatar if that is a possibility. Yes, Nadjie translated, he would serve as my landlord and had the proper documents. I didn’t realize exactly what he was agreeing to, because, as it turned out, his being my “landlord” meant that he had to make at least four trips to the government offices with us and had to deal with the not-too-friendly workers in these offices—more on that aspect of my adventure later.

A couple of days after our visit to Eskender’s office, he showed up at the library with the documents we needed, and he also brought the book he wrote about his life to show me. It was not a polished looking, publisher- generated book, but rather a collection of many papers which were clearly not typed on a computer, loosely bound into an oversized folder. He wanted me to read the two introductions that someone had translated into English. They were obviously the work of an internet translation program because, as usual, the translation was very awkward and sometimes made no sense at all. But it was possible to extract the basic facts of his life, and what a story he had to tell.

I didn’t have enough time to really absorb all of his story, but the gist was that he was part of what is called the “National Movement” among Crimean Tatars—the movement while they were in Uzbekistan to return to Crimea. Petitions were circulated, letters written, trips taken to Moscow to meet with officials from the Soviet government, and nonviolent protests that resulted in movement leaders, including Eskender, spending years in prison. He lost both his son and daughter—his daughter murdered at age 19 by some thug he knew in prison. He came to Crimea in 1967, over twenty years earlier than when Crimean Tatars were officially allowed to return, and was deported several times.

That is as much information as I could gleam from the introductions and what he told me, but it made me want to know more of his story. And perhaps I will have that opportunity, because he very much wants to have his book translated into English, and I offered to help him. I have since been back out to his place in Kamenka to return documents he had given us, and I offered once again, but I know it might take a long time for him to trust me enough to work with me. But I will be going out there once a month to give him the 100 UAH tax the government requires for my “apartment,” so perhaps we will get to know one another and slowly we can start making his dream a reality. For me, I would love to have a project such as this—I think it would help me with my language and also further my understanding of the history of the Crimean Tatar people. And I just think his story, among many other Crimean Tatar stories, needs to be told. If I can help do that, it will be time well spent.