Friday, June 15, 2012

A second trip to cave city Eski Kermin

Olga and I on the road to Eski Kermen

A friendly donkey along the way

The road to Eski Kermen

Lilya and I share lunch in one of the caves out of the rain

Elmaz and Zarema pose in one of the caves

Summer has descended here in Crimea. Hot, hot, hot. Time for trying to stay in the shade, visiting the sea, getting out my trusty fan—the best 5 griven (50 cents) purchase I ever made in Crimea—for those oh-so-hot bus rides home from work. And probably also time for suspending our weekly hikes. But we are hoping for at least one more and that the mountains will be cooler. Sunday a small group of us will head up to the beautiful Demerdji plateau, once again in search of the allusive Djur Djur waterfall which Cheryl and I failed to find on our last hike there. This time we will have some Russian native speakers with us, so that might help; however, none of them have experience with this trail. Though if our luck continues to hold, we will find someone on the way to the trail that will want to join us and show us the route! It’s Wednesday right now, we plan on hiking Sunday, and anything can happen between now and then.
I feel myself starting to fade away from doing blog posts—maybe it’s a sign of Crimea becoming more and more my real home—or at least one of them--and not a place where I am visiting and writing blog posts about.  After all, I never wrote blog posts about my life in Minneapolis. But I also continue to feel that tug to record what I am doing, that desire to tell people about this world in Crimea. I know that by now probably few people read my blog, that my telling most likely does not have much of an audience.  Still, I feel the desire to keep on with it--I think mostly in the hope that maybe someday it will give me something to grab hold of when I think of my Crimean life.
So, what have I been doing since that 11-hour trek on Chatyr Dag? Lots, it seems. Gearing up for my departure to the States on July 6th—taking care of house selling business there, making appointments, contacting friends and family, making travel arrangements—plus trying to get a lot of work done at the library—finishing writing a grant that is due June 30th, hassling with bank transfers for two of our open grants, trying to finish up one of the smaller grants. As usual, wheels turn frustratingly slow here, but I do have faith that it all will happen by the time I leave. And if not, well, I will be back.
And though it seems the weekends should be a time of relaxation and catching up on sleep, I have continued to pursue my current plan of trying to get out hiking one day every weekend. When I was going through the doldrums in the winter, I realized even more strongly how important it is for my sense of well-being to find myself at least once a week out happily tramping the trails of Crimea.
So in keeping with that policy, the following Sunday after Chatyr Dag, a group of us set off to hike to the cave city of Eski Kermen. I had been there once before—on my first birthday here—but we were rained out on that day and only got to explore part of the ruins. I had always wanted to go back, so was glad for the chance. And I was especially glad that Anton, even though he wasn’t able to go with us, came up with an alternative route to get there which was a lovely hike along an old dirt road that wound through forests and valleys bordered by high rock walls that contorted into unusual rock formations.So much better than the asphalt road through old collective farms that we hiked before.
A view out a cave window


Some of the many caves

The intrepid explorer

The cave city of Eski Kermen is a vast network of over 400 caves carved out of the cliff walls on a high plateau. Established in the 8th century BC, it was the home for the ancient civilizations of Crimea and later the early Christians, as evidenced by the altars and icons carved into the walls of the caves. Nothing is left of the above ground structures, but the multi level caves are fascinating to explore. At one place, there is an ancient stairway carved out of the earth that goes down into the darkness to a well that provided water for the town when it was under siege. We didn’t venture down—it looked way too scary and you really couldn’t see where it ended up. In the US, it would have been blocked offas “too dangerous,” as maybe many of the caves would have been, but here there was just a warning sign to be careful. And even that is a rarity in Ukraine. Safety concern as we know in America is not a common practice in Ukraine.
Because Cheryl couldn’t go at the last minute (she is now in the throes of her own visa registration hell), I was the only native English speaker in the group. And though everyone spoke a little English—the group consisting of the three young women at the library who are in my English class (Lilya, Elmaz, and Zarema) plus Anton’s mother Olga—I knew it would be a different experience to not have anyone I could really talk to.  However, it didn’t much bother me. I have become so accustomed to communicating though the language barrier, to be on the outside of conversations among Russian speakers, that much of the time I am okay with it, that I don’t feel I need to know everything that is being said. Indeed, sometimes I think it is one of the reasons my life seems so peaceful here--the other side of the immense frustration I often feel and frequently write about.  I enjoyed being with everyone on the hike and it was fine to sometimes feel alone amidst the group. It did not change the underlying feeling of friendship and warmth, and, as always, I was so grateful to just be here.
Love from Crimea.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trail Food on Chatyr Dag

Recently after a truly glorious--though exhausitng--11-hour hike on Chatyr Dag mountain, I wrote this blog post for The Pickle Project. Here it is in its entirety because at the moment I am too lazy to edit it!
One of the things that has amazed me about food in Ukraine—and continues to amaze me after three years of living here—is how Ukrainians never hesitate to turn an ordinary meal into a banquet.  Weddings, holiday gatherings at work, birthday dinners at home, relatives visiting, breaking of religious fasts, guests from a different country—the list is endless of the opportunities to turn a typically “good” meal into a true feast.
But nowhere do I see this phenomenon so dramatically as out on the hiking trail. More than once I have been travelling with a group of Ukrainians, carrying all of our food and water on our backs, only to sit down for lunch and watch them pull out a vast array of differentdishes to share with everyone—a true trailside banquet. This past weekend was a case in point. My hiking partner, fellow Crimean Peace Corps Volunteer Cheryl Pratt, and I joined with our newest Ukrainian fellow hikers for a day trip into the Crimean mountains. Our group was composed of: Lilya, a young woman who works at my library; Anton, a young man we met on our last hiking trip (where he helpfully guided us back to the right trail as we had gotten a bit lost); his mother Olga, an attractive, very fit looking woman in her forties who works as a psychologist in two local schools; and two individuals we met on the trolleybus on the way to our starting point—Pavel, a 60-something TV technician, and his 13-year old son, Boris. Pavel had heard Cheryl and I speaking English on the trolleybus while looking at a trail map. He gave us lots of friendly advice on future trail possibilities, and then askedif he and his son could join us that day. But, in truth, we ended up joining them. Pavel turned out to be a very experienced hiker and had been on the mountain many times and knew the correct route (which I was a little hazy about). We also realized he was an excellent English speaker, a rarity in a Ukrainian of that age. He told us that in his earlier life he had been a professor of English at a local university.
As we began the long trek up to the high plateau of Chatyr Dag (“tent mountain” in Crimean Tatar), Pavel pointed out the vegetation along the way, frequentlygiving us the Russian, Latin, and Crimean Tatar names, and told us some of the history of the area --how the plateau was at one time used as a pasture for Crimean Tatar shepherds and later Soviet collective farms--and also how to find some of the fifty caves located on the vast plateau. What a wealth of information he had, and oh so wonderful, he spoke English and I could understand him!
After struggling up some very steep inclines, we finally reached the plateau and made our way to the lowest of the two peaks on Chatyr Dag, marveling at the views all around us as we were on the second highest mountain in Crimea. To the south was the Black Sea, to the east and west the peaks and plateaus of the Crimean mountain range, and far to the north, the city of Simferopol.Somewhere in those distant northern ridges wasmy village of Ak Mechet, where I so frequently gazed at this very place we were standing on.
The fog from the sea rolled in and out, temporarily obscuring our views and the warmth of the sun. This sea fog is the reason that the Crimean mountains, though not high, are considered dangerous, as the frequent and sudden fogs result in several deaths every season when inexperienced hikers become lost and stumble over the steep precipices on the edges of the mountain plateaus.
Deciding to take a break after our steep climb, we all settled down on the soft carpet of alpine grass and got out lunch. As usual, Cheryl and Ipulled out our standard lunch fare—cheese, bread, hard boiled eggs, cucumbers (in season now), apples, and cookies. Pavel and Olga, however, had other things in mind. First, Olga got out a flower print plastic tablecloth and spread it on the ground. Then she started hauling out food from her and Anton’s backpacks: a plastic container of cheese pancakes (made from the local cottage cheese called tovorg which is frequently sweetened with sugar); another container of cutlets (ground meat mixed with onions and herbs and fried in the ubiquitous sunflower oil);a large bag of cucumbers; bread (“baton” in Russian, what Americans call French bread);  pre-made sandwiches (egg salad I think) on two types of bread, white and dark; and apples and juice. Pavel added salo (cured slabs of fatback, an Ukrainian national food)that he cut into small pieces with his hunting knife, fried pieces of fish, and “blinchikis” (thin crepe-like pancakes wrapped around some kind of filling) filled with a meat/spice mixture that was quite tasty.
Both Olga and Pavel assured us that all the food was “domashne”—made at home from scratch, as it always is in Ukraine. Pavel even made sure that we knew his mother (whom I’m thinking must be at least 80) made those blinchikis. And also, as always, food was brought to share and in large quantities and was laid out in the middle of the tablecloth where we all gathered around and chose from the many offerings.
 I think about our typical American hiking lunches—each individual having their own sandwich and maybe an apple and a couple of cookies (something I have learned NOT to do here in Ukraine)--and think, “yep, these Ukrainians really have this food thing figured out.” What a wonderful meal in the middle of what turned out to be a long and arduous hike. It provided nourishment for our bodies and also a chance to share with other people, who before that day were mostly strangers, the fruits of our labor.
Rested, satiated, filled with the pleasure of eating delicious food surrounded by the beautiful scenery of Crimea, we were ready to trek on to the highest peak on Chatyr Dag, a few kilometers away, and then down and across the lower plateau to our final destination of the village of Perevalnoe and the trolleybus back to Simferopol. Daylight had faded by the time we arrived in the village after our 11-hour hike, but despite our tired and sore bodies, I think we were all filled with wondrous memories of the day and the gladness of finding new friends to share it with. And of having eaten some really good food.