In the shadow of rising tension in Ukraine, Chris Raven and Simon Raven fire up their twenty year old Volvo and head for the Black Sea. Follow their three-part adventure, as they attempt to drive full circle around this fascinating body of water at the birthplace of civilisation.
The Black Sea has been the inspiration for endless myths and legends. It was here Jason and the Argonauts were thought to have sailed from Greece to Georgia in search of the Golden Fleece. It is home to stories of a tribe of fierce female warriors known as the Amazons, who were said to have captured men and used them as sex slaves in what is now modern day Turkey. Bands of nomadic horsemen wielding swords once ruled the grasslands of the Pontic steppe and Huns, Goths, Turks and Russians strove for mastery around these colourful shores.
Would it be possible to make a complete loop around the Black Sea? We knew the Verkhny Lars-Darial Gorge border crossing in the Caucasus Mountains between Vladikavkaz and the Georgian Military Highway was open to foreigners, but the Russian Embassy advised us not to travel this route. Undeterred, we both agreed that at the worst case scenario we would have to backtrack to Odesa in the east of the Ukraine and travel by ferry to Georgia. The plan was set. Our journey traversing this mighty sea was about to begin.
The Black Sea: Depth over 2,210 metres. Distance east-west 1,175 km. Connected to the Aegean Sea through the Bosphorus Strait, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles and bordered by six countries — Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania.
Vehicle: “Volvo 440” Manufactured in the Netherlands in 1994 - the year Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks and troops into the rebel region of Chechnya to restore order.
Black Sea Circuit: Odessa – Crimea - Sea of Azov – Rostov-on-Don – Novorossijsk – Sochi – Kislovodsk (Caucasus Spa town) - Dombay – Mt Elbrus – Georgian Military Highway – Tbilisi – Batumi – Pontic Alps – Istanbul – Bulgaria's Black Sea Coast - Danube Delta in Romania.
Odessa to Russia (via Crimea)
Simon: We arrive on the Black Sea after driving for five days straight; from London to Berlin, Berlin to Krakow, Krakow to Kiev and then south from Kiev to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. Our expedition over the coming weeks would demand we drive on challenging roads across diverse terrain, and would lead us to the heart of the many people and cultures who call the Black Sea home.
We’re invited to a barbecue by Analida, the friendly owner of a traditional bungalow resort located on the cliffs a few kilometres outside Odessa. Eating pork at a long wooden table beneath apricot and walnut trees, we’re introduced to Analida’s son and his wife’s family. The gentle mother with cherry red cheeks offers us three types of bread, Armenian, Georgian and Ukrainian along with fresh cucumber, tomatoes and onion. We wash down our food with a glass of vodka poured by the father, a strong hulk of a man sitting king-like at the head of the table. I chat with Katrina, the sister of Analida’s daughter-in-law, a bright-eyed girl with long black hair, who works for a shipping company in the port of Odesa. I ask her about the container ships that arrive across the Black Sea through the Bosphorus Strait, and she informs us that much of the imports are cars and electronic goods from Asia and much of the exports are raw materials such as wheat and sunflower oil.
During lunch I'm intrigued to learn that while Analida is Georgian, her son's wife and family originate from Armenia and moved to the Ukraine in the 1990’s soon after independence. Analida tells the story how she had been forced to flee Georgia during the Abkhazia conflict in 1989. She had witnessed much violence, with Abkhaz separatist carrying out a full scale ethnic cleansing campaign which resulted in the expulsion of up to 250,000 ethnic Georgians. More than 15,000 were killed. I glance at the three different types of bread nestled together in the basket on the table, and find myself struck by its symbology. The Black Sea is a complex cultural melting pot, steeped in modern and ancient history. In order to fully understand this fascinating region of the world it would be our duty to visit the many museums and archaeological sites along the way. This road trip would be a journey through time.
* * *
Chris: The International Film Festival is in full swing in the hectic port city of Odessa, as Ferrari's line the streets and the well dressed movers and shakers crowd the pavement cafes. Standing at the top of the Potemkin Steps I glance past the industrial docks and passenger ferry terminal and look out across the Black Sea. A group of gypsy women wearing headscarves appear nearby. A sprinkler kicks into life, spraying jets of water into the air and causing the surprised tourists to scream and run down the steps. Surprised by an eagle’s wing flapping inches from my face, an olive skinned guy smiles and asks if I want my photo taken with this huge bird of prey perched on his arm. I shake my head and watch a girl dance around with a peacock and five white doves.
With a bottle of red wine on the back seat (a present from Analida) we set off early in the morning and head east around the Black Sea. We pass vast fields of yellow sunflowers and cross the Bug River, close to where the ancient Greek city of Olbia is located. A third of this once booming colony now lies under water, but at its peak in the fourth century BC it may have had as many as thirty to forty thousand people living within side its walls.
We visit the Askania Nova Nature Reserve, home to the last wild grasslands of the Pontic steppe. A statue of Friedrich Jakob, the German aristocratic landowner, who established the reserve in the 1880’s, is stood outside a large white mansion house. This whole region of the Black Sea from the border with Romania all the way to the Volga region was once wide-open plain. Three thousand years ago the Scythian nomadic people, who generally fought with horse archers would travel in wagon fleets, voyaging for thousands of miles across vast open stretches of course grassland. We walk around the zoo and botanical gardens and see the nearly extinct wild Przhevalski horses that were brought from the Gobi steppes to Askania Nova in 1899.
Free camping dominates the sandy beaches as we arrive at the Crimean holiday town of Yevpatoriya. It’s buzzing with Russian tourists enjoying the sunshine and the many Tartar kebab restaurants. A Tatar Muslim elder invites us inside the Khan-Jami mosque, the largest mosque in Crimea built in 1552, and we admire a beautiful wooden chandelier that hangs below a domed roof. The majority of the Muslims who worship here are immigrants from Uzbekistan, returning to Crimea in the 1990’s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. We spend the night on the beach before heading to the busy capital of Simferopol in the morning, where we drink Kvass (a fermented beverage made from rye bread) and stroll through the delightful park.
* * *
Simon: Heading south to the quaint town of Bakhchysaray, we grab our cameras and check out the stunning Khan’s Palace. Until the beginning of the 18th century Crimean Tatars were known for trading Ukrainian and Russian slaves to the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. Walking around the palace, I overhear a Viking Cruise tour guide talk about how the Crimean Khanate was a Turkic-speaking Muslim state, which was among the strongest powers in Eastern Europe. The nobles and rulers of the Crimean Tatars were the progeny of Hacı I Girai a Jochid descendant of Genghis Khan. The Crimean Tatars mostly adopted Islam in the 14th century and by 1783 there were close to 1,600 mosques and religious schools in Crimea.
After swimming in a lake at the foot of the Shatir Dagh mountain range, we head for the entrance gate to Manhup Kale, the biggest fortress on the Crimean peninsula. We chat to Alexander, a young guy with a ponytail, who informs us he is studying tourism in Sevastopol. He seems pleased to see tourists from Western Europe, and apologising for his poor English he encourages us to “get lost”. Following his advice we hit the trail. Before long, we reach an eerie ancient Jewish forest cemetery, and walk amongst the graves, some seven hundred years old, that are partially covered with green moss and vines that are engraved in Hebrew. The tombs belong to the Karaim, a Jewish sect, which began in Mesopotamia in the eighth century AD. They separated from rabbinical Judaism two hundred years later and reached Crimea in the twelfth century, dislodged from Palestine and Egypt by the upheaval of the First Crusade. They took over Mangup Kale after it had been sacked and emptied by the Turks. The oldest Karaite grave in the woods below the summit is dated 1468, a few years before the fall of Mangup.
Deep in the forest we stumble across two women bathing in a spring beside the path. They cover themselves, and we nod a hello before shyly gazing down at our feet. Continuing to climb the mountain, we reach the top of the plateau and see the ruins of the historic fortress. The entrance gate and a towering wall are all that remains of this settlement, that was fortified by Justinian I in the 6th century and inhabited by Crimean Goths. We stumble around the ruins and explore the cave city with steps carved into the rock and windows that look down into the steep valley below. These mountains are known as the spirit of Crimea, and had provided sanctuary over the centuries to pagans, Christians, Tatars and Karaite. I read from a book on the Black Sea by Neal Ascherson. “Up on the flat summits of the Shatir Dagh range, and in the caves hidden by the forest, far above the nomads and the traders, lived communities which had lost all prospect of wealth or conquest.”
* * *
Chris: Traversing the coast of the Crimean peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea like a sparkling diamond, we arrive in the maritime city of Sevastopol. Packed with grand monuments and statues from both Tsarist times and the Soviet era, it’s a city that was closed to foreigners and the outside world until 1996. With few sign posts we quickly become lost and ask a passer by for directions, who we discover is a cargo ship captain on vacation with his family. He looks uncannily like the British entrepreneur, Richard Branson, and using nautical terminology, “starboard” for left, and “port” for right, he draws a map with his finger in the dust on the roof of the car.
Modern glass hotels tower over the harbour, as boats of all shapes and sizes cut frothy white channels in the surface of the turquoise water. Sevastopol had been at the centre of the Crimean War, and was under attack by the British, French and Turks for 349 days in 1854-55. Struggling to rebuild itself, in 1942 the same catastrophe repeated itself when the city fell to the Germans after a brutal 250 day siege. Almost everything was destroyed. Passing grand buildings along prospect Nakhimova, that have been either rebuilt or newly constructed, there’s very little evidence today that the city had in the past been totally annihilated. Along Primorsky Boulevard people swim and sunbathe on the rocks beside the Monument to the Sunk Ships. This is the most famous monument of Sevastopol, depicted on the coat of arms of the city. The graceful column with Corinthian head, topped by a bronze eagle was installed on an artificial rock in the sea in 1905 on the fiftieth anniversary of the first defence of the city. It perpetuates the memory of more than fifteen ships sunk in 1854-1855 to prevent the entrance of the English-French fleet into the North Bay. Walking along the cliffs we look down at the rusty naval ships belonging to the Russian Black Sea fleet.
Driving out of the city in the late afternoon, we pass an abandoned military checkpoint on the city limits near a huge cemetery, marking the boundary of the formerly closed zone. We drop by the small seaside town of Balaklava, now a suburb of Sevastopol, on our way to the Yalta-Sevastopol highway. Home to a formerly classified submarine base operational until 1993 and designed to survive a direct atomic impact, Balaklava was also the location of the Battle of Balaclava, fought on the 25th of October 1854 during the Crimean War. Part of the Anglo-French-Turkish campaign to capture the port and fortress of Sevastopol (Russia's principal naval base on the Black Sea), many men lost their lives, particularly British soldiers during the Charge of the Light Brigade when the cavalry were mistakenly sent into a frontal assault on Russian artillery. It was during the Crimean War that Florence Nightingale "The Lady with the Lamp" became known, and the Balaclava was actually a knitted helmet sent to keep the British troops little heads and ears warm during the bitter cold.
* * *
Simon: We’re delivered to Yalta along a fast coastal road, and head directly to Chekhov’s house. The famous Russian short story writer lived in Crimea in the last years of his life from 1898 until 1902, and had a house built in southern Crimea with the money he made selling his complete works to a publisher. Walking around the house museum, we have the privilege of looking inside his office and examining the desk where he wrote one of his most famous short stories, ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’. I had started reading a collection of his stories before leaving England and, inspired by a man who had a great talent for creating empathy, I feel sad to learn about his long-term illness and subsequent early death aged 44.
Sitting on a bench in the garden, I glance up at the red and green stained glass window belonging to the room where Chekhov worked. I imagine him stood at the open window with his distinguished beard and round glasses, still deep in thought over the paragraph he is writing. Anton lived in this grand house with his mother and sister and later his wife, Olga Knipper, an actress of the stage who performed in a number of his plays. The downstairs to the White Dacha had guest bedrooms, and Chekhov regularly hosted dinner parties for friends who would visit him including, Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky, and his close friend and landscape artist Isaac Levitan. I can hear laughter and the sound of the piano drifting across the garden.
Returning to the main administrative building, we’re met by a charismatic woman in her late seventies. She walks us through a chronology of Chekhov’s life in black and white photographs and dancing theatrically around the room, she looks at us passionately with emerald eyes and youthful energy. She points out Chekhov’s actress wife, Olga, performing in his play, ‘Three Sisters’, in Yalta. We learn in 1890, Chekhov undertook an arduous journey by train, horse-drawn carriage and river steamer to the far east of Russia and the katorga, or penal colony, on Sakhalin Island, north of Japan, where he spent three months interviewing thousands of convicts and settlers for a census. On his return journey he sailed on a long voyage back to Russia via Ceylon in Sri Lanka. Walking full circle around the room, voyeuristically examining every aspect of this man’s life, we reach the door where our journey began.
* * *
Chris: Before leaving Yalta we make a diversion and visit the beautiful Livadia Palace, which was built as a summer retreat for Tsar Nicholas II. We walk around the bright airy rooms of the white Italian Renaissance-style mansion house situated on top of the cliffs with breathtaking views of the sea below.
Livadia Palace was the location of the Yalta Conference in 1945, and we stand in front of the round table where the WWII victors, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin confirmed earlier decisions on the carve-up of Europe. Walking through the grand room where Roosevelt slept, we discover the rest of the palace is dedicated to an exhibition on Nicholas II and his family. Hundreds of black and white prints of the Tsar, with fellow bushy bearded men dressed in military uniform, are hung on the walls alongside portraits of his wife Alexandra and their five children.
Entering the Tsar’s office, with a huge thrown-like chair behind a beautiful carved wooden desk, we absorb the opulence of a family living in extreme luxury at a time when the peasant serfs in Russia were dying of starvation. Nicholas II had become a puppet of his strong-willed, eccentric wife, Alexandra, who herself fell under the spell of a sinister Siberian peasant named Rasputin. We’re reminded that the family met a tragic end, when they were executed by the Bolsheviks on the 30th April 1918 in the basement of a house near Yekaterinburg.
Passing Alustra and a handful of smaller seaside resorts crowded with holidaymakers, we drive a beautiful stretch of road through the mountains. We admire the dramatic views of the valley below, and fall into conversation with a Dutch cyclist who spots our British license plate. Over cups of beer we learn Juab is from Friesland in the Netherlands, and is halfway through a planned 20,000 km bicycle ride around Europe. Having recently turned fifty years old, he warns us that although his fitness levels have not declined over the years, sadly people’s perceptions of him have. He had been finding this particular journey challenging, as he spoke very few words of Russian and was struggling to make friends. He admits to have been feeling down the past couple of days and suffering from isolation. In his small tent, he had with him a Long Wave radio which he told us brought him great comfort on those lonely nights in the wilderness.
“The great thing with cycling is that you always have the open road and the kilometres to achieve. I find I’m busy most of the time,” he smiles.
I suggest that maybe it’s almost meditative, and he nods his head and agrees that there could be some truth in this. Juab loves to cycle in Norway, with the stunning fjords mirroring the mountains and quiet open roads. It was paradise for a cyclist. Over the past few years he had started to explore other places, and also loved Albania and Moldova where he had been made to feel so welcome by the local people.
He laughs out loud. “Here in the Ukraine they are quite shocked if you do not speak the mother tongue. We have crossed into Soviet Europe. They have less use for English here.”
Juab grows quite animated as we share stories in the warm night. He asks us about our journey, and appears worried when we explain to him that we plan to try and cross the border from Russia into Georgia. He informs us that it is not possible, and that the only way to reach Georgia at this time is to cross into Kazakhstan and catch a boat across the Caspian Sea to Baku in Azerbaijan, where there is a border you can then cross into Georgia.
Concerned to hear this news, we stay firm with our plan to drive to Sochi and the Caucasus Mountains, even if it means backtracking all the way to Odessa for thousands of kilometres to catch a ferry to Georgia. The mention of the Sochi Winter Olympics has Juab excited, and he tells us that he had met a Russian guy who had been critical of the Olympics. He had told Juab that it seemed ridiculous that they planned to host the event in the only part of Russia that doesn’t get snow. Sochi is considered to be the Florida of Russia, a tropical holiday destination where palm trees and bananas grow. Fascinated by what Juab has told us, any doubt we had about driving such a long way without knowing if we can make it through immediately becomes irrelevant. We now had to explore this part of the world and see for ourselves what Sochi was all about.
* * *
Simon: Powering the Volvo along the narrow and twisted coastal mountain roads, with switchback corners and hairpin bends, Chris spots the towers of a giant Genoese fortress in the historic town of Sudak. We enter the enormous site through the main gate between the Tower of Torcello and the Tower of Di Franco Di Pagano, and climb a steep hill inside the walls of the fortress and look our across the Black Sea.
The sandy strip of beach below is packed with tourists enjoying their summer vacation. Chris reluctantly poses for a photograph, and we walk along a ridge and pause close to a ‘wishing tree’ where people have tied little coloured ribbons to its branches for luck. I try to imagine all the hopes and dreams of the people who have visited here over the centuries, as we look down over a town that was one of the main trading centres on the Great Silk Road. Built in the 14th and 15th century by a predominantly Tatar workforce, we explore one of the ten remaining defensive towers out of eighteen that once stood here. I gaze over Mount Percham from a turret, its face dropping dramatically into a sheer cliff face.
In the afternoon we drop by the seaside village of Kurortnoe, with the idea of visiting the Kara-Dah Nature Reserve. Entering the gate to a small park, we stroll down to the waterfront and hear the distinct sound of a dolphin clicking and whistling as we pass a large concrete building. Standing on tiptoe we peer through the dirty windows and catch sight of the tail of one of these water dwelling mammals in a swimming pool. The Black Sea is home to the bottlenose dolphin, seals and about 180 species of fish, including tuna, anchovy, herring, grey mullet, mackerel and the famous white sturgeon, which you will find on the menu of most good Crimean restaurants. Sadly, dolphin numbers in the wild have been in decline over the past few decades due to demand from amusement parks and dolphinaria like this one.
Genetically distinct from those found in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, an attempt was made by Georgia in 2002 to use the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species to outlaw all further trade in the bottlenose to prevent it from being wiped out. The proposal for an outright ban was rejected, but Georgia later succeeded in getting the Black Sea dolphins placed on a list that restricts trade through annual quotas - and in this case the quota is zero.
Following a steep narrow path, we walk around the foot of a mountain with rock formations towering above it. Chris identifies ‘The Devil’s Finger’ that extends like a middle digit from the top, and we pass a small triangular shaped wooden hut where a guy dressed in blue combat trousers appears from out of nowhere and informs us that we cannot pass. He points back towards the park and the entrance gate, and mutters something in Russian that sounds like “excursion”.
We wander back towards the beach. By the time we reach the cliffs, the sun has begun to set and the world is flooded in warm orange light. The vast sea that fans out to the horizon below our feet shimmer’s gold. Chris walks ahead, and I take a moment to enjoy this captivating snapshot of Planet Earth. A lone woman silhouetted in the shallow water below appears to be paralysed, seduced by the beauty of the setting sun. Sometimes we become lost, we forget the reason and meaning of our journey, and then we turn a corner and we’re presented with something awe-inspiring, breathless – the majestic Black Sea glittering on the horizon, and we’re reminded of the beauty of our path.
* * *
Chris: With the highest mountains behind us, we drive along a fast stretch of road all the way to the popular port town of Feodosiya. Paying the Museum of Antiques a visit, we wander around the rooms displaying ancient Greek vases, amphora and necklaces made from beads and shells. I stand in front of an old wooden door that dates back to 1587, that has an intricate carving of an angel, a sun and a cross surrounded by grapevines. Next to the door is a painting in pastel colours on stone of a mosque from 1623. Si calls me over excitedly, and we look in awe at chainmail, a heavily corroded sword, stirrups and a necklace and ring belonging to a Kipchak warrior from the 11th-12th century. A tribal confederation, the Kipchaks conquered large parts of the Eurasian steppe during the Turkic expansion, and were in turn conquered by the Mongol invasions of the early 13th century.
Studying a collection of small clay pipes we enter a room filled with Greek statues, vases, togas, stone tablet carvings and a three metre Griffin from the 4th-3rd century BC. Upstairs is a display of WWII weaponry including, a six metre torpedo and a large machine gun on wheels. Posters of war propaganda cover the walls; one depicting a chain and padlock with a swastika emblem on it that has been broken down the middle. A second poster shows a Nazi soldier pointing a pistol at a man wearing a tubeteika, a traditional Crimean Tatar cap; the second frame depicts the Crimean Tatar slicing the Nazi soldiers head off with sword.
Heading south along the coast through a shaded park, we pass naval and port administration offices with the blue tryzub (trident) symbol displayed proudly on the gates. We pass through a residential district lined with crumbling tower blocks in the midday heat, before eventually reaching the beginning of an ancient stone wall belonging to Feodosiya’s citadel that was built by the Genoese in the 14th century overlooking the bay.
Feodosiya had witnessed a fascinating history over the past two and half thousand years. First founded by Greek colonists from Milethus in the 6th century BC, Theodosia grew into one of the largest cities of the Bosporan Kingdom by the 4th century BC. Flourishing for many centuries, it was eventually destroyed by the Huns, a group of nomadic people who first appeared in Europe from east of the Volga River (the region of the earlier Scythians nomads).
In the 4th century AD the Huns destroyed the city and for much of the next nine hundred years Theodosia remained a small village known as under the Alanic name of Ardabda. During that time it fell under the jurisdiction of the Khazars, whose armour we had seen in the museum, and eventually the Mongols who conquered the city in 1230's.
Up to 1307 the city was in hands of the Republic of Venice, the main rival of Genoa. Eventually, in the late 13th century the Genoese merchants managed to purchase the city from the Golden Horde that ruled the city at the time and established there a flourishing city called Caffa, which virtually monopolized trade in the Black Sea region and served as the main port and administrative centre for the Genoese settlements around the sea. The Ottomans seized the city from the Genoese in 1475 and deported the whole population to Istanbul. The city now renamed to Kefe, became one of the most important ports of the Ottoman Empire on the Black Sea.
Following the towering eleven metre high wall around to the left, we’re presented with a view of the sea below and a number of Armenian churches dotted across the hillside. Scrambling around the ruins and peering inside the towers, we explore a narrow passageway and find ramshackle houses and overgrown gardens with chickens scratching around in the dry earth. Stumbling across a collapsed archway, the original entrance gate to the city, we study the two metre thick stone walls. Si reads from the guide book, and we learn that in 1347 an immigrant walked through this very gateway into Kaffa and brought The Black Death to Europe.
Within a few years it reduced the European population by one third or more. Thought to have been spread by slaves or Tatar ship workers in times of peace, it had taken hold of the nomad inhabitants of the Pontic steppe before infecting the cities of the Black Sea. It had travelled a long way across Eurasia from northeast Asia down the Silk Routes by traders, porters & soldiers. Within twenty years of the plague’s arrival in Europe the Mongol Empire, founded by Genghis Khan more than a hundred years before, began to fall apart.
* * *
Simon: Sitting on the soft sand in the cool morning breeze, I buy a couple of fresh cream pastries from a woman walking up and down the beach. She has the most beautiful eyes and I suspect she may be from Kazakhstan, as we drift slowly east on a tide of curiosity. Cruising on a long straight highway, we leave the rocky coastal mountains behind and cross the wide open plains of the Kerch Peninsula. We pause at the side of the highway and watch a Russian cowboy herding cattle on horseback. He’s wearing a green bomber jacket and is wearing a cowboy hat. Skilfully riding his horse, I wonder if he could be related to the Scythian nomads and cattle herders who ruled this land thousands of years ago.
Winding through the quiet colourful streets of Kerch, we park the Volvo and walk through the grand central square to the Museum of Antiquity. Exploring the rooms, we study stone tablets from the 2nd and 3rd century BC and headstones from the 1st century AD. One headstone reads, “Bidding son of Coss, goodbye”. There are also many busts and statues, including a statue of the Greek goddess, Nike, killing the bull, that were found on top of Mount Mithridat that towers above Kerch. We look with intrigue, at two elongated skulls that look like they may belong to a pair of aliens. The fashion for cranial deformation was popular among the early Sarmatians, and was obtained by bandaging the head of a child in infancy.
Feeling inspired, we head across town and scale the hundred steps to the top of Mount Mithridat with a red star Russian military memorial on the top. Walking around the hillside, with stunning views over the Strait of Kerch, we explore the ruins of Panticapaeum, a city founded in the 6th century BC by Greek colonists from Miletus. Located at the intersection of trade routes between the steppe and Europe, the city grew rapidly and became the capital of the Kingdom of Bosporus by 480 BC. A large portion of the city's population was ethnically Scythian, and later Sarmatian. Minting their own coins and making wine, the cities main exports were grain and salted fish, which helped to feed the Greek Empire. I peer down a deep well and stand between two Greek columns at the foot of the hill. We can see the vast flat plains below that stretch to the horizon.
We head out of town and go in search of the Tsarski Kurgan, a fifty foot earth mound covering one of the royal tombs of Spartocids. Driving across waste ground, we spot a towering mound covered in grass that looks like some kind of strange eco-pyramid. Walking towards the tomb entrance, we're mesmerised by the V-shape cut in the hill that creates the illusion of passing through a gateway into another dimension. We walk slowly into the darkness, until we reach a stone tomb chamber with a dome roof deep inside the kurgan. This large barrow from the early 4th century BC was the burial site of a Greek-influenced Scythian royal. Two other people were also buried here, and a large number of treasures were taken from the barrow, many made of gold. Some were stolen, but many are on display in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Returning to the main road we pass the towering Monument to the Defenders of Adzhimushkay Quarry. Gawping up at the enormous stone figures that defend the entrance to the catacombs, we learn that Russian survivors of a counteroffensive led by the Germans against the Red Army hid here in 1942. Approximately 13,000 soldiers and civilians were besieged here for six months, many dying of hunger and thirst.
We head east towards the Kerch peninsula. Seeing signs for the ferry to Russia, we follow a track through a small settlement and drive to the top of a hill near a lighthouse that overlooks the 4km long Strait of Kerch. We pass a rural farm labourer with a deeply tanned face on his way back to the village. With a shovel over his shoulder, his shirt unbuttoned and wearing a flat cap, he looks like a character from a Chekhov play. We watch tankers silhouetted below; they wait patiently for their turn to pass between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. As night falls, we look out over Russia and see the lights of the houses twinkling in the distance. The moon shows itself for a brief moment through a gap in the clouds, as a large ship covered with fairy lights cuts through the silver water below. Fireworks illuminate the night sky, each explosion reminding us of the many thousands who died here.
In the early morning I climb to the top of a nearby hill and from my 360 degrees panoramic viewpoint, I smile at the plump white lighthouse that looks like a pepper pot on the adjacent hillside. A warm wind blows across the straits causing each blade of grass and the many pale lime and crimson wildflowers to quiver. The small silver leaves of the wild olive trees rustle. The water below is peppered with tiny ripples as the sun slowly rises in the west over Russia. A large tanker crawls through the narrow straits, and joins a group of ships and two smaller vessels that sit between the headland and the thin strip of sand that juts out from Russia’s Taman peninsula like a crooked finger. As the sun rises higher the hills, the lighthouse and the tiny village that sleeps peacefully below are flooded in warm orange sunlight.
* * *
Chris: The top right hand corner of the Black Sea is home to the Sea of Azov, the shallowest sea in the world, with a varying depth between 0.9 metres and 14 metres. With two of Russia’s mighty rivers, the Don and the Kuban, flowing into it, there is a constant outflow of water from the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. The inflow of these rivers, which bring sand, silt, and shells, creates bays and narrow sandbanks called spits.
The Dutch cyclist we had met told us it was possible to travel along the Arabatskaya Strelka, a 130km long band of sand east of the peninsula of Crimea. Using this sandy spit as a shortcut we bump and slide along a wavy sand track. Unpaved and off the beaten track, we're in our element. Catching glimpses of the Sea of Azov, we power towards the horizon in a dust cloud that snakes behind us. We pause halfway along this thin thread, with the Bay of Arabat on the Sea of Azov to our right and a marshy shore to our left that’s home to thousands of terns, herons, egrets, and bitterns. The mosquitoes are quick to hunt us down in the burning heat, so we leap back into the Volvo and continue to drive for over a hundred miles.
We pass only one car along the never-ending sand track and, like a mirage, I see what appears to be camper vans parked up on a beach. Eventually reaching a small settlement, we wild camp on the beach along with hundreds of other people a short way out of town. Slipping on our swimming shorts we dive into the shallow warm water, and we’re reminded that because of the huge intake of river water the sea is pleasantly unsalty. It also has a high content of organic matter, such as algae, which gives the water its unusual green colour and covers everyone in green slime.
Terrorized by the crazy Russian holidaymakers speeding home on Highway 105, we skid off the road and buy an enormous watermelon from a tall strong farm girl with gold teeth. Si spots a truck from Kazakhstan (a clear sign we’re heading east), as we hurtle past yet more enormous fields of sunflowers, in a country that is the largest producer of the crop in the world. Spotting small peasant kurgans in the fields, we pass through a pretty village with traditional wooden houses brightly painted green and blue with white ornate window shutters; a nearby field is crowded with goats and sheep. A short way north of here is a mining town called Donetsk, which was founded by a Welsh businessman named John Hughes in 1869. John was born in Merthyr Tydfil and constructed a steel plant and several coal mines in the region. Donetsk was recognised by UNESCO as the cleanest industrial town in the world, and was granted the Order of Lenin in 1979.
Rolling through the suburbs of the industrial city of Mariupol, we crawl through the city centre traffic in the early evening and wait patiently for a group of women dressed to impress, as they totter in high heels across the road. A young girl in jeans clutches a bunch of pretty yellow flowers, and boards a city bus outside a grand government building. The sight of the enormous rusty structure of the ex-Soviet Ilyich Steel & Iron Works looms over the road. It dwarfs the cars and the buildings and everything around it; massive heaps of coal tower behind barbed wire fences and half a dozen smoking chimneys cough brown smoke into the atmosphere. Si points at the view below the road to the left, and we see more chimneys belonging to the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, which is owned by the second richest oligarch in the Ukraine, Rinat Ahmetov, who was estimated to be worth US$1.8 billion. We pass an ancient looking red and white tram, and soon return to the countryside once more. Seeing a cluster of wind turbines, we catch sight of the green waters of the Sea of Azov beyond a ploughed field of rich black soil.
Stopping at the roadside to buy some fresh homegrown fruit from an old lady in a pink knitted cardigan, I see a deeply tanned farmer carrying a hay bail in one hand across a field. A man and a young boy park close by and climb down from a bright blue tractor. I nod a hello to the strong guy with a thick bristly grey moustache. He looks to me like a Cossack. Driving a short way, we stumble across a scenic viewpoint that looks down over the sea from the crumbling black cliffs. Drinking a cup of beer, we watch the full moon rise blood red over Russia and brace ourselves for the next stage of our journey that will lead us to the Caucasus Mountains and Georgia beyond.
By Simon Raven, Chris Raven © 2014. All Rights Reserved.
PART 3: Turkish Black Sea to the Danube Delta (Coming soon!)