Balaklava to Bakchiseray, Krym, Ukraine

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Leaving Sevastapol, rolling past Balaklava on dirt roads, following a GPS track from Vital.  It begins as an honest search for the ‘right’ path– the way the Vital had gone before.  In time, we’re lost on a game trail or footpath, pushing uphill towards the ridge.  We should have turned around and found the way, but two of the three of us is the type that like to look around the next corner before turning back, and there is always another corner.  We are the type that end up coming home past dark or running low on food or water.  In actuality, most of the time we know better– from experience– but the tendency is still alive.

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The allure of wooded singletrack is too great to pass.

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Although, it leads to an uphill struggle on loose dirt tracks.  The hillside is a popular downhill route, not ideal for uphill travel.  This structure is a decade or two old.

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Gaining the ridge, new obstacles arise.  An old barbed wire fenceline raises our suspicions.

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A small concrete bunker satisfies them.

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But then, there’s more!

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Atop the ridge, there are assorted concrete structures looking out over the coast.  It becomes apparent that this entire mountain is a fortress.

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We discover a series of garages, linked by rail with a larger underground system.  This garage will provide adequate cover for the night, and saves us from having to pull out our tents.

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Leading from the garages, something goes in here.

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Through about 100m of tunnels.

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To an opening.

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This is the same opening we discovered from above.  We discuss ten different ways in which this could, and must have been, a missile launch site.  Certainly, we reason, these must have been nuclear missiles.  Whoa.

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Close the door behind you.

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Aside, this remote beach is only a few kilometers from Balaklava.

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Doubletrack trails blanket the area.  Presumably, these are old jeep trails and tank tracks.

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A few more steep pushes lead us above the sea, with unobstructed views in three directions.

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And moments of picture perfect singletrack.

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Winding along coastal cliffs, we encounter more remnants of past military activities.

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We stop at this fence to take photographs, posing as if using our cell phones and doing the Moonwalk, as is prohibited by the signs on the fence.  Two young guards appear from the forest.  They ask for passports in Russian.  They demand to see Przemek’s photos, unamused at our comedic nature.  We are asked to follow the younger man.  Rolling our bikes alongside, he leads us to his leader, where other young recruits are sweeping leaves from the roadway with branches.  Signage describes proper marching technique, and celebrates the Ukrainian military. After a few brief questions from the superior officer, we are dismissed out the front gate, away from our intended destination.  The Ukrainian military is not the same force that constructed the massive bunkers of the Soviet era.  Nonetheless, the experience completes our tour of the coastline, lending a sense of reality to the places we’ve explored.

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Having been turned away just a few kilometers from our intended campsite on a cliff above the sea, we find a roundabout means to reach our goal.  The campsite, Vital’s recommendation, is supreme.  High above the sea, we prepare a meal as clouds form on the horizon.

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Naturally, we sample another variety of Ukrainian horilka.  This one is flavored by bison grass, like the popular Polish zubrowka varieties.

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Returning inland the next day, we pass from zones of moisture to zones of aridity, and back.  Physical changes of climate and geology are rapid in Krym.

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Back on a signed hiking trail, in uniquely pleasant forests.  At times, there is a Californian calm to this place.

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Every morning, I awake to find Lael reading on her Nexus tablet inside her sleeping bag.

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Ukrainian magazines, or stores,  are stocked like an old-time general store, with a wide assortment of items.  These structures are often relics from Soviet times, and most goods are only available from behind the counter.  As such, it is always a good time to practice Ukrainian or Russian.  Most women are happy to work with our basic language skills, especially if they realize we are American.  Polish, Czech and other European tourists are not entirely uncommon.  Americans visit with less frequency, although most Ukrainians are excited to learn that we are from America.  In fact, most Ukrainians know more about the USA than the French.  Once, when asked where we are from, Lael replies, “Alaska”.

The man repeats, “Alaska?”– An-cho-rage!

Most French people think Alaska is part of Canada.  In Ukraine, the dollar is more common than the euro.  Many Ukrainian are familiar with the basic geography of American cities and states.

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I love these colorful matchboxes.

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And assorted preserves.

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Crossing from drainage to drainage across the foothills, we enjoy short climbs and fun descents on crumbly limestone roads.

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Each valley with its own surprises; each valley with stunning cliffs.

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This one with abandoned orchards.  Post-Soviet times have not always been easy.  This place could, or should be teeming with fruit.

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Turning off-pavement, back onto another footpath.

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A particularly tacky mud arises at certain intervals, as we cross certain geological zones.  Voluminous 2.35″ tires fit the frame, within reason, although the front derailleur runs close to the tire.  The result is a muddy drivetrain.

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A rock and an acorn are wedged in the front derailleur.

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Lael’s bike features similar clearances, although a narrower tire and a double chainring setup leaves a little more room for mud.  Note, a clean drivetrain.  Thinking about an offset double for better mud and tire clearance.

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Looking for a campsite, we encounter this established site.  What luck, as it features spacious sites with tables and fire rings, and we have all of it to ourselves.

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It stands as one of the best of the summer.

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Crocodile dragon pig in the sky?  What do you see?

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Leaving camp, we pass the spring on our way to Bakchiseray.

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Some more images from the bountiful, historic region near Bakchiseray in my previous post “Bountiful Krym“.

Above the Black Sea, Krym, Ukraine

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Attention Denver, tonight only (10/9)!  Yes, we have been in Denver for several days now, repairing bikes and electronics, preparing for another few months of riding in the SW before the end of the season.  The Surly Owner’s Society and friends (SOS+) is meeting tonight at the Denver Beer Co. on Platte St at 7:30PM.  I know for certain than Andy, aka Big Dummy Daddy, will be there, as well as a few other friends from past trips through the area.  Come join us.  Ride a bike.  Don’t worry if it isn’t a Surly.   

Edit: Thanks to everyone who showed up to talk last night, and thanks to Andy and Tracy for organizing the group.

Plans are made to meet Vital for a few days of riding.  Vital lives in Krym, studied in Poland, and somehow made Przemek’s acquaintance via Polish bike forums.  We look forward to joining him atop one of the tallest peaks in Krym, above 1500m.  Leaving Bakchiseray, we shoot towards the coast to camp atop a tall ridge.  We have GPS coordinates for reference, and find a camp site accordingly.  The plan is to meet in the morning to begin riding.  The whole process seems covert, although we’re really just planning to ride bikes for a few days.

After a quick twenty miles on pavement, we break for a meal before tackling the paved climb.  We encounter unique tastes at a Tartar restaurant, including lamb, spices, and flatbreads.  We take six flatbreads to go.

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Climbing, we each take advantage of cool, clean water to bathe ourselves before another few days of riding and sweating inside rain jackets.  None of us (except me!) were excited to jump into cold water, but the reward of being clean is always worth it.

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We misjudge the climb, and are caught in the dark for the final 1000ft to the top.  Little traffic makes for a nice ride, although thick fog is unsettling.  As the air cools, we agree that it would be best to find camp before it rains, if it rains, or when it rains.

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We make it to the top, and push up a grassy hill in the dark, guided by headlights.  Behind some small trees, we find shelter from the cold, damp wind.  Tents and bags prepared, we prepare a meal of recently purchased frozen varenyky, fresh vegetables, and sweets.  A small bottle of Russian vodka pairs well with these flavors, especially with the bold taste of garlic and onion.

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In the morning, we are joined by Sasha and Vital, on their immaculately prepared bikepacking machines, complete with locally made framebags.  The roadside at the pass is crowded with vehicles.  Dozens of people are quietly walking through the forests gathering mushrooms.  Back at the road, friends are charged with preparing shashlik over the grill, while playing music from the back of the car– Russian tailgate culture.

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From 1200m, we begin the undulating ridgetop climb on dirt towards 1500m.  A small cut in Vital’s tubeless tire is easily repaired with some extra sealant, which I have been carrying since the Czech Republic.

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Vital jokes, as is printed on the sign, that this is “Russian Google maps”.

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Continuing along the ridge, we travel east.

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To discover that we are high above the Black Sea, nearly 4000ft above Yalta.

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We find a windbreak to enjoy some lunch.

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Amongst other things, this jar of nuts and honey will help us up the final climbs.

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Storms darken ahead of us, although the sun enters from behind.  After a rainy night, the afternoon has promise.

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Looking at Kemal-Egerek, the third tallest peak in the Crimean Mountains at 1529m.  We follow the ridge to the top, then down the backside.

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The final push.

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Above the trees, exposed to the wind.

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Aside from the heights reached in the Karpaty, this is the highest we have been all summer.  None of it is as high as the Rockies, not even as high as the city of Denver, but none of it has been easy.  Daily climbs up steep grades have made us stronger than ever.

Familiarity with a bicycle is important when climbing and descending, and when riding all day.  The result is a kinship that cannot be matched with a shiny new machine.  Although we’re always dreaming of better bikes for ourselves, sometimes the bike you are riding is really best.  If I was to do it again, I might take the exact same bike.  However, bigger tire clearances are always welcome.

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Bikepacking is gaining popularity all over the globe.  Among us, there are seven Maxxis tires and three Schwalbes.  Cheap, creative solutions rule the day– ultralight need not be ultra expensive or complicated.

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This is as far as we are allowed to ride towards the east, due to the Crimean Game Preserve, which is closed to all visitors.  We choose a line along a ridge, downhill back towards Bakchiseray.

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Down, down, down– one of the best descents of the whole summer.  The descent is steep and crumbly, but with a highly rideable nature.  Times like these I am grateful for big rubber.

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DIY camera system, using an old credit card.  This is a much better use of plastic, than buying more stuff online.

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Looking back on the descent.

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And looking towards more storms, coming to close the afternoon.

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Unfortunately, Vital found his wheel deep in a rut, unable to free himself from the narrow dirt corridor.  The result: a tumble into the grass and a severely deformed wheel.  How will we ride home on this?  Lael gets into her sleeping bag as we deliberate.

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After unsuccessfully trying to bend the wheel back into shape by hand, including the full body weight of two men, I insist that I have a better solution.  I locate the greatest deformity.  Without asking for permission, I lift the wheel over my head, landing it on the ground with force.  Four mouths stand facing me, gaping.  I smile, and show them that the wheel is now less severely deformed.  I take another swing, from high over my head.  After a few more, and some snickering, I slide the wheel into the fork and spin it.  Now, we can ride home.  I credit Chris Wineck with the repair.  Chris has been a mechanic at The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage since 1978, when he was 14 years old.  The man knows how to tame a broken bicycle, and he is not afraid to use a hammer.

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This will get us home, if only by a narrow margin.

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Down the mountain and into the trees, we shoot for a flat spot to camp for the night.

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Two Tarptent Double Rainbow shelters and one Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 tent populate the forest for the evening.  We dine together in fading light and tuck ourselves in, looking forward to the remaining descent in the morning.

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In the morning, we pack up and descend gullied dirt roads without traffic.  Anywhere, forest service roads make some of the best riding.

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Back to civilization, we say our goodbyes and part ways.

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Thanks again to Vital for guiding the way.

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Bountiful Krym

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Krym presents an abundance and diversity of food, cultures, climates, and trails.  While some signed and mapped routes exist in the Karpaty, Krym has a well-connected system of routes.  Signage is good, and camping is recommended (perhaps required, technically) at designated sites called tyristoyankas, complete with tent sites, a tyalet, and often a spring.  The climate, ranging from subtropical to maritime continental, is as diverse as the foods and cultures.

Some footpaths, like the one above, are rugged and remote.  Others cut right through touristic centers, such as between an ancient cave city and an Orthodox monastery, complete with a variety of vendors on alongside the trail.  From the first signs of red and white back in Holland, there are more similarities than differences to all the footpaths we have seen in Europe.  Incidentally, we have been teased by rain, or the chance of rain during our time here.  In many ways, our summer begins and ends in much the same way.

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Vendors line the steep, rocky path near the cave city.  “Molodets!”, they shout, cheering us up the intermittently technical ascent.

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The climate ranges greatly from the azure coastline along the Black Sea, where a narrow subtropical zone exists,

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To a semi-arid continental climate further inland, much like parts of California, featuring chalky soils of fragmented limestone.  Sloping sedimentary strata gently rise to dramatic cliffs.  White oak and beech trees are abundant.

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The Tartars have left an historic impact on the culture and architecture in Krym, although the population was violently expunged and relocated to central Asia during Stalin’s time.  Many people have returned since the time of Ukrainian independence.

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The Soviets have also left an unmistakable impression, with an aesthetic that blends blunt purpose and grandeur– function and form– beyond compare.

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Ancient cave cities may be more than a millennium old.

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While this Christian Orthodox monastery is also built into the cliffs.

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We also discovered a Karaite cemetery, with many graves dating to the 1800’s.

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Food is everywhere.  Apples on the trail.

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Wine in bulk.  We fill the 64 oz. Klean Kanteen with wine for less than $10.  A semi-sweet red Muscat is our preferred taste after some exhaustive research.

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Sounding out Cyrillic characters: Sh-A-R-D-O-Ne.  Chardonnay, one of the dryer wines produced in the region.  Sweet and semi-sweet reds are the most common.

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Fresh almonds.

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And a local delicacy of walnuts, strung together and candied in a gelatinous coating.  Of questionable appearance.

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Both honey and nuts are common, often available from the same vendors, sometimes even in the same jar.

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Animals enjoy the richness of the land as well.

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While we enjoy the opportunity to live outdoors for a few more weeks in Ukraine.

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Our expectations of unending sun are quieted by a brooding sky.  Several intense showers come and go, although most often we enjoy great cycling weather.  Locals insist that the weather is unseasonably wet and cool for September, a time of year popular with tourists.  Summer months can be quite hot.

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Our riding pace has been studiously slow, and we’ve covered nearly all of the major walking routes within a small region between Sevastapol and Bakchiseray.  While the entire peninsula isn’t even that big, and the mountainous section much smaller, there is still so much to discover here.  We are already making plans to come back, with an idea to encircle the Black Sea.

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First days in Krym

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Krym is the English phonetic spelling of the Ukrainian name for Crimea (the Crimean Peninsula, and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea).  It will be used in place of  the name Crimea, which seems out of place to my tongue in reference to the Ukrainian and Russian names for this land. Additionally, while it is still common to hear “the Ukraine” , the Ukrainian government has officially requested that the definite article be dropped from the name, and official writing style guides have been adjusted.  Ukraine and Crimea are now the most common forms in English.  I will use the Ukrainian name, Krym, written in Latin characters.

Boarding a train in Lviv, we arrive in Simferapol 24 hours later.  Bicycles are not charged as additional baggage on Ukrainian trains, although you may have to convince the attendant that such a statute exists.  The bicycle is expected to be contained, such as in a proper bike travel bag.  A tent or several plastic garbage bags will do.  We arrived at the station in Lviv from a connecting regional train, with only 20 minutes to prepare our bikes and board the train.  The attendant in our car was less than happy at the pile of dirty bikes and luggage we hoped to load onto the train.  She insisted we couldn’t bring them on board.  She conferred with her cohorts.  She asked her superior.  He looked scrutinously at ‘all three’ (sigh) of our velocypedy.  He became disinterested and left.  Our attendant then decided on her own that we could board with the bicycles if we cleaned them off.

We grabbed greasy rags and removed as much dirt as possible, however, they were anything but clean.  Moments before the train leaves, she hollers at us to board.  “Or you’ll miss it!”.

Alright, alright, we’re getting on.

I suspect she just wanted to make us work a little– penance for not being prepared.  As we board, she smiles at us.  Ukrainian women like a good fight.

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A third class sleeper (platzkart, from German) is the best choice when traveling with a bike in Ukraine.  First and second class sleeper cabins afford more personal space and privacy, although the luggage hold is not well oriented for loading and unloading a bicycle.  Third class cabins have a third bunk designed for storing luggage.  The open design allows loading and overloading– we readily stored three bicycle on two luggage bunks with wheels removed.  I can only imagine the kind of things that third class Ukrainian passengers have transported on trains.  This cabin space features six bunks, although only five spaces were used in our section.  During the day, it is typical to sit along the lower bench seat and to share conversation at the small table.  At night, slip into your Adidas track pants and slide into you upper bunk.  Plan ahead and get a lower bunk space if possible.  The price for a third class bunk on a cross-country 24hr train?– about $20.  By the end of the trip, you will feel like family with your cabinmates.

Second class cabins sleep four in a similar space, for twice the price.  First class cabins sleep two.  All cars feature a hot water tank for hot tea and coffee.  Black tea is complimentary on the train.  “Chai? How many sugars?”.  Ukrainian, like Russians, love sugar in their tea.  Some say that after sugar has been added, the teaspoon should stand in the cup on its own.  At major stops along the way, exit the train to purchase a variety of prepared foods including pyroshky (baked dumplings filled with potato, cheese, cabbage or meat), varenyky (filled dumplings, boiled), smoked fish, and sweets.  Cold beer is also on hand from entrepreneurial vendors.  Prices are competitive.

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Arriving in Simferapol, we connect to a regional train to Sevastapol at the coast.  We have plans to meet a host for the evening, a keen bikepacker named Vital with extensive knowledge of the area.  Sevastapol is an incredible city, featuring historic armaments and many signs of wealth.  Sevastapol, and Krym in general, have long been the playground of the Russian elite.  Krym was part of Russia until after WWII, when it was annexed to the Ukrainian SSR.  Today, 50% of the population identifies as Russian, about 25% as Ukrainian, and 12% as Tartar.  The peninsula operates as an autonomous republic within the Ukrainian nation.  Sevastapol was largely a closed city during the Soviet-era, owing to its military prominence.

Sevastapol is beautiful by night, although after a day and half on trains, I’m apathetic about sightseeing and taking photos.  In the morning, Vital takes us for a sightseeing tour in the hills.  We ride out of town, past vineyards, over crystal waters on ancient aqueducts, and into the mountains.

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Our prize for the day is a visit to a Cold War-era bunker, unofficially open to the public for lack of a door.  From the outside, it looks like a boring concrete building, with windows painted on the surface to fool curious American satellites.

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On the inside…

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Tunnels fit for vehicular traffic.

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Corridors in all directions.

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Leading to equipment storage rooms, and what appear to be housing for hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of soldiers.

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Watch where you step, or where you ride.  Nearly every scrap of metal has been salvaged from the bunker, including manhole covers and staircases.  If you fall in, you are not coming out.  Headlights and dynamo lighting lead the way.  Any thoughts on the warning below?

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Looks like a factory or an apartment building from the air.

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For contrast, a building with real windows, or at least a place for windows.

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As Vital returns home, we go searching for the town of Balaklava on the coast.  We find a deep-water harbor with a narrow passage, well protected from weather and enemy attack.  The harbor was once home to a secret submarine base, now operating as a naval museum.  The town was almost entirely populated by military families, and visitation rights were difficult to obtain  Today, pleasure craft originating in Gibralter and Italy fill the marina, alongside local touristic watercraft offering an evening on the water.  Tourists abound, and as on any weekend in Ukraine, the bride and groom aren’t far away.  A trance festival is happening on a remote beach nearby.  A young man plays the didgeridoo to earn a couple extra hryvnia for the train home, or a sack of weed.

And yes, those beloved cold-weather head coverings– balaclavas– originated here.  English troops first used them during the Crimean War in the 1850’s.

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While navigating the waterfront trials course, Przemek pinches a tube riding up some stairs.  A nearby boat is blasting techno music.  Two dancing fools patching a tube receive a 1 hryvnia donation from a sympathetic Kievan girl on her way to the trance festival.  Homeless, peddling our bodies at the waterfront for a $0.15 donation– these are reasons for a mother to be proud.

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Krym is responsible for producing most of the wine found in Ukraine.  Wine is also made along the mainland Black Sea coastline near Odessa, and in the Karpaty Mountains.  On average, Ukrainian wines are sweet.  Select a dry or semisweet wine to pair with a meal.  Dessert wines are also common.  Grapes are also grown on fences and trellises everywhere.  These traditional seeded grapes, as are used to make wines, are superb.  Several seeds are found within, and skins can be discarded after separating the meaty fruit from within.  The fruit is gelatinous, textured like a tapioca pearl.

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Lael holds the best part of the fruit between her thumb and first finger.

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Riding back toward Sevastopol to beat the rain, we stop and laugh at this Soviet-era mural.  We interpret: in the future, our men will be cosmonauts and our woman, well, they will still be stuck harvesting wheat.  What a bright future.  Nowadays, Ukraine has a bright future.

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Our future, however, is best considered with the help of these maps.  These excellent trail maps are well-scaled for human powered travel, and display a network of hiking trails first established by Czech hiking clubs.  Two maps are available, covering most relevant terrain.  From sea level, peaks rise above 1500m.  Some promising routes are found on these maps, which each cost about $2.  Look for them at the excellent outdoor store near the train station in Simferapol, only a few blocks away on Lenin Blvd.  The market near the train station is a great place to buy fresh produce and Turkish delights.

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Many thanks to Vital for hosting us in Sevastapol, and for his intimate knowledge of Crimean routes and trails, including some spectacular points of interest.  Not all Ukrainian bikepackers are riding  steel donkeys— his kit is dialed, featuring a locally made framebag.  Check out his blog, Burning Saddles (named after memorable trip with friends), for a tempting glimpse into the bikepacking potential in this area.  Google Translate dishes up some gems when translating this page from Russian– highly recommended.

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Looking for a little more lite reading?  Lael has a great post entitled “Bunkers and a bus stop”, cataloguing some of the more interesting concrete spaces we’ve encountered in Krym.

Our Bicycle Times, updates

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Some exciting news has found its way across the pond, across the European continent and through the spotty Ukrainian internet connections I’ve been using to stay afloat in the internet world.  The most recent issue of Bicycle Times features an article about my year touring and commuting on a Surly Pugsley fatbike, entitled “One Bike For All Seasons”.  Check it out in print at your local press stand, or from one of these digital sources.  The cover art by Kyle Stecker is worth the cover price itself– well done!

I’ve been a fan of Bicycle Times since I first spotted pages full of practical bikes and DIY advice.  Their acceptance of fatbikes into the realm of the practical is much appreciated, and is a strong signal of the changing bicycle times we live in.  In other news, I’ve heard rumors of an aggressive 29×3.0″ Dirt Wizard tire for Surly Krampus and ECR frames.  This tire, first designed in a 26″ model for the re-issued Instigator frame, greatly enhances my interest in the 29+ format, as I’ve grown accustomed to more aggressive tires such as 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent and 2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf.  A Krampus or ECR with such a tire might hit a sweet spot between my Pugsley and the current 29″ set-up on the Raleigh XXIX.

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Ukrainian update: We are enjoying our time on the Crimean Peninsula, in a magical climate between mountains and sea that harbors vineyards, ancient cave cities, Cold War-era bunkers, and a melange of culinary delights from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and beyond.  This is a special place, and the riding has been no less than stunning, while a history of hiking in the region means dirt roads and trails are accessible, and navigable.  I hope to share more words and images soon– in the meantime, we’ll be enjoying our last week in Ukraine before flying back to the US on Oct. 1, to Denver, via Moscow and NYC.  Note, the Russian airline Aeroflot operates inexpensive flights from JFK in NYC to Kiev and Simferapol, Ukraine, with no surcharge for packed bicycles.

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So, we’ll be in Denver on Wednesday Oct. 2nd.  We plan several days in the area to rest, write, and repair our bikes and equipment before embarking on two months of late-season riding in the SW.  The approximate plan is to tie up some loose ends– remnants from last summer’s dreams.  Roughly, we hope to begin riding near Grand Junction and Fuita toward Moab via the popular Kokopelli Trail (exploring trails near each end of the route), then south through the Canyonlands region of Utah, to connect with the Arizona Trail.  Eventually, we still plan to spend the winter in Alaska.  There are fatbikes in our future, once again.  

Anyone in the Denver/Fort Collins/Boulder area want to meet for a ride or a beer?  Anyone know of a good way to get nearer to Grand Junction from Denver?  We might ride part of the way if skies are clear, although our sights are set on riding into Utah sooner than later, as changing seasons prescribe.  Anyone want to ride the first leg towards Moab, sometime in the first week or two of October?  Keep in touch.