Raining on the train: CZE, AUT, SVN, HRV

Nicholas Carman1 520

Arriving at the Czech border town of Český Tĕšín, Abe and I cross the river to Poland. A series of produce stalls are selling bulk potatoes along the road parallel the river, massive dried sunflowers and dill stalks accompany the display. We climb a wet cobblestone street into the old city in search of cover. We spent our last Czech koruna at the Billa supermarket across the border. Now, we seek a Polish ATM to withdraw zloty for the next week. We’ve seen the forecast, and it calls for some days of rain. In the past week these forecasts have become increasingly grim, with two days of rain growing to a full week of rain. Going through the motions, we withdraw cash, eat pastries and kefir under cover of a bus stop and pedal to the start of the Main Beskid Trail in Ustron, about 20 km away. En route, we both realize that the GPX tracks we have loaded are incomplete. The files we loaded contain nearly 13,000 points and our Garmin eTrex devices will only display tracks with up to 10,000 points, so only 200 miles of the route are shown. At the top of the mountain we pass a turn which would connect us to the Beskid Trail but we decide to descend into town to modify the GPX track and reload it to our Garmin units. 

In Ustron, we stop into a local bike shop where Abe borrows a wrench to tension his leather B-17 saddle. He asks how many spare sets of brake pads I am carrying, expecting me to reply “None”, along with some secrets of lightweight travel.

“Four. Four pairs.”

Abe is impressed.

I contest, they are small and I don’t think it will be easy to find pads for my SRAM Guide brakes. He agrees.

Abe buys a pair of Shimano brake pads. The shop is a small room, clean and professional with a small inventory of bikes and some quality equipment, including Maxxis tires, disc brake pads, and carbon handlebars. A row of kids bikes are lined up out front of the shop, several models featuring a long handle with an ergonomic grip for a parent to follow behind. We ask to log into the wifi network at the shop to use an online program called GPS Visualizer which I know can modify our GPX track as needed. Instead, they suggest we use the free wifi in the city center about 300m away. We roll to the city center and link to the internet, where we discover that we must input a cell phone number to receive a login code. Neither of us has a phone. We manage to ask the woman at the tourist information office to use her mobile phone to receive the code. Once she understands our request she willingly agrees to help.

I begin work to condense our oversized GPX tracks through the GPS Visualizer program and limit them to 9999 points, enough that the entire track will load on our devices and the track resolution will be adequate. I connect my eTrex 20 and begin loading the file. I do the same with Abe’s eTrex 30, although my old USB cable ejects the drive several times before I successfully load the track. Right before we pack and roll out of town, I check the latest weather forecast. One site shows rain for every single day, for two weeks. My fingers are cold while typing next to an open window in the tourist office in Ustron at 1300ft. We plan to climb up to almost 5000ft over the next couple of days, topping out on Babia Gora along the Polish-Slovakian border. Memory serves the distinct sensation of soggy shoes, and sweaty rain jacket, and incompetent cold hands fumbling with zippers. Add to that poor visibility, wet roots, muddy trails. I inform Abe of the forecast. He doesn’t say anything, the sometimes necessary job of a first mate. But I can tell. I don’t want to be wet for two weeks either. I load the German rail site in English and run a few searches. A second Google Maps tab reminds me of the geography of Eastern Europe. Ostrava to Zagreb results in relatively few connections and a 15 hours trip with a layover in Vienna. Just something to think about. We pack our things and ride out of town to a public picnic area we passed on our way into town. I spotted a large wooden pavilion on the descent and figured we could come back for the night if needed. 

Przemek arrives around 9:30PM, his young dog waking me by licking my eyeball as I sit up from my sleeping bag. Abe and I have been asleep for over two hours. Przemek and I hug awkwardly from my seated position in my sleeping bag. His first question, “Do you want some wodka?” What do you say to a towering Polish man with a Husky mutt when he asks if you want wodka in the middle of the night. “Of course.”

I hear the van door slide open across the park, and then slam closed. Przemek arrives with a bag of oranges, a pouch of rolling tobacco, and a bottle of spirits, a Lithuanian vodka called Strumbas with two raspberries sunk to the bottom. This is a perfectly acceptable evening digestif in this part of the world, although it might be short a few cloves of garlic and some pickled fish, or pork. We talk under cover of the pavilion until midnight before disbanding to sleep. It rains all night.

Przemek and I have shared trails in Poland, Ukraine, Montenegro, Albania, and Colorado. He and his partner Saška were some of the first riders on the Baja Divide this past fall. This summer they married and are expecting a baby in the next few weeks. Przemek is working in Poland while Saška is with family in Slovenia. Once he receives the call, he will make haste to meet his daughter.

Lael and I first met Przemek in Zwardon on the Poland-Slovakia border in 2013. We met at the train station and immediately began climbing out of town on a steep walking trail. Thus began my love with Polish footpaths. The next few days we followed his lead along ridgelines between the two countries. We continued riding together for the next month in Poland, in the Ukrainian Carpathians, and in Crimea. In that time, we all got food poisoning, we enjoyed late evenings with Djorka and Yulia and their friends in Strij, and we were escorted off a Ukrainian military base in Crimea. In that time, Przemek curated an alter ego as a slippery Polish man working to illegally import wodka under the guise of operating an Italian pizzeria. He was alternately Mr. Polish and Tony the Pizza Man, and you’d never know who might crawl out of his tent in the morning. If he didn’t have a university degree that allows him to commission power plants in Europe I think Przemek might have found a career recording his shtick to budget comedy LPs.

I had said that I wished it to rain all night. I said, “I hope it is pouring in the morning”. Now that a seed had been planted and we might be able to escape the rain, all I needed was the affirmation to make that decision. I didn’t need much, and it would have taken a miracle of morning sun and a perfectly clear forecast to change my mind. Instead I was hoping for a deluge of reasons to escape the impending rainy season. It rained all night.

We are going south.

Abe and I confer. I suggest we take the train to Zagreb and I think it a good idea to avoid two weeks of rain. He quietly chuckles in agreement. We have both been wet and cold before. This time, we fold our hand and find another card table. We are going to the Balkans. Summer will be ours once again.

Missing the chance to visit Ukraine leaves a little hole in my summer. It is a special place that has provided so many positive and meaningful experiences. Visiting family in two consecutive summers, and celebrating two consecutive birthdays in Ukraine is part of it. The riding in the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains is also a great adventure. I’ll be back. It will be there. Had I been traveling alone I might have pressed on in the rain and bought an old farmhouse with a good roof and a fireplace in the Ukrainian mountains and disappeared forever. Good thing Abe is here.

And so, with no plan other than a good weather forecast and a taste for burek, and figs, and rakija, we are going south. Our train will arrive in Zagreb just before midnight.

Follow our travels on Instagram at @nicholascarman and @akschmidtshow, and check Abe’s blog akschidtshow.

————

Mr. Polish, aka Tony the Pizza Man, aka Przemek. 

Nicholas Carman1 519

Nicholas Carman1 521

Advertisements

Romanian rail, Serbian sun, Montenegran mountains

Nicholas Carman1 1161

Nicholas Carman1 1158

Nicholas Carman1 1093

Above:  Sunny shades of Serbia.  Serbia is a big surprise, as we didn’t have any expectations at all.  

Since parting ways with my family, we’ve returned to our bikes in the Ukrainian Karpaty.  We followed the route from Kolochava to Yst Chorna, again.  It is shown as a road on the map, but it is more of a stream for about half of that distance.  We continue along forest tracks and singletrack to Yasinya.  To our south, the road crosses through the town of Rakhiv and into Romania,  Or, we can climb up the Chornahora Massif, possibly ride or walk up to the highest peak in Ukraine– Hoverla– and continue further east to cross into Romania elsewhere.  However, our plans with Przemek are looming, and the weather is constantly cold and rainy, at least about every other day.  It may not be the best time of year to be exploring the Romanian highlands.  Not sure if Saška would like to be cold and wet on her first bike tour.  Not sure if I want to be cold and wet.  Lael certainly doesn’t.  Weather predictions in the Balkans are promising– 30C and sunny everyday.  Przemek and Saška are coming from Slovenia.  He asks, “Can you be in Podgorica on the 5th”?

Sure!

Lael and I hurry to figure out where Podgorica is.  Ah, Montenegro.  Sounds nice.

We ride into Romania at sunset, and seek an inexpensive hotel in the center of town.  The first night in a new country is exciting.  Which currency do they use?  How much will we pay for a beer, and a loaf of bread?  It surely isn’t as cheap as Ukraine, although the facilities are nicer.  Immediately, we notice the roads are much nicer (smoother, but more traffic).  The roads in Ukraine are laughably bad.  Once-paved roads are actually worse than many dirt roads, in this country or elsewhere.  Low-traffic volumes are the reward.

Romania is welcoming.  The language is different, like Italian or French spoken through a 30% filter of Ukrainian, to my ears.  Espresso is omnipresent, and very good.  The Italians have left their mark on this part of Europe.  We will find more of this further south, and west.  Romanians use the Leu as currency.  Slovakia uses the Euro.   Both Czech and Poland have been EU members as long as Slovakia, yet they do not use the Euro.  Turns out, Montenegro uses the Euro as well, and they aren’t even part of the EU yet.  Previously they had used the Deutsche Mark in place of the unstable Serbian Dinar.  Montenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia in 2006.  There is a lot of history to learn for this part of the world.  We habitually load gargantuan Wikipedia articles about each country (Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia), or past country (Yugoslavia), or soon-to-be independent country (Kosovo), and read them offline in the tent.   

Romania

Romania, as seen from across the border in Ukraine. To some, the grass is a little greener over there.

Nicholas Carman1 1053

Nicholas Carman1 1052

The next day, we purchase train tickets.  The afternoon allows me to service my bottom bracket, which has begun to creak.  Shimano warns, “Do Not Disassemble”.  I recommend to anyone wishing to prepare their bottom bracket for lots of muck and rain to do this before it makes noise.   Carefully remove the plastic cover, and the rubberized bearing seal.  Flush with lightweight lube, and pack with as much grease as possible.  

Nicholas Carman1 1108

Nicholas Carman1 1109

The Shimano crank design is almost free of specialty crank tools.  Unfortunately, the non-drive side utilizes a bearing preload which demands a special star-shaped tool.  In this case, a light tap with a hammer and a Ukrainian coin set the bearing preload just right.

Nicholas Carman1 1110

The Romanian train promises to be comfortable, as the air is cool and the cabin is only at quarter capacity leaving the station.  We’re sad not to spend the time that Romania requires, but this train ride will serve as a small consolation, and a basic reconnaissance mission.  We’ll be back someday, armed with more summer.

Nicholas Carman1 1102

Nicholas Carman1 1099

The bikes cost us about $15 each on the train.  There isn’t an official policy or place for the bikes, although the train attendants are very kind and flexible, much unlike the Soviet-era attitudes aboard the Ukrainian railways.  Someone is transporting a large sack of flour on the train.

The 14 hour train costs about $15 per seat, plus the bikes.  Not a bad way to get across the country.  All is well until a woman enters our cabin of eight seats.  Each cabin is only ticketed for a maximum of about four passengers, as the train is quite empty.  She argues that I am in her seat.  I show her our tickets, the attendant ensures that yes, I am in her seat, although he has moved us to this cabin to be near our bikes.  She’s not happy, and the remaining twelve hours are miserable.  I’ll almost never say it, but is was really uncomfortable.  First, she closes the only window and the door to the cabin.  Then, she eats some fragrant fried food.  Finally she inspects us uncomfortably for a while, trying to figure out who or what we were.  She argues with her husband.  Lastly, she lays down across three seats, stomach hanging out of her shirt, shoes off, looking at us.  Eventually, she is asleep and snoring.  At intervals, she stretches and rolls over and puts her feet up on the window.  There are some cookies, and more fried foods.  Then, two older Romanian men enter the cabin past midnight to claim their seats.  Now, there are six of us.  Five of us sit upright; she still claims three seats.  She snaps at the two men, who maintain conversational tone in the dark.  Their voices are calm, yet earnest, and it doesn’t bother me.  Incidentally, about an hour later, she begins texting on her cell phone.  The phone is set to full volume, beeping with each key stroke.  That bothers me.  Lael holds back a laugh.  Then I laugh, and she laughs, and the woman looks at us, realizing her mistake.  She lays down again, and falls asleep.

Eventually, the two men deboard the train in the early morning.  Lael stretches out on the remaining seats.  I find an empty cabin at about 4AM, and catch a few hours of sleep.  We arrive in Timisoara at 7AM, greasy and tired.  I glare one last time at the fried food text-messaging bossy lady, and take my things.  Lael suggests we could take another train further south.  I suggest we ride.    

Nicholas Carman1 1104

Nicholas Carman1 1106

Nicholas Carman1 1105

Nicholas Carman1 1100

Nicholas Carman1 1101

We exit the train station in Timisoara as all the businesses open for the day, and rain begins to fall.  This is a flat, fertile corner of Romania.  We’ll be in Serbia by the end of the day.

I’d never have chosen to visit this part of the country but we make a great day or it.  We stop in a small store at lunch, to take cover from the rain.  We order two beers and sit on the ground.  The patrons are half Roma gypsies, and half Romanian, split between two tables.  Everyone, at different intervals ask us questions in Romanian, French, German, and some Russian.  The one guy that claims to speak English is wasted, and really doesn’t speak English.  Still, he buys each of us a beer.  This is a poor town stuck near the border.  For a moment, I like being here.

Nicholas Carman1 1097

Nicholas Carman1 1098

In fact, this border crossing is listed on the map and on my GPS, but is currently inactive.  We arrive at the abandoned post and ride into Serbia, looking for anyone who can officiate our crossing.  There is no one.  We return to Romania, to find an official border crossing.  We’d hate to be clocking time in the EU when we have in fact left the EU and are in Serbia.  Further, we’d hate to spend time talking to the police later on.

Nicholas Carman1 1096

 

Serbia

We arrive in Serbia at sunset (a pattern, it seems), and spot a small mound of mountains.  

Nicholas Carman1 1095

Vrŝac, at sunset.

Nicholas Carman1 1094

This is one of Serbia’s premier wine growing regions.  Serbia uses the Dinar as currency, which is valued at about 90 Dinar to the Dollar. 

Nicholas Carman1 1092

Vrŝac is a fantastic city.  

Lael and I have been carrying some things we’d like to send home.  I wander into the post office, which is very busy.  Instead, I leave some layers and a camera in the park.  

Sadly, the lens is scratched and the camera body has a mind of its own when the atmosphere claims more than 90% humidity.  Hopefully, someone in Serbia will appreciate it.  I can’t justify sending it home to gather dust, nor do I want to take pictures marred by a scratched lens.  After a year and over a thousand dollars of experimentation, I’m using the same camera and lens as last year.  It is simple, small, and inexpensive.

In the past year, the screen on my lightly used Olympus E-M5 died within a week, and I lost the external hardware to the EVF on a ride.  I scratched the lens of the Panasonic 12-35mm lens, probably beyond repair.  I broke the threaded plastic filter attachment in the same bike crash that killed my last E-P3 body.  The Olympus E-PM1 body which I left in the park has been a solid performer since I purchased it as my first camera just over two years ago.  This year, I’m planning to keep it simple and cheap.

I enjoy using the Olympus E-P3 body (newer one, as the last one broke), and the photographs from the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 lens are to my liking.  And when it rains or I want to put the camera away, it fits almost anywhere on the bike.  

Nicholas Carman1 1171

Nicholas Carman1 1170

Serbia is full of sun, for us.

Nicholas Carman1 1116

Nicholas Carman1 1114

We intersect the EuroVelo6 Route along the Danube River.  This route connects the Atlantic with the Black Sea.

Nicholas Carman1 1117

For about 30 miles, we ride hard packed dirt and gravel along the banks of the river.

Nicholas Carman1 1120

Nicholas Carman1 1119

This French cyclist has ridden all the way from Dijon on the EuroVelo6.  He’ll finish through Bulgaria and Romania in the next few weeks.

Nicholas Carman1 1174

Nicholas Carman1 1175

Serbia is another place we’d love to come back to visit.  Fruit grows everywhere, the people are friendly, and there are mountains in large doses to the south.  So many people speak English here.  They speak naturally, and transition quickly from Serbian.  I’m not sure how to explain the phenomena.  They also play a lot of basketball. 

Nicholas Carman1 1177

Nicholas Carman1 1178

Everyone in this region is familiar with conflict.  Kosovo and Monenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia.  Albania has only been quiet for a short time, and bunker tourism is part of every visit to Albania, I hear.  Each of these countries was part of a failing Yugoslavia just 25 years ago.  A lot has changed in the Balkans.  A few countries are still not yet part of the EU.  

Nicholas Carman1 1121

Nicholas Carman1 1122

Entering the mountains is refreshing.  For the most part, we chase paved miles en route to Podgorica.

Nicholas Carman1 1124

Nicholas Carman1 1126

Nicholas Carman1 1125

Nicholas Carman1 1127

Each town posts recent death notices in public places, usually taped around a pole or a tree.

Nicholas Carman1 1182

Yugoslav-era apartment building are everywhere.  As long as you don’t find them ugly, they are fascinating.

Nicholas Carman1 1180

Mining and other industries appear to be healthy across Serbia.  This is a lot different than Ukraine, where almost every old industrial building is vacant and vandalized.

Nicholas Carman1 1183

We first encounter walking trails in Serbia along this dirt road climb.

Nicholas Carman1 1184

Further, we find signage for the walking routes and a biking route.  I do not yet have any insight into these routes, but they do exist.  While many small roads in the mountains are paved, many others are not. There are also thousands of miles of farm roads.  We only find basic road maps in our few days in Serbia.  Also, the Openmtbmap.org file that I was using on the GPS contains less detail than in other nearby countries.  In general, these maps are highly recommended as at least some map detail is available for almost every country.  A small donation to the project allows unlimited downloads.  I have downloaded the maps for Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Greece. 

Nicholas Carman1 1185

Fruit is everywhere, especially blackberries and raspberries.  And as everywhere else in Eastern Europe, plums are in abundance.

Nicholas Carman1 1186

Potatoes.

Nicholas Carman1 1187

Cabbage.  Serbian fields are productive, another change from subsistence farming in Ukraine.

Nicholas Carman1 1192

Roadside springs are abundant on mountain roads.

Nicholas Carman1 1190

Nicholas Carman1 1188

Nicholas Carman1 1193

In the city, we find this awesome traffic model, scaled down for children on bicycles, rollerblades, and on foot.  This is a good use of schoolyard space.  

Nicholas Carman1 1194

Hot weather and cold water is how I hope to spend my summers.  It feels like we’re getting close, finally.

Nicholas Carman1 1189

Nicholas Carman1 1195

We find camp for the night in a cemetery, for the first time, actually.

Nicholas Carman1 1198

Nicholas Carman1 1199

The next morning, we pass through Guča, home to the world famous Guča Trumpet Festival.  This festival celebrates the style of Serbian trumpet found in regional brass bands.  I’ve seen one such band escorting a wedding party; the music is riotous.

Nicholas Carman1 1200

The written Serbian language is a mix of Cyrillic and Latin characters.  My Ukrainian is more valuable here than in Romania, where our French-English-Ukrainian was more confusing than anything.  In many of these countries, people try to speak to us in German.  Younger people more often defer to English.

Nicholas Carman1 1201

Nicholas Carman1 1202

Nicholas Carman1 1203

Nicholas Carman1 1204

Nicholas Carman1 1207

Nicholas Carman1 1206

The mountains!  With each pass, we climb higher and higher.  We climb to 2500ft.  Then 3000, 3500, 4000, and then over 4000ft.

Nicholas Carman1 1155

Nicholas Carman1 1156

Nicholas Carman1 1157

Nicholas Carman1 1208

Nicholas Carman1 1160

Nicholas Carman1 1209

Nicholas Carman1 1210

And at last, over 4000ft, we reach the border with Montenegro, or Crna Gora in Latinized Montenegran and Serbian.

Nicholas Carman1 1211

As we get close, the rain returns.  When the weather is good, I ignore the forecast.  I look for the first time in a week.  The computer calls for rain as far as we can see, in every direction of space and time.  Rain for weeks all up and down the Balkans.  At least it will be warm, as long as we are not chasing dirt roads up to 6000ft.

Nicholas Carman1 1212

Nicholas Carman1 1213


Montenegro

Nicholas Carman1 1214

We continue our ride, intersecting lonely paved and dirt roads, and by chance, the largest canyon in Europe.  The Tara River Canyon claims to be up to 4300ft deep in places.  It makes for a spectacular descent from the rim.  A quiet paved road continues upstream in the canyon for about 20 miles.

Nicholas Carman1 1162

Nicholas Carman1 1164

Nicholas Carman1 1166

Nicholas Carman1 1219

Where did that summer weather go?  Lael is still wearing her number from the Fireweed 400.

Nicholas Carman1 1165

We prepare a bounty for Przemek’s arrival.  We will meet him and Saška at the train station in a few days.  Local wormwood liquor is a good start.

Nicholas Carman1 1220

A local sign near the Biogradska Gora National Park indicates a 300km cycling route, for mountain bikes!  The route is signed, mapped, and English-language brochures are offered online.  A website dedicated to the “Top Biking Trail 3-Eastern Enchantment” provides all the information.  Maximum elevation is over 6000ft, maximum grade is 35%; mostly, I think it follows rideable dirt roads.  If the rain holds, we’ll include some of this into our route with Przemek and Saška.

Nicholas Carman1 1167

We descend from the mountain valleys at 3000ft, down towards Podgorica.  At 280ft elevation, the weather is much warmer and the skies are clearer.  If necessary, we’ll plan a route nearer to the coast to avoid the orographic effect of the mountains.  The tallest mountains in Montenegro and Albania are over 8000ft and 9000ft, respectively.  So close to the Adriatic and Ionian Seas (and the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas), they create their own weather.  

Nicholas Carman1 1221

Just 8 miles out of Podgorica, we find a secret riverside campsite.  The water is cold and clear, and finally, it isn’t raining.  It has been a wet ride since crossing from Serbia.

Nicholas Carman1 1223

We awake to some sun and blue skies, tentative as they may be.

Nicholas Carman1 1224

Plums replaced by figs, we’re close to the sea.  We are, effectively, in the Mediterranean.

Nicholas Carman1 1225

Saška and Przemek arrive tomorrow, for two weeks of adventure.  We don’t have a plan or an end destination.  Surely, we’re all looking for good riding, great camping, and if possible, some sun.  Lael, as a recovering Alaskan, is always looking for sun.

Nicholas Carman1 1226

Anyone live in Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, or Greece?  We may be in the area over the next month.

First days in Krym

NicholasCarman0001 386

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.

NicholasCarman0001 324

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.

NicholasCarman0001 322

NicholasCarman0001 387

NicholasCarman0001 325

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.

NicholasCarman0001 376

NicholasCarman0001 375

NicholasCarman0001 326

NicholasCarman0001 384

NicholasCarman0001 355

NicholasCarman0001 363

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.

NicholasCarman0001 327

NicholasCarman0001 328

NicholasCarman0001 329

On the inside…

NicholasCarman0001 331

Tunnels fit for vehicular traffic.

NicholasCarman0001 367

Corridors in all directions.

NicholasCarman0001 368

NicholasCarman0001 366

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

NicholasCarman0001 372

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?

NicholasCarman0001 365

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

NicholasCarman0001 369

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

NicholasCarman0001 370

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.

NicholasCarman0001 385

NicholasCarman0001 377

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.

NicholasCarman0001 378

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.

NicholasCarman0001 380

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

NicholasCarman0001 381

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.

NicholasCarman0001 382

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.

NicholasCarman0001 383

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.

NicholasCarman0001 305

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.