Monday, March 5, 2012

Yevpatoria II: Arrival

Leaving for Crimea yesterday was like déjà vu: just like in December we left at night, we were running late, and snow was drifting down on the city. This time we were spectacularly late; D was working on a programming project until the absolute last second and I- I don't know- somehow managed to leave packing until the final hour before the train left. (But I did log-in and start taxes at least, after two months of feeling guilty about it.) We had made arrangements to hang out with Mike at the train station but ended up arriving bare minutes before the train left. It was only Mike taking charge and heroically hustling us through the underground corridors that got us on board in time!

We shared our купе compartment with an older couple in their 50's. They were not very talkative. The husband was friendly enough but the wife never said a word. It made me realize what a bubble I live in, working at a school where the students are always gregarious and friendly. In the 'real Ukraine' people are more reluctant to make contact with strangers. One Ukrainian friend recently told me a story from his youth: a young American teacher came to work at his school back in the late 1990's. The American was young (28 or so) and cool and my friend wanted to invite the teacher home to meet his parents. His parents, however, refused, saying that it was possible the teacher was a spy. So who knows what people are thinking when they don't talk to you- maybe they think you're a spy, maybe they're in a bad mood, maybe they just have nothing to talk to you about. It's not that people in Ukraine aren't friendly, it's just that they're less conversational. My neighbors don't say anything in the hallway- not even hello. Anyways, back to the train.... a silent night was fine since I've been sick recently and lost my voice. Plus, this couple reminded me of D's parents (they won't talk to strangers either) and were a billion times better than the last people we had to travel купе with.

(For any travelers, the Kharkov-Simferopol train second class costs about $15 pp, by the way.)

We got on the train at 9:30 PM and by 10:30 PM almost everyone in our wagon had their lights out. D and I dutifully took our sleeping pills and drifted off. Our compartment woke around 6 AM (arrival in Simferopol was 6:30 AM) and it was HOT. Stifling hot! I felt like a hard-boiled egg! There appears to be no way to control the temp or open a window in these wagons and I was too lazy to climb down from the bunk and walk out to the smoking area (end of the wagon, near where the trains couple together), so it was a long, hot 30 minutes until arriving in the cool air and light snow of Simferopol. Upon disembarking from the train we walked over to one of the coolest places to be in Ukraine: McDonalds. There's one right across the street from the train station and it's a beautiful building. The inside has been worked over by an interior designer with a good eye (just like all Ukrainian eateries) and I swear there's hardly anything yellow and red in the place! This particular McDonalds is also two stories and has the nicest bathrooms this side of Germany, even a futuristic hand-dryer from England. We sat upstairs in bright purple and green armchairs, ate McMuffins, and checked wifi. I sound like such a terrible American, don't I?:p At that point it was just so pleasant to be in a place with some kind of air circulation!!

Afterwards, we bought tickets and found seats on the next bus to Yevpatoria (about $3 pp). First there was the usual "hey, move it mister, you're in my seat" kind of confusion that happens any time you combine groups of people and assigned seating. Then the bus wouldn't start. The driver came to recruit passengers to push and I misunderstood and thought he wanted people to get out to lighten the load. So all these big burly men stand up and exit and I start following them, but luckily the engine caught in time. Haha, close call! We arrived in Yevpatoria two hours later and remembered the city well enough to walk the thirty minutes to our hotel. Yes, the spa-hotel, the one from our last visit. Returning here has been our dream for the past 2 months!! We even booked the same room and still at low-season rates. For four nights here in a basic room, four days of AM to PM spa access, and four days of breakfast.....$300. In the high season the same stay will set you back an extra $200, so the approach of warmer weather means that this will probably be our last stay here for a while.

I lay down on the bed, under a crisp snow-white comforter and slept until early afternoon. It was heaven. When I got up the sky had darkened. Earlier the sun had been shining down on the sea (could see this from the balcony) but now it looked like snow. We had lunch at a local cafeteria while snow fell and then strolled down to the seashore. We found a sandy beach with seagulls, one big swan, and several other people out walking. And a fair amount of broken beer bottles, of course. We didn't spend long by the water because in this chilly weather the architecture is more fascinating than the waves. Yevpatoria (again, like 2500 years old?) has incredible architecture in the most random places. On the most unsuspecting homes. There are massive columns, there are crumbling Greek gods and goddess near the tops of otherwise bleak and indistinguishable apartment buildings, there are eastern-style mosaics and arches all around. We even saw one home built out of sticks with a "for rent" sign. Walking around Yevpatoria in winter is like being in the ruins of an ancient and majestic civilization. You can still see the majesty but everything has started to topple and fallen into disrepair. Everything is closed. The grand-but-dilapidated aquarium now appears to be a seasonal cafeteria. I bet you, though, that in the summer this city has a totally different feel, that it's bustling and alive and youthful. And out of our budget, so I'll probably never know.

Finally, it was time to get down to business: the spa. We made the rounds- Russian sauna, bucket shower for D, swimming pool, infrared sauna, Roman sauna, and Finnish sauna. We were in our final stop- the salt cave room- when a Russian tourist and D started chatting. Like our last visit, the spa was pretty empty, except that last time the few visitors were single men and this time they were all groups of women. Lucky D, the only guy there amongst beautiful eastern-European women in bikinis! :p Anyways, we sat in the salt cave for at least an hour talking to Irina. Irina has her own travel agency in Russia. The Russian government has some kind of program where they not only pay for the education of university-age students, they also send them off to vacation in the summer. Irina was here to scout out possible locations for such a thing in Yevpatoria. She had a 10 day trip planned to the US, flying into New York and out of LA, and peppered us with questions about how to best spend her time there. We then had dinner with Irina and her travel companion Masha, the head of a student-union at a Russian university (it's a job, she's young but she's not a student). Dinner was really nice and I think both sides enjoyed the company and the international vibe. I do always feel so unprepared for people's questions, though- is the dollar going to crash? what do people think of Obama? why don't parents support their children more in America? did you know anyone in 9/11? At least no one asked about the inferiority of American building materials this time, I really don't know how to explain that one.


  1. Kupe in August from Kyiv to Dnepropetrovsk and back was a stifling, rolling death oven. Why oh why don't they believe in ventilation???

  2. 1. Why don't you take direct train between Kharkov and Yevpatoria?
    2. If you need ventilation in "kupe", you can leave its door open by 5mm and fixed with a small square latch on the left side of the door.
    This is for older wagons.
    Newer ones do have ventilation control above the entrance.

  3. 1. Didn't know! I'll have to check that out.
    2. Wish I'd taken a look for that latch, that's really useful to hear. Thanks!

  4. Hahaha, oh, so much of this sounds like my time in Ukraine (I spent several months in Chernivtsi). Especially the bit about the train! It was unbearably, unreasonably hot. Stifling. Complete lack of ventilation. Like being in an oven. And it wasn't just me- everyone had their compartment doors open (although it wasn't much cooler in the corridor), and everyone was sweating buckets. No one could sleep, everyone was miserable. This was the case for all the train trips I was on, and it's one of the most puzzling things about travel in Ukraine.

    Oh, I was also accused of being a spy, hilariously enough. Although to be fair, not by a Ukrainian. Actually by a crazy (and I think I mean that literally) French tourist. To be blunt, you don't usually find your run of the mill tourists in Ukraine. They're either involved in some kind of academic exchange, they're a little off their rocker, or they're creepy old men exploiting young Ukrainian women (looking for a "bride"). Those are the three categories I encountered the most, anyways. A shocking number of the latter, especially. I haven't had a look at the rest of your blog yet, but I'm curious to know if you encountered this.

    Cool blog, looking forward to reading more!

    PS: I fall into the first of the above described categories. :P

    1. Hi Tara, thanks for your comment! Luckily no one here has ever accused me of being a spy. In Russia people were more suspicious but in Ukraine everyone has been really welcoming when they find out I'm a teacher, minus the follow-up question "What, has America run out of jobs for its people?" :P

      Your description of the ex-pat categories is pretty accurate. Most of my compatriots seem to fit into the looking-for-a-girlfriend group, surprise, surprise, but there have been one or two who seem genuinely interested in Ukrainian culture. I hope to meet more people like that.

      Did you keep a blog about your time in Chernivtsi? You probably have some very interesting tales!

    2. How much time did you spend in Russia? I had wanted to visit there before leaving Ukraine to go home, but visa requirements were tricky... something about a requirement to apply from your home country (Canada, in my case), but you can't do it more than a month or two in advance. The timing didn't really work out, anyways.

      I wish I had kept a blog during my time in Ukraine! I have so many stories about daily life there, and for the first month at least I didn't have many people to talk to about them except for the occasional Skype conversation. Definitely should have kept a blog. I recently started a blog on another subject, but occasionally interject with a story about Ukraine (I find I get a lot of mileage out of my Ukraine stories!). I'll send you a link via email, if you're at all interested.

      Looking forward to hearing more about your experiences!

    3. Hi Tara, I spent almost five months there, mainly in Yakutsk (Siberia, because I'm an idiot and can never go anywhere normal) and a short time on the Trans-Siberian railroad back to Moscow. I kept a brief blog about Yakutsk... if you're curious, you can find a link to it in the July 2011 entries of this blog.

      Russia always has some weird entry thing going on. It's like they don't want people to visit there at all! I'd like to go back, but so much red tape... Ukraine at least will let you in the country!

      I'd really like to read some of your Ukraine stories in your new blog. Can you email me a link? jedimindtrick4 at yahoo Thank you! :)

    4. Wowza! Yakutsk must have been an experience. I can't imagine. I'll definitely be looking to read about your time there. Not to mention the Trans-Siberian railroad trip, which must have been an experience all on its own! How long did that even take?! Geez. And I complained about how long the train from Chernivtsi to Kyiv was.

      Yeah, apparently Russia is doing everything it can to avoid the scourge of tourism. :P Wonder how that'll change with the Olympics and the World Cup in the next several years. Will be interesting to see...

      Sent you an email! Looking forward to chatting more. :)