The beginning of my love affair with Crimea
I first travelled to Crimea in 2011 when I got accepted for the Underwater Archaeology course at the University of Warsaw. We were going to go to Alupka for the underwater excavations training, and although Crimea was not on my bucket list, I was completely mesmerised by the fact that I was about to experience this unknown land.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the course director invited me to his site in Balaklava where he was excavating a Roman garrison from the I century AC. This meant that I was going to spend over a month in Crimea!
You can’t leave Crimea without hiking Chatyr Dah!
Chatyr Dah is a landmark which holds a special place in the imagination of Poles. From a very young age, we’re kind of brainwashed with patriotic literature and resist-the-oppressor social stance.
Chatyr Dah is also the title of a sonnet by a major Polish bard, Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), who travelled Crimea while in exile. He considered Chatyr Dah to be the highest mountain of Crimea. Mickiewicz wrote about it? All the more reasons to go!
Don’t bother talking English
Crimea was a culture shock for me as this has been the first place I have travelled to where I could not communicate in English. At all. I’m on an autopilot: not in Poland? Use English. I don’t control it.
Turns out there’s no point to even try to use English in Crimea. Unless you want to get ripped off. Then, of course, flaunt it loud and clear. Especially in restaurants. Also, make sure that you’re given a menu, which has only photos of dishes and no prices. Don’t be surprised when the bill comes, though.
After the first couple of days, I figured out that it’s best if I just talk Polish and the locals talk Ukrainian or Russian. This way at least they won’t try to rip me off too much. After all, Poles are also poor.
It worked! Among a lot of wide eyes and gesticulation, I was getting by well enough to the surprise of my Russian speaking friends.
What about that Chatyr Dah?
Without the Russian language, I felt handicapped and uncomfortable with traveling the peninsula by myself. It didn’t help that Jacob’s stories (a seasoned traveller and archaeologist) added fuel to the fire. Listening to him sharing his Crimean experiences sent shivers of fear and pleasure down my spine.
So, for two years in a row I didn’t have the guts to do it alone, and when I finally mustered up my courage, it happened that I also found a traveling companion – Martin, who shared the same dream. How cool was that?
Martin is a super duper tour guide. Really. It’s his actual job in real life and when I write real life, I mean things that have nothing to do with digging thousands-years-old remains of walls and old chicken bones.
He’s also been to Crimea many times before and the knowledge he shared was captivating. The perfect person for traveling, learning and having fun.
Pushing my boundaries
When we arrived to Alushta, which is the best starting point for a hike to Chatyr Dah, the director of the Balaklava excavation site was already there, being merry with our host – Slavek.
Slavek is our archaeologist friend who’s running the underwater digs on the Ukrainian side. Torn between two polarities, Ukrainian mother and Russian father, he can make any foreigner feel welcome.
I received from him so much more than that, though! He gave me a wonderful present of which he’s not even aware: that night I had to push my boundaries regarding the place where I slept.
I’ve slept in various set ups but Slavek’s eclectic shed was another kind of experience. Sleeping on a plywood mattress surrounded by an array of dirt, antiquities, grenades and duds, I realised that no place will put me off after that.
I woke up surprised to be alive. None of the duds exploded?
New day, new life, new surprise
Getting to Chatyr Dah from Alushta is quite straightforward. You just have to get on a trolleybus, ride about 1h from the city and then the trolleybus leaves you in the middle of the road.
Don’t be surprised. This is your station. Just start walking up.
Now, here’s where we experienced the existential surprise of our backpacking trip: Chatyr Dah was not a mountain! It is a massif. Viva la ignorance! Martin and I, both highly educated, both also dumb as shit. I blame it on the Polish bard!
“Climbing” Chatyr Dah is a nice walk
It is. Especially when the weather is good. The sun is bright, the air is hot, the vegetation around you is in thousand shades of green. You walk through forests, glades and grasslands to the sound of bird songs and the calling of cicadas.
(But then it’s not so great when you’re walking down and the rain is so thick that you can’t see what’s in front of you. On the top of that, you’re getting soaking wet while fighting for your balance with every single step on the slippery path…)
There are two ways of getting to the top. It really depends on how much time you actually have. One way is to follow no route, just look at the top of Chatyr Dah and try to get there.
The other one is to follow one of the routes, get lost, look at the top of Chatyr Dah and try to get there. We chose the second option.
Every experience is a lesson learned. Or not.
Walking up, I realised how unsounded my fear was. The unknown is so scary only because it is the unknown. Once you get to know it, the spell loses its power. And with me walking towards the top of this majestic mountain massif, Jacob’s stories lost theirs.
This place was full of people! Well, at least enough individuals for me to realise that Jacob’s haunting stories of no-soul-in-sight-for-days & crows-circling-above-you-at-dawn (might) have distorted my vision.
Not only that but these were the kind of people you don’t feel threatened by. School trips, families walking their dogs.
Where were the crows? Where was the lonely witch’s hut? Where was the juice?!
The revelation: fear is where we place it
Having spent all my life in the cities, living, studying, whatever, the great Nature seemed to be scary to experience alone without the protection of a concrete jungle.
Turns out it’s not.
It’s there, waiting for you. Magnificent in its majesty. Like Chatyr Dah.
Once you’re on top of the massif, you can walk all around it for hours. Only a day prior to our arrival, the massif witnessed a ceremony of carrying colours, standards and guidons across the western part of the plateau. Ukraine commemorated its 22-years of independence in style.
Only to lose it again half a year later. Yes, Russian Federation didn’t annex the whole of Ukraine but does it really matter?
In the face of the storm I am calm
I got to see one of Ukraine’s jewels right before it was forcefully taken away from it. Even now, I can sometimes hear my heart beating: Chatyr Dah, Chatyr Dah, Chatyr Dah…
2013 was the last year the University of Warsaw ran archaeological sites in Crimea. I think Martin & I were very lucky to backpack Crimea that hot summer.