Crimea River

Aug
14th
2010

YALTA, AUTONOMOUS REPUBLIC OF CRIMEA — When I arrived back in Balaklava, the Hamburglar’s miraculous resurrection was a tad anticlimactic. I replaced the brake drum in all of 15 minutes, and spent another 20 minutes riding to nearby Sevastopol where I promptly checked in to a decent hotel and took a bath. Along the way I got to see the “Valley of Death” immortalized in Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Bridgade. Nowadays the fearsome valley, just a little inland from Balaklava, is home to a pleasant vineyard.

Half a league onward

I’d planned to spend the next few weeks really just loafing my way around the Black Sea. It was the prime beachside holiday time of year, and I’d surely start to miss all that comfort and luxury (read: alcoholic beverages and uncovered women) later on in the trip when I’d have to kick it up a notch and haul ass across the dry, modest vastness of central Asia. And so, I set about doing some intensive loafing in Sevastopol. It’s an attractive port city full of Italianate villas and trees and waterfront cafes and bars, kind of like Odessa but a little rougher around the edges. The town is also heavily pro-Russian, not just because it’s mostly populated with ethnic Russians, but also because Russia’s Black Sea Fleet operates out of the massive naval base there. Loyalties die hard, and in a controversial oil-for-naval-bases deal, the Russians just a few months ago extended their lease on the base from the Ukrainians until 2047 at the earliest.

As it’s one of the thirteen Soviet Hero Cities of the Great Patriotic War, you’d expect it to have a massive socialist-realist statue commemorating the scores of people who died defending it from the Nazis. And you’d be right. This one’s a doozie:

Sevastopol’s main nightspot, despite its alarming name, thankfully had a liberal-minded door policy that allowed folks of all colours and creeds inside.

After cooling my jets in Sevastopol for a few days, I’d planned a short visit to the teeming Crimean resort town of Yalta. It was only a 100-kilometre hop down the coast, but in the meantime I had to do some maintenance on the bike. Somehow I’d lost my pint of hard-to-find SAE30 gearbox oil back in Moldova, and my gearbox definitely needed some refilling before I did any hard riding. I rode down the main drag out of Sevastopol, stopping at every gas station, and came up empty-handed. At the end of the strip, though, I happened upon a bunch of dudes washing their motorbikes in front of a Yamaha dealership. I rolled into the parking lot and tried my luck.

One of them was named Lev, and he owned the dealership. The guy couldn’t have been more helpful. He had some SAE50 oil for me, which was close enough, but more to the point he wouldn’t let out of there until all the niggling maintenance jobs he could help with had been fixed on the spot. We filled the battery, checked the brake pads, and filled up the gearbox oil. Finally, we checked the sparkplug, which I hadn’t done since back in Moldova. The electrode was filthy. Lev and his cronies gathered around to study it and murmur disapprovingly.

“What kind of two-stroke oil did you last put in?” Lev wanted to know.

“I don’t know… I didn’t recognize the brand.”

“Was it Ukrainian?” he asked. I replied that it probably was, because the label on the bottle was entirely in cyrillic.

Lev grunted. “Ukraine is only good for three things,” he said. “Cucumbers, vodka, and women.” He then produced a metal brush, scrubbed the plug clean, and handed it back to me. “Next time, use European oil.”

I ventured that, two-stroke motor oil aside, those three things didn’t make for such a bad list. Lev and his friends couldn’t help but agree.

Thanks a million, Yamaha dudes of Sevastopol!

I packed up the bike and the Yamaha guys sent me on my way. The drive was scenic, with the Crimean coastline growing more and more dramatic the further east I went. Approaching Yalta the road climbed to 400 metres above the Black Sea, at points with nothing on my right but a guardrail, a very steep cliff, and then deep blue water, and to my left, yet more cliff rising out of sight. The Vegas-like lights of Yalta flickered on in the gathering dark as I coasted down potholed roads to the centre of town.

Next came one of the few ordeals so far where I really should’ve booked ahead, not that booking a room for one night is even possible in Yalta: I’d blundered into the Russian Riviera’s biggest tourist trap, in the most heavily touristed weekend of the entire summer, on a Friday night. After hours of driving around town inquiring at hotels and guesthouses, I finally found a free room at the Hotel Krim.

I wrote about a pretty remarkable hotel in an earlier post, and the Hotel Krim was every bit as appalling — but its Soviet authenticity came at three times the price. This sprawling flophouse on the waterfront featured cold brown water out of the taps (available 24 hours a day, mind you), bedbugs, broken windows, cockroaches, air conditioners that had ceased conditioning quite some time ago, and the faint but pervasive odor of cabbage. And I appeared to be the last person to score a room. I counted my blessings, dropped my gear, and went to bed.


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