Sunday, May 27, 2007

Crimea to Kiev: steamy trains, prison caves and restful political unrest

A short note to keep you posted! Unfortunately this computer has no free USB ports, so no pictures, but I'll try again tonight after the opera...

Crimea to Kiev was phenomenal. We saw the Khan's palace in the Crimea (head of the Tartars - along the lines of the Alhambra, though in a very dramatic mountainous setting, but unfortunately damaged by years of Christians, Soviets and looters). There is the famous Fountain of Tears (a la Chekhov's poem) - a marble fountain that manages to drip single drops of watery tears to represent the sorrow of a Khan who's favourite wife who died. (Though it must be pointed out that he had an entire harem to console him). The Khan's palace was followed by a three hour hike (in +30C heat, so kudos to my mother for making it all the way) past a cave monastery filled with gold-painted icons and through the Karaite fortress of Chufut Kale, which is on the top of a cave-filled mountain. The highlight of Chufut Kale is a the precipitous drop on one side (think Yosemite), but with caves hollowed into the sides. The Tartars had the brilliant idea of using these caves as prisons, so unfortunate soils were chained to rock pillars hollowed out in the caves, with views of the gorgeous valley below. There was no way out except by a (very) narrow staircase carved into the rock on the cliff. A little sketchy to get down, but completely impressive inside. Makes me glad I'm not a Tartar slave.

Our stay in Crimea finished with a stop by Sevastopol, where we eyed the Black Sea Fleet (Russian and Ukrainian navy - rather rusty, I'd have to say), and the various sites of the Crimean War (almost pointless as some of the current ones we're engaged in). The Valley of Death is where the Charge of the Light Brigade occurred - now an absolutely gorgeous series of vineyards, which is a little odd. Sevastopol (pron. Sevas-topple) also has this painted panorama of the siege of Sevastopol, which sounds totally kitsch, but is actually very impressive - paintings mixed with models to make a three-dimensional, 180-degree view of the siege. Again, glad I wasn't there at the time, but fascinating to see now!

We took the overnight train to Kiev. While it wasn't as hot as the previous over-nighter, it was still our own personal sauna. Made much more fun by the remaining bottles of Moldovan wine I had left...

But Kiev is really something else. It is truly a European city, with fancy restaraunts, gorgeous old buildings that rival Vienna, and monuments and artwork everywhere. The Golden Gates (think Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition) are neat, and the Santa Sophia monastery is probably the most beautiful church I've been to yet - complete with multiple gold-topped onion domes. Of course, the drama of Kiev has been the stand-off between the President and Prime Minister. Lots of military types and protests between the orange and the blue. What struck me the most was how peaceful the marchers/protestors were - no shouting, no fighting, just lots of flags and people out.

We escaped from the heat and the protestors for the evening by taking in the Barber of Seville at the Opera House. Hearing the Figaro-song (made famous by Tom and Jerry, as I recall), is pretty funny in Ukrainian, but the singing, costumes and sets were fabulous. We're off for the day, so must run - I'll put photos up as soon as I find a decent computer!

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