Much of the Iranian Plateau is defined by mountains, which have historically separated Persia from the deserts which surround it to the west, north and east. Arriving in Iran in the height of summer, when much of the country is uncomfortably hot, and having seen nearly all of the country’s main historical sites on three previous, lengthy visits, I planned to spend much of my time in Iran’s two major mountain ranges: the Alborz and Zagros. In the far north of Iran, running along the south coast of the Caspian Sea are the thickly forested ridges of the Alborz, which create a sharp physical divide between the humid coast and the near desert of the interior, crowned by Mt Damavand, the country’s highest peak and the highest volcano in Eurasia. The Zagros are quite different; far less sharply defined, lower, and occupying much of the west of the country, but historically very significant; home to the forebears of modern Iranians and still inhabited by Luri nomads whose lifestyle cannot be far removed from the very first Iranians who had migrated from Central Asia around three thousand years ago. Driving roughly along the axes of these two mountain ranges, my journey would take me across much of northern and western Iran, ending in the caravan city of Tabriz.
It’s the 28th June 2014 and after a comfortable overnight stay at the border, I am quickly passed through customs in the morning by the friendly customs officers. Driving away from the border, the landscape is initially similar to the barren, hard-baked mud of western Turkmenistan, but soon the signs of irrigation appear, then beyond the Turkmen town of Aq Qala, the Alborz Mountains; rolling green in their upper reaches and a patchwork of fields and settlements on their lower slopes. This is the fertile Gorgan Plain, an almost Mediterranean looking landscape of olive trees, golden fields of wheat and even the odd rice paddy. Pickups are parked at the roadside selling a wide range of fruit and vegetables. Men stand selling fresh fish, dangling them on lines hung from the ends of long sticks. Farmers in straw hats work the paddies and rest on their tools, watching the heavy traffic pass. Shepherds graze sheep on the grassy roadside, squatting in the shade of the old plane trees which grow aside this ancient artery of the Silk Road. All this comes from the presence of the mountains, which channel rainwater down onto the coastal plain. The difference between this and the dry, barren wastes of western Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan show acutely the contrast between the nomadic and settled worlds.
I reach Sari early in the afternoon and set about looking for my old friend Kiavash. I go to what used to be his clothing boutique, which is closed, but one of the staff from a nearby fast food restaurant knows him and takes me a few blocks to the location of Kiavash’s new business, a coffee shop. I call Kiavash from the coffee shop and soon we’re happily re-united after more than four years. I stay with Kiavash for five days, reliving somewhat the slightly debauched weeks I spent with him in 2010; smoking, partying and meeting his friends. I meet Khazar, who helps me recover photos deleted by the Turkmenistani security services from my memory card, and other friends Shahin, Bahar and Shiva with whom we drive up into the lush foothills of the Alborz, walking into beautiful, thick, atmospheric primeval beech forest whose trees are in vivid lime green leaf, the ground thickly covered in crisp, brown, fallen leaves.
Sadly I don’t have the same open-ended itinerary that I did in 2010, and must pull myself away from old and new friends, and start my journey across the country. I double back to the city of Gorgan, a city of great antiquity, once capital of the region known to the ancient Greeks as Hyrcania, famed even then for its fruit. Surviving through Achaemenid, Parthian, Sassanian and Arab eras, Gorgan was razed by the Mongols in 1220 and rebuilt in its current location, and remains today the provincial capital. From this rich history however, almost nothing stands out in modern Gorgan, and apart from a very small centre of traditional Caspian-style buildings, with overhanging terracotta-tiled, pitched roofs, the city is a rather ugly sprawl of unplanned modern development.
I leave Gorgan after one night, turning south the city’s eastern edge, driving initially through irrigated farmland and bright green rice paddies, then climbing steeply into the densely forested mountains on relentless switchbacks, passing through cloud and across a 2270 metre pass. Beyond the pass the cloud soon clears, revealing a rocky upland dotted with juniper trees, from where the road descends slightly to the small town of Chahar Bagh. Here the landscape has changed again and I find myself in the familiar high mountain valleys of Asia, in surroundings that bring to mind Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, or the Bamyan Valley in central Afghanistan. Small villages of mud and stone houses are surrounded by patchwork fields of wheat and barley, sometimes stone-walled and terraced above rocky streams lined by tall brush-like poplars. The people are extremely friendly, the sky is a clear, deep blue and the air crisp and fresh making for a slow and very enjoyable drive on empty dirt tracks, heading west along a valley high in the Alborz. I camp amongst some poplar trees and enjoy a cool night, with temperatures dropping down to 8º C, most welcome after weeks of sweltering heat since leaving Ukraine. In the morning I stop to admire the thousand year old Radkan Tower, a brick tomb-tower with a well-preserved Kufic script running below a sharp conical roof; architecturally impressive in itself, but all the more so given its beautifully remote location.
Beyond the tower, the road climbs over steep ridges of dry oak forest, passing occasional ramshackle villages, then descending to the rice-growing town of Sefid Chah which has an unusually large and old graveyard with hundreds of carved gravestones. The road then climbs to the south once again, crossing a 2400 metre pass towards Dibaj and entering the high, dry plains of Semnan Province, which typify much of the country; the contrast between these dusty plains and the lush, humid forests of the northern slopes of the mountains, less than twenty kilometres away, is quite staggering. High in these barren southern slopes of the Alborz a little further to the west, I drive up a rough track to reach the striking travertine formations of Badab-e Surt, which have built up naturally into stacked white terraces of turquoise and red-tinged water below a hot mineral spring, and are particularly beautiful in the late afternoon light.
Returning to the main road, I turn north and cross another pass, beyond which the air becomes humid once again and hazy in the early evening. I drop down further on the following morning, through steamy small towns set amidst fluorescent green rice paddies, winding over successive ridges thick with unspoiled forest, dropping eventually onto the Firouzkuh Road which leads over the southern edge of the Alborz, rolling down into the endless sprawl of western Tehran.
Tehran’s traffic is infamous, but the city’s infrastructure is impressive, particularly the system of expressways, often consisting of elevated or fenced-in highways which allow one to drive at full speed through the heart of the city; for me, a peculiar attraction in a city which is otherwise almost singularly charmless. Coming in from the Firouzkuh Road, I’m swept onto the expressways; Babayi which becomes Sadr, turning onto Niayesh and plunging into a new tunnel which bifurcates underground, emerging in the district of Sa’adat Abad in the affluent north of the city where I will stay with another old friend of mine, Pouria.
I first met Pouria when he was a student in Mashhad in 2007, where I stayed with him for ten days. Then a thoughtful, slightly unsure young man, Pouria now lives with his wife Sepideh in a new apartment overlooking the north of the city, works for a large multinational company and as a photographer, and it’s wonderful to see his confidence and success in life. We spend evenings catching up and discussing future plans, or driving around the humming night-time streets of North Tehran, eating ice cream and visiting parks.
Whilst in Tehran I make a side trip west to the Alamut Valley, driving out of Tehran in the early hours of the morning, winding up into the mountains north of Qazvin to enter the valley at dawn, and stopping in the village of Gazorkhan. Here, on a near-vertical rock outcrop, a huge natural tower, are the scant remains of Hassan Sabbah Castle. It was here that the Persian polymath Hassan Sabbah, an adherent to a breakaway Islamic sect known as the Nizari Ismailis, after capturing the castle by subterfuge in the late eleventh century, made it the headquarters of a state of unconnected fortresses spread across Iran and Syria, known as the Nizari Ismaili State. The basis for Hassan Sabbah’s campaign appears to have been rebellion against the Seljuks, who controlled much of the region at the time, but his small, highly trained army who carried out propaganda, psychological warfare and assassination of both contemporary Islamic rulers and invading Christian Crusaders have endowed his state with a romanticised and semi-mythical history both in the Middle East and the in the West. It’s a steep climb up to the castle, which is surrounded by dramatic, misty mountain scenery, but little remains of the legendary fortress, and nothing of the libraries or luxuriant gardens for which the castle was famed, all destroyed by the Mongols in the mid thirteenth century when, with considerable difficulty, they finally subdued the Nizari Ismaili State, the last outpost of resistance in Persia.
I drive further west along the valley where red-rock mountains and mud-brick villages contrast against bright green rice paddies, to Lambsar Castle, the other major stronghold of Alamut. Like that at Gazorkhan, Lambsar Castle towers over its surrounding from a very strong natural position, but very little remains apart from some stretches of perimeter wall which are slowly crumbling away, and by mid afternoon I’m back on the road to Tehran.
After four nights staying with Pouria in Tehran I head back into the mountains. My aim is to relieve a frustrated ambition dating back to my very first visit to Iran, as a backpacker in 2003: to get an unobstructed view of Mount Damavand, which at 5610 metres is, by a considerable margin the highest peak in the country. I leave Tehran on the Haraz Road, turning off in the small town of Polour and winding up first towards the Lar Dam, then right at a camp of bee-keepers onto a dirt track which climbs past sparse clumps of beautiful wild vermilion poppies which sway in the summer breeze, up onto the Lar Plains. The road bumps and winds up through 3000 metres elevation, then splits again. I continue climbing, now past the summer camps of shepherds who dot the mountain-sides with stone corrals and khaki tents, and whose herds fill the air with the unmistakable scent of sheep. The track eventually reaches an altitude of 3700 metres from where there is a magnificent and totally unobstructed view of the symmetrical cone of Damavand, snowcapped and fluted with hardened ancient lava floes which retain streaks of winter snow cover. It’s a spectacular sight; one I have been wanting to see for eleven years.
I camp for the night at a spot which local shepherds tell me is named Vararu; at 3000 metres, an idyllic grassy meadow surrounded by mountains which reminds me of certain spots in Central Asia. Descending back through Rineh, where I caught just a distant glimpse of Damavand in 2003, I rejoin the Haraz Road, turning east onto a far quieter road running through the Nur Valley, which eventually descends onto the infamous Chalus Road; one of the busiest, and therefore most dangerous roads in the country. Until midnight all the traffic flows southward on the road, and it is not until around 02:00 that I dare to face the endless rush of oncoming traffic, cautiously descending and turning off at the first junction, driving up again into the hills, where I stay with an extremely friendly Kurdish family in the beautifully situated town of Kelardasht. My host here is Fahime; a very engaging, confident and ambitious young woman, who lives with her mother, father and brother in a large wooden-roofed house. Her father, an active eighty year-old with hands like the paws of a bear, still hunts for wild pigs (for food) in the nearby hills and has surrounded the house with beautiful potted plants which he sells in the local bazaar. I’d love to stay longer with the family but I have a tight schedule and so in the late afternoon I’m following Fahime and her cousin down a beautiful winding forest road to Abbas Abad on the steamy Caspian shore, where we say farewell.
The Caspian coastline of Iran is quite dramatic in places with tiers of misty, forested mountains plunging down into bright green rice paddies in a scene quite reminiscent of lowland Kashmir. However, choking traffic on the narrow coastal road, combined with totally unregulated building make for an ugly, polluted sprawl along much of its length, with only glimpses of what would otherwise be a breathtaking mountainous coastline.
It’s dark when I reach my next destination, the small Gilani city of Lahijan, famous for its tea production. Here I meet my host Hojjat, a fast-talking Gilani student in his early twenties. Despite having only just met, we get on like old friends and I’m soon sitting with an intellectual group of his friends, smoking and drinking glasses of local tea in a small chaikhana (tea-house). Just a few metres up the road from the chaikhana, illuminated in the thick night air, is the highly distinctive shrine of Sheikh Zahed Gilani, a thirteenth century Sufi grandmaster (of Kurdish origin), teacher of Sheikh Safi-ad Din Ardabili, ancestor of Iran’s Safavid Empire which lasted from the sixteenth until the eighteenth century. Though far removed from it, there’s something in the close night air, the flitting pilgrims and the good company that put me in mind of the Sufi shrine culture of southern Pakistan which is so dear to me.
In the morning I leave Lahijan, heading west into a wide coastal plain filled with rice and tea plantations. I stop in the town of Fuman, another spot I had visited on my first trip to Iran, purchase some of the sweet walnut-paste cookies for which the town is famed, then head north towards the Azerbaijan border. Here the coastal plain narrows once more, overlooked by the emerald-green Talysh Mountains, a north-western sub-range of the Alborz. In the town of Asalem I turn off the coastal highway and start to climb through beautiful, thick forest, passing damp villages in a narrow valley. Rain soon starts to fall and as I climb I quickly enter the clouds, driving through fog so thick that I cannot see anything beyond the front of the truck; even sticking to the asphalt road is difficult at times. A pass tops-out at around 2400 metres, but the cloud obscures all views and I decide to camp for the night in a deserted side road on the edge of the mountain.
The fog soon disappears on the western side of the mountains as I drop into the small town of Khalkhal the following day, and the landscape becomes quite dull. I stop in the afternoon in Ardabil, one of very few large Iranian cities which I have not previously visited. I visit the beautiful shrine complex of Sheikh Safi-ad Din Ardabili, disciple of Lahijan’s Sheikh Zahed Gilani. Safi-ad Din was a thirteenth century Sufi who founded the Safaviyya Sufi Order here in Ardabil. His descendants would go on to found the Safavid Empire in 1501, a pivotal point in Iranian history in that it was the first native dynasty since the Arab overthrow of the Sassanids in the seventh century to create a unified Iranian state. The Safavids built an empire which stretched beyond Persia into much of Central Asia to the edges of Europe and the Indian Subcontinent, spread Shi’a Islam across the Persian heartland and left a fantastic legacy of architecture and arts; all things which are very much the cultural backbone of contemporary Iran. The ensemble of buildings includes the Sheikh’s shrine and a khanaqah (meeting place of a Sufi brotherhood) with numerous attendant buildings, today a museum. The architecture is magnificent, if restrained in scale, and shows strong influences from earlier Timurid architecture of Central Asia, most recognisably in the beautiful, stubby, turquoise-tiled tower which houses the sheikh’s grave and could have been taken straight from Samarkand.
There is little else of interest in Ardabil, aside from the novelty of having to wear a coat on a July evening, and so the following morning I return to the mountains, now clear of clouds, and pick a descent towards the coast on a steep and twisting unpaved road. After a short, steep climb on a rocky track from the village of Andabil, a wide, grassy amphitheatre of rolling hills opens up, backed in the north by a steep mountainside, itself a mottled patchwork of bare brown earth and lush grass. Below me a muddy track descends into green grassy meadows, peppered with shepherd’s summer huts. Beyond the meadows I drop into a twisting river valley and the hillsides become forested with oak, ash, alder and lower down, old, scraggly, moss-covered elms growing next to the braiding river. I pass through the village of Nav which is one of the least modernised settlements I can remember seeing in Iran: picturesque whitewashed houses with wooden or corrugated iron roofs and wooden shutters over the windows. The track is rough in places, but the glorious, peaceful forest and is a joy to drive through until, after several hours I emerge onto the paved road back down to Asalem.
Having traversed much of the Alborz, I now take myself down into the Zagros Mountains, driving from Asalem through the night via Qazvin and Isfahan almost eleven hundred kilometres south into the sweltering heart of Iran, arriving in the afternoon in the city of Yasuj, nestled at around nineteen hundred metres in the central Zagros, capital of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province. I am hosted here by Mehran, who is a Lur, an ancient Iranian people who make up much of the population of this region, and whose language is close to archaic Old Persian. Mehran takes me out of Yasuj in his car, driving through mountains with beautiful oak forests growing on dark earthy hillsides which look as if they have been raked, up into the slopes of the Dena Range which reaches an altitude of 4409 metres, making it the highest section of the Zagros. We leave the car and walk up rocky hillsides, eventually coming upon a beautiful alpine meadow where Luri nomads have made their summer camp in traditional black tents, and who give us tea with bread and butter to eat.
Mehran studies in Yasuj, but as the weekend is arriving, he invites me to meet his family in his home town of Dogonbadan, one of Iran’s original oil boom towns. We drive together in his car, dropping quickly down from the mountains through the Dasht-e Rum, the Rome Plains, where Mehran tells me that Alexander the Great forced his way (with the help of local treachery) through the ‘Gates of Persia’, and into the Persian heartland and the capital at Persepolis. It’s a real pleasure to be hosted by an Iranian family, being fed lavishly with delicious home-cooked food, but lying on the edge of the lowlands just seventy kilometres from the Persian Gulf, Dogonbadan’s mid-summer heat is ferocious, with days above forty-five degrees and enough humidity to deter any of us from leaving the air-conditioned house.
I leave Mehran and his family the next day, taking a shared taxi back to the relative cool of Yasuj, then driving through Sisakht and up into the Dena Range on Iran’s highest road, crossing a 3150 metre pass. The views are far less dramatic than the green ridges of the Alborz, but these dry, craggy slopes teem with nomads who here, on the north-eastern side of the pass, are not Luri but Qashqai; a Turkic nation originating more recently in Central Asia who are renowned for their ‘Shirazi’ carpets. I stop on these north-eastern slopes of Dena to admire the view, and meet a Qashqai man who points out his family’s siah chador (black tent); the archetypal boxy nomad’s dwelling moored to the rocky ground by guy ropes. The hills are dotted with such tents and flocks of grazing sheep, and I imagine that, save for the motorcycles and pickups, I am seeing the area much as it looked when the ancestral Iranians were freshly arrived here from Central Asia.
It’s very enjoyable driving slowly down through small mountain villages in the afternoon, and I stop to camp in a field of golden wheat, still overlooked by the jagged peaks of Dena. In the morning I start a long drive back north, staying as closely as possible in the mountains, passing through Shahr-e Kord and then Chelgerd where the banks of the Kurang River are full of the tent-camps of Bakhtiaris, a sub-group of the Lurs whose men wear distinctive baggy trousers similar to those traditionally worn by Kurds. Leaving the river, I start climbing again through mud-brick mountain villages, over a 2700 metres pass to Fereydun Shahr, then join the main highway to the city of Khorramabad, capital of Lorestan Province.
Khorramabad is an attractive city, surrounded by dry hills but with ample greenery thanks to water which is channelled in from nearby springs. Centred around the Falak-ol Aflak Castle, the city radiates out in fairly neat blocks along a small river, and the disorganised urban sprawl which marrs many of Iran’s cities seems thankfully to have been averted in Khorramabad. I spend a full day with my host Ashkan, and also meet with my old friend Reza who drives up from 50º C Shush with his father just to visit me. A student when I first met him in 2007, Reza is now a successful musician (and has become quite chubby), while his wiry and energetic father has not changed visibly at all.
From Khorramabad I head away from the mountains to Arak, the capital of Markazi Province. Though a modern, heavily industrialised city, Arak surprises me by having a beautiful two hundred year old Qajar-era bazaar, a showcase of classical Persian urban architecture with lofty vaulted passageways, a beautifully domed central hall and an old, central caravanserai; a central, watered plaza with an old mulberry tree, surrounded by two tiers of small shops and artisan’s workshops where men are busy repairing dusty old carpets by hand.
The quality of the Iranian road network is such that even small country roads are of excellent quality, and I make use of this fact heading north from Arak through watered valleys where swaying poplars, fields of melons and orchards of apples, peaches and cherries are set against barren brown and reddish mountains. I stop in the village of Delijan in Hamadan Province to admire the Ilkhanid-era Imamzadeh Hod, out amid the fields, with traces of antique faïence in its blind arches. To find ancient shrines like this sitting peacefully in the middle of nowhere is another of Iran’s great pleasures. Continuing on backroads, I enter Qazvin Province to stop at the more impressive Karraqan Towers; damaged by a nearby earthquake in 2002, with one of the two squat, octagonal towers supported by crude wooden buttresses, but whose elaborate, thousand year-old geometric brickwork is notable for having survived the ravages of the Mongols, as well as of time. I then move west into Zanjan Province, driving through striking banded red-rock hills, back into the Zagros, camping for the night near the town of Bijar in Kurdistan Province, then north again into West Azerbaijan Province and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Takht-e Soleyman (Solomon’s Throne).
Takht-e Soleyman is notable as the site of one of the holiest fire temples of the Zoroastrian religion during the Sassanian era (third to seventh centuries). Destroyed at the end of the Sassanian era, it was presumably the Arabs who bestowed upon the ruins their current Semitic name. The site was partially rebuilt in the thirteenth century, though never regained its importance and today remains heavily ruined. Perhaps more interesting however than the ruins themselves is the intriguing location of the site on a high plain: built on the oval-shaped rim of an ancient volcanic crater, around a brim-full crater lake of deep blue, mineral rich, but lifeless water. Behind the ruins off to the west is another volcanic remnant; a far steeper crater known as Zendan-e Soleyman (Solomon’s Prison) where legends tell that King Solomon imprisoned monsters. It’s nice to return to the site, which was one of the places I had visited on my first trip across Asia in 2003, but the real historical significance of Takht-e Soleyman is somehow lost to me amid the jumble of rather indistinct ruins.
I set off on a long, winding drive through Iranian Azerbaijan in the afternoon, passing villages of squat mud houses, sometimes with ricks of drying grass and hay atop their flat roofs, similar to those seen in some of the remotest parts of Afghanistan. By late afternoon I’m getting close to what used to be the eastern shore of Lake Urmia, and make a stop in the friendly county town of Maragheh. Though now a small and unimportant place, Maragheh was made capital of the Ilkhanid Empire in the mid thirteenth century by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Chinggis Khan. I spend a couple of hours in town seeking out the Mongols’ architectural legacy in the form of four funerary monuments; the Ghaffariyeh Dome, a squat, cubic mausoleum with a simple corbelled entrance portal covered in turquoise tiles; the twelfth century Gonbad-e Kabud (Blue Dome), an exquisite hexagonal tomb tower covered in mesmerising geometric brick reliefs which is the finest of the four; the adjacent and slightly older Borj-e Modavar (Round Tower), indeed round in section and plainer, but still with a fine entrance portal; and finally the Gonbad-e Sorkh (Red Dome), rather less graceful and adorned only with brick relief work, but located on the southern edge of town in its own small park which must also be of considerable age.
Not far from Maragheh, on the northern side of Mount Sahand lies Tabriz, where I stop for three days. Backed by red mountains to the north, Tabriz is the most important city in north-western Iran, and was on numerous occasions in the past the capital of the country. A city with a majority population of Iranian Azerbaijanis (who are simply called ‘Turks’ in Iran), Tabriz feels very slightly European, lacking the exotic urban architecture of Isfahan or Shiraz, but is instead notable as a centre of commerce, one of the principal cities on the Silk Road, visited by Marco Polo in 1275. The highlight of Tabriz is undoubtedly its bazaar, said to be the world’s longest, and which is in my opinion the finest in Asia. Tabriz’s bazaar is a place of sensual delights; with its beautiful, long vaulted passageways, spot-lit and ventilated by holes in the ceiling, thronging with shoppers and merchants. The air is thick with the hubbub of commercial transactions, lengthy, animated conversations between shopkeepers and the shouts of trolley-pushing porters who part the crowds to deliver goods into the small, cave-like shops. The nose is greeted by various smells; spices and dried fruits, delicate Middle Eastern perfumes and the bitter scent of dyed wool. The eye is caught by the endless procession of oncoming faces as one walks through the crowds; by paintings, by sacks of colourful foodstuffs, confectionery, lingerie, brass ware, but most of all by the sumptuous deep reds and blacks of the carpets, the sellers of which sit in their own large section of the bazaar atop huge, expensive rugs, patiently waiting for customers, talking amongst one another over endless cups of sweet red-brown tea brought to them on silver trays by errand boys from a nearby chaikhana.
The bazaar is so much more than a shopping centre, and its interconnected passageways and open spaces have historically been important not just for commerce, but as centres of social, educational and religious practices. It seems to me the architectural embodiment of the very essence of contemporary Iranian culture; drawing heavily on a great historical legacy of empires and trade, deeply human, steadfastly clinging to its own identity, oblivious to the characterless face of globalised modernity.
Tabriz feels like a good place to conclude my trip through the Alborz and Zagros Mountains, poised as it is at the edge of both ranges. From here I will continue in a north-westerly direction, towards and then across the Aras River into the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, and on into eastern Anatolia, all lands once part of ancient Armenia.
After almost two weeks in Kazakhstan’s Mangystau Region, exploring necropoles and ancient Sufi pilgrimage sites and taking in the spectacularly remote sights of the Ustyurt Plateau, I am at the far-flung Kazakhstan – Turkmenistan border. Ahead of me lies my third transit of this secretive and recalcitrant dictatorship, once more on a five-day transit visa, which restricts me to a fixed route (from which I will deviate), but is the only means of independently exploring the country. In this short time I hoped to glimpse something of the culture and traditions of the seemingly timid Turkmen people, and explore some of the myriad of historically important ruins which fill this country, poised historically on the frontier between nomadic and settled civilisations.
It’s the morning of the 23rd June 2014 and I’m first in front of the gates of the Garabogaz border crossing. I watch a teenage soldier open the first of the double gates, carefully inspect the raked dust for footprints, then sweep it into a pan and open the second gate. Getting into one of the word’s most closed countries is a lengthy and expensive process, as I have learned from my two previous visits, and it is not until 12:20 that I am free to leave, on more terrible, muddy tracks, passing a crashed MiG 15 jet at the roadside soon after leaving the border crossing. As I climb a gentle ridge, passing an abandoned police check-post, a sweeping curve of the turquoise Caspian comes into view once more, looking more like the Pacific Coast with its breaking waves bringing ashore a little mist and with it a beautifully cool, damp breeze, reducing the air temperature to just 28º C as if a giant air-conditioner had been switched on. The first point of civilisation is the bleak sodium sulphate mining town of Garabogaz, an almost apocalyptic scene of derelict-looking Soviet-era industry, rotting pipelines and partly occupied apartment buildings amid pink and brown evaporation pools. After Garabogaz, the road becomes paved once more as it passes through scrubbier territory, past the inlet of Garabogazkol, a large, hyper-saline lagoon intermittently connected to the Caspian sea. After hours of bleakness, the narrow, lumpy road suddenly transforms into a six-lane highway and leads into the port city of Türkmenbaşy, where I stop for the night.
Türkmenbaşy (named after the first president of Turkmenistan), formerly Krasnovodsk, was Imperial Russia’s point of entry into the Trans-Caspian region, railhead of the Trans-Caspian railway which ran to Bukhara, Samarkand, and later Tashkent and the Fergana Valley. It was a key staging post for Russian expansion into Central Asia, and a base in campaigns against the Khanates of Khiva and Bukhara, and against the Turkmen tribes. Today, it remains a busy port, and the freight wagons of the Trans-Caspian railway are still transported by ferry across the Caspian Sea from Baku. I’m hosted in Türkmenbaşy by Dowlet, a young Turkmen who lives with his wife in a single-storey house perched in hills overlooking the city centre. From the outside his house is plain, but inside are large rooms with little furniture, and rugs, some hand-made and very fine, covering the floor, as in Persian homes. Dowlet and I sit at a tablecloth set on the floor, his wife waiting on us and bringing us large quantities of food. After eating, as it is getting dark, Dowlet takes me out in his car for a drive to the coast, where the government has spent around a billion dollars developing the glitzy seaside resort of Awaza which is practically deserted, another example of the Turkmenistani government spending vast quantities of the country’s oil revenues on projects of no real value to the populace.
I have a quick look around Türkmenbaşy with Dowlet in the morning; the city is attractively sited on the northern edge of a rocky bay, and with the activities of a port, does not have the eerie, comatose atmosphere of most of the country’s cities. However, aside from a few old Tasrist and Soviet-era buildings, there is little to see, and so I head east into the desert, peeling off my mandated transit route on the M37 at a lonely junction, onto an empty single-track road. After around 120 kilometres I reach the village of Goshaoba, after which the road deteriorates as it enters starkly barren desert. As I begin to climb for a final time onto the Ustyurt Plateau, I see once again the familiar banded reds and greys of the plateau’s edge, until I reach an unmarked side-track which climbs to a stunning viewpoint looking back over the terrain I have just driven through, adjacent to which is a wide badland area known as Yangykala Canyon. The view over the canyon is mesmerising, with endless erosional incisions made into two long, parallel escarpments of white and brown rock, separated by a dry, meandering riverbed in older, bright red rock, giving a quite other-worldly appearance.
Sadly, the tight time constraints on my visa mean I have to tear my self away from the viewpoint and return to the main Türkmenbaşy – Ashgabat highway, though on my return journey I stop at the nearby shrine of Gozli-Ata, where the grave of the twelfth century Sufi mystic and student of Khoja Akhmet Yassawi sits in a beautifully remote desert location, surrounded by scraps of the multicoloured desert escarpments which I had just looked over at Yangykala. Around the twin-domed, modern mausoleum of Gozli-Ata himself are an array of gravestones, some familiar koytases, presumably of Kazakh origin, but also more distinctly Turkmen types, simple, carved headstones of different shapes according to different Turkmen tribes, with crude inscriptions in Arabic and later Cyrillic. Some have large stylised heads, looking very similar to the pre-Islamic balbal; others have large, stylised rams horns, but most common is the cross-like cloverleaf, belonging to the dominant Yomud Tribe. Amongst the graves are some highly esoteric offerings which hint at strong pagan influences: hairpins (an offering for an ailment of the head), stacked stones left by those giving prayers (which are turned if the prayer is answered), a profusion of teapots and even a samovar at selected graves, small baby cradles (for fertility), and an odd wooden trellis of long-dead tree trunks elevated on stones, heavily tied with votive prayer scarves, under which women squeeze themselves for good health or fertility. It’s a deeply intriguing spot and a thought-provoking glimpse into the fascinating and seemingly very private Turkmen faith.
The return journey takes me first to the junction near Goshaoba, then south through initially very desolate terrain, passing oddly lifeless villages amongst encroaching sand dunes. At one point, dunes inundate the road for several kilometres and I find myself engaging four-wheel-drive, passing a row of pylons whose power lines have been ripped off and lie flailing on the dunes. This is a pretty accurate picture of the acute and absolute neglect of rural communities by the Turkmen government. Later, passing the forlorn town of Oglanly, the road climbs to the western slopes of Great Balkan mountain, whose summit is wooded and whipped by clouds, an odd sight when compared to the absolute desolation I have driven through for much of the day. Descending a long, gentle gradient, I rejoin the M37 at Jebel, back on my transit route, stopping for the night in the next town of Balkanabat.
I’m hosted in Balkanabat by Ejesh, who lives with her husband in a modern apartment. Ejesh is very confident and communicable, and in contrast to my previous night’s stay with Dowlet in Türkmenbaşy, I find myself speaking almost exclusively to her, while her husband remains largely quiet. She gives me many insights into the shadowy spirituality of Turkmen culture, explaining what I have seen earlier in the day at Gozli-Ata’s shrine. Despite being outwardly very modern, Ejesh explains to me that there are still strong tribal customs, meaning for instance that her father-in-law may never see her face, something which I find very surprising in such an outwardly modern, post-Soviet society. Ejesh explains that she personally disapproves of such customs, but is bound by them as a Turkmen, a people who she describes as the most traditional in the Central Asian republic of the Former USSR.
After a quick look around Balkanabat in the morning I get back on the road, turning off the M37 at Gumdag, still on my dictated transit route south to the Iranian border. The road enters desert once more with low, pale-yellow sand dunes on either side, and various infrastructure and rusting detritus from the local oil industry. I stop in the village of Bugdayly for a late lunch at a cafe run by young Uzbek women, popular with friendly Turkish lorry drivers, which I soon realise doubles as a brothel. A few kilometres beyond the village, again using waypoints built up from satellite maps, I sneak off the road and onto tracks across the takir (mudflats) which seem to head for nowhere at all. Historically, this area was the Dekhistan Oasis, inhabited since the late third millennium BCE, and at the peak of its power between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. At this time, Dekhistan was part of Hyrcania, an outer satrapy of the Persian Empire, a caravan stop on the branch of the Silk Road connecting Persia to the Khorezm Oasis on the Amu Darya. Dekhistan was abandoned in the early fifteenth century for reasons that are not clear; perhaps a collapse of irrigation systems, or deforestation, and the area remains unpopulated to this day.
As I get further from the road, in the hazy distance I’m delighted to see the sentinel remains of Misrian, the long-abandoned capital of Dekhistan, around twenty kilometres away. I make my first stop at Mashat, a medieval graveyard of a few lone Turkmen graves and older, crumbling mausolea centred upon the Shir-Kebir Mosque which, dating from the ninth or tenth centuries, is the oldest extant mosque in Turkmenistan, and one of the oldest in Central Asia. After stopping to admire the beautiful floral stucco of the mosque’s triple-arched mihrab, I drive over to the ruins of Misrian, entering via a breach in the ruined city’s double defensive walls and carefully driving past pile after pile of scattered bricks towards the city’s only standing monuments. Around a central courtyard is the thirteenth century mosque of Khorezmshah Mohammed, with a collapsed outer portal still bearing beautiful turquoise Kufic lettering and, nearby, the truncated remains of a minaret. A little further away is the similarly truncated eleventh century Abu-Jafar Ahmed minaret with three beautiful bands of Arabic and striking geometric designs, and which may still be climbed for a fantastic view over the ruined city, which is a sea of collapsed masonry.
Aside from a timidly-friendly Turkmen family who briefly visit, I have Dekhistan all to myself and in the late afternoon, drive the truck into the city’s inner courtyard. Whilst not as impressive as nearby contemporaries Merv or Balkh, Misrian is somehow more atmospheric for being utterly ruined and forgotten to the outside world, and I feel deeply privileged to be here alone. As I cook and eat, and later sleep under the stars in this ancient Silk Road city, imagining the camel trains and mystics who for centuries passed through, I am once again fulfilling my dreams as a traveller.
I make my way back to the road in the morning and spend the day driving through more bleak desert, past oil pipelines and wasteland often scarred by oil production. I stop for lunch in the coastal village of Ekerem, which has a beautiful sweeping beach of grey sand and shells, leading up to a tanker terminal. From Ekerem the road runs close to the coast, though wide mud flats mean the sea is rarely in sight. Near a group of oilfields, nodding donkeys and gas flares, I pull off the road and follow dusty tracks which climb up to the flanks of the Ak Patlawuk mud volcano, a curious geological phenomenon where sediments underlying the edge of the Caspian Sea are liquefied and forced to the surface in what looks like (but is not) a fumarole. Over the years, this mud has built up into a large expanse of dessicated mud flats, centred around a small cone out of which mud gently bubbles and erupts into a pool of rather foul-looking brine.
In the evening I reach the district capital of Esenguly, the southernmost settlement along Turkmenistan’s coastline, just twelve kilometres from the Iranian border. After two travelling days in the heat and dust I am keen to have a shower, and so stop in town to find a hotel; a decision I will come to regret. Esenguly, like nearby Çekişler is a coastal settlement made up of rather attractive wooden houses, surrounded on all sides by wide shaded verandas with colourfully painted beams and window frames. I find a small and very basic local hotel in which to stay, and after the owner arrives, I am told that I am his first foreign guest. I need to register with the police, who arrive at the hotel and are very friendly, casually asking to look over my photographs. I then go our for a walk around the town, escorted by the owner. Local people are friendly but seem reserved and even suspicious of me, the product, I imagine of having perhaps never seen a foreigner in town, and having grown up in a very sensitive outer border zone of the USSR, and now of Turkmenistan, a country even more closed and fearful of the outside world. I return to the hotel contented, having seen everything I have wished to see on this brief transit of the country. I drink what will be my last beer for some time (I will enter Iran tomorrow), and am invited to dinner by the other guests of the hotel, a party headed by an ebullient Turkmen businessman who talks to me at length about his life; in short he was once a powerful figure in the Soviet and later Turkmen armies, but for reasons that he does not make clear, he has fallen from grace.
The trouble starts at around 23:00 when the police return, this time with agents from Turkmenistan’s KGB who are brutish and ill-mannered. What initially seems like a casual questioning becomes an interrogation, and my laptop, cameras and mobile phone are taken and searched; something I regard as a gross invasion of my privacy. All through the experience the officers wield their absolute power over me, and make no attempt to hide the joy it brings them. My ‘crime’ is having deviated from my transit route, and I am made to write a letter of confession. What excites them further is the fact that I have stayed with Turkmen citizens, and to my horror their numbers are taken from my phone, each receiving a call from the police. For Dowlet this amounts to nothing more than some questions, but Ejesh, whom the police imagine I have had some illicit relations with (also a crime in Turkmenistan) is harassed for days after. My photographs of Turkmenistan are copied and erased from my camera, seemingly more by their bumbling incompetence than on purpose (I later recover them from my memory card), the officers lying and telling me that they will be returned at the border the next day.
In the morning another protracted questioning begins, becoming quite ludicrous at times, though every banal and fictional answer is dutifully noted in a worn notepad. The car is searched and all my documents again examined in minute detail; at this point I realise that these small-town guys are simply wasting my time to ensure I will drive straight to the border. One dim junior is sent off to photocopy my Turkmenistan visa, but comes back having copied the Iranian visa. After tedious hours of intimidation from these incompetents, I am finally allowed to leave, and waste no time getting to the border. The road is an atrocious unsurfaced mess of hard-baked mud passing utterly bleak settlements, and I’m very happy to reach the border station in the sweltering afternoon heat. After being made to write another letter of confession (by a customs officer, whom I had run into two days earlier in the cafe-come-brothel in Bugdayly), I am finally stamped out of the country and join the line of lorries heading into Iran.
I leave Turkmenistan feeling greatly relieved not to have suffered worse from the authorities, though also must admit to myself that it is my fault for having deviated from my transit route, and not hidden the evidence of it. The police run-in has left a bitter taste after what were four wonderful days in Turkmenistan, a country I am very fond of. What is really sad however is the plight of the Turkmen people who live under the absolute power of the regime, one which squanders the country’s wealth on mindless building projects and uses it to enrich a select few, whilst the country’s infrastructure outside of the main cities simply rots away from neglect. To this day, I long to have free access to Turkmenistan’s many natural and historical attractions, but these thoughts are far in the back of my mind as I cross the small, currently dry bed of the Etrek River and enter Iran, which comparatively, feels like a free country.
The Caspian Sea is a remnant of the ancient Paratethys Ocean, from which it was isolated around five and a half million years ago. Though not technically a lake, the Caspian is the largest enclosed body of water on Earth, draining a large swathe of European Russia by means of the Volga, Europe’s largest river. On the western shore of the Caspian, the Caucasus Mountains come down to the coast, creating an area of verdant and fertile foothills. On the eastern edge of the Caspian however, lie desolate lowland areas of barren desert, today very sparsely populated. My journey through the Caspian Lowlands would take me firstly through the Kazakhstani province of Mangystau, a starkly beautiful land filled with highly venerated medieval shrines and necropoles of magnificently carved stone, testament to millennia of nomadic civilisations. Across the border to the south, in Turkmenistan, I would traverse the western edges of the Karakum Desert; today a blighted land of sand and takir (dried mud flats), but once the Persian satrapy of Dekhistan with its ancient capital Misrian, a Silk Road staging post, now a hauntingly abandoned ruin in the midst of nothingness.
Late in the afternoon of the 11th June 2014 I leave Atyrau after two days spent relaxing, registering myself with the police and stocking up on supplies for the coming weeks of desert travel. I cross the Ural River and enter Asia, where I will remain for the next five months until crossing the Bosphorous in Istanbul. It’s a relaxing drive as the sun’s rays lengthen, colouring the barren plains either side of the road. Not long after leaving the city and sprawl of industry which surrounds it, I’m disturbed when the truck’s charge warning light suddenly comes on. The cause is merely a loose connection which has lead to arcing, burning away a little insulation on the connector. After tightening the connection however, the light is still on and I initially turn around, back towards the city, but stop again and fix the problem after a little thought by replacing the voltage regulator; one of very few spare parts which I am carrying.
Continuing my journey east, I drive blissfully into the cool desert night on a perfect asphalt road, crossing into Mangystau Region, stopping after midnight around twenty-five kilometres short of Beyneu, using my GPS to find the exact same spot near the railway line where I had camped in August 2011. In the morning I pass Beyneu then turn south, climbing almost imperceptibly onto the Ustyurt Plateau, a barren upland which stretches east to the Aral Sea and south into Turkmenistan. The road alternates between perfect new asphalt and sections of horrendously rough, compressed mud where one is forced onto parallel tracks in the steppe which have been milled into very fine dust by passing lorries and which billows in great clouds across the landscape. In the early afternoon I drop off the edge of the plateau through a spectacular escarpment in the cliffs of white and chocolate-brown rock, dropping onto the Mangyshlak Peninsula. In the town of Shetpe I leave the main road and head north on tracks across the semi-desert, stopping at the beautiful, lone mountain known as Sherkala, whose banded flanks of yellow and white limestone have been eroded into deep flutes, picked out in the warm, soft glow of the afternoon sun.
After the starkly barren desert around Atyrau, the land of the Mangyshlak Peninsula is subtly greener and lightly covered with fragrant wormwood. The successive generations of nomadic tribes who have grazed these steppes have used the soft native rock to carve elaborate funerary monuments such as highly stylised steles, slab-sided sarcophagi, and large mausolea. These beautiful necropoles can be found stranded in magnificent isolation out on the steppe at places whose significance must be lost to time; the only traces of long departed nobles, warriors and sages from a culture which left no other mark on the land. Here, not far from the foot of Sherkala, I come across my first necropolis, with dozens of graves, some with a carved tombstone known as a koytas and others simply piles of lichen-covered stones. Among these are also several examples of a stele known as a kulpytas; with a rounded upper portion thought to represent a head, or perhaps the cosmos, a beautifully carved middle section, and a rectangular base carved with floral designs still found on contemporary Kazakh felt carpets, these are theorised to be more recent, Islamicised versions of the ancient Turkic balbal, the anthropomorphic stone found all across the steppes of Eurasia.
I drive into the early evening following tracks in the steppe, hugging a gentle ridge dividing two wide valleys dotted with camels and horses, backed by the spectacularly eroded edge of the Ustyurt Plateau, a truly beautiful, calm environment in which I stop to camp for the night. This is exactly the freedom I have been craving throughout the last two and a half years of living in Western Europe.
In the morning the track descends westwards into Torysh, the ‘Valley of Balls’ which is littered with large, spherical and ovoidal concretions of limestone formed in the bed of a shallow ancient sea, now cascading down the hillsides as if used in some giant’s game. As I near the shore of the Caspian, the overcast sky breaks into wet sea squalls which seem rather incongruous in this usually waterless environment, and turn the tracks into mud. Descending onto the coastal plain, I reach a small, sacred valley whose limestone walls have been eroded into honeycomb. The valley is filled with graves, some decorated with ram’s horns and a ritual fire stone known as a shirktas. As I sit in the truck waiting for a particularly strong squall to pass, I see pilgrims filing from a minibus into a modern mosque. Across this region, the age-old steppe traditions of ancestor-worship and paganism fuse with more recently introduced Islam into a culture of shrine worshipping. I walk down into the canyon and enter the centre of veneration here; a cruciform cave-mosque carved out of the native rock, with swirling reliefs of columns, walls etched with pictures of animals and Arabic script and wall-niches for candles. Dating to somewhere between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, the mosque is said to have been the residence of a healer known as Shakpak-Ata, and devoted Kazakh pilgrims come here to be in his presence, and to offer prayers asking for good health or fortune.
The following day, after spending a rainy night out on the steppe I make my way to the coast, passing the beautiful walled necropolis of Beysenbay which is particularly rich in ornately carved kulpytases and etchings of horses, hunters, camels and open hand designs on the walls of a fine, domed stone mausoleum. Then, as I drive on dusty steppe tracks I come across something quite amazing. Here, the vast grassland ecosystem of dry, powdery earth, fragrant with the scent of wormwood and animal musk, dotted with the settlements of herders and nomads, scoured with the time-worn tracks of livestock and occasional monuments of past inhabitants; this steppe which so defines the landscape and culture of Central Asia abruptly, without more than a couple of kilometres warning, drops away into the gleaming azure of the Caspian Sea, which here looks and feels very much like the ocean. I try to imagine the Mongols coming here on horseback in the thirteenth century; smelling the salt air and then seeing the land fall away into oblivion, and wonder if they thought, momentarily, that they had reached the very edge of the world.
I drop down an escarpment in the steep coastal cliffs to a local beauty spot known as Tamshaly, where water drips gently from within the layers of rock making up the plateau, forming a verdant oasis of hanging greenery and a reed-fringed pool. The beauty is however rather marred by a group of local Kazakh day-trippers who blast out music and distribute litter, so I drive down onto a beach of coarse sand, chat briefly with a local fisherman, then have a refreshing wash at the water’s edge. It’s not far from here to the westernmost tip of the Mangyshlak Peninsula, and I pass through the small port of Bautino, which has a couple of preserved examples of Tsarist-era houses, before stopping for lunch in the adjacent town of Fort Shevchenko. It was here that Russians first established a presence on the peninsula with construction of the naval stronghold of Novopetrovskoye in 1846. This remote outpost naturally became a centre of exile, and was home as such between 1850 and 1857 to Ukrainian poet and political figure Taras Shevchenko, who was imprisoned here after offending Tsar Nicholas I with a poem. His image was rehabilitated in Soviet times as that of an anti-Tsarist activist, leading to the town’s renaming to Fort Shevchenko in 1939. There’s a large bronze statue of the Ukrainian poet in a leafy park in the centre of town, and a striking realist monument to its history of incarceration, but otherwise, Fort Shevchenko still has the air of a far-flung outpost.
I drive south-east on a paved road out of Fort Shevchenko, riding roughly parallel to the barren coast towards the regional capital Aktau. As I approach the city, the traffic starts to increase and for the first time since leaving Atyrau I have the impression of entering an urban area. I stop short of the city to visit a final necropolis known as Koshkar-Ata, by far the largest I have seen. In its northern section, I see koytases and kulpytases similar to those I have seen on the steppe, as well as a distinctive tombstone carved into the shape of a ram, known as a koshkaratas, complete with carvings of a sword and axe, indicating that the interred may have been a warrior. In its southern reaches the tightly-packed graves are contrastingly modern, boxy structures which continue to spread ever further south as modern, settled Kazakhs continue the funerary tradition of their nomadic forbears.
Aktau is a modern city, founded in 1958 on this absolutely barren and waterless coastline in order to exploit nearby uranium reserves, supplied with water and electricity by a combined nuclear reactor and desalinator. With the development of Mangystau’s oil reserves, Aktau increasingly became an oil-town, and today shares in Kazakhstan’s post-independence oil boom. Compared with Atyrau, Aktau feels rather less modernised, with fewer glass-fronted oil company offices, but the streets feel friendlier and the warm, blue waters and sandy beaches of the Caspian are far nicer than Atyrau’s desolate surroundings. Indeed, the city’s centre remains very Soviet in layout, divided into micro-districts with each slightly shabby prefabricated apartment building (one of which bears a lighthouse on its roof) numbered individually and accessed by unnamed roads. I spend three full days in Aktau meeting my host Evgenia and a number of her friends, walking among the concrete monuments and mildly cosmopolitan population of a Soviet planned city, and watching Kazakh and Russian families enjoying the beach, swimming in the turquoise waters while tankers and cargo ships manoeuvre around each other a few kilometres offshore.
The time comes however to leave these urban comforts and head back into the scorching desert. I drive east out of town, through the Karagiye Depression, which reaches 134 metres below sea-level, making it the lowest point in the Former USSR, arriving in the oil town of Zhanaozen in the fearsome afternoon heat. Here I am hosted by Asset, a Kazakh environmental consultant who lives in the city with his wife and two young children. Asset and I immediately seem to bond, despite knowing limited amounts of each other’s languages. With his two sons, Asset and I pick up his friend Ghaziz and head for the coast, to a beautiful secluded bay known as Kendirli. Many families have come here to cool off after the stifling heat of the day, and as the sun slowly sinks behind the long natural headland which protects the bay, filled with young Kazakh families, I feel I am seeing a vision of the future of this prosperous young country which I have enjoyed visiting over the past seven years.
On returning, Asset’s wife has prepared a traditional meal of beshbarmak, consisting of chunks of beef and kazy (horse sausage), with potatoes, onions and hand made pasta squares which is delicious, though I am thankfully not obliged to eat any of the boiled sheep’s head, a traditional Kazakh delicacy reserved for a guest. After dinner, Asset and I head out into the warm evening and round off the evening drinking a few beers with Ghaziz. Despite having known each other only a few hours, I feel as if I’ve come upon an old friend; hospitality experiences such as these are truly one of the great joys of travelling.
I head off into the desert proper the next morning on dusty tracks, joining what is perhaps the most revered pilgrimage route in the country. I first stop at the desert shrine of Shopan-Ata, who was a disciple of the great twelfth century Turkic mystic and scholar Khoja Akhmet Yassawi, and who legend says, founded a mosque here when he came across his masters staff stuck into the desert. The shrine is centred around a simple cave-mosque, behind which lies a ritual desert trail passing various graves, ending at a large stone phallus rubbed smooth by visiting female pilgrims, blackened by the burning of rags soaked in mutton fat which are placed on its tip. Next to this is a curving branch of a long-dead tree under which women stoop, heavily tied with votive scarves. It’s quite a fascinating glimpse of what must be very ancient, and to me very esoteric traditions of the steppe, only very slightly influenced by any Islamic tradition.
Beyond the shrine complex, I join a graded track east, deeper into the desert, climbing eventually onto a large, natural ramp which gently brings me once more onto the Ustyurt Plateau, with beautiful views to the south of bright white limestone escarpments carved into the grey-brown desert plain. The track ends at the shrine complex of Beket-Ata, where numerous minibuses are parked outside a modern pilgrim centre. Beket-Ata was an eighteenth century Sufi hermit; educated in Bukhara, a veteran and hero of Kazakh battles with the Kalmyks of southern Russia, later to become a saint, soothsayer and healer. Perhaps because of his fame as a healer, Beket-Ata’s shrine is an especially popular destination of pilgrimage, and I am in the company of dozens of local visitors. The temperature is well above 40º C when I arrive and so I rest for a couple of hours in the air-conditioned pilgrim centre, located on the edge of the plateau, mustering the energy to begin my own walk to the shrine at around 16:30.
From the visitor centre, a path drops down towards the desert floor, passing a brackish holy spring which waters a small grove of saxauls in which a urial ewe is grazing. Groups of red-faced pilgrims pass me on their return journey from the shrine, often asking for water, some of them elderly and overweight women who must be at the very limits of their endurance in the terrific heat. At the cave-mausoleum itself, I join a group of Kazakhs, and together we sit in the whitewashed, almost conical main chamber. Dozens of urial horns are stuffed into an alcove in the ceiling, which has a large hole in to allow light and a little fresh air to enter. A custodian in a taqiyah (white skull-cap) gives an explanation in Kazakh, then recites a prayer in heavily accented Arabic. We then file into a second chamber, which Beket-Ata is said to have used for healing, where a time-worn stick is propped against a wall. We all circulate the chamber three times, ducking under the stick each time, then exit the mausoleum backwards, ending the ritual visit.
After walking back up to the visitor centre I rest with some of the pilgrims in the male wing of the visitor centre, and at around 19:00 we all sit down to share a communal, celebratory meal. Small plastic tablecloths are spread onto the floor, around which groups of men sit. Huge enamel bowls of broth are brought out and place on the floor between groups. A boy walks around with a ewer of water and a trough like an inverted hexagonal top-hat, and we rinse our hands. Then come enamel bowls full of rice and mutton pieces; for our group of six, a sheep’s head, some ribs, a thigh and a large lump of off-white fat. The meat and rice are fresh and excellent, and after eating we slurp at bowls of salty bullion, most welcome after the sweaty slog down to the shrine and back. When the meal is finished we wipe our greasy fingers on a rather musty rag, then listen to an extended prayer by the custodian. Although the mausoleum itself is rather plain, and the ceremony brief, the reverence of the Kazakh pilgrims, the spectacularly remote location and the ceremonial evening meal make for quite an unforgettable experience. I feel that I have witnessed, and partaken in a very ancient ritual of nomadic spiritualism, laced with paganism, ancestor worship and Islam, which has been passed through the generations within a rich oral history of memory and legends. After watching a spectacular red sunset across the desert, I retire for the night, leaving the cramped visitor centre and spending a warm night sleeping on the back of the truck, though I’m often woken by the near-continuous coming and going of pilgrim-filled minibuses throughout the night.
I leave early in the morning, backtracking a few kilometres from the shrine, then striking off the well-used pilgrim track southwards, deep into the desert. I spend the day weaving a path on rarely-used tracks which I have studied on satellite maps, orienteering between fixed waypoints, making my way towards the Ustyurt Nature Reserve. It’s a distance of around 165 kilometres to the park entrance through utterly barren terrain, throughout which I see no signs of human life apart from the desert tracks and a single, abandoned shepherd’s hut. By mid-afternoon I reach a track which seems to be regularly used, and plunge into thick, billowing bull-dust and sandy tracks as I climb onto the Ustyurt Plateau near the park entrance. The park is a restricted area, and I take a route as far as possible from the ranger’s hut in order to avoid detection, though manage to take a wrong turn which takes me further from my intended destination on very rough tracks. The outdoor temperature is around 45º C, almost 50º C in the truck, which makes getting lost on these broken-up tracks extremely frustrating. After stopping, cooling my head and back-tracking, I find my mistake at a junction at which I took the wrong fork, and rejoin the correct track, passing what looks to be a recently abandoned lorry. When the track is just a few hundred metres from my destination I take off on a bearing across the rough desert floor, climbing a gentle rise onto a promontory, then descending a steep gradient to come to a stop for the night on a small patch of almost-flat ground, overlooking the Karyn Zharyk Depression.
The view across the depression is simply awesome; one of the most impressive sights I can remember seeing for many years. Perched on the cliff-tops 180 metres above the depression, I have an expansive view of Lake Kendirlisor, which now in mid-summer is a stunning expanse of white salt, grading at its edges into brown silt. On this salt pan are a number of islands looming in the heat haze like floating icebergs but in fact remnant chunks of the Ustyurt Plateau, eroded into beautifully fluted, conical forms of multicoloured banded rock. The heat is fierce, and so I lay my Sindhi ralli (a multicoloured quilt), given to me by a holy man in southern Pakistan six years ago on the shady ground, lying half under the truck, waiting for the sun to lower towards the horizon. The location is utterly remote, and after a tough drive of 216 kilometres from Beket-Ata, during which I have not seen a single person or moving vehicle, it’s both thrilling and slightly terrifying to be here. As the evening cools slightly, there is a spectacular sunset across the depression and I lie in nothing but my underpants on the back of the truck, listening to music under a sky filled with stars, in glorious, perfect solitude. With the experiences of the last few days; staying with Asset and his family, joining the pilgrimage to Beket-Ata, and now having this truly awesome natural wonder at my feet, all to myself, I can say that I’m really living my dreams, living life as I want it to be.
In the morning, after a perfect night’s sleep, I watch the light change over the depression as the sun rises, though leave before the heat and haze become too much; whilst the evenings and nights here are spectacular, the daytime must be miserably hot and totally shadeless. It’s 161 km of desert tracks to reach Zhanaozen, much of the time in deep bull-dust, where I must either close the windows and watch the temperatures rise above fifty degrees, or allow a constant stream of dust to enter the truck. I’m very relieved to reach civilisation in the afternoon in Zhanaozen, and spend the night with Asset and his family once more.
In the morning I head south, to what feels like the utter end of Kazakhstan. Soon after passing the beach at Kendirli, the asphalt ends and the track becomes an atrocious mess of hard, pounded mud, perhaps the worst road I can remember driving on. After an easy exit from Kazakhstan at the Temir Baba border, I spend the night in no-man’s land waiting for my five-day transit visa for Turkmenistan to begin, parking the truck in the long line of Iranian trucks waiting to enter Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstani border guards here are very kind, bringing me out cold water and a meal of grilled chicken and bread. I’ve often wondered which of the five Central Asian republics of the Former USSR is my favourite, but after this latest visit, I can firmly say it is Kazakhstan.
Two and a half years have elapsed since I returned to the UK on the 1st December 2011, after my initial trip of four and a half years, and my life has changed considerably in this time. My return was rather painful, arriving at the onset of a dismal British winter, and living once again in one place; going from a life filled with adventure and new experiences, to one with seemingly none. By February 2012 however, I had secured a place on a Masters degree programme studying geophysics at Imperial College, including a full industrial scholarship. In April, in between teaching myself basic university-level mathematics, I lead a brief tour to the North Caucasus for a UK-based adventure travel company and by June 2013, returning from a month-long field trip in the mountains of Colorado, I found myself in The Hague, Netherlands making my own research project as an intern at the head office of one of the world’s largest oil companies.
As unexpected and exciting as all this was, nothing could ever really compare to the thrill and deep, spiritual fulfilment of travelling, and I ached to be back in my old lifestyle; to be free, to meet new people in faraway places and explore yet more parts of Eurasia where I had never before set foot. I was offered a job in October 2013 and gladly accepted, but deferred my start date to December 2014. The first seven months of this period were spent completely restoring the truck on a a nut-and-bolt level, emerging in June 2014 in like-new condition. Now was my chance to fill-in a few blanks which had been omitted, usually for lack of time, from the initial four and a half year Odyssey; the eastern shore of the Caspian, the mountains of Iran, the entire countries of Turkey and Armenia, the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and the Kurdish administered regions of northern Iraq. Thus I set off on the 2nd June 2014, the very day I finished rebuilding the truck, taking the ferry from Dover, spending a couple of days with friends and family in Germany, and then heading east through Poland towards the Ukrainian border. For the next five and a half months I would be back in my old traveller’s lifestyle, though rather than having an indefinite amount of time and an uncertain future, I now had a fixed time period and a potentially long-term career to follow.
It’s late in the night on the 5th June 2014 as I cross the Bug River, leaving Poland and the EU and re-entering Ukraine at the Yahodyn border crossing where two and a half years earlier I had ended my initial trip on a cold November night. I clear Ukrainian customs in the early hours of the next morning and stop for the night after a few kilometres, glad to be on the road again and back in the Former USSR. Later, I drive east on a good, quiet road running roughly parallel to the Belarussian border, passing through the southern edge of Polesia, which presents a gently beautiful landscape of rolling arable land and patches of undisturbed forest, between villages of quaint and sometimes decorated single-storey houses and telegraph poles crowned by storks nests. The road remains tranquil until it turns south-east towards the Dnieper River and the capital, with traffic building as I approach the satellite city of Irpin’. Once I am within the city limits of Kyiv, I join the recklessly speeding local traffic along the rough but wide avenues heading directly for the centre, amongst high-end late model SUVs; matching my experience seven years ago to the day, when Kyiv was the first city which I would visit in the Former USSR.
My host in Kyiv is Peter, a New Yorker who last year was my mentor whilst working as an intern in The Hague, who has since been transferred to Kyiv where he lives with his Ukrainian wife in a luxurious top-floor apartment in the very heart of the city. Just as my own life has changed in the three years since I was last in Kyiv, so has the world around me. In February of this year Ukraine witnessed a revolution in the heart of the capital, a European-backed revolution against long-standing government corruption, which saw dozens lose their lives and the Ukrainian president flee to Russia. Peter and I walk a few blocks from his apartment to the central Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), after which the ‘Euromaidan’ revolution was named. Although now calm and peaceful, the once beautiful square and surrounding streets are filled with tents, piles of tyres, rubble and sandbags, with much of the paving having been ripped up by protestors. Men mill around in fatigues and there is an atmosphere both of protest, celebration and tragedy, with colourful political posters and sombre, candlelit shrines with boards of photos of the deceased and disappeared.
Peter and his wife run a small art gallery in the city centre where we take in a classical music concert, before going for a short walk around town. Away from the recently troubled streets of the very centre, Kyiv is exactly as I remember it from my very first impressions of 2007; a beautiful, exuberant, hedonistic city of wealthy young men recklessly driving expensive vehicles, and of startlingly attractive women. It’s a city which likes to show its beauty and wealth without restraint, though which has just enough sophistication to prevent it feeling outrightly vulgar.
Kyiv is merely a stopping point however on my journey to the Caspian Sea, and so I must leave Peter’s good company (and comfortable apartment) and continue east. My initial plan had been to enter Russia from Luhansk, the easternmost region of Ukraine; however the events following Euromaidan have forced me to alter my itinerary. I therefore set off towards the north-east of the country, driving on a road which deteriorates soon after leaving Kyiv to the point of being thoroughly appalling as it passes through occasional, tumbledown villages and fields gone to seed. By mid-afternoon I am close to the city of Sumy, and turn south-east towards the Russian border on more terrible roads, through villages which look to be heavily depopulated. Given the state of the countryside, and the ever-growing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, I begin to wonder whether the border crossing will be open. When I arrive at the redbrick customs building in the fields beyond the village of Velyka Pysarivka, I am the only vehicle, but find the border to be fully operational and cross into Russia without issue.
In addition to a very friendly welcome by the Russian customs officers, I have an immediately positive impression of Russia whose smooth roads, neat villages and large-scale mechanised agriculture seem decades ahead of what I had driven through earlier in the day. I stop in Belgorod just long enough to find an ATM and fill the truck up with fuel, and after a side trip to buy car insurance at a larger nearby border crossing, I leave the city’s busy Saturday-night streets and head east into the night. I drive into the small hours on moonlit provincial roads which cross the gently undulating, softly carved limestone river valleys of southern Russia. After a few hours of rest I continue through the seemingly endless rolling fields of the country’s agricultural heartland, detouring around Donbas in the very east of Ukraine where, following the Russian annexation of Crimea, a nascent civil war has broken out with tacit Russian support, little more than a hundred kilometres south of the tranquil fields and small farming towns through which I am passing. By late morning I reach the M4 Highway, which connects the central cities of Russia with the Black Sea Coast and is busy with holiday traffic, then turn east on the M21 towards Volgograd. Here the landscape slowly changes, becoming drier and scrubbier, and the climate hotter. I cross the wide Don River on a high bridge near the town of Kalach on Don, and before long reach the rough suburbs of Volgograd.
I choose to pass through Volgograd and cross the Volga Dam, which feeds Europe’s largest hydroelectric station in the north of the city, then drive east and south along the Akhtuba River, a left distributary of the Volga which flows roughly parallel to it, all the way down to the Caspian Sea. Very quickly the landscape becomes the barren, dry steppe of Central Asia, but the proximity of the damp, fruit-growing strip of land between the Volga and Akhtuba gives rise to terrible swarms of biting black-fly, which aim straight for ones ears, eyes and nostrils, and make getting out of the truck a chore, spoiling what would otherwise be a very pleasant night of camping. So bad are the blackfly that I must brush my teeth in the truck, then drive for a period at full speed with the windows slightly open in order to blow them all out, then seal the windows before coming to a halt and spending an uncomfortable night in the airless and sweltering cab of the truck. The road along the Akhtuba passes several points of interest; Kapustin Yar, where the Soviets first tested rocket technology before the construction of Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the proposed sites of both Old and New Sarai, successive capitals of the Golden Horde who subjugated Russia from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries; both great cities of the medieval world, but both long-destroyed and rather enigmatically vanished, almost without trace.
After following the Akhtuba for more than four hundred kilometres, I touch the very outskirts of Astrakhan and turn east, crossing a number of minor Volga distributaries, with the very last of these, the Kigach, forming the border with Kazakhstan. The border crossing is straightforward though tedious in the sweltering heat and amid swarms of blackfly, though by early afternoon I’m on the appallingly potholed road east towards the city of Atyrau. Outside the small town of Ganyushkino I stop to watch some cows wading in a pond next to the road, lazily grazing at the thick layer of water lilies on the surface, only to attract the attention of two young Kazakh men lying on the grass nearby. One starts to shout in a way which seems somewhat aggressive, though it is clear he is extremely drunk and, as he fumbles to put on his trousers, collapses into a deep muddy puddle, much to my amusement.
Very soon after Ganyushkino the last traces of greenery disappear and I enter a true wasteland of lifeless, parched, salty plains along which a row of electricity pylons march into infinity. Nothing else breaks the monotony aside from a group of scraggly Bactrian camels, and a weather-beaten nineteenth century pyramidal border marker, but the road steadily improves and by the late afternoon I reach the unlovable city of Atyrau, poised on the Ural River on what is notionally the very edge of Europe. Four days and almost 2900 kilometres after leaving the Poland-Ukraine border, and almost 5400 kilometres from my start point in the UK one week earlier, the truck satisfyingly plastered with the crushed bodies of hundreds of blackfly, I stop with my old friend Akmaral, with whom I stayed twice in 2011.
I’ve reached my entry point into Asia; from here I will slow my pace considerably and begin to explore in detail the western shore of the Caspian, crossing the remote deserts of Mangystau and western Turkmenistan, both areas which I have long-wished to visit.
The very final stage of my four-and-a-half year Odyssey would take me across the far west of Ukraine, to the Polish border. Historically, this region has been dominated by the former powers of Lithuania, Poland and Austria, with much of the region only coming under Russian influence following the Second World War when it was formally ceded to the Soviet Union. Once a set of independent kingdoms and princely states, western Ukraine represents something of a transition zone between the steppes of Eastern Europe and the medieval cities of Central Europe. Here I would see yet another side of Ukraine; one far more westward-looking and assertive in its cultural distinction from Russia, one where Ukrainian is commonly spoken and where links with Central Europe are strong. Amid the region’s attractive old cities I would also witness the traces of a departed people; the Jews, who before the events of the twentieth century made up a sizeable proportion of the population. For me however, this final stage of less than three weeks was a farewell to the Former USSR, to my journey, and to my life as traveller, and as I passed through the regions of Podolia, Bukovina, Transcarpathia, Galicia and Volhynia I was ever conscious that this western extremity of Ukraine has historically been frontier territory, and very much a gateway to the West.
It’s a cool, damp morning on the 31st October 2011 as I drive across the Dniester River into Ukraine and the historical region of Podolia. From the border town of Mohyliv-Podilskyi I drive slowly north through backwater towns on winding and sometimes rough backroads, later turning east and reaching in the evening the attractive city of Kamianets-Podilskyi, where I am hosted by Gennadiy, a local sign-writer and his family. Kamianets-Podilskyi was first mentioned as part of Kievan Rus’, the pre-cursor state of modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and was capital of Podolia from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. Gennadiy’s apartment lies in the new city, which bears the ubiquitous architectural hallmarks of the Soviet Union, but it is in the ancient centre just a few hundred metres to the west that I realise I am somewhere quite different from the eastern and central regions of Ukraine through which I have recently passed. The old city of Kamianets-Podilskyi is situated on a bluff almost totally enclosed by a sweeping meander of the Smotrych River, which here has carved a deep, leafy gorge out of the native limestone. Here, life unfolds slowly on winding cobbled streets of pastel-coloured buildings, dotted with churches of both Orthodox and Catholic denominations, reflecting the long, historical influence of Lithuania and Poland in Podolia and indeed much of western Ukraine.
Aside from a modern bridge, the only connection between the old city and surrounding countryside is a neck of raised land, and immediately beyond this lies Kamianets-Podilskyi’s striking castle, which for centuries marked the border of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and withstood attacks from the Tatars and Ottomans, until being ceded to the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century following the second partition of Poland. Amidst the low cloud and damp, muddy Podolian countryside which lies beyond, the spectacularly sited castle paints a highly atmospheric picture of medieval Europe.
West of Kamianets-Podilskyi I meet the Dniester once more and cross briefly back into Bessarabia in the town of Khotyn which hosts another magnificent medieval castle, the last and most spectacular of a series of fortifications which have marked my journey up-river from its estuary below the windswept castle of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi on the Black Sea. From Khotyn, the road takes me south-west, crossing the Prut River into the historical region of Bukovina and the charming provincial capital of Chernivtsi.
Like Bessarabia, Bukovina was historically part of Moldavia, but whereas Bessarabia was annexed by the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century, Bukovina became part of the Habsburg and successor Austrian empires, and only came under Russian influence after the 1940 occupation of Northern Bukovina by the Red Army. Just across the Prut River, Chernivtsi is the principal city of Northern (i.e. Ukrainian) Bukovina, and with less than fifty years of Russian domination, feels a great deal less Russified than any other part of Ukraine I have yet visited. Here I have finally entered Western Ukraine, and begin to appreciate the stark divide between the west and east of the country. Not only is the architecture of the city decidedly different, but also the people, with bloodlines mixed with Romanians or Poles. The language is also different, with the softer tones of Ukrainian being spoken on the street; a far cry from Kharkiv or Dontesk. At once Chernivtsi feels more worldly and sophisticated, more European than the cities of the east, but it is also noticeably less smart and prosperous, for while the east of Ukraine has historically been an industrial powerhouse, these western regions are by comparison an agrarian hinterland.
Known as a regional cultural and educational capital and sometimes referred to as ‘Little Vienna’ due to its Habsburg heritage, Chernivtsi lies amidst the eastern foothills of the Carpathians and is immediately attractive with its mixture of Neoclassical, Baroque and Gothic architecture. Elegant streets of nineteenth century pastel buildings with stucco facades, and numerous churches, parks and squares make for a very pleasant city to stroll in, but the city’s unexpected centrepiece is undoubtedly the huge, nineteenth century red-brick Residence of the Bukovinian and Dalmatian Metropolitans. Set on three sides of a grassy courtyard filled with box bushes and tall cypress trees, the residence building showcases a multitude of styles and architectural flourishes, such as the banded motifs of Ukrainian folk art which run across the roofs, Byzantine proportions of its integral church, and tall, stepped Romanesque entrance facades to what are now various faculty buildings of the city’s university.
What strikes me most about Chernivtsi however is its Jewish connection. In the early twentieth century, the population of the city was almost fifty percent Jewish and alongside Lviv, was one of the main Jewish cultural centres in the Pale of Settlement, a shtot (city) known as ‘Jerusalem on the Prut’. Today, scant traces of this past remain, with the Jewish population decimated by pogroms, the Holocaust and emigration following the collapse of the USSR. However, on a hill overlooking the city centre I find Chernivtsi’s Jewish cemetery, where row upon row of gravestones have recently been uncovered from the choking undergrowth in an ongoing operation. Many stones are elaborately carved works of art, testament to the former richness of Jewish culture, but aside from the caretakers wielding chainsaws and strimmers, this graveyard containing some fifty thousand interred is beautifully tranquil and almost deserted. Interestingly, many of the gravestones date from the 1970s and 80s, demonstrating that the Holocaust was not the end of Chernivtsi’s Jewish community, but rather the wane of Soviet control and rise of nationalism and anti-Semitism. Outside the cemetery stands a doleful synagogue, victim to the ravages of time with a rusted dome, peeling, damp walls and broken windows; a fitting monument to a lost and now almost enigmatic people in this surprising Habsburg city.
I leave Chernivtsi and drive north-east through open farmland to Ivano-Frankivsk, where I meet with Karolina once again. Founded in 1662 as Stanisławów, a private fortress of the Polish Potocki Family, Ivano-Frankivsk shares the Habsburg and Austrian history of Chernivtsi, though between the World Wars was part of Poland rather than Romania. With a heavier Soviet influence, Ivano-Frankivsk is a little less charming than Chernivtsi and with cold foggy weather descending upon the city, we head west into Europe’s second longest mountain chain, the Carpathians.
Shortly after turning south from the main road, we begin to climb and thankfully leave behind the fog and grey skies to emerge into radiant autumnal sunshine and gorgeous views of rolling hills, covered in primeval forests of green pines mixed with now-brown beech trees. On grassy hillsides between the stands of forest lie idyllic villages of colourful wooden houses, wicker fences and tall ricks of drying hay; a delightfully bucolic vista of pre-modern Europe. Our climb tops out at a little under one thousand metres at the Vyshkiv Pass, beyond which we descend into Transcarpathia, Ukraine’s most far-flung region.
The Outer Eastern Carpathians which we have just crossed have defined the border of the Hungarian Empire since the ninth century and Transcarpathia, or Carpathian Ruthenia, has since passed to the Habsburgs and Austria, then to Czechoslovakia between the World Wars, before incorporation into the USSR. Though Ukrainians today constitute a majority in Transcarpathia, there are sizeable minorities of Hungarians along the region’s southern border with Romania, and a number of Ukrainian ‘highlanders’; Hutsuls, Boykos and Lemkos, who are often collectively known as Rusyns, descendants of the Ruthenians.
In Mizhhirya we turn off the north-south road and climb east into the Gorgany Range and Synevyr National Park, one of the least populated areas of the Carpathians. We descend gently through very rustic villages such as Synevyr and Nehrovets, the latter of which has the fine early nineteenth century Archangel Michael Church built entirely out of wood in an architectural style characteristic of the region. We stop for the night in the large village of Kolochava, where we surprise the owners of a guesthouse by arriving so far out of season, and where we seem to be the only patrons.
The weather the following day is still perfectly clear, with crisp air and deep blue skies, and we set off early, following a stream north from the centre of the village, climbing up the curving spine of the Pyshkonya Ridge, first through dormant fields set with haystacks, then forests of spruce and beech, emerging high on the boulder-strewn ridge and spending several hours walking north, and then north-west on bare slopes of yellowing grass and occasional debris fields, reaching the 1707 metre high Nehrovets, the highest peak on the ridge. From here we have magnificent views of the rolling Carpathians which fall away into the distant haze in all directions on this beautiful day; a final glimpse of autumnal colour before the impending winter snows, and for myself a final indulgence in beautiful natural surroundings before returning to Western Europe.
It’s after dark by the time we descend from the ridge into the village of Nehrovets, and we’re grateful to hitch a lift for much of the ten kilometre walk back to the guesthouse in Kolochava, where we enjoy a good fireside meal. The following day we drive south down the Tereblya Valley, turning east at the end of the road and tracking the Tisza River which marks the Romanian border on a winding and at times quite scenic highway, looking south into the EU. Leaving the river valley, the road begins to climb, but the skies become dismal and grey once more and despite stopping for two nights in the small town of Kvasy, we decide against making any further walks in the mountains and leave the Carpathians without glimpsing Hoverla, Ukraine’s highest peak.
Descending back to the edge of Ivano-Frankivsk, we head into Galicia, a region named after the medieval city of Halych which once was its capital. Galicia (initially united with more northerly Volhynia) was the westernmost of the states to emerge from the twelfth century collapse of Kievan Rus’ and subsequently passed to the Hungarians, Poles, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Habsburgs, Austria and, following heavy fighting in the First World War, was made part of the Second Polish Republic until the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in 1939. Traditionally an agricultural and rather poor part of Europe, Galicia was populated mostly by Poles and Ukrainians, though like much of what was historically Poland was also a centre for European Jewry. During the twentieth century the borders and demographics of the region were brutally manipulated by vying powers, yet Galicia’s capital Lviv has somehow survived these ordeals physically unscathed and is Ukraine’s most attractive city; the cultural centre of the west of the country and a base of resurgent Ukrainian nationalism. We arrive after dark in the city, finding our way through the city’s winding old streets to our host Andriy, a native of Khust in Transcarpathia, who lives in an apartment in a nineteenth century town house rather than a typical Soviet housing block.
Lviv was founded in the twelfth century by King Daniel of Galicia and Volhynia, and was named for his son Lev who, following the destruction wrought by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, rebuilt Lviv and transferred the capital here from Halych. Under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Lviv became a large urban centre, and despite numerous attacks by Swedes, Hungarians, Turks, Russians, Tatars and Cossacks (the latter of which were paid off to avoid capture of the city centre), the city prevailed. Under the Habsburgs and subsequent Austrian Empires, Lviv prospered and much of the city centre dates from this period, which latterly saw a flourishing of Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish culture until the Polish takeover in 1918, when Poles and Ukrainians engaged in a brief war.
The morning after our arrival, Karolina and I begin to explore Lviv, which immediately impresses me with its elegant, harmonious urban architecture. Unlike Odessa, Lviv appears to live up to its beguiling reputation and whilst Chernivtsi and Ivano-Frankivsk are rather sleepy provincial capitals, Lviv bustles with activity. While by no means overlooked by tourists, the city remains dignified and seems at present not to have submitted to the full force of mass tourism as one would find in similarly beautiful cities in Central Europe. Crossing Freedom Avenue, we lose ourselves in the streets and alleys of the old city which is centred upon the central Market Square. In the middle of this stands the Viennese Classical Ratusha or city hall, whose nineteenth century clock tower is open to visitors.
From the top of the sixty-five metre clock tower one has a spectacular view of the old city from its very heart, revealing grandiose Habsburg residences amid rows of three and four storey town houses in pale shades of peach, buff or pink and with sloping red terracotta or grey lead roofs, clustered somewhat haphazardly around small yards. For once, the Soviet urban planners have had the sensitivity to locate their comparatively graceless concrete buildings mostly in the suburbs, preserving the visual character of the city. What is perhaps most delightful are the roofs, belfries and clock towers of the various churches, cathedrals and monasteries which protrude above the roofs in all directions, giving Lviv the feel of a European Samarkand, or a miniature Jerusalem.
To the north is the distinctive white tambour and conical roof of the Armenian Cathedral, used by the Polish-Armenian community until their expulsion from Ukraine following the Soviet takeover in 1945. To the east lie several churches; the beautiful Baroque sandstone of the Dominican Church, now belonging to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church; the Dormition Church, the city’s largest Orthodox Church with its huge, square-plan Gothic Korniakt Tower; the Baroque facade of the seventeenth century Carmelite Church, sitting on an ancient mound a little beyond the centre; the distinctive Church of Poor Clares with its almost Art-Deco features and which is now a sculpture gallery, and the patinated green dome of the seventeenth century Bernadine Church and Monastery. Immediately to the south-west is the imposing Baroque of the fourteenth century Latin Cathedral belonging to the Roman Catholics, next to which is the unusual Boim Family Chapel, built in the seventeenth century by a Lviv merchant in the Italian Renaissance style, but with an unusual two-tiered carving of religious figures in blackened sandstone, rather reminiscent of an Indian temple. Due west of the square is the newly restored Jesuit Church, dating to the seventeenth century and once one of the largest churches of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and finally to the north-west the Church of the Transfiguration, neatly slotted into a city street and also now also belonging to the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church.
After two days enjoying Lviv’s attractive streets, Karolina must return to Warsaw, and I start to look beyond Lviv’s centre and consider a rather less attractive side of the city’s history. The Polish takeover of Galicia in 1918 following the collapse of Austria-Hungary upset the balance of power in a region claimed by both Poles and Ukrainians, leading to the repression of the Ukrainian language and of Ukrainian institutions, and an increase in anti-Jewish sentiment. The Soviet occupation in 1939 saw the Poles lose their hegemonic position once again, and the move was highly unpopular in a region with no history of Russian influence, particularly given the fresh memory of Holodomor, the Soviet engineered famine which killed millions across Ukraine and southern Russia. It is perhaps not surprising then that when, as part of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazis and their Axis allies occupied Galicia in 1941, local Ukrainian nationalist militia were quick to ally themselves with the Nazis, hoping ultimately to gain an independent state, and happy to assist in the implementation of Nazi policies, taking revenge on Poles, Jews (blamed for collaborating with former Polish landlords and for Soviet mass-murders of local prisoners) and Bolsheviks. Many Jews who had recently fled the Nazis as they advanced east through Poland, into Soviet occupied Galicia now found themselves concentrated in the Lviv Ghetto.
I walk east, away from the city centre, passing Klepariv Station and walking down a wide ring-road through the city’s outer western suburbs, passing a rather grim looking modern prison compound on my right. Just beyond here lies a neglected patch of land with a lone monument consisting of a large boulder, inscribed in Ukrainian, Hebrew and English, commemorating the (up to) 200,000 Jews who perished here; for this is the site of the infamous Janowska concentration camp. As Operation Reinhard, the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ for Polish Jews was carried out, Lviv’s ghetto was dissolved, with those fit to work being incarcerated at Janowska, and those deemed unfit deported to via Klepariv Station to nearby Belzec death camp in what is now Poland. Apart from this modest rock memorial and a few bunches of plastic flowers, there is nothing to commemorate this spot, and indeed on a nearby whitewashed wall there is some crude graffiti consisting of a crossed-out Star of David and a Nazi Swastika, a worrying sign of contemporary local sentiment. Closer to the centre one finds a larger monument to the exterminated Jewish population, albeit in a small, fenced-off square next to a busy road, though it too is an occasional target for vandalism.
When the Soviets ‘liberated’ Galicia in 1945, the population was again ethnically cleansed, with over 100,000 Poles expelled to Poland and anyone whom the authorities had any suspicion of having collaborated with the Nazis shipped off to join the millions in Stalin’s Gulag system. Nevertheless, Lviv remained a major centre of the dissident movement throughout Soviet times, and today is, alongside Kyiv, the centre of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, playing a key role in modern Ukrainian politics.
Despite the grisly history, I leave Lviv after four full days of exploration with very positive impressions; perhaps a little surprised that what is just about the last city in the Former Soviet Union which I will visit on this four-and-a-half year journey, is also one of the very nicest.
From Lviv I drive east on a good, recently surfaced road which leads eventually to the capital, and encounter my first real snow of the year; beautiful in the fresh white covering which it gives to the muddy autumnal landscape, but a harbinger of a long, cold winter I am keen to escape. I pass the ancient castle of Olesko, sitting on a small hill surrounded by a snow-dusted marsh of reeds and wild grasses. A little beyond I enter a corner of Ternopil Region, part of the medieval state of Volhynia which shares much the same history as Galicia up until its incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1795. I make a stop in the small town of Pochayiv, where the muddy fields and horsecarts of rural western Ukraine are overshadowed by the huge, walled lavra (Orthodox monastic complex).
Pochayiv Lavra was first mentioned in the sixteenth century, famed for its miracle-working icon. Despite an interregnum of Greek-Catholicism before Volhynia’s transfer to the Russian Empire, the lavra has long been a spiritual centre of Orthodox Christianity in the region, and since the nineteenth century has been the western outpost of Russian Orthodoxy, resisting Soviet religious persecution to remain functioning throughout the Soviet period, and now resisting takeover claims from the Ukrainian Orthodox Patriarchate and Ukrainian Greek Catholics. In contrast to Lviv’s strongly European influenced architecture, Pochayiv is immediately recognisable as Russian Orthodox with its gleaming golden domes and distinctive three-beamed crosses, and teems with pilgrims from across the Former USSR and the Balkans, though its impressive external appearance gives way to a rather ordinary interior.
Continuing north from Pochayiv I’m taken by surprise in the nearby town of Kremenets when muddy, rural Ukraine again gives way to the beautiful, ornate Baroque Franciscan Abbey, overlooked by the remains of a medieval fortress on a craggy ridge. A little later, I make a brief stop to see Dubno’s riverside castle, then continue to my very final destination, the city of Lutsk, once capital of Volhynia. Though host to the beautiful fourteenth century Lubart’s Castle, built by a Lithuanian king, the town is otherwise rather ordinary. Damaged and heavily and depopulated by the events of the twentieth century, with its former Jewish population murdered by Nazis and Ukrainian nationalist extremists, and its Polish population either deported or expelled by the Soviets, Lutsk’s rather spread out and nondescript city streets gives one the impression that the city has never recovered. Lutsk’s Grand Synagogue, built in restrained, blocky Renaissance style has somehow managed to survive the Nazis and Soviets, a rather sorry reminder of a departed past with peeling plaster walls, now used as a sports club.
I leave Lutsk after dark, making the final journey via Kovel to the border crossing at Yahodin where, after waiting in long queues of Polish cars, I cross the Bug River in the early hours of the 18th November, entering the European Union and thus essentially ending the journey rather uneventfully, in the middle of the night, surrounded by small time traders and fuel smugglers.
I stay with Karolina for just over a week in Warsaw, after which we say a final goodbye and I continue west. I stop with family in Jena, just as I did on the outward leg of the journey, and spend a day in Brussels with Koen, a Dutchman I had met in Iran in early 2010, before catching the ferry from Dunkirk back to Dover. Here I am greeted back to the UK by wretched skies and torrential rain on the M20, but after getting slightly lost on narrow Kentish backroads, I arrive back where I started 1671 days and 155,681 kilometres earlier, at my childhood home in Hawkhurst, late in the morning of the 1st December 2011.
Moldova occupies much of Bessarabia, a small chunk of Eastern Europe lying between the Prut and Dniester Rivers. It is a small country on the margins of the Former Soviet Union and the European Union, distinguishable from greater Romania (with which it has close cultural and linguistic ties) only by its history of Russian influence; obscure even to most Europeans and famed only as being Europe’s poorest country. As an area over which empires have long clashed, Moldova remains divided despite its modest size, incorporating a number of ethnic minorities and the de facto independent (though internationally unrecognised) state of Transnistria, where ethnic Slavs (Ukrainians and Russians) outnumber Moldovans. Having left neighbouring Romania with rather negative impressions in 2007 on the outward leg of the trip, I would be pleasantly surprised by Moldova; a friendly, calm and bucolic little corner of Europe which would be the final ‘new’ country on the initial four-and-a-half year part of the Odyssey.
It’s early in the evening of the 17th October 2011, and I’ve just left the far south-east of Ukraine. Ahead of me is a one-kilometre stretch of Moldova and beyond that, across the Danube, is Romania and the EU. I however turn north in the port and border town of Giurgiuleşti and drive on quiet country roads passing small villages and long stretches of open agricultural land, soon entering the autonomous republic of Gagauzia. I stop for the night in the Gagauz capital of Comrat where I am hosted by Adam, a Fullbright Fellow from Indiana who is studying the Gagauz language.
Comrat is a quiet, though rather bland and impoverished provincial town, but through Adam I am introduced to a number of locals including Anna, an ebullient widow well into her sixties who is something of an adoptive mother to Adam, and who serves us endless quantities of good home-made wine in her cottage on the edge of town. I’m also introduced to a local TV cameraman who films a short piece on my journey by car through Moldova, which starts with me staggering around Anna’s garden looking at the grapes from which the wine I have been drinking is made, then cuts to me pulling out of town in the truck two days later. The piece went on to air on the national evening news.
Adam and I take a minibus south out of Comrat to the village of Beşalma, which is Gagauzia’s cultural capital and home to the Museum of the Gagauz People. Beşalma is located in rolling, bucolic autumnal countryside planted with vineyards and maize, a scene which typifies rural Moldova. We walk from the main road past horsecarts and post-end-of-life European cars to reach the village, which has a few administrative buildings, the Soviet-era museum whose mosaic-work of Gagauz designs is slowly collapsing from its walls, and a beautiful six-bladed wooden windmill on a gentle rise overlooking the rambling village houses and surrounding fields.
We are shown around the village museum by a Gagauz lady who has a very Turkish face, with lumpen features, thick, masculine eyebrows and a heavy nose, and hands stained purple from recently pressing grapes. We’re directed to the history of the Gagauz people, who are Turkic Orthodox Christians. Although their origins are obscure, as is the origin of the term ‘Gagauz’, they are thought to be descendants of Bulgars, Cumans, Kipchak or Seljuk Turks who had migrated to the Balkans centuries ago. In the early nineteenth century the Gagauz migrated into Bessarabia from north-eastern Bulgaria in face of religious persecution from the Ottomans. Following the ceding of Bessarabia to the Russian Empire in 1812, the Orthodox Gagauz were encouraged to settle in place of expelled Muslim Tatars and Nogays. As a linguistic and ethnic minority, the Gagauz became somewhat Russified and highly assimilated into Soviet society, and resisted independence on the grounds of promotion of Moldovan (Romanian) as the only national language, and amid fears of Moldova joining Romania. Though initially calling for outright independence, following negotiations with the Moldovan parliament the Gagauz accepted autonomy within Moldova in an essentially peaceful process quietly lauded as a successful resolution to ethnic conflict.
I leave Adam and Gagauzia after three very pleasant days and head north towards the centre of Moldova, through gently rolling hills, vineyards and muddy, geese-filled villages on quiet, tree-lined roads. I’ve immediately come to like Moldova which, without the hordes of tourists of Crimea or Odessa feels like a slice of pre-modern Europe, similar to Romania but without the pervading air of seediness. Moldova is certainly not a country full of sights of interest, but after stopping for a night in Chișinău I continue north, getting lost on rough country roads but eventually being steered by friendly locals to the village of Trebujeni and the archaeological site of Old Orhei, which might possibly pass as Moldova’s prime tourist attraction. Old Orhei is set within the gentle sweep of a time-smoothed limestone escarpment above a deeply incised meander of the Răut River, not far from its confluence with the Dniester. In this naturally defensible location, meagre remains can be found from throughout Moldova’s history; from the Palaeolithic, through to the Dacians, Mongols and on to the modern period.
Old Orhei is an enchanting place and I walk up onto the escarpment to find a very picturesquely sited orthodox church and just beyond, an almost pagan looking carved stone cross against which a rather grief-stricken woman is leaning for strength. It’s a mild late-October day, surely one of the last mild days of the year and the long, reddish sunlight has an air of benign finality, casting the surrounding landscape in pastel shades of yellow and brown. Below me in the sweep of fields enclosed by the escarpment, peasants busy themselves gathering in maize, transporting the remaining stalks on trotting horse-carts to be stacked in conical ricks in the village. In the rock below me, very well hidden, is a cave monastery dug out by orthodox monks in the thirteenth century, though I find the door closed and so scramble down the steep bank for a view. Here, in the rock face are a number of glazed windows and a door, out of which a slightly grizzled-looking elderly priest emerges, who rinses his hands and then asks me in English where I am from. Clambering back up a narrow trail, I find the door now unlocked, and descend through the rock into the Stygian chambers of the monastery. The priest leads me around, pointing out eleven rock-hewn sleeping cells for the monks who had previously used the monastery until the eighteenth century, after which the monastery had fallen out of use until restoration work commenced in 1996.
Savouring this Moldovan experience, I return to Chișinău, the national capital. Chișinău, known as Kishinev to Russian speakers, was transformed from a small town to provincial capital upon the ceding of Bessarabia to Tsarist Russia in 1812, which set the stage for the emergence of an independent country. Moldova’s statehood may be traced yet further back in time; to the fourteenth century when the principality of Moldavia was established, incorporating Bessarabia and areas of what is now eastern Romania, and whose leader from the mid-fifteenth to early sixteenth century, Stephen The Great, is now the national hero of independent Moldova. Despite putting up an initially successful resistance, Moldavia eventually became an Ottoman tributary in the mid sixteenth century, until incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1812 as part of Russia’s gains against the Ottomans. Following the Russian revolution of 1917, Bessarabia returned to Romanian control, was then ceded back the Soviet Union in 1940 as part of the secret terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, only to be re-occupied by Romania in 1941, finally returning to Soviet control at the end of the war.
Chișinău gleams like a vision of the future as one approaches it from the timeless, rolling Moldovan farmland. As one enters the city however, the quaint rural squalor of muddy streets and tumbledown cottages gives way to a rather less attractive urban squalor; of broken asphalt, ageing apartment buildings, reckless traffic, alcoholics, poverty and screaming inequality. But these shabby suburbs conceal a far more upbeat centre which I soon find myself warming to.
I spend two days exploring Chișinău, walking from my host Artur’s apartment to the Eternity Memorial, a pyramid made up from five red, stylised rifles in remembrance of the years 1941 to 1945, built by the Soviets and pointedly neglecting the early war years when Moldova’s fate was secretly decided between the Soviets and Nazis. Adjacent to the memorial is a beautiful, leafy cemetery, entered through a crumbling Neoclassical arch and containing an intriguing cross-section of Chișinău’s former residents. Numerous Jewish graves are scant evidence that Chișinău was at the beginning of the twentieth century one of the major centres of European Jewry, though through pogroms, the Holocaust and emigration from the USSR the community has almost vanished today. Subtle reminders of their presence persist however in a distinctly Moorish appearance to some of the windows and doorways of the city’s more elegant central streets.
Chișinău’s main focus is Stephen the Great Boulevard, along which one finds Cathedral Square with the Triumphal Arch built in 1840 to commemorate the Russian victory over the Ottomans, and behind this the Nativity Cathedral, centre of the Moldovan Orthodox Church. Opposite is the huge, Soviet Government Building and statue of Stephen the Great, bearing a cross as ‘True Champion of the Christian Faith’ for his victory against the Ottomans, an image featured on every Moldovan banknote. A number of grandiose building projects can be found further along the boulevard, which do a good job of giving Chișinău the air of a national capital, though on close inspection some of these appear to be unfinished; long-stalled construction projects with falling, tattered veils and peeling siding.
As capital of the Bessarabian Region of the Russian Empire, Chișinău experienced rapid population growth in the nineteenth century and despite heavy destruction in the Second World War, retains an elegant centre with avenues lined by plane, poplar and walnut trees, to which I find myself often returning to stroll in. Away from here much of the city bears the architectural hallmark of the rapid post-war Soviet expansion, such as the towering fourteen-storey apartment complexes which flank Dacia Boulevard in the south-east of the city and are known locally as the ‘City Gates’. Other relics of the Soviet era have poignantly gone to seed, such as the abandoned circus with its grimy windows and broken front steps. Nowhere however do I feel any real sense of iniquity and despite the obvious poverty and inequality, the atmosphere of the city is friendly, relaxed and fun. Chișinău has more grace than most Soviet cities, with a hint of European flair, though has far fewer pretensions than most Eastern European cities. I could almost imagine myself living here.
I leave Chișinău on a beautiful autumn day passing through the ‘City Gates’ on a wide, divided road heading south-east towards the Dniester. My destination is Tiraspol, officially Moldova’s second largest city though in reality the capital of the wholly unrecognised state of Transnistria, which has its own government, police, army, customs, postal service and even currency, despite being a tiny sliver of land lying mostly between the left bank of the Dniester and the nearby Ukrainian border. I pass an outer checkpoint just beyond the Moldovan city of Anenii Noi, then shortly after arrive at the Transnistrian Border. My initial impression, as I am asked to fill in a migration card, is of how unusually polite and professional the immigration staff are. Next, a female customs officer who speaks perfect English asks for my vehicle registration document and begins to enter details into a computer system to calculate an entry tax. Frighteningly large numbers are displayed, but I finally pay just fourteen US Dollars, valid for two months, and after a cursory inspection of the truck I am free to enter Transnistria. I soon stop on the edge of the city of Bender which, though lying on the right bank of the Dniester and officially a buffer-zone, is in reality Transnistria’s second largest city.
Bender’s one and only sight is a striking fortress which marks the city’s historical position as a customs post between Moldavia and the Crimean Tatars. The fortress lies on the edge of a large base of the Transnistrian military and has only very recently been opened to foreigners. To reach it I must double back from the bridge across the Dniester, then find an unmarked side road leading to a trolleybus factory which is emblazoned with large and well preserved Soviet murals of a worker and a map of the Soviet Union. From here I must walk along a muddy, overgrown path escorted by a guard, past large, neglected factories lined by fir trees and dank, abandoned barracks whose roofs support mature poplar trees. After several minutes I reach the fortress, in front of which are busts of heroes from the Russo-Turkish wars, with fine views east across the Dniester. Initially a Moldavian fort made from wood, the current structure, which is undergoing restoration, dates from the sixteenth century and its construction under the Ottomans is said to have been overseen by Mimar Sinan, the architect responsible for many of İstanbul’s most beautiful buildings. The outer walls of the fortress have largely disappeared, but its inner keep, despite the rather clumsy restoration work remains very striking, with thick, high crenelated stone walls and towers of round, square and octagonal section topped by fluted terracotta-tiled roofs.
Back in the truck, I re-navigate the overcomplicated Soviet traffic system on the outskirts of Bender and cross the bridge into Transnistria proper, where I am very soon in the capital, Tiraspol. That Transnistria exists as a de jure part of Moldova, rather than Ukraine (which would seem more logical when looking at national boundaries) is due the the creation of the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in the early twentieth century, which was carved out of the Ukrainian ASSR with a view to the Soviet Union re-acquiring Bessarabia. Thus, when the Soviets finally regained Bessarabia in 1940 and created the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), the precursor of modern Moldova, it included the thin sliver of land along the left bank of the Dniester known as Transnistria.
During the final years of the USSR, as Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost set the course for greater autonomy of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics, Moldovan became the only official language of the Moldavian SSR in a move highly unpopular with the republic’s Slavic and Turkic minorities. With independence looming, the expectation for the Moldavian SSR to re-join Romania was widespread and highly unpopular with non-Moldovans. Much like the Gagauz in the south, Transnistria’s Slavic majority claimed independence, but whereas the Gagauz conflict was resolved peacefully, tensions between Transnistria and Moldova escalated to violence in 1990 and into full-blown civil war for five months of 1992, which ended in a cease fire and Transnistria’s status as a de facto independent state.
Tiraspol’s name derives from ancient Tyras, the Greek name for the Dniester River and also the name of a long-gone nearby settlement. The city’s history officially begins with its establishment in 1792 by Alexander Suvorov, the last Generalissimo of the Russian Empire, famous for his victories against the Ottomans, and for having never lost a battle. My first impressions of Tiraspol are of manicured Soviet order, with meticulously maintained Soviet-era administrative buildings, monuments and nomenclature in Cyrillic script. Outside the large red and grey parliament building is a pink granite statue of Lenin with a billowing cape, and across the street a Soviet T34 tank from the Second World War. Next is an equestrian statue of Suvorov who, despite being born in Moscow, is the Transnistrian national hero and features on all Transnistrian Rouble banknotes. A little further along 25th October Avenue, Tiraspol’s main drag, comes the House of Soviets; an imposing masterpiece of Soviet architecture, outside of which is another bust of Lenin on a pedestal. At the end of this rather grandiose strip the road turns past the entrance to Victory Park, which is now in riotous autumnal colour, then soon enters the semi-rural suburbs which surround Tiraspol on all sides.
My host in Transnistria is Vova, who is of mixed Ukrainian and Russian heritage, and who works for the Transnistrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tiraspol, but lives with his grandparents in the nearby village of Karagash where I arrive in the evening before Vova gets home. Here I am met by Igor, Vova’s jolly grandfather who welcomes me into his garden, showing me his beloved doe goat, his pigs, chickens and other goats, their cat Terry and their smart Belgian shepherd who doubles as a doorbell. Inside, the house is extremely comfortable and my lasting memory of Transnistria is of long evenings at the dinner table eating Vova’s grandmother’s home-cooked food, drinking young home-made red wine and eating home-grown walnuts.
I make a short trip out of Tiraspol, taking a footbridge over the Dniester and then a minibus which drops me outside another Lenin bust in the large village of Kitskany, one of the oldest villages in the region. Here I visit the Holy Ascension monastery with its candy-cane red and white door and window pillars, then walk up out of the village to an obelisk commemorating the Jassy-Kishinev Offensive, whereby the Red Army recaptured the Moldavian SSR from the Axis Forces in 1944. It’s a beautifully serene spot overlooking the sloping farmland above the Dniester. Transnistria seems quite unlike the other frozen conflict zones of the Former USSR which I have visited; there is no obvious hatred or even animosity, no tensely sealed border or fanatical national rhetoric. Instead, I find a welcoming, safe and peaceful country with a gentle atmosphere of removal from the rigours of the outside world. From Kitskany I catch another minibus on to the centre of Bender, where bullet holes from the civil war are still visible in some buildings. After stopping in a bar for a bottle of local beer one of the cheapest I have ever drunk, I take the trolleybus back across the Dniester and into Tiraspol.
After saying farewell to Vova and his lovely grandparents, I spend my last day in Transnistria driving through much of the country, following the Dniester upstream through the villages and towns along the left bank of the river, which separates Transnistria from Moldova proper in long, sinuous meanders. I stop in Dubossary, where the Civil War broke out, then later in Ribnitsa, Transnistria’s third largest city where in the late afternoon I re-cross the Dniester, with a final view of the city’s apartments reflected in the blue water of the river.
On the far side of the river is the town of Rezina, situated on three terraces overlooking the river, where I stop for the night. In the morning I take a minibus south to the village of Saharna where the Holy Trinity monastery nestles in the limestone escarpment alongside the Dniester. Behind the monastery I walk up into the hills, past cave cells and a cold, spring-fed baptismal pool, up into the hills where locals claim there is a footprint of the Virgin Mary in the native rock. It’s a beautiful autumnal walk through yellowing oak forest under deep blue skies, with sweeping views back across into Transnistria, and I spend more than an hour dozing in the sun.
I leave Rezina the following day, driving initially south to the cave monastery in Ţipova. Like Old Orhei the monastery here is hewn out of limestone cliffs, this time in a slightly less dramatic location overlooking the Dniester, but it is said to be older, dating from the tenth to twelfth centuries, and also to be the place where Stephen the Great was married. Turning north from Ţipova I head for the Ukrainian border, passing more bucolic villages on the way to Soroca, which overlooks a historical crossing point on the Dniester. Soroca has another beautiful fortress smaller but more unusual than that of Bender. Built initially out of wood by Stephen the Great in 1499, it was rebuilt in the following century to be a perfect circle with five equally spaced towers, forming a part of the line of defences along the Dniester from Akkerman (Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, in Ukrainian Bessarabia), through Bender, and continuing north, up into what is now western Ukraine.
I leave Moldova on a cool, foggy morning, driving the final stretch from Soroca north-west, parallel to the Dniester, to the border town of Otaci where I cross the bridge into Ukraine. Moldova has been a pleasantly surprising country; clearly very different from neighbouring Ukraine with its strong Romanian influence, friendly, welcoming and wonderfully tranquil, despite the obvious poverty and the frozen conflict with Transnistria. Ahead of me lies the very final stage of my initial four-and-a-half year trip, through the medieval cities and Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine, before I must make my rather dreaded return to Western Europe.
I drive across the Dnieper River on 10th September 2011 and enter Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital where I am hosted my Mykola, a paramedic who lives with his mother in the extreme north of the city. Back in June 2007, a night spent in Kyiv on my way east at the very beginning of the Odyssey had been my first encounter with the Former USSR and the Russian-speaking world, and I imagine what it would be like to bump into myself, now at the end of my trip, four years, four months and four days later, having become so familiar with the former Soviet world.
Kyiv grew up as a city on the trade route between Scandinavia and Constantinople and was part of the Khazar Khanate, a semi-nomadic Turkic civilisation which controlled much of the western Silk Road in the Volga – Don region during the seventh to tenth centuries. The city was then seized by the Varangians and became capital of Kievan Rus’ in the ninth or tenth centuries, the progenitor of modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus which would give rise to the first Rurikid Dynasty of Russian Tsars. Kyiv would have been one of the world’s largest cities prior to the Mongol invasion of 1240, when it was completely destroyed and would remain relatively obscure throughout the following period of incorporation into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russian Empire, only regaining prominence during the nineteenth century industrialisation of Imperial Russia. Kyiv was the third largest city of the Soviet Union and became the capital of Ukraine following independence in 1991, and plays an important role as the cultural capital of the pro-European Ukrainian identity whose proponents are very keen to distance themselves from the Russian-dominated past.
Kyiv is an immediately likeable place, attractively sited next to the deep blue Dnieper River on a number of hills, with a centre of wide streets of often elegant city blocks, squares and parks. It’s a far nicer city than Moscow for example, with a more upbeat and laid back atmosphere, though it is visibly more European and rather less exotic, with crowds of tourists and English frequently heard on the street. I start a walk around the city from the very centre, in Independence Square where a tall column topped by a statue of Berehynia, a female spirit from Slavic folklore which has recently been adopted as a symbol of the Ukrainian independence movement has replaced Lenin on his plinth. North-east of the square I pass through the Soviet-era Friendship of Nations Arch and enter the long city park which is spread along the right bank of the Dnieper with beautiful views across to the left bank and the city’s smaller eastern segment. Here the city’s bright high-rise suburbs look almost like an island, surrounded by an uninterrupted sea of green, arboreal endlessness spreading to the horizon. Looking east across such a wide open space causes me to pause for a moment and imagine the wild expanses of steppe which stretch off for thousands of kilometres to the east, a magnificent landscape I will surely miss on my return to western Europe. Back in the centre, to the north and above Independence Square is the beautiful St Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery, originally built in the eleventh century, but totally destroyed by the Soviets in 1935, having only recently been rebuilt. Facing the monastery down a wide street several hundred metres in length is the slightly older, though less visually arresting Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, with both structures being considered masterpieces of Ukrainian Baroque. Outside Saint Sophia’s this showcase of Ukrainian independence is completed with a large statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the hetman (head of state) of the Zaporizhian Cossack Host who led an uprising against the rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the seventeenth century and effectively established an independent Cossack State, a mooted progenitor of an independent Ukraine.
I leave Kyiv and Ukraine to spend just over two weeks with Karolina in Warsaw, during which time I decide upon a subject to study for a master’s degree upon returning to the UK at the end of the year; a decision which would come to dictate my future career. When I return to Kyiv in late September, I find that late summer has transitioned into autumn, with warmth and deep blue skies replaced by cool, damp weather and glorious autumnal colours. I return to the Dnieper’s right bank, to the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, an eleventh century cave monastery which has become one of the most important centres of Eastern Orthodoxy, chief monastery of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and residence of its metropolitan. Beyond the lavra lies a sculpted Soviet-era park celebrating victory in the Second World War with monolithic, brutalist concrete architecture, bronze dioramas of valiant Red Army soldiers and the sixty-two metre high Motherland Monument; a mother of Ukraine holding up a shield with the Soviet coat of arms and a sword, later truncated so as not to stand higher than the highest cross of the nearby lavra.
From the park I return to the city centre, past the lavra and on to the memorial and museum dedicated to the Holodomor, the Ukrainian term for the Soviet famine of 1932-33 which killed perhaps six to eight million people in what is today Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, of which four to five million are thought to have been Ukrainian. Holodomor, literally meaning ‘extermination by hunger’ has become a contentious international (and domestic) issue, raising the issue of whether the famine was a deliberate attempt to wipe out the Ukrainian people. The museum contains graphic images of the sufferings of Soviet Ukrainians during the famine years, but what lingers in my mind most is the pointedly anti Russian sentiment, with the famine being blamed roundly on Russians, rather than Soviets, and the whole museum has more than a touch of fanatical nationalism. Continuing through the park, I end up in the riverside district of Podil, one of Kyiv’s oldest, which I also recognise to be the neighbourhood in which I spent a night in a hostel in 2007 after blindly navigating my way across the city. From Podil’s slightly gritty, riverside charm I walk past a number of churches which have survived the Soviet period, climbing finally along Andriyivskyy Descent, lined by stalls selling tat to tourists, past the striking though gaudy Baroque of St Andrew’s Church, down Volodymyr Street to the Golden Gates, the completely restored (largely from imagination) main gate of the eleventh century fortifications of Kievan Rus’, where I get onto the Metro back to Mykola’s apartment.
I leave Kyiv having experienced the assertive character of the modern though deeply-rooted Ukrainian identity, something I had barely encountered in the east of the country. I make my way south-east on a cool Sunday morning, following the corridor of the Dnieper River which bisects the country, passing through the pleasant, tree lined centre of Cherkasy, crossing the river in Kremenchuk and cutting slightly inland, through rolling farmland which seems to be bracing itself for the impending winter. This region south of Kyiv, on the left bank of the Dnieper was historically known as the ‘Wild Fields’, and was an area depopulated by raiding semi-nomadic Nogays, and a warpath across which Imperial Moscow and the Crimean Tatars would invade each other’s territory. Cossacks first tamed the tribes in this area, but it was Catherine the Great who incorporated it into the Russian Empire in 1764, renaming the area ‘Novorossiya’, literally ‘New Russia’. I stop for the night in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s third largest city originally named Yekaterinoslav and proclaimed capital of Novorossiya. A closed city during Soviet times, Dnipropetrovsk was famous for its nuclear, arms and space factories, collectively known as Yuzhmash and ostensibly manufacturing tractors and kitchen appliances.
Dnipropetrovsk remains a thoroughly industrial city, a commercial and political powerhouse, rather more down-to-earth though far less charming than the capital. The city centre is a mix of grandiose early Soviet blocks, wide avenues, squares, and shining new glass-fronted skyscrapers, and it is only at the regional museum, whose courtyard is filled with balbals (kurgan stele) from the surrounding countryside, that I am reminded that this region was until relatively recently, culturally far closer to the steppes of Central Asia than of settled Europe.
I leave the city heading due south on a busy, divided highway which parallels the Dnieper, making the short journey to the city of Zaporizhia after dark. Like Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia is a largely industrial city, though without the same air of dynamism and prosperity. Zaporizhia grew up as a modern Soviet city around the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, built with the assistance of American engineers during the period of heavy Soviet industrialisation in the 1920s and 30s, though it has a far more prominent role in Ukrainian history as the base of the Zaporizhian Host, or Cossack Hetmanate, founded by Cossack hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky. The origins of the Cossacks are thought to lie in serfs and criminals escaping feudalism and incarceration during the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which, once the Cossacks had allied with the Tsardom of Russia, they would help to drive out of this region on the left bank of the Dnieper in the seventeenth century. Later, under Catherine the Great, the Cossack state would be ruthlessly disbanded, with Cossacks fleeing to the Danube and Russia’s Kuban Region. The Zaporizhian Cossacks traditionally lived on the riverine island of Khortytsia, close to the rapids on the Dnieper (now submerged by the dam) and which today separates the eastern and western halves of modern Zaporizhia. Here one finds their beautifully reconstructed sich (military encampment), though the island’s kurgans (burial mounds) and stele hint at a history which extends into the Scythian and period, far pre-dating the Cossacks.
In Zaporizhia’s spread-out and rather down-at-heel centre, I take a walk along the shore of the reservoir which the Dnieper has become, looking out on this mild but grey day across to the cranes and docks of the far bank. It is here that I encounter Nikolay, a bright-eyed old street sweeper with a few days’ of stubble and a battered hat, who immediately engages me in conversation; stating that former president Yulia Timushenko is a bandit, along with a number of her cronies, though he is most visceral about Russian-Jewish oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whom he maintains was the mastermind of the September 11th attacks on the United States. Nikolay claims he was a general in the Soviet Army, and tells me of fast breeding nuclear reactors and prototype laptops during Soviet times. Finally, he asks me: ‘You know how the Soviet Union collapsed?’ ‘No’ I say, lacking the Russian to explain my understanding of the root causes of the matter. ‘It was me! There was a Lenin Statue there’ he says, pointing across to the port. ‘I was there. I went to a small cafe in 1987 and bought an ice cream and lemonade with five roubles. Then I got in my tractor, gunned the accelerator and smashed the statue.’ ‘And what happened then?’ I ask, unable to contain my laughter, though Nikolay is also laughing at his animated story. ‘The KGB came, but when they saw who I was, they got a fright, and that was the end of that. They picked it up and threw it away!’ At no point in our conversation does the fact that he is a shabby street sweeper smoking the cheapest papyrosa (unfiltered cigarettes) reduce his credibility, and he’s obviously an intelligent person, which makes me wonder, upon pulling myself away from his wild stories, if there might be an element of truth to them.
Beyond Zaporizhia I soon leave the Dnieper and head due south through Melitopol towards the coast of the Azov Sea, where in a scrubby area of sand-spits and salt marshes I cross onto the Crimean Peninsula, an autonomous republic within Ukraine. Historically poised between the classical world and the civilisations of the steppe which spread almost endlessly to the east, Crimea has long been a nexus of various empires and has an exceptionally rich and varied history. Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Genoese, Venetians and Ottomans have all settled the Crimean peninsula, in addition to numerous semi-nomadic empires from the surrounding steppe, most notably the Crimean Tatars who founded an independent Crimean Khanate following the Mongol withdrawal, and ruled until the Russian takeover in 1783. Most recently, in 1954, Khrushchev transferred the majority Russian Crimean Peninsula to the Ukrainian SSR for reasons which are not entirely clear, and perhaps even controversial.
The atmosphere of Crimea is noticeably different from that of the rest of Ukraine. It’s not because of the landscape; the rolling, barren grasslands in the north which evoke Kazakhstan or Mongolia. Nor is it the forlorn or even half-derelict villages of the interior which sit largely quiescent, like small, forgotten kolkhozes (collective farms) out on the torrid steppe of Central Asia. It’s also not the glut of tourists and seedy amenities provided for them, which makes it about the most obviously touristy part of the Former USSR I have yet seen. What really makes a noticeable impression are the faces of the people; hard, weather-beaten faces with a melting pot of features from pure Slavic to Asiatic, and a slightly coarser, less European street attitude which makes Crimea feel far more like Russia than Ukraine. Small observations such as Ukrainian road signs which have been changed to Russian spellings by peeling off a letter or alteration with spray paint hint at an underlying tension and resentment of Ukrainian nationalism from some of the Russian population.
My first stop in Crimea is the city of Kerch, a slightly shabby but charming port city overlooking the Kerch Strait, which separates Crimea from the westernmost point of Russia’s Black Sea coast. I’m hosted here by Vlad, a tallyman for a French shipping company, who shows me his city and it’s surroundings. Kerch is one of Crimea’s oldest cities and was founded twenty-six hundred years ago as Panticapaeum, a Greek colony whose sparse fragments of toppled limestone pillars and temple floors dot Mount Mithridates in the centre of town. From this ancient hill one can look across Kerch, to a view damaged by war and neglect, over the attractive, pure Byzantine eighth century church of St John the Baptist towards the still busy docks. In the vicinity of Kerch Vlad shows me a string of noteworthy sights, starting with the huge ‘Royal Tomb’, a well preserved kurgan (tumulus) thought to date to the fourth century BCE during the time of the Bosporan Kingdom, a Roman client state. One enters the kurgan along an impressive, steep limestone dromos which, rather like a huge birth canal, leads to the magnificently vaulted, though empty central chamber. Further to the north east we take Vlad’s Zhiguli off-road across the steppe to reach a group of mud volcanoes which gently spew cold mud to the surface in a barren moonscape of dessicated mud, then return to the coast to finish our tour at Yeni Kale, a neglected Ottoman castle built overlooking the Kerch Strait in the early eighteenth century during the time of the Crimean Khanate. For early October the weather is beautifully warm and sunny, with views across to Port Kavkaz in Russia, and I start to see why Crimea was one of the prime holiday destinations of people from across the USSR and Eastern Bloc.
Vlad is half-Russian, half-Ukrainian, though clearly identifies Russia as his homeland. He’s sceptical of Ukrainian nationalism, something he very clearly wants to distance himself from, and views Ukraine as something of an artificial country. ‘Those people in the east are totally different from us, we can’t live with them.’ ‘So what is the solution?’ I ask. ‘We should be apart, two separate countries. They will have their capital in Kyiv, which is a den of nationalists, and ours will be in Kharkov’ (not Kharkiv, the Ukrainian appellation).
I’m beginning to see the extent to which Ukraine is divided regionally and question the identity of the country as a whole, with Vlad’s word’s in my mind as I head west across the steppe, entering more fertile territory beyond Feodosia where vineyards run up the mountain slopes. I stop in the small town of Staryi Krym, once perhaps capital of the Crimean Khanate and with a fine, beautifully carved though partially ruined Ottoman-style mosque which looks to be straight out of rural Anatolia. Heading south, I cross the rugged limestone peaks of the Crimean Mountains whose slopes are ablaze with magnificent autumnal colours, dropping down to the famed Crimean Riviera and the attractive resort town of Sudak, where I am hosted by Rimma, a Russian-Jewish woman originally from Vorkuta in the frigid polar north of European Russia.
Sudak is understandably a popular tourist resort and buzzes with holidaymakers from across Ukraine and Russia. The town shares in Crimea’s long history of successive empires, but was famed as a staging post and trade centre of the Silk Road in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, giving it a tantalising link to the desert cities of Central Asia from which I have recently arrived. Without doubt, the town’s main attraction is its magnificent Genoese fortress with walls and towers of serried battlements draped over the dramatic, grassy limestone cliffs, evocative almost of the Great Wall of China at the farthest end of the ancient Silk Road. The fortress overlooks a beautiful bay, but it is a few kilometres to the west, in the village of Novyi Svit (literally ‘New World’) that one sees some of Crimea’s most magnificent scenery. Novyi Svit is a beauty spot famed throughout the Former USSR both for its views and for sparkling wine, and is a little more upmarket than many of Crimea’s resorts. There are still hordes of tourists around, though I manage to steal myself away from the trail across the coastal cliffs, scrambling down to the shade of an emerald-green Austrian pine for a blissful hour or so, looking across the azure waters of the Black Sea to towering outcrops of jagged limestone. I walk back all the way to Sudak, enjoying the last warm evening of the season whilst passing vertiginous limestone cliffs popular with climbers where ornate, straggling pines cling to the sheer slopes like pieces of Chinese miniature art.
Heading west, the road winds up into the hills, dropping down occasionally past vineyards and through the coastal town of Alushka, climbing once again before dropping slowly down into Yalta, which I immediately dislike for its downmarket resort atmosphere. On the city’s southern edge I pull in to visit the Livadia Palace, the summer retreat of the last Russian Tsar where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin shaped the post-war world, but the tourist hordes and parking mafia cause me to flee. I stop briefly in Haspra, a nondescript coastal settlement famous only for the ‘Swallow’s Nest’, the iconic pleasure castle of Baron von Steingel, a rather underwhelming Neo-gothic folly which nevertheless draws crowds. Indeed, so far I’m rather disappointed, though hardly surprised at the volume of tourism here, even in mid-October, and so continue directly on the city of Sevastopol. My vision of Sevastopol as I enter the city’s eastern suburbs is one of neglect and decay; of broken, litter-filled streets through slum neighbourhoods where children and adults busy themselves in the litter bins.
Despite all the romance attached to the city’s name, Sevastopol is in fact a relatively young place, founded in 1783 by a Scot in the service of Russia. The bay around which the city is focussed has however long been a strategically important port and it is here, on the coast to the west of the modern centre, that one finds Chersonesus, the most impressive Greek ruins in the Former USSR. Founded in the sixth century BCE by the ancient Greeks, Chersonesus passed to the Romans, Huns and then Byzantines who used the far-flung port as a place to monitor the barbarian tribes who lived beyond, and as a place of exile for deposed popes and emperors. Its most important moment in history came in the 980s when the city was absorbed in Kievan Rus’ and is where, legend has it, Vladimir the Great, the Varangian prince of Novgorod who conquered a huge swathe of land from the Baltic to what is now Ukraine, was ordained into Christianity, thereby largely ending the pagan era of Kievan Rus’ and sewing the roots of the modern Eastern Slavic Orthodox Church. The spot where this supposedly happened is commemorated with a modern church, but the ruins of ancient Chersonesus are far more attractive, presenting a view which is pure Greek; of low remains of buildings and walls and tall, lonely Corinthian columns of white limestone set against an azure sea.
On the southern side of the peninsula, just beyond the outer suburbs of Sevastopol lies the small town of Balaklava, infamous for the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ which took place in the valleys immediately to the north; a botched cavalry charged which saw huge losses for the British during the Crimean War of 1853-56, when France, Britain, the Ottomans and Sardinia fought to stop Russian expansion into lands of the weakening Ottoman Empire. Balaklava is centred around a beautiful harbour, far more refined than anything in Sevastopol proper and with a distinctly Mediterranean atmosphere. Small, quiet, streets wind past the whitewashed buildings of the harbour which is packed with colourful wooden fishing boats and beyond, millions of dollars worth of yachts and cabin-cruisers belonging to the rich, though the atmosphere remains surprisingly down-to-earth. On the far side of the harbour is the astounding submarine base, built into the mountainside and supposedly capable of withstanding a direct nuclear attack, whose only opening is a tiny aperture in the sheer cliff, totally hidden from the open sea. Completed in 1957 after years of searching for a suitable location, the submarine base was one of the most strategically important military installations in the USSR, ensuring that Balaklava was for years a tightly closed place. Today the base is a museum, one of the more romantic relics of the Cold War, but Balaklava is refreshingly free from tourists compared to the resorts to the east. I climb up above town to the ruinous Genoese fortress, from where there are magnificent views across the glimmering ultramarine of the Black Sea, though the view towards town is rather marred by Soviet concrete. It strikes me here just how ugly Soviet architecture is when put against such benignly beautiful surroundings, rather than the harshness of the great steppes of Siberia or Central Asia.
Although rough around its edges, Sevastopol soon grows on me as a characterful and even charming place, though in spite of having seen the more elegant parts of the centre, I can’t help but feel that Sevastopol has the seediest air of any city I’ve visited in the Former USSR with plenty of pale, yellowing citizens of various facial features, alcoholics, vagrants and cigarette beggars. It’s a city associated almost singularly with war and the centre is awash with monuments to navies, armies, sailors and soldiers. It is one of the twelve Hero Cities of the USSR, complete with a typically brutalist Soviet memorial square in memory of the destruction wrought by the Second World War. Today the Russian and Ukrainian navies exist rather uneasily together in the city’s bays, and Sevastopol was in fact subject to Russian territorial claims (as a separate territorial entity to the rest of Crimea) until 1997 when a long-term lease agreement was reached. Nevertheless, the Russian tricolour can be see all over the city buildings, making Sevastopol feel distinctly un-Ukrainian. Huge blue-grey warships prowl across Sevastopol Bay out into the open sea amidst considerable harbour traffic, and the cheap passenger ferries which cross from the city centre on the southern side of the bay to the scruffy suburbs on the north side make for a nice way to see the city. There’s even a touch of the bustle of the Bosphorous about Sevastopol Bay, though the city itself could hardly be compared to İstanbul. In the late afternoon a brief storm breaks, streaking the sky with magnificently coloured and textured clouds at sunset, against which Sevastopol’s testaments to centuries of conflict are magnificently silhouetted, a pleasant final image of this romantic port.
I leave the Crimean coast the following day, driving north-east into the low limestone outcrops which dot the surrounding farmland and are covered by mixed forests of oak, beech, chestnut and pine, beginning in their higher, cloud-wreathed reaches to show spectacular autumnal colours. The natural softness of the limestone, and defensive qualities of these towering white cliffs have led to the creation of several so-called cave cities, hidden away among the forests, far from the busy coastline. I stop first to visit Mangup, thought to be the historic Doros, the city of the Crimean Goths. I leave the truck and begin walking through damp, overgrown forest, passing some long-abandoned gravestones bearing Hebrew inscriptions, graves of either Krymchaks or Karaites, obscure groups of Crimean Jews whose origins are not clear, though Jews have been recorded in the region since the days of the ancient Greek colonies. Reaching the top of the escarpment the forest ends and I’m on a windswept moorland dotted with remains of buildings and a very impressive castle wall in an advanced state of decay, but still showing a beautiful and strongly Celtic-looking frieze around one of its remaining doorways. In nearby Eski Kermen, which I visit the following day, there is no castle but instead an impressive array of rock-hewn dwellings, two churches and even an ancient cart-road cut through the limestone and showing signs of the passage of wheels.
My last stop in Crimea is the former capital of the Crimean Tatar Khanate, Bakhchysarai, with its beautiful Khan Saray, the only surviving palace of the Tatar Khans (military rulers) which has been carefully restored and sits in a leafy, autumnal courtyard, looking to have been lifted straight out of Turkey. Having started as the cave city of Chufut Kale, carved from the limestone cliffs above town, Bakhchysarai is a likeable place with small streets, mostly untouched by Soviet urban planning and dotted with iconic, needle-like minarets of Ottoman-style mosques. Indeed, wandering these back streets, where women return from shopping wearing hejab, it would be easy to forget that one is still in Ukraine. Nevertheless, with its rundown, provincial air, Bakhchysarai is clearly a shadow of it’s former self, highlighting the long-troubled relationship between the Crimean Tatars and the Russian state.
The Crimean Tatars are thought to have formed as a group from the various Turkic tribes who moved into Crimea from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries. In the fifteenth century the Crimean Khanate emerged as an Ottoman vassal and successor state to the Golden Horde incorporating Crimea and parts of what is now Ukraine and Russia, around the Azov Sea. With a history of leading raids into Russia and clashing with the Cossacks of Zaporizhia, the Crimean Tatars were incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1774, but remained a majority in Crimea until the mid-nineteenth century. The Crimean Tatars suffered greatly during Soviet times, with famines in 1921 and 1931-33, and disastrous collectivisation in 1928-29 decimating the population and driving them into exile. Finally, in 1944 Stalin, suspecting the Crimean Tatars as potential fifth-columnists, deported almost the entire population to Central Asia. Although officially allowed to return since 1967, relatively few have done so and little state support has been offered. Many Crimean Tatars today live as a diaspora in Turkey and Central Asia.
I cross the northern reaches of the Crimean Peninsula through flat, open farmland very different from the dramatic southern coast, back into mainland Ukraine, crossing the Dnieper River one final time in Kherson (whose name is a shortening of Chersonesus), re-entering the fertile Black Soil region and passing the shipbuilding city of Mykolaiv on my way to Ukraine’s fourth largest city, Odessa.
Odessa was founded by Catherine The Great in 1794 on the site of an earlier Tatar settlement, became the fourth largest city in the Russian Empire and later the most important port in the USSR. Among cities in the Former Soviet Union Odessa seems to evoke considerable romance in the Western imagination for its fine streets and cosmopolitan, Bohemian atmosphere; a roguish port city poised somewhere between Europe and Russia. I myself have considerable expectations prior to my visit, which takes place more than four years later than initially planned. What I find however comes rather short of expectations; though not unpleasant, Odessa is a city heavy with western influences in its Baroque, Renaissance, Fin de Siecle and Art Nouveau architecture, reflecting long-gone days of cosmopolitanism. Any atmosphere of intrigue or debauchery seems heavily diluted by the vulgar Ukrainian business class in their black SUVs and hordes of tourists erupting from a German cruise ship which has recently docked. There are few specific sights, though despite my now peevish attitude towards the hype, I’m still impressed by the Potemkin Stairs, the 192 steps which lead up from the harbour to the heart of the city, ending below a statue of the Duc de Richelieu, the prominent French statesman who became governor of Odessa in the early nineteenth century and was responsible for much of the early design of the city.
I leave Odessa feeling rather disappointed, driving out of the city’s southern suburbs through the sprawling port of Illichivsk on rough roads. I cross the huge estuary of the Dniester River, recently emerged from Moldova and enter Bessarabia which immediately feels far from Ukraine’s dynamic cities and from the tourists of Crimea; a far-flung frontier, a neglected borderland which starts to blend into Romania and central Europe. I make a brief detour to the town of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, an ancient city with a history similar to that of Crimea’s older cities, and the last Black Sea port to be incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. I stop to explore the imposing Akkerman Fortress on a windswept bank of the Dniester estuary, built in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries to defend this strategic access point to the Black Sea. Continuing west, I aim for the Danube which here marks the Romanian border.
Not far beyond Tatarbunary I turn south, aiming for the Danube Delta and reaching Vylkove, the last settlement on the river. Here, amid the endless willow stands and reed beds of the delta is a small town whose houses are linked as much by canals as by roads, with locals taking motorboats from jetties outside their houses out onto the river to fish. Despite its isolation in the far south of the country facing Romania across the Danube, much of the population of Vylkove is actually Russian; Lipovans, a group of Old Believers who settled in this area when it was part of the Principality of Moldavia following persecution in the Russian Empire for opposing the reforms made to the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid seventeenth century.
I drive west on broken roads roughly parallel to the Danube through the sleepy towns of Kiliya and Izmail to Reni, the last settlement in Ukraine. Ahead of me lies Moldova, my next destination, and less than a kilometre beyond that Romania and the EU.
In the weeks I’ve spent driving through Ukraine, I’ve been very surprised by the diversity of the country; though equally surprised to leave without any clear impression of a Ukrainian identity between the russified borderlands of the east, the rural beauty of the north, the nationalist fervour of the capital, the Soviet industrial cities and Cossacks of the centre, and the absolutely heterogeneous population of Crimea. I would in fact see a totally different country on my next visit, en-route to the EU and UK. First however, I was looking forward to a completely new country, my fourteenth of the Former Soviet countries; Moldova.