Stage 45 – Russia, Ukraine & Turkey: Farewell Former USSR
Since the very beginning of my Odyssey almost eleven years earlier, my route had taken me to parts of the Former Soviet Union in most of the intervening years and I had visited very nearly every region of each of the fifteen republics which once made up the Soviet Union. The journey I had just completed, driving through the Siberian wilderness in winter from distant Magadan, had been my most ambitious trip to date, a long dreamed-of journey which, I now felt, had well rounded-off my travels in the region. I now wished to focus on future journeys and thus it was time to close the chapter of the Odyssey in the Former Soviet Union.
With the winter journey having gone according to plan quite flawlessly, I now had just over two weeks of planned redundancy in which to make an extended journey from Moscow back to western Europe. Instead of taking a simple, direct route westwards, I had in the last few weeks mentally planned a longer trip which would take me south through the steppe of western European Russia, across into the very east of Ukraine, then down to the very edge of the Former Soviet Union at one of its most celebrated cities; the Black Sea port of Odessa. From here I would leave by ferry, making use of a mode of travel which harks back to a romantic age, but which these days has all too often died out in the face of the ever more joyless convenience of air travel. Journey’s end would then come effectively in Istanbul, undoubtedly one the world’s finest cities and a gateway to Asia for a future continuation of the Odyssey.
I would be joined on this journey by my friend Katya, a Muscovite whom I had first stayed with in 2010 and in whose brand new Moscow apartment I was now staying, an intelligent good-humoured travel partner who would add her local perspective to my impressions and make more memorable this lingering farewell to the Former USSR.
It’s the 21st March 2018 and I set out with Katya to take a look at the Russian capital, hoping to get more of an impression of a city which I have only very briefly visited in the past. I stopped for one night in the city in 2007 on my first trip to Russia and remember a centre of dazzling, extravagant beauty, surrounded by sprawling suburbs of ugliness and a road network inundated with some of the worst traffic I have ever seen. Later visits had been brief embassy trips or flight transfers, none of which had endeared the city to me. Given that Russia is the world’s largest country, it is staggering just how centralised it is; virtually everything of political, economic or cultural importance happens in Moscow (or to a far lesser extent, Saint Petersburg) and it seems to me that this modern, mostly rather charmless and ever-growing metropolis of around twelve million people, a rat race which draws people from across the Former Soviet Union, has little in common with the laid-back provinces and huge wilderness which is the Russia that I know.
Katya lives in the far south of the city, in a green-belt area only recently ceded to Moscow’s metropolitan area, and so we must take a minibus to reach the outermost station of the huge Moscow Metro before making our way towards the centre. We stop in and transfer through three ornately beautiful stations; Novokuznetskaya, Avtozavodskaya and Taganskaya, each like working museums of Soviet architecture, art and sculpture. All three were completed during the reign of Stalin, great expressions of artistic talent executed in very high quality materials, which are hard to reconcile with the crimes against humanity which were going on in the background at the time. We emerge back into the damp, grey Moscow afternoon in Basmanny District, one of Moscow’s central districts between Kitay-Gorod (the very centre of the city, containing the Kremlin and Red Square) and the inner-most Garden Ring. Basmanny contains many preserved buildings from the Tsarist period; mostly colourful churches of seventeenth century Peterine Baroque or slightly later Neoclassicism. Nowhere however, does it really feel like a preserved, historic centre as amongst all the oldest buildings are incongruously bland, or even ugly Soviet constructions, and equally incongruous glass-fronted, neon-lit chain shops and boutiques. Katya detects that I’m failing to appreciate the discordant layers of seemingly randomly scattered epochs of development, commenting “The disorder is what I love about it. This is Moscow and it’s absolutely Russian”.
We walk along Solyanka and onto Maroseyka, passing numerous fine churches, then past the Ivanovsky Convent, whose smart Baroque is immediately adjoined to a peeling Soviet office building, still in use by the Police. We wander into disorderly backstreets, passing many more churches, to a university building which overlooks a small park which appears to be popular with young, intellectual types, overlooked by the yellow Choral Synagogue, with glimpsed views down to the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building, a Stalinist landmark on the Moscow River. Whilst quite charming and with a definite character of its own, I still can’t quite warm to the disorder. What does strike me about the city is how much cleaner it is now than a decade ago; the streets are in far better condition, better lit, well signed and the rather seedy street markets run by Caucasians and the ugly kiosks where one could buy alcohol and snacks from an unseen babushka via a sliding metal tray, both legacies of the economic collapse of the 1990s, have thankfully gone. As Katya puts it: “It has become civilised”. We finish the evening meeting a few colleagues of mine who are either expatriates in the city or visiting on business; a glimpse into the hedonistic night life of the city which is an attraction in itself.
The next day I set out alone to see a few more points of interest, starting by taking the metro out to the south-eastern suburbs at Kolomenskoye. Once a wholly separate village on the Moscow river, Kolomenskoye became a royal estate for the princes of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. It is dominated by the early sixteenth century Ascension Cathedral, built to celebrate the birth of Ivan IV (The Terrible), who would go on to turn the Grand Duchy into the Tsardom of Russia, cementing Moscow’s role at the heart of the Russian state. Architecturally, the Cathedral, built in the ‘tent’ style of a slender central column, marked a move away from the Byzantine style; an assertion of the confidence of the growing Russian state. Kolomenskoye remains a pleasant urban park, detached from the city’s endless traffic and offering peaceful respite along the banks of the lazy Moscow River, from which the winter ice has receded almost entirely. I take a bus west towards Moscow State University, another towering, almost intimidatingly austere, but undeniably beautiful piece of Stalinist architecture, then walk down to Sparrow Hills, high above the right bank of the Moscow river. Here, in a spot popular with bus-loads of raucous Chinese tourists, one gets a fine view of the south of the city enclosed by a loop in the river, beyond which are the modest collection of blue-glass skyscrapers of Moscow’s International Business Centre. Standing on a nearby overpass above Vernadskogo Prospect, one can look down one of Moscow’s arterial highways, thick with traffic, which crosses the Garden Ring and pierces the very heart of the city, marked by the gilt domes of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and Kremlin walls.
Walking down a pleasant, wooded embankment park, I cross the river and walk to the Novodevichy Convent, an urban island of harmonious seventeenth century churches, Moscow’s best-preserved cloister. Sadly, I arrive at the famous Novodevichy Cemetery just in time for it to unexpectedly close, much to my annoyance. Walking up to the striking Soviet architecture of the Moscow Youth Palace, only partly ruined by foul modern advertising boards, I join the metro at Frunzenskaya and admire a few more stations before meeting Katya in a bar for the evening. Of these, the most striking and my favourite of all of Moscow’s elegant Stalinist-era stations is Elektrozavodskaya, completed in 1944 and named for a nearby light-bulb factory, with the ceiling of the main hall lit by 318 incandescent bulbs each in a recessed lamp, a beautiful piece of artistic flair.
I’ve certainly seen a little more of the Russian capital on this present visit and can see that, with its own very distinctly Russian character, it is more than just a brash European city, but I still can’t say I particularly like it. I feel it would be an interesting place to live, for its main attraction is surely the array of people from across the Soviet world which one may find here with an unparalleled range of cultural events. The road, however beckons, and so I leave Moscow with my strongest impressions still coming from that beautiful June morning spent in the city’s exotically beautiful centre.
Katya lives very conveniently alongside the Kaluga Highway which leads quickly out of Moscow into the provinces, thankfully precluding the use of Moscow’s MKAD ring road. The weather is dull and grey as we begin our southward journey, well matching the endless grey outer suburbs which stretch for more than fifty kilometres from Katya’s apartment, and around eighty from the city centre. Crossing finally out of Moscow, we enter Kaluga Region which for me is the eighty-second of Russia’s eighty-five administrative divisions which I have visited over the years. We are aiming for the city of Kaluga but take a small detour first to a Soviet-era roadside monument marking the supposed site of the Great Stand on the Ugra. According to Soviet-era historians, this was the site of a stand-off in 1480 between the forces of Ivan III, Grand Duke of Moscow, and those of Ahmed Khan, leader of the Golden Horde, which marked the end of almost two hundred and fifty years of the ‘Tatar Yoke’.
In the city of Kaluga itself, we head for the Tsiolkovsky State History Museum of Cosmonautics, a Soviet-era museum of space exploration dedicated to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the pioneers of rocketry and astronautics, who spent much of his life in the city. Housed in a 1960s Futurist building and surrounded by impressive pieces of Soviet rocketry, the museum is an attraction in itself, though is filled with a vintage display chronicling firstly Tsiolkovsky’s work, then numerous items from the Soviet space program such as the original return module of Vostok 5 which orbited the Earth for just under five days in 1963 before landing in the steppe of northern Kazakhstan. Outside is a genuine Vostok K rocket, the backup for Gagarin’s 1961 Vostok 1 mission.
Away from the museum, Kaluga feels rather provincial and quiet. Just as Moscow lures the young, ambitious and capable from across the country, here, just two hours away, the pull is especially strong and seems to have left Kaluga as something of a backwater with nothing of importance going on. We leave in the afternoon heading east into a snowstorm, bypassing the city of Tula and stopping briefly in the fading evening light in Novomoskovsk, where a boulder in a snow-filled park surrounded by cigarette ends and empty plastic beer cups rather unceremoniously marks the source of the River Don. We spend the night a few kilometres away in a small hotel in Bogoroditsk, which in the morning I find to be a likeable small town with an elegant, preserved country estate of Catherine II and a friendly, compact centre. From Bogoroditsk we drive east and then south on small roads, crossing a very young Don which is little more than a stream and the charmingly faded small town of Yepifan, before reaching the Tsarist-era monument at Kulikovo Field.
The Battle of Kulikovo took place in the vicinity of these plains on the upper Don in 1380 and was one of many battles between the Grand Duchy of Moscow and the Golden Horde. However, according at least to mainstream Russian historians, the battle marked the beginning of Russia’s liberation from the Tatar Yoke and a decisive victory of the Christian principalities of Rus’. Perhaps equally importantly, the battle saw the divided principalities united under leader Dmitry of Moscow (who gained the epithet ‘Donskoy’ after the battle) and thus cemented Moscow’s position as the leader amongst the early Russian principalities. We are the only visitors at the site, a gold-domed black obelisk set in a small park amidst the rolling countryside. The memorial is quite unusual in being a rare example of a Tsarist-era monument to have survived the Soviet period, and is therefore refreshingly free from Soviet concrete or Marxist-Leninist class-struggle nonsense. Just up the road is a museum which surprises us both; rather than a dusty old Soviet local museum, it’s a modern, well laid-out exhibition with clear displays and a pleasingly objective display of artefacts from the battle and from both cultures, which paints the Golden Horde as a sophisticated eastern culture and a formidable enemy, rather than a horde of bloodthirsty barbarians as they are usually portrayed.
In the afternoon we head west again, crossing the M4 highway through rolling farmland into Oryol Region, where we stop briefly to sneak into the closed house-estate of Ivan Turgenev, arriving after dark in the city of Oryol. Here I stop in to re-visit the first city I had visited in Russia back in 2007, looking wistfully at the Hotel Rus’ on Lenin Square and remembering how thoroughly awful my first impressions of Russia were. I laugh to myself now, thinking about the months and tens of thousands of kilometres of wonderful experiences I have since had in this country which I have long since fallen in love with. After spending a night in a pleasant wooden hotel in the village of Znamenka, just outside of Oryol, we set out on a beautifully clear and sunny morning to the nearby village of Saburovo which contains a quite remarkable piece of architecture. Built at the end of the eighteenth century, Saburovo’s large and partly ruined red-brick fortress is quite unlike anything I have seen before in Russia. Built by Count Mikhail Kamensky, a tyrannical Field Marshal of the Russian Army, the slowly decaying walls and derelict, three-storey defensive towers hark back to the age of feudalism, when this northern edge of Russia’s Black Earth Region would have been cultivated by serfs kept by wealthy landowners. Ironically Kamensky, after an inglorious military career, would meet his demise at the hands of one of his mistreated serfs.
We continue southwards on the main highway, passing what used to be the turning on the M2 highway to Kiev, from where I had entered Russia for the first time, then stop around midday in the city of Kursk. Though a city of some age, Kursk was heavily damaged in the Second World War and is a visually very Soviet, set either side of the long, wide Karl Marx and then Lenin Street with blocks of often grandiose Stalinist architecture, some beautiful mosaics and a large Victory Park. It’s a likeable place with an air of mild prosperity, not completely drained by the lure of Moscow. Just south of Kursk we stop to look at an ancient carved-stone balbal (menhir) sitting undisturbed in the snow-covered steppe of a small nature reserve; similar in style to balbals found across Central Asia for holding a ceremonial cup in both hands at waist-level, though lacking any facial features. This balbal is the work of the Cumans; a Turkic nomadic nation who arrived in these steppes from the east in the eleventh century CE, from where they attacked Rus’, Byzantium, the Balkans and Central Europe. It’s a reminder that these plains of European Russia were once more closely linked to the steppes of Asia than to settled Europe, and with the snow around the balbal seemingly undisturbed for months, seems to be all but forgotten. It’s really a joy to find such obscure relics of distant history out in the open.
Continuing in the softening light of the afternoon, we enter Belgorod Region at dusk where Katya has to laugh at a sign reading ‘Belgorod’s roads are a territory of the law’ but the change is immediate; we are suddenly on a very high quality four lane dual carriageway with continuous street lighting, as if we had suddenly crossed the border into central Europe. Belgorod Region is the centre of Russia’s agricultural belt and, like Tyumen Region, is an example of what good governance can make of Russia’s great wealth. We spend the night in a modern and very pleasant roadside motel in the town of Stroitel, a few kilometres north of the city of Belgorod. The following morning is again brilliantly clear, illuminating a crisp, snowy landscape of gently rolling farmland which we cross on local roads heading east. We head towards the town of Prokhorovka, epicentre of the infamous 1943 Kursk Tank Battle, quite possible the largest in history, a land offensive which saw the Red Army quickly repel a German offensive for the first time, marking the end of major German advances on the Eastern Front. I come hoping to find some monumental Soviet memorial in the same vein as Stalingrad or Brest, but rather surprisingly, there is very little to be seen beyond some old tanks and a rather cheap looking modern orthodox chapel (to which the tanks’ guns appear to be aimed). We spend much of the day driving east through a beautiful winter landscape of rolling farmland, passing through Ostrogozhsk and, after some difficulty locating a road, reach a prominent limestone ridge overlooking the Don, where we park the car and walk over a hill towards the Divnogorsk Holy Assumption Monastery.
In a landscape dominated by open steppe and gently incised valleys, the limestone outcrops of Divnogorsk overlooking the Don are a dramatic sight and as we descend a snowy hillside and then a walkway leading through a patch of bare forest, I am genuinely surprised to see a hillside studded with dramatic karst outcrops, amongst which lies the ancient cave monastery. Established in the mid-seventeenth century at a time when this was the southern frontier of the Tsardom of Russia, subject to raids by Crimean Tatars and Nogays, the monastery was built into the soft native limestone, the first such cave monastery in the Don Region. Although now disused and locked, the monastery is preserved with the white stone facade of the troglodyte Nativity Church surrounded by numerous hermit cells and two modern gilt domes perched oddly atop two of the karst towers. The location is also magnificent, overlooking the more modern, active monastery built next to the riverside, beyond which spreads a beautiful Russian winter landscape of a meandering Don and gently rolling hills stretching to a distant horizon. As we drive south away from Divnogorsk, we are treated to a magnificent pink sunset, colouring the snow-covered valleys with soft, warm colour. We arrive after dark in the provincial town of Rossosh, which I had passed through one sunny June morning in 2014, heading for the Volga and Kazakhstan. In the overcast morning it reveals itself as a slightly shabby but lively place, with market traders on the streets and old Soviet cars filling the air with exhaust fumes. ‘It reminds me of the nineties’ Katya remarks.
We drive south out of Rossosh on a near-empty road into the Donbass; once the unpopulated ‘Wild Fields’ ruled by various nomadic groups, then settled by Cossacks, the Donbass became synonymous with coal mining and heavy industry in Soviet times, though today is associated with the war which has unfolded since 2014 just to the south. After treating the Hilux Surf to its first wash since Magadan on the edge of Kantemirovka, we approach the border at Bugayevka in cold, heavy rain. Ironically, after dozens of relaxed and trouble-free border crossing experiences, here one of the customs officers decides to subject us to a thorough questioning which reminds me strongly of encounters with the FSB (Russian security services) in the North Caucasus. Whether it is from pure boredom in this backwater border crossing, or from that old Soviet equation with foreigners as spies (admittedly this border crossing must see almost no ‘foreigners’ and is located close to the Donbass war zone to the south in Ukraine), we are looked upon with suspicion; Katya is taken alone for questioning, after which the officer comes out and demands to know who we are planning to stay with in Kiev. Ironically, the fact that our paperwork is not in order (I, as usual, have not bothered to register myself in the country and Katya has lost her internal passport) is not made into a problem, and we are soon free to go.
Thus ends my sixteenth visit to Russia, one which I feel will be the last on this Odyssey. I can look back on very nearly a year spent in total in Russia, a vast, enchanting country, a juxtaposition of beauty and brutality which can be seen through its landscape, people, history and art. I can say that I really love Russia and her people who are individually deeply talented, sensitive, down-to-earth, kind and hospitable, yet as a collective still seem to live under the shadow of their fearful history, trying to move on from the total collapse of the Soviet Union and the fear and fallacy of Marxist-Leninist Socialism. Though lacking any plans to revisit, it feels rather odd for Russia not to figure in my near future.
The Ukrainian side of the border is more relaxed and we pass through without any problems, purchasing vehicle insurance from a vastly overweight man squeezed into a Lada with the engine running to keep warm, who warns us that the roads ahead are terrible. We enter Luhansk Region, the only region of Ukraine I have not yet visited (plans in 2014 had to be changed due to the outbreak of war) and one which is partly occupied by Russian-backed separatists who have proclaimed the independent ‘Lugansk People’s Republic’, based in the regional capital Lugansk. We however, have entered a northern strip of the region which remains under control of the Kiev government. The condition of the road is indeed terrible and becomes worse as we approach the first town, Markivka. Here the road becomes almost completely destroyed and the town looks little better. Although we are seeing it in the worst light, in the mess of melting snow and mud which signifies the end of winter here, it’s clear that the region is poor, neglected and depopulated. Damp buildings line the road, many seemingly abandoned and few people seem to be out in the streets braving the rain and the muddy water squirting from the deep, unavoidable holes in the road with each passing vehicle. As we pass through further towns of Lisnaya Polyana, Novorozsosh and Starobilsk, the situation is little better. It would be tempting to imagine that this was the direct consequence of war, but there was never fighting here; what we are looking at is the consequence of neglect by the central government and a total lack of opportunity. It’s little surprise then that across the Donbass rust-belt of eastern Ukraine, many people feel little allegiance towards Kiev and have welcomed occupying Russian backed forces.
As darkness falls the road becomes even worse; at one stage it seems we are driving through fields where the road surface has completely vanished, leaving a filthy mess of mud. These are some of the very worst roads I have ever driven on. We pass an army checkpoint in the dark without problems, after which the road improves slightly as we enter Kharkiv Region, stopping in the town of Kupiansk where we finally find an ATM and a supermarket. After a night spent sleeping in the car in a muddy field, we finally find an acceptable road the following morning when we reach the Kharkiv ring road. We pass north of the city and then across the black earth countryside of eastern Ukraine, through Poltava and a rather bleak late winter landscape dotted with many poor, half-abandoned villages. We reach Kiev late in the afternoon where we are hosted by my friend Peter, a former colleague with whom I stayed in 2014 when I last passed through. After initial confusion finding Peter’s street address, which has changed due to yet another round of name-changing as part of Ukraine’s vigorous decommunisation efforts, we settle in for the evening in his spacious penthouse apartment in the very centre for good food and conversation.
Before leaving in the morning, Katya and I take a quick look around central Kiev, a city I have always and the very first which I visited in the Former Soviet Union in the wonderful summer of 2007. Whilst still elegant and attractive, Kyiv is noticeably less prosperous, with fewer expensive cars on the streets and, I detect, a slightly more seedy air. This might be in part due to the time of year, but it’s clear that the country has slipped since 2011 when I spent almost two months here; thanks to the Crimean Crisis, war and subsequent economic fallout, Ukraine is now Europe’s poorest country. We head out west from the capital in a final flurry of snow, on the first really good road we have found in the country, then turn south around Zhytomyr, stopping in the town of Berdychiv. Once an important trading centre in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Berdychiv became a centre of Jewish culture with the population in the eighteenth century around eighty percent Jewish. This population has almost entirely vanished, after repression in Tsarist times, terrible Nazi massacres and finally emigration of the remaining population following the economic collapse of the Soviet Union. What is left, as a rather sombre but intriguing monument, is a large Jewish cemetery with unusual, tapering Jewish gravestones which I have not seen anywhere else. Continuing south, we stop at the site of Werwolf, Hitler’s easternmost command bunker. It was here, after contracting influenza in a humid underground bunker, that a fevered Hitler gave his fateful orders for the division of Army Group South into groups advancing simultaneously to Stalingrad and the Caucasus; a disastrous strategic miscalculation. The Nazis destroyed the bunker on their retreat in 1944, leaving just shattered blocks of concrete and an oddly intact swimming pool.
Just down the road, we stop in the early afternoon in Vinnytsia, the largest city of the historic region of Podolia and one which traces its roots to the fourteenth century. Like much of the western half of Ukraine, Vinnytsia was long under the control of Moscow’s western rivals; firstly the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, only coming under Russian domination in 1793. We find a hotel then walk out to the city centre which is modestly attractive with some elegant nineteenth century city blocks, but what strikes me most is the subtle change that makes me realise we have left the traditional sphere of Russian influence; the city is built on a smaller, more human scale, more intimate with narrow streets and small business mixed in with houses and apartment blocks. The people also look different, with softer, more mixed features and seem more at ease in their surroundings. This more urbane and less authoritarian atmosphere makes me realise that we have entered the transition zone into central Europe. We walk through pleasant urban parks, stopping at a monument to the roughly ten thousand people (mostly ethnic Ukrainians) murdered by the NKVD in the Vinnytsia Massacre, part of Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1937-38, whose bodies were ironically exhumed by occupying Nazis in 1943, in the midst of their yet greater crimes against humanity here, where perhaps thirty thousand Jews and prisoners-of-war were murdered. This grisly history of intolerance seems to be yet another sign of nearing the centre of Europe.
The morning is rather dismal and we head out of town eastwards on a road which soon becomes an atrocious mess of broken asphalt, choked by crawling, heavy lorries but lined by tall, bare, poplars and willows heavy with mistletoe which must be very attractive when spring arrives. We bypass the city of Uman and join the main Kiev – Odessa highway which is in reasonable condition, soon turning off towards the city of Pervomaisk. We leave behind the very last traces of snow which has been a constant companion of mine since Magadan and enter a landscape of large fields of black earth. Amongst these lies the Museum of Strategic Rocket Forces, which turns out to be a fascinating diversion.
Ukraine, which was heavily militarised during the Cold War, inherited dozens of missile silos (and other military hardware) from the Soviet Union, all of which were destroyed with assistance from the US, apart from this example which has been preserved as a museum with a former officer as a guide. We enter a rather worn looking Cold War installation and after being led around a conventional museum, walk through a long underground tunnel to reach the Unified Command Post. As with the nine satellite missile silos, each capable of launching an RT-23 ‘Molodets’ intercontinental ballistic missile with ten warheads, the command post is a thirty-three metre deep, 3.3 metre wide tube sunk into the ground, capable of sustaining a direct nuclear strike. We are led into the command post and descend in a small lift, then two sets of ladders to the lower-most command quarters where a crew of two could survive autonomously for up to forty-five days. The launch control systems are still operational and, once activated by Katya and I simultaneously pressing red buttons, illuminate a series of ancient light displays and a buzzing siren which, though almost comically dated, are at the same time deeply terrifying (though I do for a moment imagine vaporising Las Vegas). Ascending the eleven storeys once more, we walk through another short passage then emerge rather surreally back into the damp, misty Ukrainian countryside. Here we can see a preserved launch silo which has been filled with concrete and whose blast door is left permanently ajar (with ludicrous Western health and safety labels). Surrounding us are huge Soviet MA-2 missile transporters, a static R-36 ICBM (which is still in use in Russia) and other frightening pieces of hardware dedicated to mass destruction. It’s probably the most fascinating museum experience I have had.
We drive through Pervomaisk and then west on yet another rough and neglected road, re-joining the highway and heading south to Odessa, which we reach after dark, stopping at a hotel close to the beach in the city’s rambling southern suburbs. In the morning, we set out on foot, heading straight for the coast where strong waves whipped up by a warm, southerly wind crash onto sandy beaches. After many weeks of snow and ice and sub-zero temperatures, it’s a joy to walk along the promenade together. We take a shabby tram which trundles noisily along rails which in places lift from the broken asphalt of the city streets, alighting near the centre and walking through parks with freshly budding trees. On my first visit to the city in October 2011, perhaps slightly jaded after four and a half years on the road yet with no appetite to return to western Europe, I had found Odessa rather overhyped and left disappointed by the vulgarity of its more wealthy inhabitants set against the pretensions of its European-influence architecture. Perhaps this time I come in a more positive frame of mind, or perhaps it is merely the good company and hint of spring in the air, but I really warm to Odessa. I enjoy its faded elegance, an architectural melange of Gothic, Art Nouveau, Renaissance, Tsarist and Soviet styles set along wide, tree-lined streets; its juxtaposition of beauty and squalor and its thoroughly seedy though unthreatening air of iniquity. It’s a fine end-point to my travels in the Former Soviet Union.
My real reasons for coming to Odessa are however, romantic. As a child I had avidly watched the travels of Michael Palin and in his series Pole to Pole I have distinct memories of his leaving the Soviet Union by ferry from Odessa in summer 1991, a day before the August Coup which led to the state’s rapid dissolution. I believe it was in no small part that Mr Palin put into my young mind the idea that travel should be a journey, rather than a destination. Add to this the rare chance these days to travel by long-distance ferry in a world where such routes are disappearing in favour the tasteless efficiency of air travel, and the thought of leaving Odessa by car ferry for Turkey was to me unmissable. The ferry is delayed by a storm coming in off the Black Sea which prevents it from docking, but shortly after midnight during a second unplanned night in Odessa, we drive to the nearby port town of Chornomorsk (which was still name Illychivsk last time I passed through in 2011 en route to Moldova) where we are stamped out of Ukraine and can board the ship. I’m directed to park the car on the dock and we board the MV Vilnius Seaways on foot, reaching our cabin shortly before 03:00. After a brief sleep, I am called at around 08:00 to load the car which, together with one other private vehicle, has its wheels chocked aft of scores of articulated lorries on a lower vehicle deck.
Soon the ship gently slips out from Chornomorsk and the low-rise skyline of the docks and the city of Odessa shrink into the horizon. It’s a moment which for me is both poignant and exciting; after accumulating almost two and a half years of travel in the Former Soviet Union this once truly vast country, a place which feels like a world in itself, still fascinates and thrills me with its exotic blend of Siberian wilderness, Central Asian landscapes, evocative ancient cities and myriad nations with everything underlined to some degree by Slavic, European culture. I’m closing a chapter in the story of my own life and I feel deeply privileged to belong to a generation which is free to explore the vast region, so long isolated from the outside world. To be doing so in much the same way that I saw Mr Palin leave more than twenty five years earlier adds a personal touch; a final experience lived in this wonderful part of the world. We soon settle into the rhythm of the voyage; our cabin is very comfortable with a good en suite bathroom and a starboard porthole which I am very pleased to find we can open, allowing in a fresh breeze. We are called three times a day over the ship’s radio system for breakfast, lunch and dinner and otherwise are free to relax or wander out on deck. With a great sense of satisfaction at having wrapped up my winter trip across Russia in style, the company of a beautiful woman and the comfort and allure of a sea voyage, life really is rather good. After several joyless years in the doldrums of north-western Europe, working and saving for some unknown future, it’s a joy to be alive, to live for the moment, just as I had during all those years I spent on the road before beginning my current interlude of mundanity.
After a soothingly calm night at sea, we wake to a pink dawn as the ship glides past the fort and small harbour of Rumelifeneri, entering the northern mouth of the Bosphorus. We pass the outer suburbs of a great city which is coming to life for the day, pass under all three Bosphorus bridges and are presented with the skyline of Fatih on the Istanbul’s European shore, in my mind without doubt the finest I have seen in the world, with the inimitable domes and spires of the Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmet Mosque and Topkapı Palace atop Seraglio Point, where the first Greek settlers established Byzantium in the seventh century BCE. We dock at Haydarpaşa, close to the elegant Ottoman-era railway station station from where my first Asian adventure began in 2003. It’s a magnificent arrival in this most romantic of cities; far more pleasant than fighting through traffic and infinitely more civilised than flying. We are the second vehicle off the ship and although customs procedures are slow compared to a land border, they are relaxed and friendly. The contrast with the Former Soviet Union is marked; here it’s not unusual to find people speaking English or German; as travellers and outsiders we are not regarded as anything unusual; altogether different from the insular world we have just left. Just after midday we leave Haydarpaşa Port and drive a few hundred metres to the small ferry terminal at Harem where we board a ferry which departs after three minutes, crossing to the dock at Sirkeci in the busy port of Eminönü, right in the heart of Istanbul. It’s a short drive across the Golden Horn to the busy neighbourhood of Beyoğlu where we check into a very pleasant hotel room overlooking the British Consulate General.
We have reached Istanbul in the balmy warmth and colour of spring, a world away from the dreary grey of Moscow and a perfect place to end the journey. Although this is Katya’s first time in the city, I suggest we avoid the crowds waiting to file into the most obvious tourist attractions and so we spend our time walking through the backstreets of the centre. From nearby Taksim Square, we walk through the affluent streets of Beşiktaş, down to the waterfront around the ornate Dolmabahçe Palace, then up into the steep streets of Beyoğlu filled with small businesses and artisans in workshops just off the cobbled streets. Across the Golden Horn we visit the city’s ancient heart in Sultanahmet, passing of course through the Hippodrome, then down to the Byzantine city walls and waterfront on the Sea of Marmara, perhaps my favourite spot in the city. We adopt a slow pace, stopping in teahouses to soak up the atmosphere when the fancy takes us and following no planned route. Heading back uphill into the backstreets of Sultanahmet, we are surrounded by city life with men sitting at small street-side tables drinking tea and others pushing carts loaded with goods through the narrow, ancient thoroughfares. Crossing north into Fatih’s bazaar district, we avoid the horribly touristy covered bazaar, instead walking through narrow, congested streets to Mahmutpaşa Hill where locals flood the street shopping for clothes and shoes.
Walking up through streets of fragrant soap and spice shops, we reach the Süleymaniye Mosque, admiring views across the Golden Horn to Beyoğlu, then work our way back via Eminönü to watch the sunset from the Galata Bridge, from where locals pull small fish from the murky water. Drawn back to the Bosphorus the next day, we cross over to Üsküdar and walk down the Asian shoreline, watching the busy ferry traffic and admiring the magnificent skyline of the European shore, entering the affluent shopping streets of Fenerbahçe and returning from the ferry dock at Kadıköy. Everywhere are people, shops full of goods, restaurants serving excellent Turkish food, teahouses and a plethora of cats, for which the city authorities even build small street-side wooden houses. Istanbul really is a magnificent city to stroll in and I can’t ever imagine myself tiring of visiting it.
All good things must come to an end however, and so after three nights together, Katya flies back to Moscow early in the morning and I get back into the car for the final drive west. Leaving the sprawling western suburbs of the city, I make the now familiar drive along the D100 through the rolling fields of rural Thrace, stopping briefly in Edrine before approaching the border at Kapikule. Here, long queues are made worse by Bulgarian peasants attempting to jump the line, causing yet more jostling and a fight to break out, but before long I’m out of Turkey and into the nether regions of the European Union. I can look back on a once-in-a-lifetime winter expedition followed by a very pleasant transition though Russia and Ukraine, picking out points of historic interest and witnessing first hand the effects of the latest upheavals of the post-Soviet world. An indulgent final visit to Istanbul leaves me poised for a future trip into Asia, something on which to focus my mind as I head back to my job.
It takes two and a half days of driving to reach base in western Europe on the afternoon of the 8th April 2018, 20,087 kilometres from Magadan and 43,332 kilometres since leaving the same spot in October last year. With my long-planned dream journey through the Russian winter completed, it is time for me to focus on my next direction in life; further travels are only vaguely conceived; revisiting the Middle East and making my first, long-awaited steps into Arabia, perhaps including a detour into the Greek Islands or Balkans, or less clearly defined journeys to China, South-east Asia or the long-planned second Odyssey to Africa. Perhaps more importantly it is time for me to work on my career and make the long dreamed-of emigration out of Europe.