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Scenic places in the Crimean Mountains
Andriy KOTLYARCHUK takes the readers to the mountains that stretch along the southern coast of the Crimea of which he is a great admirer.
The southern Crimean mountain range stretches from the city of Sevastopol in the west of the peninsula and close to Feodosiya in the east. These are no high mountains compared, say, to the Alps, only occasionally rising to about 2,500 metres (7,500 feet) above the sea level, but they are high enough to help create a coastal climate which is very much different from the climate of the plains in the rest of the Crimea.
And like any mountains, the Crimean ones have a beauty of their own. And their own climate too. Snowstorms happen even in March when the coast below is in full vernal bloom; temperatures in the mountains can drop way below freezing and the strong winds can make you feel you are not several kilometres away from the coastal subtropics but somewhere beyond the Arctic circle. Even when the temperatures are around zero Centigrade, the wind and rain that turns into ice when it hits the ground may pose a great hazard for an unwary tourist, who decided to go on a hike in the mountains. The morning can be bright, sunny and warm, but then, the temperature may plummet from plus twenty to zero or below, and the sun will disappear behind heavy clouds which are brought by the howling winds.
As far as animals are concerned, there are no animals in the Crimean mountains that can be dangerous to man. There are no wolves or other predators; snakes and spiders mind their own business, and unless you decide to step on a sunbathing snake or pick a spider with your fingers and squeeze it, you have nothing to fear.
Now we’ll take you on a tour in complete safety to some of the most picturesque places in the Crimean mountains.
Chatyr Dag is a plateau which, in a loose translation from the Tartar language, means Mount Tent. It is located ten kilometres off the seaside, and rises to 1,525 metres above the sea level (Tartars appeared in the Crimea in the thirteenth century in the wake of the Mongol-Tartar invasion of Eastern Europe; the khanate of the Crimea was one of the successor states to the Mongol empire; founded in 1443 and centred at Bakhchisaray, the Crimean khanate staged occasional raids on Ukraine and emergent Muscovy, becoming a Turkish vassal in 1475; Ivan IV the Terrible, conquered the other two major Tartar khanates, Kazan and Astrakhan, but the khanate of the Crimea survived to stage raids on Ukraine until Catherine II the Great annexed it in 1783; most of the Tartar people were deported in 1944 on the order of the soviet dictator Stalin to the Central Asia and they began to return only after Ukraine’s independence; many places in the Crimea retain their old Tartar names — tr.). In fact, there are two plateaus, one above the other; they stretch for about ten kilometres in length and for about four kilometres in width.
The two highest points are Eklizi Brun and Angar Burun. Archaeological evidence shows that people lived on Chatyr Dag back in the Neolithic times — that is as early as ten or more thousand years ago. In one of the caves a great many human bones were discovered back in the nineteenth century. The caves got nicknamed Tysyachegolova (Cave of a Thousand Caves); one of the explanations proposes that at an uncertain time in the past hundreds of people gathered there, probably hiding from some enemies, and died when the exit was blocked.
Local lore had colourful legends and one of the legendary stories of a spooky kind has lived long enough to gain some popularity among the locals in quite recent times. The story has it that once, decades ago, a strange black figurine the size of a doll was unearthed during archaeological excavations. The Tartar workers at the excavation asked that this figurine be immediately reburied but it was not. Some time later, the figurine with many other discovered artefacts was loaded onto a truck to be taken to a city. The truck never arrived at its destination. Later, it was discovered overturned on the mountain slope, down from a sharp turn of the road — but the black figurine was not among the artefacts strewn around the truck. The driver was found still some time later — he was incoherent, definitely deranged and died soon in hospital. After that accident, a black creature was reported to have been seen prowling around Chatyr Dag; this creature of horrible appearance was blamed for several deaths. Modern archaeologists seem to be superstitious and do not do any more digging in Chatyr Dag; even the Tysyachegolova cave, in which heaps of bones were discovered, has not been properly explored.
In Chatyr Dag you can find ruins of what must have been Byzantine strongholds but not much is known about them. In the western part of the plateau, there is a forest which is known as The Great Wood. During the Second World War, soviet partisans had their base there and the occupying Germans never risked or cared to go in search of the partisans who were harassing them.
Karabi-Yaila is another plateau in the Crimean mountains that had Neolithic settlements. It rises to about 1,100 metres above the sea level and occupies an area of over 100 square kilometres. The surface of the plateau is covered with ragged blocks of limestone with sharp edges that look like the teeth of a dragon, and travel across the plateau may be hazardous. Besides, there are no sources of water on the plateau itself — they can be found only at the plateau’s edges.
The ancient indigenous population of the Crimea were called the Taurians by the ancient historians. There are Taurian burial sites and ruins of what must have been Byzantine fortresses in much later times, but the most intriguing things in Karabi-Yaila are arrangements of stones in the shape of butterflies, whose size varies from five to eight metres. These “butterflies” are oriented north-south and do not seem to be carefully executed, with the symmetry of the wings not carefully observed. Crude paintings of butterflies were also discovered in one of the caves of the plateau (in fact, in another cave, Studentska, all kinds of images were discovered on the walls; among them there were evidently representations of sail boats, trees, people and symbolic signs). There are no theories that would plausibly explain these images or their purpose. The butterfly arrangements of stones on the ground are of such a size that their imagery can be properly perceived only from the air.
Another feature of the Karabi-Yaila plateau are ruins of what must have been a system of defensive walls. One of the sixth-century Byzantine historians mentions these walls in one of his works. What remained of them was discovered and described in the nineteenth century. I myself came across pieces of what looked like fragments of bas-reliefs of the Byzantine times in the southern part of the plateau.
In winter Karabi-Yaila turns into a very inhospitable place covered with snow drifts; the snow may also hide cracks and deep holes into which you would not want to fall. In the vicinity of Mount Irtysh in the centre of the plateau, there is a deep shaft whose origin can be both artificial and natural. Almost in the centre of Karabi-Yaila there sits a meteorological station where tourists, who feel they got lost in the vastness of the plateau, can find refuge and get directions.
Among the local shepherds and hunters there still lives a legend about “the Black Goddess” of the mountains who is better to be avoided.
Demerji-Yaila translates as Blacksmith Pasture. There are many legends associated with Mount Funa situated on the plateau. One of the legends runs like this: once upon a time there lived a giant blacksmith on this mountain, which never stopped spewing smoke. His smithy produced so much smoke and fire that the plants and animals all around the mountain began to die; and rivers in the mountains went dry. A local girl, seeing that no one is brave enough to stop the destructive smith, screws up courage to confront the obnoxious smith. She climbs up the mountain and asks the smith to take pity on her people. Not moved by the girl’s words and beauty, he grabs a sword and runs her through with it. But then comes the turn of the mountain itself to bring vengeance on the pitiless murderer — old Funa decides it has had enough of the giant smith’s viciousness and swallows him and his smithy.
The plateau has a tourist attraction which is called The Valley of Ghosts. The natural stone formations in it look like some fabulous animals and spooky creatures but I spent a night among them and did not have any unpleasant experiences. The Valley is particularly impressive in the fall, when the dying vegetation acquires all kinds of autumnal hues and colours. The waterfall of Dzhur-Dzhur in the Gorge of Khaphal can be easily reached from the plateau, but it is best to be seen after heavy rains or in early spring when the snow in the mountains begins to melt.
There are man-made attractions to be found in the valley too — ruins of a fortress which was supposedly called Funa and used to be a stronghold of the semi-legendary medieval state of Feodoro. The Valley of Ghosts attracts not only tourists but filmmakers as well.
The stretch of the Crimean Mountains between Rock Laspi in the east and to Yalta in the west is probably the best known to tourists, holiday makers and vacationers. The length of this mountain range is about twenty kilometres but its width in some places shrinks to several hundred metres. One of such places is the Baidarsky Pass with its Baidarsky Gate, passing through which you enter a vast plain.
Further down the hill from the Gate you can find a church perched on a rock. The church dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ was built in 1892 in commemoration of “the miraculous rescue” of the Russian Imperial family in a train crash that occurred in 1888. The Tsar, Alexander III, a burly man of giant stature and strength, supported on his shoulders the wall of the railroad carriage that was derailed, preventing it from collapsing on his wife and children for some time until rescuers arrived.
The church on the rock that juts high into the air does look very impressive. It was closed down in 1924 by the soviets; later, in the fifties, it was turned into a restaurant for the soviet communist party elite. The idea of making a restaurant with splendid views from its windows out of a church is credited to Nikita Khrushchev, the then soviet premier and top party boss. On the other hand, if not for that, the church would have been surely pulled down.
Another major attraction of that area is the so-called Chortovi Skhody, or Devil’s Stairway located to the east of Foros (the place where the soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev had his dacha and where he was kept prisoner for several days during the abortive coup of August 1991, which presaged the final disintegration of the Soviet Union). The Devil’s Stairway is a narrow path from the sea high up to a mountain pass with ruins of Byzantine fortress nearby. The fortress must have been built there to control the pass. The Devil’s Stairway, in the opinion of some archaeologists is not a natural formation but was cut in rock about two thousand years ago, probably by the Romans.
Probably, the best known to tourists among the Crimean mountains is Ai-Petri. Its pinnacle rising to over 1,200 metres above the sea level looks like ruined battlements of an enormously huge fortress. You can get to the top of Ai-Petri by a winding mountain road or by cable car that travels from the foot of the mountain all the way up. Once there, you can enjoy a truly breathtaking view of a long stretch of the coast, with the town of Yalta that can be glimpsed in good weather in the distance. And the Black Sea, seen from the top of Ai-Petri, is a sight worth a 20-minute cable car steep ride.
The Grand Crimean Canyon, a natural feature of a great tourist attraction, is three-kilometres long but it is not advisable to take a hike through it without a guide or proper instructions. It also takes some physical stamina to cross the rugged terrain. At some places the Canyon narrows down to a couple of metres and the going is rough. Blue Lake is a particularly attractive feature. A waterfall that falls into the lake serves as an additional attraction, not so much because of its beauty but because of a belief that if you take a bath there, you will stand a good chance of immediate rejuvenation. But the water is extremely cold there and an incautious plunge may get you in trouble.
The highest waterfall in the Crimea is Uchan-su, where water falls 98.5 metres before it hits the ground, but in summer, particularly when it gets real hot, this waterfall almost completely dries out. Uchan-su is at its most impressive best on particularly cold days in winter when the water freezes, or in spring when the melting snow provides plenty of water. This waterfall is best to be reached from Yalta, and a visit to it can be combined with a ride to the top of Ai-Petri on a zigzagging mountain road.
Babugan-Yaila is a plateau privileged with the highest mountain in the Crimea, Roman-Kosh. Across the plateau runs a road which is said to have been built by ancient Romans. There are ruins of what looks like foundations of houses that can be spotted here and there along the road. Tall, upright menhir-like megaliths dot the plateau but I do not know whether they are really man-made or strange creations of nature.
In the centre of the plateau, the Roman road (if, indeed, it was built by the Romans) runs across a Stratogay Valley, which has a bad reputation of being an evil place. I do not know what is so evil about it — I found it to be a place of a great scenic beauty. One of the local legends says that once a bloody battle was fought there and the spirits of the slain warriors still wander about. I spent there quite some time but I did not meet any of the unfortunate ghosts and nothing whatsoever unpleasant happened to me. The absence of visible human presence only increased my enjoyment of the place.
On the eastern slope of the plateau there is a monastery, dedicated to Saints Cosma and Damian, who were martyrs and patron saints of physicians. They were brothers, perhaps twins, but little is known about their lives or martyrdom. According to Christian tradition, Cosma and Damian were educated in Syria and became distinguished physicians in Cecilia, where their charity converted many to Christianity. Because they refused payment for their services, they were called the “silverless ones.” Imprisoned during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian, they were tortured and finally beheaded, their bodies being taken to Syria for burial. By the mid-5th century their cult had become so widespread that churches were erected in their honour in various places, including Constantinople and the Crimea. There is but little that has remained of the monastery but now it is being reconstructed. The nineteenth-century chapel still stands and on their feast day, which is celebrated by the Eastern church, on November 14, the water from the spring near the chapel is believed to acquire strong curative properties.
Cape Syla (Strength) can be easily accessed from the plateau (one of the Crimean dachas of the soviet party leader Leonid Brezhnev was situated not far from it; Brezhnev is said to have gone hunting there; now it’s a part of the Crimean Natural Preserve).
I find the view from a tall rock that rises 300 metres into air above the cape to be the most exciting one in the whole of the Crimea. In fall, at the sunset, the silent beauty of the place and the gorgeous vistas that open on three sides fill me with serene fascination.
Photos by Andriy KOTLYARCHUK
A pagan shrine which is still
The ruins of what must have been