August 03, 2005

Ukraine Trip (2 of 2)

So this is part two of my trip to Ukraine. When I left off, I was still in Kharkiv with Vitalik, his girlfriend (Anya), and his sister (Katya). We were at the train station, about to catch a ride from Kharkiv down to Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. Crimea is actually an Autonomous Republic, although it resides within Ukraine's borders. This peninsula is a favored destination of wealthy Europeans and Russians. As a result most everybody here speaks Russian (which is cool because I am trying to learn).

The Russian Military still has a large presence in Crimea, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's independence in 1991. Most notable is the Black Sea Fleet, a growing irritant to relations between Ukraine and Russia.

Backing up a second, I wanted to mention that I when I visited Kharkiv, I stayed at Vitalik's house. His family took me in, and I was treated as if I were family. They cooked traditional food for me and showed me a little of what it's like to live as a Ukrainian.

In turn, trying to show them something from my experiences, I taught Vitalik and his family how to drink shots of Tequila...including his Mother. Hey, I'm just trying to help!

OK, back to the post. This is the second half of my trip to Ukraine, and here is where we left off...

The train originated in Moscow (MOCKBA), and when we hopped on in Kharkiv, we shared a cabin with a Russian professor (he was actually Georgian by birth), on his way to give a conference. We brought vodka and food (chicken, cheese, snacks) on the train, and we all shared and talked. As simple as it was, that was one of those strange life experiences that I will never forget.

By morning, we arrived in Simferopol and caught a taxi down to Yalta (see the map).

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Here we are...Yalta. This resort town overlooks the Black Sea, and is one of Ukraine's most popular tourist spots. Despite this attractiveness, Yalta is fairly inexpensive and not too crowded.

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Here's the view from our condo.

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We even had our own private beach for guests.

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The shoreline is surrounded by millions of small jellyfish called Medusas. They don't sting, and more importantly, they aren't poisonous. It was still pretty freaky, feeling these squishy little blobs bounce off your arms while you swim.

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Yalta has a large parkway along the coast, with dozens of nightclubs/discos, restaurants, and other attractions. Every evening, we would head out for dinner, have a few drinks, then go hang out at one of the nightclubs. In this photo, a DJ plays some club music to a growing crowd, and in the background, you can see yet another statue of Lenin.

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In the morning, the owner of our condo would cook us breakfast (usually eggs, potatoes, and wurst). We would sit on the front porch and enjoy the ocean breeze. It reminded me of California. I loved it.

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One morning, we decided to have some Cognac with our breakfast (after all, it was the afternoon already!). You can see the look of triumph in Vitalik, and the look of defeat in my expression. haha.

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After breakfast, we took a trip to the Alupka Palace, built by Count Mikhail Vorontsov. His taste in design is apparent, with various parts of the estate giving off a completely different look and feel. In this picture, you can see more of an Indian Moghul influence.

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This is the same palace, with a more traditional Scottish Castle look. The property is massive, and a botanical garden runs from the outer walls down to the beach.

The Alupka Palace should not be confused with the Livadiya Palace, famous for the Yalta Conference of 1945. Livadiya Palace is where Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin met to discuss post-war Europe, including how to demilitarize Germany and divide the country into zones amongst the Allies.

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After the palace, we went out on the town again. This was just one of many great photo opportunities, though I don't think Katya looks too happy right now!

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This small "castle" is known as the Swallows' Nest. Built in 1912, it was actually a summer home for a wealthy German industrialist. It is now an Italian restaurant.

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We also stopped by the town market and bought a few snacks for the condo. The market sells food from all over the world, brought in fresh every day. We bought some melons from Uzbekistan, Apricots from Turkey, and juice from the Kavkaz region (Georgia, Chechnya, Ossetia, Armenia).

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At one of the vendors, I purchased a small necklace made of wood. Painted on the front is Ukraine's national symbol, the trident. See, Ukraine was founded by early scandinavians that originated from the land now known as Sweden. Being the ocean-venturing type, the trident has always been an important symbol to them, and they brought this significance with them when they founded the land we now call Ukraine.

This necklace is my favorite souvenir, from anywhere, and it will always remind me of this trip.

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We headed back to the condo to relax and get cleaned up. Vitalik and Anya decided to start dancing. The thing I loved the most is we were always goofing off and making jokes...always having a good time.

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This is what we ate almost every night: Kebab and fried potatoes, salad, and soup called Solyanka (Thanks, flythemig29, for help with the spelling!). To drink, we would have juice and vodka. Believe me, there was always a bottle of vodka.

Ukraine has a lot to offer in terms of food. If you visit, you have to try the local and regional dishes. For the less adventurous, there are plenty of other options if you must. In Kiev, we had Sushi one night; English Breakfast the next morning. We even ate pizza in Yalta, just for fun.

So I probably stuffed myself a bit, but hey, I was on vacation!

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The last day we were there, we took a tour up one of Yalta's valleys on horseback. The region produces a fair amount of wine, thanks to the great weather and cool breeze.

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We rode on some of the older horses, and their babies followed us wherever we went. They trailed behind, all the while taking small bites out of the vineyards.

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I rode an older horse by the name of Borunduk. I thought it was cool until I learned it means Chipmunk! Well...it's still cool.

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The forests of Crimea are just beautiful.

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From the left: Me, Vitalik, Anya, Katya.

That evening we took a bus from Yalta all the way up to Kiev. It was a long ride, but we made it by morning.

We found a hotel, cleaned up, and went downtown to hang out for the few remaining hours. I saw a T.G.I. Friday's, and even though I always try to eat regional food, I really wanted a hamburger!

The reason for mentioning all this is because the waiters and waitresses all had their usual "pieces of flair." You know, all those goofy buttons and pins they have to wear on their shirts (think of the movie Office Space). What was funny is their "flair" were pins of Lenin and the USSR (CCCP). So strange! It's really weird when cultures collide.

So I caught a flight to Frankfurt, and another down to Kuwait. Back to work...

I had a great time, and will definitely visit again. I made new friends, and I even consider them family. With Vitalik's help, I am starting a small cafe in Kharkiv. Vitalik is very excited about all this, and he will manage the business for me. I have no idea if it will work out or not, but I don't care. I love this place, and Vitalik is now like a brother to me.

I'll let everyone know how it develops...

That's all for now. I'm out in Afghanistan. I might be doing some traveling soon, to places I'll mention later.

And I'm building a section on here all about Afghanistan, mostly to help me organize my thoughts and understand this crazy country. I'll let y'all know when it's complete.

Thanks for stopping by...

Posted by Dan at 03:10 PM | Comments (7)

August 24, 2005

Happy Days...

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Today, August 24, is Ukraine's Independence Day. I celebrated this day last time with my Ukrainian friends in Iraq, a year ago.

And four days ago, I celebrated my 25th birthday. It's strange how time goes by.

Since I packed up and left the punk band, family, and San Diego, I've been to nine different countries, from Southwest Asia to Central and Eastern Europe. I've met some amazing and wonderful people along the way, and fared many great adventures. Also worth noting is I have spent over 16 months out here, living and working in what you can easily call a "combat environment."

I don't know how much longer I will be out here, but I am thinking of accepting an assignment in the Green Zone. It will hopefully be just a few months, ending in April of next year, but you never know what's going to happen. I wouldn't mind a change of scenery, but that may have to wait.

In the meantime, here's a couple photos.

As I mentioned in another post, there is a weekly bazaar here at Bagram. You can buy all kinds of things, from pirated DVDs to old World War I rifles. I just recently purchased a small rug and some head scarfs, in case I ever feel like roaming the Hindu Kush Mountains.

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In this photo, several ROK Soldiers (Republic of Korea) browse the items and trinkets for sale. The blue stone on the table is Lapis Lazuli.

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Here, a Soldier and Airman look at some of the rugs for sale. Supposedly, these were made here in Afghanistan (from the northern town of Mazar-e Sharif). Problem is, nobody really knows where this stuff came from. Most likely China or India.

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The illegal DVD business is big overseas. You can buy any movie you want out here (including those still in the theater). The quality isn't as good, and sometimes you can see the audience in the movie theater, but it allows us access to movies we wouldn't be able to see until we come home.

I'm just surprised nobody has said anything about all this piracy or stopped it. It's not that I am a big anti-piracy advocate, but I imagine that profits from these movies are helping fund terrorism. Think about it.

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This is one of my new favorite photos, an Afghan national with his camel. For $3, you can ride him around the bazaar, but I just wanted to take a photo. Photos cost $1, by the way.

That's all for now. Sorry, I haven't had time to update the site lately. I have been very busy with work and other things, so my web log has fallen to the bottom of the list. But keep checking back.

I will keep updating, wherever I go...

Posted by Dan at 05:04 PM | Comments (2)