It was back in October 2008, on my very first trip to Ukraine, which of course is very much in the news these days.
I had visited KRACOW, Poland and taken the train over the border to LVIV which entailed waiting near the border for 2-3 hours while the train's bogeys were changed over to the Eastern European wider gauge. A couple of nights in LVIV, a delightful city which in fact was where both the Polish and Ukrainian Football Associations were founded, since Western Ukraine used to be part of Poland.
An inexpensive discount flight on Wizz Air brought me to the Crimean capital of SIMFEROPOL and the longest taxi ride to the terminal I can remember. I had read up in my guide book on line and walked outside the aging terminal building to where the No.6 bus was waiting for the 2 km ride into the city.
"DUBRA RANOCH" I said in my best Ukrainian to the bus driver with a cigarette in his mouth-under the sign that said NO SMOKING ! I offered a 5H note, less than $1.00, but it was in fact only 0.5H, less than 8 cents, and a lady put some coins in the driver's hand...and we were off to the city centre.
I had booked in at the historic Hotel Ukraina for a few days and explored the battered streets with lots of holes and broken paving stones, but with pleasant tree lined boulevards. Very ethinically diverse with about 50% Russian speakers and about 15% Tartars. When the Germans invaded in 1941, 18,000 locals were slaughtered the very first day. In 1945 Stalin banished all the Tartars to the Siberian Gulag. Only 20 years ago did the survivors return.
These Tartars don't want Russian control again after Ukraine was freed by Kruschev in 1954 and in the early 1990's Ukraine gave up its considerable nuclear arsenal, encouraged to do so by the West, who guaranteed its future independence.
From Simferopol to the Crimean coast at YALTA is a pleasant but hair raising descent on a winding road past mountains, farms and olive groves. You can take the world's longest trolleybus ride which is a slow 2 1/2 hours so I took the frequent bus, about 80 minutes and about 18H.
Yalta has a small harbour and a pebble lined beach, with lots of cafes blaring western music and a huge two storey McDonalds. 50 metres away in the square is a giant sized statue of a seated Lenin, and I took a photo of it through the golden arches. "Large fries with your order Comrade?".
I took a short bus ride, less than 10 minutes, to LIVADIA PALACE, built by Czar Nicholas II and has family but world famous for THE YALTA CONFERENCE 4-11 February, 1945. Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met there at a round table in The White Hall to talk about the futute of a free Europe. The two western leaders talked as they strolled in the extensive wooded area that went down to the sea, as they believed that their rooms were bugged. I bought some souvenirs including postcards, and a Russian Black Sea Fleet sailors hat.
Prior to the return bus trip to the Crimean capital I bought some hot food sold by the babuchas, the old ladies, near the bus stop.
The next day I went to the splendid train station in Simferopol and bought an overnight sleeper berth to Kharkiv, the nation's second city. A big industrial city with many technical universities, the only sign I saw in English was for COCA-COLA. I figured out the underground Metro system in cyrillic and went to the future EURO 2010 stadium of Metali Kharkiv for a World Cup eliminater between Ukraine and Croatia.
I was in the city about 14 hours and then another splendid overnight sleeper to KIEV, the capital.
The present situation is very scary, with a panicky shot by a young consctript possibly starting a small war. The Russian Federation and Czar POO-tin have been heavily criticised, but they have an agreement to have troops and their only warm water naval base is in Sevastopol.
It is likely to hasten the acceptance of Ukraine into NATO, and also of nearby GEORGIA, which I visited in 2009, and which was invaded by the Russians in 2008. I stayed in charming TBILISI for a few days before flying to BAKU, Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea. The Georgian warm water port is BATUMI, which would be a wonderful site for a NATO naval base.
Many former Soviet vassal states have large Russian populations, some as high as 50%. Are we to expect invasions of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania to follow to 'protect' the Russian speaking population.
How about the Tajiks and the Tajikistan armed forces with their long bows, and other states 'invading' Mother Russia, to protect the milions of their nationals living there to earn money.?