Apparently I knew nothing about Crimea

Why do so many Crimean names seem Greek (Feodosia, Yevpatoria, Foros)? Why is there a place called Balaklava and what does it have to do with the ski mask? Why are there Tatars in Crimea?  I eventually learned cursory and incomplete answers to all these questions!

On Monday afternoon I arrived into Crimea’s capital, Simferopol.  As a tourist, there’s not much to see in Simferopol, but luckily I had a task to accomplish– I needed to buy a Crimean SIM card.  I could have used my regular Russian SIM, but the roaming charges were outrageous.  The first place I went sold SIM cards, but not to holders of “foreign” passports– they only sold to holders of Russian, Ukrainian, DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LNR (Lugansk People’s Republic) passports.  DNR and LNR are the so-called “breakaway” Russian regions in Ukraine that have been issuing their own passports since residents of those areas can’t get into Ukraine proper to renew their Ukrainian passports.  I think a much under-reported aspect of this whole conflict is how difficult it has been for regular people to accomplish simple bureaucratic business due to paperwork complications.

Anyway, the first place sent me to a second place, which sent me to a third place, and later a fourth.  Part of my struggle was that speaking Russian did me little good– tech store names are weird non-words, just like in English, and I could never quite figure out the name of the stores they were sending me to.  This trek took me out of the center of town, across a semi-abandoned traffic circle.  Part of the circle was occupied by closed-down Soviet-era kiosks like “Soyuzpechat”– the state-run newspaper stand– and the rest was filled with booths selling cheap costume jewelry, sunglasses, and shawerma, the ubiquitous middle-eastern meat snack.  The farther through the empty traffic circle I got, the fewer Slavic faces I saw and the more Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tadjik.  I even saw a few women in headscarves.  And I felt uncomfortable.  There was no good reason for this– it’s just another indication of how much I’ve internalized so much of the anti-migrant sentiment here.  On the up side, I thought, maybe this is the exactly correct area to find a store that sells SIM cards to foreigners!  But no.  One more store sent me in the entirely different direction.

After about three hours of walking, I wound up at a store about twenty yards from my hotel where, for about $3, a friendly woman sold me a card that gave me all the Internet and phone I could possibly need for my week’s stay in Crimea.  I was officially a wired person again.

Tired from my tech hike and flight, I spent the night in, getting ready for my next day’s excursion.  I had a lot to learn about Crimean geography.

Source:  Lonely Planet

The next day I would travel from Simferopol, in the middle of the peninsula, to Sevastopol, on the coast, stopping in Bakhchisaray.

In the morning I was met by a woman I’ll call Svetlana.  She and her husband, we’ll call him Ivan, immediately pointed to a mural of Vladimir Putin and told me how overjoyed they are to be a part of Russia again.  “My mother on her deathbed said to me, ‘I may not see the day Crimea is Russia again, but I hope you will!” explained Svetlana.  “Ivan here was officially awarded for his work in protecting Crimea from the terrorists bombing pipelines in the north, ” Svetlana said proudly, “but we’re not supposed to talk about it.  Authorities are worried it might provoke a bad reaction from Ukraine or Ukrainian sympathizers.”  Over the course of my tours, Svetlana told me many supposedly “secret” pieces of information.  For this reason I have used a pseudonym for her and Ivan, just in case, you know.

We began our drive along bumpy roads through green fields of young wheat while Svetlana told me about herself.  She was born in Sevastopol and had grown up there, where her father was a chef in, variously, a children’s camp and a fancy restaurant.  Her mother was a meteorologist.  Three of her grandparents perished in the Nazi bombing of Sevastopol.  The only grandparent that survived, her maternal grandma, worked for SMERSH, the wartime counter-intelligence agency.  Ivan is not a native of Crimea, but served in Sevastopol in the military.  He and Svetlana have been married forever and have two grown sons, both of whom now live in Moscow.  Ivan’s grandfather was killed in the Soviet assault on Berlin.

But all this WWII stuff comes late in the story of Crimea.  It is a land that hosted a dizzying number of ancient civilizations  I can’t keep them straight. The first group we talked about was the Tatars, because they are still around and relevant today. The Tatars of Crimea are from a different branch of ‘Tatars’ than the Tatars living along the Volga on Russia’s mainland, but they are both Turkic and Muslim.  All of the Tatars originated somewhere over near Mongolia, but the Crimean Tatars seem to have formed their nation in the 13th Century.  Their capital was in Bakhchisaray.  There is a palace you can tour, but it was closed the day we went. Instead, we drank Tatar coffee in a weird café that has a tree growing through it.

Right after Crimea was liberated from the Nazis, Stalin ordered all the Crimean Tatars deported from Crimea to various locations around the Soviet Union, mostly Uzbekistan.  They weren’t allowed to return until the mid-1980s.  So, as you can imagine, there are some grievances among the Crimean Tatar population.

The big attraction that was open in Bakhchisaray was the Karaite settlement located on the top of a gigantic plateau that overlooks the modern city.  I don’t know about you, but I had never heard of the Karaites.  And I’m hard-pressed to explain to you who they are because exactly who they are is a matter of great scientific dispute.  The problem is that they are at least sort of Jewish, but because of both anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire and, later, the Holocaust, The Karaites have often denied being Jews.  Furthermore, they revere both Jesus and Mohammed.  So my absolutely non-professional and relatively uninformed view is that they are a little of everything.  Their settlement here appears to date from the 14th century.  So we walked around and looked at the ruins.  But, honestly, the most impressive thing for me was the sun and the gorgeous scenery.  I just can’t keep early Crimean history straight– there are so many peoples moving through the area I couldn’t really latch on to the storyline.


There’s also an Orthodox monastery, from maybe the 18th century or so, and it’s built into the mountain in a cave.  The Soviets closed the monastery and eventually housed psychiatric patients there.  After the fall of the Soviet Union it apparently came under the auspices of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who did some restoration work.  Since Crimea’s return to Russia, construction of a modern monastery has begun.  But, although Svetlana kept telling me over and over that relations with the Crimean Tatars are good even after Crimea became part of Russia again, she explained that there is some sort of dispute with the Tatars over the boundaries of the modern monastery.  So the monastery built a wall.

From the top of the plateau you can really take in all the beauty of Crimea’s interior.


Those fields below are filled with peach trees.  According to Svetlana, Crimean peaches are huge (her gestures indicated something the size of a grapefruit) and so juicy that people eat them with spoons.  Unfortunately, this kind of peach isn’t available outside of Crimea because the skins burst so easily.  My only opportunity to taste this delicacy will be to return to Crimea late in the summer someday.

Svetlana and Ivan dropped me to my hotel in Sevastopol.  My first night there was in the comparatively fancy Best Western– I switched to cheaper digs later.  But, oh, the view from my window that evening!


More on Sevastopol in the next post.


Add yours →

  1. Hi.
    If that’s your guide in your chaikhana shot, you might want to remove that particular picture, otherwise any aliases are of no use 🙂
    Too bad you didn’t make it to Khan’s palace.


  2. Apparently, you knew nothing. Especially that u are in an illegally occupied area of Ukraine.


  3. Obviously you still have a lot to learn about Crimea! Look at it from an immigration lawyers view and you may be seeing a totally different picture. Heck, look at it from a human interest perspective and you could get a different perspective!


  4. richard edwards May 24, 2017 — 4:33 am

    What hotel did you stay at in Simferopol, or where can I find the SIM card store on June 12 when I fly in from Moscow? I stay at Valencia Hotel. My name is Richard


  5. @richard:

    You may also consider buying a SIM while you are in Moscow. Last summer, I bought an MTS SIM (Bezlimitishe prepaid plan) – back then it cost 200 rubles (with 200 rub credited to your account), they charged 20 rubles a day for unlimited data and a decent amount of minutes and texts.
    The selling point was that both call/text and data rates were the same across Russia, which included the region you are travelling to. I had checked and rechecked many times, because that particular region was not listed anywhere in the printout, nor on their site, but the salesperson assured me it worked. I bit the bullet and it worked perfectly for me (I was there for 10 days, and then I even recharged the card when I was back to Moscow, because unlimited data for 20 rubles turned out to be a good deal).

    I understand the rates have changed since then (now it is 550 rub per month OR 10 rub per day for the first 30 days for new subscribers, plus 15 rub per day when used outside of Moscow), but I assume the coverage stayed the same, in which case it is still a viable option for you, considering your travel plans.

    If not MTS or that particular plan, I’m sure the sales people at any store (MTS, beeline, megafon, Svyaznoy) will help you find something that works.


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