Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bakhchisaray – A Story of Exile and Return

Streets of the Old CIty in Bakhchisaray
A Sad History
Bakhchisaray was once a proud Tartar town filled with mosques and tall minarets with a long history dating back to the Khans (descendants of Genghis Khan).  Actually, the Tartars are a broad mix of Moslem peoples including Central Asians, Turks, and Europeans (Greeks, Poles, even Scandinavians). 

A painting of the deportation on display in
the Khan Palace, Bakhchisaray

On May 13, 1944, every Tartar in Bakhchisaray was deported on Stalin’s orders.  The people were sent to places like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, taking with them only what they could carry.  Since the 1990’s when communism began to decline, the Tartars have been returning to Bakhchisaray, starting up new businesses, rebuilding destroyed mosques, and trying to preserve their local heritage.  However, considerable tension exists between the returning Tartars and the Russians (mostly poor and uneducated) who moved into the Tartar homes at the time of the deportation. 

Old City in Bakhchisaray with
limestone cliffs in the background
What a sad story, and unfortunately, one that occurred throughout much of Europe where forced migrations were common.  The dislocation that results and the ongoing issues it creates are impossible for us, as Americans, to comprehend.
Wandering the Old City
We roamed the rugged back streets of Bakhchisaray’s old city looking for remnants of the Tartar’s former existence – a once elegant fountain, the ruins of a mosque.  Then, we headed north to climb the limestone cliffs that form a dramatic backdrop to the town. 

Old Russian cemetery in Bakhchisaray

Along the way, we discovered an old Russian cemetery where soldiers who died during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) are buried.  Like a Flander’s Field of the past, the place is all but forgotten, totally overgrown and derelict – perfectly creepy, and of course, we loved it. 
Hiking among the strange limestone formations
above Bakhchisaray 
Further on, we hiked up to the top of the cliff (no easy feat for us 60-something-year-olds) for incredible views of the town and jaw-dropping close-ups of weird limestone formations.

Rugged path to Chufut-Kale

On another day, we made an outing to Chufut-Kale, a cave city settled beginning in the 6th c.  The hike up here was also far from trivial; the path was steep and littered with rubble making it slow going as we stepped gingerly among the jumbled chunks of loose stone trying to avoid wrenching an ankle. 

Caves at Chufut-Kale
The limestone cliff is dotted with cave dwellings, and we were able to scramble all around, climbing inside the old caves where “shelves” were carved out of the interior walls and holes were dug into the floor for cooking, storing food, or collecting water.  This mountain is called the “Jewish Fortress” because it was once inhabited by a group called the “Karaites” (a Jewish sect).  Under the Muslim Khan rule, the Karaites could do business in the city during the day but had to return to their mountain hovels at night.  What a wearing commute that must have been! 
More pictures of the incredible Chufut-Kale (note that the dark spots are more of the ancient caves that were home to the city's early inhabitants):

Courtyard of Khan Palace
in Bakhchisaray
Khan Palace

When Catherine the Great arrived here in the Crimea, she destroyed all evidence of the Khans who had ruled before her – except for the Khan Palace that she found hopelessly romantic.  The story goes that a hardhearted Khan king fell madly in love with a new concubine.  She did not return his feelings, and in fact, she hated harem life so much that she died within a year.  The Khan was so devastated that all he did was cry.  Concerned that the crying Khan was failing to rule, the people built “The Fountain of Tears,” designed to “cry” continually so that Khan, their ruler, could get back to the business of running the region.  The Russian writer Pushkin even wrote a famous poem about the story.

In the harem at Khan Palace, Bakhchisaray

The palace is quite lovely, incorporating all the necessities of sultan life: fountains, a mosque, a graveyard, and a harem.  With artifacts and recreated rooms, the museum gave us an idea of what life was like back in the time of the Khans.

The Soviet Communist Mentality
Paul, the owner of our hotel, spent an evening with us explaining the history of Bakhchisaray and painting a vivid picture of the bureaucracy and bizarre non-work ethic of Soviet Communism.  He explained that people make a big deal about “going to work,” but what they do there is of no importance.  For example, Paul and his wife needed a specific document when they returned to live in Bakhchisaray.  They visited the town administration to obtain the form and were told to go to a certain room.  In that room, two women were filing their fingernails.  The women told them they were in the wrong place, that they knew nothing about this form, and that they needed to go to another room.  But Paul’s wife refused to leave and eventually one of the women turned to the other and said, “Remember that CD we got?  I wonder if the form they want is on it.”  After much rummaging around the women found the CD and guess what?  The required form was on the CD!  Everyone was ecstatic – at least until one of the women said, “Come back in a month and we will have the form ready for you.”  Can you even imagine????
Anne, Frank, and our guide, Sergei
Other Quirks of Life in the Crimea
In Yalta, our guide Sergei had a small camera attached to the front windshield of his car.  He explained that he was videoing his driving – in case the police tried to charge him with something he didn’t do!  Police corruption in the Crimea is so common that, according to Sergei, about 20% of people video their driving everywhere they go.
Buying groceries can be an odd experience too.  In one of the larger grocery stores in Yalta, nothing was self-service, and we had to get into different queues within the same store to request different types of items.  For example, we waited in one line for cheese, told the clerk what we wanted, and paid her for it.  Then, we waited in another queue for bread and butter, told that clerk what we wanted, and paid her for that purchase.  So inefficient!  We figured it must be a throwback to the communist days when people had to stand in lines for each type of product.  The other struggle was trying to communicate with these non-English speaking clerks when requesting the food.  Fortunately, Frank has some Russian speaking skills which really came in handy, and we were fine for most elementary communications with the Ruskies.  Traveling on your own in this country with no Russian skills at all (or no ability to read Cyrillic characters) would be almost impossible.
Locals dancing out on the square in front of
Lenin's statue in Yalta
Another subtle difficulty arises here in that the people of the Crimea speak both Russian and Ukrainian – using both (or either) at the same time.  While similar, the Russian and the Ukrainian languages have word and nuance differences that are not shared; simply put, the people of the region use a mix of words from both languages, making the Crimea a difficult place to hear pure Russian or pure Ukrainian.  Yes, the people there will totally understand you if you speak in either language; but as Frank found out, you may not always understand their response, since it will often be a mix of Russian and Ukrainian words.  These common words are not always the same in both languages, making it almost impossible for a novice to sort out the responses without years of practice in hearing and using each language.
Here is one unusual food highlight that we need to note.  In the Crimea, we were introduced to a delightful Tartar dish called “Lagman” soup.  While the name does not connote an exciting experience, Lagman soup was some of the heartiest, most thrilling stuff we’ve had (maybe ever!!).  It is not an eloquently presented dish, but more like one of those “depression” dishes from the 1930’s days in America, where everything but the kitchen sink is included.  The soup consists of a dense portion of meat, potatoes, carrots, and other veggies (?) plus fabulous handmade noodles in a delectable broth.  Maybe it is just us who are “in the dark” about this soup; has anyone out there ever heard of it?  If you have, we would like to hear your comments.  Frank plans to Google the recipe and corner the market in America on Lagman soup.  It is a delicious, filling repast for those cold days during our Pennsylvania winters; one bowl is a meal!! 
Sergei told us that most Crimean men die by the age of 58, usually as a result of alcoholism.  A favorite sport is “Literball” (drinking liters of vodka).  People also say (cynically) that this situation is good for the pension system because most men die before age 63 when they can collect!
Overall, the atmosphere is somewhat depressing -- so many people look defeated.  When we say we are from America, many of them get this sad, wistful look like we come from a paradise they can’t ever imagine.  Paul believes the biggest problem is that people here don’t want a better life.  He said, “The people have forgotten how to dream.”

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