Having looked at all my day trip options from Yalta and discounting most as involving far too much travel, I decided to visit Ay-Petri, a mountain not too far away. There’s a cable car that goes up the cliff to the top which I liked the sound of – it also promised dramatic views over the Black Sea.
I went to the bus station to take a local marshrutka – there are quite a few that passed by the cable car spot so I jumped on one headed to Alupka and waited for it to fill up. They leave on a schedule, but I was a little early. As more people filed on I gave up my seat to a wrinkled old woman with a colourful scarf tied firmly beneath her chin. This earned me a smile and a ‘spasiba’, thank you in Russian.
I had absolutely no idea where to get off the bus and was hoping there would be an obvious sign or a giant arrow with ‘Cable Car to Ay Petri’ emblazoned on it. After about twenty-five minutes or so I began to see plenty of signs – Ay Petri Hotel, Palace Ay Petri, and all sorts of things. Now I was getting a little concerned. I was looking out the window and trying to figure out whether to ask the driver to stop when a girl said to me in English that Ay Petri was the next stop, and I was welcome to join her and her friends if I wanted to. This sounded like a good idea to me and so I happily took up her offer. We got off at the next stop, which was directly opposite the building with the cable car and sported a number of tacky souvenir shops. She told me her name was Marina and introduced her friends as Jana, Lena and Albert – who kind of apologised for not having a very Russian name. We bought tickets for the cable car – 60 hryvnia each way, so not too cheap – and waited for the next one to come down from the mountain.
We got chatting and they were very excited to hear that I was from Australia – they hadn’t met many Australians. They were from Russia and were in Crimea for a conference – they were all physicists researching something to do with optics. Apparently they make scientists young in Russia – they were only twenty-two, and Marina still had braces. [Not that I can talk – I didn’t even get my braces on until I was eighteen, and off when I was twenty-two!] They’d all studied English, but Jana and Lena were a little more nervous about speaking it and Marina was clearly the most outgoing of the group.
We got into the cable car as soon as it arrived to score the best position – the back at the window – so that we could enjoy the view of the Black Sea as we ascended. I loved looking out the side, as the scenery changed the higher we went – from agricultural land to a mystical fairytale forest to dense pines before thinning into rock face with the occasional lone tree. Albert explained to me that almost all Russian fairytale or fantasy movies are filmed here and I could completely understand why. I wish I had photos of this forest, but the windows of the cable car were dirty and a little foggy so I was unable to get a clear shot.
Halfway up you need to get out of the first cable car and into another, and it’s in the second segment that you ascend quite drastically to the top. It was a smooth ride and the colours of the rock and the lone trees in all their autumn glory was beautiful. Soon enough though we reached the top. And it’s touristy as hell where the cable car stops, with old Soviet cars and motorbikes and army costumes that people can put on to pose for photos. There were belly dancing outfits for sale alongside sheepskin vests, and young touts offering quad bike and horse rides. I followed the Russians’ lead and answered everything with a ‘nye spasiba’ – no thank you – as we walked through the small market to the hiking trail up to the top of the peak. It cost another 20 hryvnia to access the trail, although we probably could have snuck around the entrance and cut through a paddock if we wanted.
The trail entered another forest, where the rocky ground was inches deep in leaves and yet the trees still maintained just the right number of crisp green leaves to keep the magical atmosphere. The trail, once entering the forest, kind of disappears but it’s fairly obvious that ‘up’ is the way to go. The track was there in some parts, leading you towards special trees – some rare, some poisonous, and one that’s meant to be good luck.
That tree is the ‘Wishing Tree’ and the sign beside it explains in Russian that you’re meant to stand back and try to throw a coin through the hollow in the top. Once you’ve successfully thrown the coin in [I got it on the second attempt], you go up to the tree, place your hands on it and whisper your wish into one of its ‘ears’. I’m not going to tell you what I wished for because that’s a surefire way to ensure that it doesn’t come true, but it wasn’t rollerblades.
It didn’t take long to get to the top – maybe about half an hour or so. We left the forest behind and the rest was just rock. As the top of the mountain is more of a cliff there’s a metal railing preventing people from falling. It certainly wouldn’t meet Australian safety standards given that it was a single bar about a metre high. It wasn’t right on the edge, but it wasn’t far and small children could quite easily walk under it and topple over the edge. I like to hope that hasn’t happened.
There’s a small metal tower thing made of poles at the top, and this – along with the guard railing a few metres before it – is covered in what I thought was knotted strips of fabric. As it turned out, most were actually knotted wet wipes. This seemed a little strange to me, but there was some actual fabric in there as well which provided a bit of colour. Of course – like probably everyone who goes there – we ignored the ‘do not pass this guard rail’ sign, ducking under it to get a better view over the edge of the cliff and get some photos posing on the tower thing. I climbed out a little further, because I could and because I wanted to see if I could get a picture of the tower without looking into the sun. Apparently not.
The view from up here was fantastic. It was a bright, sunny day and while there was a very cool breeze on top of the cliff it was not unpleasant to be up there so we stayed for a while to take it all in. Eventually we made our way back down slowly, ‘accidentally’ losing the trail after coming across a big group of middle age Russian tourists who were wearing the most dreadfully inappropriate shoes for the walk up. Seriously – I know that Russian and Ukrainian are born wearing high heels, but four-inch stiletto heels when hiking up a mountain without a nice defined trail all the way seemed a little ridiculous. I kept looking back at them to see whether any ankles had been rolled or broken yet.
We ended up coming out through a bunch of viciously spiky trees into a paddock about four hundred metres from where we’d entered. We took a few more photos, and found a guy who was willing to take a whole stack of group photos for us before buying a new ticket to get back down the mountain. After waiting for Jana and Lena to search through all the souvenir shops, which sold a mixture of plastic children’s toys like dolls and trucks along with painted shells and tourist plates, I crossed the road to wait for a marshrutka back to Yalta while they boarded another – they were staying in a different town.
I had a really great day with these guys and was so glad that I took the bus I did – I’d almost got on the earlier bus, but it was so full that I figured I would wait another half hour and it turned out to be a good decision. Ay Petri was beautiful in itself, but I wouldn’t have such great memories of it if I hadn’t met Marina, Jana, Lena and Albert. The only disappointing thing was the lack of cliché lab-coats. [After all, everyone knows that real scientists always wear lab coats, right?] We swapped email addresses before parting – they don’t really use Facebook in Russia, so we decided to keep in touch via what is almost becoming the ‘old-fashioned way’ for those of my generation. Letters? Sure, I’ve sent postcards home…