Archive for April, 2009

Stalingrad

Posted in 1 on April 26, 2009 by LaContra

Stalingrad

You’ve read the books….

You’ve watched the movies….

You’ve seen the documentaries….

…Now read the blog…..

It’s a 600km trek from the Rostov-on-Don and the edge of the Caucasus Mountains, across the steppe to Volgograd….I never get used to calling the city Volgograd…seems not only disrespectful to history and the casualties of the Great Patriotic War but  I think Volgograd simply sounds rather mealy-mouthed and clumsy.

Here’s something you won’t see (in the UK anyway)….in the top left hand corner of your GPS Satellite Navigation is the directional indicator….(such as 150m turn left or 3.7km keep right) …

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Not often you see 303 km before the next turn!


Anyway…flat rolling farmland steppe mile after mile…not much to see

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Except for the guys who were slowly replacing the old electricity pylons

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And the memorial to the huge tank battles fought on the plains for hundreds of kilometres beyond the raging hand to hand combat of the  battle for the city of Stalingrad.

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A fantastic example of Socialist Realism sculpture….if you look carefully you can see that this is a huge metal hand hurling a ‘javelin’ of tanks at the enemy……and its 30 metres high!

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Then the outskirts of the city are reached

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You can tell because the shell holes still pock-mark the landscape creating a barren zone surrounding the city…

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…. and then it couldn’t be more different.

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Of course there Battle of Stalingrad left the entire city as rubble with hardly a building left standing and thus the entire city has been rebuilt in that depressingly familiar Soviet ‘block’ style which seemingly forgoes aesthetics of any stripe.

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And it will take more than some retroactively applied creative paintwork to make a difference I’m afraid

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Those who are fed up with memorials on this blog can click on some internet porn or something now because the city has little else to offer except for one of the most important war memorials in all of Russia

Rodina-mat….Mother Russia

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The sculpture is called …The Motherland Calls

With a sword some 33metres long and and at a total height of 85metres, she dwarfs even Aloysha silently standing guard up there in the frozen north of Murmansk at a mere 36metres in height.

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Like Aloysha she dominates a hill overlooking the city….Unlike Aloysha you can’t miss finding her…the surrounding memorial park is huge and well signposted.

The plaza that leads to the memorial

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Chicks with big hands

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and big feet

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aren’t my type……

And she hardly has an inviting expression…

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But she’s got presence…I gotta admit

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As you walk up the steps from the plaza you are confronted by this impossibly perfect ‘new Soviet man’

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hewing himself from his granite plinth.

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With ‘her’ dominating the skyline beyond….

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Then you follow more stairs, walking further upwards through this man-made “canyon”….. revolutionary slogans and war-cries blare thru hidden speakers and then the chaotic sounds of machine guns, explosions, and dive bombing planes fills the canyon in a deafening din…..

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The walls depict rough brickwork and rubble, the figures seemingly incorporated into the ruins of the city…

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with the ever present Lenin serenely hovering above the din.

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These ghostly images are the spirits of those comrades forever one with the remains of the city…

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Onto the Avenue of Heroes

As noted in a previous post on Socialist Realism: to be heroic, patriotic, looking to the future, inspiring strength, brotherhood, and fraternity amongst comrades….

Banishing the serpent of fascism….

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Stepping over the fascist invader….

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Onward……

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Carrying your comrade forward…..

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After the din and confusion of the canyon sculpture, Robert Schumanns ” Dreams” echoes hauntingly as you move towards the base of “Rodina Mat” to the memorial rotunda.

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The outside the rotunda is a vast bas-relief mural telling the story of the Stalingrad battle

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even displaying German prisoners of war in bondage (though never referred to as “Germans” but “Fascists” in Soviet history so as not to offend their communist comrades of East Germany)…..

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The inscription says……”so the Fascists wanted to reach the Volga? The Red Army gave them their wish”

Inside the rotunda Schumann continues to swirl around the eternal flame and the names of the fallen inscribed on the walls…

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The honour guard is a 24 hour presence and the guard is changed every hour on the hour in a highly choreographed display of high stepping and rifle twirling.

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If this display, in this place, is designed to stun the viewer into contemplation and reverence…….

It succeeds.

You enter the rotunda on the lower level and emerge at the top of the rotunda plaza to be confronted by one more sculpture before arriving at the base of Mat Rodina herself….

This is the final hit to the solar plexus, and if you have managed to hold your emotions in check thus far, most would find this to be an image too far…..

There is no need for an inscription…..

There is no need for an explanation…..

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The universal comprehension of a mother’s loss…a mothers sorrow.

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It takes pride of place at this memorial….in stark contrast to the expected patriotic triumphalism one would expect from the Soviet Union in such a place……

……and finally to the giant on the hill….

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The huge but ancient lighting system which illuminates Mat Rodina at night….

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(looks like something my mate Jantzen would rig together!!)

There is a ongoing conversation within Russian society to reclaim the name of Stalingrad for the city…..perhaps enough time has passed that the name Stalin no longer instils the fear, revulsion, and horror of his rule from 1928-1953……

The nearby Stalingrad Hotel and Bar certainly thinks so

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with Comrade Stalin’s portrait hanging proudly on display

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To Krasnodar then Rostov-on-Don

Posted in 1 on April 20, 2009 by LaContra

From the border the next stop is Krasnodar, regional adminstration centre… and probably where the regional customs commander who says ‘Nyet’ is based.

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If you ever wondered what the USSR did with all its old military hardware……

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I mean even old trucks get a plinth in these parts

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Located on the Don river at the top of the Azov Sea, the 8th largest city in Russia and one of its fastest growing…Rostov-on-Don…..not just ‘Rostov’ mind you….there is a Rostov just outside Moscow…..apparently plays merry hell with the postal service.


On the way there I came across this huge monument in the middle of nowhere….a memorial to the history of the Cossacks who hail from this region

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Even through to the Soviet times

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As you arrive at the Don on the outskirts of Rostov-on-Don there is a huge bronze sculpture of a military cart with an attached horse team

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It dwarfs my little truck!

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The mighty Don

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Lined with large river ferries that provide river cruises in the high season…though the wharfs provide a focal point for casinos and entertainment all year round

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Typical parking scene…Rostov-onDon style

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53 Hours Doesn’t Sound Like A long Time…

Posted in 1 on April 20, 2009 by LaContra

…..but it is when you are detained at the Kavkaz border port by the Russian authorities.

I arrived at 12.30pm on Wednesday.

“I am serene like surface of the lake at dawn…..I will be as the rock, immune to the breaking of the waves over me……Like the willow tree I will  not break but bend and sway to the rhythms of the wind”

Yes Grasshopper…

Close eyes, breathe deep and recite,

oh I dunno…maybe 9000 times?

Fuck me this lot would try the patience of Job.

In the UK…there is no separate registration document for a private car trailer…..you just put the same registration plate as the tow vehicle on the trailer and off you go.

In Russia there is a separate registration document.

When I entered Russia at the Murmansk border in February they asked for trailer documents….and since the registration was the same as the truck…you may recall that they merely noted and photographed everything…..and cleared me thru.

With every police stop, at every checkpoint….no trailer document? No problem…….trailer/truck registration the same.

Get to Kavkaz…..

Trailer documents?….I explained as I did in Murmansk.

“Nyet!….you cannot enter….you must go back to Ukraine”

“Excuse me?”……WTF?

If this was my first entry to Russia I would have  surely complied….but I explained that I had already entered Russia at Murmansk…and had been driving the length of Russia for 6 weeks!

“Nyet…..you must go back to Ukraine”

As I mentioned in my post on the Shraf, my confidence in dealing with the authorities has risen as the trip has progressed. At this point most people would meekly turn and leave.

Not your intrepid correspondent….not anymore.

“Nyet…I’m not returning to Ukraine”

“Nyet?”

“That’s right Boris…fuckin Nyet.”

There was a woman border guard who spoke fluent English (thank god)…I explained that even if every police department, every government department in Russia had different rules…..that at least the Customs and Immigration rules MUST be the same for the entire Russian Federation….so if I was cleared thru Murmansk they better just do whatever Murmansk did and let me enter…..my 12 month visa and all my other documentation was in order.

They said they would call their regional commander.

I settled down to wait.

After a few hours they said they had 6 bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs and would I like to have a wash and a rest as I waited?

This was more like it!….that inherent Russian aversion to stubborn/bolshie/confident foreigners was kicking in……

Upstairs…..nice comfy double bed……hot shower…..and its free?…there was even a 24hr kiosk and café outside for food!

They come back a few hours later…the regional commander says….

“Nyet”

Free bed and hot showers?

24 hour food?

I explained now that I had settled in I wasn’t going anywhere but into Russia and with these conditions I reckon I could out wait them….checkmate.

“Back to Ukraine?…still fuckin Nyet”

I told them if the regional commander said no…they better call Murmansk and if that don’t work I don’t care if they have to call Moscow…..I’m staying here until this is sorted.

“Oh”

“I’ll be in my room if there is any news”

“Da Adam John”

Ok so the way this way unfolding I didn’t expect this to be over quick.

Nice sunset over the border port though

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Off to bed.

Next day…..no news but lots of conversations about what to do with me….read my book all day…..had a nap….cleaned the inside of the truck…repacked the trailer…..

The truck was still parked smack bang in the middle of the compound with every other vehicle having to negotiate their way past it

“Adam John…..can you move machina (vehicle) over to the side of the compound?

“Nyet”

“Nyet??”

“Yeah Nyet…..I figure while its there, in everyone’s way, right in front of the boss’s office…..you won’t forget me….you’ll all stay on the case”

“Oh”

By now I know all the guards by name……Mikhail Ivanovich has just rushed home as his wife has gone into labour……I wonder if they will call him Adam John?

Nice view of the Azov Sea from my border post bedroom though..

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and another nice sunset….

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Off to bed

Next morning its action stations.

Moscow called Murmansk….told them to sort this out …Murmansk called and told them what to photograph what to write…..so I spend the morning unpacking the truck for another photo session and then fill out dozens of forms…in Russian.

They’re doing it but they ain’t making it easy.

Their boss then notices that the truck has a white registration plate on the front and yellow on the back……

Apparently he said he had watched British movies and that this was not correct….so I showed them the photos of my Mercedes cars back in the UK…..

“Oh”

“Yeah Boris that’s right….fuckin Oh”.

After arriving at 12.30pm on Wednesday I passed thru the border gates and into the Russian Federation at 4.45pm on Friday.

The mantra had worked

Bizarrely all the border staff jostled around the gatehouse to wave me goodbye…

“Dosvedonya Adam John…..!”

“Yep…Dosve-fuckin-donya Boris”

(Mikhail Ivanovich called his son Ivan Mikhailovich)

….and yes….i still love this place.

Yalta to Kerch

Posted in 1 on April 17, 2009 by LaContra

To cross into Russia from the Crimean Peninsula you have to get to the border port of Kerch and take the 40min ferry across the straits of the Azov Sea.



The drive east from Yalta thru Feodosiya to Kerch takes me away from the gentle developments of Yalta across some of the wildest, emptiest pristine coastlines

From the Yalta Coast

From the Yalta Coast


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To the wild East Crimean Coast

To the wild East Crimean Coast

….which then becomes an inland landscape of jagged rocky escarpments, cliffs and hills.

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and as the sun set and the moon was rising I felt an overwhelming urge to get all creative and arty-farty like with the camera……

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ooooooohhh…..

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aaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh……..

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woooooooooooooooooo……

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mmmmmmmmmmmmm……

…Then I finally stopped fuckin about and acting like I actually knew what i was doing with the camera and drove the rest of the way to Kerch. I made the ferry port at midnight, camped in the carpark to wait for the morning ferry.

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Ferry to Russia

…but not before one last truck with a huge load tried to squeeze onboard

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and having failed to read the height restriction sign……..

Failed……

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but with typical ingenuity…..made it work (even though it didnt do much to help the trim of the ferry with 30 odd tonne sitting on the bow ramps)

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Goodbye Ukraine……..

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….and hello Russia (yet again)……the border port of Kavkaz.

Oddities Russian and Ukrainian Style Part II

Posted in 1 on April 17, 2009 by LaContra

In the interests of balanced reporting, it must be said that where there is the weird you can often find the wonderful too…

Drive along most main roads and you will come across these structures on the side of the road…..


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what a great idea!….you can drive your car up on these ramps and work on it!….

Mind you it does say something about the reliability and build quality of most Russian vehicles that someone even thought to do this….

And this is pure genius!

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These machines are literally on just about every corner because there are no contract phones…only pay as you go.

So…

Walk up

Punch in your mobile phone number

Feed a few notes into the slot

Bang!

Instant phone credit.

All providers on every machine/any denomination of notes/no scratch cards/no credit cards/no trying to find a store with a machine.


Why can’t we do that?


But then there is still plenty of weirdness to go around…


Do you think that this guy is actually in his lane…do you think he even cares?

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With infrastructure like this does Russia really turn of the gas or does the Ukrainian system just collapse at regular intervals?

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Travelling around Ukraine on a bicycle…with a pigeon in a little cage and 2 goats?…surely that counts as weird?


For the devout….put a chapel in your front yard that dwarfs your house….

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Lost In Translation….


Come in …make yourself at home…do you want a cuppa tea?

…in a hardware store?

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Expecting a store full of beautiful sexy chicks….your correspondent was sorely disappointed to find a simple supermarket.

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Late at night?…cold? hungry? Running low on gas?

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Luckily your local WOG is open.

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…and while there is nothing particularly weird about this cat….the way he kept staring at Harvey certainly made him feel a bit weird.

oh and by the way……all across the Crimea….

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The water supply is turned off at 10pm every night!

Штраф

Posted in 1 on April 17, 2009 by LaContra

(translation: Shraf)

Spend enough time in Russia or the former Soviet republics and you will come across the ‘shraf’….

Drive a vehicle and you will come across it with the first 24 hours and continue to experience it at regular intervals.

Technically shraf means ‘penalty’ but in the vernacular of the local police it basically means; ‘my wife likes expensive clothes’ or ‘I’m putting my daughter through beautician’s school’……

….think Bribe.

After the first shraf way back in the frozen wilds of Karelia, and after some sage advice from my Moscow 4×4 friends I have toughened my stance on this malarkey.

I now realised that like the advice you always hear about animals and snakes in the wild…that “they are more scared of you than you are of them” applies…

As a foreigner they don’t want to write you a ticket or take your licence as the law dictates…it causes them all sorts of paperwork problems and means they have to write a report to their regional commander.

Neither do they want to cause a diplomatic incident (the common Russian aversion to interacting with foreigners on any official level).

So with this invaluable background knowledge I now realise they have minimal leverage over me unless  I really do something serious like run over a pedestrian!

Now when I am stopped by a cop or at a checkpoint I simply smile, shrug my shoulders and say I have no money…only a credit card but I am willing to pay….please write me a ticket (on whatever trumped up charge they are claiming)

Obviously they just want the cash…..so depending on the demeanour of the officer (as some are seriously being assholes and others are just smiling while they try it on with Johnny Foreigner) after maybe 3 minutes of the ‘negotiations’ for cash going nowhere, I ask “maybe I could give them a small gift instead?”

If they smoke I give them a cheap Cuban cigar in a tube which I have brought with me otherwise I have some hip flasks of cognac which are always appreciated!…at a £5 each its better than the 50euro shraf that they usually demand!

Some prime examples:

The police officer who, when he found out I had just crossed the border on a Sunday and thus I had no cash, saw the kayak, and asked if I was a fisherman (as he was), and noted that he would accept a fishing rod in lieu of cash!…a hip flask for him.

The asshole cop who stopped me, breathalysed me, claimed I was intoxicated, and proceeded to demand 200euro! Those who know me; (that I rarely drink, especially at 9am, and would never drink and drive anyway) will appreciate that this prick rubbed me the wrong way. He was a particularly greedy, nasty piece of work. After a heated exchange in the police car where I demanded he write me a ticket, he accepted a box of cigars.

Or the cop who stopped me on a main city thoroughfare and said I had broken the ‘protocol’ and that I had to pay ‘shraf’…he drew the $ symbol on his  writing pad….I asked “what protocol?…(I was driving in traffic with other cars at 4 o’clock in the afternoon!)…...”Why shraf?…What protocol?”…. I was told I cannot drive on the street…after some laughter and hand signals I came to understand it was because I was a foreigner!….I awarded 2 Cuban cigars for this brazen attempt!

Most are good humoured about it….you almost feel sorry for them sometimes….cold and alone at  a checkpoint in the middle of the night…..they look the truck over intently, thoroughly scrutinise my documents (which in English,  they can’t possibly read)….then say discretely ….”Adam John…do you have some?”…whilst they make the universal finger rubbing sign for money and usually smiling somewhat sheepishly.

They are more than happy with my small token gift….”

“I have no roubles, no money…..but can I give you a present,  something special from Britannia?”..

Big smiles all round, and I’d be on my way again…..

Shraf…….it not just for Christmas…x

Yalta

Posted in 1 on April 17, 2009 by LaContra

Yalta……You know the name but you may not remember why……..back to 7th grade history lessons

Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin….the 1944 Yalta Conference where the fate of the post war political order was decided.

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As you drive from the flat farmlands of central Crimea heading south, the mountains, still dusted with snow at this late stage,

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rise up before plunging down to the crystalline azure of the Black Sea. Nestled in coastal valley is Yalta..

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The Jewel of the Crimea

I was due to meet the owner of the Kiev hostel, Marcus,….he was in Yalta wheeling and dealing with his potential Ukrainian business partners and had offered me a place to crash for the night…though he warned it would be ‘pretty basic’ accommodation.

This was what Marcus considered pretty basic??

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The Resort location and grounds

The Resort location and grounds

WTF?

Seems his associates had booked him into one of the most exclusive resorts on the Yalta coast….if they looked askance at Marcus in his jeans and his backpack…..they were downright flummoxed when I turned up in the truck!

The premier holiday destination for Soviet citizens Yalta is a kind of bohemia meets the seaside. There are various attractions from the gorgeous  clear water

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dramatic cliffs,

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and follies like the Swallows Nest.

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The place is rammed with Russian and Ukrainian holidaymakers each summer…..with cheap flights from the west becoming available its only a matter of time before its heaving with Europeans….you can snowboard all morning and be sailing or swimming in the afternoon

Magic.