I didn't know anyone who'd been to this place. I could hardly find it on a map. But the Crimean Peninsula, on Ukraine's Black Sea coast, has been Russia's favorite beach resort for nearly two centuries, a haven for aristocrats whose quaint afflictions – consumption, hysteria, heartbreak – were thought to be cured by warm baths, mellow sunlight, and lungfuls of dry air. The tubercular Chekhov lived in Yalta, whose palm-lined pavilion is featured in his famous story "Lady with the Lapdog." Later the Soviets built state-sponsored coastal sanatoriums so that proles too could get a dose of sunshine.
We'd been walking toward the Black Sea for five days, along the craggy Crimean Mountains, and now and then the forest would fall away and we'd spot the sea shimmering in the distance. Buttresses of limestone launched toward the water, and tucked into the sea cliffs ahead we could see Sudak, the first major town on our route, heralded in one guidebook as a quaint pre-Soviet village near a huge grotto and vineyards renowned for their champagne. I was already thirsty.
I was tagging along with a commercial trek led by Mountain Travel Sobek, a California-based outfitter that runs adventure tours in exotic places. The plan was to walk six days through the mountains, then another five along the coast. Trip leader Rob Smurr, a mountaineer and professor of Russian history, is the kind of guide who takes as much joy in a place's oddities as in its postcard moments. This trek along the Crimean coast was not advertised in the company's catalog but was marketed online and to returning customers, presumably those with a high tolerance for the unexpected.
The degree to which "Trekking in Ukraine's Crimean Jewel" would be exploratory was not clear until I had flown to Kiev, shuttled across town to an overnight train for Simferopol, and was rocking along in the dining car with Rob, drinking beer and eating what would be the first of many meals of soggy mashed potatoes and boiled sausages of unspecified origin. Rob is 46 years old but looks a lot younger, with the blond beard of a mountaineer and close-cropped hair left over from his two decades in the U.S. Army. He speaks Russian, German, and Estonian and worked as a State Department translator in Russia and Finland. Looking out the window at the flat expanses of plains offset by the grim outlines of rusted factories, I asked him what the terrain would be like where we were going.
"I don't know," he said, grinning and swigging his beer. "I've never been there."
As it turned out, Crimea looked a lot like my native California, before we wrecked it with highways, mansions, and smog. Along the rocky spine of the Crimean Mountains, where a high plateau collides against the sea, it was gorgeous: rolling grassy hills, jagged stone outcroppings, and deep, shady forests. It felt like the hills of Malibu a hundred years ago, unspoiled by, well, Californians. From the dusty trails in the high chaparral, the sheer cliffs and jeweled waters around Sudak beckoned me sweetly.
But then we got there. Sudak turned out to be a carnival-slash-nightmare: fun-house mirrors and miniature-horse rides, slot machines and disco balls everywhere you looked, Casio lounge singers and photo booths in which you could dress up like a Tatar. After dark Rob and I picked a route between boardwalk shacks that hawked seashells and beach towels. On a nightclub balcony a dancer with platinum cornrows and silver go-go boots gyrated in the flicker of red, white, and blue neon. Across the street a bar band was mangling an old Creedence song: "I want to know," the singer croaked with a heavy accent, "can you ever seen some rain?"
We watched, speechless. Suddenly Rob smiled broadly. "In America," he said, "I'd do everything in my power to avoid coming to a boardwalk like this. But now I travel halfway across the world and end up staying here."