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White slippy shoes: ideal for an Ukrainian Mountain

As I’ve alluded to previously, I’m not exactly the most physically gifted person on the planet. I am certainly not out of shape, but when it comes to sports and coordination, I am certainly lacking. I might surprise myself every now and then by making a play that convinces me that I might actually have what it takes. But usually, the following play brings me back down to earth.

Mountain climbing – for many reasons – was never high on my list of ambitions. Yet, here I was in Ukraine, practically dragged against my will all the way to the top of the looming monstrosity behind Andrei’s apartment building (aka Ai-petri). It certainly didn’t help matters that I didn’t have shoes equipped to handle the rigors of mountain climbing. For starters, they were both new and white. They certainly wouldn’t be either at the end of the day. Secondly – and perhaps most importantly – they had absolutely zero traction.

While I was putting on my soon-to-be-ruined shoes, Andrei appeared with an enormous hiking bag on his back.

“Are we camping?” I asked, half-joking and half thinking it wouldn’t surprise me if we were.

Love and vodka book cover“Nyet,” Andrei replied, not offering any indication as to what would possibly necessitate the need for a bag of that magnitude. He carried a hiking stick and his shirt was also unbuttoned, shamelessly revealing his pudgy mid-section.

We headed out the door and toward the summit, walking across a road. I snapped a photo as we stood at the base of the mountain. I couldn’t help but think that as far as mountain standards go, this one was actually considered small. Small my ass. It was 1,234 meters high. And with that, we began our grueling climb. Or at least, grueling from my point of view. Olya and Andrei seemed to have no trouble whatsoever, whereas I kept falling behind. Olya and Andrei demanded that I pickup my pace. I insisted that I was pacing myself so I could actually make it to the top.

“You’re too slow,” Olya said.

“Then go on without me,” I pleaded.

There were a few times when I lost sight of them completely and fear began to overtake me. But then I would spot Olya, waiting for me 500 feet away or so as I lumbered up the hill. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have the stamina to do it. It was that I didn’t want to do it. This was not my idea of fun and leisure. How Andrei does this everyday is something I’ll never understand. Another thing I didn’t understand was the complete and utter lack of wildlife. I didn’t see a single woodland critter, nor hear the chirping of birds. This would have at least made things a little less boring and monotonous. I did see a small lizard of some sort, sitting on a sun-drenched rock.

More so than my lack of motivation hindering my ability to keep up was the lack of traction on my shoes. Anytime we came across a steep grade, I would slide five or six feet backwards. This was not the most efficient way to climb a mountain. This especially became disconcerting during the moments where we had to walk on the edge of a very steep – not to mention high – ledge. At one point, I wedged a rock out of place, which caused it to fall far, far below. My first concern was falling to my death. My second concern was that the rock caused somebody’s else death thousands of feet below.

After watching me struggle for far too long, Andrei finally pulled out two collapsible walking sticks from his pack, which were essentially ski poles. Unfortunately, rather than aiding me on my journey, all these sticks managed to do was give me two additional, uncoordinated limbs to wrestle into a twisted mess. I never fully mastered proper usage of these poles. Essentially, I used them as spears or stakes that I drove into the ground, creating a sort of leverage that would pull me up. But this genius idea was short-lived.

The fact that the poles were Velcroed to my wrists turned this experiment into an unmitigated disaster that resulted in me falling flat on my back. Meanwhile, Olya and Andrei watched from a ledge up above as I struggled to get up like a turtle on its back. But could anyone really blame me? After all, having the poles attached to my wrists made it impossible to use my hands and arms to get up. It didn’t dawn on me that once I was down for the count, the rational thing to do would have been to remove the straps from my wrists, rather than rolling haplessly with all my limbs and poles in the air like an overturned roly-poly.

“Take the poles off!,” Olya shouted down at me.

And so I did. Permanently. I was better off without them. And so, our climb dragged on. And on. At one point, I thought we had reached the top, only to find out we had reached the half-way point. Two hours later, we finally did reach the final ledge leading to the top. Andrei, who was clearly not impressed with my climbing acuity, pointed out that it normally takes him a half hour to accomplish what we just did in four hours. Just what was about my reluctance to climb this mountain to being with was not clear?

As we made our way to the top of the final ledge, I noticed a dozen or so tourists milling about above us. I found it sort of surprising because they clearly didn’t climb the mountain as we just did. And there didn’t appear to be any roads nearby. Incidentally, we didn’t see a single soul during our entire climb.

We finally spilled ourselves over the ledge, where an entire Tartar village awaited. Tartars are a tribal group indigenous to the Crimea and – of course – treated with disdain by the Soviet regime.

The last thing I expected to find atop this mountain was human life. It felt as though we had stumbled upon an undiscovered planet – or at least continent. The camels and Tartars walking around in traditional garb certainly aided to this sense that we discovered a hidden world. And sure enough, we crossed a road that led there, which I’m sure would made my life so much easier had we just taken that instead.

We followed Andrei through the village center, which consisted of several ramshackle shops and cafes, reminiscent of a Western frontier town. Along the way were another batch of exotic animals muzzled and ready for their photo opportunity with tourists. The smell of shish-kabob wafted from enormous grills. After all, it is the Tartars whom Leonid can thanks for his wonderful shashlik. Never had food smelled so good than it had after our long climb. It was as though we had found an oasis in the desert. But as it turned out, it was all a mirage. Andrei had no intention on letting us stop for a bite. After all, why should we have rewarded ourselves after our arduous climb? Instead, we headed out of the village center and towards another summit way out in the distance.

“Wait. We’re not eating?,” I asked, with panic in my voice.

Olya translated for Andrei, who replied:

“No. We must keep climbing. We will eat at home.”

“But we still have to climb back down,” I said, barely able to stomach that thought.

Andrei ignored this statement.

“I’ll be damned if we came all this way, only to be denied.”

“The food, it’s no good,” Andrei said. “It smells great. But it will probably make you sick.” And he was probably right. After all, if an Ukrainian is telling me this, then it was probably a good idea to listen to him. But that didn’t negate the fact that I was hungry. In fact, I even surprised myself a bit that I was actually considering eating food prepared in an ancient mountain village. But that was how hungry I was. I may have even eaten out of a dumpster if presented the opportunity.

As we headed out of the market, we walked along a road that was essentially a minefield littered with horseshit. Passing us by on horses were Tartars, some of whom were galloping full speed and bareback to an unknown destination toward another peak.

“Where are we going?,” I asked, praying that it wasn’t to that aforementioned peak.

“There,” Andrei said, pointing toward the peak.

“Seriously?,” I said, clearly annoyed. At this point, I was not going out of my way to hide my displeasure. Not that it was going to make a world of difference.

After heading through a patch of woods, we entered into a clearing at the base of the summit. And out of nowhere, the sound of stampeding horses were heard in the distance. Seconds later, two horses burst out of the woods, rider-less and galloping towards us at full speed. Being that we were in a meadow, there was really nowhere to hide as the horses raced past us. Moments later, two Tartars ran out of the woods, screaming for their runaway horses. They, too, also charged toward us, passing us by without even a glance. We never saw them – nor their horses again.

The meadow ended at a sloped edge overlooking Gaspora way down below. It was a breathtaking view and for a brief moment, it made the long journey almost worth it. But as I stared into the depths below, I was reminded of how far of a climb down awaited me. And it wasn’t so memorable anymore, as I realized how truly breathtaking (as in out of breath) the climb was going to make me. In fact, I decided at that point, that enough was enough. I was not going to climb the other peak.

Andrei decided we should probably rest a bit before making any decisions. So we lied down under a tree and took a nap. When I awoke, Andrei was standing above me, his shirt still unbuttoned, revealing his sweaty chest.

“So. Ready to climb?”

I stood my ground and told him that I would stay behind. Although reluctant, Olya stayed behind with me as Andrei climbed himself.

“Fine. I can do it faster alone,” he said in a passive-aggressive tone. As he turned around to begin his ascent, his unbuttoned shirt flapped in the wind behind him as though we were the star of some grand romance.

Meanwhile, Olya and I decided to take advantage of the time alone in the wilderness.

Andrei returned a half hour or so later and we began our long journey back to earth. As we passed through the market again, something caught my eye, much in the manner of water catching a desert wanderer’s eye. It was a funicular tram, whose sole purpose was to take tourists all the way down to mountain, eliminating the painfully unnecessary need to go by foot.

“Hey, can we take this?,” I suggested, as though I was the only one who was aware of its existence and wanted to share my great discovery with others.

“Nyet. We will walk,” Andrei said in Russian.

I pleaded my case a littler harder.

“Okay. Fine. You take funicular. We go by foot.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said, catching him off guard that I would actually take him up on his offer to do it alone. We headed toward the entrance, only to discover that there was a two and a half hour wait.

“You got to be kidding me!” I said in my familiar refrain.

“Let’s take a cab,” Olya suggested.

“Even better,” I said, completely unaware of how wrong I was. Across the way were dozens of gypsy cabs, desperate for desperate tourists like us – especially American ones. Olya negotiated a price, before parting ways with Andrei, who was going to hike down alone, reminding us once again he can do it quicker without us.

Olya and I got into the cab, which like almost every other cab in Ukraine is a beat-up clunker with requisite religious icons on display. And considering the ride we had to endure, we needed every possible one. If there was a patron saint of taxi passengers, he certainly saved us that day.

The ride began innocently enough, but mostly because of the swarms of people, camels and muzzled bears blocking the flow of traffic. Once we made our way to open road (if you consider a windy, twisted road an open road), the nightmare began. Let me put it this way. The driver – who couldn’t have been more than twenty – made Maxim look like a novice. At least Maxim had a mostly straight road ahead of him. This guy did not, but he drove as though he did, on-coming traffic be damned. In fact, there were moments where I wondered if maybe his brake lines were cut, especially as we were whipped and jerked back and forth in the seatbelt-less backseat. At times, it literally felt as though we were spinning around and around in circles, much like that of a Sit-and-Spin.

As we approached yet another sharp turn, rather than slowing down like a rational driver would do to make sure there was no oncoming traffic, he simply honked his horn like an out of control maniac to warn any upcoming traffic. There were definitely a few close calls with both oncoming traffic and pedestrians, which usually resulted in oncoming traffic to quickly swerve to the side of the road, narrowly avoiding hitting a tree head-on – or worse, swerving off the mountain entirely. Pedestrians simply had to dive or dart into the woods.

Forty-five minutes later, we somehow made it to the bottom of the mountain. Bruised. But alive. Somehow, miraculously alive.

I looked up at Ai-petri one last time in utter astonishment and was filled with an unexpected sense of pride.

More by this author’s foray into Ukranian life at

Excerpt from from “Love & Vodka” by R. J. Fox.
Published by Fish Out of Water Books, Now available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
© 2015 by R.J. Fox. All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without prior written permission from
the publisher.

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