The oak forest gave way to an open, shady orchard of walnut trees and I slowed to a walk. It was calm and cool in the shadows and I took pleasure in the way that my gear jingled ever slow slightly. The hoofs of my three horses clopped quietly along the dry sandy track. This was a Crimean Tatar orchard planted long before their deportation by Stalin. Its important to remember that Tatar cemeteries were bulldozed, built over and general wiped out after 1944 as if the Stalin regime were trying to erase all evidence of the Tatar history in Crimea. This orchard though, like the elderly who survived the deportation and returned, is alive, and it tells a story that cannot be erased.
The Crimean Tatar’s origins are to be found among the many native peoples of the Crimea such as the Alanis dating back at least one hundred generations. There are three main groups of Tatars with slightly different dialects and cultures- the mountain Tatars, Coastal tatars and steppe Tatars. After WW2 the history books were re-written, and many Russians to this day believe that Crimean Tatars are the wretched ‘Mongol tatar’ who came from the east and destroyed, taking Slavic people into slavery. The Mongolian Empire is seen as a black page in Russia’s history.
Beside the fact that evidence suggests the contrary- that the Mongolian empire not only brought destruction but great development to Russia including the making of the Russian state itself and abolishment of slavery- Crimean Tatars, even philologically, have less in common with Mongolians than the Russians do.
From high above in an old fortress I later looked down on this orchard and the route I had taken. The path of white clay and sand, dating back to the Silk Road days and earlier, winds its way between two dramatic bluffs of rock and leads into the Bakhchisarai gorge. Into these cliffs are carved entire cave cities, monasteries, and lower down even stables and barns. How many a traveller in old times had come off the harsh steppe into this shady forested valley in want of trade and rest? In the gorge itself is Bakhchisrarai, the old capital of the Crimean Khanate.
Further I went to the edge of the town, a few barns made of rock and the particular yellow bricks which are cut out of the ground in Crimea called ‘Rakushki.’ The road now turned to bitumen and I made my way along its meandering bends. Deeper into the gorge the cliffs become more impressive, these great silvery-grey walls rising abruptly and hiding the village from the intense heat and cold on the steppe above.
Deep on the floor of the gorge lie a riot of colours among the many minarets and red ceramic tiled rooves of older homes. After being met by Eldar –a Tatar who I had got to know on a farm in perevalnye-, and his friend Volodya, we rode down to the centre of the old capital, the Khaan’s Palace. The director of the palace had given the guards at the gates orders to let me through.
From the street the palace is at once impressive. A bridge leads over the old moat to great wooden gates. A series of minarets and towers rise from the outer wall inscribed with Arabic text. As we waited at the gates the food sellers who wait for tourists by the gates were in hysterics at seeing the horses. Kok –my golden coloured horse- in the mean time managed to reach and steal a sweet pastry from one of the stalls. One woman came forward and gave me two hot corn kobs. Then as the pastry seller began demanding a dime from me, these great wooden gates began to swing open. The two rather surprised looking men let me through onto the rock-paved square of the palace and into the shadow of the main minaret. Away from the hustle and bustle of the street I was overwhelmed by the sense of calm here. The courtyard was littered with old shady trees, rose gardens, and several fountains.
As a far corner of the Mongolian Empire, then later as the capital of its own Crimean Khanate I couldn’t help marvel at how guests from afar had traditionally been received. Would the Crimean Khan also have demanded that the gates be opened for me? Would he have taken care of my horses, and like so many kazakhs, Kalmiks, Russians, and Tatars have told me en route ‘stay for as long as you need and like!.’? Later during a tour of the palace itself I tried to imagine the banquets, drinking sessions, meetings, tragedies, and comedy that must have taken place here before the Russian Empire took over under Tsar Catherine the Second. I spent two or three hours wandering the court yard and taking photos of what for me was a symbolic moment- I had truly made it somewhere since leaving Mongolia. Tigon on the other hand made the most of the fountains and had a dip in just about all of them before passing out into sleep by the mosque.
Under moonlight I then walked with Eldar to Volodya’s home. Volodya, who is half Russian, half Tatar had slaughtered a rabbit in my honour and upon arrival we feasted on its tender meat with fried potato.
Married to a Russian woman, Volodya had moved to Crimea from the Caucasus in the 1990’s. This plot of land where he lives is called the ‘ Seventh Mini Region’ of Bakhchisarai and is essentially a Tatar enclave. The land is stony, dry, without wells or running water, very poor pasture, and not even rich enough soil to grow vegetables. Upon return from their 45 year exile, Tatars were not given free homes and ‘extra unfair priveleges’ as many in the Russian community like to think. Right across Crimea, the land that the government finally divided up under pressure was almost consistently dry, deserty or mountainous land.
The UN eventually sponsored the drilling of a bore in the 7th Mini Region, but to date the water only flows for two hours twice a week. There are no chemists, no schools, nothing but the basic homes that Tatars managed to scramble to build. At first Volodya recalls how he lived in a tent with his family. He now lives in a tiny shoe-box of a home made of a collection of glass bottles, rakushki bricks, reeds, and mud. He works for a plastic tile factory and his wife makes cushions filled with Crimean Juniper shavings and medicinal grasses at about 10 cents a piece. When considering their trying conditions and the fact that Volodya’s mother was born in a home in the centre of Bakhchisarai before deportation, it can be very insulting to hear things like ‘those tatars are all just rich invaders, they came back here purely for money.’
As I would come to understand over the coming days, Volodya’s position was particularly difficult. “I can understand both the Russian and the Tatar point of view. Russians who talk about the Tatars as being a ‘bad people with bad intentions’ are very misinformed, but Tatars who say that ‘we should deport all Russians in cattle wagons so that they know how we feel’ are also mistaken.”
Volodya’s children who do not speak Tatar are isolated in this region of town and there have been cases when children have bullied them saying that because they are Russians that they should be cut up. On the other hand his Russian friends have told Volodya that Tatars were not deported for nothing. At one time Volodya had been involved in Tatar protests as far as Kiev fighting for Tatar rights, yet because he is not ‘full blood’ Tatar many Tatars view him as a Russian.
The ethnic conflict in Bakhchisarai is probably the most heated in all of Crimea. Here is the most important city religiously ad culturally for Tatars, and in 1991 the government somehow decided that a set of toilets and a bazaar should be built on top of a UNESCO world heritage listed cultural site! Here, a kilometre or two from the Khaan’s Palace lie several mausoleums in a cemetery dating back to the 7th century. Holy men, and a several generations of Khaan’s are buried here.
Ever since the Market’s construction Tatar’s have been lobbying it to be moved. In the highest court of Crimea it was concluded that the market was in fact built illegally without a permit in the first place. Then two years ago the director promised to move within the space of two years. After two years however he began cunningly building a wall around the site at night as if to stake further claims to his territory. One month ago Tatar’s patience came to an end and they put up a picket to prevent the market from working. Most protestors were elderly, and what happened on that first day of protests brought to ahead the ethnic tensions. Russians who had worked along side Tatars began screaming at them calling them ‘sheep’ and holding small placards suggesting ‘take your suitcase and go back to Uzbekistan.’ Then in the afternoon led by the director of the market a group of heavily built Russian men steamed forward and began bashing the Tatars. The director himself was caught on film kicking an old man who already lay on the ground. It was after this that riot police moved in.
I had now happened to arrive in Bakhchisarai at crunch time in terms of affairs at the market. The Ukranian president was in the Crimea, his Prime Minister had just arrived and was in talks with the head of the Tatar self-government, Medglis. With the support of the local leader of Medglis I spent a day on the picket line taking interviews from the Tatars who stood there. In every corner, under every tree sat tens of heavily armoured riot police sweating it out in the heat eating ice creams. Around the corner were another few busloads waiting for trouble. The market itself was a pathetic outdoor bazaar like the many built in the late eighties and early nineties. Most sellers had already moved to the more popular and modern market and shopping centres in the town. Right there next to meat and fruit and vegetable sellers stands one mausoleum surrounded by concrete and not far from a pit toilet. While taking an interview with a Tatar historian who showed me plans for the museum to be erected in place of the market, a drunk Russian man approached us aggressively. Even talk of being interested in history of Tatar culture can solicit aggression and offence among some.
The following day however things were not so quiet. Tatars had gathered from across the country and now the riot police were standing in lines and looking a lot more serious. By the chemist was laid down a large carpet where about 100 men had slept overnight, and where periodically the Muslim call to prayer was carried out. I was on my way to the picket line when came a shout from among the men dozing on the carpet.
“Hey Tim!” It was Islyam, the director of Crimean TV whom I had got to know after the press conference in Semfiropol. I made my way over and shook hands.
“Really we are just tired of this, there has to be a decision made. We are just waiting now for a phonecall from Semfiropol for when a decision has been made duing the talks. We have decided though- signature or no signature we are going to smash the market down ourselves if necessary.”
It was just then that a great whistling came from the picket line. In a flash the dozing men leapt to their feet and suddenly the crowd wash rushing forward in the direction of the market and the riot police. What was happening? Had the signal been given to smash the market?
Grabbing my backpack with video camera I decided to race down too. I had only just got past the picket line though when I felt my body come to a halt. Someone had grabbed my backpack, and I turned around to see a man glaring fiercely with tired angry eyes.
“Hey you! Go back! Go Back! Russian go back!”
I was suddenly surrounded by a group of men who had all mastered this intimidating look.
“Hey, Akhtem himself (the leader of the Medglis of Bachisarai) invited me here!” I said thinking quickly. It didn’t seem to help though until some women with whom I had spoken the day before recognized me.
“Hey he is one of our own, he is the Australian traveller!” they said. The men apologized and suggested that I could also rush forward. I wasn’t taking chances now though and decided to watch from a little distance. It was clear that without a Tatar to escort me it could be dangerous.
Down on riot police line it wasn’t in fact the call to arms. Russian women allegedly sent purposely by the director of the market had arrived to insult and provocate. They hurled insults at the police, saying things like,
“Hey what are you doing police. Let me go to the market. Don’t you know that these tatars are just standing here because they are being paid money for it. They are sheep, all just sheep.”
These provocations happened every twenty minutes or so. They were usually forced back though by a group of tatar men who it seemed were the Tatar heavies.
I spent a few hours at the market but had to leave towards late afternoon to the Khaan’s palace. There the director had arranged for a Tatar musical group to play in the court yard fore me to film. I found the director, Evgeniy though already pretty wobbly on his feet in the process of a banquet celebration in the ‘Cheburekery.’
A little slurred and uncertain he introduced me to the workers of the museum and the palace as ‘the modern marco polo who knew 15 languages and who carried a dried up sheep under his armpit as he rode by horse from Mongolia.’ I was too embarrassed to do anything but look deep into the glass of champagne that had just been handed to me.
Later I recorded some of the music of the group called ‘makhat.’ The head of the group had found Tatar music dating back to the 16th century in libraries of Istanbul in Turkey. The aim was to resurrect Crimean Tatar music, but he was visibly embittered by the fact that the Crimean Government to date would not give his group official status and backing.
It was a night that ironically ended in a swish tatar restaurant bar across the road from the market picket line. Gallons of vodka were ordered to treat me and mallow the rather embittered musical group.
It was the next day that things at the market got out of hand. By the time I arrived I could not get within 300m of the market. There were now over 1000 riot police, army, and other officials. All the shops were shut in the centre of town and groups of large aggressive men roamed back and forth. Some Russians came out looking cut and bloodied boasting about their bravery in the fight. As it turned out 300 Russian men had gathered in the afternoon and stormed the picket of 150 tatars.
This time they had hauled concrete, steel, and rocks. One tatar man had been hit on the head and near bled to death in the crowd before he could be retrieved. Islyam’s car had been overturned and smashed, its tires slit. Many cars in fact had been destroyed before the police stopped things. When I arrived I called Islyam but he said that it was no longer possible for me to get through. I returned to Micro region 7 where busloads of tatars had already left for the market. Around 1500 Tatars in fact had gathered for revenge on these 300 men and surrounded them.It was under these tense conditions that felt to me almost like war that the Prime Minister in Semfiropol finally put down his signature. The next morning I rang Islyam who was back at home resting after three days on the picket line. Apparently the market was to be abolished within a month by government orders.
It was this same morning that I packed up my caravan and headed off north. After more then two and a half months in the Crimea it felt like time to leave. Such an intense place had given me the rest that horses and I had needed but also so much to think about and deal with. I was dreaming of open steppe and just moving.
For the past week I have been travelling across country that is strikingly similar to Kazakhstan- open parched steppe of dry sunburnt grass, and a lot of prickly, salty plants. The temperature has been up around 40 degrees during the day and so I have been riding from 4am in the morning until midday before retiring under a tree. In the evening I sleep under a horse blanket under the stars and have beaten my all time pack-up time record, managing to saddle and pack three horses within an hour.
For five days I essentially saw no one, spoke to no one, and got back in touch with my horses. Travelling through the forest and mountains, from village to village life is o much more claustrophic and intense. The canals which provide water from as far as the Dnieper have been a life saver both for me and the dog. Tigon swims in the canal every 20 minutes or so as we ride along. The biggest danger has been grass fires which tear across the steppe in the hot summer winds. One grass fire front came to just one kilometre from my camp but the winds then sent it in another direction.Yesterday after a long ride in 38 degrees I was met by the Ataman of the Armyansk Cossacks on the neck of the Crimean peninsula. I now sit in his backyard by a salt water pool with my laptop. My horses are tied up here in the back yard by the rose garden looking pretty plump after a decent serving of barely. Tigon on the other hand is passed out in the shade somewhere making the most of the day off.
Tomorrow I will leave the Crimea for the mainland of the Ukraine.
PS A disclaimer here about all of the facts I have written in this update. I have written it very quickly without chance to further research the facts beyond what I was told at the time so there could be some mistakes and misunderstandings in what I have just written in regards to Bakhchisarai and the market conflict.