Travels: Yalta and Belarus

The last couple of weeks have been a blur of overnight trains and rucksacks.
Although I’m writing to you with a sore throat and a body that has not yet recovered from sleeping about 8 hours over 5 days, I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to go on these adventures to Yalta and Belarus.
Let’s start with Yalta.
Pretty much nothing about this trip went to plan.
We were supposed to be a party of three, but sadly (and understandably) Katie decided that the pull of Odessa and her own bed was just too strong as she had been travelling for the past two weeks. So, Erinn and I ventured out as a twosome on the late night train to Simferopol in Crimea.
Having arrived, we shunned the longest trolleybus route in the world in favour of a slightly quicker marshrutka to Yalta in order to save a bit of time. I wasn’t skilled enough to get any good photos out of the window, but the journey took us pretty high up into the hills, where we got a great view of snow-capped mountains. Beautiful.
We also learned that Erinn’s friends who were supposed to join us now had to work, and that the list of things we wanted to see in Yalta were, in fact, all closed. Our dreams of seeing the Swallow’s Nest castle and riding the cable car were shattered by the blizzard and the shaking head of our apartment owner. “Impossible”, she said.
So, faced with a weekend of nothing but each other and an off-season beach resort, we responded in the only way we know how: let’s eat.
And drink wine out of Martini glasses.
Uzbek cuisine made its debut in our lives at this restaurant next to the sea.

And we found an excellent biznes lanch at the theatre restaurant, where we ate all our troubles away and admired the beautiful building.

 Under the watchful eye of Lenin we explored the town which is known as the playground of the Tsars (and perhaps now rich Muscovites).

Before the wind started roaring and broke one of our windows, there were actually some signs of spring approaching. 
One adventure down.
Last Wednesday night was the start of another, and my first solo train journey in Ukraine. There is a direct train from Odessa to Minsk but, true to form, it didn’t run on the days I needed it so I took the train Odessa-Kiev, spent a day wandering in Kiev, took the night train to Minsk, and then on the way back bit the bullet and flew Minsk-Kiev and then trained it again down to Odessa. Sleep did not factor an awful lot into those plans and I am knackered. But it was so worth it.
The reason the Cambridge population of Minsk increased by about 500% last weekend was that a group of us descended on the Belarussian capital for the wedding of our friend Jonny to his then fiancée Alesia.
Before I tell you about the awesomeness that was the wedding, I just wanted to mention the fortuitous and funny things that happened prior to this. To cut a long story short, on my journey up to Kiev it turned out that the people in the next compartment were two English teachers from the school two minutes from my flat. They teach people I know and we have friends in common (small world) and they had befriended the Turkish guy also in their compartment, who seemed extremely glad of some English chat. They insisted that we all have tea together, so the poor other person in their compartment was subject to some very loud laughter and possible tea-envy into the early hours of the morning. We were awoken with a cheerful “Good morning comrades!” from the carriage attendant. No joke.
On Thursday, Okan (the Turkish guy) and I had a wander in Kiev and I introduced him to the delights of Puzata Xata (an amazing and cheap Ukrainian restaurant).

The train we took to Belarus was certainly nicer than the ones they use for the Kiev-Odessa route, and what made the journey all the more pleasant was sharing a cabin with a woman and her son who seemed intent on feeding me croissants. As soon as she discovered that I was British she told me: “Russian, no! English, yes!” I could only apologise to her poor son Misha who was forced to practise. Rather than a cheerful train attendant, we were woken up by a seemingly annoyed Belarussian border guard at 3am who spent a whole 5 minutes studying my obviously suspect documents.
After a joyful but very tired reunion with the other Cambridge guys at the flat, Toby, Esther and I headed to the church to help out with preparing food for the big day. We got to hang out with some of Alesia’s friends, who are LOVELY and made us feel so welcome.
Lunch break.
 Mollie and I took a little walk in the evening.

And found ‘aristocratic tea’!
The wedding was beautiful, and it was so special to share this day with Jonny and Alesia.
Some things, though, did take us by surprise. First of all, the groom must take part in challenges in order to win his bride. These took place in Alesia’s apartment building, and involved Jonny having to answer a multitude of questions about his fiancée. 

The second unusual thing for us was the presence of two MCs to lead proceedings, notably games (including one involving a mind-reading hat, who knew). Many many games. Anyone who knows me will know that any kind of organised fun, games included, stresses me out, so when I was called up to participate I was not best pleased. BUT it turns out that Belarus brings out my competitive streak, so I got very into the game (collecting items from the audience e.g. an empty plate or a man’s watch as fast as possible) and came away with a respectable third place. Achievement!
At a British wedding, it is customary for perhaps 3 people to give a speech. Not so at a Belarussian wedding. As the MCs invited more and more people up to speak, it slowly dawned on us that we would have to say something. Perhaps not our finest moment in terms of oratory, but the sentiment was there 😉

Look at this beauuuutiful bride. Can’t wait to get to know her better next year when she comes to Cambridge!

Esther was the lucky girl who caught the bouquet, and was kind enough to share her spoils with us.
No reunion can be complete without beer.

On the way home I flew on this rather cute plane, and happened to be sitting next to a BBC journalist who works between Minsk and Kiev. Between that and the complimentary tea and chocolate, it was a good journey.
Sunday afternoon Kiev.
I was pretty darn (this word has suddenly entered my vocabulary ..) pleased to be back in my own bed, having slept on night trains for 3 nights and slept with a coat for a duvet another 2. But what a special and surreal few days.
 The other thing vaguely of note over the past weeks is that I turned the big 21. How on earth did we get so old? If someone else says the words “You’re a proper grown up now”, I will be forced to hit them. I refuse.

We had dinner and wine and it was really rather lovely 🙂
Also, happy Easter for last weekend! 
I am in love with this song. Looking out of the window of all these trains, planes and buses made me think: He really does make beautiful things.
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