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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hikers Make Tracks for Cave Cities of Crimea

After hiking for two hours, we suddenly froze: At the foot of a cliff, hidden by trees, sat an egg-shaped stone, twice as tall as a person, perforated with dozens of holes. We stepped through the largest one, shaped like a door, right into a church carved more than a millennium ago.

On a fresco f faded and scratched by ancient and modern-day vandals, but still stunningly blue, golden and red f three angels ride horses. The floor, still bearing deep grooves left by ancient tools, revealed three shallow empty graves in the shape of human bodies.

There were six of us f two men and four women from Moscow f seeking adventure on an eight-day hiking and camping trip around the cave towns and monasteries in the mountains of Crimea, a peninsula hanging off of Ukraine.

There were two more, absolutely crucial members of our team: the bearded and sun-baked Yury Osipov and the doting, chain-smoking Nadezhda Smolentseva, who for years have been leading hikers through Crimea and seemed to know every twist of the paths we were to water with our sweat.

The mountains of Crimea rise no higher than 1,550 meters above sea level, but for all of us, it was our first mountain hiking trip. We each paid $70 for the trip, which covered all of our expenses except for the train tickets to Simferopol, the meeting point.

A direct train from Moscow dropped us in Simferopol in the middle of the night. After camping out at a dormitory in the train station, we rose on the morning of May 1 to face a vivid reincarnation of the International Workers' Day parade that we all remembered from our Soviet childhood. Among the red banners and pictures of Lenin, school children dressed like Young Pioneers marched in rows. From loudspeakers boomed: "For the Soviet, Socialist Ukraine, Hurray!" and "Long live Soviet Youth!"

The Russian empire took control of Crimea in 1783 after defeating the last Tatar khan. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev transferred the peninsula to Ukraine, but after the demise of the Soviet Union, Crimean Russians f who had been in the majority after Stalin deported Crimean Tatars for alleged collaboration with the Nazis f demanded that Crimea become a part of Russia again. But with Ukrainian independence and the return of thousands of Tatars, the situation became even more politically complicated. Crimea remains a fairly autonomous republic within Ukraine.

From Simferopol, where we were joined by our instructors, we took a bus to Bakhchisarai, a sleepy town with dusty, narrow, winding streets that once was the capital of the last Crimean khans. Their palace, with its fountains, intricately carved grave stones and shady gardens, is the main attraction.

We then walked a few kilometers to the first cave town we would see: Chufut-Kale, Turkish for Jewish Castle.

The cave cities, protected by almost vertical cliffs with few roads leading to them, were built between the 6th and 12th centuries. Fortifications, soldiers' barracks, shelters for the animals and storage for grain and wine were carved into the limestone mountains.

Later, the Mongol armies of the Golden Horde captured the cities from their Christian inhabitants. The last dwellers of these mountaintop cities were the Karaites f from Hebrew qara, "to read" f a Jewish sect dating back to 8th-century Persia.

Chufut-Kale is often packed with tourists on day-trips from Crimean seaside resort towns. To flee the packs of children and their mothers struggling up the bluff in their high heels, we moved by minivan to Manhup-Kale, a mountain about 22 kilometers from Bakhchisarai that has four distinct cliffs.

We made camp at the foot of the mountain, and over the next two days, set off on day hikes to get used to the rugged terrain without our packs.

To the amusement of our instructors, we decided to spend our first night under the open sky. Awakening to the first rays of sun was worth every minute spent turning from side to side trying to warm up in the early morning cold. When the sun rose, it flickered through a hole at the very tip of one of Manhup-Kale's peaks. The next day, we hiked to that hole to find a giant cave carved for guards.

It was on the second day of our trip, near a cave town on the top of Eske-Kermen mountain, when we stumbled into the Church of the Three Riders with the colorful fresco.

Centuries ago, Eske-Kermen withstood years of siege, but fell into enemy hands when a traitor showed a secret well dug inside a cliff. The well, with steep giant steps leading from the top of the mountain to its very bottom, has survived the centuries can still be climbed.

Now, aside from a single rusty plaque announcing that the sites are officially designated historic monuments, nothing protects the ancient city, and hikers camp in the old caves f often leaving trash behind.

From our base camp near Manhup-Kale, we headed into the mountains on foot, slowly getting used to the weight of our packs and the feel of the straps cutting into our shoulders.

We passed new Tatar villages and old Soviet-style cities, buying the local fresh bread and young cheese.

Usually, we covered about 20 kilometers a day on foot, but a few times we cheated by hopping on buses. We collected wood in the forest, and took turns cooking meals with buckwheat and canned meat, accompanied by salad.

On the seventh day of our trip f a gray day that followed a rainy night when we sought refuge in a rangers hut f we entered the Big Crimean Canyon, a narrow canyon with a chain of bizarrely shaped pools made by a clear blue mountain stream.

We headed for the largest of them, called the Tub of Youth, where despite a temperature of only 9 degrees and the grumbles of our guide, we dropped our clothes and jumped into water so icy cold it made us scream. Fog wrapped the tips of the snow-covered mountains and single pines clung to the tips of the cliffs lining the canyon. Our skin burned from the freezing water, but our bodies felt suddenly light and strong.

Ahead lay a daylong climb with our backpacks. We walked across meadows of purple flowers covered with ice that cracked under our boots and a wind-whipped plateau with wicked twisted trees.

In the end we were treated to the unexpected turquoise expanse of the Black Sea far below us and rewarded with a steamy banya at the rescuers base on the top of Ai-Petri mountain.

How to Get There

Trains from Moscow to Simferopol leave from the Kursky Station. The trip takes 26 hours and one-way tickets cost 760 rubles. Aeroflot flies to Simferopol daily for about $190 round trip, but flights to nearby Russian cities are much cheaper.

How to Organize a Trip

Make arrangements through the Moscow Association of Travelers, Tel. 928-4810. Or call Yury Osipov and Nadezhda Smolentseva directly in Bakhchisarai, Tel. 294-82.