The Angels and Demons of the Demerdzhi Mountain Range
Heavenly forces don’t take the easy way. In order to roll a rock from the sea up to the top of a mountain, they can first level the mountain, chisel its fragments with the tide, dry the sea and raise a new mountain range from the depths of the sea.
The same rock will be perched on the top. This is the short history of Demerdzhi, probably the most beautiful place in Ukraine, at least in autumn. For thousands of years this beauty has drawn people to it.
THE WORLD IN MINIATURE
Anything that was even a few steps away was concealed from my view by a dense fog. Theoretically, I was supposed to be able to see a grand panoramic view from here, stretching from Ayu-Dag all the way to Kara-dag. In actuality, I could not even see the third person going up the hill in front of me. Moreover, I had an old Soviet tent in my backpack – it had absorbed so much moisture overnight, that it seemed to weigh as much as 15kg. Excessive weight on your back is not conducive to appreciating the beauty of this world. We were climbing Demerdzhi. My first impression of this mountain was not favourable.
Finally, a faint outline of one of the rocks in the Crown showed through the fog. The overall gloom that my travel companions were overcome with was not dispelled, not even by the realization that we were on the right track. Then suddenly, the rock in front of us lit up with a pale golden glow: barely visible at first and then increasingly bright. It was as if melted gold was boiling in the air. Perhaps this is how angels appear to people… A moment later, it seemed as if the fog curtain was pulled back by an invisible hand: we had not able to see more than a dozen metres, but could now see the horizon and beyond! Rocks rose before us. Behind them was a gaping, kilometre-deep abyss. The sea was way down below, sunrays glistening on its waves. This is how I fell in love with Demerdzhi.
In Alushta, if you stand with your back to the sea, you will see the majestic canopy of Chatyr-Dag right in front of you and Demerdzhi creeping up to the coastline on the right. At 1,239 metres, this mountain would only tickle the ankles of Everest, but it appears impressive, grand and even unapproachable if viewed from Alushta. This landscape reflects the whole world like a mirror: Japan and the South of France, Scotland and New Zealand. Filmmaker Leonid Gaidai shot his comedy about a captive woman, set in the Caucasus, right here. The Englishmen turned it into Spain in their series about the adventures of Lieutenant Sharpe. These same locations were then used by Ukrainian cameramen to recreate Turkey for our Roksolana. The rocks in the Valley of Ghosts became the Andes in the Ukrainian-Russian film, Hearts of Three.
TWO GOTHIC STATES
The rulers of the Khazar Khanate founded a settlement here in the dark Middle Ages. Later, powerful Mangup princes built their castle on this site, several decades before the fall of the Principality of Theodoro. This was such a long time ago, that the walls of Constantinople had not yet heard the singing of muezzins and Prince Yury Dmitrievich was fighting against Vasiliy Temny over Moscow. In other words, it was so long ago that even the Sun still rotated around the Earth, because Copernicus had yet to be born, and there was no-one around to explain the obvious. It was back in the time when two Gothic states, one true and the other feigned, bared their teeth against each other. The true one was the diminutive Principality of Theodoro, lying in three valleys to the south and west of Bakhchysarai. The territory comprised the Gothic eparchy with its centre on Mangup Mountain. The feigned Gothic state was Gothia Maritima founded by Italians on the southern coast of the Crimea.
The two Gothic states confronted each other. Although both were populated by Christians, the Mangup prince had a constant ally in his pagan neighbour, the Crimean khan. Conflicts between the two states led to the construction of a small castle. Whereas the Italians built fortresses on the seacoast, the residents of Theodoro had to build their own fortifications. This is how the Funa castle emerged across the valley from the Genoese Aluston fortress, Lusta in Italian, to counterbalance it.
The story of Funa was short and inglorious. First, the citadel was destroyed by an earthquake and then by enemies (it is not clear whether Italians or Ottoman Turks). Rebuilt after the calamities that befell it in the mid-15th century, it was finally seized by the Turks in the summer of 1475. Theodoro’s residents were later replaced in this fantastic locality by the Crimean Tatars.
Beauty can be treacherous and the seeming solidity of mountains deceptive. In the late 19th century, part of the mountain fell on Demerdzhi, a Tatar settlement. Now, only centuries-old walnut trees scattered among the rocks mark the places where people used to live more than a hundred years ago. In the spring of 1944, even the remaining residents were gone. Those who came in their stead renamed Demerdzhi to Luchyste. Even now they tell incredible stories about the treasures that settlers found in the ruins of old Tatar houses and about the panic which came over the former residents of Ryazan and Alma-Ata Oblasts when they saw night fog rise from the sea for the first time in their lives.
In the darkness, it seemed as if the sea itself, rather than fog, was rising up the mountains.
A BROCKEN SPECTRE
It was in these conditions that I saw a Brocken spectre on Demerdzhi. It was early November, and fog was rising from the valley. All of a sudden, I saw a shadow surrounded by a glow right before me on the side opposite to the setting sun … Around the dark contour of a person with a rainbow-like halo around its head. The spectre moved ahead of me, and when I waved to it, it waved back!
It was an ordinary miracle – no mysticism, just an optical illusion. It was my own shadow marvelously reflected in droplets of fog. Unfortunately, I did not know at the time that a Brocken spectre can be captured on camera. Back then, I was so fascinated by playing with it that I simply forgot to take photos.
Demerdzhi also has wondrous climate – it performs healing miracles. My hypothesis is that this is a result of endorphinotherapy: the beauty of the place triggers a true explosion of happiness hormones.
Finally, an autumn experience I had on Demerdzhi, you could say, laid a powerful bomb under the materialistic view of the world. Here is a small lead-up to the story. In the guestbook from a previous photographic exhibition of mine, I found several pages with very nice poems. They ended with a prose postscript expressing the wish to “have an artistic meeting in a city if not in the Crimea”. A phone number was left which I tried to call, but there was a problem with the connection at the time, and later, of course, I forgot all about it. Sometime later, I was back on Demerdzhi. I spotted a fellow photographer on a neighbouring rock in the Valley of Ghosts who was also taking photos. There were just the two of us there. At sunset we met again, struck up a conversion and introduced ourselves. What followed next defies common sense: my interlocutor began reciting poems in which I recognized the topics of my old photos. It turned out that this was the same poet who wanted to meet me “in a city if not in the Crimea”. And now in the Crimea we were! Very Coelho-esque… This convinces me that Demerdzhi is a place where miracles are an ordinary, routine and even regular occurrence.
PLACES TO STAY
Luchyste has several small hotels owned by horse ranches. If you are an amateur horse rider, they are just the place for you. But prices are at a level of resorts on the southern coast. The cheaper option is to knock on a door of any house and ask to stay overnight. You will be welcomed by the hosts or given an address where you can stay. Village houses are less comfortable, but the price will be a pleasant surprise.
HOW TO GET THERE
Take a train to Simferopol and a bus or trolleybus from there to Alushta. Get off on “Lavanda”, the first stop after the Angarskyi Pass. This is the starting point for the road leading to Luchyste. You can take a local bus, but the wait can sometimes be inconveniently long. You can take the one-hour walk in good weather. Alternatively, you can get a lift from a passing car.