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Biking the Crimean coast.

On guided two-week trips, you explore vineyards, historic villages, and more

Any type of travel in the former Soviet Union is bound to be an adventure. But joining a cycling trek boosts your chances of experiencing the positive side of the unexpected in this rapidly changing part of the world.

Two-wheel travel offers closer contact with the people and the land than any bus tour--whether it's coming across a villager who asks you to pass along a message to relatives in Chicago, laughing with schoolchildren anxious to try out their English, or simply pedaling along a lightly traveled road on a balmy day.

Cycling tours for foreigners are still a fairly new phenomenon in Russia and neighboring republics. Some of the pioneer companies no longer operate here because of the political instability. But others consider the unique rewards well worth the risks.

In 1990, I joined one of the first groups of Westerners to bike the Crimean coast. The southeastern littoral of the Black Sea peninsula, now part of Ukraine, has a mild climate that earned it the nickname "the Soviet Riviera" and made it popular with vacationing Soviet citizens (including former leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was on holiday there during August's ill-fated coup).

As an American whose impression of the climate here was formed by the seemingly endless winters of Doctor Zhivago, I was amazed to find myself in a place that reminded me of northern California's wine country, with its vineyard-covered hillsides.

Guided by an exceedingly helpful local team, we rode southwest from Sudak along the undulating coast, averaging about 25 miles a day. Along the way, we toured relics that reflected the diversity of the Crimea's settlers over the ages: a Genoese fort, a Jewish cave city, the palace of the Tatar khans. At night, we settled into modest hotels in resort towns such as Yalta, where we visited Livadia Palace, the site of the history-making 1945 conference.

Crimean roads are in very good shape (a fact not lost on the Soviet national cycling team, which trained in the region). Touring cyclists, on the other hand, don't have to be; the sag wagon gave riders a lift when they didn't feel like riding up another hill.

Not everything was as dependable as the roads, however. We learned to ask at the hotels when hot water would be available for showers and washing clothes, rather than assume it would be there whenever we wanted it. A number of other things that we take for granted--like toilet paper--were in short supply, too; fortunately, the tour operator was diligent in keeping us up-to-date on current shortages before we left, so we could pack accordingly.

This year, REI Adventures is offering four two-week trips, in May, June, and September. Costs range from $1,300 to $1,600, depending on group size (5 to 15 persons), and include use of a mountain or touring bike. For information, write or call REI Adventures, Box 1938, Sumner, Wash. 98390; (800) 622-2236 or (206) 891-2631.
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Title Annotation:Beyond the West
Author:Mahoney, David
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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