Ai-Petri mountain is a white limestone sentinel (actually the remains of a onetime coral bed beneath the Black Sea) towering over the surrounding countryside and town of Alupka at an elevation of 1,234 meters. That’s nearly 4,000 feet, and while 4,000 feet elevation may not sound all that impressive, what makes it memorable is how Ai-Petri rises to this height directly from sea level in a very abrupt manner. Taking the cable car ride to the top will prove this to you in short order, though I have to warn you this is not a trek for the faint of heart.

All I could think of as the gondola soared skyward was “I sure hope the cable has been inspected occasionally since the end of the Soviet Union and doesn’t snap like a dry twig when we’re halfway up and send us plummeting onto the jagged rocks below.” But it’s hard not to have such thoughts when you’re riding up the sheer face of this mountain that looms above you. On the other hand, if you can relax and put thoughts of imminent doom out of mind, the view is breathtaking and the ride is fun in a scary amusement park kind of way. I can’t even say for sure how long the ride lasts as one tends to lose track of time when your life passes before your eyes in a blur. Probably more than five and less than ten minutes.

Start of tram ride, Ai-Petri looming above

(Start of tram ride, Ai-Petri looming above)

The ride began in the hamlet of Mishkor at sea level. There was quite a long line of people waiting their turn so when we stepped inside the gondola after about a fifteen minute wait, it was very full. We ascended slowly and not very steeply at first, passing over vineyards and treetops which nearly brushed the gondola’s belly. Soon the ascent steepened, taking us to a tower at approximately the halfway point where we disembarked and got into a second car. We had a moment or two to look back the way we’d come, already having gained maybe a thousand vertical feet and seeing the village of Mishkor and lots of nice greenery spread out below. When we looked the other way, all I could see was up. You could get neck strain doing this for too long, not to mention a serious case of let-me-off-this-thing-I-changed-my-mind panic setting in.

Up and away through the trees

(Up and away through the trees)

The gondola took off with a small jolt and up we went, the ascent coming at an increasingly, relentlessly vertical angle from this point the rest of the way to the top. I couldn’t decide which way to look – back the way we’d come, which afforded a view of nothing but thin air and a feeling of floating like a bird (but last time I checked I didn’t have feathers and had pretty much given up the idea of flying at age twelve when I jumped off the roof of my cousin’s garage in my Superman outfit and belly-flopped to earth) or forward where I could see only jagged granite spires waiting hungrily to sink their teeth into us when the cable inevitably snapped. I was glad the gondola was so packed with people, as this made it impossible to look straight down over the side which might have been even scarier. I also had the fleeting thought that if indeed this thing came loose and ended up cartwheeling down the mountainside, at least there would be plenty of other bodies inside to cushion the impact and maybe, just maybe, I would survive.

Nah, probably not.

Sea, sky, and rocks

(Sea, sky, and rocks)

Once you reach the top and disembark and finish kissing the ground and your legs stop shaking, you walk out onto the observation areas where the views are among the most stunning you’ll ever encounter. You stand perched on the edge of Ai-Petri mountain with only an iron railing to prevent that next step forward off the deck and a whole lot of nothing between you and the rocks a couple thousand feet below. Vertigo sufferers and agoraphobiacs should not approach.

On top of Ai-Petri

(On top of Ai-Petri)

About to dock at the Space Station. Okay, not quite that high, but close!

(About to dock at the Space Station. Okay, not quite that high, but close!)

Halfway there, looking east

(Halfway there, looking east)

Gaze out on the shoreline and Black Sea spread out beneath you and the whole experience is almost surreal. Gigantic barges float past, birds soar along the cliff edge, and the sun sparkles blindingly off the sea as cloud shadows race across the lowlands in the distance. From the right vantage point you can see all the way back to Yalta. The wind blows incessantly up the mountainside, and on the day we visited, which was sunny and quite hot below, the difference in temperature was dramatic. We stood there shivering in our shorts and t-shirts, wishing we’d had the foresight to pack jackets or sweaters, so that’s my advice to anyone else going there. No matter how warm the day is down below, bring extra clothing, as clouds can blow in quickly and produce seismic shifts in the weather, as it did the day we visited.

We strolled the cliff edge taking in the views for a long time and then poked around in the small village which clings to the mountaintop. As the temperature dropped and rain moved in, we decided this would be a good time for lunch, and found our way into a cozy upstairs eatery which specialized in Tatar cuisine. Here you sit Middle-eastern style at low tables, cross-legged on cushions on a raised platform, no chairs. It’s actually quite comfortable if a little difficult to squeeze into initially. The food was fabulous, plov, a rice/meat/vegetable dish, and shashlik, which is meat and veggies roasted on a skewer.

Lunch time, hookah optional

(Lunch time, hookah optional)

We took our time eating since we could see and hear the rain and wind battering the windows while we feasted. Luckily for us, the storm passed over about the same time we finished and we emerged to a wetter, colder mountaintop. We strolled and shivered for a time, hoping the sun might break out again and warm us up. You can take a camel or pony ride if you want (we passed) and for some reason there are two World War II vintage German army staff cars and some other Nazi paraphenalia such as helmets and uniforms on display. I’m assuming this is gear either left behind by or captured from the Nazis.

Souvenir village

(Souvenir village)

Vendors sell heavy-duty, hand-woven, woolen vests and bulky sweaters for reasonable prices and we decided now would be a good time to invest in one, if only to stop Irina’s teeth from chattering so hard they might soon break. We actually intended to give the vest to her Mom as a gift, but figured we might as well make good use of it in the meantime. We walked a bit more and finally gave up hope the weather would improve significantly enough to warrant hanging around any longer.

Camel ride, anyone

(Camel ride, anyone)

When it comes time to descend the mountain, you basically have two options. Well, three if you include base jumping, but none of us were much interested in that. So it was either take the cable car back the way we came, or taxi bus. We opted for the bus, and yes, we regretted it in the end, but that’s getting ahead of myself. I mean, who knew a van could actually slalom all the way down a mountainside without benefit of snow?

Next tram arriving

(Next tram arriving)

Looking back the way we came

(Looking back the way we came)

Our reasoning was we’d already gone up the mountain on the cable car, why not see things from a different perspective on the way down? Seems like perfectly valid reasoning to me. We found the staging area for rides headed back downhill toward Yalta and other lowland destinations, chose our bus and boarded, thankful to be out of the wind chill. Soon, however, with the engine running and the heater cranked full bore, it became stifling while we waited for the bus to fill up.

Up among the clouds

(Up among the clouds)

Town of Alupka below

(Town of Alupka below)

Eventually we departed, and for the first ten minutes or so we meandered through the sparsely wooded flatlands atop the mountain, relaxing and enjoying the ride. Then we began to go down, and with a vengeance. I’ve been on many a narrow, winding, mountain road before, with switchbacks and hairpin turns aplenty, but I think this one outdid them all. It felt like someone had dumped the worlds longest limp spaghetti noodle onto the mountainside and paved it, then decided to remove large chunks of the pavement just to make it more challenging. So you’ve got neverending twists and turns nonstop for about half an hour, no shoulder whatsoever, potholes to dodge, a tree-lined road barely wide enough to accommodate two vehicles passing one another, and, oh yeah, the road was slicker than snot from all the rain. Probably the tires were bald, too, but I never checked on that.

None of this would have mattered much if we had been in the hands of a reasonable, professional driver who might have taken into account the conditions. But, no, we found ourselves hurtling down Ai-Petri mountain with the bastard child of a fourth-rate stock-car driver and Lucretia Borgia behind the wheel. Or maybe I’m completely wrong and this guy was in fact the greatest driver who’s ever lived. How else to explain how he could have done the things he did and yet I lived to tell the tale?

I figure he must have been late for a hot date in town as I don’t think he ever hit the brake pedal once, and had no apparent regard for the concept of staying to the right. As far as this guy was concerned, the road was all his and no one else had better challenge him for it. This seemed especially true every time we entered one of the innumerable hairpin turns and he fishtailed through it right across the entire width of the road. After about ten minutes of this I became convinced I would be one of those ten second stories you hear on the morning news.

“A group of twenty tourists, including one American, died a horrible, fiery death when their bus crashed while descending a mountainside in Ukraine yesterday. And now, here’s Kimmy with your weekend weather forecast.”

Yalta in the distance

(Yalta in the distance)

My wife Irina suffers from motion sickness, and I’ve been known to get queasy on airplanes, though I rarely feel bad in motor vehicles. Not this time. We both were looking for something suitable to barf into when her son, Alex, who was sitting behind us, tapped Irina on the shoulder and asked if she had some kind of plastic bag. The poor guy was about the shade of a ripe avocado and how he managed to keep his lunch down, I don’t know, but manage it he did.

You know how you’re sometimes in a really bad situation and you think, okay, this can’t possibly get any worse, and then of course it does? We’re careening down the mountain when this very thought comes to me and then I hear a cell phone ring. And, yes, I swear to God, the driver reaches across the dashboard, picks up his cell phone, answers it and begins to talk. It’s not enough we’re spiraling downhill like an out of control bobsled, lurching and swerving and skidding across the entire road through blind corners. Now this moron wants to steer one-handed while he jabbers on the phone to his cousin, the village idiot.

This went on for several minutes while I somehow restrained myself from jumping up and grabbing his phone and chucking it out the window. What difference could it make? I knew I was going to die anyway. I started looking around for a priest to give us all last rites, and I saw one, but he was on his knees praying to save his own butt.

Well, somehow we made it down intact. No one barfed or died or even had a seizure, but I did make myself one promise. If I ever return to Ai-Petri, I’m parachuting down.

Coming soon: Vorontsov Palace

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