The Song of the Volga Boatwoman
As you all probably know Russia is the largest country in the world - and as we only had two weeks left on our visa after leaving Moscow there was a fair chance that we wouldn't get to see too much of it. We decided to head for Kazakhstan via the southern route which has taken us along the Volga River. All of this area was closed to foreigners during the Soviet era and the area is only just beginning to open up. This makes it especially interesting - particularly to us whose total Russian language amounts to hello, goodbye and thank-you (we are getting better at reading the alphabet if not speaking it). That said we have been given very warm welcomes wherever we have stopped, people have gone out of their way to help us, and we are becoming real fans of the country.....
We caught an afternoon express train from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod (good name eh!) through a mostly flat marshy landscape dotted with dachas and the odd wooden village. After that Nizhny came as something of a surprise - a large cosmopolitan city lying at the confluence of the Oka and the Volga Rivers. It took a while to find the tram into town, and a bit of a walk to find a hotel but we eventually got the ultimate 'room with a view' overlooking the Volga with a continual stream of river traffic passing the window. We were both happy bunnies! The river brought one unfortunate extra with plenty of large mosquitoes and sandflies in constant attendance. Luckily I had had the foresight to bring Anne with me - she works very well as mosquito bait!!! (Also a range of insect repellents and electric killers help).
We spent a couple of nights in town - there are a few sights - one of those ski jumps that you see on TV but this one seemed to have been built in the thirties and not maintained much since. It was still in use though - we saw one lunatic launching himself off the lower dry jump. There is also a Kremlin, complete with tanks and anti aircraft guns, and plenty of shops to browse around.
Next up was an overnight train to Kazan - capital of the Autonomous Republic of Tartarstan. When I was young my grandma always used to call me a 'little tartar' so I was keen to go and meet the rest of my brethren. The tartars caused quite a bit of trouble in medieval Russia - taking over the entire country at one point and a sizeable portion of Eastern Europe to boot. They were finally kicked out in 1550 and have been confined to the middle Volga region (and the Crimea in Ukraine) ever since. The main difference is that the Tartars are muslims - the first indigenous muslim area we have encountered since Birmingham. There are plenty of Russians living in Kazan as well who are mostly Christians but the two communities seem to be living perfectly happily alongside each other from what we could see. The Kremlin contains a large and impressive mosque and an orthodox cathedral - although the church/mosque ratio in the town itself seems to be weighted on the church side.
We arrived at 6.00 am and took nearly 3 hours to find a room - most of the hotels being full. Kazan celebrated 1000 years of existence in 2005 and has had a major facelift. This has generated quite a bit of Russian tourism hence our problem. We were hoping to try to get a boat from here down the Volga to our next port of call - Samara about 300km to the south. We found the river station with no problems, but the only boats these days seem to be local ferry boats. The long distance craft are now only cruise ships where it seems you have to buy the whole holiday package (and also it seems come back to where you started from). This was all incidental as there were no ships of any type going down to Samara when we had to go and so we resorted to our first Russian bus trip.
The bus took a shortcut across country down some 'interesting' minor roads thus knocking a good 4 hours off the expected time. That said - 6 hours bumping around wasn't that much fun even with 3 films to watch (Fight Club in Russian - I still don't understand what the fuss is about!). The landscape changed slightly to a more agricultural character, but the effects of collectivisation on the countryside were plain to see. The villages were more just collections of houses than proper communities, although some of them seem to be making an effort to change this. Many of these collectives are now being abandoned while everyone heads for a modern life in the cities. Just as we approached Samara we came across the first significant hills we have seen since we arrived in Russia.
Samara was originally going to be a one night stop while we bought a ticket to Kazakhstan. Unfortunately it seems that there is quite a bit of pressure on these trains and the earliest one we could get is a month away! Plan B has therefore had to be put into action where we head as far as we can in the correct direction taking whatever transport is available. This has meant a delay of two days waiting for a day train to Orenburg which is about two thirds of the way to the border and looks big enough to have a hotel. Samara has turned out to be a very nice place to spend a couple of days though, the Volga here is very wide with islands in it. The town has a promenade alongside the river complete with sandy beaches, volleyball, sunshades, tacky souvenir stands - just like the seaside. The older part of town, where we are staying, also has hundreds of old wooden houses with very ornate carved frontages - Anne has quite a collection of photos to bore you all with when we get back. These houses are not regarded as anything special by the Russians and we doubt if many will survive much longer - a shame because they look really nice and give the place plenty of character.
Note for Laurie at Macc Marina:- There is a distinct shortage of Vulgar Boatmen - could be a job for you here!!!!