14th – 21st July
We spent 15 days travelling 2000 miles south and slightly east through Russia. We spent 5 days in St Petersburg, 4 in Moscow and the rest in between. Russia is the largest country on earth, spans 11 time zones and comprises all of Northern Asia. The one-tenth of Russia that is in Europe accounts for 40% of Europe's land mass. We didn’t cross one time zone or leave European Russia. We essentially followed a straight line through this country, and could have chosen 1000’s of similar straight lines through this country and had totally different experiences each time. This is not a disclaimer, more a reminder to ourselves that for everything we saw (in fairness quite a lot) there is an unimagineable amount that we didn’t – it almost feels that we know less about the place now than when we arrived.
After our sleepless night in Novgorod we are determined to escape mosquitoes, heat, humidity and all night Russian dance music. Setting off at 7.30am we drive 337 bumpy and militzia (police) strewn miles through countless rickety wooden villages, the pleasant town of Tver and the not so pleasant industrial abomination that is Klin, before finally reaching Moscow at 4pm.
And what a relief – we have fortuitously arranged to stay with Tony and Catherine Brumwell, based in Moscow for three years whilst Tony completes a stint here for the British Embassy. We are greeted outside the gates to their apartment (in the rather grand old Embassy buildings) by Catherine and Tangle, their bouncy black labrador. Huge smiles all round and we can relax – for the next four nights at least, we are assured of wonderful company, hospitality and civilization.
Our first night consists of much needed showers, gin & tonics, good conversation over delicious spag bol and a comfortable, air-conditioned (it’s a humid 32°C) early bed.
Revitalised in the morning, we spend a happy day doing not a great deal, enjoying a proper base and sorting out some admin. In the afternoon we aimlessly ride about the extraordinarily ornate metro, built adopting the ‘glory to the workers’ tenet of Communism. Later and back above ground, we skirt the outside of the Kremlin, Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, all handily positioned directly across the Moscow River from our apartment.
St Basil’s probably features on more postcards of Moscow than anything else, hence is often confused by foreigners with the Kremlin. It is an amazing sight, smaller than we had imagined but adorned with seven or so onion domes, all of different sizes and decorated with a profusion of multicoloured whorls, jagged patterns and gold. In typical Russian fashion not a square foot of brickwork is left unadorned by some fresco, pattern or minute decoration. Commissioned by Ivan IV (The Terrible) in 1555 and progressively embellished by a number of subsequent rulers, it is unthinkable to imagine that Stalin longed to demolish it, angered that it prevented him from marching his soldiers directly out of Red Square. But this is Stalin, a man held responsible for the deaths of between 10 and 20 million Russians during the Red Terror (estimates vary) so one shouldn’t be surprised.
The Golden Ring
The day after we embark on a little day trip, to Vladimir and Suzdal - two of the principle cities and towns respectively that make up the Golden Ring, a ring of ancient, once fortified conurbations that encircle Moscow and once ruled their respective regions of the Rus, before Russia was unified.
This is a ‘day trip’ Russian style: though relatively speaking we aren’t heading far from Moscow, this is the equivalent of driving from London to Wales to look at a couple of old towns, then back again later the same day. The principle differences (aside from Wales’ rather different history) are the poor quality roads and the omnipresent pedantic and truculent traffic police.
Vladimir occupies a prominent and strategically defensive position atop the only hill in the region, commanding panoramic views over the Klyazma valley, one of the many tributaries of the mighty Volga. Its imposing, white stone façade was built in 1158, but its external modesty belies the incredible, ornate interior, gilded on one side from floor to ceiling, whilst great, colourful medieval frescoes depict the other.
After Vladimir, we stop briefly in Bogoljubova, a tiny village centred on its monastery, which houses an enourmous cathedral, magnificent in the afternoon sunshine with its five sky blue domes. Our final stop is Suzdal, home of the greatest concentration of churches anywhere in Russia, indeed possibly anywhere at all. As we approach the town over the brow of the hill we count five spires, ten, then give up… there are more than fifty, somebody probably knows exactly how many but we can’t hang around long enough to count them all. Aside from the churches, they are also great fans of cucumbers: imagine our disappointment when we discovered that we missed their annual (apparently famous) cucumber festival, reported on BBC World News two days later!
On the way home, Nina gets pulled over for her first speeding ticket, 103 kph in (apparently) a 60 kph zone. The squat, terrier-like policeman barks incomprehensively, despite our proclamations that he must speak a little slower for us to understand him. He’s certainly the most aggressive we’ve had so far, but being an English female in these situations obviously helps: Nina is required to follow him back to the police car to retrieve her passport and barter over the inevitable fine. Amazingly, she’s back within minutes, smiling, and just 500 roubles (£10) worse off! I tentatively suggest she should do most of the driving here from now on…
The next day we are afflicted by a severe bout of Old Church Fatigue, exacerbated by a strong dose of More Bloody Gilt Syndrome. Our ambitions of touring all of the Kremlin’s interiors and cathedrals, plus St Basil’s, are hugely tempered after just a handful of sacrosanct buildings - we don’t even manage St Basil’s before heading home. You can have too much of a good thing, and we have temporarily had our fill of elaborate and magnificent buildings. In the afternoon Catherine kindly gives us a driving city tour, showing us sites we haven’t seen and wouldn’t know about without the benefit of local knowledge. Tangle enjoys the afternoon excursion too, a refreshing paddle in the lake in front of a typically vain and self conscious wedding party concentrating on their posing – she is definitely our sort of dog!
That evening, sadly our last, we are spoilt with a delicious barbecue and some potent Moscow Mules. They go down exceedingly well, as does the wine, whisky and schnapps from ice glasses which all follow. Tony also produces some fine cigars, something I think we both regretted in the morning. Sitting in their homely apartment and enjoying a boozy dinner party, it feels as if we’ve almost been transported back to a very different life in Fulham. Drunkenly, we stumble to bed at 3am.
Unsurprisingly the next morning (Saturday) we are a little worse for wear, our hangovers combining with heavy spirits at the thought of leaving and resuming the unpredictability of life on the road. But that is what this trip is all about, and after the most sincere thank-you’s and goodbyes, we depart, heading south towards Volgograd, knowing that it may be some time before we receive such wonderful and kind hospitality again.
Shortly after leaving Moscow, the countryside becomes attractive, a lush rolling landscape of pretty valleys, well-kept villages and forests. A little further south, we enter the ‘black earth’ country – an enormously fertile region heading as far as Volgograd and Rostov-on-Don. We spend the better part of two days driving through vast fields, five or ten thousand acres apiece, all brimming with golden ripening corn, oilseed rape, and fantastically bright sunflowers.
Back to reality...
Our first night back on the road is an unpleasant, stuffy affair – a pretty lakeside spot, free of mosquitoes, some 20km short of Tambov. But the summer heat stubbornly refuses to subside and the temperature remains above 25°C all night, resulting in a barely two hours sleep between us and pretty dim spirits in the morning.
Happily, the black earth’s colourful profusion of crops soon lifts the spirits and we cheerfully continue the 500 or so km to Volgograd. It is 42°C by the time we reach there, and thoughts of another attempt at camping are heartily ditched in favour of some air-conditioning for the night. As we amble in a sun-weary way through the centre of this 100km sprawling strip of a city, its residents contentedly enjoying the summer heatwave, it is unimaginable to think that this city, as Stalingrad, played host to the one of the grimmest and officially the greatest of all battles the world has ever witnessed: for three, icy months between November 1942 & February 1943, Stalin and General Zhukov brutally capitalised on a pent-up wave of Russian patriotism, stymieing the German advance east with endless, utterly disposable waves of Russian foot soldiers, most new recruits signed up to save the Motherland. Over a million were killed, but eventually the German machine guns overheated and their gunners lost the will to continue their part in such a massacre, the Russian powers knowing they could sustain casualties of three or four to one and still carry the day. It proved a turning point in the war, but besides some domineering statues of Zhukov, there are few other visible memorials to this most bloody of battles.
Suitably rested, on Monday we continue south, another 420km, to Astrakhan. Soon we leave the fertile black earth behind, heading into the more arid, open steppe – vast plains of scrubby grasslands that head eastwards from here, through Central Asia and as far as Mongolia. There is no let up in the temperature, as we enter Astrakhan the thermometer is reading 43°C although thankfully the air is drier down here.
The beginnings of Asia?
Astrakhan is unlike any other Russian city we’ve seen so far, truly a point where East meets West. The outskirts consist of mostly derelict identikit Soviet apartment blocks and factories, but as we head towards the centre, we hit a teeming, bustling array of dusty dirt streets crammed with ramshackle wooden houses, each packed with Kazakh traders, distinctive with their tanned, Mongoloid features, selling watermelons, tomatoes, cucumbers and a plethora of Asian foodstuffs. Entranced, we pick our way through – it’s like we’ve stumbled into another world.
Our final night in Russia is on the banks of one of the Volga’s many deltas before it reaches the Caspian, just outside the town of Krasnyj Jar. It is a peaceful, pleasant spot – we are even tempted to go for a refreshing swim, before we spot a couple of orange headed water snakes in the reeds! Horses and cattle graze on the other side whilst crickets and grasshoppers do their best to ruin the peace. But once again, the night-time temperature barely drops beneath 30°C and we head to the Kazakh border in the morning a little bleary eyed, to say the least…