While enjoying a few days of R&R in Astrakhan, there are also some difficult decisions to be made. Due to the delays we have suffered from all our mechanical misfortunes we are well behind on our original schedule. The visa for Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have already expired and trying to get new ones or the dates changed on the existing ones on the road would cost us even more time. Astrakhan is only about 12 km from the Kazakh border though and no visa is required for a 15 day visit to the country. So that is an alluring option. We could even go all the way to Kyrgyzstan as there’s also no visa required. Only, with our remaining time we would really have to push it and move faster than we like to. Another option is to cross into Kazakhstan and instead of going further East we could turn north to Samara and Kazan.
After some debate and looking at the distances on Google Maps the decision is made to turn our plans completely upside down and do something completely different. Central Asia will still be there in a couple of years and we would hate to rush through it now. So we decide to head north-west. We will stay in Russia for now and use the second entry on our visa to ride to Saint Petersburg after a visit to the Baltic states. The latter option is quite interesting. We’ve never been to the Baltics on our motorbikes and it would also open up the option of riding to Nordkapp and crossing Scandinavia. Besides, staying out of Kazakhstan makes it easier to pass through Volgograd, or Stalingrad as it was known in the old USSR days. A place of such historical importance that we’ve been dreaming of paying it a visit for a long time now.
Based on suggestions from locals and friends on Facebook we won’t be taking the direct route along the Volga river though. A detour via Elista, the capital of Kalmykia appears to be well worth the additional time required. Plus, we will be able to spend a night camping on the steppe.
After a sweaty ride across the steppe we arrive in Elista. Our first priority is to find some lunch, preferably in a restaurant that has air conditioning. The bikes are parked in front of the ministry of Kalmykian culture across from the Golden Temple. On foot we go to the nearest restaurant we could find on Maps.me. It turns out to be a winner. The food is a tasty mix of Russian and more East-Asian cuisine, washed down with some good fresh compote.
Now we’re ready for a visit to the Golden Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Europe. The building itself is impressive and ornately decorated. In the gardens surrounding it, a number of pagodas protect statues of Buddha from the elements. Elsewhere prayer flags are flying in the wind and pretty much everywhere are the traditional white and sky-blue ribbons. We’re allowed to enter, but not with our boots. That’s ok, we’ve kind of gotten into the habit of taking off our shoes before entering a house in the last few countries we visited. Inside it’s very warm, and filled with even more ornaments. A big golden statue of Buddha dominates the central hall, paintings of all Dalai Lamas are facing him from across the room. Devote believers are making their way around the room, turning prayer wheels, leaving money and gifts at statues and burning incense.
After our visit to the temple we take a rest on a shaded bench, just looking at life passing by. It’s almost 5PM when we manage to get going again. A quick stop at a supermarket, a top-up on fuel and we’re off into the steppe again. Even while sticking to the main road between Elista and Volgograd, the traffic calms down very quickly after passing the city limits. We ride for a while until we spot a deserted dirt road turning off the main road. It is pretty dry and dusty, but the road is taking us away from civilisation and into the great nothing. After about 6km we find a spot with some nice views and clear areas to put our tent.
Despite our decidedly out-of-the-way location we still get a visitor. A local farmer passes by in his car and stops for a chat. He is on his way back to his farm that lies another 10km down the road after picking up his daughter from school. Even this far in the sticks we’re still not really alone it appears. We decline his kind offer to join them for some tea and break out our little camping chairs to enjoy the views after saying goodbye. There’s very dark clouds gathering on the horizon and frequent flashes of lightning. But luckily it is far off and down wind from us. It doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing any rain tonight.
The next morning we are chased out of the tent as soon as the sun is up and temperature rises quickly. So at 6AM we are up and running. It gives us a lot of time to have a really relaxed breakfast before returning to the main road. We make good progress and stop only for some lunch at a trucker’s cafe. The temperatures keep rising and our water supply is shrinking rapidly, so we turn onto a smaller road to see if we can find a shop in the village we’re passing. That doesn’t turn out to be hard at all. A small mini market run by a typical Russian babushka is easily spotted at the village entrance. The shop owner Lena is a very sweet lady. She lets us empty a big bag of crisps and a bottle of soda while we’re enjoying her air conditioning. The crisps work well in replenishing the salts we’ve lost from all the sweating and the sugary drink is great to get the energy level back up quickly. We’ve learned that this works wonders in keeping concentrated, especially in these warm conditions on long straight roads.
Lena is visibly surprised and a bit emotional when Sofie asks her if it is ok we take a picture. She doesn’t understand why any westerner would visit her village or come to her little shop. When we leave she comes out from her shop to wave us goodbye and has problems holding back her tears. Strange how these brief encounters can have such a profound impact on peoples emotions.
With our brand new Russian SIM cards Sofie was able to book us a hotel in the centre of Volgograd for the next couple of days, even from the middle of the steppe. Volgograd is much bigger and busier than the cities we have crossed so far. It takes a few moments to get used to all the traffic again. We need to ask around a bit to find the hotel but in the end we find the place and get settled in. It’s still quite early. That leaves plenty of time to explore the city centre. After a walk to the banks of the Volga river and a fish dinner we get to bed early. The main attractions are left for tomorrow: the “Motherland Calls” statue (or “Mother Russia” as she is commonly called) and the “Great Patriotic War Museum”.
The statue stands outside the city centre, on a hill overlooking the Volga. We could walk there but the tram is cheap, convenient and more comfortable. Many people have come out to visit the statue on this beautiful summer’s day, a few foreigners, but mostly Russians. Like us, they all have to climb a lot of steps to get to the foot of Mother Russia. On the way up, the hill is filled with smaller statues, fountains and memorial texts. Just below the statue is a large building were an eternal flame burns, permanently guarded by 4 soldiers. Our timing is perfect to witness the changing of the guards, which is an impressive ceremony. Part of it can be watched on our Youtube channel: https://youtu.be/u4gK1LPm0dA.
After seeing the “Motherland Calls” it seems appropriate to also visit the museum next to “The Mill” in the city centre. The Mill is kept as a symbol of the victory against all odds for the red army at Stalingrad. It was made famous in the Hollywood blockbuster Enemy at the Gates. Vassili Zaitsev, the main protagonist is still regarded with great respect all over the former Soviet Union. He spent his old age in Kiev, Ukraine where he was also buried. But he was later re-buried at the foot of the statue, as was his express wish.
The museum next to The Mill tells the story of the battle for Stalingrad during the Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Russia. The modernist building holds a large collection of weaponry, uniforms and historical publications, but also many ordinary day-to-day items from that period. The explanations on the information plates are all in Russian though. We only understand part of it. The large audio-visual representation of the battle isn’t as difficult to comprehend and shows clearly all the troop movements in the city and how close the red army was to losing the city. In the end their victory was one of the main catalysts for the defeat of the Nazis.