Trip along the Volga, summer 2001

Pictures are copyright Marit Larsen, unless otherwise noted.

Route: Moskva - Astrakhan - Volgograd - Saratov - Ulyanovsk - Kazan - Nizny Novgorod - Moskva.

European Russia Flag of Russia

June 27, Wednesday, Oslo - Helsinki - Moskva

Flying via Helsinki to Moskva. Taxi (usd 27) to Hotel Intourist. He started at 80 USD ... but then offered 27 as his "super-mini price" when I mentioned what I had paid the previous year. That is also a hefty profit for him, but I thought it was not worth the hassle to bargain further. He was an interesting taxi driver, his wife was a history-professor, had written a book about Scandinavian history. We had not expected a random taxi driver in Moskva to talk about Harald the fair-hair (Harald Hårfagre), a Norwegian king, approximately 1000 AD. The world feels small sometimes ...

A public show on the square with the Marshall Shukov statue. A lot of "dancers" and tables to symbolize an office environment and with music. We think (one of) the point was to represent the "automation" of office environments.

June 28, Thursday, Moskva

Some stuff I had seen on my first visit to Moskva last year:

June 29, Friday, Moskva

A trip out of the town center to the "VDNK". Cool place with Soviet triumphant arches, and otherwise the "communist kitsch" that I love! Used to be that many pavilions that showed all the stuff (consumer stuff ++) that the soviet society could produce. The pavilions, somewhat akin to Greek temples , now contain mostly imported capitalistic consumer goods. All in a nice park with fountains. One has golden statues of women in various national dresses, probably from the different ethnic groups of the Soviet Union.

Lots of Russians relaxing, soldiers cleaning up the garbage, radio on the speakers with pop and "stupid" commercials, just like home ...

The Karelija pavilion, wood products as from Scandinavia, similar stoves as traditional Scandinavian, modern kitchen exhibitions, also roughly similar to Scandinavian style. Very obvious, the historical ties of that province, to Scandinavia.

Also nice to look at the exhibitions of finished/packaged -houses.

Unfortunately the nearby Cosmonaut museum was closed that day for cleaning (last Friday of month). The "roof" of the museum is a 100-meter high monument, formed as a long plume of smoke with a small (perspective) rocket at the top. A friend who has also been there, told me that the locals call it "the impotents dream"! In that case, the worlds larges "fallos" symbol ?

My first trip on a Moskva bus. Jumped on one passing by in the right direction. I was worried I had to have prepaid tickets beforehand, but no problem in buying a ticket on the bus.

In the evening: the Bolshoi Theatre and "Swan Lake". 50 USD each (cheaper or more expensive, depending on the seats) on the street outside the theatre (black market).

June 30, Saturday, Moskva to Astrakhan

Subway to metro station Domodowdovskaya then taxi (500 rub, 20 minutes) to Domododovo airport. Quick and acceptable expense. Domododovo is a relatively new terminal, great standard. Flew a relatively small Tupolev to Astrakhan (see picture).

The other westerner that got out of the plane in Astrakhan was a German priest, spoke a little with him in our rusty German. He was visiting a small German congregation (still a few Volga-Germans left). He mentioned another part of this Lutheran congregation was a very small group of ethnic Swedes! As we understood him, less than a hundred left, probably a few dozens, mostly named Svenson and Carlson! They were descendants of Swedish prisoners of war from the battle of Poltava (the battle that gave the Russians access to the Baltic Sea) in 1709. He had the impression that they did not speak Swedish.

Saw the Volga in the evening, for the first time! Lots of resaurants along the river. We got the impression that many people were here on vacation. Marit suggested it was a vacation mood akin to the seventies (Norwegian: "harry stemning").

Astrakhan Airlines ok.

July 1, Sunday, Astrakhan

Wandered around in the city, starting at the local Kreml. White walls, the towers vary, but the same basic variations as in Moskva. The roofs of the towers are made of wood. The inside of the Kreml has much more park area than the one in Moskva. The churches are more simple inside, but still a lot of art/icons. On the outside, maybe a little more elaborate than the churches in the Moskva Kreml, maybe it is because these churches are of a later period than the Moskva Kreml churches. When the ongoing restoration is complete, it is our opinion that this Kreml will have more charm than the one in Moskva.

This being a Sunday, the modern center is relatively dead. We tried to find the local Intourist office, not the location as described in the LP, tried the location described in the APA guide, with more luck. Closed, of course, this being a Sunday. We get the feeling we will not accomplish much this day or the next, and find a bar with a comfortable breeze. I relax with my usual cigar and a "Starry" ("old") beer, Russian brand.

Everything closed, not possible to arrange anything, also, we were down to a couple hundred in roubles. Got to know the city, walking around.

July 2, Monday, Astrakhan

A day we finally got things arranged:


July 3, Tuesday, A day in the Volga delta

Drove off from Astrakhan about 900. A one hour car trip, then twenty min by speedboat to a floating hotel, an area called Vasa (the local agency running it: Some Russian tourist in the cafeteria, the others out hunting/fishing ? Then the excursion started, a boat trip, canoelike with engine.

Landscape: near the hotel, patches of solid ground, otherwise the space between the tributaries/ minitributaries were aligned with patches of willows or lotus patches (they don't blossom until late July). Were the water was very low, also a lot of trees. Further out in the delta larger patches of water with much less willows. Even further out, in essence large and relatively shallow lagoons. We did not get to the Caspian Sea proper.

Saw birds: eagle/hawk or some other big bird, swans, storks: they literally walk the water as they increase the speed during takeoff. Also something like a pelican? Thought we would se the Caspian proper, but was out of the question for a one-day trip, we got to se some lagoons, but the sea proper was out of sight, or on the horizon? We halfway expected signs of pollution, but the area seemed to be ok. Back to the floating hotel for lunch. After lunch, a similar trip around, now also a swim, and some fishing. We did not get any fish, but of course the guide got a couple ...

A great excursion, although my allergy problems were significant, lots of pollination.

Our guide in the delta. Note the reeds. This is the furthest out in the lagoons we got. The Caspian in the distant horizon.

July 4, Wednesday, Astrakhan

We were both sick, me from allergy reaction in the delta. Stayed all day in the hotel. Boarded the boat to Volgograd at 1800.

July 4-6, day, A 37 hour cruise on the Volga from Atrakahan to Volgograd

The Valeri Tsjkalov got away precisely on 1800 hours from Astrakhan. A fanfare sounded from the ships speakers, some old Soviet hymn? The hymn gave me visions of: "All the Soviet peoples are united, not only in work, but also in leisure! " To be more serious, I think that such fanfares were also usual in Europe in 50s and 60s, when a boat was leaving for a long voyage! Maybe also modern cruises ??? The breeze generated by the moving boat was great, not just cooler, but then also less flies. The cabins were better than expected, 2 bunks and a wash basin. The "beds" were of course too short for me, but I managed to move the mattress on the floor, thus sleeping and being able to stretch out. (A common solution for me, being 1.9m.) 2 restaurants on board, for dinner I was offered "koteleta", it was ok. In this instance "koteleta" was fried chicken. A problem during a part of the night: youths in speedboats drive along the ship, and thus waking up all on that side of the ship. Generally surprisingly little of traffic on the river, I had expected this to be a main transportation system for cargo. History? Now most transportation done by truck, as at home?

Met a chief of police ("Oberst", English: Colonel) from Dagestan, OMON section, special force. One of two who could any English on board. Showed me his id card, picture with decorations, for services during one of the Chechen wars. All Chechen fighters were "bandits", his opinion. Interesting and intelligent person, I did not voice my opinions on Chechenya, despite humanitarian disaster which he might be partly responsible for?? He remembered the English he learned in school 30 years ago, but not practiced since! He and his family was taking the boat to Moskva, see family there, then train to Kaliningrad, also see family, before continuing to Berlin, again, to see family. Then home. He was planning to emigrate to Germany in a few years (had relatives there). He was pessimistic about developments in Dagestan, it seemed he expected war or more unrest there also. The other person on board we could have a proper conversation was a Moscovite lady. She tought Russian to foreigners, and English to Russians. She had taken the boat from Moskva a week ago, and had another week before she was back in Moskva. "It is very expensive, and very dull, I will not do this kind of vacation again!"

Arrival in Volgograd. Our boat to the right.

Practicalities, Boat:

July 6, Friday, Volgograd

We arrived in Volgograd (previously named Tsaristyn (not of "Tsar", but som tartar origin) and later Stalingrad) early in the morning, off the boat from Astrakhan.

Mother Russia statue with memorial. At the time the worlds biggest statue? As you walk up the steps, war sound effects from hidden speakers, with Soviet patriotic hymns. The words for "Our Soviet motherland" (sovjetskaya rodina) and "honor" (slava) are abundant on the various monuments!

Volgograd: Mother Russia. Volgograd: Ruin. One of the lesser damaed buildings was left standing as a memorial. The rest of the town is modern

Saw Fine art museum.

Walked around town.

Lots of life at the main steps at the river bank. A curios phenomena: young women, walking fully clothed into the river, slowly, on step/level at a time. A little swimming, then getting out of the water, and after a while walking into town. To get a "wet look" before going to meet the boys ??

As we were going to sleep, the hotel room phone rang: "Did I want a dedushka (girl) in the room?" Obviously the local call girls are phoning all local hotel rooms at random, searching for prospective clients. Another night, in the middle of the night, similar call. We then got into the habit of disconnecting the phone before going to sleep.

July 7, Saturday, Volgograd

A trip to see the Volga Don canal. Much smaller than I expected. Thin ships pass through the locks up to the Don and the Black Sea. An enormous statue of Lenin at the start of the canal by the Volga river. Due to the fact that the canal is named in his honor.

The Volga-Don canal. Connecting the Volga and the Caspian with Central Asia to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Saw Panorama memorial museum. Breshnev era museum showing the battle in a 360 degree display.

July 8, Sunday, Volgograd-Saratov

Set off for Saratov. Hired car with driver. 4.5 hours, 3500 Roubles. Landscape on the way flat, grass landscape. Surprisingly little of it farmed. Strange, considering the water resources and electricity resources available,

Saratov center gave a very nice feeling, like we were closer to Moskva, almost European! Could it be the Volga-German influence? Also, the weather is much milder! A nice cool breeze could be felt all over town. The Utoli Moyya Pechali church at the end of Ulitsa Kirova is great! Strong, varied colors. The town hall (?) has a very Central-European style.

Saratov: note the colorfull domes on the Utoli Moyya Pechali church to the right.

July 9, Monday, Saratov-Ulyanovsk

Set off for Ulyanovsk. Landscape on the way: a little more wooden, if I recall correctly.

July 10, Tuesday, Ulyanovsk

Called Simbirsk earlier, this town was renamed to honor its great son: Lenin, family name Ulyanovsk. The main reason to come here is to see the "communistic kitsch". Unfortunately, we found some of this communistic heritage to be "modernized" or in the case of the peace park (symbolizing the "everlasting" peace and friendship between the Soviet peoples), overgrown/ignored. We found the main museum (Bolshye Zal / Big Hall)to be relatively historic correct, and not so propagandistic as we had hoped (not so when I was in the town of Stalins birth, in Georgia/Sartakvelo). Otherwise, the city is full of memorials: all the various houses the Ulyanovsk family stayed in, Lenins primary school, his grammar school, so on ...

The "International Friendship Park": a park laid out in 1970. Each of the Soviet republics decorated a section of the park according to national traditions. A gift from all the republics in gratitude to the great Lenin ...
Scanned from a tourist book for "Leninist pilgrims", published in 1987.Note the Cyrillic for Lenin" underneath the building. As we saw it in 2001. The "Lenin" letters are barely visible. The Russians seem to have lost interest in their Soviet heritage ...

Ulyanovsk: more Lenin heritage. The decoration on a public building.

July 11, Wednesday, Ulyanovsk-Kazan

Bus to Kazan, afternoon spent walking around town. The Bauman pedestrian street, then the local kreml. Outside the main kreml entrance, a great Soviet era statue showing a member of the proletariat, breaking his capitalistic chains! The kreml walls were roughly similar to the Astrakhan kreml. What was different was the old Suyumbika Tower (see box). Also, a new mosque was being built inside the kreml walls. After 450 years of Russian rule, the locals (the Tartar part) now enjoy partial autonomy, enough autonomy to (re)build mosques that were torn down at the Russian conquest in 1552.

Chatted with some locals, they presented themselves as Tartars. We presented ourselves as Norwegians, they then mentioned the assistance Norwegian authorities had gived in connection with the Kursk submarine tragedy. They explained to us how the Russians conquered the kreml in 1552 by building a tunnel under the walls. They insisted that the Suyumbika Tower was built by the khans before the conquest. They were very frustrated by our limited Russian, I felt they wanted to tell me more about their perspective on historical events.

Kazan_tower A contested origin: Suyumbika Tower, Kazan kreml. According to Russian historical tradition (our understanding anyway), this was buildt after the Russian conquest. The local Tartar litterature claim it was buildt just before the conquest. After 450 years, history is beeing redefined? The LP guide book support the conquerors (Russian) historical view. Who am I to say who is right? But my gut feeling is that the Tartars might have a point. Probably there was some influence between Kazan and Moskva, also before the conquest? To me it appears this tower has a style similar to Moskva kleml towers of the same period. At least with respect to the Moskva Vasily cathedral, supposedly a copy of a mosque the Russians razed, appears to me to have an eastern origin with respect to style? Maybe the 1500-century tsars were inspired by Tartar architechture with respect to both the Vasily cathedral and the Moskva kreml towers. I wish I had some more un-biased litterature to put some light on this! Picture copied from History of Tartarstan

July 12, Thursday, Kazan

Failed to get a fast boat to Great Bulgar (se box). They seemed to go extremely early?! The day generally consisted of strolling around the town. A hot day .. I ate a lot of ice cream and drank more than usual. The Russian (not the imported Nestle junk) ice cream is great! Too bad the nestle stuff seems to increase its market share !?

Great to watch people stroll by on the Bauman pedestrian street, while sipping a drink. Except for the sounds! A great cacophony of different sounds/songs coming from various speakers ! It seems to be normal for outdoor restaurants to not return the empty bottles themselves. As soon as your bottle is empty, a kid, or some poor grown up, will politely ask you if they can take the bottle!

Lots of building activity in Kazan, obviously economic growth. Several new buildings on the way, and what seemed to be a new metro. Maybe good times are coming to the Tartarstan Republic!?

Bulgar1 Bulgar2 Bulgar3
Black Chamber Mosque in Bolgar (XIV century)
Khan's Tomb (Eastern Mausoleum)
Smaller Minaret
"Great Bulgar:" This is what I missed, fascinating architectural style, 1100 years old, in the middle of present-day Russia. Still angry with myself, for not planning better, so as beeing able to see it! "Great Bulgar was a flourishing society, trading with Bagdad and others, before the Mongols conquered it in 1236. Then abandoned? 1100 years ago this society read the Koran, and wrote scientific works, while the Russians (and for that matter, Norwegians) were mostly illiterate. A strange omission from both the LP and the APA guides ! More information: History of Tartarstan.

July 13, Friday, on the road to Nizny Novgorod

(Lots of old relics (buses) at the station but ours turned out to be fine) even functioning air condition. Showed some very cheap American films. Dubbed with English sound first then the Russian dialogue. ¨ The music: Ennio Morricone and "Once upon a time in America", imported pan flute music, and the local pop heroes.

Passed though the Chuvash republic. Also they have bilingual signs (Russian and Chuvash).

4 girls on the seats in front of us were very jolly drinking vodka and juice. They wondered where we came from and we had to join in! They were on their way to Spain for a holiday.

Marit sat next to an elderly lady, who enjoyed looking at the pictures in Marits guide book (the APA guide). Each time she saw a picture of a church or an icon, she had to kiss the page! At each bump or sharp turn by the bus, she crossed herself! She took her religion very seriously!!

Finally got to Nizny. The bus was continuing to Moskva, so we were "thrown out" of the bus, near what we thought was just a block from the Avto Vaksal (central bus station), but beame clear it was on the edge of town. Luckily a taxi suddenly turned up. He took us to what we thought was the best hotel in town, but they were full, or not ? Anyway, the next door hotel had vacant rooms.

July 14, Saturday, Nizny Novgorod

City called Gorky in Soviet times, after the social-realist writer Maxim Gorky.

Our day in Nizny. First a trip to the avto vaksal (central bus station) to secure transport to Moskva the following day. A surprisingly small and shabby bus station compared to what we ha experienced previously. And this was Russias third largest city! We bought tickets for a bus ride, neither of us looking forward to another long bus ride at average 50 k per hour. As we walked out of the station area we passed a couple of taxis. I asked Marit if we should inquire about the price, even though we had already bough bus tickets. And Marit: "Well, just for the record, find out what it would cost ...'. So I asked, the taxi driver suggest 3500 roubles, I say that I think it it is too much, he prompts for my price, I discuss with Marit (is it not great nobody in the world understands Norwegian!), and suggest 2500, which he to our surprise immediately accepts! Obviously more of a buyers market in this town. We confirm the deal and arrangement for the next morning. We walk away, glad to avoid another long day on a bus. Should have considered this before we wasted money on the bus tickets, but what the heck, they did not cost much more than a beer in a Norwegian restaurant!

We walk over to Lenin square. Another Lenin statue! Cameras out! Another one for our Lenin collection ! Got to get as many as possible! (This is just like traveling in Turkey, when I had to get as many pictures as possible of "kitschy" Ataturk statues!) Suddenly someone speaks to us in English, "Are you Scandinavian?", "Er ni Svenska?", I confirm the first half with a response in Norwegian. This is the last place we had expected to speak Norwegian to a Swede! Turned out he has a Russian born in Yekaterinerburg (the Urals), that had lived in Sweden for some time. On holiday in Russia.

Nizny Novgorod: the walls of the kreml, with view of the Volga.

A hot day. We relaxed a lot at some outdoor bar. And I ate a lot of ice cream that day! I really enjoy the Russian ice cream!

Otherwise saw some churches. And the local Kreml. Our fourth Kreml. Better situated in the landscape than the previous ones, placed high on a hill, easier to defend. Since it was Saturday, wedding day, lots of newly weds with family/friends in the Kreml, photo sessions at the local eternal flame / tomb of the unknown soldier.

Walked by the Maxim Gorky museum, closed.

The Lenin collection:
Lenin1 Lenin2 Lenin3
Lenin in Astrakhan. The local Kreml walls in the background. Lenin guarding the start of the Volga-Don canal, Volgograd. The Volga to the left. Lenin and the working proletariat in Nizny Novgorod. In the foreground a non-proletariat and exploiter of the workers .. :-)

July 15, Sunday, Nizny Novgorod - Moskva

Taxi from Nizny to Moskva. A trip to GUM in the afternoon.

A nice dinner, our last evening in Russia. Then we went for a stroll on Red Square. Made a few phone calls to our families, with greetings from Red Square, and confirmed our return the next day.

While observing the life on the square, we were suddenly approached by two policemen. Young, straight out of "police academy". "Dokumenti pashalsta!" (Documents please) they firmly requested. They spoke understandable English, and informed us that "according to article 457 of the Russian constitution it was forbidden to be drunk on Red Square! Madam is drunk!" Marit was having a terrible and constant hiccup, she could not help laughing, which did not help our case ... :-) but to be charged with drunkenness in Russia! We were definitely not drunk! Obviously an attempt to get a handout, the question was, how much hassle were we in for? We managed to get the passports back, but he half-heartedly attempted to put the handcuffs on me! "You must come with us to police station!" I said to Marit "Try to go very slowly away, while I stay a little longer with these policemen" (again, great nobody understands Norwegian!). They did not signal her to stop, as long as I stayed. That made me relax, I felt I was going to get out of this mess.

Then another policeman came, with an Asian-American tourist "in tow". The American said worriedly "I used a camera tripod to take a picture of the Kremlin, they say there is a 3000 roubles fine (approx. 110 USD)!" I replied, " I definitely hope you do not give them that!". I was considering giving about 20 roubles! By then I was laughing inside ... I then chatted with the policemen, "What is your name, what is your rank" all with a smile. When one of them replied, "general", my smile grew, that was a good-humored and not very credible answer .... after this I firmly said goodbye in Russian several times, turned, and walked away. They did not stop me. Marit was waiting for me on the other side of the square. Being satisfied with the day, we returned to the hotel Intourist.

With a calm smile, and by calling the bluff, I got out of this rather charming corruption attempt! My experience in traveling in Russia/CIS also helped. The poor American, if he did as well, I do not know. I sincerely hope he did not pay any serious amount.

July 16, Monday, Moskva - Helsinki - Oslo

An uneventful flight.

Took the airport train to Sandvika, were I met my family. Then we celebrated my fathers birthday at restaurant in Sandvika!

Various practicalities

GSM: Coverage along Volga cities is fine, but it depends on your GSM vendor, and deals they have or have not made with Russian companies. Do not count on your phone on working between the major cities. My phone worked fine in most of the Volga cities, excepting Nizny and one other, I do not recall (Telenor).

Language: Very few know anything more than Russian. On rare occations we came across some who knew a little English. Also on rare occations: a few know a little German. The latter seem eager for the rare chance to practice their German, when they see a foreigner!

Seat belts! We enjoyed seen the weird behavior with respect to the use of seat bets. It seems that the law requires it, but the taxi driver only puts it on when there is a chance of seeng the policy, immediately afterward, it is taken off!

Sleeping in Russia

Generally we had problem getting normal sleep!

Too short bed: a long guy like me (1.9m) had to frequently move the mattress out of the bed and on to the floor, and so stretch out my legs (a problem I have in many countries)

Mosquito: we got a lot of bites during our sleeping. We obviously need more time to get immune to the Russian bugs!

In a lot of the hotels it was not possible to cover the windows to make it dark.

Building activity outside (hopefully indicates a growing economy).

Our main problem was a list of old hotels (mainly from the LP guide), generally I guess there are newer and better accommodation possibilities, we just did not know about them !

Sources of information

It seems that 99% of available travel guides only describe the St. Petersburg and the Moskva area. I was stuck with: To arrange for visa invitation, hotel in Moskva, and airplane ticket to Astrakhan, I used the "G&R International" travel agency in Moskva: . They have, for this trip, and a previous trip, provided good service at a reasonable price.

Written by John Bothner, fall 2001.

Spelling: yes I know one writes "Moscow" and "Kremlin" in english. I dislike the habit of english speakers in translating place-names. Some day I will speak of "londy" instead of "London" ... :-)