It took us 7 days and 15 different papers and applications in order to be allowed to apply for our Russian visa so we expected nothing better on our way to the border. To our surprise our Russian adventure was exactly the opposite of what we expected. Although it proved to be short (4 days only) it was full of wonderful experiences making us want to go back. It started straight from the border where we were cleared and ready to go in a record time of 15 minutes. It went on with beautiful city visits and ended with a wonderful home stay next to healing hot springs. In other words, what else can someone ask for?
Geographically there were two regions included in our Russian itinerary:
-The Volga region. This stretch of the Volga makes up a rich and fascinating cultural region with over a dozen different ethnic groups. Travelling alongside the river, we encountered spectacular hilltop Kremlins, bombastic ex Soviet architecture, numerous lively provincial capitals and picturesque stretches of land. This natural beauty finishes up in the magnificent Volga Delta south of Astrakhan, a vast region of reeds and waterways and definitely a site to see. Astrakhan now, with its East-meets-West feel, our stop over was an unusual provincial capital where pretty river promenade and city parks are offset by architectural heritage in a shocking state of decay. These days you can still feel an abrupt change as the striking Kremlin, stone mansions and Christian churches give way to Tatar and Persian wooden cottages, mosques and quaint courtyards. Thanks to its location this city was a must stop on the Silk Route and that explains that till this day is a melting pot of all types of culture and people. Beside that though, Astrakhan today is first and foremost a jumping-off point for the Volga Delta, where the intricate wetlands are home to hundreds of bird and fish species. Next stop in this region was Elista Prayer drums, red-robed monks, boiled guts and butter tea for lunch… Wait, are we in Russia and is this still Europe? Elista is the capital of Kalmykia, the continent’s only Buddhist region and a piece of Mongolia thrown onto the shores of the Caspian Sea. Much of the republic consists of sparsely populated steppe. With its colorful Tibetan-style temples, the otherwise-very-drab Elista was a good pit-stop point to our further overland drive through-exploration of this region.
-The Caucasus Region: Against all the travel warnings, we crossed this notorious region that has made the news headlines a couple of times. The following alert was in our Lonely Planet book.
TRAVEL ALERT: THE FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE (FCO) ADVISES AGAINST ALL TRAVEL TO CHECHNYA, INGUSHETIA, DAGESTAN AND SEVERAL DISTRICTS IN STAVROPOL KRAI, AND ALL BUT ESSENTIAL TRAVEL TO NORTH OSSETIA, KARACHAI-CHERKESSIA AND KABARDINO-BALKARIA. PLEASE CHECK WITH YOUR RELEVANT NATIONAL GOVERNMENT.
For most, the word Caucasus summons up images of fiery mountain folk and the troubled history of volatile regions such as Chechnya. But there’s more to this ethnically rich region than the stereotypes and the horror stories. Here you can also experience relaxing spa towns, breathtaking scenery and world-class ski resorts, as well as the chance to climb Mt Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain. We picked to spend our last two days relaxing in the spa town and villages around Naslic. Here the people didn’t seem violent, quite the contrary. Their help and hospitality made us relax and enjoy the beauty that the place has to offer. This may not be the easiest area to travel in, with regular checkpoints and armed patrols but in reality we did not felt threatened at all. Although we were stopped regularly, everybody was helpful, with no sign of aggression. Anyone looking to get off the tourist trail, the Caucasus offers wide-open spaces, bustling markets and rugged mountain roads with stunning views around every corner.
Russia proved to be a small gem to our extensive “countries to visit” map on this trip but it will definitely not be forgotten. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it best when he talked about Russia’s “ancient, deeply rooted autonomous culture… full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking”. You, too, will be beguiled by the beauty of its arts and the quixotic nature of its people.