With time on our Russian visa coming to a close we spent our last week visiting two very different cities, the very Soviet Volgograd, previously known as Stalingrad, and the Buddhist enclave of Elista.
Waking up on the overnight train from Kazan we were both a little dusty after yesterday’s shenanigans in Kazan.With hours still to go we spend the time reading, eating and being hounded by a half drunk Russian who spoke no English yet tried desperately to communicate with for most of the trip. Our repeated looks of incomprehension and apologies were no match for the little old pravodnitsa (train attendant) whose relentless shouting was the only thing to make him return to his own part of the carriage. We’d have loved to take his contact details yet he told us Putin say’s no to Facebook so that put a stop to that.
Arriving at 17:00 after a 24-hour train journey only one hostel showed up on the maps.me app so we head straight for it along footpaths frozen into ice. Happy to realise it’s one we’d previously looked at we were so impressed with the Scotch Hostel we straight away decided to spend two nights instead of the planned one. We were even given the London red double decker bus bed, perfect for us ex-Londoners! This place is decked out with some great decor, the kitchen is well equipped and spotless and Rich, the cute hairless black guineapig with a beard, will steal your heart with his morning chatter.
Our main reason for stopping in Volgograd was to pay our respects to the soldiers who died during the WWII Battle of Stalingrad, potentially the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. A push by the German army to capture Russia’s southern oil fields, at one point 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped in just 48 hours turning most of the city into rubble. Casualty numbers can only be estimated with the Germany Army reportedly losing more than 750,000 men and the Soviet Army almost 479,000. To put those numbers in persective that’s 1,229,000 men in just over five months when the US Army lost 416,800 men throughout the entire war. The battle is also the inspiration for the movie Enemy at the Gates. Staring Jude Law and Ed Harris it’s based on the true story of Vassili Zaitsev, a Russian sniper, and the opening scenes give just a small idea of the carnage involved.
A memorial to the fallen, The Motherland Calls, stands atop a hill by the Mamaev Kurgan tram/metro station. At 91m it’s only a couple of metres shorter than the Statue of Liberty though when you remove the 47m plinth of the famous NYC icon Motherland is actually the tallest statue of a woman in the world. The sword she carries measures a whopping 33m. A winding path at the top of the stairs leads you through a beautiful mosaic memorial with an eternal flame at the centre below an open room.Try not to be moved as you pass through here.
Try not to be moved as you pass through here. The size of the statue becomes obvious once you’re standing at the base, and as it’s not bolted to it’s foundations but held in place only by it’s weight it’s quite an amazing sight and a worthy monument to the fallen. The battle, which the Soviets eventually won, was a turning point in Hitlers war and the world would probably be a different place today if those brave souls hadn’t fought as hard as they did.
Other than this there’s a handful of other sites in town, including the riverside Old Steam Mill, one of the only buildings to survive the devastation and the Panorama Museum next door which houses artifacts relating to the battle, including Vassili Zaitsev’s sniper rifle (true story remember?). With the museum closed when we arrived we headed up the road instead for lunch at a cheap Stolobar (Soviet canteen) where it appeared to be the local police stations lunch break.
Heading back to the hostel along the Volga River we were approached by some gentlemen with a camera and a microphone who wanted to interview us about our views of sex before marriage. Our view?
It took us over 15 years to get married, so things would have been pretty boring!
Volgograd is a city often neglected by overseas travellers, but it still manages to pack in two pretty sweet craft beer bars and yep, you bet we hunted them out. Our first stop was Alyaska Bar, only identified by the vague address (ul. V.I. Lenina (Tsentralnyy), 13), a Rogue Brewery beer poster on the door and a small A4 sized handwritten address on the metal stair rail. Walking downstairs we’re greeted by a modern, spacious interior and a young local crowd typical of Russia’s craft brew pubs. A handful of the locals speak English and either ask to join us or just strike up a conversation at the bar, mostly wondering why we’re in Volgograd in the first place.
A couple of pints later we’ve been informed the elusive second craft beer bar we’d been searching for info on does actually exist and is just a short walk away. Given the rough location we flip our coin of destiny which says no more beers at Alyaska (which had only three Russian brews on tap) and head out the door. A couple of laps of a couple of blocks later we’re still none the wiser to the location of Nora Bar. Deciding to head home it’s only when Matt suggests we check out one last courtyard that we find a basement doorway a little more brightly lit than the surrounding residential buildings. Sure enough, we’d found our place, the secretive Nora Craft Beer Pub.
Again we’re greeted by a young local crowd, half of which are surprised us Aussie travellers even managed to find the place. They tell us the bar is named after a Russian film where somebody spends most of the film looking for ‘Nora’, which ends up being spelt wrong, or something similar. Who knows, we’d had a few pints with the locals by then! All we can say is good luck finding it yourself (hint: it’s behind the Alpha Bank) but if you do you’ll be greeted with a great selection of Russian only brews. Wrapping up our time in Volgograd we head home and are up early to catch the 06:30 bus to our next destination, the random city of Elista.
Our good friends Anton from Wings Hostel in Kazan and his wife Kishta , who is from Elista, had been kind enough to hook us up with her brother who still lives there. Met at the bus station by a smiling Nikolai and his friend Borlik, us and our backpacks are piled into their little old Lada and taken on a brief tour of town, after which we’re dropped off at our private apartment which they’d also organised for us for RUB1,200 per night (USD$16).
With a population of just over 100,000, Elista is administrative center of the Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast. Originally known as the Oirats, the people here have a Mongolian heritage which is obvious in the very Asian appearance noticable nowhere else we’d visited in Russia. They’re a Buddhist people and the town is littered with Buddhist temples, shrines and prayer flags. Where else in the world can you head to the main square and check out statues of both Buddha and Lenin? In Elista’s main square! You can also visit the Three Lotus Fountain and spin the giant prayer wheel (three times clockwise) beneath the Seven Days Pagoda.
Visiting the cities main site, the Burkhan Bakshin Altan Sume or “The Golden Abode of the Buddha Shakyamuni”, we delighted in spinning the red prayers wheels outside as well as taking in the beautifully painted interior of the vast temple. Women must wear a skirt covering (provided at the entrance if you don’t have one) and everybody must remove their shoes. It’s a wonderful change from the long list of Christian churches and the Buddhist paintings are a breath of fresh air after the never ending depictions of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and other Christian figures portrayed all over the rest of the country. The temple was blessed by the Dalai Lama during is visit in 2004 and you can find paintings of him inside.
Having ticked off the main sights we proceeded to waste a fair amount of time figuring out how the hell we were supposed to get to the border town of Vladikavkaz, just 20km from the Georgian border. As it turns out you can’t. So we book a couple of tickets on the 00:25 bus to Nalchik, the closes you can get by public transport. And so begins the debacle that is our attempt to get out of Russia before our visa expires. Stay tuned to see how we went.
Tips for Volgograd and Elista
- There’s no train between Volgograd and Elista but the Volgograd bus station, a little further along from the train station, has several buses a day between the two cities. The travel time differs depending on the route so check with the ticket office when you buy your tickets. It costs around RUB625 p/p with a large backpack.
- Despite what your map or anybody might tell you, there is no other bus station in Elista other than the one located by the main train station and apparently, despite what we were continuously told, there is no direct bus to Vladikavkaz. You have to travel via Nalchik, which we’ve covered in our next blog post.