Southern Russia Archives

Voronezh – Sitesearching

 

      Heading south from Moscow an overnight bus or train ride away, the climate gets noticeably warmer and although winters are still unbelievably cold and snowy, winters are also shorter, and in spring and autumn, it rains a lot. Eventually you arrive at the Don River, one of the major rivers of Russia. Near the River Don is the city of Voronezh.

      Voronezh is a medium size city with over half a million people, the biggest city between Moscow and Volgograd. The area around Voronezh is also the setting of Nobel Lauerate Mikhail Sholokhov’s novels. The land here is flat and fertile with lots of rain  making it a great place for agriculture, and like Sholokhov’s novel, the area outside the city seems very peaceful and rural.

      The city itself feels like a medium size city. It’s big enough so that people have plenty of shops and netertainment, traffic and pollution, but small enough so that traffic and pollution doesn’t feel like a problem and it is not overcrowded. Siteseeing in Voronezh is quite interesting. The sites are spread out throughout the city.

      The bus station is located quite far from the center of town, but buses from Moscow drops passengers off at the centrally located train station anyway. From the train station, it is also easy to get a bus back to Moscow or to other major Russian cities such as Volgograd, Lipetsk, Tambov or Saratov. It almost seems pointless to have long distance buses from the bus staion as well, but you can still catch a bus to the same locations from the bus station.

      With the train station to your back, a small street leads a block down to a large traffic circle with a monument to what appears to be a DNA strand. The park and stadium are to the right and a towering white orthodox church is to your left. The street heading to the left eventually takes you to a long bridge that goes across what appears to be a wide river (what I once thought was the Don River), but is actually a long narrow lake. On the way down to the lake, there is a monument to Peter the Great.

      Once at the lake, we can take a walk along the pedestian walkway. During the wintertime, many ice fishermen dot the frozen river. This area is really dilapidated and crumbling from lack of maintenance and is not as attractive as it has the potential to be. Potholes scar both the road and the sidewalk, and some of the railings along the lake are bent or missing. Soon, the paved road becomes a bumpy dirt road and the pedestrian area ends at a forgotten square with an ugly metallic column reaching for the sky. A small church, one of the landmarks of Voronezh marks the end of the nice walk along the lake, and dirty factories seem to continue on from here. Facing away from the lake, the land goes uphill and the view is intriguingly ugly. Narrow, twisting dirt roads lead up the hill and old wooden Russian houses line either side. The houses themselves are quite attractive and photogenic but the organization of the city blocks seem haphazard and careless.

      Once up the hill, we come across another orthodox church and are soon back on the main street where the city looks busier and no longer so unattractive. The main street is lined with monuments and random sculputres and for about a kilometer or two, there are lots to see. Like most cities, Voronezh has its war monument. Voronezh also has quite a collection of monuments to famous Russian writers including Pushkin, Plantanov, and Bunin. Surprisingly, Sholokhov is absent. For a couple of city blocks, a narrow strip of park separates the main street in two and eventually leads to the government building and the Lenin statue.

      The road running perpendicular to the street we had just come from will eventually lead to the bus station. Along the way, there are random sidewalk sculptures which seem to be quite popular in many Russian cities. The most famous of these sidewalk sculptures in Voronezh is a round-faced cartoonish cat in a metallic tree. This monument is located beyond the bus staion closer to the outskirts of the city. Not only is it a trek to get to it, it is also difficult to get a good photo of it without getting the McDonalds in the background. A few blocks further down, a huge red glass pyramid takes up the middle of a traffic circle where eventually the city thins out but still seems to be expanding.

      Voronezh is a city with quite a lot to see and do, but the way the city is organized, it almost feels like going on a scavenger hunt or an obstacle course. None of the sites in Voronezh are really well-known so it is difficult to know what to look for. Every new sculpture or monument seems like a surprising new discovery and apparently, new monuments and sculptures are still springing up. Because of this, every visit to Voronezh gives an opportunity for new discoveries.

 

Tuapse – Mountain and Sea

 

 

       If you want to go to the seaside in Russia, the only practical place to go is on the Baltic Sea coast in southern Russia. If you want mountains, you have a bit more variety with the Urals, the Altai mountains and various others in eastern Russia. If you want the best of both worlds, the Black Sea coast is the only option. The Black Sea coast is dotted by crowded seaside resorts and great hiking paths. A great place to visit on the Black Sea coast is a small town called Tuapse, which is conveniently located right in between its two more touristy neighbors, Sochi and Anapa.

        Tuapse is a relatively quiet port city about three hours by train from either Sochi or Anapa. Most holiday-goers opt to stay in the latter two cities rather than make the trek over to Tuapse because that’s where the two closest airports are. Because of this, most resorts are also in the latter two cities rather than in Tuapse. This gives Tuapse a very fresh, rural feel, perfect for getting away from it all. When I arrived in Tuapse, I met up with a local Russian couple, Maxim and Sasha, who lived on top of a hill with an awesome view of the green valley down below and the sea in the distance. The twilight hours was the best time to look out their balcony window and watch the sun set.

        The highlight of my trip to Tuapse was a day hike up nearby Mt. Indyuk. We caught a train early in the morning and got off at a stop that could hardly be called a station. Once the train left, the only sign of civilization was the platform we stood on and the tracks going off in either directions. After some time trying to figure out where we were, we began hiking into the wall of trees failing to find anything resembling a path. It took us about half an hour before we finally saw the twin rocky peaks of Mt. Indyuk and the path that would lead us up there. We were finally on our way.

        One of the best things about hiking in Russia is the fact that nature has been left alone. Yes, there is the occasional clearing where previous hikers had stopped and cooked up some shashlik as we can see from the charred ground and left over vodka bottles, but its nothing like hiking in other countries like America. Proper paths haven’t been made by park rangers using sophisticated tools to clear the way, but by hundreds of previous hikers who have walked along the same path. There aren’t clearly marked signs to guide you. There are only small subtle signs like a painted rock or a notched tree. It is very common to go the wrong way or to get lost, but that only adds to the adventure.

        After a couple of hours of uneventful climbing, we finally met up with a group of children who were camping just below the final steep climb to the top. The children were there as part of a summer camp program with its main focus on rock climbing. They were just preparing their rock climbing equipment as we reached the steep ascent of about fifty meters that would finally take us above the treeline and to the base of one of the rocky peaks we had seen earlier. As we made our slow ascent, we were being passed up by ten-year-olds carrying heavy bundeles of rope and climbing gears.

        After making it above the tree line, we stopped for lunch on the rocky surface, our food spread out on a rocky table inches away from a hundred meter drop. The view was absolutely magnificent. Not only could we see the wide green valley down below and the occasional train off in the distance where we had started our journey, but we could see the enourmous rock formation still above us, sticking up like giant chunks of swiss cheese. You could see how years and years of melting snow had eroded smooth craters on the surface of these rocks. In the distance, we could hear the children’s excited screams and the camp counselor yelling instructions.

        After lunch, we decided to continue up the rocky surface as far as we could go. We passed the clearing where the children were engaged in their task of tackling a large rock about twenty meters high. We continued on until we found a decent slope up the rocky surface. After another fifteen minutes of serious climbing which included an upper body workout, we made it to a nice relaxing surface where we were no longer surrounded by rocks. We were still about fifty meters from the summit, but this was as far as we could safely go without proper equipment. We lied down on the rocks taking a rest and soaking up the sun for a while.

        Less than half an hour later, the sun abruptly disappeared and we realized that it was time to go. The clouds were gathering quicky and it was clear that we weren’t going to escape the storm. We climbed down as quickly and as carefully as it is possible to do simultaneously. By the time we got down to the clearing where the children were climbing, we could see them rushing to get their equipment off the rocks. The first raindrops were already beginning to fall. Rather than follow the children down to their camp, we actually ran down a different slope and hid ourselves along the cliffside opposite the storm. We had just managed to get ourselves comfortably under a rocky portrusion when the downpour suddenly hit.

        We sat there for about half an hour riding out the storm with each passing minute, our small enclave was getting smaller and smaller as the rain water began to encroach more and more. Eventually, the worst of the storm was over and we had all managed to stay relatively dry.

        When the storm passed, we started on our journey down. Just below the rocky surface, as we got below the treeline again, we had quite a task. Not only was this the steepest part of our journey, the rain had made the path extremely muddy and almost impossible to go down without using our hands. Sure enough, I ended up slipping for a good five meters and ending up with my left side completely covered in mud. We eventually made it down the steep slope where we once again met up with the campers who were baffled at the fact that we weren’t soaking wet.

        The next hour was uneventful as we gradually made our way down the mountain and the sun finally came back with a vengence. It wasn’t until the path began to get smaller and eventually end that we realized we made a wrong turn somewhere. Rather than turn around, we realized that we were close to electrical wires and decided to trailblaze our way along the same path as the wires reasoning that it would lead somewhere. Our improvised path got much worse before it got better. We were struggling through vegetation as tall as us, often with thorns, and ankle-deep mud.

        When we finally got out of that jungle, we found ourselves on a dirt road most likely used by service vehicles. The rest of the trip was easy in comparison as we walked down a proper road snacking on blackberries growing on bushes along the road. Back in civilization, in a small village, we caught a bus back to Tuapse. We were tired, hungry and muddy, but we had a great time.

        Back in Tuapse, I had a chance to do some sightseeing as well. The main landmark in Tuapse is a huge tower right in the center of town, not far from the port with a huge glass dome on top which the locals nicknamed ‘Chupa Chups’ because of its resemblence to the lollipop. Tuapse has a real small town feel to it and is comfortable to walk around. Along the sea is a boardwalk with small stalls selling food. Going away from the sea, passed the tower, you can walk along the main shop-lined streets which leads to a round-about with a white-stoned Lenin statue. Backtracking a bit, there is a lovely tree-lined pedestrian street, which continues up to the central market. There, you can snack on huge and apparently authentic hachapuri.

        When I first decided to go to Tuapse, I knew nothing about the town and figured a weekend there would be enough. As I left Tuapse and headed back to Sochi to catch my flight back to Moscow, I realized that I would have liked to spend more time there. Tuapse is definitely a pleasant destination among the tourist giants on the Black Sea coast.

 

 

 

Kalmykiya – Europe’s Buddhist Republic

 

 

       When people think about Russia, they usually think of enormous onion-domed churches with towering bell towers, very ornate crosses and lots and lots of icons. There certainly isn’t a shortage of these types of churches in Moscow and its surrounding areas known as the Golden Ring. These churches are impressive and definitely worth seeing. But Russia is a huge country, and it’s easy to forget how diverse Russia really is. We don’t even have to go beyond the Urals to find impressive mosques, like the one in Kazan, or huge Buddhist temples, like the one in Elista.

        Elista is the capital of Kalmykiya, an autonomous republic within Russia located south of the Volgograd oblast. Kalmykiya itself is a flat, monotonous, treeless land and the ride into Elista is long and boring. Elista is located literally in the middle of nowhere, right in the center of the republic, at least 300 km from the nearest big town. Upon entering the city, we see the usual drab multi-story Soviet-style blocks of flats, but we also see an array of bright red toriis, incredibly colourful little pagodas, and other Asiatic influences. Once we get off the bus (there are no trains to Elista), it is clear that we are not in Moscow anymore. The people here have Asian features, not a single European face in sight.

        The main attraction of Elista is its huge Buddhist temple, known as the Khuru. It was fairly recently built and is as impressive as any onion-domed orthodox Russian church. We are greeted at the foot of the stairs by a stone statue of a smiling old man. The two stairways up to the entrance are on either side of a long fountain in which the water flows in little step-size waterfalls. When we reach the entrance to this huge white building with enormous red entrance doors, we realize just how massive this temple really is. Once inside, our senses are overwhelmed by the bright colours, strong scent of incense, and the throaty didgeridoo-like rhythm of Buddhist chant. Little red benches are arranged in a rectangular pattern, where you can sit and relax while watching a handful of Buddhist monks dressed in orange togas chant. Behind them, painted on the wall is a huge colourful portrait of a Buddha on a lotus flower. The temple is very ornate, and it feels like being in the Buddhist equivalent of a Russian orthodox church.

        Elista also has several other points of interests. Its city center is a nice place to visit. In front of its government building is a fountain with three large silver lotus flowers, the symbol of Kalmykiya. The Lenin statue is off to one side and a huge red pagoda is off to the other. You can ring the pagoda’s bell by turning a turnstile within. The tradition is to walk three times around and make a wish. A distance away from the center, there is a railway car and a monument in memory to all the Kalmyks who were brutally and unnecessarily deported during Stalin’s purges. It’s rare to find a Kalmyk today who didn’t have a relative taken away. Elista is also very famous for its contribution to the sport of chess. Chess tables are scattered throughout the city, and they even have an amazing chess training facility where players can train and live! This facility is like an Olympic village, and in fact, has hosted Chess World Championships.

        Once you have seen the sites and are ready to leave, transportation back to Moscow is fairly easy. It is much easier than the two-day trip through three different cities it took us to get there. There are direct buses back to Moscow. These buses are relatively comfortable, relatively frequent, and will get you back home in a day.