Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Motherland Calls!

As the statue in Volgograd calls to the Russians, so does the United States call us back home. We have a few more blog posts about Russia to come, but we have in fact returned to our homeland. This post is about our last weekend of travel in Russia.


Flying out from Elista can be a bit tricky. The airport is small--tiny, even--and is only serviced by one airline with three weekly flights. These flights are also very expensive in comparison to other air service within Russia. So a common alternative for travelers is to go to one of the nearby bigger cities (Astrakhan, Rostov-on-Don, or Volgograd) with more consistent air service to Moscow.

For our flight to the capital, we chose to leave from Volgograd. We were there earlier in May, and I had traveled through Volgograd during my previous visit to Kalmykia in 2010. So on Saturday we woke up at 4:00 a.m. to catch a taxi from Elista to the Volgograd airport. The service is incredibly inexpensive--about $15/per person for the 300km journey--and the drive gave us a chance to see the stretch between Elista and Volgograd in the early morning light (it was nighttime when we came back this way before).

Entering Volgograd; Buildings here are generally larger and more densely built than in Elista.

The Lada: a common car in Russia

Driving through the city of Volgograd

After a little more than three hours, we arrived in Volgograd. The city is known for its bad roads, and these have been made worse by construction that is underway to improve infrastructure for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. We had some extra time before our flight at noon, so we stopped for about 45 minutes at Mamaev Kurgan, where the memorial to the World War II Battle of Stalingrad is located.

Approaching Mamaev Kurgan - the hill where the Motherland Calls statue stands overlooking the river - and the new soccer arena

The kurgan--or hill--was the site of intense fighting between German and Soviet forces in the early days of the battle (September 1942). Eventually a sort of stalemate set in, with both sides controlling parts of the hill. The Soviets were able to hold out until they defeated the German forces in a counterattack in early 1943. In commemoration of the battle, the Soviet Union began building a memorial on the kurgan in the late 1950s. The Motherland Calls, which dominates the memorial complex and the skyline of the city of Volgograd, was finished in 1967.

The Motherland Calls! is one of the world's largest freestanding statues

Her size is comparable to the Statue of Liberty in the United States, maybe a little bigger.

The traditional approach to the memorial is from the Volga River, on the east side of the hill. As you walk up, you pass an entry statue, an avenue of poplars (and fragrant choke cherry trees), and a pair of walls that symbolically depict the course of the battle. 

A view of The Motherland Calls! from below the walls that symbolically depict the course of the battle.

The people on the steps give you an idea of the scale of this memorial complex.

We approached from the other side and didn't have time to make it all the way to the main entrance. We did get to see the symbolic walls, as well as the reflecting pond on the Square of Heroes, the military honor hall, and a number of smaller statues. The honor hall includes an eternal flame and the names of approximately 7,200 defenders of Stalingrad during the battle. It is guarded daily by Russian soldiers. 

The Square of Heroes and its reflecting pond. The text on the wall on the right-hand side says: "With an iron wind blowing straight into their faces, they were still marching forward, and fear seized the enemy: were they people who were attacking? were they mortal at all?!''

Another view of the reflecting pool, with the stadium under construction in the background.

(Inside the memorial hall)

The walls of the hall guarding the eternal flame are covered with the names of the defenders of Stalingrad

The "Mother's Sorrow" statue with All Saints' Orthodox Church in the background.

Another interesting site on Mamayev Kurgan is All Saints' Church. There was some controversy over its construction, primarily because the kurgan is viewed as a secular site of remembrance, and the construction of the church potentially privileges Russian Orthodoxy over Russia's other historical religions. The church, nevertheless, is a beautiful structure:

After touring Mamaev Kurgan we went to the airport for our flight to Moscow. After checking in to our hotel, we took the train from the airport to the city center. Moscow is served by three airports, and all three are linked conveniently to the city center via these trains. Our train was modern, clean, and very comfortable. From the end station we hopped on the metro for two stops and went to check out Red Square.

The Moscow (МОСКВА, in Cyrillic) train station

Red Square is the large open area to the northeast of the Kremlin. It's bordered by the Kremlin's walls, St. Basil's Cathedral, the department store GUM, and the state historical museum (counter-clockwise from the southwest). Lenin's mausoleum is also on the square along the Kremlin's walls, as are the burial sites of other communist party dignitaries and Soviet heroes (for example, Joseph Stalin and Yuri Gagarin).

Red Square, Moscow

The department store GUM

The walls of the Kremlin, with Lenin's Mausoleum (middle-left in foreground)

Lenin's Mausoleum, where Lenin's body is on display for a few hours every day

St. Basil's Cathedral

The interior of St. Basil's is unlike other cathedrals we have visited. Rather than one large room with vaulted ceilings, St. Basil's has a labyrinth of hallways and small niches across multiple levels accessible via steep, winding staircases.

Lenin's mausoleum keeps strict hours, five days a week for three hours a day, and was closed when we arrived. Instead, we toured St. Basil's cathedral, with its byzantine interior, detailed chapels, and painted walls. After our tour and another stroll through the square--where posing for Instagram photos was one of the main activities--we hopped back on the metro to meet a friend of mine from graduate school who lives in Moscow.

The area around Novokuznetskaya metro station is bustling and increasingly hipster-fied; we found a good Irish pub (that didn't actually serve any Irish food) for our final meal in Russia. We then headed back to our hotel near the airport for a few hours of sleep before our early morning flight.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Khosheutovsky Khurul

Flags on the windows of Khosheutovsky Khurul, our main destination on this day

Our second day in Astrakhan began with a 5 A.M. wake-up call for an early morning departure. Luckily, sunrise is around 4:30 a.m. here in Kalmykia where there is no Daylight Savings Time, so it was actually pretty easy to get up at that early hour. Saying our goodbyes to Arslan's mother, we picked up Valeriy and were on the road by quarter to six.

We drove south into Astrakhan oblast and through fields where watermelons were being grown. Arslan and Valeriy frequently pointed out villages that used to be inhabited by Kalmyks; this area was part of Kalmykia before the 1943 deportation.

We had heard conflicting reports about whether the ferry across the Volga was running due to the high spring water level. If we had traveled a month earlier, in April, there would have been no problem taking the ferry across the river and back at any number of places, cutting the travel time substantially. As it was, about an hour south of Tsagan-Aman we turned off the road at the village of Zamyany and found the ferry to be operating. We took our place at the head of the line and waited for the scheduled departure at 8 A.M.

The trip across the river was uneventful but fun--there's nothing I like more than a good ferry trip (seriously, we took five on our honeymoon through Atlantic Canada). On the eastern shore of the river we drove over rutted roads and through a still-functioning collective farm to the village of Rechnoe to see Khosheutovsky Khurul [ho-SHOOT-uv-ski hoo-rool]

Khosheutovsky Khurul is the only pre-Soviet khurul still standing in Russia (as a reminder, khurul is the Kalmyk word for temple). It was started in 1814 to honor the Kalmyks who fought and died in the 1812 war against Napoleon. The khurul was designed to bring together elements of east and west; an image of the temple in the 19th century is linked here. During the Soviet period, the temple was partially destroyed; only the main building still stands.

We walked around the outside of the temple, admiring the extensive restoration that has been undertaken in the past decade. We also conducted a Buddhist offertory ritual on the banks of the Volga, burning a fire of apple wood and offering food and drink--all of which was white--to the gods. The white symbolizes purity - rice, milk, vodka...

Smoke from the fire blew uphill toward the khurul, visible in the distance.

Arslan drove us all across Kalmykia, northern Astrakhan oblast, and the city of Volgograd.

We had hoped to go inside the temple and before arriving in Rechnoe it seemed promising. However, upon arriving we were told that the guard who has the key had left town (it was a holiday weekend). So, instead of going inside I had a good, long look through the windows. The decoration is simple, with a statue of the Buddha, rows of benches, a wood floor, and walls painted light blue.

Valeriy left some colored ribbons sent along by his mother.

Flags near the temple, and a resident's painted garage

After the letdown of not going inside the khurul, we decided to press on to other sites in Astrakhan oblast. Like Kalmykia, the land here is dry steppe, but not so flat as most of the Kalmyk region. We were close to the border between Russia and Kazakhstan here.

About an hour from Khosheutovsky Khurul we stopped at Batu Saray, a reconstruction of the seat of Batu Khan made for the film The Horde (Russia, 2012). This is what I would call a Russian tourist trap. There were multiple vendors selling kitschy things at the entrance to the reconstruction. We took a few photos, but not having seen the movie the site had little meaning. I was partially ensnared in the trap, though, opting for a quick camel ride above the river. This was something that Mackenzie had done earlier in the trip.

As you look at the photos below, keep in mind that this is all a movie set! None of this is original, and we're not even sure if it accurately reflects what might have been here at one time.

After a short walk around the complex, we continued on to Volgograd--formerly Stalingrad--the site of most important battle on the eastern front in World War II. I had been here before, in March 2010, and visited the famous Motherland is Calling statue and memorial complex on Mamaev Kurgan. The 2018 soccer World Cup will be held in Russia, and Volgograd is one of the cities where the games will be played. They are building a brand new soccer stadium on the banks of the river just down the hill from the statue. It was a park when I was here in 2010.

A little difficult to get a photo from the car, here's the Motherland statue watching over the construction of the new soccer stadium.

We topped the day off with a visit to Russian McDonald's. No frorks in sight! But they do have delicious milkshakes and french fries.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Tsagan-Aman and the Volga River

Since returning from Dagestan, I have been working on conducting interviews and gathering information on Buddhism in the Soviet period from the republic's archive.

Tsagan-Aman is one of the places that stands out in this research. It's a small town on the banks of the Volga River--the only Volga River town in a 13-km "finger" of riverfront territory that is part of the Republic of Kalmykia. Other river lands that used to be part of the Kalmyks' territory were given to Astrakhan oblast after the group's deportation in 1943 and not returned when the Kalmyks were officially rehabilitated by the Soviets in 1957.

During the Soviet period, Tsagan-Aman was home to a man named Ochir Mandzhievich Dorzhiev (also known as Tugmuid Gavdzhi), one of the few practicing monks in the Kalmyk republic at that time. People traveled from all around to visit him and seek his guidance; when Valeriy was a few months old he was sick, and his parents brought him to see Tugmuid Gavdzhi to be cured. 

We traveled to Tsagan-Aman with Valeriy and his relative Arslan. The drive took three hours over the beloved Kalmyk roads--well, more a direction than a road. When we arrived, we were treated to a home-cooked meal of fried fish and tomato salad at Arslan's mom's house and then went to the khurul to meet the local lama.

He was quite a character, dressed in an embroidered maroon silk robe over sweat pants. The Friday service was still in progress when we arrived, so we took off our shoes and sat on the low benches as the monk chanted the names of the deceased relatives of the locals (written on scraps of paper for him to reference). After the service, we had a chance to meet privately with the lama; we talked about everything from Buddhism in the Soviet Union to U.S. police officers to the mosquitoes on the Volga in June.

The khurul at Tsagan-Aman

A close-up of the khurul's entryway

A view of the khurul through its gates

Dorzhiev's house at Tsagan-Aman. It was originally built in Astrakhan--a large city at the mouth of the Volga about 100 km downstream from Tsagan-Aman. At some point during the 1960s it was taken apart and rebuilt here.

The temple sits only about 100 meters from the Volga River. While the lama met with other visitors after the Friday service, we walked over to take in the view:

A panoramic view of the Volga at Tsagan-Aman

Upon returning to the temple, we were treated to a long and lively meeting with the lama that included tea and lunch. During lunch his pet peacock repeatedly interrupted us with a loud call and a cocky display of plumage from just outside his window. We were not allowed to record the monk's words or take his photo, so you'll just have to imagine it!

After saying goodbye, we made a quick stop at Dorzhiev's grave in the town's cemetery. Inside the domik (small grave house) we burned incense to honor his spirit - and to mask the odor of the rotting food offerings left behind by previous visitors.

The small house that was built around Dorzhiev's grave

The surrounding cemetery was also of interest. Each grave (or family plot) was surrounded by a low metal fence to demarcate the plot. The fences and graves are not on a grid but rather built at odd angles here and there, all facing in the same general direction.

To finish off another long day of travel, we were offered a boat ride along the river with Arslan and his friend, Sasha Gromko ("Loud Sasha"). I have a feeling that the nickname is intended to be ironic...

Loud Sasha and his boat

On the river with Arslan and Loud Sasha

Looking back towards Tsagan-Aman and the Khurul from the river

Representing the U of A and keeping warm

The Volga River is a popular destination for fisherman. They come and stay at all-inclusive resorts called tur-bazi (tour bases). There's a wide range in terms of quality and price--some cater towards rich clients from Moscow, while others are aimed at locals. Loud Sasha works at one of these tour bases, where rates for room and board run about 2,000 RR per person/per day (about $35 USD).

One of the more upscale tourist bases along the Volga

We ended our boat ride back at the jetty where the river level was high thanks to spring run-off further upstream. The watershed of the Volga River is vast; the river drains much of Russia's historic core and into western Siberia.

The Buddhist manta "Om Mani Padme Hum" is half-covered by the high river

The capper for the night was beer, vodka, and snacks out of a car trunk along the banks of the Volga River. I think this is a popular activity, as we weren't the only group and the police did a slow drive-by. The weather was perfect, the company was good, and the view was spectacular. Mackenzie said that her favorite moments of the trip have involved eating and drinking next to large bodies of water--first the Caspian Sea (see Dagestan: Day 3) and now the Volga River. 

The sun setting over the Volga
After the sun has set over the Volga

A candid of drinking adult beverages out of a car trunk
Siberian Corona is the least-worst beer in Russia - a ringing endorsement

After our "picnic," Valeriy went out to meet an old friend who now lives in Tsagan-Aman, and Mackenzie and I enjoyed another delicious meal at Arslan's mom's house. Homemade berigi (dumplings) are delicious after a long day--I recommend picking some up if you have the chance. After good food and good conversation, it was off to bed in preparation for an early-morning departure the next day. 

From right to left: Arslan, his mother, his son, and his sister

Our quarters at Arslan's mom's house