|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.