russia-1

Sweat Flies And Caviar In The Volga Delta

It is Europe’s longest river and it crosses world’s biggest country. Yes, we are in Russia. One month every year – half of May, half of June- the mighty  Volga gets mightier. We happen to be here slap in the middle of this flood season, after having spent days into the desert and the dry steppe. In this weeks the Delta is the domain of some nasty sweat flies. These bloody creatures fill up the air, creeping into every available opening into inanimate things or living beings. They enter our eyes, our nose, our mouth. They enter into our helmets even while riding at 70 ks per hour. They sting, bite and suck our blood or whatever they may find in there. This non-stop attack prevents us from enjoying as we’d like the charming canals where the houses look just like in Ana’s childhood fairytales books.

We have arrived in Astrakhan, and we are together with Merlin, a German rider who has come here alone, from Hamburg. He is going to Kazakhstan, then back home. We met at a crossroad, while searching for a bite. And in Russia in every such place there is at least one food joint to solve our problem.

We have plenty to share. Merlin tells us about his travels. We, in return, recount how we have camped in a nettle field, overlooking a curious establishment with the Ingushetia flag on top. That was the only sign that we were crossing a separatist republic.

We tell Merlin how lots of critters conquered our tent: snails with fragile shells, overweight bees, short-sighted crickets, cheeky grasshoppers…

We also tell the story of the last night bush-camp: perhaps one of the prettiest ever. Between gently curved hills, their shoulders covered in all the colors of the steppe. Above us, the night spread a black sky and a gazillion stars.

We share our impression of the Russian countryside: clean, organized; difficult to hold on to our Romanian prejudices there, and easy to like.

We discuss with Merlin about the hospitality of these people, no matter their ethnicity. One morning we knocked on the door of this woman, who was making meatballs, and she fixed us a hearty breakfast with some of the best tomatoes we ate in years!

We have crossed many settlements and most still bare the soviet symbols that make us feel uncomfortable. But even so, people are curious about us, and happy to hear where we are coming from, to shake hands, to share a laugh, to teach us a word or two in their language.  This is by no means a uniform nation, but rather a mosaic of cultures and ethnicities that have all brought something to the mix.

On our way to where we have met him, we tell Merlin, Ana ran out of gas, and we both ran out of drinking water. It happened right next to a stinky marsh, infested with huge dragonflies and snakes. There was no water there, but there were toilets, even two of them.

But maybe the most touching was the warmth of this family from Dagestan, where Fatima fixed us lunch and showcased here little niece, Jasmine.

While her other daughter, Raia played waitress in their small cantine…

… and while Sveta kept making fresh piroshki.

We must admit though, after all these days in the flat expanse of the steppe, we are starting to miss the Caucasus.

The food of the Russian is simple, but honest, much like our own. There are no spices or sofisticated techniques. Of course the nomads of this area have never had time to think about such things. The Russian fare is nothing to write home about, but it will fill you up for the long road ahead. Merlin could not agree more. And in this caffee, Madina serves us the best example of what I am talking about. Plov (a rice and meat meal widespread in Central Asia), borsh (a soup, really) and mahan (a thick soup with flat noodles).

Madina’s face reminds us that we are indeed in Asia. Actually so far we have talked more with the minorities, rather than the Russians with white skin and fair hair we have known from the news. Urajgali (and his g-friend) wants us to take a photo of them. We are happy to oblige, and we print them out a copy. Even Batir, a worker who also asks for a photo, is not quite from around here. He is from Mongolia!

Madina wants to give Ana a present: a fragrant soap. That will come in handy later on 🙂 Then a lady from this small dry fish boutique insists that Ana takes a few pieces. It tastes like caramelized fish, or like a fishy biltong if you want. Ana loves it, but she comes from the Danube area, so she was basically drinking fish from her mum’s bosom; she might not give the most impartial testimony about this fish.

Sasha, who is from Afghanistan (again, not a full blood Russian!), wants us to go stay at his sister’s in law in Astrakhan. The next day we will be searching for her address in vain 🙁 It won’t be the last allusion to the Afghani people…

On the way to Astrakhan we ride by a strange Fata Morgana in the desert: sea salts. Delicate insect bodies lay entrapped into the translucent layer of salt, like some sort of outlandish jewelry.

Wha’cha reckon? winks Merlin. In the hysteria of midday sun, the mirror of salt makes my head spin. It feels no longer like we’re on the same planet. It crosses my mind that perhaps faith is offering my revenge for the fact that I was not able to go to South America this winter, and that I missed the Salar de Uyuni.

Are you coming also?I ask Merlin, as Ana is likely to get stuck in the soft layer of clay and salt, and it’s better that we keep the number of vehicles we might need to push out at a minimum. Neah… says the German.

But I give into temptation. I must ride at least few rounds!

Merlin and Ana are waiting patiently while I have some sun in the salty concoction.

As the sun is about to set, we reach the outskirts of the city and of the Delta. We search in vain for a spot without sweat flies. Every second we stop we have million of hungry beasts eating us alive. This damn creatures will not let us be, we have no choice but ride back about 30 Ks to the desert. I’d say this looks much better, ain’t it? And the altitude is…  -82 below the sea level!

Ana goes for a quick jog through the thorny bushes. Us men enjoy a cold beer. I am looking with pride of what I have done to my bike. Tomorrow I must wash this salty dirt off the KTM< but tonight it looks damn fine.

We dine on fish: canned, dried and souped. After the last bite, we all get back to our respective tents and dreams. In the morning we say good bye to our friend, Merlin, and get back to Astrakhan.

We plan to spend here one more day: for rest, a bit of a walk around town, perhaps a spoon of caviar or two. We know that the numbers of this ancient fish have been plummeting, but even the signs urge us to investigate.

On the banks of the Volga, along the promenade, some ladies are sweeping the sidewalk. In the meantime the kids in town don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that some mighty sturgeons the size of an adult male are lurking somewhere in the deep.

My mind is set on cleaning the salt off the bike before it eats it all up. And once again, the Russian generosity saves the day. Andrey, the dude on the right, does an amazing job and flat out refuses to take any money for it. Do you want me to wash yours as well? asks Andrey, looking at Ana’s DRZ. Why not, she agrees, blushing.

But as both bikes get the spa works, and as we are ready to move, my KTM won’t start… What the hell?

The Russian are all over me. We try to dry the water, to move some bits, to change some other bits. Nothing. Dead. I take out the laptop and the data cable to try a diagnosis. The battery is out, the license for Windows parallels is expired… Man, what have I gotten myself into. And it’s hot, and those flies… I find a wifi connection, log in, start updating the software… Two hours pass. I change the exhaust map, I fiddle with it a bit, and hurray, the bike starts.

We can finally start looking for a guest house or something. We gotta take a shower tonight or our skins shall fall. But the hotel rates are outrageous, and we cannot afford to check in. We are not that desperate anyway. Ana asks a few people about gust houses. And a guy, Goof, accompanied by his wife, Lyudmila, and their daughter, Anna, stops and looks like he has an idea. I’ll call my friend, he days, she has a room for rent. OK. Soon we meet Tatiana. Ocin priveat Tanea, says Ana as she shakes her hand. Oh, are you Russian? No, that’s all I know. So, how much for the room. 1500 rubles, in a soviet “kvartir“. Expensive! For us such places do not feel at all retro or cool. They just remind us of the sad looking communist apartment buildings we were born in. Well, we have no choice, if we want to enjoy a few hours in the town and still have some time to wash our stinky clothing. That’s what the place looks like:

Showered and with a line of laundry set out in the sun, we hit downtown. The Kremlin in Astrakhan is one of the most beautiful. The hefty walls are a nice background for the exuberant golden crosses on top of the cathedral, for the joggers and horse jockeys, but also for the drunken dudes. Overlooking this lifestyle mosaic, there’s an absent looking Lenin.

Atrakhan Opera & Ballet

By night the crowds gather for sweet treats and vodka along the river. We are shocked by the number of gorgeous women in town: is there a Miss Russia conference being secretly organized in here? We debate the issue back in our communist flat, over some of the best fish we’ve had in a long time. Smoked sturgeon, salmon, mussels, Lithuanian bread, and yes, some caviar. Not the best, just what we could grab from the supermarket, but still very good! Sadly while in Russia one can only buy vodka between 10 am to 10 pm.

Now we should say a few words about the visa: we took it in Bucharest, for 46 USD/pp. We used a LOI from Real Russia (15 euro/pp),and it took 5 days to have the visa ready.There is no fee for your vehicle. We did not register to OVIR, we were not bothered by any policeman, we have nothing bad to report. Ocin spasiba russkaia zemlia! We’ll see if the next stop in Russia is as pleasant as the first.


See 2013 – Russia on larger mapp