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Peter and Mos I know well - both really, really OK places - full of vibrant life. Between the two, the lakes around Lake Seliger and the town Vyshnyi Volochek are worth visiting. Russia's Amsterdam and Venice - away from Peter.
Volgograd is just a plain 50s-60s city, but memorable for its WWII memorial gardens. Highly moving. A must for everyone to learn of the futility of war. And on the way there and back you learn that people are people - everywhere - the World over. And all we want is a peaceful life for ourselves and to leave a better place for the children.
Going further south, the flat lands to Astrakhan and the huge delta of the Volga were different. Then turning right towards the North Caucuses, the Bhuddist city of Elistsa is an amazing culture shock. The mountains down to the Black Sea are stunning.
Why, you may even see me there in August! I'll be there - again!!
come see Novgorod The Great - 300 km down on the Spb-Msk road. strange none of you guys mentoned it
it's the place where Russia started 1000 years ago, with beautyful kremlin, with a gorgeouse Monument for 1000 years of cristening Russsia. and of course The Holy Sophia church - mother of all churches ( there are hundreds of smaller ones really). the city is a homeland for democracy in our country for the independent republic that existed here till Tsar Ivan the Great conquerred it and included it into his moscovite county. it's a place where the hords of mongolians stuck and never reached the city. it's a hometown for lord Alexsander The Nevsky - our national hero who headed the troops in the legendary battle on Chudskoe lake (against Sweden knights, who drowned mostly)
and so on so on so on
it's a fairy grownds really - full of ancient national spirit. as to me only town of Suzdal can compare - do not miss it either.
I second Tony's comment about Elista ... how could I miss it? The capital of the only Buddhist state in Europe. Its off most radar screens but the Kalmyk Republic is an basically an offshoot mongol tribe with an obsession with chess, transplanted on the steppe just on the edge of Europe. Kalmyks can be stunningly exotic looking and many of them have gone on to enjoy the good life modelling in Paris, Milan, New York and London.
Come to think of it ... to learn a lot more about Russia, you might want to visit a lot of the ethnic groups along the volga. Russia is not the monolithic slavic bloc is it often simplistically portrayed as in the west, but is a fascinating tapestry of native nationalities, many of which have their own republics along the Volga and in the North Caucasus.
Each ethnic group has it own distinct traditions, languages, culture and sometimes religion. Note that in the republics, the cities tend to be quite russian, its the town and the villages where you get the distinct cultures more clearly.
If that interests you ... and taking the lead from some of the other posts above, consider this route:
St Pete - Novgorod - Lake Seliger - Moscow - Vladimir - Suzdal - Mordovia - Chuvash Republic - Mari El Republic - Tatarstan - Bashkortostan - Samara - Volgograd - Kalmykia - Astrakhan ... and then cross into KZ from there.
A note about Volgograd: Its a normal Russian city and the only way you will get value of it is to read up on the history before you go. Its the history thats amazing. I have been there in summer and also in winter. And the atmosphere is not the same in summer. Its cheery and colourful - its a normal city. In winter its bleak, and standing on Mamaev Kurgan in -20 degree fog, you feel for the Russians and the Germans who were sent there to die. It always worth keeping in perspective just how many of them did that, and strongly advisable to keep a sense of humility. Brits who claim they won the war by winning the battle of Britain or El Alamein, or Americans who think they won the war by helping put together the tiny western front would be advised not to be too brash. 800,000 German soldiers and over 1 million Russian soldiers died in this city in just a few months.
Its the largest burial ground in the world, and IMHO I think a bit of respect and sombre reflection is appropriate. It didnt impact me in summer, but revisiting volgograd in the cold grey winter was a deeply moving experience.
would be nice to take 5-6 weeks for that zig zag run down from St Pete to Astrakhan.
If you had more time, or spare time, go down to the North Caucasus ... its where countless nationalities have ended up as the increasing russification of the country had pushed literally dozens of different ethnic groups up against the Caucasus mountains. Dagestan, just south of Kalmykia, has 30 ethnic groups, and 10 different language daily newspapers alone ! Chechnya and Ingushetia might still be worth giving a miss (check with locals when down there) but Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia are all safe and wedged up against Europes highest mountain range.
Tony P spent a fair bit of time in the North Caucasus last summer so he can fill you in on that region in considerable detail
Well just had a sec to read you post fully Colebatch and I must say a special thanks, not jsut for giving me a great starter of a route, but also taking the time to try and give me and others a little bit of education.
I do intend to read my way round the world (I'm lucky I can read whilst the missus drives, even off road - although I'm sure there will be tests of this !!) and I will make sure that I do read up on 'Stalingrad'.
My first book of the trip is going to be Anne Frank, as we hit Holland first. Any suggestions for Russia or even elsewhere?
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