Astrakhan, the Gateway to Kazakhstan (August 4, 2011)

By David Cianci

The morning was bright as we left Svetlograd. Our hopes were high as we anticipated reaching Astrakhan, on the Russian border, 330 miles away, by nightfall. The shrunken woman selling kvas outside of the hotel only bolstered our optimism.

Russia looks like this

Kvas isn’t sold widely in the United States, and I’d found it underwhelming when I’d tried it previously during a visit to one of our favorite restaurants in “Little Odessa,” a neighborhood with a heavy concentration of Ukrainian and Russian immigrants on Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Kvas is a non-alcoholic drink that is often sold by women who didn’t mind sitting for hours next to yellow tankards that resemble a beer keg welded to a wheelbarrow. It’s made of fermented rye bread, ranges in color from golden to amber, and is sold almost everywhere: in parking lots, at the intersections of major highways, in supermarkets and in parks. It can be brewed by anyone who has an interest in refreshment, by individuals or by large beverage companies. We found that on tap we could usually get four large plastic cups filled for one to two dollars. Our preference was to get it on the street because we found that storebought was generally sweeter than we liked.

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The drive was uneventful, but we felt the day’s blazing heat inside of our car with no air-conditioning. After running down my torso, sweat settled in my pants and in my socks, so our lunchtime stop in Elista, the capital of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, the only Buddhist region in continental Europe, was welcomed. It was disconcerting, in a land of blonde hair and push-up bras, to park downtown and see faces and mannerisms generally associated with the Tibetan steppe, Nepal, or Mongolia (Kalmyks are descendants of the Oirats, a Western Mongolian people). The Kalmyks are legendary chess players, and their former president is head of the International Chess Federation. He was also once abducted by aliens. Here he talks about his experience:

Families circumambulated a giant prayer wheel set under a pagoda in a large plaza, and we did too. We wished for success, pushed the blood red wheel, and a small bell rang contentedly with each completed turn. Life-sized plastic chessmen sat atop alternating painted squares just behind us. James and Kara put on the headphones and poached sounds, and most of the people who observed us seemed more confused than mortified. We walked through a little market, found some music, and the ladies managed to buy two expensive, giant pizzas in a mall nearby.

Kids spinning a prayer wheel at a pagoda in Elista, Republic of Kalmykia, Russia - the only Buddhist region of the European continent

Elista = buddhism and chess

After taking our pizzas to go, we pushed on to the Park Inn near the central train station in Astrakhan where a number of Mongol Rally cars decorated the hotel’s secured parking lot. The presence of fellow travelers did feel like a reward for the days of hard driving. There was a little posturing as the teams sized each other up, compared privations, and discussed various wild times, but mostly everyone just seemed relieved to have found a comfortable place to take naps and a handful of very hot showers. There were a few Americans, some Brits, a carful of Aussies, and a handsome Portuguese couple. I reflected contentedly on the adventure we were having after a hot shower and a cup of coffee. The feeling of carelessness and lethargy was magnified after I watched a minute or two of whatever CNN or the BBC was broadcasting that day, analysis of British austerity measures in the U.K, budget paralysis in Washington D.C. or rebels fighting and dying in the deserts outside Tripoli.

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The whole lot of us went out to dinner down the street from the hotel. The streets were poorly lit and a number of us nearly fell whenever the sidewalk unexpectedly gave way to the earth in a number of places. The restaurant was decorated with red velvet wallpaper and replicas of ancient Greek statues, and the bar where we would be served was in the back and almost empty. Twenty of us and nobody spoke Russian. We all got beer, dumplings, and chicken when we managed to make clear that we’d eat whatever they had a lot of. We were mistaken if we thought the party was in full swing before a couple of men from the back of the room approached us. The happy bald guy told us the brooding younger one was a renowned singer. The rocking commenced.