If I
had to talk about all the interesting rides I had in southern Russia, this post
would be 5 times longer. So instead I’ll just give you a taste of the first 4
rides I had after leaving Moscow. There was the truck driver Vladimir, who had
his two daughters in the back of the cabin, where there wore no seatbelts. They
therefore had to hide behind a curtain every twenty kilometers, when we passed
a police checkpoint.

Next up came Alexi who thought it was really fun that the
only two kinds of people, standing by the side of the Russian roads at night,
are hitchhikers and prostitutes. He was apparently used to picking up both
kinds and spent most of his limited English praising Russian prostitutes over
polish ones, and explaining the different prices in every European country. Then
I was picked up by Abram. He drove me over 700 kilometers and bought me both
breakfast and lunch, but I might have helped him steal diesel from a gas
station. He told me something, I didn’t quite understand, about how all truck
drivers in Russia steal, and I didn’t see him pay, before we left the gas
station in a hurry. Oleg didn’t speak a word of English but he was very proud
of his samurai sword and wanted us to exchange emails, so that we could keep in
touch.

As I went further south, I was faced with a new problem, that I hadn’t
experienced before. One of my rides dropped me of at an empty gas station
around dusk, and as soon as they drove off, 7 big stray dogs came running at me
from 3 different sides, barking and baring their teeth. Luckily another driver
had seen it, and he pulled over to chase them away, while I quickly crossed the
road. I had a lot of problems with aggressive strays, until I consulted the
internet, which taught me how to circle around their territory without turning
my back on them and to always carry some small rocks in my pocket. The rocks could
be used as warning shots, when they ran after me.

Upon approaching Elista I noticed that more and more of the people started to
look Asian, which confused me, until I arrived, and my host Anna explained the
city’s history to me. Elista is the capital of one of the most unique regions
in Europe. In the 1600s a nomadic tribe called The Kalmyks migrated from
Mongolia and walked for thousands of kilometers before settling on the steppe
west of the Volga River. Today there are about 200.000 Kalmyks left in the area
around Elista. They look Mongolian, speak a unique language, that resembles the
Mongolian language and live in the only region in Europe, that has a majority
of Buddhists.

The city is even home to the biggest Buddhist temple in Europe,
built in 2005 at a location pointed out by the Dalai Lama himself, when he
visited the city. We were staying with Anna’s grandmother, a linguistics
professor and former member of the local communist party, who had some very
strong opinions on capitalism, that she was eager to share.

Anna and her
grandmother wanted to go to Anarpa by the Black Sea, so I decided to tag along
and spent a couple of days relaxing by the beach and drinking ungodly amounts
of kvas: a local cider sold in special shops on every street corner.

I left Anarpa for Volgograd, expecting my trip to take two days. However, after
the first couple of rides, I was picked up by Alexi who was going all the way
and didn’t speak a word of English. He drove me 800 kilometers, which was great,
but it also meant, that I arrived in a ghetto, 30 kilometers south of
Volgograd, at 3 am. I was coming to
terms with the fact, that I would be spending the rest of the night in the
streets, when Alexi invited me to sleep in his apartment. I assumed we were
going straight to bed, since it was 3 am on a Tuesday, but Alexi awakened his
roommate and cooked some meat for us to eat. Then he brought in the vodka. It
was a homemade monstrosity with 80% alcohol and at 3:30 am, I was absolutely
not prepared to drink a shot of that, let alone 5 of them, so I went straight
to bed afterwards.

I had really been looking forward to visiting Volgograd, but I was thoroughly
disappointed by it. The city’s main claim to fame is also the reason, why I disliked
it. It was the ground of the biggest battle in the history of men: The Battle
of Stalingrad. During which 2 million people died, and a lot of the city was
destroyed. This meant that most of
Volgograd had to be rebuilt by Soviet architects, and to this day the entire
center city looks Soviet in the worst sense of the word.

None of the buildings
were constructed with aesthetics in mind, they are big soulless Lego blocks
that are only mildly impressive because of their size. On top of that I was
staying with a host whose house had a broken waterpipe, which meant that I
couldn’t shower. Therefore, I quickly left the city and went south to Astrakhan,
where I found a much better vibe, very cheap beer, and a host who was willing
to drink them with me so I stayed there for 3 nights.

Russia stretches over 17.100.000 square kilometers and when you’re a 20-year-old
kid who takes up only 0,25 square meters on a good day, it can be easy to feel
very small and alone. Which I did a lot of the time.

Like most people in the West
my primary contact with Russians, prior to this trip, consisted of pictures of
Putin shirtless on a horse or villains in James Bond movies. Therefore, I often felt scared at night, and I suddenly became very aware of how fragile I
was to robberies, carrying all my stuff on my back and with nobody to protect
me. In the 23 days I spent there though, all my fears where disproven and
turned into fascination.
My rides were all big, bald, Russian men who never smile at strangers, but they were also some of the best drinking
partners, I’ve ever met, and they usually drove me hundreds of kilometers.

The land itself is extremely fascinating as well and i loved travelling through it. The endless empty steppe had a vastness to it that I have rarely experienced before and which seemed to be the complete opposite of my tiny homeland. I had a strong feeling of only scratching the surface of a country that it would take thousands of lifetimes to begin to understand. Every aspect of Russia, from the people, to the nature, to the Vodka is full of this power and masculine energy that seems unique to the country. It is a place that I will definetely revisit, but for now I turned east towards Kazakhstan.

Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma
-Winston Churchill