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Published: October 13th 2012
Volgograd isn't all about the Battle of Stalingrad, there are some fairly spectacular feats of engineering here too. South of town is the start of the Volga-Don Ship Canal fronted by a giant, 23m, Stalinesque arch and the largest Lenin statue in the world. Its part of the Volga-Baltic Waterway that allows shipping to travel from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and hence the Atlantic Ocean or Suez Canal. We keep thinking of Gulags as being connected with the end of trip & Siberia but this canal was predominantly built by prisoners from corrective labour camps, in 1952 over 100,000 convicts worked on the project. From the Volga ships are lifted 88m through 9 locks then lowered 44m through 4 locks down to the Don. The first lock is surrounded by parkland full of locals promenading and boys cooling off in the slipways – it is 40C+, way too hot to be standing round in bike gear.
To the north of town is the Volga Hydroelectric Station, the largest hydroelectric plant in Europe built as part of Stalin's post-war industrialisation project. We're riding along the banks of the river trying to find a spot to get
Lenin gazing out of the Volga Rive
at 27m its the world's tallest staute of a living person
a good photo of the 44m high dam when before we know it we're actually riding across it. We have to keep going the full 3km to the other side before we can turn round and come back. From up on the dam you appreciate how big the Volgograd reservoir is – the 3rd
largest in Europe.
Engineering inspections completed we head north and traverse more giant wheat fields on our way to Moscow. The scenery does change as we get closer to Moscow as we ride through more forests. The group are taking the direct route up the M6 – it seems to be incredibly busy, full of road works and is obviously used by lots of big heavy trucks as there are two very deep tyre grooves down each lane, tricky on a bike. So we peel off again to take the back road and seek out some weird and wonderful places, hopefully we'll see them in Moscow in 2 days' time.
Our route takes us past: Voronezh
– where the 1st
Russian fleet was built by Peter the Great in 1696 and where the Tupolev TU144 (Concordski) was built. It
was captured by the Germans in WWII and used as a staging post area for their attack on Stalingrad.Nowadays it just seems like one big traffic jam. Kurst Magnetic Anomaly
– the largest magnetic anomaly on the planet, now home to iron ore mines. Kulikovo Field
– where the Russians defeated the Mongol Golden Horde in 1830. the Golden Horde was well establish round the lower Volga but never quite got to Moscow. Its amazing to think that they made it this far west – its going to take us weeks to ride to their heartland in Mongolia. Yelets
- a really pretty little town full of pastel coloured churches and wooden gingerbread houses. Its had a rough tome – historically on the southern edge of Russian territories the Mongols burned it in 1239, the Uzbeg Khans ravaged it in 1316, Timur sacked it in 1395, and the Tatars devastated it in 1414. Now its just a pleasant place to relax..
The roadsides as ever are full of interesting stalls, giant gnomes are still popular but miniature wooden beer barrels, honey and gingerbread are now putting in an
on top of the dam
the Volga Hydroelectic station, the largest in Europe. The dammed river is 3km wide at this point.
appearance. When I say 'stall' its not always the wooden table you are imagining, sometimes its a car covered in honey pots.
Buying petrol is an interesting exercise. You have to pull up to the pump and put the nozzle in the tank. Then you go and pre-pay at the tiny 6in square window which is invariably sited 3 foot off the ground so it looks like you are kneeling down to pray. The concept of “fill it up” is a rare one in Russia so you have to work out how much petrol your tank will take and pay for that. If you overestimate there's no stop on the nozzle so it all just comes pouring out until you have the full amount you asked for. Finally you have to return to the little window and collect your receipt. All very overcomplicated and causes Edwin to do a lot of muttering!
To get ourselves culturally prepared for Moscow we drop into Yasnaya Polyana, the country estate of Leo Tolstoy - where he was born, wrote Anna Karenina
and War and Peace
and is buried. Tolstoy's great-grandfather, Prince Sergey F. Volkonsky, owned the park
land, his grandfather prince Nikolay S. Volkonsky created the gardens and his father built a 32-room house. Now only 2 wings of the house stand as Tolstoy gambled the centre section away in a card game and its new owner dismantled it and took it away!! Today it has a feel of faded grandeur, the gardens are all slightly overgrown but this makes the houses look quaint and inviting – sort of secret garden like. Inside its been left as it was in Tolstoy's day, his desk still has pens and paper on it. Next to the desk is the leather couch on which he & his 13 children were born. There are lots of personal bits & pieces dotted around and the assistants are very keen to point out certain pieces to us e.g. a letter written by Tolstoy. It has real family feel inside and is quite small and understated. Even his grave is very simple, just a green, grassy mound amongst the trees with no headstone or markings.
From Yasnaya Polyana its an easy 2 hours up to Moscow and there's no giant wheat fields just birch woodland for a change. We even manage
to find a real motorway with no U-turn lanes or bus stops!! In Moscow we get 2 days off the bike to indulge in more culture.
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