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There were stunning views from the bridges across the Orlinok and Zhukop rivers. After the second bridge, I stepped off the railroad bed, and a freight train passed. Then, after a few hours, there was another. And after the Zhukop River it was basically wild: 20 kilometers of thick forest and swamps, and there were tons of animal tracks between the railroad ties. While the hoofed animals generally crossed the rail line from one part of the forest to another, a line of bear tracks could stretch for 2-3 kilometers along the rail bed, and there were several sets, which made me a bit nervous. I regularly tapped the rails with my walking stick, thinking they all ought to know I was walking here. Covered about 34 kilometers.
Yesterday I chose an excellent place for my tent, but I did not know that during the night there would be a concert of the Ensemble of Birds of Tver Oblast. At midnight I closed my eyes amid silence, but at 2 am. there were whistles, tweets, cuckoos, hoots and quacks. In short, they did not let me sleep, and at four in the morning I stepped out into the icy reality of morning... In the forest’s dim morning light I heard heavy breathing and snuffling; there was movement in the shadows and I had the feeling I was being watched by something non-human. Then, in the store in Dubrovki(which had no bread), the salesman (a hunter, by the way) told me that there was no need to fear the bears here; they go away of their own accord.
At the small river Kerbushka my hair stood on end when something screamed loudly from the depths of the forest. I thought it was a couple of males fighting, but what kind of animal they were exactly, I did not know. Terrible sounds rang out three times on this road, but because the path was crushed stone, I saw no tracks. So I was happy to take the bridge across the Volnushka – an unexpectedly wide river – there were several settlements and a fishing base. I actually stopped for the night at the bridge across the Nerl (these two rivers merge before emptying into the Volga). So, walked 28 km today, and the next populated place is rather far away...
I walked through the village of Nekrasovskoyeto Nikolo-Babayevsky Monastery. It is very genuine and peaceful, a true monastery (not like those more popular places where there is too much business going on). It was on the very banks of the Volga, there is a birch grove, and everything seemed just ideal, except for when I was being attacked by the countless black flies and horse flies that had been accompanying me for several kilometers...
In Novodashky I went down to the dock and soon the ferry arrived from Krasny Profintern, which was visible on the opposite shore (from a distance it seemed that there were only palaces there). There, the locals said that I should take the road to Ulky and not go along the shore, else I might get stuck. A pack of kids on bicycles rode up and the youngest announced, “We are a band of evil goblins!” But the eldest one corrected him, “Gopniks, not goblins.”*I scooped up water from three wells, yet everywhere there was lots of rubbish, so a local let me onto his plot to access his private well, which had clean water (and when I told him about my walk, he was very confused). Then four muzhikswho were building a house spent a long time discussing how I ought to get from Chyorny Zavod to Uvarovo, using plenty of foul language (said one: “Oy, there are still plenty of idiots along the Volga!”), and they finally managed to agree, advising me to go left after the bridge and then along the canal.
A sunny morning and... the tent is always of interest to insects. The mosquitos sit and wait, the spiders, bugs and ants climb, the slugs slime their way along. A lot of them were clinging to the tent today, and the problem with them is, if you don’t notice them and then roll them up when you pack the tent, in a few days it will smell just awful. So you have to spend time removing each of these saboteurs.
Then I walked through Naumovo, Sukhonovo, past Astashevoand Kuzminki... past Lunevo and through Gustomesovo, where there were lots of fishermen on the riverbank. Further on, a fishery surrounded by a nettle fence, and the vibrations of the Kostroma electric power plant, and finally the city of Volgorechensk. In the central square there is a unique monument to Prometheus, the fellow from Greek mythology who gifted humans with fire. It is surprising to see him and not yet another Ilyich [Lenin].
Dmitry Ivanov, who I met yesterday, decided to walk with me from Plyos... It was a rainy day today, and my new poncho, which I bought in Yaroslavl, keeps out water much better than the old one. And the mosquitoes are very active; there were clouds of them in the forest. After about five kilometers walking in the forest, we suddenly met a fellow smoking in the thickets, and he was very glad to see us. This nearly deaf, cross-eyed, very simple... fellow who, it turns out, was in his 68th year, tied one on yesterday... decided to head off somewhere, got lost in the forest, spent the night there, and we were the first people he had seen in two days.
Getting lost here was not advisable even sober... The road was truly bad, and one of us was hauling a backpack, the other a bicycle [Dmitry was going to ride home at day’s end], and the third, aged and a smoker. There were continual puddles, rain, and mosquitos climbing into every crack. But we got to Kuznetsovo.
It poured all day. The rain merely changed in intensity, but never stopped... In Yuryevich, during an atmospheric lull, I chatted on the main square (alongside a rather distinguished, five-tier bell-tower) with a young boy of eight and a half who had taken an interest in my large backpack, as have many children in the course of my walk.
He is one of four children in his family, which recently moved here from Moscow (“because the air here is clean” – and Wikipedia confirms his words, saying that “Yuryevich is one of the most ecologically clean places in Central Russia”), and bought an apartment for 300,000R!... Back along the embankment I saw a sign for the Yuryevich Guest House, where they offered rooms that were Luxe, Standard, Econo, and, finally, ones called “We just need a place to sleep” for 300R. I decided that a bed, a shower, and the chance to dry everything out was worth this, and so I went there. The comforts were minimal, but in any case better then a night in a rainy forest. Actually, it turned out to be rather decent. By the way, Yuryevich is the oldest city in Ivanovo Oblast, founded in 1225, just 4 years younger than Nizhny Novgorod. Today I walked 33.5 km.
A large part of the day I was in Raznezhye, a village of about 500 homes and rather historical, as a guest of Victor... We went to the lake, as yesterday we had decided to bathe. Today was a grey day, but we nonetheless jumped into the cold, peaty-brown water, then gathered some chanterelles in the pine forest – we could have gathered up sackfuls, but we only took what we needed for dinner, and also ate our fill of blueberries (and were ourselves a bit feasted on by the mosquitos).
During the night, someone dug beneath my tent. I pushed back against him with my feet, and in the morning I saw a mound of earth between the tent and the rain cover, which I had kicked up with my shoe. But it’s nothing. They are after the slugs – muffling and snuffling the tent and backpack – which have been much more numerous and active the last few nights.
Nonetheless, it was stunning in this young birch and aspen grove: a light wind at sunrise created an iridescent kaleidoscope of light and shadow on the thick wall of leaves and tree trunks. It was almost like a fairy tale, so I decided to continue on in the forest a bit further, because it is far more boring on the road, and one doesn’t see such a tidy forest that often.
Yudino. It was interesting to look at the high hills of the right bank, the same sort of scenery I saw when I walked to Old Arakchino. There I finally got to see what I felt was one of the most impressive things along the Volga: a bit of human handiwork, the Cathedral of All Religions. This church is the creative legacy of the unlikely artist and sculptor Ildar Khanov, and it now attracts many curious people, as if it were a museum. Ildar is now deceased, and his mission is now being carried on by his brother Ingiz... I was surprised and felt as if I had been transported onto the set of a film about the Middle Ages or into the laboratory of a medieval alchemist...
Summer on the Middle Volga, with its very familiar landscapes, scenes no one would confuse with the banks of any other river. Yet here the Volga roars like the sea. Waves are constantly rolling through, as a result of which the right bank has become a line of steep cliffs. Along the road I only had a few conversations, the first of which was memorable, as a village girl called my journey “coooool...” and recommended I move to Kazan, because “they come here from all the other cities; its only the Kazanites who are going to Moscow.”
I pitched my tent in Shelangaat dusk, and soon someone was making noise nearby and even shaking the tent. I went out with my flashlight and it was a small fox. For some reason it had pulled up the front and rear tent stakes (I had not stuck them in very deeply), and was walking around, not particularly afraid of me, yet it still seemed normal (not rabid). Still, not knowing what to expect of a fox, I gave her a few shots with my pepper spray, and that seems to have worked. Now it is quiet (although it could well be sitting quietly on the other side of these few layers of nylon, waiting for me to fall asleep so it can sink its teeth into my supplies). Well, just another simple day on the road.
The night in the cornfield went fine. No combine, none of the wild boars that gave me a scare in the morning... I went into Syukeyevo, but nothing appealed to me in the stores, even though I knew that there would be nothing to buy until Tetyushi, and so I set out on the long road.
I turned off at Dolgaya Polyanato get some water, and suddenly realized that this was an interesting place! I saw the gate for Molostvov Estate and went in. It is a natural and architectural monument, the only remaining noble village estate ... I took a 1.5 kilometer path down to the Volga, thinking it was not going to be worth it, but came to the riverbank and it was excellent! Seeing others swimming, I took a swim myself – the first of my trip [in the Volga]! ... I also walked along a century-old alley of Siberian larch, and there was also a so-called “anomalous field” there with magnetic disturbances, but I didn’t spend much time there (I was worried about my gadgets and time was pressing)...
From Kildyushevo I walked to the village of Kirteli, where they told me in the store that “It’s not a bread day; go to Bolshie Tarkhany, they make their own bread there.” So there I went, just six kilometers, and they had a nice bakery, so I bought several meat pies, given that it was another 17 kilometers to the next place on this road where there would definitely be a store (Undory)...
Toward evening I walked into Ulyanov Oblast, and as soon as I crossed the border the road changed drastically (a difference apparent to anyone): where previously there had been even plantings, with everything between them and the road well-mowed, here the trees and bushes grew right up to the roadside, from which mosquitos would attack in large numbers, as when I camp in the woods...
In the store [in Undory] I chatted with a worker... she said there was a campground on the other side of the village, toward the Volga...
At the campground, which was a 1.5 kilometer walk away, a yokel awaited: “We don’t let anyone in after seven, those are the rules.” (It was 8:20.)
And I asked, “Where can I pitch my tent, then?”
“Pitch it by the gate; I can’t let you in.”
In sum, it was not a campground but a fiasco (how many times had they accommodated me in hostels, yet here some sort of formalism reigned). I immediately turned around and, under a darkening sky, headed back. My intuition did not fail me; on my way to the campground I had noticed some sagebrush as a possible location for a camp, and so I cleared a spot there (and for some reason there were no mosquitoes; can they really not like sage?). According to my GPS unit, I walked 38 kilometers today. Tomorrow another 40 and I will be in Ulyanovsk.
Today I walked through Taydakovoand to Usolya – about 26 kilometers at a vigorous pace (in order to make it in time for the crossing) along a hot road amid chalky hills. I arrived on time and chatted with two fishermen there, in whom, despite their humble appearance and uncensored language, one detected simple souls. They insisted on showing me the village, and we walked to the “Count’s Ruins,” a very sad estate where the only stone and metal left behind was whatever people were too lazy to cart away. It was far more interesting to hear about local life and to spend some time in an authentic home with a view out the window of the Volga and Tolyattion the opposite bank.
They were a bit too confident that there was plenty of time until the ferry, and suddenly they said, “Oh s***, we won’t make it!” We ran outside, but they soon fell behind, and I had to run so fast, my backpack bouncing on my spine, that I barely made it...
I headed to Novinki, and then to Shelekhmet, and after that I ascended into some forested hills. Up and down, following a dirt path through the trees that blocked all possible views.
The mosquitos flung themselves at me in an all-out assault. I had thought that in this regard the worst place was the swamps of the Upper Volga, yet here they were even more numerous. I began by swatting myself every second, and each slap killed a few of them. Soon enough I decided that the time had come to put on my anti-mosquito net for the first time (it was the last un-used thing in my backpack). My clothes were covered in anti-mosquito spray, but that did not upset them, the repellent coils [which burn like incense] had only a modest effect, and I had run out of them... The netting is good, although a few mosquitoes did get in underneath it, but this was nothing compared with what was going on outside. I am certain that this was a record-setting day in my life when it comes to the number of mosquito bites.
It was a strange day, even though I walked to Syzran, some 42 kilometers, with my legs feeling good... but I was not in the best shape, exposed to a bit of nonsense called “impetigo.” In the days following the mosquito feeding, I scratched madly at some of my bites in my sleep... and apparently (this is my theory) bacteria got into the wounds (bacteria lives on all of us, but on travelers more so). There began a rapid process of inflammation on several patches of skin, where liquid seeping out solidified into a yellow crust.
The fact that it was not pretty really didn’t bother me, though I did notice that every passerby stared at the blotches on my face. Worst of all was the desire to scratch it – it was a constant itch. So I hurried to the nearest pharmacy (I had already Googled my illness and knew that I could not let it go, that if it was treated in time, all would be fine), in Oktyabrsky, and bought some ointment and applied it while sitting on a bench in a courtyard, as I was observed by surprised old women. My skin had become a battlefield, but soon enough the situation quieted. The ointment had an effect.
Yes, last night was probably the most unsettling of all. Last night I climbed to the top of a hill in order to find a good cell connection, and since I had seen lots of wild boar and fox tracks along the road, I did not want to camp in the ravine. In the forest, you have neighbors... And the weather forecast for the overnight was a light rain.
By 10 pmI began to wonder if the tent would hold up in such wind, and at midnight the rain was pouring down. But that was all fine. I only roused at two in the morning – awoken by peals of thunder. I established that the thunderstorm was on the left side of the river – I saw it and began to worry that it might move over to my side. In that case, I would be its first target, so I put on my boots and poncho, so that if it began to flash nearby, I could run to the forest. I waited that way until the thunder dwindled to nothing.
In sum, I did not sleep very well.
The morning was foggy with a drizzle. I was tired of plowing along dirt roads, so at the first opportunity I headed onto the highway. Along the roadside there were lots of people selling Khvalinsk Honey, just like they sell fish in other places along the Volga. At a fork in the road, where there was a gas station, stores and cafes, I chatted with a Volgograd long-haul trucker who said, “The farther you go, the crappier the people are; be careful.”
Then I descended into Khvalinskalong a road between sheer white cliffs and hills. I was in the Khvalinsk National Park, and it was clearly a nice forest, but I did not enter it. In Khvalinsk I walked along the embankment (Stepan Razin Street), where there were not enough shops, but it was a nice view and the town was small and cozy. Visited the art gallery named for Petrov-Vodkin (the artist was born here, and many places here bear his name), which had opened recently after a major renovation...
There are such constant winds on these hills above the Volga that it’s hard to imagine they ever stop. Within half an hour the sky darkens, a light rain falls, then it all flies away to the East and the sun is burning down again.
In Alekseyevka I chatted with a farmer, who barely let me get a word in edgewise, so eager was he to talk. He said that he likes taking care of his property, but sometimes has his fill, because every day is the same, and that he wants to cut loose and go somewhere, to wander around Russia. He envies vagabonds, but cannot bring himself to do it.
In Mayanga, after a fox fled from me across a field, I thought I would stop in a cafe. The first was closed, but on the counter sat two gigglers – a brunette with pitch black eyes and a bewitching voice (that could convince you to do anything) and a simple blue-eyed blonde. Rare opposites as plain as day, and they asked me lots of questions about my walk, tried to give me clumsy advice about the road ahead, and generally it was hard to get away from them. Further on was a pack of dogs, a gas station where I ate an excellent burger, an eternally burning trash heap, the yellow steppe, and, in the distance, the hills of the right bank...
At Yelanka I decided to go into the town, to get bread and water, but en route I was overtaken by a battered Zhiguli driven by a begrimed, slightly overweight girl, bursting with health and strength – the sort you only meet in the countryside. She offered me a ride to the store and I agreed – I still had to walk back to the highway after all. In the store I perhaps gave the impression of someone who was poor, for whom money was tight, so she suddenly gave me some sliced sausage and melted cheese. It was very awkward, but I could not refuse. I did not know her, nor she me; she was just a good person. I enjoyed the gifts sitting in the shadow of some trees...
Went into Krasny Tekstilshchik, and further on was an almost unbroken line of huge dachas. The wind chased dust into whirlwinds, often causing me to squint, and the sun was scorching all day, as if it were summer. I saw various snakes in the grass and walked for the most part directly along the cliff banks, sometimes rising and falling, guessing my way through mazes of dachas, which with rare exceptions are empty now... 22 or 24 kilometers today (the GPS didn’t measure it), not much, but I consider it fine, given the heat on the hills.
The night on the couch in the roadside cafe was not very peaceful. Soon after the lights were turned out, mice began to do as they like. They made noise and I tried not to pay attention to them, but three times I had to knock them off my head. And what is more, there was a cat. But it was in the room with the owners. Very good people, but the cafe was totally wretched.
The howling winds continued until Stolbichi. This is a cliff on the riverbank that is hundreds of meters high, and it is considered one of the most impressive along the river, at least when seen from the water. From the land it is at first scary, and then beautiful – scary to walk along a narrow pebble path below them, knowing that the lightest touch of a finger is enough to break off a serious stone, and there are lots of stones up there, and the wind is blowing hard, and you don’t have on a hard hat. And it is scary up top, when you walk to the edge and see the raging river so far below, and the ground below you feels so uncertain. But still it is beautiful...
Yes, now the walk has become increasingly athletic – great monotony on the road and a desire to overcome it as soon as possible... Headed out early, daylight is constantly getting shorter and you need to make the most of it.
At the entrance to AntipovkaI went into a cafe, then chatted with a toothless Uzbek who had been wandering around Russia for 18 years, yet in all that time he had still not really mastered the Russian language, so much as become addicted (excessively so) to foul language. He proposed that we work together in some Antipovka dairies, and also try out various alcoholic drinks, but I hurried on down the road...
Went into a local business, talked with some muzhiksabout the walk, as a result of which, without my involvement, one of them got the owner of the guest house to agree to give me a place there at half price. I agreed. I am now resting in the little house and the mice are scratching about everywhere... so I am thinking I may not turn the lights off at night. Maybe then the mice will not climb on me while I sleep, and, more importantly, into my backpack :)
All day in Volgograd, although today I really didn’t see anything special in the city. In the morning I added up my distance so far: 3,675 kilometers through today... Met some pretty nice guys, and stayed with one for the night. He truly surprised me when he himself lied down on the floor, giving me his only couch. This, after sitting in the kitchen with the simplest of dinners and all manner of conversation.
An okay night in Vyazovka. Walked along a dirt road, it got hotter and hotter, and a Caucasian from his car asked me what everyone asks: “Why are you doing this?” Then I climbed the ravines a bit, where I tore my pants making a sudden move. Fixed them right there in the field, but lost the needle. Good thing I have a second...
In Zubovka, when it was already getting dark, and I was eyeing the fields for a place to put my tent, someone yelled, “Hey, long-ranger!” (What a name!) It was a man and wife, coming back from working in the fields. In the course of a typical conversation, I had an unusual thought and asked them if they had a place on their plot where I could pitch my tent. They seemed like very good people. “Come with us,” they said.
Sitting in their kitchen, I learned about their life: a big property, they grow all sorts of vegetables and fruits that only grow in Russia, and also pigs. On weekends they go to Volgograd to trade, and all week they work to their limits, and there is so much to do that they have hired a laborer, and they are also raising two boys.
Such healthy, hard-working people. Country folk in the best sense of the word. They have everything they need, but nothing fancy. A simple house (where cats, a dog, and lots of flies also live). The table groans under the load of simple, but tasty and filling food. They fed me to bursting.
The laborer is here as well. He told me he works for 10,000 rubles a month, plus he eats at the same table as the boss, plus there is tea, cigarettes, and, what is most important, “good relations.” They gave me a mattress, in an excellent place in the hall. They themselves went off to bed earlier. As I understood it, they had to get up at five to start work again.
Walked to Solyonoe Zaymishche, it was already getting toward evening, and I walked along unsightly lowlands and upon windy hills, looking for a place for my tent. There I struck up a conversation with a shepherd who was rather simple, but seemed like an okay muzhik. He oversaw 150 sheep and understood that I was looking for a place to bed down for the night, and proposed I stay in the little house next to his sheep pen. There, next to the stove, we shared our food with each other, drank tea, and I showed him how my gas camp stove worked, and then he went into the other room while I slept on the couch, albeit annoyed by loads of flies.
The story continued in the morning, when I could immediately tell that someone had been rooting around in my backpack and I, knowing everything in there by heart, immediately saw that my saucepan, cookstove, and gas cannister were gone. The shepherd said that, when I was sleeping, the neighbor probably came in and took it to sell it for drink. I frowned and suggested we go see this neighbor, but he said he would sort it out himself. He left and five minutes later came back with all of it. I softened toward him.
So, a lesson: you can’t trust everyone.
I headed out at dawn...
It was already night when I walked into Astrakhan, which was rather poorly lit, and almost empty of people. I wanted to walk on the embankment, but then I realized that two guys with fascist faces had been following me for some time (young guys in hoodies). I became a bit paranoid – it would not have been a problem if I hadn’t had a backpack, which constrains my movements.
I turned sharply around and they exchanged glances. My instincts led me to a more populous street (Sverdlov), basically to the center, and soon I got to where I needed to be. Here there was something new – I stayed in a hostel, but my first that was this sophisticated. There were artists, foreigners, and others here. I was on the second level. A cool place. Talked a bit with some of them...
The morning was uneasy. There was a strong wind on the sea, and I felt the first indications of a cold... We sat in a boat and headed out to sea. At this point I felt some pangs of emotion – inside, that is. I am not the sort to express emotions loudly, so I did not howl when we floated up to the sign, “Here is where the Volga flows into the Caspian Sea” (I had no idea there was a sign like this here), and I calmly had my photo taken there, and splashed my face with the water (because I had no desire to totally immerse myself in such cold waters – I am not a walrus).
Yes, the wind was serious, and we did a small turn around the sea. In reality you cannot tell where the avandelta (the underwater part of the delta) ends and where the sea begins, but that was not important to me. Behind me was dry land, and all around were some small islands, while on the water were all sorts of birds: cormorants, swans, geese, and still others...
At that point I suddenly grasped that the journey was over, and all at once I felt both happiness and sadness...
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