Stalingrad from the East Bank 1942

Stalingrad 2000

Volgograd from the East Bank 2000

 

Having visited almost all the Balkan and Eastern European states art least once in the last ten years I now decided to venture further East into Ukraine and Russian Caucuses as far as Volgograd (Stalingrad) for no other reason than an interest in "Operation Barbarossa", the German offensive against the USSR in World War II. The route and logistics didn’t seem to pose much of a problem but the visa situation was more complicated.

By starting in Romania, then through Ukraine into Russia would require firstly a double-entry Romanian visa, then a double entry Ukrainian visa, and lastly a single entry Russian visa. The first was no problem; I could get it at the border. The others were more difficult; when contacted both Embassies came up with the usual rubbish, i.e. no visa without pre-booked accommodation and a day-to-day itinerary. The Ukrainians even insisted I had a letter of Sighisoarainvitation from a Ukrainian National or approved business. Not living within four hundred miles of either embassy I had no option but to go through a specialist company who could acquire them for me.

At first good news. The Russian Authorities had dropped all pre-booked accommodation requirements and surprisingly their Embassy issued the visa without any problem. No such luck with the Ukrainians who refused point blank to issue a double entry tourist visa. They would however issue a single entry, which was no good as unlike the German XIth Army I intended to make it back home. Eventually they compromised and agreed on a double entry transit visa (three days maximum stay in each direction). Reluctantly I agreed.  However then the idiots issued it for 6 consecutive days not the dates I asked for. This meant I had three days to cross and leave the Ukraine in one direction, and then I would have to re-enter and retrace my steps in the next three immediate days. Not much use, and despite all entreaties they dug their heels in and refused to admit their mistake, or alter the dates. But at least I had the documents to get there; I could worry about getting home when the time came.

I had a bit of luck on my flight out to Budapest. A man travelling first class (paid for by his business), asked swap seats with me to be with his wife and baby, (in Economy), so I ended up in a window seat in row 1 with lots of. leg space and a champagne breakfast on both legs of the flight. From Budapest I caught the overnight "Dacia Express" Central Station, Kievtrain, got the required visa on the Romanian Border and got off at Sighisoara in Transylvania for a couple of nights. On the Monday I got the train to Bucharest and booked into my usual central and Telecom Building, Bucharestvery 1 star hotel for the night. Next morning I bought a ticket for the overnight train to Kiev from the travel booking office in town to avoid the joys of queuing for hours in the Gara de Nord railway station ticket office. I also stocked up with food and water for what was going to be a long journey

The journey to the Ukrainian border was uneventful and I managed to get a couple of hours sleep in my top couchette. I awoke later, it was dark, the train had stopped and the only sound was the slightly tense shuffling-for-documents noise you always get from passengers at border stops on big ex-Soviet Bloc trains. Knowing I was going to be singled out as a Western curiosity, and because I knew that it would take longer to process my documents than the locals, I went out looking for the Customs.

Only one of them spoke any English, a Ukrainian officer who after inspecting my passport/visa asked me in her limited English if I had any money to give her. However it wasn’t a currency bribe she was after, it turned out she collected foreign coins and I was the first British passenger she had encountered! I did have some UK coins (and even a rare Scottish pound note) in my rucksack in the compartment. Unfortunately the sight of a Customs Officer apparently making me drag my luggage out into the corridor nearly caused a riot as the passengers assumed I was being kicked off the train. Bucharest - Kyiv train It was sorted out and she got her bank note.

I arrived hungry in Kiev and quickly confirmed that the "MacDonald's" outside the railway station was no better or worse than anywhere else in the World. Unfortunately, thanks to the visa cock-up by the Embassy it was all of Kiev I was destined to see. The border checks had taken 9 hours (I even ended up helping them filling out the declarations for them in order to speed things up; they may have been printed  in Ukrainian but otherwise the format and questions were almost exactly the same as the ones used in the UK) and we had arrived six hours late. I had intended an overnight stop in Kiev but enquires revealed that most trains heading East into Russia had been cancelled due to the war in Chechnya, even although I was only going as far as Rostov-on-Don. Apart from trains to Moscow all other Eastbound trains to Russia were fully My hotel - Rostov on Donbooked for the next 48 hours bar one, and it was leaving in fifteen minutes. As I only had 48 hours left on my transit visa; and not wanting to overstay my time in Ukraine and spend the next 5 years in a Gulag or whatever the penalty was I had no option but to get aboard.. With the help of a passing Nigerian student who had translated all this for me I bought my ticket and we bolted for the train. I just made it, but so much for Kiev.

Kiev to Rostov was not my all time favourite train journey. The train was hot and crowded and in my rush I had had no time to stock up on food or drink, all I had was about 3/4 litre of water and a few rolls in my berth to last the next 24 hours. This increased Central Rostov on Donto about 30; the train not only stopped at the Ukrainian side of the border for 4 hours but also then crawled over to the Russian side for another few frustrating hours stop so the Russian Customs could repeat the whole ritual over again. By now I was beginning to get a bit worried, I had to get over the border before my Ukrainian visa expired and most importantly I was beginning to doubt if I was going in the right direction - there was after all a second border into Russia to the North of the Ukraine. No-one spoke a word of English; asking for "Rostov-na-Donu vagzal?" (Rostov-on-Don station?) or even writing it down in Cyrillic only got the response of a shrug and the reply  "Da! Moscva!” Even the rail map on the train was the wrong one. Finally we started to move. I decided to get off at the first stop anywhere, (anywhere!) which appeared to be bigger than a village. The main thing was that I was in Russia. I could surely then get somewhere to stay the night, find out where the hell I was and work out how to get to Rostov from there.

After stopping at a few stations where nobody got on or off and where there was no sight of a single building let alone town or village we stopped at a station which at least had a road and a couple of houses next to it. I took my chance and got off. Fingers crossed, and luckily there was a taxi and he did take US dollars (I hadn't had a chance to get any roubles yet). He didn't understand my asking where I was but did understand "mne nuzhna gastinitsa" (I need a hotel). We drove along a never ending road for a while then suddenly over a hill, and apparently from nowhere appeared a large city with golden onion domes gleaming in the sun. "Ah Rostov!" the driver beamed. "Rostov? Rostov-on-Don? Rostov-na-Donu"? - I couldn't believe it. "Da! Rostov-na-Donu!" he confirmed. By sheer luck, and despite its dead-end appearance, the tiny railway station I'd got off at was in fact Rostov’s East-West station.. Another 20 minutes and I was installed in the "Hotel Rostov" with a big room,a hall, an en-suite bathroom with a bath and hot water, satellite TV, a three piece leather suite, a double bed, fridge and even a writing desk. All for a staggering eight U.S. dollars a night.Kyiv - Cargo Boat on River Don

Despite being described in my guidebooks as "not very interesting" I took to Glasgow's twin city at once. Despite being almost totally destroyed in WWII it has been rebuilt quite tastefully, an near absence of tower blocks and abundance of green parks being just the thing after two and a half days cooped up in railcar compartments. I was only a 10-minute walk from the River Don and the South of the City. It was pretty obvious however that the populace weren't used to Western backpackers here, I was stopped twice by the Policia who wanted to check my visa and police registration; this  had been done by my hotel: technically unless you were on a package tour or official business trip this was still compulsory although they didn’t tend to bother as much in well visited places like Moscow and St. Petersburg.

That first evening I came upon the "Restaurant Fish" in the park across the road from my hotel. This was excellent, well situated, partly outdoors beside flowing water, friendly staff and  provided an initiation into sturgeon steaks.Rostov on Don

Next day I checked out the central market. This covered a large area on what seemed to have once been a tram terminus, the tracks were still there and occasionally a lost tram would try to get through, people would just uproot their stall, let it pass then resume trading again. Next to it was the Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral. This was in the final stages of a lavish restoration; all the domes had recently been re-plated with gold leaf, as well as the inside, which was ludicrously ornate.

I had finally worked out the crazy railway infrastructure. Rostov had three stations. Firstly the out of town one where I’d arrived which doesn't sell tickets, secondly the big central station which dealt with most international and long distance trains which was completely hidden underneath giant tarpaulins and not signposted and thirdly a small but very conspicuous station which only dealt with local trains but sold most tickets for trains leaving from the international station. I found this out the next morning when I tried to leave Rostov: I got my ticket at the local station OK but by the time I realised the train left from the larger station whose existence I was unaware of it was too late and I missed my train.

Booking my train gave me a lesson on being P.C. After queuing I asked for a ticket to Volgograd. The woman behind the desk shrugged and feigned puzzlement. "Volgograd" I repeated. Still indifferent non-response. “Volgograd? Volgograd?” Still a look of knowing indifference. Them someone at the back of the queue shouted “Stalingrad!” “Ah Stalingrad" smirked the ticker woman as if she hadn't understood me before. I got my ticket and later found out that while the late dictator may not be Russia's most popular asset, many people in the Caucuses still want their "Hero City" to be called Stalingrad.Somewhere

A local railway worker on his way to work took me a short trip along the track back to the local station. This involved dodging moving trains going through and even dodging under stationary trains but I'd done it all before.

I walked along the platform of this sleepy little station and took a photograph. This was my first mistake in what was to become a memorable day.

Immediately 2 young policemen apprehended me and asked to see my documents. I was so used to this by now that the first thought had become "don't laugh".  Then they made me empty my pockets. Then they frisked me (Badly, they didn't even find my body belt) and meticulously went through everything. Then I was told to come to the police station.

Rostov WWII MemorialI was taken downstairs into an underground room and sat at a desk. What was going on? About a third of the room was taken up by a large green cage with vertical bars, of the sort once popular with travelling circuses and wild beast shows. I was left sitting for about half an hour with the two cops on the door with thoughts of Salt Mines and Gulags going through my mind (well not really; actually working out how to bluff my way out this fiasco). Then an older, plain-clothes guy arrived and sat down across from me. He went through all my stuff again, looked carefully at my camera and asked me who I was, where I came from, had been, was going, was staying etc. For a sixty-plus guy in an out of the way part of Russia he spoke unusually good English. This went on for about twenty minutes, the same questions again and again. Finally he looked me in the face:

"Why-are-you-here?”  he shouted.                                                                 

"Well" I replied. "I'm a tourist".                                                                 "Mother Russia" - Volgograd

 He rose to his feet, thumped the table and roared "NO! WHO SENT YOU HERE!"

Oh dear! Didn't this idiot realise the Cold War ended 10 years previously? Apparently not. He ranted on for a further 10 minutes about the heinous nature of taking photographs of clapped-out Thomas the Tank Engine type railway trains but presumably eventually decided I wasn't James Bond after all and he let me go. Mind you I was still escorted back to my hotel, no doubt to make sure I didn't have a couple of ICBM's stashed behind reception. They even forgot to confiscate my film.

Perhaps that should have given me enough excitement for one day but I had better things to do than stay put in my hotel room as instructed. "Breaking cover" that afternoon I headed into a part of town I hadn't been to before. Perhaps I should have worn a false beard and dark glasses? Slightly lost, I was looking at my map when an old man came over and started giving me directions. Suddenly two police cars screeched to a halt, gun-toting Policia yelling “Cocaine! Heroin!” tumbled out and next thing we were spread-eagled against the wall and subjected to an enthusiastic but ineffective rub-down (again they didn't find my body belt). The old man was eventually taken into a car and driven off my the gun-crazed maniacs. In the ensuing confusion I lost my temper, a rare thing for me, and temporarily oblivious to the fact that I was risking sudden and terminal lead-poisoning went ballistic, yelling that I had diplomatic immunity, was a top British police officer, don't you recognise me and other The subversive (?) photo that led to my detentionnonsense, demanding to see their chief, get them all sacked etc etc. In retrospect not the most sensible course of action but it worked and they retreated back into their cars and drove off. I don't know what happened to the old man though.

Next day after a last sturgeon steak dinner I checked out of the hotel and walked to the station to catch my train. No-one arrested me for spying, travelling on false papers or even drug dealing, in fact not a single member of the Rostov-on-Don Keystone Cops was in sight. Maybe the antics of the previous day had busted their overtime budget. Who knows?

 Myself - Mamaev Kurgan - VolgogradThe last Three hundred kilometres or so passed uneventfully enough, why the train arrived five hours late I don't know, as I was asleep most of the time. We eventually pulled in to Volgograd in the early afternoon.

I must admit I wasn't sure to expect to find in Volgograd as the travel guides were rather patchy and photographs all seemed to dwell on the mounds of rubble the city became in 1942. I was pleasantly surprised, like Rostov most of the city was low rise,  there were plenty of green spaces, the weather was beautiful and a high-speed tram ran almost the full length of the long narrow city making almost everywhere of interest accessible.

From the station it was a five minute walk to Fallen Warrior's Square at the top of the Avenue of  Heroes, (the street names were great!), a long pedestrian avenue that stretched down to the River Volga. At the top end I had a choice of two hotels, the Hotel Intourist and the Hotel Volga. They were both equally pleasant in a decaying sort of way and as the "Intourist" suggested they had the best rooms but the "Volga" the best food and the "Volga" staff confirmed this, I ended up staying at the "Intourist" but eating at the "Volga" to the satisfaction of all parties."Mother Russia" - Volgograd

Later that afternoon after eating I took a walk down Hero Avenue to the River. I took time to watch the Changing of the Guard at the first of countless war memorials I was to find. The Avenue itself was lined by life-sized statues of workers and soldiers striking true Stalinist heroic poses, at the end an enormous staircase leads down the embankment to the river and the main River Terminal. It was a beautiful warm evening; I took a stroll along the embankment before returning to the hotel.

Next day I took the tram the full length of the City and then back again. Everywhere you went there were grandious war memorials and statuesof heroic soldiers in heroic poses. T-34 tanks were displayed along the Volga and even WWII aircraft and river patrol boats were mounted on plinths. It didn't seem ostentatious however and people of all ages could be seen from time to time still laying flowers on the various memorials. You could feel that people had a genuine pride in their city and the terrible battle that marked the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.. I  could also understand why a lot of people wanted to change the city's name back to Stalingrad.

 I  visited the "Museum to the Defence of Stalingrad". Although all the captions were in Russian you got the message. The highlight was the 360-degree panoramic painting of the battle in all its gory detail as seen from the top of the Mamaev Kurgan. It also held a huge model of the ruined city and amongst other exhibits the rifle used by the famous Soviet sniper Vassal Azotes. Outside the museum were Fallen Warrior Square - Volgogradsurprise, surprise yet more rows of T-34s and other military hardware and the preserved ruins of a flour mill.

The following day I visited the Mamaev Kurgan (Tartar Burial Mound), the strategic "Hill 101" where the most ferocious fighting took place. This had now been turned into a huge war memorial. To approach it you walked through a long tree lined avenue then up through rough steps surrounded with sculptured friezes showing the Russian defenders battling their aggressors. At the top was the circular tomb to the Russian dead, Inside you walked up a circular ramp, on the walls were inscribed the names of ten thousand soldiers buried here. At the centre was a clenched fist holding an ever-burning torch. The only sound was quiet, mournful music. Despite the size of the place it was very effective.

Outside, at the top of the hill was an enormous statue of "Mother Russia", sword aloft, willing victory. Despite being about eight metre high the statue was free standing.

I took a cruse up the Volga on one of the river cruise boats. The two hour journey down river to Tumak cost less than two U.S. dollars and on the way back it stopped off on the East bank. I caught a later ferry back across.

I had realised of course that my single entry Ukrainian visa was going to be a problem: as soon as I had crossed from T-34's outside the Museum of the Defence of StalingradUkraine into Russia there was no way back unless I could get a new one, or at least some sort of an extension. My first plan (a long shot) was that there might perhaps be a consulate in what was after all the biggest Russian city in the Caucuses. There wasn't. Unfortunately my second plan  was also thwarted when I found out that Belarus had stopped issuing transit visas on trains back through their country into Poland. The last option was to fly back to Bucharest. Unfortunately due to the centralised air network Volgograd Airport only handled domestic flight. So perhaps my jokes that unlike the German XIth Army I was not going to get trapped had been somewhat premature. Luckily Aeroflot got me a flight to Moscow and then a flight on to Bucharest.

The Moscow flight on an Tupalov 154 was actually up to Western standards, it even including a hot meal and good value at only the equivilent of thirty U.S. dollars. I did have to hang around at Moscow Airport all night however before flying back to Romania, this time at Western prices. I checked in back at the same hotel in Bucharest. Mission accomplished.

I spent a few days in Bucharest determined to finally tame the beast. From my normal hotel I quickly mastered the public transport system and spent a couple of days taking in the main sights.  Central Bucharest was almost like two cities, the pre-WWII avenues with wide huge ornate buildings, now slightly crumbling and showing signs of decay and then the Ceausescu era part. This comprised of even wider avenues and even huger buildings built after Nick 'n Ella came to power and began to build on a megalomaniacal scale.

I started in the centre of the city at the Civic centre. This began with a huge square that was meant to be Preserved ruins of a flour millgrassy. Unfortunately the hot, dry and polluted air in Central Bucharest had never been taken into account, an most of the grass was dead and withered the ground reduce to hard, compressed earth. From here I walked up the long "Boulevardi Unirii" which was supposed to be Bucharest's answer to the Champs Elysee but failed spectacularly. At the top of this was the "House of the People" which I was told was the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. Knowing this, I thought it would be bigger than it appeared although most of it is underground. I took a guided tour of a small part of the building: which was OK although rather sterile with a rather formulated commentary.

I took a tram to the end of the line to see the huge artificial lake build partly to provide water for Ceausescu's answer to the River Seine, a semi-artificial river running through the centre of the city. Once again it turned out to be entirely made of concrete and surrounded by litter-strewn scrub-land. A few optimistic anglers fished for empty oil cans or whatever it was that survived in the murk. While it may function as a reservoir for the city it worked less well as the "source" of the city's river. Seemingly it never occurred to the planners  that rivers require an incline to flow. Bucharest is almost flat and the river was more of a weed infested canal.

Actually I rather liked Bucharest's rather ramshackle glory and contradictory planning and design. I spent three nights there and then returned to Sighisoara for a couple of days. After this it was time to go home so I got the train back to Bucharest (where it arrived at a very inconvenient three o'clock in the morning) and caught my plane back to Scotland.

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