Friday, 13 July 2012

VIII Russia: Thunder Crawl

Soviet war cemetery, Weissenberg, eastern Germany.
In return for a special ‘Victory Day’ orange and black ribbon, and a sew-on police badge, given to me by a young Ukrainian fellow passenger, i proffered a photo of the war cemetery in eastern Germany, with its Russian inscription above the entrance; “To the Best Sons of the Soviet Country”. Thankfully the frontier crossing was painless, after which we continued via Anton Chekhov’s birthplace, Taganrog, to the bus station in Rostov-on-Don.[1] There are plenty of west European cities with a less affluent feel than this. The hotel at the nearby rail terminal was a bit pricey, so in clement evening climes i made for the centre, looking out for a cheaper place, and/or an internet cafe. I found the latter and made a sortie into cyberspace, but there too options were limited, so going back outside i carried on as before, picking my way through clusters of high-spirited Victory Day celebrators. Eventually i settled for a place to sleep under a walkway in a court yard, but was discovered very early in the morning by someone leaving for work, wishing to know what i was doing. It wasn’t enough when i said i was a pilgrim – there are no particular pilgrimage destinations in the vicinity of Rostov – but when i said that my goal was Mexico he seemed to be amused, and said i could lie in for another hour.

[1] Nobel Laureate and soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov State University in the late 1930s. Since 2009, the year after his death, his magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago has been compulsory reading in the high school curriculum of the Russian Federation. On the subject of atheism, in a book by Edward E. Ericson Jr., "Solzhenitsyn – Voice from the Gulag," published in 1985, he was quoted as saying:
“Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened." Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened."

The river Don
I soon realised however, that in order to get my passport with its visa registered with the local powers-that-be, a procedure binding on all visitors to Russia, i’d need to have a domicile of some kind. With this in mind, around lunchtime i checked into the august Hotel Rostov; expensive by Russian standards but, again, appreciably less than one would pay in the west. The staff knew the drill about registering my passport, and i enquired about getting my sleeping bag repaired; it had started leaking feathers, rather like a chicken coop that has been infiltrated by a fox. Led into the basement, the lady in charge of laundry said she’d fix it free of charge, as a contribution to the pilgrimage! In nice weather my next priority was to visit a church, but the one i found looked closed, so i bought a map of southern Russia and perused it in a cafe. I then visited the office of a local newspaper, on the off-chance that i could interest them in my trip and introduce them to Mary’s Meals. The editor was very friendly, and over the course of a 20 minute conversation we established that i was not a Mormon, but as far as i know an article never appeared. They told me however that the church i’d visited (another one dedicated to the Nativity of Our Lady) was actually open, so i went back to find that a service with excellent singing, as one expects in Russia, was in progress. After praying for the intercession of St Nicholas, returning to the hotel i bought a box of chocolates for the lady repairing my sleeping bag, and also made her a card with a nice picture of Our Lady.
   The previous autumn, on a boat at Avonmouth dock near Bristol, while volunteering for a charity called ‘Stella Maris’, it happens i’d been able to help a seafarer from Rostov-on-Don to call home. He then gave me his number and told me to use it, if i ever found myself in town. Since my hotel room had a connection to the local telephone exchange, i thought i’d better try and make contact. It turned out he was away at sea, and i spoke only to his mother, but even so it was a nice conversation, in which she told me how pleased she was that her boys were working, and i talked a bit about my meeting with her son in England.
   After a very comfortable night and breakfast i headed east in grey but dry weather, crossing a bridge over the Don, then using a narrow ledge along the highway to a satellite town called Bataisk, whose ‘welcome’ sign featured a commendably unpretentious slogan: “Together we will make Bataisk better.” I had a nice coffee in an Armenian-run cafe, after which the weather picked up. Then in late afternoon, reaching the last outposts of human habitation, a truck pulled over and a young man offered me a lift. Sometimes of course i refused such overtures, but i only had a total of 20 days on my visa. From the point of view of reaching the Pacific, that’s barely enough time to get across Russia in a passenger aircraft; but even Kazakhstan, i realised, is one heck of a long way away. So i got in, and was taken a considerable distance into Russia’s fabled steppes; vast verdant expanses, some cultivated, and demarcated in this region with long straight borders of deciduous trees and thickets (a landscape in fact broadly similar to that of eastern Ukraine). My driver, in his thirties, was writing an account of the time of his life, to pass on to his children, not least because the official historical record has changed no less than three times since he was at school; the sort of thing which makes many ordinary Russians distrustful of their politicians. In early evening he dropped me at a junction with a petrol station and diner where i had another coffee. From there i walked south along the side of a flat, fairly straight road for a couple of hours, before opting to bed down in an empty drainage channel.
   Sleep that night was patchy, but Thursday the 12th of May, dedicated to SS. Achilleus, Nereus and Pancras, started brightly, amid a profusion of flowers and birdsong. Over some tasty pancakes with my drink at the next cafe, the TV news carried a story about a curious footballing contest from the previous evening, in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, about 300 miles to the south east. Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Fabien Barthez, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman were among the stars of yesteryear in a World XI which lost 5-2 to a team made up largely of members of Grozny’s local administration. Mysteriously, the old pros raced to a 2-0 lead, including a free-kick by Maradona, but faded thereafter, reports suggesting that they competed less than fiercely whenever Ramzan Kadyrov, the 34 year-old president of the Chechen Republic, got the ball.
   At about midday i reached a village called Rassypnoye, and was ‘all ears’ when told by the shopkeeper, that in that locale i should beware wolves, which have a reputation for attacking and even killing people. In other words, overnight i could conceivably have been discovered and set upon by a pack of these proverbially ravenous beasts. I hadn’t especially kept the dazer to hand, because it didn’t strike me as wolf habitat - i would have thought they needed more cover, but apparently they make do with the narrow corridors of trees and undergrowth, delimiting the steppes. In the worst case scenario i could have vanished from the face of the earth, my remains, if there were any, lying undiscovered for months or years, or even forever. 
   On the far side of Rassypnoye, crossing a small river over which terns sailed gracefully to and fro, i accepted an offer of a lift from three young guys, returning from a fishing trip. The driver had hunted wolves, and reiterated the threat they pose, saying there were “a lot” of them about, as we motored along a track which became increasingly muddy and un-navigable. On three separate occasions in fact, in an extraordinary procedure, the two passengers got out, changed into their fishing waders, and pushed the car through extended stretches of virtual swamp – the only way to get a vehicle without caterpillar tracks through that mire. I didn’t feel bad about this, until they let on that they were taking me along that road specially! They dropped me with only a short distance to Krasnaya Polyana where, cutting rather an odd figure with my poncho in the drizzly rain, a policeman stopped me and summoned me back to the nearby station. Here i was asked to sit in the back of a nice dry car where i was soon joined by a colleague of his, in plain clothes. We had a pleasant conversation, in which i gathered that the danger from wolves had receded in this neighbourhood, but he asked if i knew about ticks, the bloodthirsty little arachnids which transmit sometimes life-threatening maladies. Of the non-lethal, but nonetheless debilitating types of infection, perhaps the best known is Lyme disease. More dangerous is a virus called Crimean–Congo hemorrhagic fever.[1] Another delightful example is tularemia, caused by a bacterium highly prized in the field of biological warfare. I confessed i hadn’t given them any thought, and privately assumed they’d be quite infrequent, as they are in Britain, but it was just as well to be on my guard. He took me to Krasnaya Polyana’s cafe, where i enjoyed a brew while he tried pulling some strings to find me a place to stay, but this turned out to be impossible. He did however drive me a few kilometres to the start of a cross-country track, a short cut to the main road east. Contending with very wet and muddy shoes, when i came within sight of the road i decided to reconnoitre a little abandoned outhouse, and set about blocking up the door and windows; “I’ll huff, and i’ll puff, and i’ll blow your house down” was the refrain which came to mind. Very useful for this purpose was a decrepit old bed; the woolly filling of its worn-out mattress was also good for drying out my boots and getting a decent night’s sleep. I only hope that a brood of swallows in the rafters was not unduly flustered by my intrusion.
   There was more rain on the morning of Friday 13th May, dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima, so when a fellow in a minibus pulled over and asked if i’d like a lift, i said ‘Yes please’. We drove for half an hour or so to a town called Gorodovikovsk, inside an enclave of the Republic (within Russia) of Kalmykia, where i was amazed to see a majority of Chinese-looking locals. Picking up passengers of both ‘Caucasoid’ and ‘Mongoloid’ ethnicities we headed south to the Stavropol Region,[2] no one minding, when the driver asked them, the idea of my getting a free ride. On the journey discussion ranged from the pilgrimage, to soviet schooling, and the relative abilities of Russian footballers in the English Premier League. More important though was the fact that Russia had just defeated arch-foes Canada in the Ice Hockey World Championship quarter-final in Slovakia, recovering from 1:0 down to emerge 2:1 winners. I was dropped near a diner on the eastern edge of Ipatovo, and gave the driver a little card with a photograph of Our Lady of Fatima, and my email address.
   Further on i saw for the first time a large grey raptor, probably a Pallid harrier or close relative, known locally as a ‘steppe eagle’. After not-a-very-long walk, just as a raincloud approached in the early evening i made the acquaintance of a farmer by the side of the road. With the onset of a thunder storm he bade me go to his house for a cup of coffee, which was great, and i chatted to his wife while he carried on tending his cattle in the rain. Then i was all set to be off again, but he phoned home to say that friends had been invited over for drinks, so i had to stay for the evening and overnight! With another couple, neighbours of theirs, we enjoyed some nice food and had a very Russian, most enjoyable vodka-fuelled soiree, conversation largely revolving around my photos from the walk. I got up very early (as did everyone else in the house), watched an interesting documentary about the Arctic, and a soviet-era ice hockey cartoon over breakfast, then set off again, leaving the Russian book of prayers to Our Lady which i’d been given in Ukraine, and promising to send a postcard.

[1] Under normal rules of scientific nomenclature, this one should have been called ‘Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever’, but superpower politics played a part in the 1973 decision to adopt the ‘Crimean-Congo’ arrangement.
[2] Birthplace of Solzhenitsyn, as well as two General Secretaries of the communist party of the soviet union: Yuri Andropov (1982-84) and Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91).

Ride 'em cowboy!
On Saturday the 14th of May, dedicated to St Matthias, on the way to Debretovka in brighter weather i could see a cattle-herder on horseback and felt bound to take a photo – a Russian cowboy! In the village a lady invited me to rest in her garden, brought me some elevenses and sent me away with a bag of hard-boiled eggs; i gave her my email address, in case it might prove useful to her cousin, who was studying English. After a mini nap, a little further on at the Orthodox Church i spoke briefly to the friendly young priest, enquiring whether there is a connection between the words ‘Cossack’ (long associated with the Don river and the Steppes) and ‘Kazakh’. Both words in fact are rooted in a Turkic word meaning ‘free man’. From there i walked quite a long way towards Divnoye, conscientiously turning down about ten spontaneous offers of lifts, before finally accepting one from a Baptist pastor called Yuri (George in English), since he also offered me a place to stay, with friends of his. They turned out to be a wonderfully hospitable couple with nine young children (six boys and three girls), he a native Ukrainian and she Russian. After a wash i was given some delicious food, and had another pleasant evening in which my pictures made an appearance - i gave the photo of a Dutch windmill to the Pastor, as he’d once visited Amsterdam. They then put me on a converted sofa, in a room with some of the older boys. In the morning we all went by car to their Sunday service back down the road in Ipatovo. The ‘church’ in fact was no more than someone’s living room with a row of benches, and on the wall a verse from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father” (Rom 6:4). I offered to remove my badge with Our Lady of Guadalupe for the service, but was surprised to be told by the pastor that i didn’t need to. In normal circumstances of course i would have tried to find a Catholic church for Sunday Mass - as Catholics are required to do, within reason. But it’s perhaps worth recalling that, while we cannot strictly-speaking recognise the priesthood of Protestant clergy, some of them are doubtless better ministers of God’s Word, and more effective servants of His will, than are some priests, however much we may insist that this is not a reflection of the overall picture. 
   Considering the length of time they’d had to sit through the service (about two hours), during Bible class afterwards the children were mostly remarkably well-behaved, though they did get a bit restless towards the end. We drove back to Divnoye (a word which translates, roughly, as ‘amazing’), where my hosts gave me a miniature edition of the New Testament, and Pastor Yuri gave me another book of New Testament scriptures, containing his contact details, in case i found myself in need of assistance. I left the family with a Russian language book on the Divine Mercy and, as ever, a promise to write.
   Heading east from there, in the evening i was given another warning about ticks from some guys who offered me a lift – it’s essential to tuck one’s trousers into one’s socks, to deny them access to bare skin. The night was spent quite comfortably under a bridge with an immense swamp on both sides of the road; thankfully, while the Russians may have cowboys, they don’t have alligators. In fact i reflected that, with a Bittern booming among the myriad sounds of other birds and amphibians, the only danger, apart from insects, was that i might be disturbed by a National Geographic camera crew!
Golden Abode of the Buddha Shakyamuni, Elista
   On the next morning i accepted another lift, from a man in his mid-thirties, through very sparsely populated steppes to Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. Being of more or less the same generation, we agreed that Mexico ’86 set the standard for World Cups to follow; i believe the organisers of Russia’s World Cup in 2018 should see it as their model, right down to the so-called “Aztec” balls. He stopped for a conversation with his boss for a few minutes on route, who kindly gave me a bottle of milk and some rolls, though also a bag of fresh eggs that i knew could present me with difficulties. When we reached Elista i decided to hang them on the gate of a Catholic church dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. That was opposite a huge and imposing temple; Burkhan Bakshin Altan Süm (Golden Abode of the Buddha Shakyamuni), built in 2005, housing the largest Buddha in Europe – but leaving me with a strong impression that Europe would soon be behind me, if it wasn’t already. After a visit there i enjoyed my first ever cup of very milky Kalmytski (Kalmyk) chai (tea). In the evening i splashed out on a nice kebab in a restaurant with a map of the Mongol Empire on the wall, so instead of forking out for a hotel room i walked on and found a patch of ground in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the city. The morning light revealed (i think) a collared flycatchers’ nest on the wall above my head; then it was bright and sunny as i made my way to a petrol station cafe around lunchtime. While there i was called over for a conversation with two Chechens who, being Muslim, well understood my Hajj mentality. The recent Grozny football match came up, clearly a significant coup for the pro-Moscow government, but they averred that Russia was backward in comparison to western countries. In response i couldn’t resist indicating two, almost identical, advertisements on the wall next to us. One was for Coca Cola, the other Pepsi; thus neatly illustrating what is sometimes meant by the word ‘variety’ in North American culture.

   They offered me a ride in their truck, but i felt it was about time i put in a ‘full day’s walk’. Soon after getting away however, a strip of black cloud appeared overhead, and there were rumbles of thunder in the distance. The first big spots of rain meant i could don my trusty poncho, but it soon became heavier, with the storm drawing nearer and nearer. With no obvious place of refuge i prayed to all the saints i could think of, and began an 'emergency novena' of 'Memorare's,[1] as recommended, i believe, by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. The rain then started coming down in sheets. Hailstones told me i was going to be right in the thick of it, so it was just as well at that moment to locate a drainage tunnel under the road. Diving for cover as if i was literally 'under fire' (that's how it felt), i threw my things towards a dry-ish patch of mud a few metres inside the tunnel, and crawled on my hands and knees through a foot of water to the same place. For about 40 minutes i sat there, a bit damp but very relieved, and had some lunch while the rain lashed down and there were barely any intervals between flashes of lightning and tremendous crashes of thunder.

   It took a bit of spadework afterwards to extricate myself, and another crawl through the same puddle. While glad however that i’d escaped relatively unscathed, just then i saw the first tick of my journey, so when a Kalmyk lorry driver pulled over shortly afterwards my zeal for walking had receded. Happily ensconced on the passenger seat, a streak of azure blue feathers in front of us could mean only a Roller; shaped like a jackdaw but actually related to the kingfisher and Hoopoe. Among other birds there were large (not “Great”) grey shrikes and flocks of unfamiliar, oversized finches. The driver told me that Kalmyks are in fact descendants of Genghis Khan and the Mongols; hence the map of the Mongol Empire in the restaurant in Elista. When i confessed to not having tried Kalmyk cuisine, he insisted on taking me to a roadside diner in Yashkul’, and treating me to a very tasty mutton and potato soup. A dish that won’t, thankfully, be found on the menu in Kalmykia, is Saiga, the curious-looking variety of antelope, with an abbreviated ‘trunk’ for a nose. Having once been prevalent across the whole of Eurasia, Kalmykia is now home to one of its few remaining wild populations.

Nice sunset, Khulkhuta, Kalmykia.
   Needing to dry things out, after parting company with the lorry driver (and giving him a box of chocolates that survived the tempest), i checked into an ideal sort of truckers’ hostel a few doors down from the restaurant. In bright sunshine next morning i quaffed a complimentary cup of coffee in a cafe, then learnt that there would be absolutely nothing by way of human habitation for days if i remained on foot. Despite this i took advantage of the weather and put in a reasonable shift, encountering some nice drivers and some nasty ticks. They infest the scrub next to the road, though in the early evening i did settle down on a patch of bare ground for a nap, judging that the vicious bugs are incapable of breaking cover from the undergrowth, no matter how crazed their bloodlust. Then i accepted a lift in a minibus which brought me to Khulkhuta, on the eastern edge of the Republic of Kalmykia, where there was a gorgeous sunset and wonderful stars overnight. Having slept quite well, tucked against the wall of an empty building, almost the first thing i saw early next morning was a Roller, then soon afterwards a Hoopoe.
   On St Dunstan-tide[2], Thursday 19th May, i enjoyed another free coffee in one of two cafes in Khulkhuta, before striking east in baking sunshine. The road shimmered like an asphalt ribbon, rolled out across a landscape of increasingly arid appearance[3]. Towards evening i saw an impressive pair of cranes, and got a jolt when a large flying beetle collided with my mouth. Then, when a settlement marked on my map failed to materialise, i decided to accept any offers of lifts, which soon in fact meant hitch-hiking. The second vehicle to pass by picked me up, an articulated juggernaut, in which i was taken a long way through almost entirely uninhabited country, some of it marshland. I explained to the driver that one reason i don’t drive a car is that i ran over a cat when i was learning, at which he related a harrowing story of the time when his car struck a bolting horse. After dark we reached Astrakhan - about a week earlier than i’d anticipated. It lies on the mighty Volga, the great ‘topper upper’ of the Caspian Sea when it discharges itself, mobbed by pelicans and flamingos, about 60 kilometres downstream. Overnight i shared an ideal budget room at the train station with a young Chechen, on his way to Yekaterinburg for medical treatment. Enquiries next day led to the discovery that, thanks be to God, at 18.45 a train would depart for Kazan, leaving me with a day to explore Astrakhan.

[1] Remember, O Most Gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to Thy protection, implored Thy help or sought Thine intercession, was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence,
I fly unto Thee, O Virgin of Virgins, my Mother; to Thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in Thy mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.
[2]  One of England’s most illustrious saints, he was archbishop of Canterbury in the 10th century.
[3]  There are Bactrian camels in Kalmykia.

The Kremlin, Astrakhan
First of all you had the beautifully restored late 18th century church of Our Lady of the Assumption, one of the first generation of Catholic churches in Russia[1], visited by an impeccably well-behaved group of schoolchildren while i was there. Then i made for the Kremlin[2], brainchild of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, and taking on its current appearance around the beginning of the 18th century. Besides two fine cathedrals, also of interest within its walls is a chapel said to house relics of St Cyril, known as Apostle to the Slavs (with his brother St Methodius).
Cathedral with relics of St Cyril, Astrakhan
   In the evening it was nice to find myself in a proper ‘platzkart’ (3rd class, but clean and comfortable) carriage on a real-life Russian locomotive. There is always a giant boiler/ samovar type thing at one end, from which hot drinks are served in glasses with special metal holders. If there’s one drawback, it is that a minority of Russians like to get drunk on them - two good ol’ boys sitting opposite me were clearly fond of this custom. One was basically harmless, but wished to scrutinise the sincerity of my motives to go on pilgrimage; while the other was prime suspect in the matter of a banknote that disappeared from my wallet. Then after a good sleep, i did feel a bit of a chump in the morning, when i had to be told that we weren’t due to reach Kazan until the next day. Russia being what it is, even a south-to-north journey, like this one, will take up a goodly measure of one’s earthly sojourn.
    On that carriage I also spoke briefly with a woman who noticed the postcards i was writing, and my Guadalupe badge. Showing her a picture of the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan which i was hoping to see, it turned out that she too was a Muslim, but she nonetheless asked me to say a prayer there, on her behalf.
   The original of this most revered of all Russian icons is said to have been discovered in 1579, and subsequently venerated as a palladium[3] for several centuries, until its theft and probable destruction in 1904. Amid the ferment of war and revolution in the succeeding years, the Roman Church came into possession of an important copy (at one time supposed to be the original), which eventually found its way onto the wall of Blessed John Paul II’s study. As a result of his freely returning it, in August 2004[4], it is now housed in the Church of the Elevation of the Cross, inside the Virgin Monastery of the Theotokos, Kazan. Sadly, just days after the Orthodox festivities attending its arrival, there occurred on Russian soil perhaps the single most heinous atrocity committed anywhere in this century; the brutal school siege in Beslan. I actually believe this act was an expression of satanic rage at the affront to his authority that had taken place.

[1] These owed their existence principally to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762-1796, and specifically to the invitation she extended to Europeans, to immigrate and farm Russian land. Most of those who responded were from Germany, among whom were many Catholics. The descendants of these so-called Volga Germans were deported to the gulags and elsewhere in Kazakhstan and Siberia on the outbreak of war with Germany in 1941. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, many have taken up a ‘right of return’ to Germany. 
[2] Many older Russian towns and cities have a Kremlin - a fortress, often enclosing the local headquarters of civil and religious administration.
[3] An icon, or other artwork, on which the safety of a city or country is believed to depend; Our Lady of Czestochowa is the Polish equivalent.
[4] The Pope had longed to visit Russia in person to return it, but this proved ‘a visa too far’.

   Pulling into the station at Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, early in the morning of Sunday 22nd May, one of the first things that struck me was that signs are written not only in Russian but in the local Tatar language, with its own alphabet. After paying for the privilege of a hot shower at the station, my first priority was to find the Catholic church for Mass; a new blue and white edifice, also dedicated to the Elevation of the Cross, owing its construction in part to the goodwill generated by Pope John Paul’s gift. I had a brief but pleasant talk with the young priest afterwards, who agreed to pray for my long-held intention to teach the Russian language. Then i made my way towards Our Lady’s monastery, but was drawn to an interesting-looking church on the way, with a blue and white onion dome atop an octagonal bell-tower. It turned out to be the Petropavlovski (Peter and Paul) cathedral, essentially two churches, one above the other, both distinguished by regal iconostases and beautiful frescoes. Before leaving i bought two little icon reproductions, one of Our Lady and one depicting SS Peter and Paul.

Our Lady of Kazan
   A short climb then brought me within sight of the elegant red and white walls and blue-green dome of the Monastery of the Theotokos. The icon is housed in another ‘upstairs’ church, where i joined an orderly line of Orthodox believers, saying their prayers before the icon in turn. Once again i was impressed by the reverance of children as they did this, un-self-consciously wishing to pay their respects and make their petitions, almost as if the icon was no mere representation, but the Blessed Virgin herself, with Our Lord in her hands. After my prayers, which included a Memorare for Church unity, in the repository outside i bought a little modern illustrated Russian language book about the Prophet Elijah.

   Then i made for Kazan’s Kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage site with much of its 16th century white-washed fortifications and bastions, as well as its cathedral, intact. Having said that, not least important is the elegant Qol’sharif Mosque, built in this century to replace one that was destroyed when Ivan the Terrible captured the site in 1552. But i particularly enjoyed my visit to the Annunciation Cathedral. A recording of superb choral music was an important part of this experience, but above all the frescoes, some telling the story of the icon, i suggest, give it an interior that could be set beside that of almost any ecclesiastical structure in the world.

The Kremlin, Kazan, with mosque and (behind) cathedral.
   Towards the outskirts of Kazan i came to a “more western than the west” shopping mall with a cinema, and decided to buy a ticket to watch the new Pirates of the Caribbean flick, starring Ian McShane. Familiar to British television viewers from his signature role of Lovejoy (the lovable rogue antiques dealer), in the film he plays swarthy Bristolian swashbuckler 'Black Beard'. So in a sense his inimitable Lovejoy locks had, if you like, migrated, from the back of his head, round to his face.

   Afterwards i eventually found a suitable place to spend the night, out of sight under the ground floor balcony of an apartment block. Then next morning i stopped at a roadside cafe with an Arabic inscription above the entrance, serving as a reminder that Tatarstan is a major stronghold of Islam within Russia – hence the privileged position of the Mosque, inside the walls of the Kremlin. Curiously, as a backdrop to a news broadcast on TV there was the iconic black and white image of Bobby Moore, held aloft by his teammates in jubilation over England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup[1].

[1] A victory for which they had to thank the so-called ‘Russian linesman’, though in fact it was an Azeri official, Tofiq Bahramov, who awarded Geoff Hurst’s goal-line flirting (to put it mildly) third England goal in the final. He is said to have later received a golden whistle from the Queen in recognition of his services to English football.    
   The plan from Kazan was to span the gran’ chemin to Kurgan, near Kazakhstan, but strangely i was still in the dark, really, about distances in Russia, and only dimly conscious that, as my visa expired on 28th May, i would have to use transport at some point. After a good day’s walk on Monday 23rd of May i elected to stay in a comfortable motel where, in the morning, there was breakfast television to watch in my room. One report included excellent snowy footage of a Ural Owl hunting. No less intriguing however (though i couldn’t make out any details); the two presenters, a man and woman in every respect similar to those encountered on British TV, appeared to agree that something or other was known only, or pertained only, to God. The confidence in their tone of voice was different to anything that i ever remember seeing or hearing from the mainstream media at home. And of course, in Russia such relatively bold utterances are not met with a torrent of green ink from bleating atheist fundies.
   After lunch that day i came to a road sign with distances redolent of telephone numbers; in a state of almost shock i decided to try and hitch, whereupon a young guy in a battered old Lada pulled over. In the course of a 180 kilometre drive to Naberezhnye Chelny we had a good conversation, in which he reminisced about a visit to France and Luxemburg he’d made a few years before. He also told me that the BBC’s bewilderingly inane ‘Top Gear’ programme has a big following in Russia, and spun a wild conspiracy theory or two about Russian leaders, but readily agreed that Sergei Lavrov is a decent foreign minister. He also said that at one stage in the 1990s, there were fears that Tatarstan could erupt into civil conflict along ethnic lines, as tragically happened in the Caucasus. Dropping me off i tried in vain to give him some petrol money, but he did seem pleased to take my email address, written on the back of an Orthodox prayer card.

Shalash, near Chelyabinsk 
   I spent the night obscured by iron girders in a field on the outskirts of Naberezhnye Chelny, then went for a moderate morning walk along the highway, before catching a bus to the big conurbation of Ufa, capital of Bashkortostan. Mention here should be made of the Ufa train disaster, an appalling tragedy which took place in June 1989. 575 people, many of them children, lost their lives when two trains were caught up in a massive explosion, caused by a leak from a gas pipeline. From there i took an overnight train to Chelyabinsk, nick-named Tankograd and closed to foreigners in soviet times on account of its chief industry. At the municipal library i spent an hour or so on the internet, posting an entry to the blog that demanded to be called ‘From Russia with Lovejoy’. Beyond the city limits in late evening i was presented with a fabulous sort of ready-made tent in a field in which to sleep, made of branches and sackcloth. Called a ‘shalash’ in Russian, in the popular imagination such bivouacs are strongly associated with one V.I. Lenin, who evaded capture by hiding out in one in July-August 1917.

   Next day, Friday 27th May, dedicated to St Augustine of Canterbury, the penultimate day before my Russian visa expired, i knew i needed to reach Kurgan, about 300 kilometres away. Soon after setting off in more super weather i came to a village where i was hoping to thumb a lift, but had difficulty in getting anyone to stop. After nearly an hour, two frankly scruffy youths arrived with a similar idea, beer bottles in their hands and smoking cigarettes. I was ready to watch a surreal comedy sketch play itself out before my eyes, in which these two would be picked up by the first vehicle that passed by, but in fact they caught a bus. Eventually i was glad to be picked up by a fellow who had delivered a truckload of fish from Astrakhan, but it wasn’t clear how much sleep he had had in the previous 48 hours. At one point he literally seemed to be nodding off, so i was trying gamely to waffle on about football, Boris Yeltsin (a local lad, being born within 800 kilometres of Kurgan), Ivan the Terrible, and reeling off the names of all the kinds of fish and fowl i knew of. In late afternoon he finally set me down on the outskirts, from where a stagecoach took me to the central station.
Platzkart, Russian train carriage
   Kurgan is practically inside Kazakhstan (the border is about 80 miles away), so i bought a ticket for a suitable train that was leaving in the small hours of the next morning. The weather was then perfect for a stroll around the centre and i visited a church, dedicated to St Alexander Nevsky[1], as well as an internet place. Before departure i had a friendly conversation with a young policeman, and an attendant who led me through to a special waiting area, and said she’d come and wake me in time for the train. I also met a more senior police officer at the station, who openly stated that he disliked English “cynicism”. I said i understood, but he seemed to be quite taken with the idea of my pilgrimage, and i made sure to mention that i for one was glad when FIFA gave the 2018 World Cup to Russia, in December of the previous year.[2]

[1] Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Vladimir in the 13th century, venerated as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. His military victories over the Swedes and various crusading orders, especially, give him a unique standing in Russian history, accentuated by monastic vows he took shortly before his death; hence his canonisation. Very few other European rulers of the Middle Ages are accorded a similar status in their nation’s chronicles; his contemporary St Louis of France is perhaps one example. Interestingly, St Louis shared St Alexander Nevsky’s desire to find an effective working accommodation with the Mongols. The church of St Louis in Moscow was one of only two Catholic churches, with the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in St Petersburg, which remained open in Russia during the soviet period.     
[2] I would have had more sympathy for a joint bid, involving Scotland, Wales – and why not both the North and Republic of Ireland?

IX Kazakhstan: The Tournament of Shadows

   Thanks be to God, i was leaving Russia and reaching Kazakhstan on Saturday the 28th May, a feast in honour of the Blessed martyrs John Shert, Thomas Ford and Robert Johnson; the ‘transfer window’, as it were, through which i could pass from one visa to the next. My destination was Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, because i knew my passport could be registered there, and i needed to find out about visas for the onward journey. A lady on the seat opposite was travelling to visit her young daughter, not having seen her for a year, and gave me several nice things to eat as a contribution to the pilgrimage. Providentially, when she left the train i was able to give her a little booklet of Orthodox prayers for mothers about their children, which i’d picked up in Astrakhan. Arriving just before 8pm, one of the first things i did in Astana’s spanking new train station was establish the Kazakh word for ‘thank you’ – ‘rakhmet’. Russian is spoken universally, and indeed there are numerous ethnic Russian Kazakhs who speak nothing else, but Kazakh is an entirely distinct Turkic language, like Tatar, with its own alphabet. After a go on the internet i ventured out into the warm evening, looking for possible sleeping places, but the cupboard was bare. A good option turned out to be a kind of hotel/hostel place back at the train station, similar to the one in Astrakhan.
Astana, Kazakhstan
   Next morning i covered a considerable distance by bus, through the gleaming commercial and administrative centre of Astana, to the recently built cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, arriving just in time for Sunday Mass. I picked up an English language leaflet about the national shrine of Our Lady in Kazakhstan, a village called Ozjornoje, in the north of the country, whence i was hoping to walk. In the afternoon i had a cup of tea at a subterranean cafe-bar called ‘O’Gorod’s’. The staff went out of their way to help me find out where exactly Ozjornoje is, and where i would need to go on the following morning for registration of my visa, as well as bringing me an extra cup of tea and a tasty dish of potatoes and mushrooms, free of charge. In accordance with custom there i put a message in the visitors’ book, and affixed a photo of the source of the river Thames, at Kemble, which i happened to have. That evening i enjoyed a recital from the Astana International Choir at the cathedral, then went to an internet cafe before settling down to sleep, hidden behind some long grass, alongside the wall of the seminary which is attached to the cathedral.
   On the morning of Monday 30th May 2011, dedicated to St Joan of Arc, it was good to rise early enough to attend 7am Mass, celebrated by a Polish priest, in the cathedral. He invited me to breakfast, where i met a Bishop and some seminarians – one of whom was due to be ordained as a priest on the very next day! I gave him a little icon reproduction of Our Lady which i’d bought in Kazan. Then however there was some frustration with passport procedures. Finding the relevant office eventually, i was told i needed to have the ‘inviting party’ with me - impossible, as the invitation came from the consular department of the Kazakh embassy in Kiev. Thankfully, making enquiries at a travel agency about this, i was directed to a rival company, who were able to make all necessary arrangements on my behalf for a modest fee. All being well, my registered passport would be ready for collection next day.
   That evening i spent some time in a 24 hour internet place, where the attendant gave me a free bottle of ice tea and a jumbo chicken salad sandwich. In the dark afterwards i wandered around for about an hour, trying to find a place to kip among the derelict buildings and ruins which exist incongruously side-by-side with pristine 21st century tower blocks. Until the late 1990s, when it was designated as the new capital and renamed Astana, this was apparently quite a down-at-heel provincial town, called Tselinograd in soviet times and Akmola in the first years of independence, whose ‘shell’ is still visible. The places i found were either unsuitable or occupied by other homeless people; a presence here, as one would expect in any big city. Unintentionally doing a big circle i came back to the internet place, went inside and ended up staying overnight, nodding off for a while on a row of chairs, a practice which the folks there were quite used to. Next day i caught up with sleep in a couple of unfrequented corners of central Astana, but also got a film developed with nice photos from Ukraine and Russia. A peculiar phenomenon at that time of year was the ubiquity of a kind of downy white fluff, presumably germinating some plant or other, which fell to the ground and even settled in a sort of blanket, like ‘summer snow’.

House where i recovered from flu, Tankiris
   Picking up my passport in late afternoon, after a final nap i began walking north in the direction of Ozjornoje. Along the rather ramshackle, muddy, dimly lit streets of Astana’s outskirts, it wasn’t easy to find a place to spend the night, but i made do with an old mattress in the back room of an apparently derelict house. The really odd thing next morning; on Wednesday 1st June, dedicated to St Justin, Martyr, i woke up with flu! My nose was streaming and i felt dreadful. The weather being very wet i couldn’t face getting up until about 11.30, but ran out of proper drinking water, so i resorted to putting paper cups outside to catch a few drops of rain. When at last i got away i discovered that the front room of the house was actually either recently or currently occupied, probably by vagrants, judging by articles of clothing and used beds. I retraced my steps from the previous evening for a kilometre, so as to get a hot drink in a sort of wedding reception place. These unseasonal symptoms, i realised, were going to necessitate a return to Astana, perhaps to the hostel place at the train station, so i got on the first available minibus. Sitting just behind the driver, i was soon engaged in a lengthy conversation with a Russian-Kazakh fellow of about my age on the front passenger seat, an evangelical Christian, who had been on missionary journeys to China. He had some business to attend to in Astana, but suggested i then come and get some rest and recuperation at his house, which i could hardly refuse. We met up and bought some groceries, for which i was happy to help pay, then got a lift with friends of his to his village called Tankiris. His abode was a very simple 3-room affair, without running water, which he shared with his brother, but he showed me into his room and bed, on which i crashed out for a bit, while he prepared some delicious soup and macaroni. I was impressed by his profound faith, and he explained that, even when apparently he had no money at all, the Lord never let him be without food.
   Almost the whole of the next day i spent in bed, being brilliantly looked after, before getting away in glorious sunshine on Friday June 3rd, dedicated to St Charles Lwanga and companion martyrs. I left my host with a box of chocolates, and the Russian book about the Prophet Elijah, and we exchanged contact details. Additionally though, when his brother showed me to the railway line, which happened to be the best way of walking on to the next town, i gave him some money to cover their expenses. Train tracks of course demand great circumspection (don’t try this at home), but most of the time i could use a path running alongside; so the main problem was that i was only about 70% recovered, making the whole 35 kilometres to Shortandy unrealistic. For this reason, at about 6pm it was great to be offered a lift by four men in overalls who were checking the line. They had a kind of soviet equivalent of a jeep, and the young guy at the wheel clearly relished taking us along a very rudimentary and bumpy track; the nearest thing i've ever experienced to rally driving. Wonderfully, we arrived in time for 7pm Mass at the church of the Immaculate Conception, Shortandy, which turned out to be in the custody of Vincentians, the same order as had been in Kharkiv, Ukraine. At the cathedral in Astana i’d been told that they would be well-disposed to the idea of putting me up for the night, so after Mass i explained my circumstances. The presbytery was undergoing refurbishment, but it was decided that i could stay on another sofa, in a sort of children’s day room in the nuns’ quarters. They were wonderfully solicitous towards me, enabling me to wash and do laundry by heating some water, and proffered medication for my cold and a couple of little chocolate bars. In the morning i was brought a magnificent bowl of porridge[1], with scrambled egg, nice bread and super coffee. They even carried out a repair to my rucksack whose zip was playing up. By this stage i always made sure to congratulate Poles, especially Polish priests and religious, on the Beatification of Blessed John Paul II, and we had a conversation about Polish faithfulness generally.

   I was shown to Shortandy’s train station by one of the nuns, who assumed that actually i wasn’t going to try to walk to Akkol, the next town. Seeing as i was still a bit coldy, and an appropriate train was just about to leave, she turned out to be right. Reaching Akkol i went on the internet for a while, then was having a picnic lunch in a bus shelter (there were spots of rain), when a coach bound for Astana pulled up. I made a snap decision to embark, on the grounds that visa issues for the onward journey still needed to be dealt with.
   At the train station in Astana i checked back into the hotel/hostel, and chatted on the morning of Ascension Day to a roommate from France, doing an interesting-sounding tour of central Asian republics. Then there was Mass at the cathedral, followed by a visit to the Presidential Centre of Culture of the Republic of Kazakhstan, a frequently seen blue-domed building, perched on a roundabout just south of the centre. One of the best things is its free entry, though one can’t simply flounce in - i raised the suspicion of the guard at the entrance, and was required to empty out the contents of my rucksack for inspection. At the centre of one of the large rooms is a yurt. These big round mobile homes facilitated Kazakh nomadic tribal existence until the 19th century; a continuous roaming across the vast steppes and semi-desert, in search of new pasture for their livestock. Also notable are traditional costumes, furniture, armour, weapons, paraphernalia associated with falconry, and sundry gifts from foreign dignitaries to the leader of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Among these, equine figurines loom large; the ancient Botai people of Kazakhstan have a strong claim to have been the first to domesticate the horse, in around 3500 BC. Also prominent is a huge, very detailed globe, presented by President Francois Mitterand of France, but because it’s out of date (featuring the USSR), it possibly is not as carefully looked after as it deserves to be; the surface is worn away in certain areas where people have put their fingers.
   At about midnight, after spending some time in the internet cafe where i was by now a familiar face, i headed back to the cathedral in order to sleep next to the seminary again, but sadly the grass had been cut and i was no longer afforded adequate cover. I made do with a patch of ground in a nearby clump of bushes; not a place that yielded a very good sleep, what with various people loitering in the vicinity, the threat of rain, and a visit from a remarkably big and noisy moth. Still, at 7am it was good to attend Mass, celebrated by the Bishop, after which much of the day was spent catching up with sleep again in various places, though i did have a pleasant exchange with a young Muslim lady in a shop about our respective religions. She kindly donated a bulging bag of very tasty sweet biscuity things. I also finally tracked down the Russian embassy, and learnt that they would be dealing with visa enquiries on the next day. Later, as i was eating supper in a bus shelter, a fierce electric storm broke, followed by a rainbow, after which i had a short conversation with two young local guys, Asilbek and Rais, to whom i made a promise that i would include them in the account of the pilgrimage which i was hoping to write, Inshallah.

[1] "World Porridge Day" is a Mary's Meals initiative, celebrated worldwide on the 10th of October each year. In Malawi, where Mary’s Meals first came into existence, the nutrient-rich maize-based porridge Likuni Phala is established as the staple for a significant proportion of the 600,000 children fed by Mary’s Meals each year.
   That night i found a better place to sleep, in an unfrequented stairwell next to a high-rise block of flats. On the morning of Tuesday 7th June, St Colman’s day, just before 9am i made for the consular department of the Russian embassy. Numerous people were already waiting, but in quite a civilised manner my name was added to a list, so i knew approximately how long i would have to wait; i had time to go back to the internet cafe for an hour or so, before going inside at about 11am. Chatting to a young Englishman, accompanied by an Australian lady, the name of Borat came up for the first time. Sacha Baron Cohen’s paradigm of buffoonery was originally Moldovan, evolving later into a native of Kazakhstan, though his creator never bothered to pay the country a visit. To borrow Neville Chamberlain's ill-famed phrase, Kazakhstan has the advantage of being a "far-away country [with] people of whom we know nothing"[1]. This, combined with Baron Cohen himself being a member of an ethnic minority (so it must be ‘kosher’ – poppycock) gave him carte blanche to make a savage mockery of a country and its people, yet escape any meaningful charges of racism or xenophobia. Personally i was never tempted to see the film, since Baron Cohen's previous incarnation, Ali "Is it because I is c**p?" G had ushered in a new 'dying away' of British comedy. But millions did, to the extent that in September 2006, Kazakhstan's ‘post-Borat international image’ was among the items on the agenda in a meeting between the Kazakh and US Presidents.

   When my turn came i had a constructive conversation with the young Russian official, who took a photocopy of the Bristol Evening Post article about my walk, but i learnt that only a very short-term transit visa (10 days maximum) would be available to me, and then only on production of relevant travel tickets. I now understood clearly that the people in the consulate in Lviv had been able to bend the rules in order to provide a tourist visa outside my country of residence, but i couldn’t expect this to be repeated.
   It therefore seemed as if China might offer the best prospect of eastward progress; i capered off to another internet place to find the address of their embassy. Vaguely the wiser, at the counter afterwards a young Kazakh with excellent English introduced himself to me. He was Muslim, and like many of his co-religionists, saw it as his duty to provide me with assistance, offering to take me directly to the Chinese embassy. His car with driver(!) was waiting outside, and we motored to the ‘new city’, a district of vast neo-modern architecture, on something like a Texan[2] scale. The Chinese consulate in fact was closed until the next day, after which it would be closed for a week, to accommodate the arrangements for the 10th anniversary summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, held in Astana from the 14th to 15th June[3]. My new acquaintance suggested i come back to his place for a wash, and then we could do lunch. A novelty of the lift in his apartment block was that it needed to be paid for by credit card. After my shower a native Russian-speaking friend of his arrived, who had lived for some time in western Germany. At first i thought he said he worked in ‘Icelandic’ finance, but it turned out to be ‘Islamic’ finance. We headed over the road to a diner for a splendid lunch which i wasn’t allowed to pay for, including my first ever taste of kumis, horse’s milk, though i never got around to trying another local speciality, camel’s milk.
'Palace of Peace and Accord', Astana
   Before parting company i put my email address on the back of a couple of photos for these guys, and also gave my last remaining German language Marys Meals leaflet to the Russian fellow. Then i was taken in the chauffeur-driven motor to a shiny pyramid structure, called the ‘Palace of Peace and Accord’. In describing this place, how long i wonder before i succumb to the urge to say something rude? It is pyramid shaped, so in that sense you’d have to concede that the building does physically have a ‘point’. Inside though, it’s not so much a ‘curate’s egg’ as a ‘pig’s breakfast’ ...oh dear, not very long. Sir Norman Foster must have won the competition to design this turkey by dint of his international reputation, but the preparatory sketches, exhibited inside, give the impression of having been cobbled together one lunchtime – they wouldn’t look out of place in a GCSE portfolio. I felt sorry for the young woman with outstanding English, whose lot was to guide visitors around. Briefly, at the top/apex there’s a sort of ‘sanctuary’ area, with quite pretty doves on the windows, in which there are costumes in glass cases, representing all the world’s major religions. The building in fact was always intended to function primarily as a venue for the triennial ‘Congress of World and Traditional Religions’, a forum for senior religious figures to seek to improve mutual understanding[4]. But Sir Norman just wasn’t equipped with the right theological or diplomatic tools to create a meaningful environment. There’s a lift which rises diagonally from the first floor, a snug fit inside the wall of a pyramid, you see – but to what end? Especially since it doesn’t have windows, so it’s not as if one is thereby afforded a marvellous vista. And then the core of the building, where Pharaoh’s tomb would be, is taken up with a Victorian-looking opera house. In summary, the whole thing looks like the set for the climactic scene in a straight-to-video James Bond film – ‘A Licence to Kill off Borat’, perhaps.

[1] “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. It seems still more impossible that a quarrel that has already been settled in principle should be the subject of war.” Radio address to the nation, 27th September 1938.
[2] “Everything’s bigger in Texas.”
[3] Not as well-known in western countries as it deserves to be, the SCO currently has six full members; China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, accounting for a quarter of the world's entire population. Additionally however, since 2005 Pakistan, India, Iran and Mongolia have all had observer status, to which in June 2012 was added Afghanistan. At the same summit, Turkey was granted dialogue partner status. This means that SCO summits are forums in which well over half the human race is represented. In 2011 its six full members accounted for 13% of total world trade. This figure is not expected to fall any time soon.
[4] This makes very good sense in Kazakhstan, a country said to have 90 or more ethnicities and a wide array of different religious faiths.