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, 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.|
On St Dunstan-tide, 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. 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.