Tuk to the Road

The trials and tukulations of Jo, Ants and Ting Tong the tuk tuk and our three-wheeled odyssey from Bangkok to Brighton...in aid of the mental health charity Mind. For more information please see www.tuktotheroad.com

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A geek's tour of Volgograd

The Volgograd Hotel, Volga Region, SW Russia

Mamaev Kurgan, Volgrograd

After 650 km's on the road Jo and I chased the setting sun into Volgograd last night, very tired but very happy to have got through another momentous day of tuk to the road. TT's recurrent troubles and a night of being besieged by monster mosquitoes hadn't helped our cause over the previous 36 hours and we were both looking forward to a weekend off in the sunshine.

Arriving in a big city on a Friday night was a novel experience for both of us. Having thrown off the shackles of the working week and no doubt already imbibed in the odd tipple, the inhabitants seemed particularly glad to see Ting Tong. Girls tottering across zebra crossings screeched drunkenly as we tukked past and a red sports car crammed with overexcitable Russian boys /men escorted us most of the way into the centre. "Russian boys...Eenglish girls...gooooood" they shouted hopefully, begging us to pull over 'just for two minutes to have a chat'. On the other side of us a minibus driver shouted questions at Jo and hence we drove into Volgograd blocking the three-lane carriageway, cars glued to either side of Ting Tong. Very funny.

For me Volgograd means one thing: the battle of Stalingrad. Fought between July 1942 and February 1943 it was one of the vilest and most vital battles of WWII. Had the Red Army not fought so doggedly against the Germans the war, and subsequent European history, could have been played out very differently.

But victory came at a terrible cost with at least 600,000 German troops and a million Russian lost in the fighting. Russian casualties here roughly equalled the number of Americans lost in the entire Second World War and by February 1943 the ancient city of Tsaritsyn (renamed Stalingrad in honour of The Great Leader) lay in ruins, not a building remaining intact. Walking round the city today, with its leafy boulevards, cosmopolitan cafes and swanky shops, its hard to believe that only 63 years ago such devastation was wreaked here.

In delicious, blazing sunshine this morning, after Jo and I had sat and watched a load of wedding antics by the Volga, I set off to find out a bit more about the battle, while Jo, suffering from a nasty Russian cold, retired to our room to recuperate. The only evidence that such a struggle occurred here is the ruins of a flour mill, left as a memorial to the battle. Otherwise the city has been entirely reconstructed. There is however an awe-inspiring memorial to the battle, Mamaev Kurgan, crowning what was known as Hill 102 during the battle, the scene of particularly vicious fighting. Mamaev towers over the city, 72m high, a magnificent memorial to the battle, as I stood and craned my neck up at the gigantic statue I felt a pang of sadness about the hideous loss of lives that took place here. It is said that even the Germans were shocked by the Soviet army's tactic of sending massed ranks of men towards the German machine guns, so their bodies would shield the troops behind.

Next stop was the 'Museum of the Defence of Stalingrad', which I am sure would have been a whole lot more interesting had I been well-versed in Russian military terminology. Not a word was in English (and why should it be), so I just pottered round and looked at the pictures, then headed back into the sunshine for a stroll along the Volga.

I know that I have harped on about history quite a lot in my recent blogs, but Russia, more than anywhere else I've been, visibly bears the scars of its tumultuous 20th century history. Whether its cities that were closed to foreigners till 1991 (Yekaterinburg, Samara), tanks and fighter planes on display in city centres, the Romanov remains or stern Communist statues glaring down at you in every city, you are never allowed to forget for long what has happened here since 1918.

Back to Samara...

The further we go on this journey, the more we believe that everything happens for a reason. Two days ago, as Jo has written below, TT threw a tantrum and wouldn't start in Samara. It was those pesky spark plugs again, revolting against the cold and rain. All we could do was wait until they dried out. In the meantime, Irina, a journalist I'd been in touch with for a while, rang me. She was keen to do a TV interview and after playing phone tag for the last 24 hours TT's misdemeanours allowed us to finally hook up. The interview went well and we had a chance to talk about Mind, mental health and the reasons behind our trip. Interestingly, she was the first journalist to ask about Jo's scars, which I find odd. Aren't journos supposed to ask pertinent questions?

After the interview the three of us had a quick lunch and a really interesting chat about Russian literature, mental health here and how the Russians feel about their communist past. Irina seemed hesitant to talk about the issue of mental health, saying that even though the Soviet era is long gone, journalists still need to watch what they say, particularly to foreigners. I've asked quite a few people here the same questions about mental health, and the answer is always unclear. Suicide rates are very high, self-harm is common, alchoholism and domestic abuse are notoriously rife, yet the provisons to care for those with mental illness are barely in place. Aside from that, no one seems able to tell us any more.

At 2pm, after lunch and our spark plugs had pulled themselves together, we set off down the P226 in the general direction of Volgograd. Six hours later we called it a day and pulled into our home for the night, a freshly harvested hay field near Saratov. Lovely as it was, the night was slightly spolit by the mosquitoes, who seemed unperturbed by the faact we were both coated in 100% deet. After a game of badminton, some pasta and a few beers, we snuggled down for a night of typically unsatisfactory tent sleep. I've yet to master the art of proper sleep when in such close proximity with Mother Earth. Since I burnt a hole in my inflatable sleeping mat the first time I used it, it offers little respite from whatever lurks beneath the groundsheet.

As I lay in my sleeping bag my mind strayed to the puzzle of the Romanov remains. As Heid Honcho posted the other day, if they weren't the Tsar et al's bones who were uncovered, then whose were they??? I concluded that the 'identification' of the bones in 1991 smacks of political spin and is suggestive of an attempt to discredit the Communist past and bolster patriotism at a time when the new Russia was throwing off the mantle of 73 years of Soviet rule. Any comments about this wild thesis much appreciated......

Jo and I are very relieved that the sun has at last got his hat on and come out to give some respite from the rain. Ting Tong says she's very happy too, and I hope those darn spark plugs won't give us any more jip from now on.

One final thing. We're going to land in sunny Brighon on Sunday September 3rd so start getting your glad rags on as we are going to have on helluva party. If we haven't died from exhaustion. xx Ants


Blogger pip said...

Picture of the statue only appeared this morning (Sunday). Reading your blog yesterday I never imagined it to be THAT big. It is gianormous! and very splendid.

4:06 AM  
Blogger bullyboys said...

Ferrets do not have glad rags but we will be putting on our best weaselbling and polishing our tails and toenails. Yay, ferrets will dance and sing for mummy's homecoming

9:10 AM  
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