Monday, October 15, 2012

10/15 - Volga River Cruise

I always start with news from home in my blog posts. Just today I submitted my choices for Air Force bases, and where I want to work when I complete my undergraduate studies.  I decided that it would be best for my family, girlfriend (Daniela), and my family to stay on the East Coast, which has always been my home. Although I had the option to choose bases in Japan, England, Germany, and Italy, I decided against it. Here is the list I submitted this afternoon: 

1. Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland
2. Bolling Air Force Base, Washington (DC)
3. Langley Air Force Base, Virginia
4. MacDill Air Force Base, Florida
5. Dover Air Force Base, Delaware
6. Pope Field, North Carolina

This end of this week was the conclusion of probably the longest, and most eventful foreign journeys of my entire life. I was fortunate enough to visit 6 Russian cities over the course of this week. Starting with Nizhny Novgorod and ending in Volgograd, I want to share some of the most memorable experiences on this blog with you. At the beginning of the week, we boarded a cruise ship (теплоход), and it was absolutely gorgeous. We dined like kings, getting three course meals for lunch and dinner. Every day, we would go to the roof of the boat, and look out at the beautiful natural shorelines along the Volga River. At night we would stargaze (often after a few drinks at the bar), and the lack of light pollution even allowed us to see the Milky Way. The Volga River (Волга) is the longest and largest river in Europe, and it is over 2,300 miles long. It were hardly able to sail over all of that. 

 Map of the Journey (minus Volgograd)

Our Cruise Ship named the Anton Chekhov (Теплоход имени Антон Чехов)

I. Nizhny Novgorod (Нижний Новгород)

Nizhny Novgorod is literally translated to "Lower New City" in Russian. It is the fifth-most populated city in Russia, and we got to spend nearly an entire day there. Highlights included seeing the Nizhny Kremlin (Кремль), which is translated to "citadel." They had a beautiful version of "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," where guards paid reverence to the fallen soldiers in World War II. Our most memorable moment was a race up the staircase in the middle of the city to overlook the Volga River. Our sea voyage began here.

Skyline View of Nizhny Novgorod 

 Within the Nizhny Kremlin, on top of an Old MiG aircraft

II. Kazan (Казань)

Kazan is the capital of the Tatarstan Republic in Russia, and is the eighth-most populous city. It was easily my second-favorite city on the trip. Not only because of its beautiful summery weather, but the city offered a new perspective on Russia. The Kazan Kremlin was designated a World Heritage Site in 2005 by the United Nations, it represents an area where Christians and Muslims live in harmony. Also, Russian and Tatar are both spoken by many of the Kazan inhabitants. I'm not a soccer fan, but the city is going to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, so its consistently gaining attention. My favorite experience was seeing the Kremlin, and the giant Mosque that stood there. 

Near the entrance to the Kazan River Station

The Kul Sharif Mosque (Кул Шариф Мечеть)

III. Ulyanovsk (Ульяновск) 

Ulyanovsk is not known for its huge skyscrapers and urban appeal, but for its name and its former dwellers. It is best known as the place where Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the creator and leader of the Soviet Union's Communist Party, was born and raised. Everywhere, we saw statues of Lenin, and we were even able to visit his former home. He was raised in a moderately wealthy family, and his childhood inspired him to create the Bolshevik Party that would eventually overthrow the Imperial regime in Russia back in 1917. Interestingly enough, Lenin's birth name was Ulyanov, which is why the city was called Ulyanov(sk). We were also able to the museum that was built to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Lenin's birth. 

Nick, Seth, and I imitating Lenin and his comrades

Here Lived Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov-Lenin (Здесь жил Владимир Ильич Ульянов-Ленин)

IV. Samara (Самара)

Next stop on the Volga River was Samara, the sixth-largest city in Russia. It is most well-known for being "the second Soviet capital" after Moscow during the early years of World War II. Between 1935 and 1991 it was known as Kuybyshev (Куйбышев). My most memorable moment was our time spent in a Cold War bunker built for Stalin, simply known as Stalin's bunker (Бункер Сталина). It was 8 floors deep, and even had a war room, and bomb shelters built at the lowest levels. In case the Soviet Union was ever bombed, former Soviet Premier Stalin had a place to hide. As we ascended the stairs, many of the students fulfilled the spirit of the area by singing the old Soviet national anthem. I would have joined in if I knew the words!

Amanda and I near a Soviet Space Shuttle

Stalin's War Room on the bottom floor of his bunker (бункер Сталина)

V. Saratov (Саратов)

Out of all the cities we visited, I was the least impressed by Saratov. It is the 16th most populated city in Russia, but it had little to offer. We went to a park, and visited an art museum, which basically comprised our entire tour. The one interesting thing is that thousands of Germans (Немцы) migrated to Saratov, and has a enormous German influence. In addition, my second-year Russian professor at American University was born and raised in this city. During the Soviet years it was considered a "closed city," as it was a shipping point for military ammunition and supplies throughout the USSR. One famous person of note lived in Saratov. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, lived in the city for many years. There are not many pictures of note to post, so I will move to the next city.

VI. Volgograd (Волгоград) 

By far, Volgograd was my favorite city on this trip. Before we left, one of the ACTR professors gave us a lecture on her father's experience in Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad) during the years of World War II. The Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted for 5 months between 1942 - 1943 is the city's shining moment, and often most horrific memory. It was a decisive during point for the Soviets, and ultimately the Allied Forces in driving the Nazis out of Eastern Europe. At the end of the Battle in February 1943, the Soviets won, but took over 400,000 casualties, with the Nazis accumulating over 750,000. Currently where the battle took place stands the second-largest statue in the world, known as "The Motherland Calls!" or "Родина мать зовёт," which stands at only two feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty in New York City. I wish I could have stayed a few more days in Volgograd, it was amazing. In addition we witness a changing of the guard at the Battle of Stalingrad memorial, the Russian soldiers looked as sharp as ever. It was great to watch and allowed me to reminisce about my marching with the Air Force. 

In front of a MiG near the Stalingrad Museum

The Motherland Calls Memorial (Родина мать зовёт!)

I'm proud of you if you made it all the way through this post, but I had to document as much as I could about my journey while it was still fresh in my mind. This was one of the most rewarding journeys of my life. I feel honored and privileged to be able to see sites that some Russians never get to see in a lifetime. Thank you for reading!

Countdown to returning home: 64 days

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