Volgograd is the home of mother Russia
During the night, two men joined us in our compartment. The provodnik pounded on the door, VERY loudly and I had no choice but to open up. In the morning, one of the men turned out to be a reasonably fat and reasonably friendly policeman who wanted to know where I came from, convinced of me being Armenian. I wondered what would be the right story to tell, and I mentioned I was born in Iran but was now Dutch (the truth!). He seemed to be very interested, but since he only spoke Russian, all communication went through Jolla. Which was a shame. Since Jolla and me had talked extensively the previous night, she knew quite a lot about me and was able to answer a lot of questions from the policeman without consulting me. Not bad in a way, but it totally deprived me of talking to Jolla herself.
Volgograd is a very nice city. Very wide streets, relaxed people, buildings that are very well kept, and many people speak either English or German. What's sad about Volgograd is that during the Great Patriotic War, millions of people, both Russians and Germans died to either defend or capture this city, once called Stalingrad.
Even now, regularly, German tourists and veterans return to commemorate what happened in and around this city. Its almost impossible to convey what happened here during the war and only few books come close, although you might want to try Antony Beevor's Stalingrad. A masterpiece that makes you want to read the book as fast as possible from cover to cover and very accurately analyses the situations on both sides of the frontline in this part of the second world war that, too often, is conveniently forgotten by the outside world.
Finding a hotel wasn't too difficult since, when leaving the train station, you basically have no choice but to bump into the Intourist. According to the Planet (although I started to wonder why I still tended to believe what it said) this hotel, although not too cheap, by far was the best option in the city. I expected high prices, but managed to get a very clean and nice room for some 14 dollars. And although I had a toilet and a washing basin, I did have to share a shower. I didn't mind. Staff was very friendly, spoke several languages (including languages that I spoke myself) and there also was a tourist office inside the hotel where I could even get a plane ticket leaving the city again. Some minutes after I got to my room, my floorlady came in, dragging a very large fan to keep me cool with the high temperatures raging outside.
The single most important thing to go to when close to Volgograd, is visiting the war memorial dominated by the huge statue of mother Russia. The thing is bigger than the Statue of Liberty and although its a little bit kitsch, its impossible to not get impressed by the sheer size of the whole memorial site. In the city itself, there's a war museum, depicting the final battle in a 360degree panorama, where you are virtually on top of the 'Mamai mound', where the statue is located. This, too, is a must see, since it will start to give you an idea of what happened here in Stalingrad. Probably the saddest thing being that, if Stalin would not have ordered literally millions to die in the 'hell of Stalingrad', probably Hitler would have won the war and Stalin would have bean the Hitler of our past, since, although few people actually are aware of the fact, Stalin had more people killed during his reign than the whole of the Third Reich put together.
When you walk up to mother Russia, you're passing two brick walls, with a 3D rendering of parts of the battle of Stalingrad. In the background, music is playing and a commentator is reciting.
Here too, just like in Rostov and Sochi, it was evident that the south of Russia clearly thrives significantly better than other parts of the country. In the evenings, people where not only strolling along the bank of the river, they were also actually eating, drinking and enjoying themselves on the numerous terraces everywhere and the only beggars in sight were gypsy children. Without a doubt, Volgograd is a great city to relax in.
In the hotel, I easily managed to get a ticket onwards. I contemplated my possibilities and finally decided I would fly to Murmansk, and from there take a train to St. Petersburg. The little drawback being that I had to be at the airport at 5.30 in the morning, was to have a stopover in Moscow for 12 hours and there I would have to travel from the south east to the north west (to an other airport) to get my connecting flight. In the tourist office, I got my first glimpse of Mother Russia on Mamai mound. In the picture they had hung up in the office, the statue was so big that it took me quite some time to actually see that the picture wasn't a trick photo. That statue was that huge. The specks at the bottom actually where people.
Phone calls where remarkably cheap; phoning the Netherlands was only 20Rubles, some $0.80, half that in the evenings. I did have to request my call at reception, but when I entered my room after signing in, the phone was already ringing, offering the requested call. In the evening, when I came back from a day's trip on the town, the phone was ringing again when I entered the room. It was about 1am and this time I hadn't requested a call. I remembered the two babes that had been waiting in the lobby and remembered Roma's advice from Irkutsk and started to have an idea why I got a call in the middle of the night. I was right, a woman was offered, although the girl on the other side of the line had a hard time communicating what she was offering. I considered trying to ask for both women at the same time, but decided against it. I wandered why I actually did that when I turned on the TV and flicked through the German, Italian and French channels available.
When walking back to the hotel, I passed a small chubby guy looking through a telescope. Beside him, some five people where looking up, talking frantically. Several times, the word 'Soyuz' fell, so I was inclined to look up as well, remembering that joke, where one guy stares up in to the sky (seeing nothing) where eventually a whole crowd gathers to look up, trying to find what the first guy is actually looking at. Here, however, there was something to look at. Following the pointing fingers, I noticed something the size of a low flying airplane moving across the sky, dimming its lights and lighting them over and over again. What it was? I don't know. It seemed impressive though! I involuntarily remembered the Russian project where a satellite was going to try, in orbit, to divert the rays of the sun to light a small area on earth, at night. The 'thing' resembled a satellite, since its wings where far too long and wide in relation to its length to be an airplane. That, or either I was looking at the latest American spy airplane.