Astrakhan – Caviar capital of the world (Nikitin Expedition -2006)

Astrakhan – Caviar capital of the world (Nikitin Expedition -2006)

Astrakhan is not easy to spot on the map although it is Russia’s gateway to the Caspian replete with oil and sturgeon. Even the usually loquacious Google slows down to a slur when you ask about Astrakhan.  But there used to be a time when the town was virtually a household name. Bales of silk, sacks of spices, stacks of furs, saddles, swords and bridles piled high on ponies and camels congregated in this town of caravanserais en route to markets in the Levant and beyond. Astrakhan was a key link in the ancient silk route. The infamous Golden Horde of the Mongols swept through the Volga basin and founded Astrakhan on its banks. In the 16th century, Ivan the Terrible reclaimed Astrakhan from its Muslim rulers and built an impressive Kremlin to commemorate the reinstatement of the Christian faith.

Strategically located at the tri-junction of Europe, Asia and the Caucuses, Astrakhan, however, is a quintessential Asian town. The houses are modest, single-storeyed and unpretentious wooden structures, not the glass and chrome monsters that have mushroomed all over Russia in the last decade. Nor are there the drab Soviet-style concrete blocks that often mar the landscape. The pace of the town is relaxed and refreshing. Unlike St.Petersburg or Nizhny Novgorod, Astrakhan does not intimidate you with its dazzling architecture. The town seems so run down and laid back that you’re tempted to conclude that it is just a relic to be referred to in the past tense.

Timur soon disabuses you of your misconceptions. Dapper and handsome, Timur is the modern face of Astrakhan. He speaks impeccable English, is suitably grave for an official and is extremely well-informed. He accompanies the members of the Nikitin Expedition everywhere in Astrakhan and is eager to show us its best face.  So he marches us towards Astrakhan University for a meeting with its ultra-fashionable faculty and students. We are quite taken aback to find one lady faculty member in black lace halter-stockings and heavy make-up. Hundreds of students have turned up for the meeting and we are subjected to inquisitive cross-fire. The student faces are a microcosm of the ethnic diversity of Astrakhan. I scan the crowd for an Indian face, but don’t find any.

Astrakhan, however, has been on the radar of many travelers in the past. Ibn Batuta, the Moroccon traveller and chronicler visited this town in the early 14th century. Afanasy Nikitin, that intrepid Russian trader from Tver had also made a stop-over in Astrakhan during his historic voyage to India. Today, the town is Russia’s transit point for Beluga caviar and Caspian oil. The riverfront is dotted with ships, moors, buoys and rigs. The streets ring with a multitude of voices and languages. Home to 1.2 million people belonging to 140 nationalities, Astrakhan is truly polyglot. A quarter of its people are Muslims and the rest, mostly white Russians with an occasional sprinkling of Buddhists from nearby Kalmykia.  These days, Astrakhan is busy restoring its churches and mosques, which during Soviet times, had been taken over by the local administration and piled high with files and folders.

We notice the subtle pecking order between Timur, a Tatar Muslim and his colleague, also a Muslim, but an Azeri. The homogenized classless society of the Soviet era is already unraveling perceptibly. There is a new religious assertiveness about many Russian towns and we are eager to get a glimpse of it. We go in search of another mosque – this time, an Azeri one – and are briefed by the Imam who insists it is neither Sunni nor Shia. The mosque was built by Hazrat Wahabuddin in 1898. Even as we are chatting with him, worshippers troop past in their Sunday best. We scrutinize their faces to identify their nationalities. I try to photograph a distinguished looking, sharp-featured lad who seems camera-shy and studiously dodges my lens. The Imam whispers conspiratorially, “He is a Chechen” We learn there are many Chechens in Astrakhan.

We make our way to the Indian trading yard. It survives as a mere plaque on a quiet residential street. We pay our obeisance to our enterprising forefathers who traveled all the way from Gujarat in search of wealth. They stayed on,  married local women and intermingled so completely with the local population that today they are indistinguishable from the rest of the population. Our guide tells us, with a twinkle in her eye, that the Indian merchants were thrown out because they charged usurious rates of interest! Two hundred years ago, there was a perceptible Indian presence in Astrakhan. Today, the Indian connection has reinvented itself. Astrakhan is the sister-city of Ahmedabad, whatever that means. Virtually every town we visited in Russia seems to have a sister-city in India. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had visited Astrakhan in 2006 with his entourage of 40 businessmen and traders and even signed some business deals with the local government.

Timur and his colleague insist on taking us to the Mall, their pride and joy, but we choose to go to the ‘White Mosque’ in the Tatar quarter of the town. It is actually is black and run down and is being renovated. Astrakhanians are waiting for restoration of their 91 odd mosques and monasteries which were converted into offices during Soviet rule. Not all of them are keen on such restoration though. The younger population has other things on their minds. Timur points out a karaoke bar frequented by stylishly-dressed youngsters. He then leads us to an upmarket restaurant for lunch, but we are politely declined entry because we were not dressed formally enough to be able to dine there! We head towards another one run by Azeris.

After shuffling through the town for a while, we go into the library where we meet a professor writing a book on India based entirely on secondary material including old paintings. She has never visited India! We look at many sketches and paintings of Indian merchants and traders in turbans and long tunics. My hopes of lounging on the Caspian beach are dashed when Timur tells me it is at least a hundred kilometers away. We are only in the estuary. My glimpse of the Caspian will have to wait until we reach Baku, but the serpentine Volga is all over Astrakhan.  I settle for a quiet, if cold evening on the banks of the Volga, gazing at teals and mallards.As the Nikitin expedition moves from Moscow into the far-flung provinces, the weather gets warmer. So does the hospitality of the people. From the Caspian shore, we are now driving towards the Black Sea. This was not exactly the route through which Nikitin had travelled, but then, we are not allowed to go through Dagestan and Chechnya for obvious reasons and have to settle for a compromise passageway one that would take us to Georgia through Turkey.

As we drive into Krasnadorsky Krai in the southwestern corner of the Russian Federation we are greeted at the border by Natasha Mikhailovskya, Director of Culture in the local administration and her Cossack cultural troupe in their traditional costumes. Bread and salt are offered to the guests as a mark of respect and we are serenaded against the backdrop of lush emerald meadows. The local TV crew is there in full complement too and we’re escorted in style into the town of Kropotkin.

Kropotkin is Cossack country. Cossacks were originally peasants who chose to become itinerant warriors in order to escape the shackles of serfdom. They would roam the vast Russian landscape offering their services wherever the need arose. Many of them came from Ukraine. Around two centuries ago, Catherine II coaxed them back to an agrarian life, offering them the alluvial plains between the Don and the Dneiper. Those who settled on the right bank of the Kuban River came to be known as Kuban Cossacks. They took to agriculture and settled life. Krasnador now constitutes, along with other provinces, the food bowl of Russia. Today there are 80,000 Kuban Cossacks in Krasnador. There are also four other Cossack settlements in other parts of Russia.

Cossack hospitality is boundless. A veritable cornucopia of fresh vegetables, fruits and farm produce is laid out for the expedition members at the Cossack National Museum which doubles as community centre.

Gateway to Black Sea

Cossack men, women and children have turned out in full strength to interact with the members of the expedition. There is a lively interest in India and things Indian. We are absolutely delighted to be told that we’re the first-ever Indians to visit the region. But then, Bollywood has preceded us as it has done virtually everywhere else in Russia and won over the hearts of the Cossacks. We are treated to an elaborate banquet accompanied by Cossack music and dance. A self-deprecating people, they bowl us over with their lavish hospitality and endearing congeniality.

There is more to Krasnador Krai than agribusiness. Novorossisk terminal, which is Russia’s gateway to the Black Sea and thence to the Mediterranean, is located in this province. A substantial chunk of Russia’s oil exports goes through the Novorossisk port from where the ships sail through the Bosphorous to European markets. Novorossisk is not only vital to Russia’s export economy, it is also the energy lifeline of Europe.

But then our next destination in the Krai is not Novorossisk, but the adjacent Sochi, a port town located at the feet of the great Caucasian range. Located on the eastern flank of the Black Sea, Sochi is Russia’s Riviera, the watering hole to which the nouveau riche flock. The drive from Kropotkin to Sochi takes us through some stunning landscape gently rising hills and tantalising glimpses of the sea at every hairpin bend. Our first view of the Black Sea sends the expedition members into raptures ending up in a roadside celebration.

Stark contrast

This bustling town is in stark contrast to the other sleepy Russian towns we have driven through. Although situated in Krasnador Krai, Sochi is every bit Caucasian, not Cossack. The town is undergoing a makeover having staked its candidature for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The lovely colonnaded seaside hotel in which we are staying is to be torn down next year to be replaced by a steel and chrome skyscraper.

Sochi museum is located in a lush tropical botanical garden rich in diverse flora. The Director of the museum takes us to the Tree of Friendship where representatives from 45 countries have added their own graft to a large citrus tree laden with fruits of different varieties, sizes and vintage. Tags bearing names of those who contributed to the grafting dangle alongside the fruits. Surprise, surprise, we spy the names of A. Aiyangar and V. Munuswamy, apart from P.K. Sanyal, C. Subramaniam and others.


We drive to the top of a hill on which Josef Stalin built a watchtower from where he could watch over Georgia, his motherland. We climb up the steep tower from where we could glimpse the Georgian shore.

On a clear day, even Turkey is visible. The sea shimmers like molten silver in the afternoon light. The jungle around wears a stunning autumnal garment of gold and russet and the ground is carpeted with burnished maple leaves. This is our last night in Russia.

The next day we set sail for the Turkish port of Trabzon with our three cars in tow. So far, our Indian-made Mahindra vehicles have behaved remarkably well. We have another fortnight to go.

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