Tsaritsyn and Stalingrad
Bilbo the Hobbit was about 50 when adventure befell him; Bilbo the Nissan was 15 when his travel escapades began. Perhaps 50 hobbit years and 15 car years are somewhat similar. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo recounts to his Hobbit companions words spoken to him previously by his uncle Bilbo: ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to’. I am sure our Nissan could be heard muttering similar sentiments about his wheels when he was locked in a container and shipped off to Hong Kong to drive the Silk Road.
Once in China, Bilbo displayed an unusual wobble in his body once the speed got up to 80 or 100 kms per hour. On rough roads the wobble was hardly noticeable, but give him beautiful smooth tar seal on the open road in Xinjiang, northern China, and the problem became more pronounced. At times the issue seemed to fade away and be forgotten, but after the rough desert tracks of the Aral and Caspian areas, followed by good quality seal in northern Kazakhstan, Bilbo’s driver was very concerned about his wellbeing.
Help was sought in Atyrau through our contact working in the oil industry for Chevron, and we were advised to wait till Astrakhan, where the quality of service would be much better. Our full day there fell on a Sunday, when only the Nissan show room was open for business, and not the workshop. However they furnished us with the Nissan address in Volgograd, once known as Stalingrad, where Martin and Maurice sought help on our arrival in the city. Bilbo was left in their tender care for the next 24 hours, during which time all eight rubber bushes were changed out, four in the trailing arms and another four somewhere else in the mysteries (to me, anyway) of Bilbo’s anatomy, probably his knee and ankle joints. So now he is a new man, or rather a new vehicle. As Gandalf said to Frodo, ‘You take after Bilbo. There is more about you than meets the eye, as I said of him long ago.’ And we echo the same sentiments about our Bilbo.
While the Nissan workshop in Volgograd worked on the car, we had a day site seeing around the interesting city. First was a visit to Mother Russia, an absolutely huge monument of a woman carrying a sword, 72 metres tall, with the sword an extra 11 metres. Added to that, she stands on the top of a hill, Mammy Mound, and thus becomes a very eye catching figure. Known as Hill 102 during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, it is now an evocative memorial to the estimated one million soldiers who died in the city in World War 2. We certainly got our exercise that day climbing the many stairs to the base of Mother Russia. Numerous school classes were visiting at the same time, the serious faces of the children viewing the eternal flame and the names of the dead indicating that it is still a centre of homage for Russia today.
The Museum for the Defence of Stalingrad unfortunately didn’t have any captions in English but we were still able to understand the catastrophic significance of the battle in the lives of its people. The city was almost completely devastated and little remains from prior to 1940; the ruins of a flour mill, belonging to the German community of the city prior to the war, stand beside the museum as a poignant symbol of the destruction.
Another museum we visited recalled the city’s third former name – Tsaritsyn. After the First World War and the collapse of Tsarist Russia, the city saw fierce fighting in the civil war between the Red and White Armies.
Our final night in Russia was spent near the Ukraine border in the small town of Doneck. It was a lesson in not judging a book by its cover. As our eyes took in the run down Soviet buildings and the long grass of the grounds, we wondered what we had come to. Our booked accommodation seemed to be a health establishment or camp of some sort. We were shown up bare dirty-grey concrete stairs into a lounge of 1950s decor and asked in halting English to wait while our rooms were prepared – and very Spartan they turned out to be.
However the hospitality was very warm and sincere. It seemed that dinner was included with our board and we were to eat with the director, who spoke only Russian, and his friend, who spoke some French as well as Russian. We, as you well know, speak English and a smattering of French. But what does language matter when you have good food and a bottle of vodka? The idea was to fill the little glasses, rise to your feet, click your glasses to everyone’s good health, drink the whole amount in one gulp, clench your right fist and pull it down with a loud ‘yes’. I limited myself to one little sip at a time and the others declined another fill-up after about the fourth ‘yes’. There was lots of laughter and good humour, but it was just as well we were not driving anywhere afterwards.
Later they organised for the friend’s great niece to come over and meet us. She spoke excellent English, delighted to have the opportunity to practise speaking to foreign English speakers. When the subject of crossing the border the next day came up, a man was contacted to help us fill in the forms and purchase insurance for driving in Ukraine. The next day the director’s son drove before us the 10 kilometres to the border in order to show us the way. As I said, don’t judge a book by its cover!
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