I arrived early in Astrakhan and hopped out into the mess of taxi drivers triple parked outside the station. I tried communicating with a few of them the name of my hotel, but to no avail – before finding one finally who reckoned he knew the street I said. Or gestured. Probably.
A port on the Volga river, very close to the Caspian Sea – Astrakhan has had a key position in history, and traded hands many times – from the Golden Horde, to Ivan the Terrible, the Cossacks and the Russians. Now a city of 500,000 – it has a varied ‘style’ (which I’ll get to) and the most hyped tourist thing about it is that you can get a 10 day cruise up the Volga to Moscow – something I’d love to do one day!
It was 6am and I was tired, so after 20 minutes when the taxi driver came to a pause on a street and asked me where the hotel was, I was unimpressed. It turned out he had roughly the right address, but the hotel was hard to find. After asking some people, I finally remembered I had the phone number, and after giving them a call he headed down what looked like a rubbish tip inside a construction zone driveway, to reveal the Gold Jin (like Genie) hotel.
They were undergoing a lot of renovations to be fair, and despite speaking no English they seemed quite happy to let me check in early (6.30am now). I crashed into my first proper bed in several nights and had a few hours of sleep.
Rising, I decided to wander in an attempt to firstly find some food and secondly locate the train station again by foot as I had forgotten to buy my ticket out – after the ‘once per day’ train in Volgograd I was wary of being stuck in an expensive hotel. It was cheap for the town but still far more than a hostel, again none of which existed in the city, as far as I could find online.
After several blocks and an hour wandering down dusty wreckers’ yards and among Soviet-era apartment blocks, I was unimpressed with the city. It was dirty, dusty and depressing, and most importantly despite having found the tracks – Google Maps once again was rather lacking in its description of the city, and as such I didn’t really know which way to follow the tracks to the station. Eventually I gave in and found a cabbie, a young chap who excitedly attempted to practice his English with me and even took a really long roundabout way to extend the conversation. Fortunately he charged me half of my initial ride, so it was fine. I also learned the Russian word for train, after my saying ‘station’ in Russian brought up further questions. Despite the fact that “vaxhal” usually means train station, and “avtovaxhal” means bus station. By now I was accustomed to making a fool of myself and the onomatopoeic “choo-choo” got the desired response. The irony was that the bus and train stations were actually beside each other.
I entered the train station after a search by the police, and stared at the board. My Cyrillic was improving but it still took me a while to spot the train I wanted to Aktau, Kazakhstan, for the following day. Finally I borrowed a pen from a stall owner and scribbled down the train times and date that I wanted, and approached the counter, hoping my train ticket buying technique was now honed enough to avoid any confusing questions.
I was out of luck. She understood the date and time, but kept asking “Mangestau”. Thank goodness I’d spoken to a Russian on travel.stackexchange.com the previous day and established that this was the small town and region near Aktau where the end of the line was. However mixed among her other words it took me a few goes to identify this, but eventually got my ticket and the times and everything matched what I expected, so it looked good.
I popped into a supermarket just outside, and spent some time wandering the aisles, just looking at what was on offer. It’s the first time I’ve seen frozen vegetables in bins where you just take scoops of the appropriate pile. I was also getting better at identifying some of the words around. It’s funny, but more often that not food items are the best part of any language I know.
From here I walked down the street for a while, figuring I could grab a cab if needed. After a while I came across the river, and finally, this was the Astrakhan I was looking for. To any future travellers – theGold Jin hotel is neither central nor convenient. There are others for similar prices which are in far better locations.
I followed the river around to a few churches, and the waterfront even had a Brighton beach-like promenade, with roller-skaters, couples walking and people just enjoying the fading sun. It’s a really nice part of the town, and it’s disappointing it’s not easy to find from the hotel who firstly spoke zero English (ok fine, it’s Russia) and didn’t have maps, despite their remote location.
One final highlight which I thought was basically a large walled cathedral, I would later find was the old Kremlin, built in the 1580s to 1620s. Although closed, it was nice to walk around and see it and some more of the city.
Eventually I grabbed another cab and headed back to the hotel, tired, but I figured I’d check out in the morning and do some sightseeing until my early-afternoon train to Aktau.
Surprise! 6am, and I was awoken to loud knocking on the door. The employees, now suddenly with a grasp of the English language (albeit limited) told me that I’d been there 24 hours and therefore either had to pay or leave. Unimpressed, given that their checkout time was midday, I tried to argue, but was in no position to question when their English vanished again, so I settled on paying and spent the morning on Skype and generally making use of the hotel if I was going to be paying for it. Finally an hour before departure, I grabbed a taxi and headed to the station. After crossing my fingers that the police wouldn’t insist on searching my bags at the entrance, I wandered around for a bit looking for snacks, before picking up some more Pistachios and drinks, and what turned out to be the most pitiful looking scoop of icecream I’d ever seen. But hey, 15 Rubels. The station also had a bird cage down the end with several rather large birds I’d never seen before. Finally the train arrived, and I wandered across the tracks and into the carriage, after yet another confusing discussion with the provodnitsa as I was still unable to work out how they could figure out my cabin room from my ticket. Next stop, Kazakhstan!
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