The capital’s flotilla of pleasure cruisers connects the city, via the Moscow Canal and the mighty Volga River, north to St. Petersburg, south to Volgograd and beyond. Those plying the ‘Moscow’s Sea’ stop at the towns of the Golden Ring, but sail past natural treasures. And that’s where they’re missing out.
Text by Peter Ellis
Photos supplied by the Ecological Travel Center
A summer evening and the sun forgets to set. Its late rays paint the Volga’s waves a bright lemon yellow; swirls of crystal turquoise curling between their crests. There’s not a breath of wind and along the forested shore clouds of blue smoke hang like winged spirits amongst the high branches, betraying the presence of camp fires.
They call themselves backpackers. Not how we landlubbers know the term: their backpacks float. They are home-made catamarans of air-filled floats, metal tubes and polyester sails lashed together. Their rubber decks stretch under foot, the waves twist their hulls and the wind strains their frames. They are flimsy vessels; flimsy vessels that conquer continents.
Their expeditions take them east, down Siberian rivers into the Arctic and Pacific oceans. They voyage north exploring the rivers of the frozen Kola Peninsula and sailing the icy waters of the White Sea, and south to the scorching deserts of central Asia. They’re a tight-knit community, sharing stories and songs under the stars.
Alex S, Alex K, Fyodor, Pavel, Yakov, Boris, Natalie and Lily have been coming to this same spot on the banks of the Volga for four years now: a welcome escape from the pressures of Moscow. Most of the men met in the army, veterans of the Soviet space race, when they launched rockets and sputniks through the stratosphere.
For those who helped explore the final frontier, it’s not surprising there’s something of a pioneer spirit about them. They easily adapt to outback living. A dining table and benches are roughhewn from logs, there’s even a comfy armchair crafted from driftwood. A washing line adds to the scene of feral domesticity.
Fyodor returns with the latest catch of fish. Their eyes bulge and mouths gulp hopelessly as these river creatures drown in our ethereal world. Presently their flesh, white and firm like chicken, is smoked, baked and eaten, the bones discarded. Frying, boiling, baking and poaching, the men effortlessly display the full gamut of culinary skills on their al fresco cooker.
“Danger! Danger! Kleshch, klee … shch!” Boris grimaces, jabbing and twisting the back of his hand between finger and thumb. “Take care, beware the waters.” The local ‘frumious bandersnatch’ is a tick, whose miniscule mandibles can pass on encephalitis for those not vaccinated. They’re more of a hazard in the wilder wetlands of Siberia; ‘the jaws that bite and the claws that catch’ around here belong to mosquitoes. Their gorgings left stellar constellations of red, itchy punctures across my body: I gave up counting after one hundred on one leg alone.
Perhaps expat flesh is just too rare, or too tasty a morsel to be ignored; while my hosts remain largely unbitten. Somehow they just blend in with the natural world, at ease with it. They are in the minority. “Russians are still not very aware of the nature of their own country,” says geographer Larissa Basanets. “They are much more interested in travel abroad and don’t appreciate what is closer to home.”
Larissa works for the Ecological Travel Center (ETC), which organizes weekend tours for expat groups and Russian citizens to the countryside around Moscow, and longer trips further afield. The ‘Green Ring of Moscow’ is a natural history answer to its better known, golden architectural cousin: eight nature reserves and national parks that surround the city.
Fifty four animal species, including brown bears, wolves, lynx, wild boars, elks and ermines have been recorded around the Volga headwaters to the northwest of Moscow in the ‘Central Forest State Nature Biosphere Reserve’. The spruce forest of this UNESCO-designated area has remained untouched by man for over 500 years, making it unique in Europe.
The evocative silhouette of the Black stork is used as the symbol for the Oksky Reserve, which includes a crane sanctuary, open to the public. Here they work to save four species in the IUCN ‘Red Book’ of animals and plants on the verge of extinction: the Siberian crane, the Japanese crane, the Whitenaped crane and the Hooded crane.
Less than 90 kilometres to the south of the capital lies the Oka River Reserve, with its bison nursery. The last wild European bison, or Wisent, was shot in 1927. The final fifty of their kind, the continent’s largest mammal, survived only in zoos. Since then, breeding programs have increased the world population to 3,500, with the Oka Reserve responsible for introducing 350 pureblooded bison back into the wild.
“Part of our work is to increase ecological awareness,” Larissa says, “but there is a lot of work needed to be done in Russia to manage ecotourism and to increase the appreciation of nature.” She points angrily to a recent photo of a river beach scattered with bottles, plastic cups and litter. This is paradise despoiled.
“All guests, including paying guests, are expected to collect garbage along the Volga. Don’t feel like picking up empty and broken bottles? Kill two locals who litter – and pretty much all of them do – and bring me two scalps, and you are released from the garbage duty.” Paul Voytinsky, aka Uncle Pasha, is as well-known for his wacky sense of humor as his holistic views and features in the Lonely Planet guide to Moscow.
His “microscopic” riparian resort offers the chance to go rafting, mushroom picking, horse riding and to explore limestone caves. “If you are getting dangerously close to throwing up if shown yet another oniondomed church or monument or T-34 tank,” he suggests “alternatives along the lines of ecotourism, participatory tourism, charity tourism, or just plain weird tourism.”
Being Europe’s longest river, it’s inevitable that the Volga ends in superlatives: the continent’s largest delta disgorging into the world’s biggest inland sea, the Caspian. It is one of the most important staging posts for White cranes on their summer migration from Iran and it is a significant breeding ground for the most quintessential of Russian fish, the Beluga sturgeon.
Larissa Basanets’ colleague at the ETC, Tatiana Kalishevskaya, has just returned from the river’s mouth, where she acted as an interpreter for a party of Danish ornithologists. “I was amazed,” she says, “the way the birds communicate with each other, the way the father brings food for the chicks, argues with his wife and flirts with the neighbors. It was like a soap opera … very spectacular, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Back near Moscow, Alex S brings his boat in to land at the camp. The golden light and swaying movement of the boat act as a balm, giving one a soothing wholeness with the world and with oneself (ñîçåðöàíèå (sozertsaniye), the Russians call it). The singing around the fire seems as natural to the scene as the birds: ‘Some run after business, some chase after cash, but I run away from the worry, away from the anguish, I’m going, going to my dream, of mists and the scent of the forest …’
Stressed by city life? This is the cure.