This article first appeared in the July 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
When to go
It’s best to travel to Astrakhan between March and June when the Volga is swollen with spring flood waters, and boats sailing to the city can avoid the river’s treacherous sandbanks. Summer temperatures are near 40°C, but in the winter below –30°C. Some particularly intrepid travellers are tempted to make the journey by sledge along the frozen river in December, but beware: a number have reported losing horses through sudden cracks in the ice.
What to take with you
Situated in the marshy delta of the Volga, Astrakhan suffers from insect infestation. Mosquitoes and gnats can bother the traveller all day long, and even society dinners in the city’s Kremlin are made a misery by swarms of flies. A fly-whisk and insect repellent will save much irritation. For those on excursions on the river out of the city centre, beware of pirate attacks from the neighbouring Kalmyk nomads. John Cook, a Scottish doctor attached to the city’s Admiralty, was recently cornered in this way. He advises a few rounds from a good blunderbuss as the best remedy.
Costs and money
The rouble, as for the rest of the Russian empire, is Astrakhan’s official currency. At present, one silver rouble is worth just under four shillings. Money goes a long way here, so remember to take plenty of small change. The equivalent of one penny will buy enough crayfish to feed six men. Beware, however, of endemic corruption among customs officers. They are not after money but gifts for their women. Bribes of French brandy, hats, stockings and ribbons will please them the most, so keep plenty of these about your person.
Sights and activities
As the premier trading depot between Russia and the east, shopping is one of the city’s main pastimes. Forget the boutiques of Paris. In the caravanserais (rest houses) and rows of shops outside the Kremlin you can buy any luxury item: silk sashes woven with gold, satins, velvets, brocades, cotton cloths, jewels and Persian opium. Recent disturbances in central Asia have stopped the supply of the fine lambskin hats, but it is hoped that this will soon resume.
As a frontier town, Astrakhan is perfect for outdoor pursuits. Antelope hunting is a favourite activity. There are dozens of unknown species still to be discovered by birdwatchers on the nearby marshes. Those wanting to make a serious contribution to science might join the crowds of German plant-hunters looking for the fabled Tartarskey Barashka: a half-animal half-plant native to the region, with the body of a sheep that grows on a stalk. A specimen recently presented to the Royal Society was found to be no more than a fleece stuffed with sawdust on a stick, but scientists are confident a real example will soon be found.
Astrakhan is not set up for the casual tourist used to luxury. Its main visitors are merchants who are ready to put up with budget conditions in pursuit of profit. The easiest places to stay are the caravanserais outside the Kremlin. These offer little more than a roof over your head, but they have the benefit of local colour. Visitors come from all over the east – Armenia, Bokhara and Multan – and the caravanserais are the perfect vantage points to see modern multicultural society in action.
Eating and drinking
Astrakhan is a foodie’s paradise. Gardens abound with grapes from Persia and watermelons reputedly better than those from India. But avoid overindulgence: dysentery is the usual result.
The Volga provides an endless variety of fish all year round. Sturgeon and salmon can be got for a song, as well as fresh caviar, rather than the disappointing version prepared for export.
For those who prefer turf to surf, wild horse steak is a local speciality; better, says Dr Cook, than any English beef. You can wash this down with the local vintage, but connoisseurs are undecided on its merits. Best to stick to the Persian wines imported from Esfahan and Shiraz.
Dangers and annoyances
The assassination this year of Nadir Shah, the Turcoman warlord who seized the Persian empire in a coup d’état, has lifted the threat of an invasion. Residents are now thinking about their domestic quality of life.
A new law has just been announced to prevent Kalmyk tribes from leaving their dead relatives in the suburban streets to be devoured by feral dogs. Whether this will have any effect remains to be seen. Nevertheless, when getting about, make sure you take some dog treats in case you are cornered, and that you look where you tread.
Bijan Omrani is the author of Asia Overland: Tales of Travel on the Trans-Siberian and Silk Road (Odyssey, 2010)