Astrakhan is where Europe ends, and the Central Asia Rally begins.
Astrakhan is best known as a departure point: this is the closest major city to the Volga Delta, and as such is an increasingly popular destination for nature tourism. Its position on the Caspian Sea has ensured a long history as an important trading hub. And most importantly of all, Astrakhan is the starting city for the Central Asia Rally. With its rich history and unique position, here’s our guide to Astrakhan.
Photo by Michael Clarke
The History of Astrakhan
The city has medieval roots, though the original settlement was burnt to the ground by Tamerlane in 1395. The city regrew nearby after being conquered by Ivan the Terrible in 1556, and by the 17th Century it was the thriving port city depicted above. It became where Russia met the east, home to traders from Europe, Persia, India, Central Asia and beyond. For the following centuries it became important to Russian industry, but met many challenges. There were several terrible fires, plunder by Safavid Persians, and a cholera outbreak in 1830 which killed much of the population. Astrakhan also played host to unsuccessful rebellions against Tsarist and then Bolshevik rule.
Buildings of Astrakhan
Astrakhan is famous for containing a presence of Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Islamic, and Buddhist religions. Pictured above is the Cathedral of St Vladimir, the story of which explains the recent history of Astrakhan rather well. It was built to celebrate 900 years of Christian Russia, although the construction was delayed several years due to another cholera epidemic, and not completed until 1902. During Soviet times it operated as a bus station. It’s been a church again since 1999.
Probably the most well-known sight in the city is the Astrakhan Kremlin, over 400 years old. It was only the second the city in Russia to be granted a citadel, which was modeled on the style of the original in Moscow. The fortifications consist of strong defensive walls and several towers. The grounds of the Kremlin are dominated by the impressive Assumption Cathedral (pictured at top of page), which Peter the Great declared to be the most beautiful in Russia.
The Volga Delta
For those not setting off on the Central Asia Rally, Astrakhan is best known as the gateway to the Volga Delta. This is where the Volga, Europe’s largest river system, drains into the Caspian sea, which it reaches around 60km from Astrakhan. The largest such delta in Europe, it covers an increasingly vast area; due to rising water levels of the Caspian Sea, the area of the delta has multiplied more than eight-fold since 1880. Wildlife has been protected in the area since the early 20th century, helping maintain vast biodiversity and a stunning array of bird and fish species: it is a paradise for fishermen, while wildlife lovers dream of seeing the very rare Caspian Flamingo amid the ubiquitous lotus flowers.
Astrakhan is one of the driest cities in Europe, with an average of less than 10 inches per year. It gets very hot in summer, while winters are cold though by Russian standards relatively mild. It is a interesting city to walk around, consisting of various islands linked by bridges, making it almost (though not quite) the Venice of the East. As well as visiting notable buildings, the old trading quarter is a fascinating relic of Astrakhan’s vibrant multicultural past. The city itself is well worth at least a day’s sightseeing, even if only as a stop before heading off to the Volga Delta or the Central Asia Rally.
If you’ve ever dreamed of traversing the ‘Stans’, the Central Asia Rally is the perfect way. The minimal assistance driving challenge begins in Astrakhan, on the 1st of June. Teams then pass through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and even a little bit of Afghanistan, on the way to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. This is a region that sometimes feels like the middle of nowhere, but contains grand ruins of Silk Road stops that show it was once the centre of civilization. And from the mystery of Astrakhan to the serene lakes, dramatic mountain roads, and generous hospitality of Central Asia, you’ll never want to leave.