Every day has been an implausibly sunny day for the last 2 weeks, and I kept meaning to go and find the mythical Volzhsky Beach, but various things got in the way, such as lessons, seeing a cloud, falling asleep. Today I had no other plans, there were no clouds, I had no excuses. So I jumped on a marshrutka to Volzhsky.
I had done some research. I knew there was a beach, I knew it was on the Akhtuba, a tributary of the Volga that runs through Volzhsky, and I knew it was at the north end of the town, according to Google Maps. I knew there was a road.
I knew which marshrutka would get me to the north end of Volzhsky, and for the first half of the journey everything was great, I had a seat with leg room, there was a nice breeze coming through the window, I was listening to music on my tablet. Then suddenly the marshrutka stopped and everyone got out. We had to squeeze onto another marshrutka going to Volzhsky which was already half full. We didn’t have to pay again, at least, but I had no idea what was going on and just followed everyone else’s lead. There didn’t seem to be room but the driver practically ordered me onto the bus so he could close the door and set off. So now I was squeezed in the corner of a hot sweaty bus and couldn’t even reach my headphones to put them back in!
Fortunately a couple of the passengers who had seats got off at the next few stops and before long I had a seat, but then a pregnant lady got on… I had my bag lifted and was ready to surrender my seat when a large man who had been sitting at the front of the bus when I had to squeeze on, stood up and offered his seat instead. He had the advantage of being right next to the pregnant lady whereas there was another standing passenger next to me and I was worried if I stood too quickly he would think I was getting off and the seat would be free for him… that’s my excuse for hesitating anyway.
So I had a seat for the rest of the journey, and while I knew which stop I wanted to get off at, I didn’t want to stop the bus myself or squeeze through everyone to get off, unless someone else was getting off too. Unfortunately no-one else wanted to get off at my stop so the bus just carried on and I ended up halfway down Volzhsky’s version of Prospekt Lenina (also called Prospekt Lenina).
I arrived about 2pm. I had hoped Peter would join me on my beach expedition but he had other plans and ultimately wasn’t able to make it. So I set off to find the beach myself, and started making my way northwards. En route I spotted the floodlights of the football stadium from my last visit to Volzhsky and detoured to go past them. Then I saw a side track heading down towards the Akhtuba flood plain and decided there was a good possibility this was a short cut.
It wasn’t a short cut. Basically all the Akhtuba riverside is private property so every time I walked towards the river I came to a wall or a fence or a locked gate. I had to just keep walking along the road until I came to the road I was supposed to take in the first place. I could tell it was the right road because unlike all the other roads I had been walking along, it had traffic.
Once I was on the right road, I found the beach relatively quickly. There is a bridge across the Akhtuba and there are little beaches on each bank. The first beach didn’t look very appealing and only had a smattering of people on it, but I could see a busy, crowded beach on the next bank (I think it was actually an island that the bridge connects to each side of the river). On the bridge itself were teenagers, mostly boys but a couple of girls, climbing over the protective railings and occasionally hurling themselves into the Akhtuba.
The beach was walled in (as well as jumping from the bridge, people were climbing over the walls), and I had to walk quite a distance before I found an official gate. The reason, it turns out, is that you have to pay for access to the beach, It’s only 20 roubles, which is nothing (like 20p in the UK) but I guess for a big family or group it adds up. It took me a while to work out whether I had to pay and how much, I did my usual trick of just standing and watching everyone else until I saw how the process worked. Before that I wandered onto the next beach, which was not as full, but had lots more sun loungers and a hotel behind it… I very quickly worked out that this was the hotel’s private beach and left before anyone realised I wasn’t meant to be there!
Eventually I dropped 20 roubles onto the plate at the entrance stall and was given a ticket to the public beach. There was a wooden walkway down to the water, there was a tap for people to rinse sand off their feet on the way out, and there were three changing stalls – this is something we don’t have in the UK but I have heard of them (from youtube prank videos mainly) – they are basically little cubicles on the beach where you can get changed privately, but everyone can still see your feet.
The beach was mainly full of young people and families – teenagers, 20-somethings and children, but a few babushkas and groups of men too. Everyone had bikinis and swimming trunks, you could count the people who kept a t-shirt on on one hand. There were a couple of beach hawkers selling snacks and fish. There were a few other people there on their own too which made me feel less out of place.
The wet-sand area next to the river was packed, so I set foot onto the dry sand to find a spot to put down my mat (yes, I brought my trusty tartan beach mat with me all the way from England!). I chose a space just past the volleyball net – this may have been unwise, but everyone’s got to be somewhere. I took off my boots and discovered the sand was painfully hot! I just lay there for an hour or so, gradually getting hotter and taking in the sun and the ambience, then decided I was probably drawing a lot of attention to myself being practically the only fully clothed person on the beach, so I gradually stripped down to my swimming shorts.
The beach was getting busier and other people were arriving and setting up beside me and around me – one group asked me to watch their bags while they went swimming (at least I assume that’s what they asked me, I said “Da” anyway!). People were playing volleyball behind me, somehow the ball never quite hit me but one of the players collided with my mat and kicked sand over it! By contrast there were two girls next to me who got hit with the ball about 3 times! (it’s possible someone was aiming at them!).
Eventually the heat got so much that I had to go in the water. This is the first time I have been outdoor swimming in Russia, and while it was only a tributary of the Volga I think I can check off “swimming in the Volga” on my list of things to do before I leave! The water got warm very quickly, in fact as you swam some parts of the river felt much warmer than others.
I was careful to reapply sunscreen after I got out but I think the damage had been done earlier when I was walking that long road to find the beach, my right arm is very red beneath the sleeve-line! Of course the later in the afternoon it got, the less dangerous the sun became but it stayed hot all day. I stayed from about 2.45 to 6.30pm. I spotted one of the people on the beach who had been lying near me on the marshrutka on the way home (well I think she spotted me first, it took me a few minutes to realise why she was looking at me).
I will definitely go back to the beach again, but hopefully I can talk Wesley and Peter into coming with me so I don’t feel as self-conscious. They might be disappointed that I didn’t find the legendary beach bar – perhaps that can be a quest for another time. The beach is a great place to just lie and bask and do nothing, while listening to happy people making happy noise. Even if it is just on a river, not by the sea, it is still definitely going to be one of my favourite places to be.