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September 30, 2002

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Astrakhan, as its name indicates, was founded by the Tatars of the Golden Horde in the 13th century. The center of Astrakhan sits on an island surrounded by the Volga and a canal network. We wander about town. The Russians conquered Kazan in 1558 under Ivan the Terrible but they didn't erase Turkic influence which we see in Turkish features of many townspeople and the pointed domes, arching balconies, and closed courtyards that could be found on any street in Istanbul. Alongside stand stout wooden houses built by Russian settlers. The Volga and its canal network dominate the old part of town making Astrakhan feel like an exotic, breezy seaport. Our Russian visas expire today and we board an afternoon train for Kazakhstan. By evening we pass through the Russian side without any hassles. The Kazakhstan border is even more laid back. No guards show up to check our passports. Alarmed that we might enter Kazakhstan without proof of passing through legally, we disembark from the train and search for customs officials. We find them all drinking tea in a guard house beside the tracks. With a nonchalant shrug they fill out a customs form and hand it to us. They don't stamp our passports but we don't have time to argue with them - the train's whistle sounds and we rush back aboard. Judging by the reaction from the border guards, tourists don't use this Kazakh-Russian border often.
The Assumption Cathedral (1698) in Astrakhan's kremlin.
Russian settlers built these wooden houses, a Siberian style of architecture.