Astrakhan is the steamy south Louisiana of Russia. Our hotel here was a cabin on a riverboat, hidden down a narrow dirt road, and boarded by planks across cinder blocks and old tires. Hunters come from all over Russia and Europe to hunt waterfowl on what a Cajun might call the bayous of the Volga.
The ornate woodwork and high gables of the old houses, their wooden shutters and lace curtains opening right on the sidewalk, recall a distant echo of a Mississippi River town.
Ivan the Terrible seized this city from the Tartar Khans around 1530, and it has been a southern outpost of Russian civilization ever since. The Cossacks are its traditional defenders - Orthodox Slavs who lived in communes and served in the czar's cavalry. In the past three years, Cossacks here have been reorganizing into special units of the Russian Army.
Travel just a few miles in either direction along the Caspian coast from Astrakhan, and Russian civilization quickly disappears. Just to the east, the villages become Kazak - Mongolian people with a Turkic language and an Islamic faith brought by Arabs. Just to the west lies the odd little Russian republic of Kalmykia, the only predominantly Buddhist society within Europe.
We board a night train south along the coast. The heat is stifling, and the cabin swarms with mosquitoes. A single track leads into and out of the Caucasus, so the train frequently pulls over on sidings for north-bound traffic to pass. We long for the moving air of speed.
Our cabin-mate is a tax inspector from the breakaway republic of Chechnya, ruined by war and now tormented by crime. He wears jeans, a T-shirt, and shoes with the black, patent-leather toe caps that are a mark of the dashing personal style typical of the northern Caucasus.
Russians still claim Chechnya to be within their borders. But our tax inspector gives two measures of Chechen independence: The republic does not send a single ruble of tax money to Moscow, he says, and his two young children speak only Chechen. He will teach them Arabic, he says, but not Russian.
He recites the US presidents since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, says he preferred the book to the movie version of "Gone with the Wind," and thinks Ronald Reagan was a lightweight actor who spoke one great truth when he called Russia the "Evil Empire."
As far as I can tell, he stays up all night socializing with the people carousing in the corridor. We wake up in the Dagestani town of Kizlyar. From here the tracks veer into Chechnya, but railway bombings and armed train robberies have shut down service through that war-battered republic.
So although we are still a couple hours' drive from Makhachkala, this is the end of the line.