FINNO-UGRIC TRIBES AND TATAR KhaNATES
Mordovia – Tataria – Chuvashia – Mari-El – Udmurtia – Bashkiria
This tour is offered on a regular monthly basis from March through June. Let us know your desired departure month by clicking on the learn-more button below: we will match your preferences with the next relevant scheduled group departure. If you are still unsure about your desired departure date, then simply tell us a period or a season of the year and we will provide you a range of scheduled group departures: just pick up yours!
Our scheduled group departures don't suit your plans? If you are travelling with more than 4 friends, you can set your own departure date: we will arrange a bespoke tour just for you for the same price per person advertised below. If you are travelling solo or with less than four companions, we will then organise a slightly more expensive tailored tour according to your time schedule and specific geographical preferences.
Cruise option: the following program refers to an overland itinerary across the Volga Basin. It is designed to be travelled solely by road (private minibus), as this will allow us to be flexible and relatively quick. The Volga is, however, one of those great Russian rivers that can also be journeyed by boat. Volga cruises are a perfect and romantic way to enjoy the region in a slow-travel mood. We can offer you a wide spectrum of river trips, ranging from a minimum of one week to a maximum of a month. Contact us to learn more about these options.
DAY 1 - Mordovia
Our guide will meet you at Saransk International Airport and drive you to our hotel of choice (exact hotel name and address will be communicated well in advance per email).
Introductory briefing about the region, the route and the set of rules to observe while travelling in Idel-Ural.
The term Idel-Ural defines a historical region of the Russian Empire and the former USSR. The name literally means Volga-Urals in the Tatar language and is often used to designate the six autonomous republics of the region: Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Mari El, Mordovia, Tatarstan, and Udmurtia. Before being conquered by the Tsardom in the 16th century, the region was dominated by native Uralic tribes and a succession of Islamic Turkic empires, such as Volga Bulgaria, the Khazars, the Golden Horde, and the Khanate of Kazan.
The first Idel-Ural state we are going to visit will be the Finno-Ugric Republic of Mordovia, whose rather unspectacular capital Saransk unexpectedly rose to fame thanks to the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Saransk sightseeing: Soviet architecture, imposing cathedrals, discreet backstreet churches, WWII memorials, socialist public art, colourful markets and local lore institutions.
Dinner and overnight in Saransk.
DAY 2/3 - Chuvashia
Leaving Saransk we'll head for the second autonomous ethnic republic of our journey: Chuvashia, a curious geopolitical Soviet construct inhabited by the Chuvash people, the only Christian Turks in the world along with the Gagauzians of Southern Moldova.
En route to the Chuvash border we’ll travel through the traditional Mordovin villages of the Bolsheignatovsky District, in the northeastern far end of the republic: here, like nowhere else in Mordovia, you will be able to witness the slow-paced rural life rhythms of the Mordovins, the original Finno-Ugric inhabitants of the republic.
If time allows (and if you are up for it), we’ll also take a short detour across the Smolny National Park, a tranquil state reserve of dark woods and misty marshes home to the extremely rare Russian desman (Desmana moschata).
After entering Chuvashia, we’ll proceed to Tsivilsk, a sleepy provincial town famous for its XVII-century women’s monastery, and then drive further north to Cheboksary, aka Šupaškar in Chuvash language, the unpretentiously attractive regional capital built on the shores of the mighty Volga.
Our second day in the Turkic republic will be entirely devoted to the exploration of Cheboksary and its surroundings: modernist and neo-classicist architectonic wonders, Soviet-era sanatoriums, pastel-coloured churches, Chuvash cultural institutions, melancholic river beaches and the usual fair-share of Lenin statues and war memorials.
During the day we’ll also visit the main local brewery (Chuvashia is renowned for its fine hop production) and the house-museum of Vasily Ivanovich Chapayev, a much celebrated Bolshevik soldier and Red Army commander, who was born in the tiny Chuvash village of Budayka, now part of Cheboksary.
Meals and overnights in Cheboksary.
DAY 4 - Mari El
Today we'll leave Chuvashia, cross the Great Volga and enter the Autonomous Republic of Mari-El, yet another Finno-Ugric proto-state lost in the vast Russian backyard.
Mari-El is especially peculiar for being the last place in Europe still inhabited by the followers of those ancient pagan religions that were once common in most parts of Central and Eastern Europe.
The Mari people practice, indeed, a weirdly fascinating cult that mixes ancestral traditions with Orthodox Christianity, and, with a bit of luck, we will be able to witness their mystic shamanic rituals, which usually happen in a very discreet (and therefore very real) manner within the modest households of tiny traditional settlements scattered around the grasslands of central Mari-El.
After a traditional Mari lunch in the countryside, we'll continue to Yoshkar-Ola, the heavily Russified capital of the republic, where we'll visit the eclectic "new-old" downtown, completely rebuilt in an excessively eclectic and overwhelmingly kitschy style arguably inspired by traditional Dutch and Venetian architectures; the urban legend goes: the local head of the republic - one of those many provincial lackeys at the service of the grand Tsar Vladimir Putin - came back from a vacation to Venice and the Netherlands and was so impressed by the local architecture that decided to create a copy of those European urban jewels in the very centre of Yoshkar-Ola: the rather cheap result is not everyone's taste.
Luckily, however, there is still plenty of Soviet-era architecture and monumentalism left to admire in Yoshkar-Ola, and that is, needless to say, what we will focus our visit on.
Dinner and overnight in Yoshkar-Ola.
DAY 5/6/7 - Tatarstan
After a late wake-up call and a sumptuous breakfast at our hotel, we'll leave Yoshkar-Ola and move further east towards Tatarstan, an autonomous republic mainly inhabited - as the name suggests - by Muslim Tatars, the very descendants of the legendary Golden Horde.
Most of present-day Tatarstan lies, indeed, within the boundaries of the now long-gone but here often revoked Volga Bulgaria, a historic Turkic state that existed between the VII and XIII centuries around the confluence of the Volga and Kama River.
Our first destinations in the republic will be the ethnically diverse and prototypically Soviet shipbuilding town of Zelenodolsk and the splendid Bogoroditskiy Monastery, an active cloister surrounded by majestic churches and untouched nature.
We’ll then proceed to Kazan, the much-eulogised Tatar capital, where we’ll spend two-and-half days touring its countless Soviet-era architectonic gems, pre-Soviet sights and present-day cultural wonders.
Highlights of our stay in Kazan will include: Soviet modernist, constructivist and classicist masterpieces (theatres, cinemas, culture houses, circuses, administrative buildings, universities and much more), sublime examples of Socialist public art (monuments, mosaics, bass-reliefs and the like), rickety old brick Tatar mosques and superb Orthodox cathedrals, Tsarist grandeur and brave-new-world architectures, exotic bazaars and traditional wooden houses.
On top of that we’ll also make two short trips out of town to visit the historical island-town and UNESCO-site of Sviyazhsk and sunbathe on the rather melancholic beaches stretching along the Kuybyshev Sea, a Soviet-era water reservoir created after the construction of the giant concrete dam at the Lenin Hydroelectric Station near the city of Tolyatti.
During our sojourn in Tatarstan we’ll also have the chance to meet with local Tatar families, who will share with us their food, their home and the hidden aspects of their ancient culture.
Meals and overnights in Kazan.
DAY 8 - Udmurtia
Today we'll head to Udmurtia, one of the most obscure Finno-Ugric autonomous backwaters of the Idel-Ural region.
En route to Udmurtia, before exiting Tatarstan, we’ll stop in Yelabuga, an ancient Russian-Tatar town of beautiful merchants’ houses and fine religious buildings.
After lunch we’ll eventually enter Udmurtia crossing the tiny hamlets and provincial towns of the Malopurginsky District, one of the few areas in the republic where the Udmurt people still represent the absolute majority and hence one of the last places where one can hear the almost-mystical sound of their endangered Finno-Ugric language.
In the afternoon we’ll then reach Izhevsk, the Udmurt capital, notorious for being the birthplace of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the namesake automatic rifle that caused and still causes more deaths across the globe that all other weapons combined.
We'll spend the rest of the day touring the city and paying a visit to the Kalashnikov Museum, which also features its own backyard polygon, where you'll be to disassemble, reassemble, aim and shoot with the deadliest weapon ever.
Dinner and overnight in Izhevsk.
DAY 9/10/11 - Bashkortostan
In the early morning we’ll depart from Izhevsk and tour the nearby traditional Udmurt village of Buranovo, which recently gained celebrity thanks to the Buranovo Babushkas, a nana choir from performing at Eurovision and other international song contests.
We’ll then head for the beautiful XVI-century city of Sarapul, a multiethnic commercial and transportation hub that used to home an elite stand-alone subunit of the KGB back in the days of Soviet Udmurtia.
Sarapul was (and to a much lesser extent still is) one of the few residence centres of the Udmurt Jews, an Ashkenazi Jewish community who spoke that now extinct Udmurtish Yiddish language, the lexicon of which was a curious mix of German, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish with a noticeable number of Udmurt and Tatar loan words.
After lunch we’ll finally take our leave from Udmurtia and enter the last autonomous republic of our journey: Bashkortostan, aka Bashkiria, the largest autonomous republic in the region and home to the once nomadic Bashkirs, a Muslim Turkic people ethnically, culturally and linguistically related to the neighbouring Tatars.
The republic of Bashkortostan actually lies outside of the Volga basin proper and is usually geographically and culturally ascribed to the Ural region: an area famous for hardworking mining towns, beautiful sceneries and post-Soviet industrial decay.
The first Bashkir town we’ll visit will be Neftekamsk, a large industrial centre of drab Soviet architecture and provincial dullness… what more could you possibly ask for?
Later we’ll continue our voyage across rural Bashkortostan towards Ufa, the fancy capital of the republic, to which we’ll entirely devote the following day visiting its rich and diverse cornucopia of eclectic mosques, Soviet mosaics, socialist architectures, WWII memorials and thriving food markets.
On our last day in Bashkortostan we’ll then head south for the Tsarist outpost town of Orenburg close to the frontier with Northern Kazakhstan.
Besides the routine stops for food and photography we’ll break the six-hour-long journey from Ufa to Orenburg at the Bashkir industrial and military towns of Sterlitamak, Ishimbay and Kumertau, where we you be able to get an ultimate grand overdose on Soviet architecture, monumentalism and military glory.
If time permits, we’ll also allow ourselves a more touristy detour to bring a bit of diversity to our extremely Soviet sojourn; just a few miles southeast of Sterlitamak lies, in fact, one of the most beautiful natural attractions of the entire region: the lonely mountain of Toratau, one of the four Bashkir shihans, which are basically solitary rocky massifs incongruously (and scenically) towering over a flatland landscape of flowery grasslands and windswept steppes (geologists may forgive us for such a simplistic description, as the shihans are way more peculiar than they appear… but we shall leave the scientific explanations to our local Bashkir guide).
Dinner and overnights in Ufa (d. 9/10) and Orenburg (d. 11).
DAY 12 - Flight back home or transfer to further destinations
After enjoying a last Bashkir-style breakfast together we'll take care of your transfer to the airport/train station of choice.
For those flying out: transfer to Orenburg International Airport for your flight back home.
For those wishing to take the train/bus to reach further destinations: transfer to the local train/bus station.
For those wishing to prolong their journey: we’ll arrange a three-day-two-night tailored extension across the Orenburg Steppes, a remote state reserve of boundless vastnesses and enchanting beauty.
End of the tour.
4 to 9 participants: 2580 € per person
The price includes: double/twin room accommodation (breakfast included; single supplement: 18 euros/night), private transport in the region (jeep or minivan), entrance fees for the attractions listed in the itinerary, guiding and translation service.
The price does not include: international flights, transport to and from the airport of arrival/departure (35 euros/ride), meals, drinks and tips, visas if required, entrance to attractions not listed in the itinerary, insurance.
The route of this tour has been carefully designed after several research trips in the region. It is, however, always possible to slightly modify the itinerary according to the needs and the suggestions of the participants. Our motto is flexibility. It is also possible to make the tour the other way around, starting from Ufa and finishing in Saransk.