The Rustic River Don

This route starts in the north-western part of Volgograd Oblast and runs alongside the M6 federal highway, covering around 400 kilometres (249 miles) in total. The best way to travel is by car or motorhome, stopping for one or more nights at campsites along the Don and Khopyor rivers. You can start from Moscow or any point on the M6 highway. The exit for Uryupinsk a quintessential provincial town is located at 680 kilometre on this highway, about 340 kilometres (211 miles) from Volgograd.

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The town of Uryupinsk is symbolic of the provinces. Tourists love the local prices: a night in a hotel is 700 rubles, while lunch in a café will set you back 350 rubles. In August, Uryupinsk hosts Fisherman Day, and in September or October it holds the Pokrovsky Fair, which has been bringing together local craftsmen for the last 200 years. The symbol of Uryupinsk is a locally bred goat with a particularly soft fleece. Shawls made from this fleece are believed to be the softest, warmest and most wearproof shawls there are. The shawls can be bought at the market which opens twice a week. The local population is made up of Don Cossacks who settled here in the seventeenth century. Their main business is goat breeding. Uryupinsk has a monument to the goat, a touching sculptural group called Seamstresses, and the Goat Museum.
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If you are spending a night in Uryupinsk, choose one of the campsites on the bank of Khopyor River. This tributary of the Don has lots of pike, carp, catfish and crucian carp, and is ideal for fishing. The best way to travel down the river is by kayak or by raft. There are routes of varying length and difficulty and anyone can participate, from trained athletes to children.

You can start your rafting trip in the area around Uryupinsk or drive downstream to start at Nizhnekhopersky Nature Park. The river's fast flow makes it possible to travel up to 30 kilometres (19 miles) a day. The landscape is constantly changing: impenetrable forests turn into plains, sandy beaches alternate with cliffs and chalk deposits.
Nikolay Galkin/TASS
The picturesque Don and Medveditsa rivers that flow nearby are also great for rafting. If you choose to raft down one of these rivers, you can start your trip closer to Volgograd, near the town of Serafimovich, in Ust-Medveditsky Nature Park. As you head down the river, you will see Scandinavian boulders – granite blocks left over from the glacial period. The natural wonders include unusual white water lilies which are listed in the Russian Red Data Book of Endangered Plants and Species, as well as hares, wolves, foxes, roe deer, elks, muskrats and lots of birds living in their natural habitat. Ust-Medveditsky Nature Park also offers other types of recreation, including off-road safaris and fishing trips, bike rides and scientific and educational tours.
Nikolay Galkin/TASS
The next stop on the way to Volgograd is the Cossack Farmstead (khutor) ethnographic open-air museum, reflecting the local way of life. The Don Cossacks, whose lifestyle was celebrated in And Quiet Flows the Don by Nobel Prize laureate Mikhail Sholokhov, are believed to date back to 12 May 1570 when the Cossack outpost of Razdorskaya was established. Even before that date, however, the "free people" settling the border areas of Ryazan Dukedom were mentioned in chronicles. Russian rulers hired Cossacks to protect their borders from Tatar raids. The art of war has always been the principal Cossack occupation.

The open-air museum reproduces the way of life in a Cossack estate at the end of the 19th century, featuring a kuren house and a barn. Those who wish to do so can be ordained as a Cossack – volunteers will be given a frosted cup of vodka on a Cossack blade, taught horse riding and will take part in folk games with songs and dances. Lots of local food specialties are also on offer: farmstead chicken, dumplings with cottage cheese and sour cream, and meat baked in clay pots in a real stove.
Nikolay Galkin/TASS
Five minutes drive from the ethnographic village is another point of interest: a farm of Australian emus (73 kilometres (45 miles) away from Volgograd by the M6 highway). The emus arrived in the region in 2001 as a gift (in the form of a hundred eggs) from Alabama college professor John White, who lectured at Volgograd Agriculture Academy, to Academy Professor Vladimir Vodyannikov, who oversees Krasnodonskaya Farm. Farm tours are available and the emus readily demonstrate their habits. Visitors can feed grass and vegetables to the birds.
Nikolay Galkin/TASS
Not far from Volgograd, just 75 kilometres (47 miles) away by the M6 highway, is another nature park: Donskoy Nature Reserve. Within the reserve are 52 springs of clear, icy water. Some of the springs have tables, canopies and benches nearby. The water in all of the springs is drinkable, barely mineralised and soft.

The park's main attraction is a unique white chalk ridge which stretches for 30 kilometres (19 miles) above the Don River. The chalk ridge was formed during the Jurassic period and the local history museum has rare exhibits of coral tubes, fossil relics and other artefacts dating back more than a million years. The vista point located 30 metres (93 feet) above the river provides truly breathtaking views.

From the Chalk Mountains, you can head down to the empty sandy beaches and enjoy swimming and a picnic. The water in the local rivers is amazingly clean (UNESCO has named Khoper River as one of the world's cleanest rivers), and the swimming season runs from May to September. The average daily temperature from the end of April to October is +21-25 °C (70-77 °F), but in reality, daytime temperatures rise to +30 °C (86 °F) and above from mid-May until September. By mid-June, the water in the lakes and slow rivers warms up to 28 °C (82 °F), while the summer temperature of the water in the Don and Khoper rivers is about 22-25 °C (70-77 °F). Some sections of the river have a muddy bottom, but there are plenty of sandy beaches with good access to the water.
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