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The River Volga, more than flowing through the heart of Russia. The very word Volga touches every Russian soul. It's spawned love songs and laments. It's seen wars of conquest and struggles for survival. And it is itself a source of life and wealth. The Russians themselves call it Mother Volga because it's so rich in resources. It's a vital artery and the start of this, the next stage of my journey across this vast country. RUSSIAN SONG PLAYS As I set out on my Volga trail the noises off were anything but tranquil. The Kremlin has started talked tough to the west, and the Russian public seems to love it. Russia's national pride is intense and to understand why there's no better place to start than the Volga. The river raises far up in the north of Russia beyond Moscow and from there snakes its way down to the south and the Caspian sea. My route was to take me up river past the ancient trading port of Astrakhan to a spot on the map where a foreign empire had once forced every Russian prince to bow down before it. Today, on the outskirts of what had once been a mighty city, you find yourself in one of the many poor villages strung out along the Volga and its tributaries. The Volga delta has been much favoured by poachers, their quarry the sturgeon from which they extract that expensive delicacy black caviar. A little more than a decade ago Oleg and his friend, also an Oleg, only survived by poaching. Oleg, Hi! Fantastic. Nowadays, the Olegs fish merely for pleasure. One is in business, the other a TV presenter. And, as producer Teresa and I found out, they're charming and hospitable. Some Vodka, Oleg? To the success of your fishing, your great catch. HE SPEAKS RUSSIAN He says we have a saying here, if your work gets in the way of your fishing, give up your work. Is it good for fishing to drink Vodka? No. TRANSLATION: It's good for your pleasure but not for fishing. Because your eye isn't quite as sharp or what? TRANSLATION: Because you need very sensitive feel in your eyes and your hands, and they work together. So that means Oleg 2, who hasn't had anything to drink because he doesn't drink, is going to be victorious this afternoon. Hmm. No, he says he'll have his turn. He's just letting him have a good go. Well, I'm on your side, Oleg. SHE TRANSLATES Above the river is the site of the ancient city I'd come to see. Today Sarai seems like a wasteland, but it stirs the imagination to learn that this step is still inhabited by the descendants of the Golden Horde, the Mongol invaders who conquered all Russia more than 700 years ago. The Mongols colonised these lands as they swept westwards to establish an empire that covered a huge swathe of territory from China to central Europe. Sarai was founded by Batu Khan, the grandson of Ghengis Khan. His armies overran almost every major city in Russia. The Mongol yoke was not as cruel as is sometimes supposed, so long as their colonial subjects paid their taxes on time. But it was a humiliation and it still rankles. It lasted for 300 years until the invaders were finally ousted by Ivan the Terrible. Sarai itself was a very cosmopolitan place with people from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Greece, Persia, not to mention of course the Russians and the Mongols themselves. They each lived in their own quarters, communities complete with either their mosques or churches, bazaars and bath houses. One Arab visitor writing in the middle of the 14th Century described the city as an immense place and crammed with inhabitants.