Arough ride through the steppe along Russia's border with Kazakhstan -- and there it is, the Cossack village of Paris. It even has its own version of the Eiffel Tower.
Founded by troops returning after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, this tiny scattering of white-washed huts and neat gardens is still happily lost in time and history.
"It was a long time ago when our forefathers from the Third Orenburg Cossack Regiment came back from France, glorious and suddenly sophisticated," Rosa Alchinova, 64, said as she walked down Paris' main gravel track, Soviet Street.
ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA
"No wonder they decided to call their new settlement Paris, after having conquered Paris," she added, her scarf beaming with bright terracotta colors traditionally worn by Cossack women in the Ural mountains.
To cement their 190-year-old link to France, regional authorities built their own little Eiffel Tower in the village center this year, a sixth of the size of the French original but instantly recognizable. It doubles up as a mobile-phone mast.
"It's probably the tallest construction around here for kilometers," said Pyotr Batrayev, a man in his 60s belonging to one of Paris' oldest clans, gazing at the 50m-high tower as he shepherded his cows back home in the evening.
"Maybe one day we'll get our own Notre Dame de Paris," he added, smiling broadly.
Separated from its French namesake by 4,000km of Eurasian land mass, Paris looks like any other relatively well-off Russian village, with hundreds of log cabins, a few ugly Soviet-era buildings and cows dozing in overgrown gutters.
One-horse carts stand alongside shiny foreign cars in the village's narrow alleys. Parisian property prices range from US$2,000 to US$7,000.
Nestled in a treeless valley with herds of horses along a turquoise river, Paris is now home to 2,000 so-called Nagaibak Cossacks, descendants of Muslim tribes that have fed their horses in this fertile land since ancient times.
But even after they were forcibly converted to Christianity by Ivan the Terrible four centuries ago, the Nagaibaks have followed old traditions and preserved their rare dialect of the Tatar language.
Residents still use Nagaibak nicknames like "White Toe" or "Black Wolf" rather than Russian names when addressing each other, and only three people in the village speak French, one of them a librarian.
Their culture offers a mixture of ancient Nagaibak tales and medieval ballads and stories featuring Cossack leader Matvei Platov, whose regiment fought near Paris, Danzig -- now Gdansk -- and Leipzig in the Napoleonic wars.
After the war Platov went to England but his troops returned to the Urals and founded an archipelago of villages with European names, including a town named after the battle site of Fere-Champenoise -- locally known as Fershanka.
"Parisians have traditionally good ties with the Fershanka lot," said Valentina, a Paris resident.
"We all know each other, each other's families, uncles and aunts. At the end of the day Paris and Fere-Champenoise are normal Russian villages, with grain crops, log cabins and the rest," she said.
A five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower down Soviet Street, lined with cattle stalls and swathes of hedges, is the one-storey Paris History Museum, one of the most popular places in the village for people to hang out.
Curator Nadezhda Gavrilova, one of Paris' most prominent figures, hopes construction of the Eiffel Tower would attract tourists to this remote part of Russia and boost monthly average wages of US$100.
"But villagers are categorically against building more French idols here," she said. "I mean, things like opening cafes called Moulin Rouge, for example. Or changing our main street's name to Champs-Elysees. What's going to happen to our Nagaibak identity if we start copying everything from the French?"
But the main grievance is the outflow of young or educated villagers from Paris to big regional cities like Magnitogorsk, or Siberian oil towns like Surgut to the northeast.
Nina Ivanova, a chemist in her 50s, won the US Greencard Lottery three years ago and now lives in New York with her husband.
"When New Yorkers ask me where I am from, I tell them, I am from Paris," she said, in Paris for a few weeks to visit family.
"New York is a great city. But my relatives are here, and so is my old house where I grew up. I was born here -- and I will probably come back to live here again," she said.
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