Mari El (Russian: Респу́блика Мари́й Эл rees-POOB-lee-kuh muh-REE ehl) is a region in the Upper Volga, bordering Nizhny Novgorod Oblast to the west, Kirov Oblast to the north, Tatarstan to the southeast, and Chuvashia to the south.
Mari El is notable for being one of the last strongholds of organized paganism in Europe. While many of the Mari people have converted to Russian Orthodoxy, a sizable number practice the Marla Faith, which combines Christianity with significant native shamanistic traditions. The Russian and Soviet governments have been suspicious of Finno-Ugric nationalism within Mari El (and Udmurtia), however, and have discouraged the Marla Faith; accordingly, it may be difficult to have any experiences with the Marla Faith while visiting the region. But if you do, you may be lucky enough to experience some of the Mari People's millenia old traditions, like their marriage ceremonies in sacred forest groves.
Today, ethnic Russians comprise a narrow plurality of the population, just under 50%, while the native Mari people comprise about 42%.
Mari El may also be an alluring destination to visitors looking for "the real Russian forests." Its unspoilt forests and numerous lakes make the region an intriguing choice for backcountry horseback riding and hiking, as well as hunting and fishing.
While English will not get you far, everyone you meet will speak Russian, although many of the Mari speak it as a second language in addition to their native, difficult Mari Language, which is a relative of Finnish
Kozmodemyansk, Volzhsk, Yurino, Zvenigovo are all reachable by boat on the Volga River. Otherwise, it is easiest to arrive through the capital and regional road hub of Yoshkar-Ola via rail from the railway junction at Zelenodolsk (Zeleny Dol), Tatarstan, which is near Kazan and Kanash/Cheboksary. An overnight daily train runs from Moscow's Kazan railway station to Yoshkar-Ola, which takes about 14.5 hours.