Wednesday, 6 April 2011

European and Asian Russia (02/03 - 05/03)

This journey has had many beginnings, and one of them is surely the moment I took the train out of Moscow. It can be arguably said that the real trip began there, but as I have said, there is no a clear time to identify as the beginning.

After more than a week in Moscow I was feeling relieved to resume the journey, and delighted as I sat in my compartment, heading to the not so far away Nizhniy Novgorod, my first stop East of Moscow, but still in the European Russia.

I had with me the bouquet of flowers that Valya had given to me, and quite clumsily I didn’t know where to put it when I got on board.

I took calmly the novel Anna Karenina that I had recently bought in Moscow and opened it by the first page. The reading made the 6 hours journey pass in a moment.

There in Nizhniy Novgorod the original Russian lands ended, and the conquered land started eastwards.

I arrived at night to Nizhniy Novgorod (which means Lower Novgorod, opposed to the older Great Novgorod to the North of Moscow and ancient capital) but a friend of a Russian girl who had studied in Bilbao one year ago came to pick me up at the station.

It was a bit of a confusing arrival, because I had planned to dine with a French-Russian couple of acquaintances (I hosted them last year in Bilbao) just forty minutes after my train arrived.

The problem was that at the same time my host in Nizhniy had to drive me to his place. So there was no material time for me to take a bus to this couple’s flat, in the opposite direction (not very central) of where my host lived (quite near from the old town).

I tried to call them but the phone number didn’t work, so I had just to leave with my host. I e-mailed them as soon as I arrived to my host’s, but unfortunately I was leaving in 24 hours so I couldn’t arrange a meeting with them.

I felt bad about that, but I soon forgot about it next day, a bright and not so cold day in Nizhniy.

The city itself overlooked the massive Volga basin, an endless tract of purely white plains dotted with occasional snow-covered trees that awed me and couldn’t stop looking at. Despite its width the river was well frozen and covered with ice and snow on top, and people were walking on it.

It was my first truly Spring day, with mild temperatures (1º C); in fact Spring had started only two days ago according to the Russian tradition (1st of March), and even snow was melting on the streets, and I saw cats running around (I suppose they somehow keep themselves under cover when temperatures are below cero).

I took a pleasant walk all around the centre of the town (for the first time just walking under the sun was a pleasant sensation, in opposition to what I had experienced before in the winter harshness), but they were no clear touristic sights, aparte from a nice Kremlin, and as I said, the remarkable views over the Volga.

In some parts of the town there still were wooden constructions, remnants of the traditional architecture. I mean, the Russian houses were made of wood, and fine examples of this were to be found in Nizhniy’s old town. In this trait I found quite a resemblance with the wooden houses of Finland (which is an Uralic culture as many others who exist in the core of the European Russia), who also belonged to Russia not so long ago.

I love when I am aware of this kind of continuity between countries I have already visited, because it gives to the experience of travelling much more value, helping me to have a clearer picture of the world’s cultures.

I was about to miss the train leaving at 21h from Nizhniy (and arriving at 6 a.m. to Kazan).

I was at my host’s place after the walk and after playing some music for him and his girlfriend we ran late and by the time we were waiting for a bus to take us to the station, we only had 15 minutes before the train departed from the station on the other side of the river.

We took a mistaken bus and had to hop off at the next stop.

Finally my host halted a car and agreed to take us for a fee (apparently any car can work as a taxi in Russia). I was not familiar with any of this, because even the gesture he made to stop a random car was not the one of hitch-hiking obviously.

2 minutes left and I ran to get onto the platskart carriage where I spent the night.

Kazan is not strictly on the main Transsiberian line, but being part of the European Russia, there the train lines are much more diversified than in Siberia.

I chose to stop by in Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan Republic, one of the federal members of the Russian Federation, in order to have a taste of a different culture, other than Russian.

The thing is that there is not a real difference between European and Asian Russia, it is all one, as European or as Asian at every place.

Of course one cannot forget that there are many native cultures in Russia which are not only not Russian, but not even Slavic or Indoeuropean. That is the case of the many and scattered Uralic, Altaic and Paleosiberian cultures spread on my way to the Far East.

And in Tatarstan, as the name indicates, the Tatar people lives, of Turkic language and culture, but very different from their far Turkish relatives.

My arrival to Kazan was a strange one, I am not sure of how to describe it.

On one side, as has happened to me before, I couldn’t get good sleep in the train and woke up very early (in any case I was arriving at 6), tired and uncomfortable.

But there is no time for laziness when you are travelling by train, you have to repack all your things quickly, fold the mattress (they give you a mattress, a pillow and some blankets in every train), put your boots on (most people use sandals inside the train) and get out of the train before it departs again to the next station.

Well, I should say that I had a rough start in Kazan.

I was animately walking out of the station, just few minutes shy of dawn, when I saw that the temperatures were the lowest I had seen so far (-20º C), but I didn’t feel it so cold (probably because I was quite far from any big water mass).

I was excited of being in Kazan, but it was barely morning, I needed some sleep and I didn’t know where to go (this sensation of excitation and exhaustion at the arrival to a new destination has been very typical all throughout my trip).

Skipping the taxi-drivers offering their services outside the station, I tried to figure out where I was on the map walking to the far corner of the square.

The sky was blue but the freezing temperatures had created a strong layer of ice on the streets, and I happened to step on it when crossing a road.

Thanks to the slippery and icey floor, I fell abruptly to the ground near the road, with my heavy backpack and everything on.

Actually I was quite concerned because I didn’t want to fall in front of an incoming vehicle when crossing, and I kept that fear during my stay in Kazan.

My jeans, that had already badly scratched in Poland, got so dirty that I had to scrape them with recently fallen snow to clean them.

Nonetheless, soon I was rewarded with a superb dawn upon the solitary streets of Kazan, especially when I was on a bridge over a water channel.

I clearly remember that that vision filled me with joy in spite of all the inconveniences I had suffered at the time.

A sweet memory.

Moments later I got to the hostel I wanted to stay in, but it was not even 8 in the morning yet and it was closed.

Doubtfully I knocked on the second door (a small closed hall was open and I could relieve myself from the cold for a while), a glass door through which I could see a human figure sleeping on a sofa near reception.

I don’t really believe that there was no room for me anywhere in the hostel, but that was what the just woken up hostel manager let me know.

He pointed me the nearby Marriott Hotel, a big new building looking certainly like an expensive hotel, which I couldn’t afford.

I think he was only pissed off because I had woken him up, but the outcome was the same.

I think that kicking a possible customer out so early in the morning when outside is -20º C is unpolite, but anyway. I quitted. (Just for the record, the hostel’s name was Fatima).

Walking my way back to the station I took a different path and walked by the outer walls of the Kazan’s Kremlin.

Everything was very white, and above all the impressive new mosque and its turquoise roofs illuminated by the morning sun rays.

Finally I stayed at Hotel Volga.

Let me say one thing: Food and hosting are expensive in Russia, almost anywhere. Or well, they are not cheap, not backpacker-style cheap.

Food in restaurantes and cafes is expensive, so dining out is probably not so popular, but regular food is affordable.

But there are no real hostels in the less travelled parts of Russia, so one has to get a single hotel room which is at least 30 €, but could get much more expensive, even in crappy and seedy hotels far from the centre.

Kazan was my first hotel destination then. Besides, it is more boring than staying at a hostel, but they let me in quite early in the morning so I could take a nap before going out to see the town.

As I pointed out before, one particularly interesting region in Russia is the Volga, which spans very long through the middle of the European Russia, and homes quite a peculiar mixture of Uralic (related to the Finnish people) and Turkic population, some of them Muslims.

In Kazan this was very obvious, you could see that it was a very different town from others in Russia.

There was definitely an Asian feeling to it, with ‘Steppe nomad’ looking people anywhere in the street and the open air markets playing Turkish-like music, not to forget the minarets seen afar and the houses’ architecture.

The most lasting impression of Kazan, no doubts, is the Kul Sharif Mosque, which was built just 5 years ago inside the Kremlin, where a similar one had stood for centuries before it was demolished by the Russian invaders. It is named after the defender of the city against the tsar Ivan the Terrible.

It is a beautiful sight, no matter how you look at it, what angle, inside or outside…

Side-by-side with it there are two Orthodox churches in the Kremlin, and the beauty of the contrast is noticeable.

Kazan also has a university where Lenin (half-Tatar himself) studied, and some interesting minor churches.

There was a charm in the decayed parts of the town, some buildings in a bad state, abandoned and forgotten, all of that covered by a thin layer of recently poured down snow.

And yes, I slipped and I fell to the ground again when I was heading to eat something in a very central and commercial street.

As an exception to the rule, I ate very cheaply in a self-service restaurant with local home-made food, very humble, but definitely yummy and filling!

What I probably enjoyed the most was the walking under the snow by the southern side of the town, to where the Tatar population was restricted till 19th century (after the Russians conquered it), and where there were more traditional Tatar houses and signboards in Tatar language everywhere.

Overall, I am very happy that I stopped in Kazan.

My last day in Kazan snowed all day long, and very hard, you couldn’t stay outside long, because the snow would start to cover you, but the temperature rose to a comfortable -4º.

So for the best part I read Anna Karenina and relaxed before my next stop and my first real town on the Asian side: Yekaterinburg!!

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