Monday, August 25, 2008

Tatarstan and the Golden Ring

7.30 am Kazan', Tatarstan, Russia
The provodnitsa (conductor) wakes me up. Still half sleeping I look out the window of the night train I took from Nizhny Novgorod. The train rides over the long Volga bridge, I can see a white walled kremlin with both a huge blue mosque and an Orthodox cathedral inside. I see two flags waving on top of a government building. One Russian flag and one green-white-red Tatar flag. I just arrived in the capital of Tatarstan Republic: Kazan'.
After getting of the train, I walked to the city center, where I found a place to have a breakfast. I continued my way around town to the post office, to use the internet. I called my two contacts in Kazan', Timur from couchsurfing and Danil, through hospitalityclub. At noon, I met Timur, a Korean traveller Joshua and Timur's friend Aleksander. Together we drove around the city and Timur told us a lot about the turbulent history of Kazan' and showed us the kremlin and other interesting landmarks. Driving around Kazan', I noticed that the city is remarkably clean (unlike other Russian cities) and it seemed very prosperous. Actually, Tatarstan is one of the richest regions in Russia, mostly because of the large oil reserves under it's soil. There is a lot of construction going on in the city and the wealth of Tatarstan is shown in its buildings and streets. A very clean city, with expensive cars driving the streets and people wearing expensive clothes. Kazan' is one of Russia's success stories, both economically, but also in sports. Kazan's ice hockey team is one of the best in Russia, Timur was very proud of the Tatarstan basketball team and Rubin Kazan', the local football club was leading the Russian premier league at the time I was there.
Besides Kazan's wealth, the city very much is a meeting point between eastern and western cultures and it definitely is the most exotic place I visited in Russia. Half of the population is ethnically Tatar, who are descendants of Genghis Khan's Golden Horde and religiously Islamic. The main street is blessed with Turkish kebab restaurants and Turkish Efes beer is the main drink here. I saw some restaurants called 'Fata morgana' or 'Fatima' and Kazan's skyline is dominated by a big mosque.
With Timur and Joshua, I ate a Tatar national dish, called Chak-Chak in a local restaurant. Afterwards we continued our tour and I got to know Timur and Joshua a bit better. Timur showed us the impressive kremlin, which is unique in the world, because it has both a mosque and a cathedral inside. Not counting Turkey, the mosque in Kazan' is the largest in Europe and also one of the newest as it was completed just 5 years ago. Furthermore, the kremlin is filled with nice parks and some government buildings, including the palace of Tatarstan's governor. After the kremlin we visited the university, where Lenin studied in his younger years. A statue of 7 year old Lenin is standing in front of main university building.
In the evening we met Danil, my hospitalityclub contact, in who's apartment Joshua and I stayed for the night. Danil also took us around the city, where we met a lot of his friends. We drunk some beers together and I had good opportunities to practise my Russian, as none of them really spoke English. Danil and his friends are really cool people and I was very glad that I met them.
Next day, Joshua left by train. I decided to stay a couple of days more and I walked around the market with Danil's father Isdyl. Later on, I visited the Tatarstan national museum and went with Danil a bit out of town to have a swim in 'Sinnoe Ozero' (Blue Lake). The lake is very special, because the water temperature never changes during the year. It always stays at 4 degrees Celsius. People dip in the lake, because they believe it is very healthy. With 4 degrees, the water is very very cold in summer, but as it the lake never freezes, it is relatively warm in winter. I took a quick dip in the lake, but I got out as fast as possible. After Danil's third swim, we left the lake. A group of fat drunk man came and they were pushing each other in the water.
My last day in Kazan', I just walked around a bit by myself, stopping on the way for a great Adana kebab and a beer on a terrace. Quite remarkably, the waitresses in the cafe where I sipped my Efes, were carrying guns with them. When I asked them about the pistol, they told me it was for protection.... Back in Danil's apartment, I relaxed a bit and went to the train station for a train back to Nizhny Novgorod. Arriving in Nizhny, I hopped on another train further west, to the Golden Ring city of Vladimir.
Also in Vladimir I had a couchsurfing contact, a friendly girl named Yulya. She made some 'pelmeni' (Russian dumplings) for me and we walked around town together. Although is was bit of a rainy day, I enjoyed the sightseeing tour. Vladimir is a provincial town not far from Moscow and it is filled with churches. I visited some churches and went to a viewing point for a view over the countryside. Yulya and I ate in a traditional Russian restaurant and shopped for classical Russian DVDs afterwards.
Next day, I hopped on a bus to a fairytale village called Suzdal. On the bus I met an old woman who gave me some advise on where to go and she showed me the way. The whole day I walked around the town, which is famous for its amount of churches. Suzdal is a village with not more than 12.000 inhabitants, but it has over 30 churches and even its own kremlin. The town is very colorful, because of all the onion domed churches and its colorful wooden houses. It really felt like I was walking in the setting of a fairytale child movie, except for the rainy weather. After eating a 'stolichniy' salad and some bread, I bussed back to Vladimir, where I hopped on another bus to Russia's capital Moscow.
Arriving in Europe's largest city, I got a bit lost the first hour. Luckily I found my way and took a metro to 'Oktyabrskaya Ploshad' (October square), where I met my couchsurfing contact Deric. I just stayed one night in Moscow, because my Russian visa was expiring. Deric made my stay very pleasant however, as his apartment is very nice (Deric is a diplomat working for the Philippines embassy) and I met some other couchsurfers there. I really enjoyed discussing Russian politics with Deric. Like I said he is a diplomat and has so much knowledge about what is going on in the world. It was just for one night though, because I left Moscow the night after.
During the next day, I just stayed in the apartment. As I have been to Moscow before, I didn't feel like walking in the rain that day. In the evening I went to the trainstation, for my train to Rezekne, Latvia. Actually my intention was to travel to Belarus, but because I had to get a visa first, I decided to go to Belarus through Latvia and Lithuania. In the small town of Rezekne, I took a very slow bus to Latvia's second city, Daugavpils, from where I searched for transport to Vilnius (Lithuania). However, there were no busses nor trains going from Daugavpils to Vilnius, which ment I had to hitchhike. It was surprisingly easy to hitchhike in Lithuania (later I found out that it officially is one of the easiest hitchhiking countries in Europe) and with two different rides I arrived in Vilnius.
In the night, I went to a club with some Belgian guys I met in the hostel. Next day I arranged my Belorussian visa through a friendly agency called Viliota. It was really easy to obtain the visa at this agency and the day after I was ready to travel to Belarus. While waiting for my train to Minsk, I walked a bit around Vilnius with an Australian guy, Denis. We played some pool and sipped a cold beer on a terrace. Later on I hopped on a rusty train to the Belorussian capital Minsk.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Towards the Russian heartland

From the Solovetskiy Islands, I planned my journey southwards, to the cities Vologda, Yaroslavl' and Nizhny Novgorod. However, I first had to get of the island. And on the boat from Solovetskiy back to Kem', I got a bit seasick again. The White Sea was very wild that day and with a cold northern wind, I wasn't feeling that good. On the boat I met a German guy, Florian, who studies in Moscow and I met two girls from Vologda, Alina and Lyuda. The two girls from Vologda were on their way home, and as Vologda was my next destination as well, we went to the trainstation together. We bought tickets for the next morning (6am) and we slept on the trainstation, waiting for the train. As soon as I boarded the train and got my bed sheets, I fell asleep and didn't wake up until the late afternoon. I really started to like Russian train journeys, as it is a great way to meet people and to enjoy the landscape. The journey from Kem' to Vologda takes over 24 hours and I spent it mostly with a couple of guys who I met in the restaurant wagon. Most of the guys I met came from Murmansk, were they served the Russian navy on a submarine. We spended our time drinking, Russian style (which means a lot), and talking about life in the Netherlands and Russia.
Arriving the next morning in Vologda, I said goodbye to the submarine guys and together with Alina and Lyuda, I searched for a cheap place to stay. However, all the places we went to were either too expensive or full. Alina called one of her friends who was not in town and arranged a place in his apartment. Later that day we walked around Vologda and both girls showed me the nice spots of the city. We went to St Sofia cathedral and the nice kremlin. We visited a history museum and spent some time in a park.
The city of Vologda is a provincial town and it is famous for its religious importance. The St Sofia cathedral especially, but also the Spaso-Prilutsky monastery make Vologda the religious center of the region. Besides the religious buildings, the city has a historical town centre with colourful wooden houses and cozy streets. On my second day in Vologda we had lunch in a really nice restaurant and we visited the monastery. Later on, I hopped on a train further south, to Yaroslavl'.
My arrival in Yaroslavl' wasn't that pleasant actually. I arrived late in the evening and I couldn't find a suitable place to stay. Also I ended up walking in a huge crowd of local football supporters who just lost a match against Rubin Kazan'. Around midnight I finally found an affordable place to stay, called Kotorosl' hotel, where I met two guys, Roman and Dima. They invited me for a couple of beers in the lobby with their friends.
The next day I wandered around Yaroslavl', which is quite a large city on the Volga river. Famous for its large amount of Orthodox churches and its relaxed atmosphere along the river banks, I was happy to stay in Yaroslavl' for a couple of days. I went to the river side kremlin, visiting the city's most important church and I saw a bear called Masha. I visited some more churches, strolled along the Volga and I used the internet in a fancy hotel. In the evening I met Roman and Dima again, with whom I drunk some beers again before taking a rusty tram to the trainstation. I booked a ticket on a nighttrain to Russia's third city: Nizhny Novgorod.
Arriving in Nizhny the next day, I called Lena, another person I contacted through hospitalityclub. We met later that day and strolled a bit around in Russia's third largest city. Nizhny Novgorod lays on the intersection between the Oka and Volga rivers and it is famous for its car factories. The 'GAZ' car factory (Gorkovskiy Avto Zavod) is situated in Nizhny and produces high quality car brands like Lada, Volga and Oka. The city is nicknamed as the 'third' capital of Russia; Moscow being the political capital, St Petersburg the cultural capital and Nizhny Novgorod Russia's economical capital. Historically Nizhny is a trading post, but during Soviet times it became heavily industrialized.
During my stroll around the city center, Lena showed me the nice kremlin and told me about Nizhny's history. We took a tram over the beautiful Oka bridge to Lena's apartment, where we made ourselves some diner. The next day, I walked a bit in Nizhny's center by myself and in the evening I said Lena goodbye and hopped on the next night train to Kazan', capital of Tatarstan republic. On the train I met a lot of nice people again, who made me really exited about the historical city Kazan'.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Extra photos from Northern Russia




White nights and hospitality in the Russian north

I started my journey towards the Russian Arctic with an overnight train to Petrozavodsk. This city, which literally means 'Peter's Factory', was build at the same time as Saint Petersburg and contributed to Peter the Great's army by producing weapons during the Northern war against Sweden. Today, Petrozavodsk is the capital of the republic of Karelia. And with its location on the shore of Lake Onega (Europe's second largest lake) and with its lovely parks, Petrozavodsk is quite a nice town.
After my early arrival in the city, I walked around the parks and along the lake shore, stopping for some breakfast on the way. Around noon I hopped on a hydrofoil, named 'Krasnaya Kometa' (Red comet), to an island in the lake called Kizhi Island.
This island is famous for its world-heritage listed wooden church, which is said to be built without a single nail. Although there are quite some (mostly Russian) tourists, Kizhi is really beautiful and I enjoyed wandering around on the island. Besides the amazing Transfiguration Church (the big one on the picture), there are lots of other wooden buildings and the setting within the lake made it a highly rewarding destination.
Back in Petrozavodsk I went to a restroom on the train station (Komnata otdykha), which basically is the cheapest form of accommodation in Russia. I shared a room with two other men. With one of them, Leonid, I talked for quite some time, discussing life in Karelia and his job as woodcarver. Leonid is a tattooed guy with golden teeth, who used to be a car mechanic in Orsha (Belarus), but moved to Karelia after he lost his job in the rough 1990s.
On my second day in Petrozavodsk I just wandered around a bit. And when I walked on Lenin street (every Russian town has a Lenin street), I stopped in front of the university as there was a huge crowd of people and lots of police men standing there. When I asked someone what was going on, the guy told me that president Medvedev visited the university. And when I looked towards the entrance of the building I actually saw him standing there, in the company of some other important looking people. I was just 30 meters or so away of Dmitry Medvedev......
From Petrozavodsk I continued traveling north and I bought a ticket to another Karelian town called Kem'. On the train, I talked for some time with a girl named Yulya, who is a rocket science student from Moscow on her way to a catamaran holiday on Kola peninsula. Also I had some conversations with the young conductor (provodnik), who forgot to wake me up when the train stopped in Kem', which caused that I had to continue further north. I managed to get a big discount for the continuing journey to Murmansk and on the way I enjoyed a beautiful Arctic landscape, full of lakes, forest and tundra.
Arriving in Murmansk, I went to an expensive hotel to use their internet and I called Sergey, who I met through hospitalityclub. Soon after, I met him and his friend Aleksander and they brought me to a town called Abram Mys, where they offered me accomodation in the apartment of one of their friends, Vlaclav. The following three days I spended hanging around with Vlaclav, Sergey, Aleksander and a lot of their friends. They showed me Murmansk, its surroundings and the meaning of warm Russian hospitality.
To tell something about the city of Murmansk; it is the largest town above the Arctic circle in the world and one of Russia's most important ports. This is due to its location on the Barentzsea, which is ice-free all year (because of the warm current). The city itself is quite industrial (because of the harbor activities) and rather grey. However, the surrounding area is very beautiful, with Arctic forest, some hills, lakes and the wide Kolskiy Bay (see the video). But besides the Arctic nature, perhaps the most special natural phenomenon is the white polar night. In summer, the sun doesn't set for a couple of months and I witnessed 24 hours of daylight.
As I am writing this story by the time I already left Russia, I can conclude that out of all places I stayed in Russia, I enjoyed my visit to Murmansk most of all. Because of its Arctic nature, the white nights and the incredible hospitality of the people I met here. Sergey, Aleksander and Vlaclav drove me around, showed me the nice spots and we had lots of talks and drinks in the night. They also took me to an open air festival, which basically is a gathering of young people on a location a bit out of the city.
When I told Sergey that I planned to stay in the Khibiny mountains, we contacted Olga, one of his friends who stays by herself in the mountains. Also they offered to bring me by car to Apatity, which is a mining town in the mountains. The ride to Apatity was really beautiful and went very fast as Aleksander was driving a constant 140 km/h over a terrible road. We passed the industrial town Monchegorsk and we arrived in Apatity quite late. Finding Olga however, turned out to be a very difficult task. First, we had to contact friends of Olga in Apatity, Ksenya and Roman, who had to draw a map for me with the walking route to Olga's camp. Afterwards, we went to a huge industrial complex, from where I started my hike uphill into the mountains. Without Ksenya's map, I would have been completely lost, and luckily I found Olga. She stayed for about three weeks by her own in a small tent somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
The only day I stayed in her camp was really terrible. There was only some instant food, I had to drink water from a river and I was cutting woods for 4 hours. Right in front of the tent was a pile of animal shit. And when I asked Olga what kind of animal had been shitting in front of our tent, she told me it was of a bear.... The nature however was very beautiful and after a short hike I enjoyed an amazing view over Apatity (see the video). I haven't seen any bears though, but I was a bit scared of seeing them.
After the day I stayed in the mountains, I was happy to make the hike back down. I walked through the forest back to the factory, from where I managed to hitchhike with a police man back to Apatity. I bought some food in a supermarket and made my way to the trainstation, where I catched a train to Kem' (the town I missed before). The reason I went to Kem' was to hop on a boat to the Solovetsky Islands, which I did right after my arrival the next morning. The boat ride however was very shaky and I got a bit seasick during the 3 hour journey on the White Sea.
The Solovetskiy Islands are famous for its World Heritage listed Solovetskiy monastery, situated in the middle of the island. The Orthodox monastary was founding in the 15th century and has been an important religious centre in northern Russia. However, during the Soviet period, Stalin turned the monastery into a labor camp (Gulag) and prison for 'political opponents'. In 1974 the Gulag was closed and it became a museum and monastery again.
When I arrived there, I was wandering a bit around in the search for cheap accomodation. On the way I met a woman, Lyudmila, who tried to help me finding the places I was looking for. When all the cheap places turned out to be full, she offered me to stay in the apartment she was staying. Lyudmila is a university professor on Belgorod univeristy (in the south of Russia, close to Ukraine) and she went to Solovetskiy for holiday. She travels together with a colleague, also named Lyudmila, and the two days I spended on the island were mostly with them. We walked a bit on the beautiful islands and they teached me some of the monastery's turbolent history. The monastery is for a large part still in reconstruction (after communists burned it down in 1922), but the revival of religion was clearly visible. Lots of bearded priests wandered around and women had to wear headscarfs in order to get inside. The churches are highly decorated and the richness of the Russian Orthodox church is showed with great pride. I was very thankful to Lyudmila and Lyudmila, who helped me a lot on the islands and I enjoyed the conversations we had. After two days however, I went back to Kem' to continue my journey more southwards.