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.