Tired from arriving at 6AM (which was 3AM in the time zone we woke yesterday), we stumbled like heavily laden zombies into the clear early morning air of Kazan. Neither of us are really sure why we’d booked the hotel we did, as it was neither close to the old city, or close to the train station. My rough calculations looking at the map was a 1km walk, which is an easy walk, even with all of our luggage. I must have made a mistake in the calculations, as it took nearly thirty minutes to get to our hotel, and by the time we did arrive, Risa was starting to sweat (which meant I was already a sweaty mess. I’d hoped that our three-star hotel, Tartarinn, would allow us to check in early – at least to allow us to have a shower – however they held their 14:00 check in policy, and instead allowed us to use the bathroom, and to leave our baggage.
It was bizarre walking through the wide, and completely empty, streets of Kazan. The buildings were beautiful, the parks were clean, and there was no one to be seen. It felt a little like we were in theme park – it was almost becoming eerie.
We’d picked up a tourist map of the town, which was the first time we’d seen one in Russia. We made a wide loop from our hotel on the banks of the Niznny Kaban Lake, through Millennium Park (the city recently celebrated its 1000 year anniversary), onto the pedestrian mall Bauman Street.
It was there we first spotted the incredible spire of the Epiphany Church bell tower, stretching skyward in all its red brick glory. The actual church was a much more modest building, and as it was Sunday morning, there was a large crowd of people inside singing and praying in Sunday morning mass. I don’t have religious beliefs, but I respect that it’s important to these people, so my camera and I stayed outside.
We continued walking down the empty shopping mall. It was 9AM on a Sunday morning, and most of the shops didn’t open until 10AM, so I can understand the lack of shoppers. The McDonalds was open, though I had no desire to eat from it, even with its fancy exterior. And, speaking of fancy buildings, it felt like everywhere we looked were beautifully coloured historic buildings – though, being from Brisbane, Australia, any building more than 100 years old looks historic to me.
The white and blue domes of the Peter and Paul Cathedral caught our attention as it poked above the top of the surrounding buildings. I don’t even know how you describe this place. It was intricate, but it seemed overly so. Again, as with the Epiphany Church, there were people inside attending mass, so we didn’t interfere.
We continued along wide empty boulevards, flanked by beautiful European buildings, with the Kazan Kremlin (fort) in the distance. This fort houses many of the top tourist attractions in town, so it was a little relieving to see some other people here.
Beside the leaning red brick Theophany Belfry (it’s said to be 2m off level, and it showed) was the official residence of the president of the Tatarstan Republic – which is an independent state within Russia. I thought it was a museum, and tried to purchase a ticket from the booth beside the gate, however it only contained (heavily armed) security personnel, who fortunately spoke English – I’m sure they have that conversation numerous times daily…
Also inside the walls of the kremlin, there were numerous official buildings, all in beautiful pastel shades with white highlights. It was impressively beautiful, especially compared to what we’d seen so far travelling through Siberia.
The beautiful pale blue and gold bulbous domes of Annunciation Cathedral were visible from quite a distance away, and slowly drew us towards it. There was an official ceremony taking place (it looked like a baptism), but we were able to enter as tourists – I just had to wear a skirt to cover my bare knees, and Risa had to wear a head scarf to cover her hair. As could be expected, there was no photography allowed inside, and with the busy security and my less than subtle camera, I didn’t risk a sneaky shot. There was a choir singing/chanting from some hidden location. The sound inside was phenomenal, truly enchanting and really added to the ‘religious feel’ of this church, rather than it feeling like a museum/art gallery. Being a devout Atheist, I never quite feel comfortable in active churches and would much prefer a museum. I’m not going to bow/pray/exit backwards, but I don’t want to offend those with strong religious beliefs.
Rather uniquely, an enormous (and new) mosque is also situated within the Kremlin. With Tatarstan Republic having nearly 50/50 Christian/Muslim community, it shouldn’t be a surprise. This mosque was completed in 2005 (coinciding with the millennial celebrations). Its size was impressive, as was the design, but it didn’t have the jaw-dropping affect that Hagia Sophia or Sultan Ahmet in Istanbul did. We were allowed to enter as tourists, with the same conditions as the Annunciation Cathedral – I had to wear a long skirt, and Risa had to wear a headscarf. We also had to wear (buy) little plastic covers for our shoes, which made ascending the polished tile stairs to the upper viewing platform lethal. Inside the mosque it was pretty, and the windows and the mosaic tiles were beautiful, but having been stunned by the mosques in Istanbul, it’s hard to be truly impressed anymore.
Below the walls of the kremlin, sat a most interesting building. It had spires, and domes, giant columns and twisted shapes. It was a little further away than it looked (and being hot and hungry made it feel even further away). Finally standing in front of the impressive Agricultural Palace (no, I’m not sure what that actually means), we could see an enormous bronze statue of a tree that was built into the window, spanning across the archway. Risa boldly proclaimed it was one of her favourite ever (ever ever) buildings, and I’m not sure if I’d grant it the same levels of praise, I’ll certain say that it was stunning, and something truly unique.
By lunchtime, the pedestrian mall on Bauman Street had started to fill up. At first I hadn’t realised that it was basically filled with souvenir shops and a few bars/restaurants. I can’t imagine that many locals come down here often.
And dinner was at a fancy Tatarstan cuisine restaurant only a few doors down from our hotel. It’s been a while since we’ve dined anywhere even moderately ‘fancy’, so we took the opportunity to put on some of the nice clothes that we’ve been carting with us since Vladivostok. The food reminded us quite strongly of Kyrgyz and Mongolian food, though with some Russian influences. Risa started with a tongue salad (not a euphemism, and a lot nicer than it sounds). I had some mutton and potato with noodles (which had more resemblance to a tortilla), and Risa had a mutton hotpot. Delicious hearty meals, though not the kind of food I’d find myself craving.
Since we were dressed up, and there was still plenty of light left after our meal, we wondered through town trying to find a local desert called chak-chak. The Italian man we’d met on the train from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk had told us we had to try it. I was a little disappointed to learn that it was like a fried batter desert, coated in honey. We decided against paying for a big meal of it (because that was all that was on sale), and instead bought two small snack packs for later.
We came across two different groups of people dancing a few blocks away from each other. The first was a kind of cheesy ballroom dancing, but more impressive were the break dancers spinning and twisting and pulling all sorts of unbelievable shapes.
We’d managed to cover most of the central tourist attractions yesterday, and in reality we could have hopped onto the train last night, instead of waiting until 22:00 tonight. However, we’d booked hotels and other trains, so we had to stick to the plan and spend a second day in Kazan.
There was still plenty more to see/do in town, and our first stop was the impressively titled Museum of Soviet Life. It was less of a ‘museum’ and more of a huge collection of Soviet paraphernalia, from clothing and home ware, to electronics and toys. The owner of the museum is a big music fan, and has a big collection of guitars (and other things) signed by musicians as they come through Kazan. It was impressive seeing how many acts that I just wouldn’t think would play a town like this, including AC/DC, The Offspring, Sting and my personal favourite, Scooter, who also had a few of their cassettes stuck to the guitar that they signed.
They encouraged us to try on the clothing, so we obliged them. Sadly there weren’t as many cool men’s clothing as there were women’s, so Risa had more fun than I did. Despite its small size, it took us several hours to explore it all and was well worth the 200r ($5) entrance fee.
Suffering from ‘decision fatigue’, we didn’t want to search for lunch, so instead we took the easy/lazy option and tried Burger King (Hungry Jacks for QLDers). It was busy – like, super busy – and there were quite a few different menu options (in Russian, of course). Risa bought a Whopper Meal (200r $5) and I bought a roll (with two patties, BBQ sauce and onion rings – 140r). Sad to say, it was quite depressing and disappointing.
Not really having any thing we ‘wanted’ to do, but having several hours to kill, we decided to walk across to the other side of the river to look at the giant ‘pot’ that Kazan is named after. As always, we were a little over half-way there when we ran out of energy on this hot and sweaty day. But, since we didn’t have any better ideas, we continued walking to that monument far off in the horizon, past more churches, and what was once a circus.
The ‘pot’ was enormous (though nothing compared to the Big Genghis in Mongolia) and disappointing, as it didn’t seem to serve any purpose, other than being a large monument, with some nice parkland and views over to the kremlin.
It was still early, so we killed time in some of the large shopping centres near the subway. They seemed to have the same feel to them as the rest of the town, and I was only just starting to notice it. They had large and grand exteriors, but inside they were largely empty and devoid of people. It was odd looking around town after making that observation, as it took on that ‘theme park’ feel again.
Dinner was from another stolovaya (cafeteria). The food is generally cheap and of a reasonable quality. It also had wifi to entertain Risa, and a comfortable place for me to read my book (the excellent and highly recommended Ready Player One by Ernest Cline).
We caught the remnants of the sunset, heard the local mosque blasting the call to prayer (which brought back memories of Turkey), hopped in a taxi from the hotel with our luggage and boarded our overnight train to Nizhny Novgorod.
Kazan was a surprising place, much larger than we had anticipated, and much nicer, too. However, there was something that just didn’t feel right about the town…