As you’ve probably guessed I’m back from Russia, and am getting warm once again. I haven’t written a full account of this trip, but I have taken a lot of very nice photos. There are too many to put in a blog posting, so I’ll put them up on a separate page shortly.
Russia is most certainly an odd place. In no other country could you wake up on a train which has stopped at 2am in some God forsaken village with an outside temperature of -10 to find somebody banging on the carriage window trying to sell you a chandelier. Or a giant vase. In no other country have I seen a bridesmaid wearing leather thigh-boots, and in no other country have I seen a visitor to a monastery on her way to collect holy water wearing white knee boots and a white plastic miniskirt.
But this is Russia, and these things are to be expected. Similarly, it came as little surprise to hear a Tatar taxi driver with Muslim prayer beads hanging from his indicator stalk telling me all about a new nightclub in Kazan where you can watch football with a strip-show at half time, and asking me what I thought the score would be in the late kick-off between Bolton Wanderers and Zenit St. Petersburg because he fancied having a flutter to the tune of 700 roubles. This is my kind of Islam.
As I said in my earlier post, St. Petersburg is an awesome spectacle especially the area within the Fontanka where I spent most of my time. I knew this before I went, but St. Petersburg feels very different from the rest of Russia, and its founder certainly succeeded in creating a European-style city. One thing I noticed was that a lot of the people didn’t look Russian, at least compared to the population of Moscow. I would have to say that St. Petersburg is the only Russian city I would try to persuade foreigners to visit, as it is the only one I think most people would consider to be worth the effort of obtaining a visa and paying astronomical sums of money for a crap hotel with poor service. Much as I love Moscow, I can’t see it being a destination for anyone who does not specifically want to go to see Russia; St. Petersburg, on the other hand, would impress anyone.
I was staying in a suburb of the city called Chornaye Rechka, or Black Stream (it was aptly named) situated north of the river Neva. This was well off the tourist trail, and it served as a useful insight into Russian life in a large city. It wasn’t pretty. The apartment blocks, somewhat unsurprisingly, were not in good shape and even though it was late October many had not had the heating switched on yet. The footpaths and roads were in appalling condition, made worse by the onset of snow which covered everything in a slippery brown sludge several inches deep in places. Flashing neon signs have arrived in Russia with a bang, which has served to make much of the place look incredibly tacky. Chornaye Rechka had several slot-machine halls emblazoned with these flashing neon signs, which did little for the eye and less for the financial position of the residents. A McDonald’s located beside the metro station seemed to do well as a business, as did a 24hr cafe called Prichal. It was in this latter establishment that I spent a fair bit of my time, and figured out that cafes in Russia serve as an important meeting place, a focal point of social lives, and a refuge from the cold. A few roubles for a cup of tea is a small price to pay to escape the wind and snow for 15 minutes. As with all good Russian cafes, they served alcohol to anyone who wanted it, which was pretty much everybody. The food left a lot to be desired, but the waitresses were (unsurprisingly) young and pretty and it was perfectly possible to spend four or five hours of an evening there getting slowly (or quickly) drunk quite cheaply whilst watching the snow falling outside or the couples drinking and arguing inside.
The antics of one couple kept us amused for an hour or two. The man was in his late 40s, the girl maybe 10 years younger. They came in with a younger couple and proceeded to drink some sort of cognac in large quantities for about an hour and a half. The older couple got very drunk, especially the girl who kept spilling her drinks everywhere. Eventually the younger couple got up and left, leaving the older couple scowling at each other. Then the man spotted a couple of middle-aged women on the table behind him and, ignoring the girl completely, proceeded to talk to them at length to the point that he was enthusiastically grasping the waist of the nearest one (the middle-aged women did not seem to be repelled in any way; perhaps it was the white trainers and grandad jumper that won them over?). Meanwhile the girl, not to be outdone, had latched onto a table of four young men and after a short time was sat on one of their laps and rubbing his neck and stroking his face. The situation stayed like this until the middle-aged women got up to leave, and despite the enthusiastic groping on the part of the old man, were clearly leaving without him. Having been so cruelly abandoned, he looked for the girl who he was supposed to be with. Spotting her all over another man, he yelled at her to return to their table. This got the attention of the entire cafe, so everyone heard the bellowed line which followed when she sat down opposite: “Bitch, where were you?!”
For some time I had been toying with the idea of moving to Russia, but this trip served to put those plans firmly in the bin. For a start, even though by Russian standards it was warm, I had forgotten how damned cold the place can be. And as run-down as Chornaye Rechka was, those who lived there were fortunate that they didn’t live further out and rely on a marshrutka for daily transport. At one point we found ourselves in a marshrutka queue for Lysee Nos which was several hundred metres long; it was dark, snowing, and the wind icy. The marshrutkas themselves are noisy, uncomfortable, and poorly maintained, and those living outside the main city must raise themselves at 6:00am in order to get to work and return home – usually after a lengthy wait – by the same method, arriving only late in the evening. The faces of the people on these marshrutkas said it all, and I can think of nothing worse than having to live like this on a daily basis.
It is hardly a secret that I am a fan of Russia’s railway system, and my faith has not been shaken by this trip. The Moscow-St. Petersburg trains run mainly overnight (there are only two or three during the day, and they are very busy) and although advanced booking is recommended, the service is very good and includes a packed evening meal and breakfast. What’s more, the ride is far smoother than on those trains which run to the more far-flung places in Russia. Unfortunately, the train I took arrived into St. Petersburg at 5:30am, which is probably not the best time to arrive in any city. The journey from St. Petersburg to Kazan was 28 hours long, and the train was of the type I am more used to, i.e. a bit more rough and ready. I was sharing a carriage with a middle aged Russian lady who spoke enthusiastically to me in very fast Russian, of which I understood practically nothing, until she got off in Novoshino. It would not have been so bad if she’d stuck to the topic in hand, but having started the conversation talking about photography from a train window, a few sentences later she was on about Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea, which made it awfully difficult to follow. She was highly critical of my choice of food for the journey – a few pot noodles and Snickers bars – telling me there was too much salt in them, and instead offered me what she considered healthy food – an entire roast chicken and boiled eggs. Such is the nature of travelling on Russian trains.
Kazan was a nice city, although obviously nowhere near the size of Moscow or St. Petersburg. I had mistakenly thought it was situated right on the Volga, but in fact it is the Kazanka river which splits the city in half, and joins the Volga a few miles downstream. The city was allegedly 1,000 years old this year – although they had 750 year celebrations in the 1960s, or something (historical accuracy has never taken precedence over grand celebrations in Russia) – and in Russia, every 1,000 years they paint the buildings and fix the roads. The place had undergone, and is still undergoing, a large refurbishment programme similar in nature to that of St. Petersburg in 2003 to honour its tri-centenary. There were the usual pie-in-the-sky pet projects dotted about which inevitably come hand in hand with large cash handouts in Russia, including a rather unconvincing Dutch village complete with windmill and an enormous race course, including an impressive grandstand, which was completely deserted and is likely to remain so until such time that the world’s multi-millionaire horse breeders for some reason decide to include central Russia on their racing calendar.
As I said in my earlier post, I had intended to go down the Volga to Samara, preferably on a boat. However, unsurprisingly they stop running past September so I was unable to do so and, more distressingly, I was unable to find out if they still sell Hungarian Tokai on the boat. However, I did get to see the Volga and walk along what passed for a beach (which I’m told is packed in summer) for quite some way. The river is not particularly wide at that point, and was still very much in liquid form – mainly because Kazan was having one of the mildest autumns which anyone can remember. That said, it was still damned cold as the picture below testifies.
Interestingly, Kazan has an Uzbek restaurant called Dubai, which is pretty much the same inside in terms of decor and food as the Uzbek restaurant in Dubai, called Samarkand. I’m sure there’ll be one in Samarkand called Kazan to complete the circle.
As for the future, I am intending to return to St. Petersburg in June with a native of the city in order to see the White Nights and all the bits I missed out this time. I am unlikely to go back to Kazan, although that of course depends on how long my friends stay there. And I’ll close this post by saying a huge thank you to Allard and Aigul, pictured below, who put up with me in their Kazan apartment and made me feel as welcome and comfortable as I do in my own home.