21 November 2011

It's now well over a month since my last entry in this blog. Hope everyone's withdrawal symptoms haven't been too severe. The reason for this hiatus is mainly that as my time spent here has marched on, so too has my acclimatisation to the quirks of Russian life, and I have had less to write about. Don't get me wrong, there has been plenty going on - we went to the Musical Theatre to see a superb production of Tchaikovsky's Evgenii Onegin, explored the nature on the edge of town and the "Devil's Chair" (left), went to a dubstep night in a converted warehouse, Luke CJ and I were given a tour of a dacha and Lucy's hozyaika Zoya invited everyone for a dinner party to celebrate her new teeth. But up until a few weeks ago, I was beginning to feel a bit weary of Petrozavodsk. This is a small city, the smallest I have lived and probably ever will live in, and I was getting claustrophobic. Thankfully, after eight weeks, the university kindly gave us a reading week (we were the only students afforded such a break - most of the Russian students have classes without any interval from September right up to the New Year). Tom, Kate, Lucy and I took the opportunity for an epic trip around European Russia.

Our trip began at 7 o'clock on Friday evening. It felt strange embarking on a journey with night setting in, used as I am to trips beginning in the early morning, but to get anywhere in Russia from somewhere as isolated as Petrozavodsk without risking flight (Russia's national carrier Aeroflot is a world-leader in terms of the number of accidents in its operational history,) an overnight train is required; the overnight train from Petrozavodsk to Moscow lasted 14 hours. Partly due to our excitement and partly to our not really being used to sleeping on a small bed in a (albeit quite slowly) moving vehicle, none of us slept very well on the train, but did have a nice conversation with our neighbour, an elderly lady who proceeded to show us what appeared to be her entire photograph collection, a large proportion of which were of her cats. There were some of her daughters too, but the cats definitely took centre stage.

According to the Lonely Planet, Moscow is the rudest city in the world. We found this to be not entirely inaccurate on arriving in the Moscow suburb where our host, Yura, lived in, and tried asking for directions to his street. The first person we asked didn't even break her stride before telling us that she didn't know and advising us to ask in the shopping-centre we found ourselves outside of. The people we asked in there were equally unhelpful, giving us one-shouldered shrugs, accompanied by expressions that seemed to imply more "why are you asking me?" than "I don't know". Luckily, Yura himself did not comply to this stereotype of Muscovites, and came to meet us, walking us back through the row upon row of apartment blocks (much like the ones in Petrozavodsk, except bigger, and more of them) to his flat. It was actually quite a nice flat, on the ground floor of a fine example of 21-storey Soviet architectural achievement, with one bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. There were two beds in the main room, occupied by Yura and his flatmate Gadge respectively. And then, on a bench in the kitchen, resided our third host Andrei. So, with the four of us on the bedroom floor, it was a tad cosy.

Nonetheless, they were very friendly and accommodating hosts (all hailing from the Caucasion republic of Dagestan). Andrei even gave us a lift back into town on that first day, though the lack of seatbelts in his car and his... let's just say very Russian style of driving was not thoroughly enjoyed by all. He dropped us on Moscow's famous Arbat pedestrian shopping street, where we visited Pushkin's Moscow abode and saw some Russian Hare Krishna's:

Existing as we were on very little sleep, we didn't get up to much that evening, other than, at Yura's recomendation, taking the lift up to the 21st floor of his building for an impressive view of the suburbs that more than reminded us we were within the limits of Europe's largest city. We got up early-ish the next morning to tick off the important Moscow pilgrimige to the tomb of one Vladimir Ilych Lenin. This turned out to be one of the strangest experiences of my life. After queuing for around half an hour, handing in our cameras along with any electronic device capable of rendering so much as a pixel of photographic representation and going through a metal-detector security check to ensure we had no means of causing any sort of harm to the 87-years-dead revolutionary leader, we were finally allowed to enter the hallowed mausoleum. On entering, Lucy and I were immediately reprimanded by a guard for having our hands in our pockets. He said nothing, but clicked his fingers and made a gesture of pulling his hands out of his pockets. I tried to apologise, but he immediately put his finger to his lips and issued a sharp "shhhh". We continued into the main chamber, where a guard was in place to ensure there was no further hand-pocket action or chattering going on, as well as to hurry visitors through at a high speed. Thus there was only enough time for me to make two marked observations about the appearance of the man whose likeness looms over the streets of every Russian city - he was tiny and made of wax. Once outside the Mausoleum, we passed the graves a number of other Soviet leaders and dignitaries, including Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Stalin (who, up until 1961, lay in the Mausoleum beside his predecessor), before exiting back onto Red Square, where the surrealism of it all was magnified by a procession of elderly citizens waving Soviet flags parading behind a woman bearing what can only be described as an icon of Lenin. All this right in front of GUM, Moscow's premier department store, whose tenants these days are mainly large Western chains. I'd have taken a photo, but my camera was still locked away in Lenin's cloakroom.

We spent the rest of that afternoon with Kate's friend Dasha from Yekaterinburg in Gorky Park. While in Russia, it is impossible not to notice the Russian penchant for taking any opportunity to take very tastefully-posed-for photographs, often involving any nearby foliage. We spent quite a lot of time in the park trying to make such pictures ourselves, with varying degrees of success..

After exploring the park, we had a look round a wing of the famous Tretyakov art gallery, before bidding farewell to Dasha, who had to catch her plane back to Yekaterinburg, and heading to Kitai Gorod to try to find a Chinese restaurant. You see, Kitai Gorod translates literally to China town, unfortunately we neglected to read the bit in the guidebook about this actually having nothing to do with it being a centre for the Chinese community, and therefore not a good place for locating Chinese food. We found a decent pizza though, and afterwards retired for a few bevvys in a bar named Bilingua (despite there being nothing bilingual about it.)

The next day we embarked on a lengthy metro ride to VDNKh station, in order to see the famous Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue (left), commissioned for the 1937 World Fair in Paris and still known today for its presence in the opening credits of almost every Soviet-era Russian film as the logo of Mosfilm. What we didn't realize is that ВДНХ stands for Выставка Достижений Народного Хозяйства, Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, which included so much of interest that we were there for well over an hour before even making our way to that statue. The highlight was probably the epic monument to the Soviet space programme, a gigantic plinth supporting a rocket on its way into orbit, and at its base relief statues of Russia's space heroes, fronted of course by Yuri Gagarin. Oh, and Lenin was there. Obviously.

After a few hours exploring the abundance of Soviet monuments and a ride on the quite rickety-looking ferris wheel, we got back on the metro to the centre to meet up with Yura and his girlfriend Marina (both right) on the Arbat, where there was a Halloween party going on (hence why, in this photo Yura is dressed as a monk and Marina as a... well she claimed it was a mummy, I wasn't too impressed). But it was raining, so hardly anyone turned up, and we all ended up in a Dagestani restaurant. Before we ate, Yura decided we should have a shot of vodka. So he ordered three - just for the lads - which Lucy and Kate weren't totally impressed with. But the food was amazing.

Ivan's Bell in the Moscow Kremlin
Tuesday was our last day in Moscow, and we used it to explore its heart, the Kremlin. We wanted to see the legendary Armoury, it's inventory including ten of the Fabergé Eggs, but we missed all of the days eerily-titled "seances", so had to be content with exploring the walkways and numerous churches. Then in the evening it was back on the train for our next destination: Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.

The thirteen-hour overnight train from Moscow to Kazan was by far the most interesting railway journey I've ever had. The four of us had bunks along the side of the train, facing two coupes, one of which, sometime in the first couple of hours of the journey, became a meeting-point for middle aged women getting pissed. They took a liking to us, particularly one named Lilya, who, at one station insisted that we get off the train to see the people on the platform selling the local decorative glassware - "watch out for the squirrel!" she kept saying (I didn't see a squirrel) - and later chastised me for not making my bed properly and insisted on tucking both me and Tom in for the night. We also met a nice girl called Masha, studying in Moscow but from a town somewhere between Kazan and Yekaterinburg, whose journey home was set to last over twice the amount of time we were on the train.
On the Train

We arrived in Kazan and sought out our hostel. This involved a bumpy ride on a very crowded trolleybus where the four of us were falling about all over the place, largely to the inconvenience of the conductress, who luckily had a sense of humour about it all. Our stop (which we missed), was just outside Kazan State University, whose alumni includes Leo Tolstoy and one - Vladimir Illych Lenin (who scored top off his class in all of his exams despite being expelled soon after matriculation.) On arriving at the hostel we were worried that we may have been conned, as there was no sign - just a pretty standard block of Russian flats, and when I tried to phone, there was no answer. It turned out that this was because the 200 roubles I thought I had put on my phone had actually vanished into thin air, my balance a measly -2 roubles, and about ten minutes after phoning him from another phone, a jovial Tatar arrived to let us in. I mention this because he later turned out to be not only jovial, but also a very helpful bloke - a few days later, just before leaving Kazan, I realized that I couldn't find my train tickets, and became a bit panicked. Luckily he offered to come to the station to help us talk to the officials and even gave me and Tom a free lift. On arriving at the station I discovered that my tickets were actually in Kate's bag. Luckily she wasn't in the room to hear the curses I threw in her direction.

Anyway, when we ventured out of the hostel to explore Kazan, our first impressions were of wealth. Tatarstan is rich in oil resources, and because of the Russian government's fears of Islamic insurgency, the republic has been afforded a large degree of autonomy over what it does with it. Thus Kazan is fastly becoming a vibrant metropolis to rival any in the region. As we walked from the hostel to the Kazan Kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we passed a large new housing development, full of tastefully-designed self-standing houses, as well as what looked like a communal bathhouse and even a football pitch - which after Petrozavodsk and Moscow with their homogeny of high-rises was something of a shock. As we neared the Kremlin, the buildings we passed became yet more opulent; some were built in a distinctly Gothic style, yet looked absolutely brand new. The building for the Tatarstan Department of Trade (below) was even more impressive.

The Kremlin itself was beautiful, as well as displaying the cultural diversity of the city, with the minarets of the recently-built Qolsharif Mosque (left)facing the onion-domes of the ancient Annunciation Cathedral, and its centrepiece the towering Suyembike tower. The story goes that Suyembike, beautiful daughter of Tatar royalty, was due to be married to the rampaging Ivan the Terrible, as a consolidation of his power after conquering the city. Suyembike did not want to marry the Tsar, and so asked him as a wedding gift to build the tallest building that she had ever seen. On its completion, she went to the top of the tower and threw herself off. Not true in the slightest (the tower was probably constructed a century later by Peter the Great) and not really a very nice story either, but interesting. Outside the citadel, facing the Kremlin's impressive gatehouse, is a giant statue of the Tatar poet Musa Cäli, breaking free from the chains of Nazi imprisonment in which he died. Apparently he bears a striking resemblance to me taking my coat off.

We spent the rest of the day wondering around Kazan's old town and discovered that not only was it, on the whole, quite a pretty town, but that the people of Kazan were pretty friendly, and we were in good spirits when we retired to the hostel. When we got there, we met two more English people - both of them Spurs fans, there for the Uefa Cup match between Tottenham and Rubin Kazan the following day. I had known about the match before going to Kazan, but could not work out how to get a ticket, and I was not really feeling up to attending in the home end. So it was quite exciting the following morning to hear that these two lads knew someone who had spare tickets in the Spurs end! Tom and I ended up taking their offer, and together with Duncan, a Scottish student on the same study programme as us but in Tver, who had turned up at the hostel and stumbled across a ticket in a similar way, set off for the stadium in the evening, leaving the girls to locate the weekly Kazan Couchsurfing meeting where we planned to rendez-vous. On our way we passed the Tottenham team bus - "where's 'Arry?" I shouted. Having been on the road for a week and blissfully away from a computer, I didn't know that Harry Redknapp was in hospital having a heart operation. Bit of a faux-pas.

We found our tickets in a swanky sports bar opposite the stadium called The Joker. We also found most of the Spurs fans; for those that don't follow football, this fixture was not a particularly important one. Despite Redknapp's absence, his philosophy of not risking first-team players in European fixtures was still enacted, and although the likes of Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermaine Defoe and a returning-from-injury William Gallas did play, most of the team were unrecognisable, even to a Tottenham fan such as myself. That this would be the case was well-known to spurs fans when tickets went on sale, and with the difficulty of travel to one of European football's eastern-most clubs, and of procuring a visa to Russia, most decided it wasn't worth it. This was the reason that Tom, Duncan and I were able to find tickets for a mere 300 roubles (£6) each, but also why the fans present were, by and large... a little bit... off... The two guys who were staying at our hostel apparently both went to EVERY game, no matter where or who Spurs were playing. One of them, Mark, was actually one of the more sound ones we met, but the other... well, we were told by one of the other fans in the bar that he got kicks out of stealing the under-seat life-jackets on flights. As for the two blokes that Tom and I bought our tickets from, I won't repeat any of the horrific things they said, but it made me a bit ashamed to share a football club with. Although it must be said, of all the guys we talked to, none were actually from London, mainly residing in the home counties, so at least I can reserve a little pride in my city. (And, in case anyone is thinking it, no, Barnet is not in the home counties, **** off.)

Anyway, finishing our drinks in The Joker, as I said a swanky bar, swanky enough to have walls made entirely of glass, we had a superb view of the Rubin fans entering the stadium - a grand parade carrying flares. Russia is has been renowned in recent years for the level of violence at football matches, so when we left for the stadium we kept a low profile, stayed away from the more visibly English supporters and spoke only in Russian - which led the ushers on the door to send us at first into the home end. The stadium itself was small, but impressive - the away enclosure faced the Kremlin, beautifully illuminated at night, giving an awesome view to gawp at when the action on the pitch got boring. Tottenham lost 1-0, but it was still a great experience - the atmosphere generated by the home fans was incredible, and the visiting supporters came up with some brilliant chants - at one point the hardcore at the top of the enclosure took their tops off and started singing "Tottenham in Russia - and it's not even cold."

The police kept us in the stadium for quite a while after the match, but eventually we were let out and caught up with Lucy and Kate, who had managed to find the Couchsurfing meeting, albeit after a couple of hours riding trolleybuses around town. At the meeting, Lucy had been talking to a local named Vlad. When we were about to leave and saying our goodbyes, I asked Vlad if he knew any good fast-food places to get dinner, and he not only told us, but led us there and wouldn't even let us pay for our own meals, buying us each a local speciality pie, called a Elesh', stuffed with potato and chicken and extremely tasty. He told us about his work, as the manager of a design company, and offered to take us to see his office. We followed, and left his office an hour or so later, each with a handful of gifts including a book about Kazan, a pack of postcards (each showing the city at a different time of day he invited us to choose - I took dusk), a colourful school textbook for kids and a book of his friend's poetry and short stories. All in all a lovely bloke. Eventually we said our goodbyes and went home, and talked about travel and the amazing generosity of strangers.

We spent most of the next day, our final day in Kazan, exploring the vast central market. Tom bought a multitude of hats (gifts for his family apparently) and I found an Soviet-era, beautifully illustrated children's book about the author's trip from Moscow to the South Pole. After my brief ticket-altercation, we set off in the evening for our final destination, Nizhny-Novgorod. The train journey was largely uneventful, though we did talk to a nice guy from Kazakhstan, and avoided the glare of a man pumped-up on steroids who seemed to have made it his duty to sit by the door to the toilet and look menacing.

Nizhny, another ancient town built around a Kremlin (above), did not make quite the same impression as Kazan, but was worthwhile nonetheless, not least because of our charming hosts, Marci and Krystina from Slovakia, whom I conversed with in Czech, and who took us to while away the evening in a jazz club. When we left the club, we realized that the temperature had taken a dive - the thermometer reading -8. In the morning it was time to start our 22 hour journey back to Petrozavodsk, and it was -13. We arrived back in Petrozavodsk 22 hours later without much bother, and that was it. Our Russian adventure was over, and when I got back into the flat and said "privet" to Alexei, like any other journey, it felt as if I'd never left.


It's now a few weeks since we returned. Sorry for the delay. There will be another entry soon though. Tomorrow, I'm setting off on another journey. A much anticipated trip to Petersburg. I hope it is nearly as good as the last one.

Kate advises me to finish on a joke. Afraid this one is only for Russianists:

В медицинском институте - лекция. Профессор вызывает к доске студентку,
показывает на стоящий рядом скелет и говорит:
- Назовите и покажите части тела, когда скелет был человеком.
Студентка начинает:
- Здесь был мозг, здесь - глаза, нос, рот, сердце, печень, почки,
До деликатного места доходит и говорит:
- А здесь был пенис.
Профессор (старенький такой) сидит, задумавшись.
- Профессор, здесь был пенис, - повторяет студентка.
- Не был, а бывал, это женский скелет!


sillysaz6 said...

That coat picture is amazing :')

Anonymous said...

Hello. And Bye. Thank you very much.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.