Having now jumped the border into Europe, the continent was very keen for us to know it, and greeted us with a sight that we had not seen for a very very long time…. Rain!! Holding onto the hoods of our waterproof jackets to battle against the wind and the cold rain we made our way to our hostel in the city of Kazan, and decided the sights could wait until tomorrow…
We had decided to take a slight detour off the main Trans-Siberian train line and head to the capital of the Tatarstan republic, Kazan. This city is somewhat unique in Russia as the population is equally split between two religions and cultures, with half being Russian orthodox christians, and the other half being muslim. Both communities co-exist peacefully (well appear to at least) in Kazan, and nowhere is it more evident that the city’s lovely kremlin where you can find both an orthodox cathedral and a mosque next to each other, how cool is that? Speaking of the kremlin, the one in Kazan is a UNESCO world heritage site, and rightly so. The historic centre, including the cathedral and mosque with their blue domes and gold spires, are all encapsulated within an impressively large wall, creating a quiet little escape from the rest of the city inside.
Another highlight of our brief time in Kazan was a visit to the Soviet Life museum. Now… if we are honest, the museum seemed more like an insane collection of junk from one persons childhood (along with a guitar signed by Sting), rather than a well thought out collection of objects, however if you could get past that there where some interesting things to see. The ramshackle collection of toys and games where most defiantly a draw, along with racks of soviet style clothes and hats, but no doubt the highlight was seeing the excitement on the faces of the Russian adults as they played with toys that they had forgotten existed.. they were so excited, even their kids couldn’t get a turn. With the museum behind us, we had just enough time for Russia’s answer to a Cornish pasty before jumping on an overnight train to our next stop.
With a quick train change, and a local bus, we finally made it to the town of Suzdal in the area known as the “Golden Ring” around Moscow. This area is famous for its history in relation to the founding of modern Russia, and its huge numbers of religious buildings. Suzdal once had one church for every 12 inhabitants of the town… that’s a lot of churches! We spent a few days in Suzdal, soaking in the small town atmosphere, and braving the snow to go spot nuns running around the various monasteries dotted all over town. The monasteries themselves had a pretty varied history, with many of them having doubled as prisons for exiled Russians on route to Siberia, or Italian POW’s during WWII. One of the monasteries was also used for ‘high spirited women’, otherwise known as wives of Tsars who didn’t bare them children or were unco-operative marriage partners, as religious prisons…fun all around then!
We finished our time in this sleepy Russian town by trying the local honey mead, whilst pretending to be a medieval lord and lady of a manor (hostel)… it really wasn’t to bad…. before jumping on train and heading for the big smoke…. Next time, Moscow!