When we woke up on our train from Yekaterinburg to Kazan, we had already covered most of the way to our destination. We had left Asia behind and were now solidly in Europe. And we had covered two time zones along the way and consequently were only one time zone away from home. Admittedly, still being in Russia, it did not feel very different to us.
This impression was confirmed when we reached Kazan. Already at the train station we were greeted by announcements which were made not only in Russian, but also in Tartar. We were in the capital of Tartarstan – one of the 21 or 22 (depending if you count Crimea as Russian or Ukrainian) Autonomous Regions in Russia. Tartar is a Turkic language and most Tartars are Sunni Muslims. So while having reached Europe, we were now immersed in a culture that was significantly more different to home vs. all of Asian Russia we had been to so far.
Before checking out the culture, we had a more pressing need: the heavy rain clouds above the beautiful railway station indicated already that we did not have much time left if we wanted to reach our hostel dry. We headed off at a brisk pace to cover the ~800m to our hostel. We made it to the right building just in time, but were then facing a backyard with dozens of entries. Just barely before the rain started, we spotted the tiny sign next to the last entrance and made it in safely. Even though we were a bit early, the lady at the reception told us that our room was ready. Well, to be precise: she showed us her mobile phone and we were able to read that information from Google Translate.
As we were very hungry and had no intention of getting very wet, we headed to a café just across the street to get lunch. The typical Tartar food was great and the big jug of lemonade even better.
As it was pouring rain outside and quite cold, we resorted to not doing too much that day. Max was happy to have an excuse to play Lego, while Sam and I took turns on the laptop writing the blog and getting the pictures edited and uploaded. In the process, we also realized that something strange was going on with our latest blog entry. We had uploaded ‚No roadsigns in the steppe‘ just a couple of days earlier and it had already over 3000 page views – thanks to being featured on travellerspoint.
After such a lazy day, we did start the next morning full of energy. We had breakfast and headed through the pedestrian area along Baumann Street towards the Kremlin. The area of the Kremlin is huge. Within its walls, all key buildings of town can be found: there’s the presidential palace, the impressive Qol Sharif Mosque and the Russian-Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral. With the combination of elements of the Christian-orthodox and Islamic architecture, the Kazan Kremlin has been named a UNESCO world heritage site.
The mosque was built from 1999 to 2005 and is a modern, light filled building. While we were there, it was the first full day of Ramadan and no worshipers were in the building. It would be intriguing to see the building at some stage during prayer time, as the mosque can hold up to 6000 people. The original mosque had been destroyed in the 16th century by Ivan the Terrible.
The Tsar celebrated his victory over Tartastan by building new churches. One of them is the Annunciation Cathedral which survived the centuries until now. After having survived the Soviet time, it had been given back to the church and since been renovated.
We were impressed seeing the monuments of the two key religions of the region standing side by side. How nice to see that both religions seem to get along here. And that’s also the impression we had all across town: everything felt laid back and very low-stress. In the restaurants there were women with hijab working next to others without and in the stores we noticed a couple of ‘halal’ signs. Nice.
After lunch at a Chak Chak, we headed down Baumann Street. Just when Sam was commenting that there were hardly any tourists around, we suddenly recognized some known faces: there were Rob and Gay, the Australians who had stayed at the Zaya Hostel in Ulaanbaatar while we were there. What a coincidence. Just as we talked together, a group of Russian youngsters approached us, requesting to take a picture together. And of course, we agreed.
They just came from the Museum of Soviet Life and confirmed that it was worth seeing. And that’s where we were headed anyhow. We truly enjoyed our experience at the museum. Contrary to classical museums, this was hands on, fun and very interactive. Visitors were able to try on all the costumes, glasses, wigs, toys etc. We had a fabulous time.
After a break in a café, we shopped in a classical mom-and-pop store. Not having worked out in advance the full list of what exactly we need, made the experience rather stressful. The lady behind the counter was seemingly not used to people not knowing what they need. As other customers came in, we let them go first such that we had a bit more time to figure out what else we might need. We only realized when these customers were served, that many things on sale were not visible, but available upon request. Not being able to speak Russian, we rather stuck to everything we could see and point to. That’s when we realized that being used to browse in supermarkets and being able to physically see and inspect everything is a big luxury.
We enjoyed a quiet dinner at home in our apartment. The night before, we had been the only guests in the three rooms and had the kitchen and bathroom for ourselves. Tonight, it was full house. In the room next to us, there were two moms: Natasha with her daughter Sasha (13) and Natasha with her son Timo (7). Within just a couple of minutes, they invited us to join them at the kitchen table. Luckily one of the Natashas spoke excellent English and all others did understand quite a lot. We all drank whisky-cola (that is the adults). Natasha’s amusing recommendation was not to use too much coke in the mix as it’s not very healthy.
Once their whisky was gone, we realized that we should take up the offer to have some of their dinner as well. After all, alcohol consumption requires a base. After all, we were able to make sure that the reserves were replenished: with our supplies of vodka and beer we were able to continue the party. We had lots of fun and laughed a lot. We invited them to come to Germany and to visit us there. Unfortunately, one of the Natashas works for the Russian army as an accountant and consequently is not allowed to leave the country. What a pity! At midnight, we finally ran out of alcohol and went to bed. Once more, we had had a great evening – we love Russia and its people!
The next morning, we had a relaxed breakfast before having to pack our stuff and leave. Unfortunately, we were not able to stay longer in our room than 11am and our train was only leaving at 10pm that evening.
We walked below the Kremlin Hill to the Volga River. At the embankment, everything seemed to be ready for the Soccer World Championship in 2018 already now. The modern, clean, well-signposted (in both Russian and English) quarter with its many restaurants, bike rentals and miniature train was perfectly set up to receive masses of tourists. While practical and purpose built, it lacked all references to the local country and culture. A newly built area like this would not have looked much different in other parts of the world.
As we walked back towards the center of town, it soon became obvious again in which country we are. The massive soviet style Agriculture Palace was impressive and had all the features to excite visitors like us. We were less impressed by the weather though. Heavy rain clouds had moved in and it started to drizzle. While a summer rain might have been pleasant, at an outside temperature of merely 12 °C, it was just awful.
So we headed into a restaurant for lunch. It was an extended lunch until the afternoon – after all we did not have a room or home base to retreat to. Admittedly, it was not much fun trying to kill the hours. Eventually, we moved from the restaurant to a café, where we spent the remainder of the time until our taxi picked us up at 8:30 pm.
Our train left from another train station than the one we had arrived in. We were surprised that all of our bags were screened. That had not happened at a single train station so far. Once the train arrived, we were greeted by a very well organized conductor who even spoke excellent English. Once more we were surprised: contrary to the last times we boarded the train, she ignored the print outs of our boarding passes, but rather wanted to see our passports. We concluded that we’re obviously nearing Moscow and that the laid-back atmosphere of the outposts in Siberia is starting to be replaced efficiency and structure.
When planning our train journey, we had no clue how reliable trains would be. And as there are no direct connections from Kazan to St. Petersburg, we went for a safe alternative: we’d spend a full day in Nizhny Novgorod and be able to reach our connection even in case of a long delay. In retrospect, this was an unnecessary move: all trains had been perfectly on time so for. And having had already yesterday a day without a home base, doing this once more today, seemed less tempting than when we made the plan.
We shared our compartment in the night with Elgar who went to work from Kazan to Nizhniy. The conductor brought us three cups of tea. That was not really needed, as Max fell right asleep as soon as we had his bed set up. And we were not keen on drinking black tea right before going to sleep.
It was barely 7am when we reached Nizhny Novgorod and had to leave our train. On our way from the platform to the exit, we had to pass through the station building and had to get our baggage screened. That seemed unnecessary to us, but confirmed our theory that things were getting more and more strict as we neared Moscow.
We deposited our baggage at the station and headed for breakfast at the Макдоналдс just across the street (in case you’re not reading Cyrillic, you would have recognized the branding easily anyhow: we went to a McDonalds). After a relaxed breakfast, we took metro and headed into town to see the main sights. We walked along the main pedestrian zone of town downwards towards the Kremlin. It was cool Tuesday morning and the sun just came out sporadically, so there were not too many other people around.
Once we reached the medieval fortress, we were able to see some similarities to the Kremlin in Kazan, but also some significant differences. Both Kremlins are built on hills next to the Volga river. They are dating back to medieval times and continue to contain the administrative centers of their respective towns / regions. But as Nizhny’s Kremlin is built on a very steep hill, its wall fortifications seem much more impressive. And there was a different focus on the inside: in Nizhny we were greeted by an exhibition of WWII tanks, vehicles, planes and artillery. And in addition, there were a couple of monuments and an eternal flame honoring fallen soldiers in WWII.
Only one of the previously many churches of the Kremlin precinct remains to this day. Contrary to Kazan, there is obviously no Islamic heritage in Nizhny and consequently no mosque.
We enjoyed the beautiful view from one of the platforms down to the Volga River. That’s also where we headed next. It was fun to observe the many river cruise ships pass by.
From the Volga, we then walked up the impressive Chkalov Staircase with its almost 500 stairs. Up at the monument of Mr. Chkalov (who was the first man to fly directly from Europe to North America via the North Pole), we noticed many renovation and infrastructure works going on. Similar to what we had seen already in Ekaterinburg and Kazan, also Nizhny will be hosting the next soccer world cup. And we assume that some of the improvements are directly connected with this big upcoming event.
By the time, we had completed our tour of the Kremlin, we had walked already for quite a while and for considerable distances. We deserved a good break and found it at a nice and comfortable café where we stayed for quite a while. Eventually, Max was ready to get some exercise again and we headed to a playground and then played Frisbee in a nearby park.
We did not want to take a lot of chances and made sure to get to the train station well ahead of our departure time. That way, we had enough time left to buy some provisions (especially kvass and beer). Considering that roughly a quarter of Russian supermarkets seems to be dedicated to selling alcohol, it can take a while until we find a brand we like.
It was easy to get our baggage out of storage and to go through the security checks. Our train had already pulled into the station and by showing our passports we were admitted to our compartment. This time, we shared with Feodor, who was going to St. Petersburg, just like us.
Contrary to most other tourists on the Trans-Siberian Route, we had opted not to stop in Moscow. After all, both Sam and I had explored Moscow already a couple of years ago when Sam worked in Russia. We rather preferred to spend more time in St. Petersburg, where none of us had been so far.
Our train did stop at some stage in the middle of the night in a Moscow train station. Admittedly, we missed it and slept profoundly. Anyhow, we would not have been too impressed anyhow: that night a major storm hit Moscow which even resulted in a couple of deaths. We were lucky that our train was not affected in any way by falling trees or other objects.
When we woke up the next morning, we had breakfast and got ready to leave our train as it was approaching St. Petersburg at around 10am in the morning.
In total, we had covered the whole distance from Ulaanbaatar to St. Petersburg by train – a total of 6895km, 116h 27 min and five time zones. Split into six legs, train travel was comfortable and a reliable, safe and convenient way of traveling. We truly enjoyed approaching our destination step wise and being able to make so many stops along the way. And in addition, we got to see the landscapes and small towns along the way as well.
Still, knowing that we had now finally reached the very last stop of our journey of more than a year did feel strange after all. Having approached it in intervals and rather slowly, made the process easier. But still, there was an element of sadness in knowing that before too long, this trip of a lifetime would be over.