Three days of Tatarstan

Trip Start Jan 16, 2009
Trip End Nov 20, 2009

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Flag of Russian Federation  , Privolzhsky,
Monday, January 19, 2009

I wanted to have a stop in Kazan, because, according to the information I have, it's not possible to get to Siberia straight from Saint Petersburg. This gives me a few options for places west of Ural that I can visit. Moscow, Kazan, Ekateringburg or Nizhniy Novgorod are a few of the major ones. I've already been to Moscow a few times, so I had no desire to go there again. A stop in Ekaterinburg would have been too close to the middle of my journey to allow for a long train ride as it split up the trip too evenly. Nizhniy Novgorod I didn't even consider, since I haven't heard anything special about it. There awere probably also some other alternatives, such as Kirov or Perm, but to me, they didn't sound any more interesting than Nizhniy Novgorod...

Kazan, with its population of 1.1 million, is the capital of Tatarstan, which is said to be one of the most nationalistic Republics inside the Russian Federation, with a muslim population and even its own language. Some signs in city are in both Tatar and Russian language, but Russian seems to be used more frequently. The several mosques of the city, even inside the kremlin, clearly outline Islam's strong presence in Kazan and from what I've heard, it's quite unique in Russia. It wouldn't be so surprising if there was something like that in the Northern Caucasus region (Dagestan, Chechenya, Ingushetia etc.) near to Azerbaijan and Turkey, but how can a muslim minority of tatars inhabit this central area of Russia? There are also other minorites neighbouring Tatarstan, such as Finno-ugrig related people of Republics of Mari and Udmurtia. Still, there are hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians living in isolated rural areas several thousand kilometres away from their capital Moscow. Of course this partly due to the migration inside the country during the Soviet times, but the map of Russian Federation would be very bizarre if all the autonomous republics became independent.

The train from Saint Petersburg to Kazan was okay... Next to me there were a few women of various ages and a man approaching his fifties. At first, none of them appeared to be too talkative, except the man, who quickly disappeared somewhere. After a few hours, about eight o'clock (the train left at four), the man came back, completely wasted. He started talking with me and I got to know that he is a tatar muslim, had been working a couple of weeks in Saint Petersburg in a construction site and was now on his way home. He was also very interested about my plans to travel to China. Anyway, the conversation got a little uncomfortable as he told me how much he earns and was keen to know how the salaries are in Finland. He seemed to have become frustrated a little and the conversation got very uncomfortable when he started hinting, that as a Finn, I must have a lot of money, and he also tried to ask how much did the clothes I'm wearing cost... Anyway, he disappeared somewhere again and I reckon probably forgot the whole conversation.

In the morning the locals in the train gave me some advise about the hotels and transportation in Kazan and partly as a result of their help, I found a decent single room in hotel Volga for R850 (about 21€) per night. Breakfast was also included, even though it's hardly worth mentioning. On Sunday morning (I arrived on Saturday afternoon) I also met two Australian guys in the hotel. They were on their way to Vladivostok and Japan, and I spent a coulpe of days with them strolling around the city, playing cards and billiards in the hotel and the usual stuff (drinking beer).

This is my first trip by myself and at least so far, I haven't regretted it. Sometimes you may feel a little awkward when a drunken guy starts asking about your money, and having a dinner in a restaurant just by yourself makes you feel a bit stupid. On the other hand, you end up talking and get to know different people much easier, while you also have time for your own thoughts. If you are travelling a long time with somebody, with whom you spend all the time with, it can get on your nerves. When travelling alone in a foreign country, you may also every now and then encounter the unlimited kindness and generosity of the other people. Take this beautiful young woman in Saint Peterburg: She has been seriously struggling with the financial crisis and you could clearly see that she has hard times at her work. Despite her misery, she insisted me to have a metro token as a present from her so I wouldn't have to queue up for the token in the crowded metro station with my big backpack. If everyone was like her, there would definitely be a peace in this world.

Now, back to Kazan and how it appeared to me. My three days are obviously not much to observe the city and its inhabitants, but compared to Saint Petersburg, the atmosphere is a little bit different. First of all, people don't seem to be so busy and in a hurry going everywhere, for example I saw a few times a car stopping in front of pedestrians only to let them cross the street. This never happens in Saint Petersburg. Second, compared to Moscow or Saint Petersburg, the lack of policemen is somewhat surprising. Not that the presence of them would make me feel anymore safe, actually having got my mobile phone stolen by them once, it's rather the opposite. It also seems that people here dress a bit more conservatively and I haven't seen anyone drinking beer on the streets. Maybe the two last mentioned things also have something to do with the cold weather or the fact that they are supposed to be muslim and aren't supposed to drink.. but in Saint Petersburg it wouldn't be unusual to see somebody drinking beer in -3 degrees winter weather in the middle of day while girls with high heels and small skirts pass by.

As I said, most of the public signs in the city are both in Tatar and Russian language, but I hardly heard a word of Tatar in Kazan. I did hear it in the train though and it sounds quite funny, very different from Russian. It seems weird that Tatarstan is in the same time zone as Saint Petersburg, even though Kazan is located far more east. Due to this, you wake up in the morning at eight, as the sun is already shining and by 4 o'clock its dark already. Anyway, a funny similarity to other Russian cities is the popularity of McDonald's. As you walk by the main walking street, most of the restaurants look more or less empty, but McDonald's is always packed with people. Well, the "big tasty" burger is quite good, isn't it? After all, it seems that there is not so much to see or do in Kazan and you can see the main sights in a day or two. The central areas of the city are very clean and newly reconstructed, as the city had its 1000th birthday a few years ago and a lot was fixed for it. However, all you need to do is walk one street away from the main street and you will see the usual ramshackle buildings.

Did I write all this? I probably had too much time on first evening when I wrote the boring first half of this. Tonight heading to Irkutsk, where I'll arrive after three days and three nights, ending up on a time zone with the clock five hours ahead of current Moscow time (six hours of Finnish time). I'll spend some days in Irkutsk, where I'll try to get the Mongolian visa, and around lake Baikal, before I continue my way towards Mongolia, most likely stopping also in Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatiya.
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