Visit to the Golden Ring

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 11, 2006

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Sixth Pit Stop: The Golden Ring, Russia (Rossiya)

Suzdal, although virtually unknown in the West, was one one of the most famous towns in Russian history. Like an untouched medieval open-air museum, Suzdal was endowed with well preserved fortified castle walls, monasteries, cathedrals, and convents. After being founded in 1024 by Vladimir Monomakh, the city rose to Orthodox prominence by becoming a religious center for the region.

Walking around this very picturesque town, I had the feeling every third building was a church. Priests and nuns also were omnipresent on the streets. From almost anywhere in town, one could see the onion domes of the town's many churches rising against the sheep grazed hills. This charming town also had the right ambience of a medieval village with placid streams and rolling meadows juxtaposed with livestock and chicken roaming the streets, some of which were unpaved. The combination of magnificent medieval architecture and pastoral landscape lent Suzdal a very picturesque allure.

I fell in love with it the first moment we arrived into town. Our accommodation, Sokol Hotel, was situated right in the heart of Suzdal, across from the Trading Arcades, a remnant of the medieval town center. I was immediately reminded of the sacrosanct town of Koyasan, Japan, where Buddhist monks were walking among tourists. Here, the pealing of the bells with their magical chime elicited a spiritual awakening inside me. While walking down the street, I often encountered the solemn priests and nuns of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Perhaps the most beautiful experience in this town was my getting lost. While walking along a farm road flanked on both sides by iridescent gardens and cornfields, I could not remember how to return to the hotel. Alone on the deserted road, I saw the sun slowly disappearing on the horizon. Then, in the distance, I could see an elderly Russian babushka walking languidly with her cane, and she saw a non-Russian person like me holding a map. She came over and said something in a very provincial Russian accent. At first, her regional accent was so thick, it was incomprehensible. I asked her in Russian to politely repeat at a slower speed. After a few coughs, she held up her head and began to ask me if I needed any help. Then began a wonderful conversation between us. I learned that she, like her ancestors, had been living in Suzdal for more than 300 years (ten generations) as agriculturists. She never had stepped foot outside Suzdal, and she was curious to find out why I came to her hometown. I replied that it was an organized tour, and that I was not originally from Russia. She was surprised and added that my Russian was very good. When I mentioned that I came from Texas, she scratched her head a little, seeming not to really understand what the name meant. She grew up in this peaceful corner of Russia, and the rest of the "outside" world was so alien to her.

After saying farewell to her, I walked a little further and saw a convent. Hearing music emanating from the white-washed walls, I curiously approached the entrance. Inside was a Russian Orthodox service in progress. Elderly women with head covers were standing on one side while the men were on the other side. The sweet smell of incense wafted in the air. I stood at the doorway for a while, observing this interesting religious service unfolding before my eyes. The colors, the pageantry, the icons of Orthodox religion - everything was so beautiful.

I wish there was more time in this town, but we next had to depart for Moscow, 250 miles away...
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