Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Russia  , Privolzhsky,
Saturday, May 5, 2007

Nizhniy Novgorod is Russia's third largest city and the place that used to be called Gorky during the Communist era. The old town is situated on high hills overlooking the Volga River at it's confluence with a tributary named the Oka. There was a large military industrial center in and around Gorky, so the city was completely closed to all foreigners during Soviet times and still gets almost no foreign tourists. 

Now I should mention that a Dragoman trip is not like a standard tour on which travelers' time and activities are mostly planned out and most time is spent together as a group.  On overland trips like these the city tours we had included in Saint Petersburg, Novgorod, and Moscow are the exception rather than the rule.  Usually the way things work when we arrive in a city is we check in at our accommodations and then all head out on their own to explore freely (or scatter like roaches when the light's turned on, as I like to say).  This was certainly the case in Nizhniy.

Regular tourist class hotels are in rather short supply in Russia and are usually very expensive, even in places like Nizhniy Novgorod.  Sasha, our local guide/interpreter called around and found a solution for our stay in N.N., though - "I think I found a good place we can stay".  This hotel is the most dismal yet, situated in an industrial zone far in the city's eastern outskirts.  The big tank mounted like a statue in front of the factories across from the hotel suggests something about what the factories produce or at least used to produce.  Although it now functions as a hotel, it's clear this was a Soviet-era hostel for workers traveling on business to the industrial zone.  The multitude of "working girls" mulling about suggests the place also has a different function.  The floor ladies here are as surly as they are rotund and are constantly mopping with what smells like undiluted Clorox bleach.  I must give the ladies credit, though; they are quite efficient at cleaning up the vomit the periodically gets splattered around the men's room.  The grungy bathrooms, dimly lit halls, and tiny cell-like rooms suggest the place was done up by the same interior decorating firm as the former KGB prison I visited in Vilnius.  

This hotel feels like an extended visit to a Halloween house of horrors inhabited by some of the most ghoulish characters imaginable.  As I was leaving the communal bathroom after using one of the delightful squat toilets I crossed paths with a shirtless man in a zombielike state of drunkenness whose arms and torso were completely covered with tattoos.  Tattoo Man stared at me blankly and fell backwards against the wall.  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! (that's a scream)  I fled down the corridor and ran into a short Rasputin like character with long hair and a long beard whose eyes darted insanely from side to side as he mumbled into his cell phone.  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!  I ran down the stairs.  One flight down I passed an eight foot tall transvestite in lace stockings and an AK-47 slung over his/her shoulder, perhaps on his/her way up to service Rasputin. Aaaaaaaaaaaaa!  I got outside the front doors of the building.  The drooling middle-aged drunk woman who was lying in the gutter when we arrived was getting hauled into the paddy wagon by two police men, screaming and spitting and clawing defiantly at them.  Aaaaaaaaaaaaa!  I wandered into the concrete jungle of a neighborhood in search of a small grocery store to satisfy my Diet Coke addiction, hoping not to be bothered by any demented drunks or eaten by the roving packs of dogs.  Out of luck - the kiosk didn't sell anything to drink except booze.  Workers' paradises don't get any better than this!

Feeling a sense of safety in numbers in this freaky place, a mixed-gender group of eight of us decided to brave the bus ride into the city center for dinner.  Most of the buses in Nizhniy are actually minibuses about half the size of a regular bus, and you buy your ticket on board from the conductor.  As we discovered, if it's very crowded and she can't move around she'll enlist the help of even confused foreigners in passing fares, change, and tickets back and forth to passengers in the back of the bus.  As we approached the Oka River, we emerged from the Soviet era concrete jungle to see the beautiful old city sprawling up and down the hillsides, the Kremlin walls glowing a bright red in the evening light.  Nizhni Novgorod's old city center and pedestrian streets on the hilltop are actually quite lovely, full of nice restaurants, pleasant cafes, expensive stores, and a beautiful theater.  After a really nice dinner in a cozy cellar restaurant we all enjoyed, we all hopped back on the bus to Soviet hell.  I showed the conductor lady my hotel registration card to make sure we'd get off at the right stop.  She burst out in uncontrollable laughter at the eight slightly tipsy but otherwise generally respectable looking English speakers staying at the whorehouse and had not yet fully regained her composure by the time we got off twenty minutes later.

I used to live in Wyoming so I've seen quite a few good bar brawls, but a good fight at the Cowboy South bar in Cheyenne is nothing compared to the bus brawls in Nizhniy.  About two minutes after I got onto the minibus into town the next morning, a drunk teenager sitting in back made some loud comment that was apparently offensive to the bus driver, so the bus driver stopped the bus, went back, and confronted him.  In a normal place the driver would have just chucked the offender off the bus, but this driver proceeded to beat the Bejesus out of the drunk boy, leaving him sprawled out on the floor and attended to by his two slightly less drunk companions.  The driver continued on, but in a few minutes the beaten drunk recovered enough to charge forward to attack the driver, throwing random punches at the other men trying to hold him back while the women, children, and I ducked for cover. I managed to only get punched once. I wouldn't want to see how this driver handles people who don't pay their fares!

All that early morning excitement was a little too much, and I was feeling the need for some of the comforts of home.  So, I went to McDonalds for a Big Breakfast and some coffee.  Nizhniy Novgorod's real sights are a bit sparse, consisting of a few nice churches, a small fine arts museum, author Maxim Gorky's museum home, and a very large Kremlin from which there are great views over the Volga River.  That left me a lot of spare time for relaxing in coffee houses, shopping for new hiking boots to replace the disintegrating ones I was wearing, and checking out restaurant menus to find the best place for dinner. 

I was treated to yet another bus brawl on the way home to the best little whorehouse in Nizhniy, this one seemingly involving half the bus.  The fight seemed to break out between two drunk middle aged men over one's advances towards a seated young woman.  The victor eventually literally kicked his opponent backwards out of the bus at a stop, the loser hitting the pavement with a hard thump.  He then turned his aggression on a drunk middle-aged woman who seemed to be chastising him for what he did.  Other passengers tried to break it up, but it ended with the conductor lady knocking him out with a blow to the head with a baseball bat like club the driver handed her.  I guess things like this are a daily occurrence in Nizhniy.

When I got back to the hotel/brothel, I joined several of my fellow travelers for a few beers in the bar and to exchange stories about our days.  We were befriended by two boorish truck drivers, but I decided it was time to get out of Dodge when people started doing rounds of vodka shorts with Ivan and Igor.  I walked up the stairs to my floor where I was stopped in the corridor by Tattoo Man yelling, "Skyooze me, skyooze me!"  You tend to show a drunk Russian man with a gun some respect.  Yes, Tattoo Man was fully clothed this time but had a gun slung over his shoulder in a holster.  He held his cell phone up to my face and yelled, "Towk, towk!"  I sheepishly said, "Hello, hello", a female voice babbling something in Russian on the other side.  Tattoo Man seemed satisfied, and I retreated to my room. 

About half an hour later while the door was temporarily unlocked because one of my roommates (Dave) had gone to the bathroom, there was a knock.  "Oh no, it's Tattoo Man", my roommate John and I thought.  In popped a very pretty young woman with shoulder length brown hear, tall black boots, tight jeans, and a tight white top that displayed plenty of cleavage.  She smiled and giggled and went through a little speech that clearly had something to do with Russky and Engelsky getting together in a room across the hall.  She truly looked so sad as she left after we each said "Nyet!" about ten times.  So I guess Tattoo Man is the floor pimp, and I inadvertently ordered myself a high-end hooker.

Nizhniy Novgorod seems like a place one would be sent to as a form of punishment.  Actually, probably the most interesting sight there is an example of such a place, the Andrei Sakharov Flat Museum.  Sakharov was a physicist instrumental in the Soviet nuclear weapons program who publicly criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  The museum is the actual ground floor apartment in the high rise outer suburb of Nizhniy (Gorkiy) he was exiled to from 1980-1986.  Also part of the museum are the nearby apartments the KGB used to monitor all his and his wife's activities.

Tired of watching all those bus brawls, on our last night in Nizhniy I decided to hoof it the six miles or so back to the Horror House Hotel.  I was eager to both experience the hellish environment Communism created on foot for full effect and to break in the flashy new Salomon hiking boots I just bought.  It was a bizarre landscape of mile after mile of modular concrete high rise apartment buildings set apart by open fields, but through these residential areas run railroad tracks to nearby factories and rusted exposed piping.  It was apparently cheaper in Soviet times to raise pipes above the height of the tallest trucks to cross roads than it was to bury them beneath.  These combine to give most Soviet era residential neighborhoods a particularly ugly industrial appearance.  At some places along the way there were normal scenes of people shopping or waiting at bus stops, or children playing ball amid the pipes and tracks.  At other times I felt as though I was walking through one of those moralistic Hogarth paintings depicting the evils of drink.  This must be what it looks like when a world falls apart and the pieces haven't all been picked up yet.  I have to admit that social planning in Britain and America in the name of progress created some similar environments with similar results over the years but nowhere near as massive a scale as in the old Soviet Union.

My somewhat negative impressions of Nizhniy Novgorod were doubtless affected by the poor accommodations we had in a very rough part of town.  I'm glad, however, that I got to see another side of Russia far off the tourist path that we often read or hear about but few foreigners get to witness.

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