Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia

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

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Flag of Russia  , Central Russia,
Monday, May 7, 2007

East of Nizhniy Novgorod the thickly forested countryside opens up into a lightly-populated rolling landscape of farms and birch forests quite reminiscent of the American Upper Midwest or Central Canada.  The houses also look better maintained and there is far less rubbish strewn about the roadsides than further west in Russia.  Although we were technically still quite far from Siberia the cold early-May weather certainly makes it feel like we've arrived there already.

Within the Russian Federation there are numerous semi-autonomous republics largely populated by the many non-Russian ethnic groups in the country.  Nowadays, the best known example of these republics is Chechnya because of the region's attempts to gain independence and the iron fist Russia used against it.  We're not anywhere near Chechnya but did pass through two such republics east of Nizhniy Novgorod named Chuvashia and Tatarstan, both populated mostly by two Turkic-language-speaking ethnic groups, the Chuvash and the Tatars.  The Tatars are said to be descendents of "The Golden Horde", a Mongol army that drove deep into Russia. 

Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan but has a mixed Russian and Tatar population.  The city has an attractive old Russian center, a big university Lenin studied at, and a large UNESCO World Heritage Site Kremlin with a spectacular new mosque.  If after seeing Nizhni Novgorod I was inclined to make a generalization about second-tier Russian cities languishing while all the nation's new oil wealth in concentrated in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Kazan proved me wrong.  Kazan is a city of expressways clogged with SUVs, shopping malls, a new Metro system, North American style suburban housing developments, and lots of new construction.  The city looks as prosperous as Nizhni looks depressed, attributable to one main factor - there's plenty of oil in Tatarstan.  Kazan is clean and litter free and empty beer bottle free, even the Soviet-era housing blocks aren't pretty but appear better maintained, and I didn't see anyone who was very drunk the entire day we spent there.  I'm not sure how much of this difference from other Russian cities is due to wealth, or how much of a role the Tatar's different ethnicity and Moslem religion plays.

An exploratory Dragoman trip seems like perfect practice for participating in The Amazing Race.  Independent travelers usually rely on guidebooks like Lonely Planet that provide maps of city centers and detailed (although sometimes outdated) instructions on how to get to prominent sights or transportation facilities like train or bus stations that are beyond these maps.  In both Nizhni Novgorod and Kazan our accomodations were far in the outskirts well beyond any guidebook map.  Beyond being told something uselessly vague like "Take the bus" by our interpreter, we must rely entirely on our own resourcefullness to find our way from somewhere deep in a haystack to anything of interest in a city.  You try to find a map somewhere that your location is actually on to figure out where you are; you ask a lot of questions in English; you pull out your Russian phrasebook to try to ask questions; you note the numbers of all buses that pass by so you know which ones would bring you back to the hotel, and you walk a lot.  In Kazan we stayed at a very nice hotel outside the city, so most of the adventure tales we shared with each other in the group at the end of the day dealt with our experiences in trying to figure out how to get into town and back out to the hotel without resorting to using taxis, rather than bizarre experiences with bus brawls and overly friendly drunks.

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