One day in Tatarstan

Dec. 11 – Kazan

“Migration ticket.”

The hotel clerk has seen my passport, and now wants a document I no longer have  – the slip of paper I filled in when I entered Russia, and which was stamped by the border authorities. No idea I still needed it – my other Russian hotels had not asked. As I search my bags in vain, a tall, bearded, Belgian backpacker enters the lobby. He still has his migration ticket. A brief discussion later, he books a double room and we split the cost. It’s only for one night, which means moving on to Moscow a day earlier than planned. Not a problem.

I like hybrid places where cultures intersect, like Kazan. Perched where the Volga and Kazan Rivers meet in the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, Kazan fuses Christianity and Islam, and Russians with ethnic Tatars. Crescent-tipped minarets and cross-topped church towers point skyward. Street signs are bilingual – Tatar above Russian to make a point.

The Belgian is a civil engineer heading home after a job in Cambodia. We walk Kazan’s frozen streets gingerly – each of us falling down hard once apiece. Workers strew sand and chop at the ice, but we wonder how old people get around. Other workers shovel snow off the roofs. It cascades lumpily onto cordoned-off areas below. With one wary eye on the treacherous, icy pavement, we wander around a city rolling in petrorubles. Kazan’s wealth is obvious in its many elegant, pastel-plastered buildings, new or being refurbished. I’m impressed, despite a cold wind that has us seeking warmth in a shopping mall, a church, a mosque, a museum, a café, and a restaurant over the course of the day. Kazan’s focal point is its great, white-walled Kremlin. It is a UNESCO heritage site containing a stunning new mosque and a stunning old church, both with azure-blue domes. On the Kremlin’s rampart, a newly-married couple shivers as their photographer takes pictures. The maid of honour, huddled in her coat, holds the bouquet.

I book a cheap, third-class ticket for the 13 hour overnight journey to Moscow. It means less space, but it’s only one night unlike my other rail trips thus far. Turns out it’s not so bad. It’s a new wagon, not full, passengers chatting quietly, playing cards, eating dinner. Across from me is a young, slight man with longish black hair. He speaks some English, slides his Russian passport across the table to me. It says he was born in Afghanistan in 1983. He apologizes for only having one bottle of Miller Genuine Draft, and says;

“I don’t drink very much. But today I am sad.”

I don’t press. If he wants to say more, he will. He’s studying Economics in Moscow, also speaks Farsi and Hindi in addition to Russian. He would like to learn more French. A plaintive look comes over his face.

“Why did you come here? Canada is a good place. You should go there.”

In the night, we’re joined by a Moldovan man, and later, by a farmer woman, complete with thick forearms and head cloth. I get the top bunk and manage five hours’ sleep as we roll towards Moscow.






Living it up at the Hotel Tsentralnaya

Dec. 7 – Novosibirsk

"Eight feet across"

No pink champagne, no mirrors on the ceiling. Instead, decrepit elevators and shared (not co-ed) toilets and shower rooms. But if it’s possible to feel nostalgia for a Soviet era I never knew, I’m feeling it here in room 617. It’s tidy but dingy and has a smoked-in smell. There’s beige floral print wallpaper, wood tile floors, small bed, desk, and a cracked sink. Some of the paint has been scratched off the door, which can be opened with an old-fashioned key. Out the window, a view of Novosibirsk’s skyline and central park. In the red-carpeted corridor, where the light is dim but somehow glaring, the cleaner has permanently parked her cart. The shower has no head, just a stream of water. On the staircase landings, lonely potted plants and posters advertising hairdressing services. All for $50/night. I could go to a modern hotel in Novosibirsk, but why would I want to miss out on this? After all, it has Wifi.


"After the show. Note the statues of Lenin and his merry band of workers and soldiers."

I spent today walking the length of Novosibirsk’s two main streets; Voksalnaya magistral and Krasny prospekt. There’s lots of concrete to go with the gray skies, none of it particularly attractive. I saw some new buildings being built, but many more that were tired, like the Tsentralnaya where I’m staying. There were many Novosibirniks out shopping. The usual assortment of elegant women in long coats, men dragging on cigarettes, mothers out with prams and snowsuited children. The city looks better at night, when lights strung on buildings can work magic and the darkness can hide its plainer features. There’s plenty of night to go around. The sun didn’t rise until 0900, and was gone again before 1800.

The colossal Opera and Ballet Theatre is Novosibirsk’s focal point. Bigger than Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, it’s on Lenin Square within 200m of my hotel. “Spartacus” by Aram Khatchaturian was playing tonight, and I went to see my first ballet.

"During intermission"

The hall, a sea of red velvet seats, was full – and not just with old ladies. It seemed as if Novosibirsk people of all ages go to the ballet the way people in North America go to the movies. I do not have my iPod with me and it was nice to hear music again – kinetic, percussive, syncopated. The action on stage was all gladiators and centurions, orgies and death. To my novice eyes, Spartacus’s dramatic and gruesome end, impaled by a dozen spears and hoisted in the air, was impressive choreography.

A very early train tomorrow to Kazan. 2400 kilometres (equivalent to Toronto-Miami or Vancouver-Denver), 37 hours, three time zones. As usual, no “live” post, but some thoughts on travel photography tomorrow.