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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Kul Sharif Mosque, Kazan, Russia
TRANS SIBERIAN RAILWAY Ulan Ude Aug 6-7 Irkutsk Aug 4 Aug 5-8 Yekaterinburg Aug 8-10 Aug 11-12 Kazan Aug 13 Nizhny Novgorod Aug 14 Golden Ring Aug 15 Aug 16-17

MOSCOW Aug 17-19 Aug 20-21 Aug 22-23

Kul Sharif Mosque, Kazan, Russia, August 13, 2003


August 13. KAZAN (Republic of Tartarstan)  We arrived into Kazan very early.  When I woke up the first person I saw when I rolled over from the top bunk was the little girl, Nastasia, waiving from her bed.  We were almost sorry to be leaving the grandmother and granddaughter.

We had passed the delineation between Asia and Europe and Kazan was technically our first stop in Europe but as the capital of Russia's Republic of Tartarstan the city had a unique, and not particularly European, feel.  Tartars are an Islamic community that are essentially remnants of Chengis Khan's Golden Horde and ruled parts of Russia for some 300 years with Kazan dating back to 1005.  Chengis Khan's grandson, Batu, led the Golden Horde region of the empire after his grandfather died.  The area was Islamic and the Mongolian invaders became Turkicized over the course of their rule, eventually converting to the religion and taking on the local language.   At one time, the Golden Horde ruled as far as Moscow but were finally beaten back by Ivan the Terrible in 1552.  Ivan had St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow built in honor the capture of Kazan.  But, to this day many of the Tartars think of themselves as a separate republic.  The green and while colors of the Tartarstan flag fly throughout the city. 

Our first stop was to find a hotel but the one nearest the train station was full, or so they said.  We were directed to hotels in the center of town.  After weighing the option of lugging our bags to search for a hotel or just checking them at the train station and getting an onward ticket that same night, we decided on the second option.  By avoiding the hotel search process we felt we would have enough time to see the city.  We easily checked our bags at the station and then patiently queued for a train ticket.  There wasn't any foreigner ticket office at this station and since we had bought your tickets all of the way to Kazan back in Irkutsk, it was the first time we had to deal with Russian train station queues.  The Russians have a very peculiar way of lining up for things.  At first we thought people were cutting in front of us but apparently people are able to simultaneously hold a place in multiple lines.  It was only when someone in front of me turned and said something as they pointed to their spot in line. I took it to mean that they were coming back and I was right.   After getting a spot firmly established in line we just had to wait and wait.  Some people seemed to take forever at the window.  We wrote out everything we needed on a piece of paper in Cyrillic - date, destination, time, number of tickets, and the train number that we guessed from the schedule on the wall.  It went pretty smoothly.  We just waited at he window and carefully checked over our tickets to make sure we were in the same cabin before leaving.

We walked from the train station to the center of town, which wasn't very far when you didn't have luggage to worry about.  In the center of town there was a nice pedestrian walkway lined with shops and restaurants.  However, it was completely dead.  Not having eaten anything much on the train we made a beeline for the McDonalds.  It is pathetic but after so many months of travel we were really beginning to appreciate the ubiquitous fast food chain.  We hadn't seen one since Shanghai and while the food isn't fantastic or particularly healthy it is predictable and consistent.  After having more than a few failed meals in local restaurants it is very reassuring to know you are going to get something that you can eat and that will fill you up.  But, in this case, it was still closed.  It was then that we realized that the time zone for Kazan that LP had in their guidebook was wrong.   We were still supposed to be one hour East of Moscow but were, in fact, already on Moscow time.  So, while we had only come one hour west on our two day train ride between Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg, we had come three hours further west on our one night train ride between Yekaterinburg and Kazan.  Try to make sense of that!  Anyway, we strolled around to kill time until McDonald's opened and much to our surprise we were not the only people lined up for it to open at 9am on a Wednesday.  

After our breakfast we began a walking tour of Kazan.  There were several mosques and churches throughout the city as well a nice little kremlin, walled fortress. The mixture of cultural history made for a very interesting visit.  The Tartar people would like to gain independence but over 40% of the people living in the autonomous region are Russians so it seems unlikely.   We visited the mosques first but could not actually go in to see what the looked like inside.  The Muslim women are not allowed inside either and we saw one woman borrow a scarf and take off her shoes to go somewhere under the main prayer hall to say her prayers.  One mosque did have a little gift shop selling scarves and various religious items, many in the blue and white colors of Tartarstan.  Unlike the open garden style mosques we visited in Xinjiag these were fully enclosed and had domed rooftops with a minaret.  The second mosque we passed had a local market extending around the nearby steets.  There was a kvas tank set up in the street and rows of boothes.  In the background we could hear middle eastern music playing.  It was interesting to see the Russian babushkas next to men wearing white skull caps.  At this point in our tour it began to pour rain so we briefly sought shelter in a covered stall selling sheets.  When the rain subsided a bit we made a run down the street and came across the central food market.

The food market was covered and had permanent counters set up in rows under the metal canopy.  Like the markets we had seen elsewhere in Russia some women were dressed in uniforms while others were in plain clothes.  It was very busy so we had a hard time finding a place to stay out of the rain without getting pushed and shoved around.  We finally settled into a place along side the women selling grains and eventually realized that it was vacant due to the colony of little finches that were looming in the rafters above.  They continually swooped down into the bags of grain and started feeding away.  The women would shoe them away regularly but the little birds only retreated as far as the rafters or to the top of the large umbrellas the women had above them.  If too many tried to land on the umbrellas it got crowded and some slipped down the sides.  The woman occasionally shook the umbrellas to disrupt the birds but they knew it was futile. The birds returned at the first change they got.  We enjoyed watching this cycle for a while and ended up being a source of entertainment to the women in the nearby stalls ourselves.  

Once the rain had subsided enough we made our way quickly back to the train station to retrieve our rain ponchos from our packs.  The large blue ponchos draped over our day packs always got looks but they were incredibly practical.   We continued our tour by heading to the kremlin.   The small walled fortress housed a variety of buildings.  The main church was undergoing reconstruction but would be a striking gold domed building once completed.  The oldest Islamic feature of the kremlin was the Syuyumbike Tower.  The Princess Syuyumbike was the wife of three Khaans before Ivan tried to take her as his wife.  Some say he seized Kazan because she refused him but in order to save her city she said she would marry him if a tower taller than any mosque in Kazan could be built in a week. Once the tower was completed she jumped from the top.  Today the tower leans slightly due to its hasty construction back in the 17th c.  However, the once tallest tower in Kazan has been overshadowed by the new Kul Sharif Mosque that was constructed inside the kremlin.  The enormous mosque stands tall in the sky with its turquoise dome and four minarets.

After touring the kremlin we tried to visit the museum but were told that the Tartar part of the exhibit wasn't currently showing. Disappointed we ducked into a nearby market for a cup a coffee and some snacks.  After a good long break we came back out to find the weather beginning to improve.  The sun was lighting up the old city buildings and making it a much more impressive sight.  We wound through the city to visit the beautiful Peter & Paul Cathedral before returning to the kremlin to get a view of the fortress from outside the wall lit up in the afternoon sun.  

We had spent most of the day walking at this point and with only a few more hours to kill before our train we treated ourselves to a nice meal at, oddly enough, an American style steakhouse.  It put us back about $20 but was probably the tastiest meal we had eaten in Russia.  They served great salads and Rob had a steak while I ate Dijon chicken.  Some beggars tried to catch us as we came out.  They were all children, which was sad.  In the morning we had seen one small boy swishing his hand through the top of the fountain in the pedestrian mall, trying to get some change to drop.   Another boy came up to the same fountain and filled a water bottle for a drink.   Throughout the day we hadn't seen all that many but apparently hitting up the patrons of nice restaurants paid off for them.

We enjoyed some sun just sitting in the pedestrian mall area before finally walking back to the train station and collecting our bags.  When the train pulled up and the door to our carriage opened we eagerly went to board but were initially waived away by the providnitsa.  The train wasn't supposed to board for another 12 minutes.  We stood and waited until she finally let us on a few minutes early.  Our cabin mates this time were a couple of business men, one was an older man and the other looked like a new recruit.  As the train began to roll the young man looked at me and said, "Woman, get out."  I am not sure where he learned English but that is what he came up with to get me out of the cabin so they could change into their travel clothes.  The request was probably not meant to sound so harsh but combined with their arrogant gestures it was still irritating.  With the time difference from Yekaterinburg and a good 12 hour day of walking we were totally beat.  My head was bobbing as we waited for our tickets to get taken by the providnitsa.  But, after the rude manner of our cabin mates we felt less guilty about going to sleep early.  They seemed totally shocked and tried to push my bedding aside to eat their dinner while I went to the bathroom.  Rob kindly asked them to eat on their bunks, in the hall, or the empty cabin next door because it was very late for us and we were tired but they still tried to eat on our beds.  Being firm Rob just told them they had to go.  It was only 8:00 local time (11:00 in Yekaterinburg) but we were asleep once our heads hit the pillows.