Friday 20th July 2012
The Trans-Siberian is not one route, but many. When trains first ran from Yekaterinburg to Moscow, they did so via Yaroslavl which had been connected to Moscow by railway in 1870. I visited Yaroslavl in 2011 (during a river and canal cruise) and there's a description with pictures here. Later, a cut-off branched from the Yaroslavl route at Kotelnich directly to Moscow, avoiding Yaroslavl. But when our train left Yekaterinburg, we took yet another route which would take us to Moscow via Tartarstan.
Tartarstan (often spelt Tatarstan) is an Independent Republic forming part of the Russian Federation so there were no immigration formalities as we entered the territory. However, I did wake up briefly in the night when we made our scheduled stop at Krasnoufimsk. Here, we left the 3.3 kV d.c. electrification of the Sverdlovsk Railway and entered the 25 kV a.c. system of the Gorky Railway (I assume named after the Russian author Maxim Gorky).
I was awake again fairly early when we made our brief stop at Agriz but it was another five hours of travelling before we arrived at the capital of Tartarstan, Kazan. The main railway station is currently closed for reconstruction so our train arrived at a new station in the suburbs called Vosstaniye. Tartarstan has established itself as a host for various events and I think the rebuilding we encountered was part of the preparations for the world university games.
No expense has been spared in this new station to present a modern image but, unfortunately, the work is not yet finished and there were builders and building materials everywhere. Nonetheless, with typical Russian pragmatism, the station is in use so we carefully picked our way through the various hazards and the streams of bewildered Russian passengers to board a very modern coach waiting for us outside the station.
Of course, a new station needs a new approach road and, whilst there were proper tarmac parking areas immediately outside the station buildings, the new road to get to the existing road network was still in the hands of the roadbuilders and their machines. We lurched through the potholes and threaded our way through various road building machines to finally emerge on a wide dual carriageway flanked by large blocks of flats. As we neared the city centre, large blocks of offices and luxury apartments reared up and my heart sank – not another modern city of soul-less buildings?
But then we came to the older part of the town and the architecture changed. Some of the buildings were not that old but they were constructed along classical lines or in the French style so they were easier on the eye. Then we arrived at the Kremlin where the walls and watchtowers are genuinely old and, like the Kremlin in Moscow, the buildings within the walls are impressive. We disembarked from the coach just outside the main gate of the Kremlin. A girl in a local costume presented us with the traditional food of greeting – a Tartarstan version of honey-coated ‘Sugar Puffs’ you eat with your fingers.
The Kremlin was built in a defensible position on high ground overlooking the river. Entering the main gate, we started to walk along the wide, cobbled main thoroughfare with Government Offices, University Departments and Museums occupying the buildings on either side. We turned down a side road leading to another gatehouse then turned to our right to enter a large plaza tiled in the colours of the Tartarstan flag.
Facing us was a towering, modern mosque. Tartarstan has a sizeable Moslem community which has similar rights to Orthodox Christians and unbelievers alike. The construction of this impressive mosque a few years ago within the Kremlin not far from its Orthodox counterpart was intended to signal this tolerance.
To my surprise, the mosque featured a visitors gallery, reached by 74 steps from the ground floor. From this lofty position, we could look down on the women’s gallery (bordered by pierced screens allowing women to watch the prayers below without being seen) and the carpeted ground floor used by men. There was a small, raised ‘pulpit’, presumably for the Iman, and markers to show the direction of Mecca.
Next, we walked to look at the outside of the ‘Leaning Tower of Kazan’, a brick-built tower which has subsided to be 1.92m out of true at the top.
Finally, we visited the impressive Russian Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral. In all Russian Orthodox Churches, the congregation stand and singing is unaccompanied by musical instruments (A cappella). Whilst women cover their heads in church, men go bare-headed. Photography is not allowed.
We then slowly walked back to the main gate and waited in the gardens outside for our bus to return. The bus ferried us to a hotel in the city where we had a relaxing lunch in a large restaurant decorated in Islamic style. The hotel was situated on a long pedestrian street and, after the meal, we were given some free time to wander around on our own. We were to meet up by the old brick bell tower next to the Chaliapin Hotel.
I had a brisk walk around a few blocks of the city, taking pictures of examples of the varied architecture.
Near the end of Pedestrian Bauman Street, I came across a 'Kentucky Fried Chicken' with builders in occupation. I suppose the delights of 'KFC' are shortly to be offered to the impatiently-waiting Tartars. Across the busy street, I was puzzled by a large ring suspended above the building frontage. It was only afterwards I discovered that the 'Ring' is an entertainment complex incorporating a Multiplex Cinema, Restaurants and the like. A pedestrian underpass carried a 'Metro' sign, so I descended into a bewildering array of underground passages, shops and kiosks. However, I couldn't find any sign for a Metro Station. It took a bit of wandering around before I realised that an anonymous set of doors which could have been to a Department Store in fact led, via a long passage, to a Ticket Hall.
I purchased a token without incident and (with a bit of assistance from the lady manning the automatic barrier) successfully negotiated the barrier and made my way onto the island platform. Although there were plenty of passengers waiting for trains in both directions, minutes passed without a train and I reluctantly concluded that I wouldn't have time to travel to an adjacent station and back in time to meet up at the Chaliapin Hotel. So, contenting myself with taking a few pictures of the station and the modern trains which finally arrived, I left the station.
I took a picture of the statue of Mullanur Vakhitov and afterwards discovered that he was a Tartar Revolutionary active at the time of the Russian Revolution. In the defence of Kazan against the Czech forces in 1918, he was captured and hung. According to the Wikipedia Article, his name is also Romanised as 'Waxitov'.
Another statue stands outside the Chaliapin Hotel. This, of course, is of Fyodor Ivanovitch Chaliapin, the opera singer and perhaps Kazan's most famous son, born 1873 and died in 1938 (of leukemia, in Paris). For a brief biography, see the Wikipedia Article.
A private concert had been arranged for guests from the 'Golden Eagle'. The hotel restaurant is situated in the atrium of the hotel and, at one side, there was an area of seating facing a grand piano. The soloist was a bass singer in the Russian tradition. I was impressed with his rendering - with twinkling eyes and a mouth set in an almost perpetual smile he reminded me very much of pictures I've seen of Chaliapin. I also like his 'no nonsense' shirtsleeves appearance. I'm ashamed to say that, for the first part of the concert, I divided my attention between the singing and the hotel's Wi-Fi which allowed me to dash off a few e-mails but, once that was done, I concentrated fully on the concert.
After the concert, we re-joined our coach and were taken back to our waiting train at Vosstaniye, once again running the gauntlet of the builders constructing the station approach road. By common consent, our time in Kazan was regarded as a great success. At about 7.25 p.m. our train departed with (I think) the same locomotive which brought us in - Class ChS4T Co-Co number 659 in brown livery.
This was our last evening on board so we had our Farewell Dinner at 8.00 p.m., followed by various entertainments in the Bar Car. The impromptu choir I was in gave their first (and certainly last) public performance of 'Kalinka' in Russian and then various other guests were persuaded to do their 'party pieces'.
Of course, I was somewhat distracted by the passing railway infrastructure. I was very impressed by large marshalling yards we passed (at Kanash, I think).
I eventually retired to my cabin to complete my re-packing and get some sleep as our train inexorably continued towards Moscow.
'Russian and English Kazan' published 2011 (full colour bi-lingual guide book available within the Kremlin at Kazan).
[First published on 22nd July 2012, revisions 3rd August 2012 and 15th August 2012]