An overnight train to Kazan

Kazan means Cooking pot in Tatar

I have always liked going on foreign trains and especially overnight ones – it seems like such an adventure and a great way to see some of the countryside. But I do wonder if writers who say things like “I was gently lulled to sleep by the rhythmic sounds of the wheels on the track and the gentle swaying of the carriage” have ever actually been on an overnight train. In reality you are jolted and jarred, bounced and lurched and – yes – swayed but not necessarily gently! And then of course there is the accompanying sounds of creaking, groaning and screeching. Despite all this I usually get a reasonable nights sleep – but not this time. This time I also had to contend with the heat! It was So Hot that I was literally dripping in sweat (too much information?) and got very little sleep. My husband, of course slept like a baby. Conversely and perversely in the morning they turned the heating off and the air conditioning on and the compartment slowly got so chilly that I had my blanket tucked around me! That said, it was still of course an adventure.

The Yekaterinburg station was magnificent and vast. Our train left the city at 22:34 so we had a good meal in town before leaving and on the platform we picked up what I can only describe as creamed egg and ham on a bready pizza dough for breakfast. It was not as disgusting as it sounds! Our train did not have a restaurant car; some do, some don’t. But we were served tea and coffee in the morning at a time of our choosing, without milk – just tea or just coffee with sugar!

The train to Kazan and the kiosk where we bought breakfast

We trundled through the night for 15 hours, across the dividing line between Asia and Europe, a few kilometres west of Yekaterinburg, and across 2 time zones. In the morning, with our tea and egg pizza, we watched the country pass by. Much of the vista was vast, open tracts of land but from time to time we were plunged back into the ubiquitous forest of birch and pine that covers much of Russia. Long Russian train journeys are made for reading Anna Karenina or War and Peace – but I chose not too!

We arrived in Kazan at 11.30, checked into our hotel, and went in search of lunch which we found in a canteen style eatery where we had a couple of Tatar meat pies that are similar to a cornish pasty. But first here comes the history bit. Kazan means cooking pot or cauldron in Tatar – hence the first photo. It lies on the banks of the Volga river, it is 150 years older than Moscow and is the capital of the semi-autonomus Tatarstan Republic. The Volga Tatars are a Turkic people who came from the east and set up their own Khanate. In 1552 it was conquered by Ivan the Terrible who was quick to build a new Russian city on the ruins and the Tatars were pushed to the south side of the canal that runs through the city. Incidentally the famous St Basil’s cathedral in Red Square was built by Tsar Ivan to celebrate his triumph at Kazan. It was not until the age of Catherine the Great that the Tatars were given more freedom. Now churches and mosques sit side by side and signs are bilingual in both Russian and Tatar. Russia’s third University was opened here and its famous alumni include Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Lenin, who was expelled for stirring up political trouble!!

Now that we have finished lunch and the history lesson, let’s get on with our visit. Kazan is not a big town and our day-and-a-half gave us plenty of time to see the main sights. We plugged ourselves into our app and followed their guided tour. Past the Kaban lake and up the pedestrianised Bauman Street which looks and feels just like the Old Arbat in Moscow along which lines it was re-modelled. We passed the Epiphany Cathedral Bell tower which our izi guide and our book tells us to climb for impressive views. Neither told us that you could only pay by bank transfer!! (at least that was the case the day we tried). And past the very attractive Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul built to commemorate Peter the Great’s visit in 1722. There were a couple of sculptures with stories behind them along our route but the real sight to see is at the end of Bauman street and that is the Kremlin.

Built by Ivan the Terrible on the ruins of the Khan’s fortress the white painted walls and towers contain buildings of varying ages the oldest of which is the 16th century Annunciation Cathedral.

The building that Kazan considers to be its most famous landmark is the leaning Söyembikä Tower aka The Khan’s Mosque. The entirely fictional legend says that after destroying the town Ivan the Terrible planned to marry the daughter of the last Khan. She agreed but said she would do so only if his engineers could build a tower higher than all the rest. Once they had she went to to top and threw herself off and now the tower leans in the direction she fell. There is, however, plenty of evidence to show that this story is completely untrue.

For me the stand out building in the Kremlin is the Kul Sharif Mosque. Replacing an earlier mosque that the religious scholar, Kul Sharif, had died defending from Ivan in 1552, this new one was built in 2005 largely with money from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The shades of blue and white used both inside and outside are stunning. Outside, with the sun on it, it makes the most perfect photographs, whilst inside it becomes a very peaceful, tranquil space full of light.

An interesting fact about the Mosque and the Orthodox cathedral next to it is that, uniquely, in both places of worship, the call to prayer – church bells for the cathedral and the muezzin for the Mosque are only played internally so as not to disturb each others worship!

There are also several small museums and exhibitions housed within the Kremlin including an off-shoot of the Hermitage in St Petersburg which, when we were there, was hosting an excellent exhibition on Catherine the Great with some exquisite objects from the Hermitage collection.

The other main area to visit in Kazan is the old Tatar quarter with old mosques and brightly decorated houses. There are 2 surviving stone mosques from the time of Catherine the Great. Unlike many of the other mosques and churches they survived the Soviet period because, after dismantling their minarets, they looked very much like any another building. When the Tsarina gave them permission to build they did so in such haste (in case she changed her mind) that they got their calculations slightly wrong and so the Mihrab (the niche in the wall which points towards Mecca) does not face directly towards Mecca. Ooops! We visited the small Tatar museum which, with a mixture of a guide, videos and interactive displays, gives one a little history about Kazan and the Volga Tatars. It finishes in a room set up like a traditional home where they serve you fresh Tatar tea and a selection of traditional sweet treats including their famous Chak-Chak, balls of dough baked in honey. FYI although the videos have english subtitles the rest of the tour is in Russian, although one of the guides there did speak some English. It was however definitely worth going.

We stayed in the Tatarskay Usadba hotel. Built in an old farmhouse style around a central courtyard it is in the old tatar settlement overlooking the Kaban lake. The room was large and clean with a futuristic shower! The restaurant on the other side of the courtyard served lots of Tatar specialities including stewed horsemeat and Chak-Chak. I I would definitely recommend staying here.

In all a lovely town with a lot of history and a lovely place to while away some hours wandering around the lake or along Bauman street taking in the sights and enjoying Tatar food. It is only an hour-and-a-half flight from Moscow and if you pick your times right – very cheap!

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