Beyond the woods

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March 13th 2011
Published: March 19th 2011
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In a country containing 22% of the world's forest, where trees cover an area larger than the USA, one might imagine that nowhere could be that far from a patch of woodland. However, the name of the 40,000 strong town in Yaroslavsky Province where I spent last weekend translates as Pereslavl Beyond the Woods. I was interested to find out if it really merited the name by being any further beyond the woods than your average Russian town or whether it was just that in 1152 its founders realised that to everyone other than the Welsh a nice, short, easily pronounceable name like Pereslavl Zalessky would sound better than a long, difficult one like Pereslavl Natakomzherasstoyaniiotlesakakilyuboydrugoygorodvrossiisky (Pereslavl at the Same Distance from the Woods as Any Other Town in Russia).

Beyond the railway line it certainly was though, which is why we found ourselves hanging around the Sholkovskaya long distance bus station in Moscow's outskirts at 2 o'clock on Saturday afternoon amongst the shaurma chewers, cigarette puffers and beer swiggers waiting for rides back to their provincial towns in the dirt-spattered buses that occasionally drew up at the bays and filled with passengers. The temperature in Moscow, after a long cold spell, was now hovering between -5C and zero, causing much of the snow to melt and mix with all the filth from the buses, peoples' feet and general nastiness that had collected inside the powdery white mountains during the winter (the Russians have a saying: "Spring will show who shat where"). In places it had taken on a grey colour but mostly it was black and sloshing around everywhere, being continually churned over by wheel and boot alike.

"You shouldn't have crumpled up your tickets like that!" barked the uniformed inspector as I handed her two little pieces of paper that had been sitting next to my wallet and phone in a trouser pocket for half an hour. I had the impression she was saying it out of boredom rather than real annoyance. We apologised and filed past her and onto the bus.

In the two seats in front and across the aisle from us sat four big, burly men who all knew each other. They had impressive beer bellies, were dressed only in black and grey and swore eloquently. When one of his companions finished their drink the biggest of the lot, a shaven-headed man whose arms were almost certainly covered in tattoos, would open his bag and hand over a fresh one. Each half-litre can was of the lightest shade of pink imaginable, so strange and unnatural in the dark, dingy interior of the bus that it stood out immediately in one's sphere of vision, and had the word "ALCO" written on it in a darker shade of pink.

The bus chugged through Moscow's grim outskirts and grimmer suburbs, the rows of grey high rise gradually dwindling until finally we broke free and were into the land of forests, rivers and villages of coloured wooden houses. Everything, however, looked fairly drab due to the grey sky and black clouds until suddenly, as if by magic, the sun broke loose from behind them. The clouds dispersed, snow that had seemed to me grey suddenly shone bright white and the previously drab and dilapidated village houses absorbed the sun's rays and threw them back at the world in an array of blues, greens, reds and oranges. What an affect the weather can have on a place, on people, on one's mood! The weariness that had built up over four months of winter was cast off in an instant and replaced by a double thrill at the prospect of the spring that was coming (while Muscovites consider the current -5C to count as spring I, as a Brit, feel that it's still winter until you hit +10C) and at the new and exciting place I would be exploring that weekend, located in a region so vital to Russia's history.

Russia has not always been the vast monstrosity looming halfway around the globe that it is today. In fact it was not until the eighteenth century that it reached anything approaching its current size, having expanded into Siberia and the Far East. Even then, although it claimed ownership to those territories, there were still large areas where no Russian had ever been and that were still inhabited by their indigenous populations. At the beginning of the seventeenth century Russia was significantly less than half the size it is today. Fifty years before that it was a fifth of its current size, half a century before that an eighth. In fact, until the end of the fifteenth century, all that existed of what would later become the dominant culture in Russia was the following: several small and occasionally warring pricipalities centred around villages in a small part of today's European Russia that have since become quiet provincial backwaters. Places like Suzdal, population today 12,000 but with 52 churches, cathedrals and monasteries remaining from its glory days, were the capitals. Moscow, founded in 1147 by Yury Dolgoruky, was a much less important, more westerly principality. Five years later Yury founded Pereslavl Zalessky, birthplace of Alexander Nevsky (one of the central figures in medieval Russian history) and, much later, the place where Tsar Peter the Great, founder of the Russian navy, first began building boats.

After a two and a half hour ride we got off at Pereslavl Zalessky's bus station, a tiny bring building at the far southern end of town looking onto a large area of churned up mud and dirty puddles. We exited onto the main street, the single decent asphalt road that ran through the town, and began walking towards the centre. Trees lined the street on either side and behind them an icy path picked its way through great drifts of snow, onto which looked rows of little wooden bungalows, many of them with claw-like icicles hanging down several feet from their roofs to intricately carved window frames.

Within ten minutes we came to a monastery just of the main street to the left. One ancient-looking, yellowish church had several small green onion domes surrounding one large copper one that, as was evident from the haphazardly erected wooden scaffolding that covered it, was currently under renovation. The other church in the monastery, which we decided to slip inside, was a whitewashed building whose brilliant blue domes were studded with golden stars. Everywhere inside the colour gold was more evident than any other: in the candle stick holders that lined the area immediately in front of the door, in the vast ornate chandeliers that hung from the ceiling and in the frames of the icons to name but a few examples. The sound of women's voices chanting came from further inside the church and in the area where we now found ourselves twenty or so headscarved women stood crossing themselves in the Orthodox fashion. To the left a lone babushka was prostrating herself and kissing an icon housed in what looked like a giant golden shrine. Further within the church behind an arch, where the invisible chanters must have been standing, I could see nuns dressed head to foot in black lighting tall, thin, yellow candles one from the other and filling up the candle stands. A minute after our arrival a priest appeared, also dressed entirely in black, his face both sad and stern, his beard jutting down to his chest in a mixture of black and grey. He swung an incense holder on a long chain backwards and forwards, filling our nostrils with its smoky, oriental smell and occasionally letting embers jump out and float down to the floor as he slowly circled the gathered worshippers.

Back on the main street we walked for ten more minutes before another monastery appeared to our right, a short walk down a bumpy, pot-holed, icy road. This one was surrounded by high, turreted walls, behind which multiple variously coloured church domes could be seen rising up against the evening sky that was rapidly filling with the pinks and oranges of sunset. The monastery gates were closed so instead we followed its walls to the edge of the hill on top of which it stood. The whole of Pereslavl Zalessky spread out before us, its flat wooden sprawl occasionally interrupted by cathedral towers and gleaming golden domes sparkling with the last of the sun's dying light, the only high rise buildings to be seen. To the left of the town lay the flat, white, frozen expanse of Lake Plescheyevo.

The centre, an hour on foot from the bus station, contained almost the only non-wooden buildings we had seen all the way, pleasant Tsarist era structures in light shades of pinks, blues and yellows, nothing more than three or four storeys and noticeably lacking in grey Soviet concrete. For a Saturday night it was remarkably quiet and free of pedestrians.

We stopped dead just after entering our hotel lobby. There was no mat to wipe our feet on and our shoes were decorating the floor with wet, black prints containing almost enough melted snow to be termed puddles. We looked around ourselves uncertainly, from the entrance to the registration desk to a babushka who was mopping the floor just to our right.

"Don't worry my dears," she said, glancing at us with a look of resignation while continuing to mop. "That's just our job here, go on, please."

We apologised, she waved her hand dismissively, and we continued up to the desk, leaving a long, messy trail behind us. Both receptionists smiled warmly at us as we approached, not the huge, fake, gurning smiles that some (usually not Russian) establishments ask their staff to greet customers with but discreet grins of genuine pleasure at seeing the way we had entered. I reflected that this was one of the things I liked about customer service in Russia: that you always knew where you stood. If the person serving you is in a bad mood, they will at least scowl and possibly even shout at you too. If they are genuinely in a good mood you'll also feel it. I prefer this to the constant forced smiles and politeness one receives in other countries: you know it is fake and that they really just want to knock off and go home, they know that you know and you know that they know that you know, but all the same a little charade is necessarily performed.

* * *

The next day we got up early and ordered omelettes and coffee in the small, two-room, brick-walled hotel cafe. As you might expect from people working for poor wages at 9:30 on a Sunday morning and whose boss wasn't bothered about providing good customer service, there were no smiles on offer from the waitresses or even any distinct words, but rather a profusion of glowers, grimaces and glares followed by a grunt or nod of the head to indicate that the order had been understood.

"Girl!" I said to the waitress after she had plonked our coffees down on the table and turned her back on us (girl is the correct way to address them in Russia), "Could I have some sugar, please?"

The usual grunt of acknowledgement was not forthcoming. In fact she didn't even flinch but just kept walking away.

"Girl!" I called again, assuming she had not heard or not understood my Russian. She was about a metre away from us and just passing into the other room but kept on walking without looking our way or saying anything. Irritation boiled up and I reflected that my reflections of the previous night on Russian customer service had been complete rubbish. I began standing up to go and talk to her but a moment later she reappeared with a bowl of sugar cubes.

We ate slowly and watched Russian pop videos on the television. The singer in one was walking round a town singing so forcefully, expressively and emotionally that my attention was glued to him. First he was in an empty metro carriage, then passing a lonely, drenched babushka standing on a street corner and holding out a single rose for sale, eyes cast down on her feet, now he was passing a kindly-looking, skinny, bespectacled old man sitting on the street in dirty clothes and trying to suck the very last drops out of a bottle of vodka. Then a more cheerful video came on about people living in a communal apartment together and we were soon both laughing at them all hopping from foot to foot as they queued up outside the toilet together in the morning.

After breakfast we set off exploring, starting on the main street but soon getting drawn into the maze of dirt lanes, alleyways and paths through the snow that made up most of the town by the sight of sparkling church domes towering above the low rise wooden sprawl. It turned out to be a whitewashed, golden-domed convent where nuns in black bustled quietly around the snowy grounds. We wandered about for several minutes before leaving past the flat, white surface of a pond in which several holes had been made for fishing.

Heading towards the next set of domes we could see in the distance, their bright colours standing out from the duller, more natural ones of the snow and the houses, we clambered up a small hill then descended to the river. We crossed its frozen surface, climbed the other bank and found ourselves near a belltower and a collection of churches that had once been a part of the Kremlin, the original fortress that Yury Dolgoruky had founded back in 1152. As we walked past them a man climbed the steps of the small belltower and began ringing out a pleasant melody.

By 11:30 we were hungry again so we decided to warm up and get something to eat in a one room, red-brick establishment whose name translated as "The Pancake Cafe". I got flung embarrassingly into the middle of the room by the huge, heavy, metal door which slammed shut on me violently the minute I took my hand off it but thankfully the cafe's six plastic tables were entirely free of customers and only the woman behind the counter saw. She smiled understandingly.

The menu was remarkably cheap and for about £3.50 we got two portions of pancakes, one of soup, one of dumplings, a coffee and a tea. The only other customers came in just after we had ordered, a young man who looked as though he was about to collapse from his hangover and a young, serious-faced woman. They sat down, ordered a beer each and spoke to one another in hushed voices.

We left with full stomachs and ready to continue our exploration. We walked down the river's frozen surface to the point where it emptied into the lake and a pretty red and white church stood on the shore. We walked some way out onto the lake then continued parallel to the land for a while before rejoining the town at a different point. After passing a wooden playground we came back to the main street and continued down it, stopping now and then to look at interesting buildings or investigate side streets. At 2 o'clock we sat down again in a place called the USSR cafe. While it had the hammer and sickle (the symbol of the USSR) on its receipts and pictures of Stalin and Lenin on its walls, leading me to think the owner might be something of a fan, other items of Soviet paraphernalia bore witness to a side of the USSR that few people could claim to be proud of: I recognised the hunched and emaciated young man in one photo, his eyes filled with hatred, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of the book Gulag Archipelago based on his years alongside millions of others in Soviet concentration camps.

By five o'clock we had made our way back to the bus station and had been in many times more churches, cathedrals, monasteries and convents than on any other day in our lives.

Click this link for advice on independent travel in Russia, with individual sections on many beautiful, interesting, hard-to-reach and off the beaten track destinations within the country.

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20th March 2011

City name
Hi Ed! Pereslavl Zalessky is a nice town. I've been there in Summer, though. Have you visited famous museums of irons and kettles? I just wanted to note that Pereslavl Zalessky was named this way not because people in XII century wanted to stress that the city is located beyond the woods. The thing is that the city was founded by emigrants from Pereslavly located in the south (now it is known as Pereslavl Khmelnitsky, Ukraine). Zalesie was a name of a territory north to the Kiev, which was capital that time. So, new settlers gave the city a name of their hometown, but to distinguish them, they gave it a second name.
21st March 2011

Nice read, as always. But what I really enjoyed about this blog were the photos. I know you are not so keen on photography, indeed I've read you stating that you don't really know what constitutes a good image, but these shots are really decent. You got a new camera? Taking more of an interest? He he, anyway, thanks!
22nd March 2011

Exactly what you expect Russia to look like!
How very Russian your pictures are. Snowy churches, it couldn't be more typical.Your story is good as always. Personally I prefer the longer name you suggested: Pereslavl Natakomzherasstoyaniiotlesakakilyuboydrugoygorodvrossiisky just has a nice ring to it!
22nd March 2011

Hi Ed, I'm a journalist with CNN and i've been reading your blog entries quite alot lately and i love the way you write. I think we should hire you to write features for our site hehe. One thing though, why you wrote so less about Khorog (Tajikistan) ? and if you have to sum up your Khorog or Badakhshan jaunt in a sentence what will write..? I know its not a right entry to post questions about Khorog but still as its your latest entry so I'm asking you. Take care mate
1st April 2011

Эдвард, желаем тебе удачного путешествия на одно из самых удивительных мест в России, Камчатка. Обязательно покупайся в Гейзерах! Ждем твою историю!

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