A Volga little town

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September 26th 2011
Published: September 27th 2011
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Bleary-eyed we climbed out of the carriage, down the steps and onto the one lonely platform at Uglich's station. The train we had arrived on stood motionless on the rails, its engines finally silent after a nine-hour chug through the night. The thinnest sliver of a crescent moon hung a few inches above it, lending a purplish light to the just-visible clouds that rippled away in all directions. Small cloudless patches of sky were just beginning to differentiate themselves from the general darkness of the heavens with the very faintest hint of blue, suggesting that somewhere the sun was inching its way up towards the horizon.

The last of the passengers had left and a chill autumn wind was blowing down the platform, a precursor to the winter that would soon be upon us. The train's engines choked into life and it trundled off into the night, leaving the dark outlines of trees just visible on the other side of the tracks in the early morning gloom.

As the world grew lighter a drunk in camouflage clothing who had been asleep on a platform bench awoke and began swearing to himself. A train with a single carriage attached drew up at the platform. The drunk walked over, shook the driver's hand through a window and the two began conversing like old friends.

"Are you going to Kalyazin?" I asked the driver, having walked over.

"There's nowhere else to go from here," he slurred back at me.

Twenty minutes later day had broken and we were on the train, crawling out of Uglich almost at a snail's pace past the log cabins and vegetable plots that inhabited the space where the town and its surrounding forest, abounding with autumn reds, golds, yellows and oranges amid the tall, thin, silver birch, blended into one another.

The men on the train were dressed almost universally in warm camouflage gear and sat in groups, sometimes with a large plastic bottle of beer passing around among them. Their conversation resonated with words like "drunk... vodka... f**k." The women, mostly babushki carrying wicker baskets, were dressed in heavy, dull, worn jackets, skirts and head scarves. Their talk was more along the lines of "potatoes... jam... mushrooms." Every now and then the train would stop at a spot with no station or platform and a couple of people would get off and walk down a trail into the woods.

An hour and three quarters later, thirty five miles down the line, we got off next to the small, wooden shack station at Kalyazin. Until very recently I had never heard of this small town of 13,000. Then, on Moscow's Revolution Square, I had seen an art exhibition of Russian landscapes. One of the pictures had featured Kalyazin's tall, white bell tower, its base taking up almost the entire surface of a tiny, pancake-flat island in the middle of a lake. The unusualness of the structure's location captivated me. A little research on my part revealed that this lonely bell tower was all that remained of a 15th-Century monastery that had once stood on that spot and had been flooded in 1940 during the creation of the nearby Uglich Reservoir.

On leaving the station we asked a passerby for directions to the bell tower.

"Go straight ahead for a while then take a turn to the right just before the lake. Go straight again for a while, past a cafeteria - have a snack there and drink some tea on the way back by the way, it's tasty, extremely tasty - and after the cafeteria you'll come to a small memorial monument on the shore, there's a good view of the tower from there."

"Thank you very much," I said.

"Not at all, not at all, have a very nice day," she said, leaving us and walking up to the door of a house on the left side of the road.

We never found that cafeteria because we missed her turn off, walking all the way down a muddy, pot-holed road to the lake shore instead. We followed a path along the shore, little wooden jetties occasionally jutting a few metres out into the clear waters, the overhanging branches of trees laden with glowing yellow berries at times obstructing our view of the bell tower and at others disappearing to leave its needle-like form rising up above the gently rippling blue waters and the dark green trees that lined the far shore.

"What happened to the other monastery buildings?" Alisa asked some fishermen, once we had arrived at the spot near the memorial monument. "Are they underwater or did they collapse or what?"

"No, the government knocked them down before they flooded the area," a man replied. "They left the bell tower though for some reason and we still use it today. There are lots of towns like this on the Volga where the monasteries were demolished."

Back on the train to Uglich the same camouglaged, beer-swilling men went, "vodka... f**k...drunk!" while the headscarved, basket-carrying women said, "potatoes... pie... jam!"

The front door of our hotel was about three feet wide and made of metal so rusted and dirty that one might have imagined someone had splattered brown paint all over it. The only indication that this was a hotel was a tiny poster less than a foot tall that had been stuck to the door, bore the words "Hotel Uglich" and was not legible from a distance of over twenty feet.

"Hi, my name's Edward, I have a reservation for a room for two," I said at reception.

"No,, we have no free rooms," the receptionist said.

"But I made a reservation a week ago..."

"Unfortunately we've had a group booking and we have no free rooms," she repeated.

"But excuse me," I said, "we've just spent nine hours on the train to get here assuming we would be sleeping in this hotel and, you understand, we need somewhere to stay the night."

I repeated the above sentence no less than four times to her, vaguely changing the wording each time so as not to be patronising, and she repeated her line about the group booking the first three times.

"Ok," she said the fourth time. "We'll sort this out somehow. Go upstairs and ask the cleaning ladies to show you room 301."

Room 301 was small, a little Spartan and colder than my fridge but as it seemed to be our only option we went back downstairs and told the receptionst that we wanted it. She gave us the forms to fill in, took our passport details and soon enough we were in our room, wrapping thin blankets around ourselves and shivering.

A little investigation revealed that since our room was not one of the ones with ensuite facilities and we would be using the communal shower at the end of the corridor we were only allowed one hand towel between us and no big towel, soap or shampoo. So, after stealing an almost used-up bar of soap from the wash basin in the toilets, we took a much-needed hot shower and went out to explore the town.

As old as Moscow itself and once the seat of a small princedom in the days before Russia became a single, unified country, Uglich went into decline in the 17th Century, leaving it as it is today: a small provincial town with a population of 34,000 and infrequent transport connections. The town does, however, remain dotted with beautiful historical buildings, a remnant to its proud past.

One of the most famous scenes in Russian history also played out here: the murder of ten-year-old Dimitry Ivanovich, the last of the Rurik Dynasty, rulers of Russia (and earlier states from which it had grown) for over 700 years. There followed the Time of Troubles, fifteen years of civil uprisings, occupation by Poland, numerous imposters claiming to be the still-alive Dimitry Ivanovich and a famine that killed millions. Eventually in 1613 Tsar Michael came to the throne. He ordered the three year-old son of an imposter Dimitry Ivanovich to be hanged, had his wife strangled and began the Romanov Dynasty, Russia's second and last dynasty of Tsars that would rule the country until the Communist Revolution in 1917. Tsar Michael's mother was also from Uglich.

We walked down the town's one central street, a very wide avenue conspicuously lacking in traffic, the houses lining it a mixture of wood and concrete. The friendliness and helpfulness of the locals was amazing: once a man we had asked for directions actually walked us part of the way to where we were going and another time a shopkeeper left his customers inside to come out and point us on our way.

We wandered around the Kremlin, its brightly-coloured churches clinging to the banks of the River Volga and glowing warmly in the afternoon light of the setting sun. We took a stroll through Victory Park, its main path lined with stalls selling matrioshki (Russian dolls), painted boxes, woolen clothing, fur hats and the like, all being eyed up by a small trickle of Russian tourists passing through.

"Are these made in the local wool factory?" Alisa asked one saleswoman, pointing at some enormous fluffy socks.

"There is no wool factory," the woman replied, "and there hasn't been for years. That's why there's no work here, all we can do is sell stuff to people like you."

After an outing in a rowing boat on the Volga, during which I had drenched myself in sweat while fighting against a current threatening to carry us off to the South, we began looking for a place to eat. The first three we tried were closed (at 19:30 on a Saturday night) but at the fourth the door swung open under my touch. Inside was a pretty, dimly-lit restaurant with blood-red tables and chairs, about two thirds of which were occupied.

"I'm sorry," a waiter told us apologetically, "but we're so busy that we can't take any more orders for another half hour."

"Can we sit and wait though?" I asked.

"Of course," he replied.

We waited half an hour then were told to wait another twenty minutes, although we did manage to get some drinks.

"Damn. This isn't a town but f**k knows what," a man who had just entered said loudly after a waiter told him and his wife that they would have to wait thirty minutes.

Eventually though we did get served and had a delicious and cheap meal of home-made Russian food and vodka.

The next morning we had breakfast at a smaller cafe just around the corner from our hotel.

"Girl!" I called to the waitress in the usual Russian way.

"Yes?" she asked, not coming over from where she was standing next to the bar.

"Could we have two portions of pancakes and jam, please?"

She burst out laughing, leaning on the bar and lowering her head almost to its surface.

"I can't understand a word he's saying!" she said, raising her eyes, probably wet with tears, to an older woman standing behind the bar. "I'm sorry, what did you want?" she added to me.

We visited several churches and monasteries that day, the sky above us bulging ominously with rolling black clouds and occasionally opening up to spatter us with short-lived bouts of rain. Away from the wide central avenue the streets were muddy and full of holes, the houses traditional Russian log cabins with beautiful carved window frames. We saw people returning from the nearby woods carrying wicker baskets of enormous mushrooms, a man getting out of his Lada so drunk that he could barely stand, a monk in black robes chatting on his mobile phone, a babushka pulling stuff out of bins, children playing happily on wooden swings and slides.

"Borshch, dumplings, coffee and a milkshake," we ordered, having carefully studied the menu in a cafe where we had stopped to take a rest.

"No borshch, the only soup we have is salyanka. No dumplings either and the only drinks we have are coffee, tea and juice," said the woman behind the bar.

"OK, salyanka, two cappuccinos and a cabbage pie," we said after some consideraton.

"We're out of cabbage pie," the woman sighed impatiently.

"Do you have zharkoe ?" Alisa asked unhopefully.

"Yes, we do."

"Ok," I said, "salyanka, zharkoe and two cappuccinos."

"Can't do cappuccinos, only normal coffee," the woman said, starting to lose her temper.

"Ok, two normal coffees with milk and sugar," I hastened to agree.

"Yeah, we don't have any milk."

I looked at the bar, behind which there was only a beer tap and a couple of near-empty bottles of vodka and cognac. In a display cabinet to my right sat a lonely bar of chocolate.

"Ok, just black coffees," I said, hurriedly returning to my place.

After eating we moved on to a couple of the town's museums, firstly the "Legends of Uglich." The kindly woman curator eagerly told us about several of the towns inhabitants who had held high ranks in General Kutuzov's army in the wars against Napoleon before finishing with a story about a certain Uglich tradition of the past.

"Twice a year," she told us, "there was a bride fair, right up until the beginning of the twentieth century. The peasant men would dress up their daughters in their best clothing and put them on display in the main square with their dowry stacked up behind them, like clothes and blankets and so on. No matter how hot or cold it was, those girls had to stand there without moving all day or until someone chose them. Once someone chose them, the families of the bride and groom would have to sit down and drink together until the seventh sweat. You know what it means, the seventh sweat? Well, they didn't drink alcohol, just tea. They would put a towel around the father of the groom's neck and talk and drink tea until it was wet with sweat. Then it would be removed and another one put in its place. Then they would talk and drink tea until that one was wet, and so on until they had got through seven towels. After that if they were still getting on then the marriage was agreed. And the bride would always keep her dowry with her until her dying days. Even my grandmother asked to be buried with the blanket she had been given away with."

At the Museum of Russian Myths and Superstitions we were shown a variety of witches' artefacts that had been found in the woods nearby and were told a lot about the traditional medicine, charms, folk stories and old wives' tales which abound among Russians, who are in general pretty superstitious people.

We left Uglich near midnight, rolling out into the dark forests while dozing off to the chug, chug, chug of the train's wheels.

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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27th September 2011

Beautiful writing - funny and painful by turns - and exquisite photos. Uglich does not seem to live up to its name!
28th September 2011

Excellent writing
Beer in plastic bottles is just wrong. Even more so in large plastic bottles. I liked the topics of conversation of the drunks and the babushki. But what was it with that waitress? Was it her disbelief at a foreigner speaking Russian that caused her not to understand you? But why would she laugh like that? The blatant rudeness of some Russians just keeps on puzzling me...
28th September 2011

7th Sweat?
first time I heard of this. And a bride fair? Gosh, those ladies left behind after all others were chosen must have felt really bad, 7th sweat or not! You're a superb storyteller, Ed. Really. And have I told you I'm really impressed about your photography lately? What cam are u using now?

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