Kazan and life on the Transmonglian railway begins.....

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July 20th 2019
Published: July 26th 2019
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Planning this trip I briefly looked at the option of staying on the train all the way from Moscow to Mongolia, until I saw that was like 5 or so solid days on a train! So a combination of reading and time tables led me first to Kazan, a relatively short hop @ 12 hrs east of Moscow, where I arrived to 27 degrees and sunshine, a nice change from the cloud and rain of St Petersberg and Moscow.

Another day, another Kremlin

Siting on the Volga, Kazan is where Europe and Asia begin to merge in Russia. Historically the area of a Turkic tribe it was incorporated into the Golden Horde (decedents of Genghis Khan) in the 13th century, became an independent Khanate when their power fragmented and was finally conquered by Ivan the Terrible in 1550s. Asserting his power Ivan demanded a Kremlin, or fortress, be built here…..which was my first stop.

I passed a chilled few hours at the white walled, hill top, Kremlin – the Annunciation cathedral and the Kul Sharif mosque and the somewhat leaning Syuyumbike tower from which a love interest of Ivan may or may not have thrown herself off after she got him to build it. All interspersed with a bit of people watching or reading in the sunshine at various spots around the grounds. Kazan has tourists yes, but from what I could tell they were largely Russian tourists which lent quite a different vibe, less hectic and more relaxed atmosphere. No big organised trips with a tight agenda to be followed, so everyone just moved at a more chilled pace. It was a nice change from the full on experience of St Petersberg and Moscow.

In need of a break from my, ahem, hectic sightseeing, I ducked into a café for the aircon and to try the local sweets. Being veggie makes it a struggle to try ‘local food’, and Tatar food was no exception being heavily meat based. However Russians do seem to have a thing for sweet things and ice cream so I’ve been trying those instead (along with soups, they seem to love a soup – menus with 6 soup flavors not uncommon - cream cheese soup is the most um, unusual one I’ve had so far). The local sweet specialty here is chak chak - think macaroni shaped dough deep fried in a ball with honey sugar syrup. Quite tasty but the spiced apple filled pastries are still winning.

Struck by the greenness around the Kremlin walls I contemplated what brief the gardeners had been given. There were immaculate lawns and colorful flowerbeds yes, but it was the topiary (I’m not even sure that covers it… somewhere between topiary and flower arranging) gone mad that was so eye catching. Massive butterflies, gigantic birds, a walkway of hearts and strange cartoon characters. Totally bonkers!

I finished my day in Kazan with a quick detour via the National Tatar Museum, with its exhibits ranging from armor, national dress, jewelry and more. There were enough signs in English to get the idea, although I think my time in Moscow and St Petersberg helped as I was starting to recognize some of the images and Cyrillic text.

Life on the train.........

Kazan was a brief stop after my first overnight train from Moscow, and an non-moving bed and hot shower were very much enjoyed. On this occasion my pot luck approach to booking had worked and I’d ended up on a more premium, newer train, sharing a compartment with 2 Russian ladies and a Russian man. I’d booked coupe class – each carriage has 9 x 4 bed compartments (2 sets of bunks), with just enough room to squeeze between the bunks. Each compartment has a foldaway table and all have sliding doors opening onto a long corridor. There are two staff for each carriage, checking you into the carriage and making sure everything runs smoothly. It’s a constant round of emptying bins, dishing out bed lining to new arrivals, chivying those getting off to hand over their bed lining, giving 1 hour warning alarm calls in the morning and cleaning. The windows got wiped twice in a day on one train and on another, I craned my head round to peer along the corridor in shock….. Surely that noise couldn’t be a…. yup, along comes the hoover, along the corridor, feet up inside each coupe….

As I was to discover not all coupe classes are the same level. My second train from Kazan to Yekaterinberg I shared with a mum and her two small daughters who were hilarious and had far too much energy. It seems coupe class is very popular with families and the corridor soon becomes the play area. And I became the entertainment for a few of them as they tried to practice their English. The family was lovely, but yes the train more basic. Oh yes and obviously, shared toilets, 2 per carriage, and don’t even think about a shower! These were just the warm up journeys though... after my next stop in Yekaterinberg there was 53 hours non-stop to looking forward to..... Ekk.

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