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Published: October 29th 2013
Kazan, 14 train hours west of Ekaterinburg, is the capital of the Tatarstan Republic.
After arriving very late to my hotel, I woke up bright and early to explore Kazan the next morning... then read my guidebook and waited an hour for things to be open. My plan was to explore Kazan's Kremlin.
A Kremlin is the equivalent of a fort, the most famous of which is in Moscow. Many Russian cities have Kremlins but some of these are in a state of disrepair or ruin. Kazan's Kremlin is a World Heritage site and differs to other Kremlins in a few uniquely Tatar way.
I walked up the hill to the Kremlin at about 10am, passing the south west wall, and entered through the southern gate. I was asked if I would like an excursion, a guided tour, i declined, but took a moment to look at the map on the wall. I needn't have bothered though, the buildings are spaced out and it would be very difficult to get lost0 (I did, however, manage to miss the Soyumbike tower... a giant, leaning tower... the biggest tower in the complex... oops).
I began by walking alongside the west wall. It looked a little like Tallinn's town walls... or Camelot. Halfway along the wall is the Kul Sharif Mosque.
The Kul Sharif Mosque is the largest mosque in Russia (and Europe if we exclude Turkey). It was rebuilt and completed in 2005 after being destroyed in the 16th century. Kul Sharif was the Iman of the original mosque and defended it with his students when it was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible.
The new mosque is stunning. Beautiful. I loved the intricate, geometric patterns in the stone, the bright colours and calligraphy (Arabic looks like it was designed for artwork. There was a piece of art inside I would have loved to have bought called 'Birth of the World' a single line of calligraphy spiralling like Fibonacci out of a plain white background, with what looked like pencil guidelines. Very simple, very beautiful, but wouldn't fit in my rucksack).
When I went in I used my scarf to cover my head and had to put on plastic smurf shoes. I went to have a look around the art in the shop first as there was a camera crew filming a woman in the centre of the museum bit and I didn't want to get in the way. I next headed up to the tourists balcony at the top of a spiral staircase that looked down on the prayer hall. A huge star-like chandelier hung in the centre and on the walls were painted intricate texts of calligraphy. The lower floor was covered in carpet and appeared to be ready for prayer, and there was a balcony just lower than ours which had a few benches by the walls.
Next I headed down into the basement of the mosque. There, there was a museum, though, of course, being out of tourist season, parts were roped off for refurbishment, but i did get to see some of the old Korans. Many had sections missing, but most of them were a few hundred years old. There was a little old woman who walked me round the artwork and explained things and pointed out parts of the picture that were interesting. There was one piece that had a hidden black and white horse coming out of some coloured flowers.
A group of school children came into the mosque, so I left and had a cup of tea in the café across the square. I discovered this café was underneath Kazan's Hermitage, but I had to go round to the other side of the building to get in.
I was expecting (and hoping) to see local Volga-Tatar and Russian artwork, but instead there was a French impressionist exhibition on. C'est le vie.
There were some excellent pictures and one Russian woman cornered me to tell me how wonderful one of the pictures was. It was, but she went into a degree of detail I was ill-equipped to deal with. There was no 'French impression artwork debate in Russian' course at uni.
On the next floor there was the history of Tatarstan going all the way back to the creation of the universe. The first room was about the universe. It was interactive and the bab* in leathers on duty was determined that I should try everything. Therer was a side room filled with rocks and geodes, which without my early life education in rocks (thank you, mother) I wouldn't have had a clue what they all were. There were also a lot of pictures made of jasper.
(Interestingly, quartz, calcite, geode, amethyst and a few others are the same words in Russian, albeit with a hilarious accent. Kvartz,I have just discovered, actually comes from a Slavic route... you learn something new everyday!).
There were rooms with the layers of earth going all the way down to the core and a whole section on early animals and dinosaur skeletons (which in my mind always look like they just seen a fabulous handbag).
Next on my tour of the Kremlin was the Annunciation cathedral, the oldest building inside the Kremlin. The cathedral had been taken away from Orthodox Christians after the Russian Revolution and was only given back in 2005, a month after the opening of the Kul Sharif Mosque.
The main wall of the cathedral was covered in portraits of various saints and there were people lighting candles in front of them. The ceiling and arches were painted with saints and lots of gold leaf.
Round the back of the cathedral was a great view of the river and some official looking buildings.
I went into the shopping centre to have a look round and pick up something for my tea.
I had a run in with a slurring gentleman who wanted something, but I walked near two policemen for a few blocks and he left well alone.
On Friday I waited for my old Budapest flatmate, but more on that later.
*Babushka, Russian lady. We had a habit in Tver to name all the babs. Toad-bab, ninja-bab, baby-bab, etc.
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