Monday, 1 September 2008

The Kazan Coda

This Saturday is a big public holiday in Kazan. The city is packed and the streets are heaving, even though it's also raining. Groups of police in natty uniforms and peaked caps are also much in evidence. After an hour or so of prevarication discussing technical encoding matters, aka waiting for the rain to stop, Tania and Sasha and I head outside on the tourist trail. I show off my detailed geographic knowledge of the vicinity by guiding the party first to a decent coffee and then to the Kremlin: A UNESCO World Heritage site, and the real tourist heart of Kazan. Outside it there is a splendid monument to assorted heroes -of- the- revolution. But inside, there is a splendid Mosque, surrounded with little boutiques, and a whole shed-load of ancient palaces and churches and museums.
Each of the boutiques, stashed away under a brick archway in the fortifications, has a subtly different mixture of silly hats, jewelry, embroidery, scarves for belly dancing, plaques enscribed with moral exhortations in arabic or tatar, pink plastic clocks in the shape of a mosque, Muslim sacred literature in Russian translation, etc. All very culturally confusing. I buy a silly hat for me and a rather nice embroidered purse for Lilette and we join the queue inside the mosque for blue plastic bags to put on our feet and brave the zig-zag marble staircase up to the so-called tourist gallery,from which there is a nice view of the carpet of the mosque itself, and of the tourist gallery opposite, packed with other tourists. Down the stairs again there is a museum presenting the history and wisdom of Islam in a dozen or so ornamental glass cases, which is instructive, though Russian.

Back outside, we admire the ancient and iconic Suumbike Tower, an edifice speculatively dated between the 16th and 18th centuries, and its attendant sight-seers and monuments. We also briefly consider the Soviet Museum of the Second World War, but retreat hastily from it when the lady on the door says I have to pay foreigner entrance ticket price.

Instead we stagger down the hill to the circus ground in search of lunch. Guarded by numerous police, there is an international music festival going on – Ukrainian turbo-pop, Western-stylee folk rock, Macedonian throat music – you name it, and all at a volume capable of inflicting physical pain at close quarters. We lunch at a relatively safe distance, on barbecued pork chops, raw onions, and lashings of spicy tomato ketchup.

Walking on through the crowd, we gradually discover that we are at one (noisy) end of an immense fairground stretching all the way along the river into the centre of the city. Most of the sideshows are selling beer, barbecued meat, candyfloss, pies, or other tempting things to eat and drink, but there are also some where you can practice your shooting, have your photo taken in a humorous frame, or buy patriotic flags and souvenirs of the usual kind. There are people leading ponies carrying children on the backs threading through the crowd; there is even, trust me, a camel. And balloons everywhere, in fantastical shapes and colours. And the sun comes out spreading a general sense of bonhomie. At each of the bridges over the river, we encounter a different musical performance of some sort, ranging from jitterbugging to expressionist ballet and ethnic folk song. Frankly, I gawp.

Back at the hotel, the remains of the conference is saying goodbyes again, exchanging business cards, and looking forward to meeting soon, whether in Perm or Novosibirsk. Bauman Street, the pedestrian precinct where the hotel is located, is now really saturated not just with Tatarian folk on holiday but also with a dreadful radio station pumping out of the public speakers at a maximum volume. So Tania and I decide to escape to the suburbs by metro.

According to Wikipedia, the Kazan metro is one of the finest to be seen outside Moscow, even though it has only five stations. At the end of Bauman is the entrance to the second of these, so we take a train from there out to the fifth which is in a suburb called Gorki. If you've ever visited any part of the former Soviet empire, you'd recognize Gorki. Huge tower blocks, are scattered haphazardly across the landscape, decayed concrete paths leading between them and into woodland parks; there are garages, little shuttered shops, and on the other side of a massive highway, a massive supermarket, currently shut. A man selling piles of watermelons knows of no restaurant in the vicinity. Neither does the lady in the chemists shop. But when we do manage to cross the highway, there it is: an enormous and very posh restaurant (with its own miniature replica of the eiffel tower) sitting there like an intrusion from some other planet. Uncharacteristically obsequious waitrons serve us grilled lamb and salad, and a glass or two of drinkable wine, while the traffic trundles by and the concrete continues to decay. Then we get the train back into town, arriving just in time to see the fireworks display and the illuminated fountains, hoorah.

For my last day in Tatarstan, we are going on a river jaunt. This involves getting up infeasibly early to get the bus to the harbour, but it's worth it. Even at 9 am on Sunday after the night before, there are plenty of people queuing up to get on the boat, which turns out actually to be a Meteor class hydrofoil, capable of zooming down the Volga at 60 km/h. The cabins are sealed behind plexiglas windows, which is a good thing since there is almost as much spray as if we were crossing the North Sea, instead of zooming down the Volga. Though it should also be noted that several parts of the Volga are as wide as the North Sea.

South from Kazan, the river banks are mostly forested, occasionally cliffs of sandstone, with rocks that have fallen to form a kind of beach, but all the way South to Bulgari I saw only one shoreside village or town, though the boat does stop to pick up passengers twice, and we do see some small fishing boats. For most of the three hour journey, the river is a windswept lake in the middle of nowhere populated mostly by occasional oil tankers.

Our destination is the settlement of Bolghar: an archaeological site of immense importance to Bulgarians if no-one else, since it contains the remains of a fortified settlement destroyed by the Tatars in the 10th century, thus putting an end to umpteen centuries of domination of the region by a people known (honest) as the Volga Bulgars. Or something like that.

The landing stage is at the foot of a steep flight of wooden stairs, at the top of which there are people selling smoked fish and fresh fruit, but no lunch. Almost all of our fellow passengers are now queueing up to pay their entrance fees to inspect said archaeological site; we however set off along a windswept road into the village proper in search of lunch.

According to two small boys, our choices are a hotel about 3 km away, or the factory canteen just over there, outside the factory. No contest I would say, but the canteen has a dispirited air since the factory is closed today, and Tania thinks it might be perilous to one's health to trust the soup and sausages which the large lady inside says is all she has to offer. Surprisingly, she (the lady) even recommends we try the other canteen, down there in the centre of the village, rather than her own sausages. Off we trot, some of us more rapidly than others. The other canteen turns out to be shut, but there is a cafe right there in the centre of the village, which is open, and offers a choice of chicken or cutlets, served in the large room still decked out with plastic flowers for someone's wedding celenbrations last month. There is something indefinably Malawian about this village in the middle of Tatarstan, but maybe its just something indefinably villagelike.

Anyway, we walk back along a much more direct route, between rows of small farm houses, most of them made of timber and following the same rather nice traditional style, with ornamented window frames and boxed-in logs at the corners. Goats, geese, and chickens scatter around us, but we see few people, and fewer children. Tania says that her grandfather's generation had a better life working on the collective farms than the current privatised farmers do.

Back at the archaelogical site, there is a minaret the ascent of which I decline, two domed mausoleums which I dutifully peek inside (lots of broken stones covered in arabic script), and a nice 19th c. Church, turned into a museum containing maps showing the extent of the original Old Bulgarian empire, loads of old iron and broken pottery to demonstrate its culture, and some rather fanciful pictures of encounters between Peter the Great and Genghis Khan. Or someone of that ilk – the Golden Horde passed this way in the 13th century, I learned, and gave the local Tatars quite a pasting.

There is just time for a cup of tea at the landing station before we get back on the boat, where we all fall asleep, even though it is just as bumpy and noisy as before. And back in Kazan, we dine at the Uzbek restaurant where I first eat lunch, and then it's time to kickstart the long journey home, by getting my bag packed in time to get to bed in time to get up early enough to get to the airport in time for the only plane out of there... Back in the routine with which I began this set of blog entries in fact, but played in reverse. Artistic or what?

1 comment:

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