Saturday, June 1, 2013

May 31 2013: Kazan from Platzkart to Ploschad

Saying poka to Moskva
Thursday night we said "poka" to Moscow and hopped on a platzkart traincar to Kazan. The platzkart is a staple in Soviet-era rail travel, configured with bunkbeds, one on top of each other, that become benches for seating by day. If you're travelling alone, that means negotiating with your bottom neighbor to be allowed to sit, access the hidden storage, etc. I found the shared sleeping car charming with our small group!

The 12 hour journey seemed like just the right amount of time: get settled in, have a snack, do some reading, sleep, blog, another snack, and we'd be there. All went perfectly except the sleep. My bed must've been about 5'2" (1.5 meters) so I had to sleep curled up in a ball or with my feet in the air - otherwise my feet would hang over the edge and get hit by people walking to the bathroom. Somehow others seemed to get a good night's sleep, I was very jealous as I watched them snooze.

Good morning upper bunk!

Crossing the Volga River, passing a
cargo train headed the other direction

There was a beautiful woman seated near us and I watched in amusement as she got hit on all night by various suiters. Much like in the train to Moscow, her strategy was to just giggle and nod. Throughout the evening, I don't think I heard her say a single word to these guys.

Our very first mosque!!!

The beautiful Qolşärif Mosque inside the Kremlin

One great thing about travelling with Kostya and Dania is that they are vegetarians, which gives me a chance to try really interesting local veggie foods. Olga is embracing the opportunity too, as she pointed out a vegetarian cafeteria while we were trying to find our hotel. Breakfast there came to 50 rubles (less than $2 per person) for a salad, slice of pizza, fried mushrooms, and interesting local Rosehips juice. From the first purchase, Kazan it 1/10 the price of Moscow (or less). Even San Francisco is a lot less expensive than Moscow.

Cup of coffee from a giant cup of coffee!

At this point, we couldn't dawdle anymore and really needed to find our hotel so we could freshen up. The facilities on the train are conducive to making us all a little ripe, and some of us (me) didn't get to use the bathroom, not realizing they are locked about 10 minutes before arrival due to the fact that the toilet is literally a hole in the floor of the train that dumps directly onto the tracks. Apparently they don't like to dump #1 and #2 directly onto the tracks in the most populated of areas.

Dania on the Kazan metro :)

mama monkey and baby monkey!
In the past few days we had discovered there would be a bit of a fiasco with the hotel. A friend of Olga's recommended we try a discount European hotel booking site, and I cancelled my Kazan hotel reservation in order to take a lower-priced one through the Russia-based site. Not completely trusting an unknown site, I emailed the hotel directly to confirm our reservation - they had no record of it. Kostya ended up calling Ozon and working out alternate arrangements - something tells me if I hadn't double checked, we might've slept on the street last night. The whole episode is a bit like the early days of the internet when you never knew what would happen when placing an order/booking. Our remaining reservations are through known sites, hopefully we won't have any nights sleeping on the streets! :)

Feeding Donkey!
The city of Kazan is beautiful with bright blue skies, clean air, drivers who stop when you cross the street, and beautiful mosques and Russian orthodox churches. Kazan has more residents than San Francisco (1.1 million vs 825,000) - yet it has a very small town (Olga calls it provincial) feel. The Muslim Tatars settled Kazan 1005 years ago, before many of them were killed and annexed by Ivan the Terrible in 1552. Still the separation of Russians vs Tatars is evident in the culture, architecture, cuisine, language (locals speak Tatar and Russian), even in the dance clubs - no alcohol may be drank on the dance floor, and some clubs are just-dance-floor with no other place to stand. In those cases, law dictates that you must keep one hand on the bar at all times while you're drinking! The Kremlin is the oldest part of town with the President's palace, numerous museums, and the beautiful Qolşärif Mosque (rebuilt in 1996 for the first time since Ivan the Terrible destroyed it and killed everybody in 1552).

We took the Metro to the Botanical and Zoological Garden. Be careful what you call it - Kostya and Dania get upset if you call it a zoo or Zoological Botanical garden. It's an interesting place with a diverse selection of botanical plants - and animals such as camels, toucans, big red butt Macaca monkeys, wild boars, and a squirrel desperately trying to escape. The most active and interesting animals were the ones with babies: one set of Macaw monkeys and one pair of polar bears had young kids who were active playing, climbing, swimming - just being kids.

Dacha, come back in 5 years to
see a mansion in this spot!

Kostya plotted us a direct route as-the-crow-flies from the garden to the vegetarian restaurant Paramartha, which guided us through unpaved roads, alleys, construction sites, and eventually through a dacha area on the outskirts of the city. There are still many old wooden houses in various states of disrepair (in some cases only the doorframe and door were still standing), with shiny new expensive guarded dachas right next door or across the street. Watching this dacha neighborhoods gentrify is a unique experience! Seconds later, trees cleared and our dirt path had become a bustling road, leading straight to our curry-infused dinner.

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