Little did we know as we disembarked from the overnight train from Nizhny Novgorod that we would soon be experiencing one of our most unique moments in Russia. With a six in the morning arrival at Wings Hostel Anton the owner sat us down with a steaming cup of tea to set us up for the freezing temperatures outside whilst we chatted about travelling.
Our first stop was down to the Soviet canteen across from the train station for a hearty soup breakfast, after which we decided to cross off the furthest sights first as the weather was bitterly cold. The Temple of All Religions (bus no.2) is the ongoing vision of local artist and philanthropist Ildar Khanov which also doubles as a treatment center for alcohol and drug addiction. Stared in 1992 there is currently domes and towers dedicated to the Tatar, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Hindu faiths among others, with plans to represent the worlds 16 major religions, some of which are no longer practiced.
One of the most unique architectural landmarks of Kazan, if not Russia, is The Family Centre across the Kazanka River. Also known as ‘The New Palace of Marriage’ it was built to represent a traditional cauldron suspended above a fire it has become one of the most important sites in the rejuvenation of the city which has taken place over the last few years. From here the view back onto the Kremlin, which has to be the best one in Russia, is magic.
There is a completely different side to travelling in this part of the world during the middle of winter and the massive temporary theme park built mostly from ice is one reason why. Located out the front of the Tatar State Puppet Theatre there’s many a sculpture and ice slides of various heights and with free entry there’s plenty of kids lapping it up.
Across the road is the very tourist orientated square of wooden buildings that comprises mostly of restaurants. Still it’s worth wander through if you’re in the area. A further walk through past the Thousand Years of Islam Mosque past the Sly Smile mural by Nikita Nomerz it’s time to take refuge from the chilling weather.
If you haven’t realised by now we do our best to hunt out Stolovaya’s (Soviet canteens) for lunch and in this case it was Cafe Alan Ash. Compared to the bargain basement version above, this is an upmarket affair and the food and prices represent this (thought it’s still crazy cheap). We loved it here with the ‘ski resort’ wooden decor and tried to return another two times yet could not find it again for the life of us (it’s on Peterburgskaya 14 across from the mall).
A walk back up the pedestrian Bauman Street has you passing, yep more bronze statues along with the Epiphany Cathedral. The Kazan Cat, which you’ll see in bronze lounging about, is worshipped here. The bread is famous for catching mice which had been residents of the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg for hundreds of years, though they’re now unfortunately extinct, only living on in statue form.You’ll also pass an Arabic Clock which is Kazan’s meeting place for young couples.
Back the hostel we bump into the receptionist for the day, Daria, and Sarah inquires about the yearly Epiphany river swim we’d read about happening on the 19th of January.
‘Yes, I’m going. Do you want to come with me?
Looking at each other it’s one of those ‘You only live once’ moments that if we pass on now we’ll definitely regret later. Looks like we’re swimming in a few days then. Tentatively locked in for the purification of our souls for the year to come we’re shown to our room, a huge room with a double bed and a bunk (via Booking.com) with great bedding. The breakfast is also one of the best going around with a combination of cheese, meats, eggs, pancakes, porridge, coffee, cereal, toast and jam offered up each morning.
Kazan started to get us in her grip and with the great hostel, pretty town and friendly people it’s hard not to. This feeling extended into the evening at the Drink Craft bar back on Bauman Street, a short walk from the hostel. It’s a week night so the bar is a little quiet and we start playing some cards between ourselves while a trio of guys at the bar jam away on a guitar. Eventually a few English tunes are strummed out with Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’ of course. In the end more of the tables are filled and everyone’s in a good mood with plenty of beer, music and sing-a-longs. Turns out the trio are a local Tatar band named Afghan Tea and they sing us a great Tatar rap which they’d written themselves about good old Mary Jane. Check it out on YouTube here.
The Kazan Kremlin is one of the best in Russia which also houses the biggest mosque in Europe, the Qolşärif Mosque. The beautiful white structure of the Kremlin dates back to the 16th century though there’s evidence of buildings dating as far back as the 10th century. Entering through the Spasskaya Tower the long boulevard is lit with lights as it leads to the far end. With snow squalls blowing through the Kremlin photography tonight had to be short and sweet as it’s was impossible to keep the snow off the lens.
The Qolşärif Mosque is a mighty structure that was built on the supposed original site of the principle mosques from before 1552 was completed in 2005. This in turn lea to the restoration of the Church of the Annunciation which has the holiest icon, Our Lady of Kazan, returned to Russia by Pope John Paul II just before his death in 2005.
Next around the corner is the Söyembikä Tower, previously known as the Khan’s Mosque, which once had a lean of 193 centimetres. Next door to the tower is the House Church. A few shots of the Annunciation Cathedral and the snow got the better of us. Returning in the morning the interior of the mosque is intricately styled as most are, and the view over the palace of agriculture and beyond in stunning.
We made the walk out, don’t know why as it was closed, to the National Centre of Culture. A long walk from the Kremlin will take you past some Parisian styled buildings that are nice enough. A return walk back down Pushkin Street and it’s time to man up, we have an epiphany on our hands. Making sure we’d come prepared with vodka and extra clothing we drove with Daria and her boyfriend Rushan to a church out of town on the Volga River. It was this crazy girls seventh time and it showed as she was clothes off and ready to go before we’d even untied out shoe laces.
In a temporarily erected tent for the crazy punters senseless enough to take the plunge the subzero temperature soon bite in the darkest of our confines. The flap is pulled aside and it feels like a rebirth as we dash from the enclosure of darkness out to the carpet of white with the security and clergymen awaiting the stairs to the cut out in the ice. With trepidation the decent down the slippery wooden stairs is made easier after a shot of two of vodka. Funnily enough the act of the dunking is nothing and the three dunks into the water each release the weight on one’s shoulder, removed for another year of building it back up. Slipping back into clothes carrying a residual warmth the vodka can’t go down the hatch quick enough as we shoot one back and leg it back to the car.
Sarah swimming in the frozen Volga River for the Epiphany
Matt swimming in the frozen Volga River for the Epiphany
To the supermarket for food for the train, Daria our hostel hostess grabs a bottle of Tatar Jägermeister to mix back at Wings with a carton of grape juice. Back at the hostel we down bot the remaining vodka and Bulguma spirit before we laden with backpacks for the half drunken walk to the night train bound for Volgograd.
On the train that evening we make friends with anyone and everyone within the vicinity of our open berth beds with many smoking with in the carriages, technically frowned upon by the staff though no one strictly enforces this ‘rule’.
Kazan has undergone a massive amount of rejuvenation since the 2015 FINA University Games and the locals all agree that it has bred new life into a city that has been far removed from Moscow for many years. We loved it here and even though it’s a mission to get here from the capital you shouldn’t discount it as a destination while in Russia.
Ciao Kazan, it’s been fun!
Tips for Kazan
- Kazan is fun, go check it out. And make sure you stay at Wings Hostel. With little touches like rotating named photographs to identify your front desk staff to having thermoses on hand to bring hot tea sightseeing when the weather is freezing, this place is by travellers for travellers.
- The chance to be a little off kilter and participate in the Epiphany happens on the 19th of January each year. Bring vodka.
- Try the Tatar version of Jägermeister, it’s actually a good drop.
- Nikita Nomerz is a street artist from Nizhny Novgorod. Check out his work here and try to hunt some out in person if you can. He makes great use of unloved and abandoned buildings.
- If you’re heading to Elista on your travels speak to Anton and his wife Kishta at Wings Hostel, they may be able to help you out with information and accommodation, which can be hard to find.