The European Part
Piter and Moscow
What both, St. Pet and Moscow, have in common are the numerous reminders of Soviet times and more important the commemoration of the great patriotic war (65-years celebration at that year). Just in case, if you wanna see Lenin's Mausoleum and himself, of course, you should hurry as there are rumours of removing it. Also recommendable are e.g. the Lomonossov University and the All Russian Exhibition Center (VDNKh) cause there is also a lot of green and not the highways all around you. And the metro stations are really worth seeing because are a lot are like ball rooms or palace halls! When I'm in Moscow again, I'll have to make a day trip only to check as many stations as possible. By the way, in the year I arrived in Moscow they officially allowed to take pictures in the metro system as far as I can remember.
The next day we were also going to the Kremlin and again a lot of couples were on the road. It was hot as hell and I think I was drinking even more than in Moscow and I bet that my highest expenses were cause I had to drink every 5 minutes. On the hill of the Kremlin I saw the burning turf outside the city but the wind was carrying the wind away from Nishni (heading to Moscow I guess).
I arrived Kazan in the night, so not a lot to do than to find my host. The next day Sultan (my host's name) brought me to the center with his red original Vespa, the only one in Kazan, he said. I started with the Kremlin there and in contrast to the other Kremlins it has white walls and a big mosque in it. That's because Kazan is the capital of islamic Republic Tatarstan in Russia. I have been the first time in my life in a mosque and it was open, bright and s a place where people come and meet, so more like a socialising place. In addition it is colourful and hence you feel welcomed - really really nice. In contrast to churches which I don't like that much because either of it's dark, depressing atmosphere where you "have to" feel small and somehow guilty, or showing off...
After the Kremlin I met with some other Couchsurfers and we were walking around in the city. Again there were dozens of wedding parties on the road. However, Kazan has its own flair because of the islamic "touch". But you can only see it because of some buildings respectively mosques, but even when people are muslim you seldom see e.g. women wearing scarfs.
In comparison to Nishni Kazan was at that time definitely in a better condition and they built and renovated a lot. There were not too many signs of soviet times left, nevertheless Lenin was standing somewhere.
On Sunday we decided to go by boat to Bolgar, a village near Kazan. It took about 2,5 hours and as long as the boat was standing it was hotter than in a sauna. It was anyway hot in Kazan but the boat topped everything. When we arrived we were looking at some ancient buildings of a civilisation which lived there long ago. Gosh, it was hot and nearly no trees around :-p I guess I was quite crispy then and the trip back was sauna fun 2.0.
The next day I had to get up early to reach the bus main station to head to the next city: Samara. And the ride to the main station took me longer than expected. Besides, I was not sure if I was lost or in the right marshrutka (common minibus). Finally got there and I can say that distances in Russia are definitely different, not only when going from city to city but also within the same city, because people often live a bit outside of the center.
To reach Samara it was more convenient to go by bus. The ride was ok but at some parts we were so slow because the road was (2010) in a bad condition. It took 5 hours to get to Samara. I underestimated distance and time and had nothing to drink during the breaks. After the last break (which I did not know) I wanted to buy something at the next break and guess, no break was made for the last 2 hours. After reaching Samara I was drinking about 2 liters in no time, like a camel. By the way, Samara was called Kuybishev before, a Soviet politician, who still got his monument at the main square. During the Great Patriotic War Samara was a center for building warplanes, hence the symbol (foto), and Samara was also supposed to be the retreating city for the Soviet government and Stalin himself in case Moscow would fall – what fortunately did not happen – and there shall be a bunker which I unfortunately did not see.
However, Samara itself was my first city in Russia where I somehow felt a "negative" atmosphere. I'm not sure if my host influenced me because she talked herself negatively about the city. The city was in general in a bad shape and - for me - had a desperate and more or less „aggressive“ atmosphere? Nevertheless, Samara was the first city providing a beach at the Volga and it was the first time where I was not warned better not to go into the water. Unfortunately people didn't care too much about environment (somehow a problem throughout the whole country) and at some parts of the beach respectively along the river it looked not so inviting to swim there.
What can I say more about Samara? There is not too much to see or do; it lacks a "center" which deserves this expression. Sure, there is a shopping street and besides the beach but nothing else what is worth mentioning or visiting. Without knowing someone 1 or 2 days are enough to spend in this city. But because I got to know some people (due to CS and therefore it is really great) it was acceptable. I even met a girl from Germany participating at a non profit project in Samara I could talk with a bit.
In the evening I left Samara to head to Chelyabinsk. I decided to take "kupe", an over night sleeping cabin for 4 people, but had it all for myself. And again, as long as the train was standing in the vokzal (train station) it was like sauna inside.
I considered a stop over in Ufa but decided against because I was concerned for what was still to come. Even though Chelyabinsk is from Samara only about 900 km such distances are served usually by night trains and need 12-14 hours. But that comes in handy because it is a cheap way for spending a night in the train and the ride in kupe was comfortable.
I knew nothing about Chelyabinsk, beside what I read in my Lonely Planet. It was said that it is an industrial city and therefore shall not be that attractive. At the vokzal my host picked me up and brought me to her home where her parents welcomed me. Then she invited me to join an "English club", a group of students talking English to improve their skills. There I was asked about my purpose and interest of traveling in Russia, my experiences, details about Austria and Germany and about their differences and similarities. After that my host and a friend were walking with me along the main shopping street of the city. I found out that I already was in the asian part of Russia, what surprised me; but now I know why they have a Camel as their city emblem.
The next day my host picked up another backpacker from the US (hosting several surfer is quite common in case you have enough place). He was a bit strange and always in the mood to drink something. He persuaded me to get some beer during the day and we did it openly (bottles not in a bag or the like) and I had my first experience with militia (police) because they showed us to get rid of the bottles – which were empty already anyway.
Another day our host brought us to the ice rink to skate. Nice cooling down (in fact, it was cold) after the heat all the time. Afterwards we returned to the house of my host, sitting in the garden and I had a nice chat with the parents and a friend of my host, who translated. I was very interested about their opinion of the past (they were one of the few Russians who had no negative opinion about Gorbachev, by the way) and appreciated the time. And at the weekend my host suggested to leave the city. First we were going to a lake and enjoyed the day and after that visited a museum in or near Zlatoust, where metal plates, knifes and swords were shown because they are also produced there. At the end of the day I participated at a real banya session. On Monday me and the US-American explored the city and in the evening attended again the English club. It got a long and great evening with them.
Even though said to be „only“ an industrial city, and hence indicating as boring, I had my best stay in Chelyabinsk so far. It was proven that it's not about simply going to the "places to be" (which are very often the touristic places) but the place where people are and get to know them! Here I'd like to thank my host in Chelyabinsk for this opportunity to get to know all this great people!
For reaching Ekaterinburg it is, like from Kazan to Samara, also better to take the bus. It took about 5 hours to reach the city and after my arrival I met with my host for Ekaterinburg and brought my backpack to my new base.
We went to the center and I was shown around. In Ekaterinburg you can definitely see that it is a rich region and/or city, because it had one of the most modern skylines I've seen so far (back in 2010). It even reminded me a bit of Vienna because there are similarities to the "Ring" and "Guertel". Nevertheless there are the distinctive characteristics of the Soviet and Imperial past that makes the city, after all, somehow "typical' Russian.
The next day my host suggested to go with friends to a pit nearby the city. We had to meet one of them at the economic university and also wanted to eat something in the canteen. I forgot to mention about universities (same in Chelyabinsk) that you have to identify yourself when you enter. So, admittance for strangers and foreigners is forbidden. Normally you have to organise a permission etc. what takes time. Or you have to know how to smuggle someone in and in that case there was a travel agency in the facility of the university and hence had a backdoor which connected it to the university et voila :) Then we went to the pit I was curious to see. Tallow (Talg) was mined there in the past but not in use any more, still some machines left what made it a great place for pictures. We were around for several hours and when we returned we had lunch and were talking about different topics.
After using several times the bus, for my next destination I took the train again. In Ekaterinburg was still the old name on the train station (Sverdlovsk) which they still had not removed. The next destination, Omsk, should now mark my official step to the Asian part of Russia, so I continue at the next sub-menu "Siberian Part".