Russia, August 9, 1999
What to do in Kazan if you have two-day travel dirt on ya
|You could say I was feeling a little dirty earlier today.
I'd left Moscow, for the last time, on Monday, and it was now Thursday.
Early Tuesday morning, 7 am to be exact, I stumbled off the train from Moscow, in Nizhny Novgorod the first stop on my slow, but eventual crossing of Siberia for China. I was still asleep, and so was the city, so I stored my bags at the train station, and wandered out to wake a few people up.
I would have too, if I could find anyone. The citizens of this "new" Novgorod (the original Novgorod is by St Petersburg) were not as foolish as I, they were still asleep. I noticed my foolishness and the solution: an empty park bench. A good nap later, I set off to see the city. I'd heard from my cabin-mate on the train that their kremlin (fort) was beautiful and a nearby bank was the tallest in the region. The kremlin was beautiful, but like Moscow's, there isn't much to see inside of it, just government offices. I never did find the bank.
After lunch, I wanted to see a bit more of the city, but my tricky knee was bothering me, so I took one of the many Avtoline buses around. A unique Russia experience, they are minivans that, after the driver feels there are enough passengers, takes off down a normal bus route. Being somewhere about two (2), cents more than a normal, super-slow bus ride, they are my transport of choice, though those with free bus passes (students, elderly) stay away.
I jumped on random mini-busses till I found myself good and lost on the edge of town. I wandered a bit, then asked how to get back to the train station. A taxi, mini-bus, real bus, and tramvai ride later; I was ready to jump on the train. Well, that is, if it was ready. I still had a few hours' wait, till I caught the train to my next stop, Kazan. Off again I went, getting lost in the Russian countryside!
Yesterday morning, again way too early for humanity, I stumbled off the train into Kazan, capital of the Autonomous Republic of Tartarstan. Here, a few hundred years ago, was the capital of the Mongol's Western Empire, which ruled Russia with an iron fist. Over time, the fist rusted of course and St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow was built in celebration of Ivan the Terrible's victory over the remainder of the Golden Horde in 1552.
The city has an amazing amount of pre-Revolutionary buildings and there is only a light touch of Soviet engineering, owing to its physical and mental distance from Moscow. We are not even in Russia really, but an autonomous republic, which means a lot in this quasi-lawless land.
With a good walk around the city, with a stop for the solar eclipse, and two nights on the train in a row, I was dog tired by last night, and not quite ready for the loud knocking at my door around 10 pm. Seems two young ladies were inquiring if I wanted company for the evening. I politely declined as I watched them head for my neighbor's door. They seemed so lonely, so desperate for company; I was tempted to invite them in for a chat
Now's an opportune time to get back to that dirty feeling I was talking about earlier. No, I didn't invite them in, I'm a bit more street-smart than that, but I did go to the banya this morning to clean off my travel dirt. We call it a sauna, but the Russians have it much hotter and much wetter than we can stand, so they get to call their version a banya. I'd never been in a Russian banya before today. Yes, shockingly enough, it's true. I tried to rent a dacha with banya the first winter I was here, so I could broil then roll in the snow, but the Russians just looked at me funny when I asked them about it. Apparently, no one goes to their dacha in the winter!
Last fall, when I went to Finland, I experienced a Finnish sauna, but I've always been keen to try out the Russian variant.
There sure is a difference! I went to Kazan's central banya today and had a cleansing time. First I took a long hot shower, then grabbed a bunch of birch branches and headed into the steam room. The heat hit me hard. Almost as hard as the branches of everyone betting themselves silly. With a shrug and a glance to see how it's done, I started beating myself too. So odd, even for a pretty liberal American like me, to be standing naked, in a room full of other naked men, all of us beating ourselves and each other with birch branches. I do have to say I tried not to giggle, and ya gotta swing those branches with a bit of an aim. One swift strike in the wrong spot and everybody starts to laugh as you shriek in pain.
After a few rounds of shower, steam, and striking, I was worn out but invigorated. Those birch branches really do work! I'm not sure if it's the heat or the sap, as the Russians claim, but I'm sure the little red welts that are still all over my back got my circulation going. I cleaned up then chilled in the adjacent cafe until I was cool enough to dress and split (yes, a naked cafe).
What a day! Now I am even more tired than yesterday and I have to catch a train to Ekaterinburg at 5am tomorrow morning!