Our first night on the train was quite an experience. I had a romanticized notion that riding on a train would be sort of meditative--that the soothing rhythm of the rails would lull you into a peaceful calm. That may be true of some trains, but NOT the bumpy Trans-Siberian Express! We were tossed up, down and sideways. At night things flew off of my table and shelves. Even worse was the noise; think sledgehammer pounding the metal walls. It would be relatively quiet and then BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG...on and off throughout the night. I did get used to it and eventually was able to get a good night's sleep. But the first few nights were hard for everybody.
Our first stop was the city of Kazan in Tatarstan, an autonomous region of Russia like South Ossetia. Earlier this week there were reports of rumblings of independence there. Thus the image at the top of this post from a news story on September 10--soldiers in front of the mosque that we visited.
The Tatars were invaders: part Bulgarian, part Mongolian. They were Muslim, and so Kazan is best known for the fact that Muslims and Christians have long lived together side-by-side. The region is also oil-rich and prospering. There were major construction efforts everywhere we went. Clearly lots and lots of money is pouring in, though it is still at the very early stages of renovation (there's a lot that needs fixing up!).
Our bus pulled up to the Kazan Kremlin and we were greeted by a woman in traditional Tatar dress with a traditional Tatar treat for us. Someone dubbed it a "giant rice krispie treat" and that is a perfect description.
In the Kremlin we visited a Russian Orthodox cathedral and a mosque, a stone's throw from each other. The cathedral was very old, very dark and very ornate with painted icons covering the gold-plated walls. The mosque was completely the opposite--open and airy and bright, lots of light streaming in. It was painted light blue, yellow and white with beautiful carpets throughout. An interesting contrast.
On our drive to lunch we passed a university where Lenin studied and staged his first civil protest, leading to his expulsion. A statue of young Lenin marks the spot. Like Moscow, Kazan is filled with statues, mostly of artists and writers. I was constantly struck by the pride in the voices of our guides when they talked about their cultural heroes. We heard about the poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837) everywhere we went; his poems are still memorized by Russian schoolchildren. However, the poems are very difficult to translate, and so those who can't read Russian can't really appreciate them. I asked one of our guides to tell me more about Pushkin and why he is so important to Russians. She started to cry as she talked about him.
After lunch we took a short cruise on the Volga, which cuts through Kazan. It was a lovely day and nice to spend some time on the river. As one of my companions said, you can't come to Russia and NOT go on the Volga!
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the main pedestrian area of the city. Overall, my impression was that there is a lot of positive energy in Kazan (thanks to the oil money!) and things seem to be on an upswing. Then it was back to the train for an even wilder nighttime ride, this time through the Ural Mountains.
I'll end with a link to a funny story I heard on NPR earlier this week--it's best to listen to the broadcast, which includes a song: Baldness Pattern: A New Cold War Analysis : NPR
And some photos from Kazan: