Getting used to Russia

Getting used to Russia – Vladimir, Suzdal, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan

It was sometime in Moscow that Russia started feeling like the new normal. Maybe it was the metro trips and the grey skies, both of which feel so common. The Russian faces we saw on the streets just became faces and it gradually stopped feeling strange to hear another language everywhere. We have now been here three weeks, which puts us somewhere at the border of a long holiday and an actual journey.

Leaving Moscow, we headed for Vladimir, about an hour and a half east. We stayed at a wonderful place with a bathroom from heaven. The contrast to our place in Moscow could not be starker, but that feeling of pure joy to finally get a proper wash was something I had expected after a week in the wilderness, not the capital.

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We took a bus to Suzdal, a cute little town full of onion-domed churches, mead-selling old ladies and lots of lovely, little backstreets. It was clearly geared toward tourists, minus the English. We actually heard one of the mead sellers speak a bit of Chinese when a tour groups stopped to shop. Then again, it gives me a chance to practice my Russian, which has moved up from non-existent to piss-poor. I’m rather proud.

We also spent an evening with our hostel neighbours Olga and Vitaly, who introduced us to life near Moscow and Russian music and movies. We have met several Russians who first say they don’t speak any English but then turn out to handle the language very well.

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Nizhny Novgorod was a beautiful surprise two and a half hours east of Vladimir. It took some time before we realized that, though, as we were staying in an apartment in a new housing area away from the old town. Getting there required quite some walking next to roads that technically weren’t highways, but sure shared a lot of features with them. The town may be a gem, though one with a bit of a traffic issue. But once past that, there’s the beautifully located old town, complete with yet another impressive Kremlin, and the views. I could not get enough of those views. The rivers Oka and Volga meet at Nizhny and make for a massive amount of water, with a background of modern apartment blocks on the one side and forest on the other. The Danube used to impress me, but the Volga is in a league of its own.

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The Oka meets the Volga.

After another memorable night in platzkart (no gymnasts this time, but a bunch of baby-faced conscripts (quite quietly) celebrating some army achievement and an old drunk with impressive lung capacity), we’re now in Kazan, a city we’ve heard praised a lot. It’s pleasant, significantly calmer than Nizhny, the architecture feels very central European and the mosques make for a nice variation in between of all the cathedrals and chapels. It’s also surprisingly, even oddly, calm here. We walked along the embankment on Saturday with one specialized café after another, all very well staffed but more or less empty of customers. With weather like this, you would not be able to move without stepping on someone in Belgium, but we haven’t yet figured out where all the locals are (later edit: We found them. The locals spend the weekend at the fun fair on the other side of the river, alternatively on one of the beaches).

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Modern Kazan seen across the Kazanka river.

Leaving the Moscow region for Volga’s Nizhny and Kazan, it’s clear we’re in a different part of Russia. The Asian tour busses have disappeared while curbside Kvas sellers have appeared, prices have come down while the amount of feral dogs have risen. Next up, the Urals.

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