Kazan (Day 1)
Nestled on the Volga river and its tributaries, approximately 820 km due east of Moscow, sits Kazan, the capital city of the Republic of Tatarstan. Kazan is steeped in a rich, mostly turbulent history, but since the crumbling of Soviet regime in the early 90′s, has purveyed the epitome of tolerance; one of the few places on this turbid planet where Muslim and Christian cultures live side-by-side peacefully. The city rightly boasts this amicable relationship with an annual Creation of Peace festival, and in turn, has been awarded host-honors to multiple global sporting events like the 2013 Universiade Games, the 2015 FINA World Championships, and the big one, the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
In 2005, Kazan celebrated it’s millennium. Think about that for a second; a thousand years of civilization. Perhaps some of the UK-ers, or Europeans reading are a bit less impressed to such longevity, but here in the US, well, you come to appreciate history when your country is less than 250 years old, and ubiquitous strip malls from the late 80′s are the oldest structures in town.
There’s a celebratory aura among our group - per the airline debacle post - we are here to celebrate our best friends (Paul and Nastya’s) marriage. But the festive vibes echo around the city, with the commencement of the Creation of Peace Festival as well as the annual Sabantuy Festival honoring one of the oldest cultures within Russia, the Tatars. We head there first after a short car ride.
A precarious walk down a muddy drainage ditch through the woods to a birch field. At first we joke about the not-so-welcoming path, asking why people have to go this way, but as the answer to any ‘why’ question goes in Russia “You just do.”, so we slip-and-slide our way to a paved road leading up north. Nastya leads the group (me, Marti, Paul – friends Olga, Igor – Nastya’s mother and step-father – denoting the ‘we’ from here on out) through throngs of happy smiling people. Cheers go up as a horse-drawn carriage reigned by fez-ed elderly gentleman races by with passengers in tow. The festival itself is a recreation of Tatar living during the founding days of Kazan. It’s like an Amish living museum, only temporary, with a much heavier party-atmosphere; singing, wrestling, dancing, and my favorite – pillow-jousting. From the looks of the young dudes battling, it’s a very, very serious duel of strength.
A giant stripped tree juts to the clouds with a tiny figure slowly working its way towards the top. I’ve seen a lumberjack show before, but the boys in flannel didn’t climb a freaking 150 foot tree. There’s food stands, folk art, local flare/trinkets for sale. I try to get a translation on some of the writings on a log cabin from friend, Igor, and he tells me – very earnestly – that it says ‘Old Strip Club’. There was a joke about wooden strippers poles and splinters in there, omitted for the kids. Russian humor: dark, dry, irresistible.
We leave the Tartar Festival to head to a downtown abuzz with activity. Aside from diverted traffic from the various festivals, orange barrels (a universal nuisance) mark a bevy of road construction projects for a much-needed infrastructural facelift for Kazan, in preparation for the aforementioned sporting events. Did I mention Russian World Cup 2018? Oh, I did? Hmm.
Aside from the stadium for 2013 Summer World University Games, Kazan will be building a handful of stadia specifically for World Cup. Space is needed for the venues, and unfortunately some excellent (and not so excellent) architectural gems will be sacrificed to clear said space. A quick drive through the city, and you can see the remnants of beautiful buildings with intricate carvings left to (purposefully) waste away. It’s a shame some of these structural relics aren’t being renovated or converted to lofts/office buildings – such is the brutal by-product of rapid progress.
The word kremlin – which translates to ‘fortress’ – is often solely associated with the kremlin of Moscow, but there are actually many ‘kremlins’ throughout Russia. The site of the Kazan Kremlin dates back to an ancient Khanite of the Golden Horde in the 8th century, a site deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. The current walls of the fortress were rebuilt during Ivan the Terrible’s reign in the 1550′s, and restored during Harold the Not-So-Terrible-As-Ivan-But-Still-Pretty-Shitty’s reign. Kidding.
We stroll along the bricked paths, passed Soyembika Tower – where, as legend has it, Princess Soyembika jumped to death after Ivan the Terrible proposed marriage (to her).
Ivan the Terrible: “Princess will you marry me?”
Princess Soyembika jumps to her death.
Ivan the Terrible: “A simple ‘no’ would have sufficed! Jesus!”
The staple building within the kremlin is the breathtaking Qolsharif Mosque, built-in proximity of the original structure destroyed in the 1550′s (Oh Ivan, you really were Terrible). With its blazing cyan tipped minarets, the Qolsharif is literally visible for miles, and though it has an aged look was actually completed in 2005 in celebration of Kazan’s millennium. In trying to capture the immensity of the Qolsharif complex, I realize I’m in desperate need of a wide-angle lens.
Walking through the Spasskaya Tower gate out of the kremlin, the group jaunts down to Baumana Street, a packed pedestrian promenade with clothing shops, bars, Russian tea houses; essentially anything you need as a consumer or tourist, with some kitchy avoidables like Coyote Ugly.
We walk down to Dom Tatarskoy Kulinary, a traditional Tatar restaurant, where I try the scrumptious Russian Salad with beef tongue. The dish, due to the heaping amount of mayo, may have taken a couple of hours off my life, but it’s damn worth it. Interestingly, the restaurant serves horsemeat; something I’ve wanted to try, but in mentioning this to Nastya, she serves up a convincing guilt trip and I balk at a Mr. Ed sandwich.
CREATION OF PEACE FESTIVAL.
I briefly talked to Pedro Erazo from Gogol Bordello about the Peace Festival in the Kazan airport the day before, and I’m admittedly disappointed we miss their set by the time we arrive. There’s still an intriguing line-up left, with the likes of Amadou and Mariam the blind couple from Mali (they rocked it!), Mongolian throat singers Huun Huur Tu, and Johnny Rotten’s Public Image Ltd. Truly a melting pot of musicians.
The venue, basically the parking lot/square for the Kazan Circus, is split into two sections; a drinking (as in booze) area further away from the stage, and non-drinking section up close. Not to stereotype here, but the drinking section is close to capacity while the crowd up front is rather sparse for such a large event. Rumor has it, the (now former) president of Russia – Dmitry Medvedev – is mingling among the non-drinkers. I keep on eye out around the beer tents to see if he’s sneaking brewskies.
After a beer or five if our own, the not-made-for-large-venue sound amplified by Public Image Ltd. has us on the move, onwards to an American watering hole called the Joker Bar, where you can see the stage from the patio.
There are moments in traveling where one experiences something extraordinary; where stresses melt away and what’s left is a swirl of inspirational bliss. I’m in an American Bar in Russia, drinking vodka tonics with my girlfriend, best friend, Nastya, friends Olga, Igor, and the rest of the amazing group of Russians who have joined us. We step outside, grabbing a spot in the grass just as John Fogerty comes on stage playing to the sunset. Just to clarify, John Effing Fogerty is singing swamp rock to a frenzied Kazan crowd, in front of a Kremlin with a giant mosque, and domes of orthodox cathedrals glowing in the same frame of dusk. CCR in post-USSR. So many layers to think about, it’s mind-boggling, in a good way. A glimmer of world peace, if only for one night, goes down nice and easy. To be continued… – Mike