Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Stories from Russia - A Rendezvous with Kazan

During my internship days in Russia, I went on a solo trip to Kazan - the face of the Republic of Tatarstan and the 'third capital' of the nation. The city garnered international attention after hosting the 2013 Summer Universiade, 2014 World Fencing Championships, and the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. It is one of the host cities for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Lying at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka rivers, this strategically located trade centre has a long and eventful history. Home to the Volga Bulgars in the early 11th century, usurped by the descendants of the mightiest Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and raised to the stature of the Khanate of Kazan in the 15th century, conquered and massacred by Ivan the Terrible, the Tsar of all the Russias in the 16th century - Kazan has occupied a prominent position on the world map from time immemorial. It became one of the centers of the Russian revolution and later, a producer of military armament for World War II. The city was restored its identity of being the Tatar capital, post the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Tatar population in Kazan most probably came about as a result of the intermingling of the Bulgars and Kipchaks in the 13th century - nomadic tribes of Turkic ethnicity who moulded the cultural persona of Kazan. Tatar Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians are therefore the two main religious sects in the city. With the rise of capitalism, Kazan was put back into the spotlight as an important industrial hub. In 2005, the city celebrated its millennium. The Kremlin was restored and declared a World Heritage Site. Kazan received a substantial face-lift with infrastructural developments like the Kazan Metro and the Millennium Bridge. With many renowned universities under its foothold, Kazan is also a widely acclaimed educational center. Moreover, having hosted many international sports tournaments, Kazan has rightfully claimed the privilege of being the sports capital of Russia. Not that all this was common knowledge to me; at the time I was merely following the recommendation of some well-meaning friends in Chelyabinsk - the city that gave me a slice of Russian life I can call my own. 

November 4th is regarded as the Day of National Unity in Russia to commemorate the coming together of the Russian people against the Polish invaders in 1612. It is also the feast of Our Lady of Kazan, the holy icon of the Russian Orthodox Church representing Mother Mary as the patroness of the city of Kazan. In November 2014, I happened to be teaching English at a British school in Chelyabinsk in the south Ural region. And I decided to travel to Kazan to celebrate. I had neither a friend nor an acquaintance there, so I turned to Couchsurfing - the travel community that welcomes complete strangers into the privacy of their homes. I contacted a few hosts in the city via email and eventually found one who offered to pick me up from the bus station at six in the morning. Another member referred a friend who was willing to accommodate me if need arose. Once my lodging was sorted, I bought bus tickets for an overnight journey from Chelyabinsk to Kazan with the help of the family I stayed with. I must admit that my Russian language skills were crippling at that point of time. Except a few common phrases I had memorized using the language app on my phone, I could not frame a complete sentence in Russian. However, that did not stop me from going ahead and booking a night trip to another city. Preposterous of me to have done it knowing fully well the risks associated with traveling alone in a country that is notoriously unsafe. But the travel bug had bitten me and I had to do what I had to do. 

Sveta, my host and guardian angel in Chelyabinsk, dropped me off at the bus station on the evening of 3rd November. She and her boyfriend made sure I was on the right bus before leaving me to figure things on my own. I sat huddled up on my seat numbered 13 till I reached my destination, not daring to step out even when the bus stopped for dinner. The man who sat next to me wasn't particularly friendly either. At quarter to six, the bus arrived at the central station in Kazan. Realizing that my text could have gone unnoticed, I dialed my host's number. His name was Roman. "I will be there in 30 minutes", Roman said sleepily in a heavy Russian accent. True to his word, he picked me up from the bus station, confirmed my return ticket for the journey two days later and escorted me to his apartment a few miles away from the center. The house had a feel good factor, thanks to its modern, minimalistic decor. There was a characteristic stoicism about my host which was hard to ignore. But he seemed like a good man despite his restrained deportment. That was attributable to the few years he served in the army, after all. I was welcomed by another Couchsurfer named Julia, a French engineer from Moscow who had arrived in Kazan two days before me. She was pretty and calm with a good head on her shoulders. Her presence dispelled some of my worst fears.

I suggested that we visit the Temple of All Religions after breakfast. Roman, our host and guide, enthusiastically led us to the village of Staroe Arakchino on the outskirts of the city. Vibrant with brightly colored mosaic and stained glass embellishments, the temple sure had a strong visual appeal. Tourists were scattered about the artistic monument set against the backdrop of thick vegetation. A cultural center celebrating the universality of faith, it was designed and constructed by the local artist and sculptor Ildar Khanov. The structure is an architectural delight made up of minarets, domes and cupolas dedicated to 12 different religions that have flourished since the dawn of civilization. Ildar Khanov who studied art in Kazan and Moscow, claimed to have been clairvoyant with healing powers. Inspired by a vision in which Jesus Christ appeared to him on the banks of the Volga river and decreed that he build a foundation for the temple of all religions, Ildar set out to work with a group of volunteers in his village outside Kazan. He lived and worked in the temple complex, subsisting on donations received from patients who sought a cure for their addictions and ailments. Unfortunately, the construction which began in the early 90's was stalled before completion when the artist died in 2013.

From the Temple of all Religions, we headed to Bauman street or Kazansky Arbat, the go-to place in the Tatar capital which houses some of its best restaurants and gift shops. The street is decorated with statuettes, fountains and monuments reminiscent of historical events. A life-size copy of the carriage gifted by Empress Catherine to the city, is placed in the middle of the street. What caught my fancy was the monument of the Kazan cat. I was curious to know why cats were venerated in the city. Legend has it that when Empress Catherine visited Tatarstan, she was quite impressed by the predatory skills of the cats in Kazan as she could not find any rats around. So she ordered a few Kazan cats to be sent to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to hunt down the mice there. Another legend goes back to the time of the Khanate when the court cat warned the King of the enemies tunneling under the Kremlin wall, thus helping him escape on a boat that sailed across the Kazanka river. We got some memorable shots posing with the metal installations and miniature representations of Tatar people dressed in their traditional attire.

For lunch, we went to a restaurant that served traditional Tatar cuisine. A wide variety of baked foods with various meat stuffing, pilafs and hotpots were displayed in a line. We took a tray from one end of it and moved forward in a queue, helping ourselves with the dishes we liked to have. A cashier seated at the end of the line, billed the items on our tray and we proceeded to a vacant table on the opposite side of the room. The food was delicious, even nostalgic, if I may add. The meaty flavors reminded me of the Malabari delicacies I grew up on. Roman left in the afternoon, promising to meet us later in the day. Julia and I headed to a supermarket to buy some chak-chak - a Kazan speciality sweet. We walked towards the Kremlin complex afterwards. The citadel has a colourful past. What once used to be an unfortified settlement, had grown to become a stone fortress of the Golden Horde, the military and administrative centre of the Khanate of Kazan and later the proverbial seat of the Russian Tsar.

The white-stoned Spasskaya tower at the entrance of the Kremlin welcomed us with great gravitas. Built in the 16th century by the edict of Ivan the Terrible, the structure has undergone many changes throughout history. Inside the complex, stands the most recognizable symbol of Kazan and one of the leaning towers of the world, the Soyembika Tower. Named after the Khanate queen Soyembika, many historians date its construction back to the second half of the 17th century. Excavations indicate that it was built on the remains of an earlier watchtower and mosque in the Khan's court. Though far from the truth, this imposing structure also has a story to it. Blown over by the beauty and poise of the Khanate queen Soyembika, Ivan the Terrible offered to marry her when he conquered Kazan. The defenseless queen instead challenged him to build a seven-storied tower in seven days, hearing which the Tsar called upon the best artisans in Russia and fulfilled his dare. Out of her wits, Soyembika requested him the permission to bid goodbye to her city from the top of the tower. She climbed the tower and threw herself down. This fantastic story lent a melodramatic appeal to the glorified icon of Kazan.

The historic citadel which houses other notable monuments such as the Annunciation Cathedral, Qol Sarif mosque, President's Palace and the Governor's House, was restored in a massive project undertaken as part of the Millennium celebrations. The oldest of them is the Annunciation Cathedral to which the holiest copy of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan was returned in 2005 by Pope John Paul II. The Qolsarif mosque is named after a statesman and Imam who died with his students while defending the mosque from the forces of Ivan the Terrible. The mosque, destroyed during the conquest was rebuilt with the contribution of several Islamic countries and inaugurated in July 2005. Currently the largest mosque in Europe, Qolsarif has a library, an art gallery and a museum in its precincts. This strikingly beautiful mosque with a cerulean cupola and symmetrically placed minarets is a tribute to the Tatar heritage of Kazan.

It was late evening when we got out of the Kremlin. Two Armenian men tried to strike a conversation with us outside Qolsarif. They even accompanied us to the railway station from where Julia boarded the night train to St. Petersburg. They probably wanted to ensure we weren't lying when we said we wouldn't be able to hang out with them that night. Roman joined us at the station and after seeing off Julia, we walked back to his apartment. He insisted that the best way to explore the city was by foot, forgetting the fact that I'd been doing just that all day. My knees were threatening to crumble by the time we got home. That's when Roman announced that I would have to move to his friend's apartment the next day because his girlfriend was coming over. Without a second thought, I got in touch with my second prospective host referred by yet another Couchsurfer. She promptly replied, promising to meet me at Bauman street after lunch. I slept in peace.

Roman dropped me to Bauman street at around eleven in the morning. After bidding adieu to my first ever Couchsurfing host, I ate at a shoddy restaurant frequented by the locals. Having been in Russia for more than a month by then, I was accustomed to their tastes. I finished my brunch and walked to the black clock at the end of the lane. Though I wasn't overwhelmed by my first surfing experience, it wasn't really bad afterall. I did not know what to expect from the second one. As I sat there, ruminating over the events of the past day, a young girl clad in a black coat and a red beanie, walked up to me with a broad smile. An effusive calm shone out of her exquisite Mongoloid features. I knew in that instant that my sojourn in Kazan was going to be something I'd treasure for years to come. Regina was her name. A freelance photographer by profession, she lived alone in a cozy little apartment overlooking the neon-lit streets of the city. She met her lover in Lisbon during a photography expedition to Portugal. Having WWOOFed on an Italian farm, she held a valid Schengen visa and was planning another trip the following summer. Just about twenty three years old, she was living a life I could only dream of.

On the way to her place, we stopped at Ekiyat, Tatar State Puppet Theatre on Peterburgskaya street. The exterior was designed on the theme of Saint Exupery's classic, The Little Prince, which coincidentally is one of my all time favorites. The theatre was closed but we milled about photographing the outsides. To get some pictorial insight into the rustic life of Tatar villages, we visited the Skaro Tatarskaya Sloboda or Old Tatar Village, a mock setup to entice tourists. Regina suggested we take a look at the Yoga House before going home. An upscale yoga and meditation center, it was conceptualized in the most charming manner. The mild fragrance of incense sticks and the calming notes of meditation music seemed to cast a spell as we climbed the stairs leading to the yoga hall. Details of the course structure and schedule were pinned to the notice board near the entrance. From there, we went straight to Regina's little haven where she fed me like a 'Babushka' (Russian for grandmother).

Regina's mother is a Russian Orthodox Christian and her father is a Tatar Muslim. They live in a village some hundred miles away from the city. To me, she seemed to be the perfect embodiment of the eclectic culture which hallmarked Kazan. The apartment she rented at the time was considerably old and the soiled wallpapers had been plucked out. Where the wallpaper was removed, there was a small painting made by her sister. A bottle of black spray paint was still lying in one corner of the kitchen.  On the table, there was an unopened packet of Pelmeni, the Russian version of momos or rice dumplings with meat filling, prepared by her grandmother. 'I am turning vegetarian', she said. I asked why. 'I want to do my part for the environment', was her comeback. I did not try to reason with her; the pelmeni was too tempting to resist. Later in the evening, we attended a free market - a charity fair where we could donate anything we wished to and pick up anything that caught our fancy. From one of the stalls, I got a butterfly painted on the left half of my face. We also attended a pastel painting workshop by the end of which, the participants had a unique work of art in their hands. I was elated to let my creative juices flow after a hiatus of more than eighteen months.

Later, we strolled along the Universitetskaya street where, as the name suggests, some of the best educational institutions in the country are located. I also got a peek at the baroque style Peter and Paul Cathedral built in the 18th century to commemorate the visit of Peter the Great. The weather was perfect with a subtle chill to the air. Regina's friend Gulnaz joined us for a light meal at one of the restaurants down the road. Over a cup of aromatic berry tea and authentic blini paired with charred condensed milk, we exchanged stories about the lands we came from. Gulnaz, a Tatari by lineage, had just returned from a work assignment in Turkey. Regina told us about a travel-themed Russian reality show where the two anchors of the program explore the same destination on two different budgets. Thus, the viewer gets to see a bootstrapped version and a luxury version of traveling to the same place. Afterwards, we visited the Kazanka river, the lifeline of the city. The reflection of the brightly lit landscape shimmered in the darkness. The name Kazan was derived from the Tatar word qazan which  means a boiler or cauldron. One of the stories floating around is that the river was so named because the son of a Bulgar governor dropped a copper cauldron into it. Another legend says that the city rests on a hill in the shape of an inverted cauldron and so, it came to be known as Kazan. A huge cauldron made of plaster of Paris sits by the river. The heritage restaurant Tatarskaya Usadba is located in this area. Wandering into the old Tatar neighborhood by the lake, we got chased out by the wild mongrels guarding their territory.

It was past eight when Gulnaz took the bus home. Regina and I headed to Cuba Libre, a quaint little club in an obscure alleyway off Bauman street. The walls were covered in works of graffiti - a portrait of the eternal rebel Che Guevara was on one side and a vibrant rendition of brand 'Cuba Libre' on the other. The dingy approach road and the cloistered interiors of the club adorned with postcards from Havana attempted to recreate a slice of Cuba for its niche clientele. The party began when Regina's friends from her dance class came over. One of the girls named Olga (Olya) was a singularly brilliant dancer. The effervescence of joy as her svelte body swayed to the music was a sight to behold. As the night matured, this underground haunt transformed into the hottest club in town with the rhythmic footwork of Latino dances like Salsa and Bachata. Someone asked me for a dance too. He taught me a few steps and I simply followed his lead. Though a little apprehensive about my leg-shaking abilities at the outset, I began to enjoy it as the hours passed by. After the party, we got a lift back to the apartment. Regina and I stayed up late, talking about everything from love and relationships to career and creativity. We even discussed wet and dry toilets because I always carried a water tumbler to the restroom.

It is funny how we connect instantly with someone we've just met and never achieve that kind of rapport with people we've known all along. At the club, somebody even asked if we were sisters. Probably we were in that opportune moment - soul sisters who met for a brief period of time and departed ways like it had never occurred. And perhaps, never to meet again.

Regina and friends planned an early morning picnic to Lake Goluboe or the Blue Lake on my last day in Kazan. On the way, we crossed the Millennium bridge marked by an M-shaped pylon. After about an hour's drive, we arrived at the lake hidden inside a dense forest. It is part of a system of interconnected water bodies namely the Great Abyss, the Small Abyss and the Blue Lake. The lake is known for the energizing properties of its blue water which maintains a constant temperature of 4 degree Celsius all year round. The sulphurous compounds present in the water impart an aquamarine tint to it. Locals love taking a dip in it especially during the cold winter months. We hiked through the scenic karst landscape in the misty hours of the morning. Somewhere inside the forest, we stopped to have breakfast. Regina had packed some kasha and tea for all of us. There was no dearth of topics to discuss. Olga spoke endlessly about her Phd days in France and her passion for salsa. Regina recounted her tryst with European culture during her tenure in Portugal. Both of them were trying to master the French language. They seemed to enjoy conversing in a foreign tongue. I was awe-struck listening to all their stories. And all of a sudden, I got this irresistible urge to learn salsa!

We returned before lunch. Regina was commissioned to cover a birthday party that afternoon. She hurried to the cafe where the birthday celebration was being held. I whiled my time away with Olga and others, sipping tea and discussing literature. I needed to reach the central station by 4 pm to catch my return bus to Chelyabinsk. Since Regina was caught up with work, Olga accompanied me to her house. We were running late. There was no time to waste. I picked my bags, gulped down some leftovers and sprayed a thank you message on the unplastered walls of the apartment before hurrying to the bus station with Olga. As a keepsake, I placed the painting we made at the free market on her desk. It's only after I reached Chelyabinsk that I received Regina's message saying I had left my pink shrug as well. Regina managed to get to the station a few minutes before I left. The last minute haste reminded me of a verse I had read in school.

If you want to know the value of one year, 
just ask a student who failed a course. 
If you want to know the value of one month, 
ask a mother who gave birth to a premature baby. 
If you want to know the value of one hour, 
ask the lovers waiting to meet. 
If you want to know the value of one minute, 
ask the person who just missed the bus. 
If you want to know the value of one second, 
ask the person who just escaped  death in a car accident. 
And if you want to know the value of one-hundredth of a second, 
ask the athlete who won a silver medal in the Olympics.”
                                                                                                         ~Marc Levy

And then, for some reason, the ending lines of Rudyard Kipling's poem If echoed in my mind

If you can fill the unforgiving minute 
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

That was the concluding note to our chance encounter. We clicked one last picture before bidding farewell. Sitting in the bus and waving goodbye to the two girls smiling back at me, I experienced the aftertaste of melancholy in my mouth.