Intermittent rain was forecast for the day, so we were relieved to find we had a dry spell as the train pulled in at Kazan station. After handing in our bags at the Cloak Room, we footed it out for an afternoon in Kazan, the capital and the largest city in the Republic of Tartarstan, one of Russia’s 85 federal subjects.
Kazan was founded as a northeastern outpost of the ancient kingdom of Volga Bulgaria around AD 1000. It were flattened by Tatar-Mongols who made it the capital of the Golden Horde. After the Golden Horde was destroyed, an independent Kazan khanate was created in 1438. In 1552, Ivan the Terrible ravaged the Kazan khanate and built a new Russian city on its ruins. In building the kremlin he employed the architects responsible for St. Basil in Moscow. (Interestingly St. Basil in Moscow honors the conquest of Kazan)
With Tartars making up half the population, Kazan is a truly multicultural city making it very different from other Russian cities, so much so that even ethnic Russians are said to consider it as a bit-foreign. Tatars are Turkic-speaking people living mainly in Russia and other Post-Soviet countries.
Until the enlightened age of Catherine the Great, the city was divided into Russian and Tatar and Tatars were banished from the eastern side of the Bulak canal, which even today bisects the town center.
We made a beeline for the Kazan Kremlin, the iconic symbol of the city. As we crossed the Bulak canal at its northern edge, we were pleasantly surprised to see at water-level a painted line-up of jerseys with name of soccer stars from across the world, a reminder that this city was only recently one of the host cities of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The west bank of the canal is lined with modern buildings (including a striking pyramid shaped structure) but our eyes were naturally drawn east to the white walled Kremlin sitting atop a hill and the splendid Kul Sharif mosque, a cerulean spaceship of a building, towering over the wall. Set against the lush green grass of the hillside, a bright red KAZAN sign in the front dares one to resist the urge to keep clicking. To get to the entrance, we had to round the corner at the Kremlovskaya metro station and a gentle climb took us to the main entrance of the Kremlin.
Declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2000, Kazan’s striking kremlin is the focal point of the city’s historic center. Its home to government offices, pleasant parks and a few religious buildings. Some of the white limestone walls date from the 16th and 17th centuries. In front is a bronze figure of a man tearing up barbed wire. This is the Musa Dzhali monument, honoring a Tatar poet who was executed by the Nazis in Berlin’s Moabit prison in 1944. Ulitsa Sheynkmana is a long street running straight down all the way to the northern gate. We walked past many official buildings and terraces and in one of these was an attractive outdoor exhibit honoring books and their authors. Each exhibit took the form of the spine of a book with embossed gold design.
Up close, the enormous Kul Sharif mosque dominates the surroundings. While it might look like it has always been standing here, it was completed only in 2005. The original fabled mosque of the Kazan Khanate that stood at this site was smashed during the 1552 siege of the city by Ivan the Terrible, a bloody standoff which brought Tatarstan under Ivan’s rule.
Tourists are permitted access to the upper level gallery and can peer down into the the praying area and minbar. From here one also gets an up-close view of the grand blue chandelier that hangs from the ceiling. Downstairs, below street level, is a museum about Islam. Tatars are Turkic Muslims who are very serious about preserving their language and religion. When we visited, there was a special exhibition dedicated to the art of Islamic calligraphy. Arabic calligraphy occupies a special place among the types of artistic creativity developed according to the canons of Islamic aesthetics. On display were very attractive works by contemporary calligraphers, Rasheed Butt and Irfan Qureshi from Pakistan and Jamal al-Kebasi al-Rabea and Mohammed Alkibasi from Saudi Arabia.
Across the street from the mosque is the Annunciation Cathedral, also topped by blue and gold domes and providing a Christian counter-balance to the Kul Sharif.
Adjacent is Kazan’s own leaning tower, the Söyembikä. Its crazed angle is blamed on its hurried construction to meet the demand of the deposed khan’s niece, Söyembikä. Rather than wed the volatile Ivan the Terrible, stories say that she threw herself from the top, though experts say this is likely a fable representing Tatar pride.
Other important buildings inside the Kremlin include the Presidential Palace of the Republic of Tartarstan. The tall wrought iron gates in front, while looking forbidding, did not seem to be particularly secure. Painted in pastel green and set in front of an open square, it flew the flag of Tartarstan. Was the President in, we wondered. Across a former cadet-school building now houses the Hermitage Center which runs rotating exhibitions from the collection of the St. Petersburg Hermitage.
The Taynitskaya tower gate marks the north end of the Kremlin and from here we retraced our step to the entrance.
Russians like to call "Arbat" all their European-style pedestrian streets, paying homage to the most important one, in Moscow, with that name.
While the cafés and shops were not particularly crowded, it had more than its fair share of architecturally interesting buildings including bell-tower of the Epiphany Church, the National Bank of Tartarstan and the Press House. The street also has many quirky statues like a replica of Catherine the Great's coach, a mermaid, pigeons, a blacksmith frogs and a lazy fat cat. Street performers keep the atmosphere lively and youngsters in innovative costumes try to attract clientale to restaurants, cafés and shops by handing out various discount coupons.
Several street side stalls sold Chak-chak, the national dish of Tatarstan. We bought some to try and it tasted just like puffed rice balls in jaggery that they make in south India.
We ended up in front of the Chaliapin Hotel in front of which is the Chaliapin Monument which honors Fyodor Chaliapin, a famous Russian Opera singer.
We spent the better part of an hour at the 'Museum of Soviet Life’ that was just off Bauman Street. (Every city seems to have one of these). While not very big in terms of size, every room was crammed to the gills with stuff from the 1960’s and 70’s - children's toys, antique video games, old cosmetics, sweets and drinks, army uniforms, watches, coins, commemorative pins and more, all things that would be evocative to people who lived in and remember the Soviet times. Some of the things would even be familiar to anyone who grew up in those decades, even outside the Soviet Union.
By this time it had started to rain and we ducked into the well designed Kazan Tourist Information Center to gather some maps and information contemplating our next move. Not content with distant views of the Volga from vantage of the Kremlin, V was insistent that we find a place that provided a closer views of the river. The curiously named ‘Temple of All Religions’ (Vselensky Khram) was among the list of places to visit in Kazan and the map showed it was located just on the northern banks of the Volga. Google directions using public transport showed that Bus #2 would take us close to it, so we decided we would try to get there.
In the mean time M was researching vegetarian friendly restaurants for dinner and found among the listings a Hare-Krishna run Govinda restaurant. It was a fair distance away, near the Kazan Arena, but the promise of vegetarian borscht and vegetarian versions of popular Tatar dishes on the menu was too good to resist. So we made plans to try to get there for dinner, time permitting.
We waited for a while for Bus #2 at the bus stop in front of the massive Tartarstan Hotel.
As we settled in at our table (trying hard not to let our umbrellas leave a dripping trail of water everywhere), we were greeted warmly by a friendly young waiter who was thrilled to find out that we were Indians and vegetarians. On learning V’s name, he could not get over the fact that he was named for the Lord himself and promptly called for his assistant to photograph him and V! This young man was introduced to the Hare-Krishna movement and vegetarianism by a friend a couple of years ago and was proud of his lifestyle and choices he had made. His warmth and friendliness compensated for the fact that the Tatar cuisine special items listed on the menu were unavailable. Instead we had lemony ginger drink, Borscht soup, some vegetarian entrees and some highly recommended small-bites sweets made from sesame seeds.
It was another minor trek in the rain to the nearest bus stop where we got into one that was headed east. We could have taken a bus all the way to the railway station, but V had his heart set on riding the metro, something he likes to do in every city (and we had already missed out the previous day in Yekaterinburg!). So we got off the bus close to Kozya Soboda metro station so we could ride it for just one stop to Kremloyvsakaya (Kremlin stop). The beautiful metro stop features a set of "towers" and in their archways are mosaic artworks on the theme of everyday life in the Bulgarian and Kazan khanates and the ceiling is decorated with a set of fresco-mosaics decorated with Tatar ornaments and wild animals of Tatarstan.
The rain had petered out to a minor drizzle by then and as we walked back to the railway station, the tastefully illuminated Kul Sharif and Kermlin made for stunning and unforgettable images of this interesting city.