This is the last blog.
This is a long blog.
This is a blog about Russia.
This is a blog about places.
If you don't care then don't read.
If you do then welcome to the tour group.
I haven't written a blog in so long. I have been travelling every moment I have been free. The presence of a deadline - me leaving this labyrinthine culture - has, as it always does, fuelled a desire to visit as many places as I can before the only destination would be home.
I shall split the visits thematically, to allow breathing room. Lest you get bored you can off for a pie and vodka before returning.
Local forays - as is the template
I carried on my weekend trips with a trip to Yaroslavl and Rostov Veliky. This time I was accompanied by an old university friend, Sarah, to whom I had promised one of my couchsurfer trips. After a four hour train ride through the greening land north of Moscow we arrived at Yaroslavl and were greeted by a wiry Russian guy, lightly stubbled and wearing shorts and a sports jacket. He was Evgeny and we stayed with him in his one room, shabby little flat. Shabby but that wasn't a problem. In Russia it never was.
Yaroslavl has a historic centre that is protected by UNESCO. It starts with a large area of low, manicured streets - pastel colours and with no peeling paintwork - that hugs the side of the mighty Volga river; on this day choppy and inky blue. Throughout are churches and temples and monasteries that belie the city's 1000 old age-tag. The wander through the cutesy centre culminates in the GAZPROM donated peninsula; a green and promenaded finger of green that shoots out into the water and is dotted with fountains and monuments. The sun shone and the city glowed. I groaned inside that I had spent four months in Voronezh instead. I came so close to going to Yaroslavl. Sedate, well-located and full of glittering, pretty things.
After some beer and dried fish - an age old tradition - we were back at the flat with some of Evgeny's friends and his brother, a dashing, silver-haired doctor. The gathering fell into the same never-problematic format they always do. Beers, snacks, maybe some cheese and meats, then singing and vodka. Then fuzziness. Then bed.
The following day, slightly groggy, Sarah and I caught a local bus to the overcast town of Rostov Veliky, about an hour away. It is one of the oldest towns in Russia, first mentioned in the year 862! The town was the most dichotomous of all the places I have visited. It was a small settlement of around 35,000 sitting picturesquely on the grand Lake Nero. It contains the two most bodacious and over the top kremlins and monasteries I have seen outside of Moscow. It is also the dirtiest town I've seen in Russia.
Through grubby streets strewn with litter - plastic bags and empty bottles of beers - we found the kremlin. A huge, fairytale, Disneyesque jumble of domes and towers and ponds that stands, overblown facing the town's lake. The lake itself, despite the grey sky, shone. It was full of tufty bits of vegetation and whirling birds. Off to the right, about 2km away, the Spaso-Yakovlevsky monastery lumbered out and glinted on its bank - seemingly floating. If we had only visited this part, it could have won the award for most precious place. Despite the miserable shite that was the town itself, the view was breathtaking and forced the eye to be a glutton.
That evening we were invited to dinner by Evgeny's friends as he was indisposed. Oleg continued Russia ritual by bringing out the vodka as we ate seafood pasta and then sausages and salad.
'Davai, vipyom!' 'Let's drink!'
'Luke, you drink like a real Russian man!' Oleg smiled slapping me on the back after our God-knows-how-many-teenth shot. I was half proud to have been accepted and, in this culture, complimented. But I also worried what that meant for my insides, not to mention my return to the UK's pubs.
The Venice of the North - two groups were bold
Both my Spanish friends and my parents were daring, and financially capable, enough to visit me. As well as the customary tours of Moscow and Sergiev Posad, both groups were ferried up to the blistering beauty jewel in the crown of Russia - Saint Petersburg. A city for whom my love is thick and palpable. A city whose beauty is boundless and whose sweeping grandeur verges on the absurd but remains, just, on the dramatic and graceful.
Both visits were greeted with the bluest skies imaginable. Nevsky Prospect, a most fascinating street and written about by Gogol (check out the story), cuts the UNESCO centre in half and is so crammed with goodies - cathedrals (the wide Kazan and the colourful Church of the Saviour on the Blood), canals, grand buildings, theatres and shops - that a day can easily be sacrificed just there. Colours; pastels. Sculptures and bridges. Strolling people and workers.
'The moment you enter Nevsky Prospect, it already smells of nothing but festivity. Though you may have some sort of necessary, indispensible business, once you enter it, you are sure to forget all business. Here is the only place where people do not go out of necessity, where they are not driven by the need and mercantile interest that envelop the whole of Petersburg.'
And how that street ends! At the Admiralty and its golden spire. To its right Palace Square and the immense green and white Winter Palace - sometimes erroneously called 'The Hermitage' (which is actually a complex of six buildings). A building that puts Buckingham to shame. To its left a grassy path that winds down Isaac's Cathedral, the largest in the city. A columned and colonnaded block of brown and gold opulence that is only surpassed in beauty by its innards. In front of Isaac is Peter the Great on his horse facing the Neva.
And the Neva! Whose embankment is the luckiest of any river in the world! An endless line of neo-classical and romanticist styles. Apartments and palaces that trickle away from the main waterway and into the canals; the Fontanka, the Moika and the Griboyedov. Its poetry is in its buildings. Smolniy Cathedral, big blue and like a wedding cake sits in the East by a kink in the flow. A less visited area, with no metro, that tastes of Paris.
Out of town is Tsarskoye Selo - a village/palace for the Tsars to escape the confines of the city. It contains a palace, Catherine Palace, that is the hermitage but this time sky-blue, white and gold. It is surrounded by acres of manicured gardens, greener than anything, and yet more palaces. It is how I would spend billions if I had them.
'You can see why there was a revolution...' says my dad.
May the 9th is Victory Day. I stand with my parents on the banks of the river. A mauve and burnt orange sky is flowering over the old stock exchange building and its blood red Rostral columns that are now topped with fire. The golden Peter Paul Fortress sits on its hexagonal haunches with a line of cannons pointing to us over the water.
'Tri, Dva, Odin, OGON!'
The shots resonate with a wind blast and fireworks splatter the air.
'URAAAAAAAAAAA' shout the St. Petersburgers as they laugh and drink and smile.
It really is the very best of Russia and quite the most lovely city.
Small town Russia - summer arrives
I returned to Obninsk. I had some classes cancelled. (Crazy) Ivan found me at the station. It was 27 degrees. The air was thick, grassy, and full of pukh. The city had changed. They all had. When the snow left and the slush had dried up the green came back. Grasses and bushes and trees simply popped and exploded into life, like they had forgotten what is was like. Chlorophyll paradise. In the lowering light of the evening a small group of us found a mosquito peppered corner of forest with logs and a an old armchair. As the rays flooded in through the trees we cooked meat on a fire, munched handfuls of parsely and drank tequila and whiskey. The gang came, Sasha and Masha - the beautiful sisters, Lyosha and some others. We were just missing Laura and Boris. We ended the evening, as like the first I visited the town, by the shopping centre with a couple of beers. In the morning my groggy head cleared quickly as Ivan's mum, in the sixties tye-dye wallpapered flat, cooked me some eggs and the hot morning sun fed me my vitamin Ds.
The sun didn't stop for my next trip. Dmitry and I caught a 45minute train to Chekhov, then a 30minute bus to Proletarsky, and finally - laden with bags of food - a 25minute walk through eastbumblenowhere to his village of Stankovo. There is no public transport there. It sits, a scattering of a few dachas, surrounded by luxurious, verdant fields and hills. All is trees, slopes, wooden houses and distant spires. We walked to the river and jumped in. I laughed out loud and my situation. I was thousands of miles from home in a particularly tricky place to get to way out of the city swimming in a wild river. I caught a river mussel with my feet and dived down underwater away from the biting insects. We dried off and walked barefoot through the chartreuse and mossy green of rural Russia and ended up back as his ramshackle dacha. In the garden we cooked turkey sashlik surrounded by yellow dandelions and bold, heat-freed mosquitoes.
I visited Dasha in Balashikha too. A nothing-but-not-too-bad suburb town of Moscow. With her friend Eleonor we wandered round the woods for an afternoon and played by the river, enjoying the sun. With the removal of winter the pleasures become base in Russia. To gulyat (stroll) is a perfectly commonplace and popular pastime. Less Playstations, more 'let's use this weather while we've got it'. I also celebrated a birthday. Around 34 people came and joined me for a picnic in Izmaylovsky park. I was touched with the number of guests. We ate, drank, played volleyball, football and Frisbee. It was the last time I saw many of them.
Karelia - a man in the woods
After quitting my job on the 27th, I granted myself a holiday period for two weeks. I had always wanted to visited Karelia. A land of lakes and forests put to music by Sibelius - albeit that was Finnish Karelia. I took a train 13.5 hours north of Moscow to Petrozavodsk, a pleasant town sitting on the banks of Lake Onega - the second largest lake in Europe. There wasn't much conversation to be had with my trainmates: an engineering lecturer, a nun in full habit, and a quiet Caucasian man. I slept well.
In Petrozavodsk I was met by a couchsurfer, Maria, who briskly took me home, let me wash, and showed me to the lake terminal. I took a ferry, fat with Finnish and Russian tourists, to an island that contained Kizhi Pogost; a UNESCO site.
'The pogost is the area inside fence which includes two large wooden churches (the 22-dome Transfiguration Church and the 9-dome Intercession Church) and a bell-tower. The pogost is famous for its beauty and longevity, despite that it is built exclusively of wood'
Escaping the tourists I ventured around, with my enthusiastic little tour-guide, and sucked in both the glorious views and the fresh northern air. The brown wood of the churches and their silver-fish domes offset dramatically with the green and yellow of the islands and the blue of the surrounding lake. I left the sheep and my guide and followed her directions to the top of the island. She shared my opinion that it was better not to travel in hordes. Alone, surrounded by majesty and wood. Kizhi was a very special place indeed. I whimpered a little that I could only stay a while.
In the evening of that same day I caught yet another train, this time 14.5 hours north to Kostomuksha, a 28,000 strong town by the border with Finland and deep in Karelia - further up than Reykjavik. I shared my near empty sleeper train with a 52 year old railway worker called Sergei. We ate Russian sausages with black bread and drank vodka as ghostly lakes and endless forests flitted by the window in the half-light of the 'white nights'.
Roman and his brother Sasha met me at the dinky station. After a shower, a conversation with his grandma and a cup of tea - they drink a lot of tea with a lot of lemon in Kostomuksha - we set off on our first adventure. No time to sit and fester in this part of the world. If you aren't outside doing something, you're wasting your life. After feeding a wild, caged grizzly bear some chicken in the woods we went down to the Kontiki lake that the town is stuck to and looked for worms in the dirt. Roman was taking me fishing.
Sasha dropped us off at their dacha - a 3x3m hut near a small lake and surrounded by pine trees - and we set off on our trek, armed with a jar of worms, some fishing rods and a bottle of kvas. We trudged for a couple of hours through Taiga forest where there were no paths. Roman had an internal Google maps thing going on. Sometimes we were stuck thick in the green, surrounded by enormous trees and trunks, mosses and puddles of still water. Other times we broke through the treeline to find an azure lake whose near treeless banks were spongy and boggy and yellow. We ate cranberries from vegetative clumps that peppered the moist land. Bugs and insects flurried round us. Finally we made it to our lake, stood firm, cast our lines and spent a couple of hours bringing in fish. It was a moment of pure serenity. I pulled up my hood so the elephant-sized mosquitoes had nowhere to drink. Fzzzzzh plop, went the line. We caught over thirty fish. I just hoped no bear would smell them.
In the evening we relaxed in the tiny town's central square with Roman's friends. It never got dark there. 12:30 and it was light. White nights in the north of the world.
The following day I walked around the town - visiting the little wooden church complex, all brightly coloured and full of strange wooden statues of bears and other animals. Roman was working so I went with his friends out of town to another dacha. There we had a Russian banya. Four guys: Kiril, Yuri, Vasya, Kostya, a girl: Alisa, and me. It was hotter than my previous one. These were real Russians. 85 degrees. It hurt. I was leaking. We beat each other with the venik and breathed deeply from its leaves. After a few minutes we ran out, laughing, to the end of the garden and jumped from a wooden gangway into a small, ice-cold lake. Out here in Karelia they were ten-a-penny.
'Don't put your feet down too much or swim out too far'
It was very cold.
In the evening we illegally entered a giant quarry with Roman's uncle who knew a guy who worked there. He took us around it in a giant bus/crawler vehicle that was quickly dwarfed by the titans that worked the artificial canyon. In the evening we walked around Kostomuksha's lake and got caught by an electric thunderstorm. Soaked to the bone Roman decided the state of his clothes no longer mattered and dived fully-garbed into the water. Lighting crashed over the water and thunder cracked across the sky.
The last day was spent relaxing, playing tennis and walking around. I was to get the evening train back to Petrozavodsk. There wasn't one. A mistake in planning by my dear Karelians. Instead I spent 9 of the most uncomfortable hours of my life on an overnight, packed out minibus that shuddered and juddered through the prettiest, most soporific countryside back to the more southerly city.
I spent a day in Petrozavodsk with two of Maria's friends. Beautiful girls: Polina and Alyona. The city is fairly handsome, nicely designed and much helped by the presence of Lake Onega. In the evening we went rock climbing, and then partied, first at home and then at a club with a few of her friends. Exhausted and tipsy, Maria and I got home at around 4am. Despite our tiredness we all got together again the following day and went round the lake to a suburb village called Solemennaya; a community of wooden houses that filter down from a rock 'peak' called the 'Devil's Chair' down to the lake edge. We picnicked in the sun up on the hill and enjoyed the fine weather and views. Karelians are lovely people, Maria and Roman truly so. They are like all Russians; roughly-hewn but with all the goodness of the world.
Going East - Tatarstan
So I was on the train to Kazan. 13 hours. Reading/translating Yesenin's poetry with a 70 year old Russian woman as the sun set. I never got tired of Russian trains. Kazan welcomed me with cloud and rain. After a breakfast I was also formally introduced to the city by a couchsurfer called Svetlana who had agreed to show me around a bit until my main host was free to meet me. As in Yaroslavl and Moscow, in Kazan they have a smart pedestrian street. Bauman Street - lined with attractive shop-fronts and a couple of churches. Then there was the Peter Paul Cathedral, bright peach-orange and baby blue and covered with floral designs. Also scattered around were half-moons. Kazan, being Tatar, has a strong and peacefully integrated Muslim side. Mosques are all over the place. In the evening I met my main host and swiftly became smitten. Evgenia - Zhenya - has three jobs: she works in Tatar Tv, occasionally sings professionally and in the evening is an English teacher. Short, blonde and with Hollywood good looks she was delightfully funny and deliciously quick-witted. We went out with some of her friends in the evening. Masha, a bubbly Russian; Aidan, a toothy and expertly humorous Glaswegian; Marina, his girlfriend, a dry-witted Russian; and their couchsurfers, the wonderful Tree and Christine from Utah. I instantly formed a bromance with Tree.
The bromance extended until the following day. I met Christine and Tree at the Kazan Kremlin - another UNESCO site. It was an overcast day, but it didn't stop the complex from being impressive. Its history dates back to the 1500s. It's a confusing mess of different era buildings which form a unique jumble that helped earn its place on the Heritage list. The 16th century red-brick Soyembika Tower - built during the time of Ivan the Terrible - stands 58metres tall and slightly leans; the typically Russian Anunciation Cathedral - white walls, blue and gold domes - from the 16th century too; the ebony white Spasskaya Tower with its big clock face; some neo-classical presidential buildings and then the ultra-modern white and blue Qolsarif Mosque, built in 2005 and reputedly the largest in Europe outside of Istanbul. We left the other end and took the cute seven-stop Kazan metro to the other side of the river where we viewed the whole panorama of Kremlin-Ministry of Agriculture-River-Attractive flats that were now bathing in the new sun. Another evening was spent drinking with Zhenya and her friends. Mojitos in Cuba Libre and further deepening of the smitteness.
For my last day I had the sun and Zhenya all to myself. We drove to a tiny island - recently connected to the mainland by a single road track - called Sviyazhsk. It sat surrounded by the Volga and the gentle banks of Tatarstan hiding churches and monasteries with floating arms of yellow grass and hundreds of gulls. The island itself was a bit of a mess. Old churches and monasteries, sure, but the whole place was being renovated. I was content to just look out from the place to the world around us. And share it with Zhenya. We played with local goats, sang songs, got into rusty old boat, and climbed trees. It could have been some Greek island. All it lacked was sun-drenched fruit hanging from the branches. I was sad to leave Tatarstan and Zhenya. There's nothing more to say there.
Heaven on Earth - Suzdal and a pilgrimage
Laura and I were stuck in traffic. It was a 2.5/3 hour bus to Vladimir. We were going to visit Diana again. It was a bank holiday weekend however, and this was Russia. It was a 220km traffic jam. It took us about six hours. It wasn't fun and Laura started to get worried as I planned ways to kill people with pencils and plastic water bottles.
I shan't write about Vladimir and Bogolyubovo again, as I've already done that in a previous post. Safe to say their characters - like the Russian people who live in and around - had completely changed. There is the winter face of the country and the summer one. The snow is gone there and all is verdant. The tiny white church now stood reflected in the 'sacred lake' that pooled below it. It was visual poetry. We gawped a while and then found the river. We, as had become the custom, made a bbq and had a picnic. Then we jumped in the cold water and splashed around as rain pitter-pattered on the surface and swallows whirled and whipped above our heads. In the evening we were invited to Diana's dacha, where her parents and their friends, giggly and welcoming from the alcoholic evening of food and friendship they were having, let us come in, drink their homemade vodka and juice, eat sashlik and garden-grown vegetables and use their banya. I had a eureka moment that morning as the sun started to rise and Diana's dad sang folk tunes with his guitar. The Russian tradition of these base pleasures and processes. People, food, nature and life. That's all that's important. The thought of sitting inside with a game console is, well was in that moment at least, something so stupid as to be sickening. I'll do it agin of course. But in that moment, in that house, with those people, that was why I was alive.
The next day, the last day, I finally made it to Suzdal. Nine months in the planning and I arrived at Heaven on Earth. As if the gods of town planning knew what would be the perfect town for me, Suzdal arrived in view as we four: me, Laura, Diana and her friend Tanya, arrived on the completely full little bus. It's essentially an overgrown village that has spilled out over green fields and rivers whilst allowing itself to be populated by a genuinely ludicrous number of UNESCO protected churches, temples monasteries, towers and chapels. Like some pre-industrial slice of Russia. You look around and wonder where civilization is. Then you realise you don't care and that the modern world is shit and nothing is more marvellous than some old buildings shimmering in the otherworld of a river's reflection while the natural throbs and warbles around you. I could go into detail about each and every different building there but there would be no point and I couldn't even start to do it justice. It's the best old town in Russia, at every turn there is something to see and something to whimper about because you know you'll never live there. Suzdal is just perfect...
And that's it. That's the blog. That's Russia. Spain was an easier year, but this one has built me more as a person and bolstered what I truly believe to be the most important aspects of life.
1. Love people
2. Don't stay indoors
3. Find beauty
Also, for those who made it to the end. Well done. I hope you enjoyed your trip.
Goodbye and do svidanya.