Vladimir, Kazan, Moscow—it’s not exactly the boldly-going-pioneer novelty of my Mongolian trip, but I’m back from my equally adventurous venture into Russia’s Wild, Wild West. And that means it’s time to get back into the swing of things. That means getting back to teaching, yes, but that also means getting back to blogging.
Vladimir: My trip to Vladimir was like a surreal, multifaceted magic trick. Once I arrived at the airport, it took under 10 minutes to go through check-in and security. I departed Ulan-Ude a little after 10AM, spent 6.5 hours on a plane, and was still in Moscow before noon. It was all of -12 degrees, and I found myself waiting outside with my coat unzipped, mittens in my pocket, scarf untied, and hat in hand with my breath still clouding around my head—soaking up the fresh “warm” air. I liken it to the first days of spring when you break out the shorts and ice cream and revel in the warmth when really it’s still pretty cold by real standards.
After beasting the Aeroexpress train and Moscow’s wonderful metro, I spent the next few hours waiting at the train station for my train to Vladimir. When six o’ clock came, I attempted to get to the train platform but couldn’t quite figure out how to get through the turnstile with my e-ticket. A kindly and observant security guard explained: “You need to go over there. See that big guy? Show him your ticket.” So I went through a series of “no entry” doors into a room full of intimidating security guards. The biggest one squinted at my paper and let me through to the platform. Chugga-chugga-choo-choo!
I was in Vladimir three hours later. Hopped on a trolley bus and easily found my hostel. Fittingly, I was the only guest. I could tell right away that Vlad is a quiet city, a small city—almost suburban. It was 9PM on a Saturday night, and the streets were empty, quiet, peaceful. Shops closed, no traffic, no hooligans, no pedestrians. Just peaceful snowy lanes.
After a deep, long sleep, I awoke very early Sunday morning—so jetlagged I didn’t know what way was up. I set off on my usual first-day-in-city walk and was almost overwhelmed by all I found to see and do. Vladimir is a beautiful town full of history and churches and giant banks of pristine fluffy snow that I just wanted to hurl myself into. First, I happened upon the first Catholic church I’d seen since leaving the States. Mass happened to just be starting, so I decided to stay. Though it was all in Russian and I didn’t know the responses (which everyone attributed to me being Russian Orthodox), I found it as understandable and easy to follow as any other Catholic mass I’ve ever attended. Same stories, same ideas, same faith—right down to the “and with your spirit.”
When I continued my walk, I stumbled upon an old water tower which has an exhibit on historic Vladimir and a great view of the city.
Then I passed through the Zolotye Vorota (Golden Gates), which also had an exhibit as well as being a very impressive structure and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Over my two days in Vladimir, I came across several neat monuments and memorials—for soldiers, anniversaries, Vladimir, Alexander II, Andrei Rublev… I enjoyed a number of scenic detours, visited probably dozens of pretty churches, and thoroughly exhausted myself.
Then, I caught a train back to Moscow and another train to Kazan for the next chapter of this adventure.
Kazan: My phone pinged with a bright and cheerful “Welcome to the Republic of Tatarstan!” Kazan is the capital of this republic, a shining beacon of peaceful coexistence of various ethnic and religious groups. The whole city is under scaffolding and construction in preparation for this summer’s Universiade. After a while of wandering around trying to find where the buses stop, I eventually succumbed to one of the taxi sharks that lurk around train stations (taxi, taxi, devushka, taxi…). And I got my money’s worth, I guess. My driver was really nice and informative, so the ride was kind of like a driving tour of the city (here’s the Tatar market, here’s a mall, here’s a discothèque, here’s a university, here’s a babushka selling things). In keeping with tradition, he told me I absolutely have to get married in Kazan, which left me a whole three days to find a husband.
After my train ride, my main priorities at the hostel were a glass of water and a shower. Of course, all the construction means that water sometimes get shut off for the day (meaning one’s needs and priorities must be flexible), but I found something even better: my Fulbright friends! There were now five of us (out of an eventual dozen) already there. I was happy to see people again, to use English (complete with slang and idioms and big words and humor), to laugh myself to tears, to share observations and experiences, and just to vent.
The highlight of this trip, of course, was the company. We spent more time just hanging out being silly and/or musical or eating (whether it’s cooking tacos or spending three hours in a restaurant, meals take a while in Russia) than doing the whole “touristy” thing. But it was perfect that way—just what I needed. And we did see at least some of the city. There’s a nice Kremlin with a gorgeous mosque and a few little museums. There are markets and streets. There’s a frozen river to walk on. There’s a fat cat statue. There’s a hill to penguin-slide down. And there’s a Socialist Lifestyle Museum, where we got to play dress-up in Soviet era clothing while the museum curator took pictures and gave us random props, from anti-American propaganda books to framed pictures of Vysotsky.
But Moscow was calling. So we loaded into a couple kupes for my favorite train ride of all time.
Moscow: To be honest, I did absolutely nothing “touristy” in Moscow. I didn’t even take a picture. For some reason, though I’ve spent a grand total of two weeks in this gigantic city (one of which was almost completely tied up in Fulbright activities), I’ve got this unfortunate “been there, done that” attitude toward Moscow. Once again, the highlight was the company. The Russia Fulbrighters were all together again for the second and final time. We had two days of presentations, where people talked about their research and projects (which were all really insightful and fascinating) and one day of ETA Teacher training. We spent lots of time together, and I enjoyed everyone’s company. Part of it is a sense that we’re not alone, that many of us are sharing similar experiences and issues. Part of it is a rare chance to truly be yourself in your native tongue among others who can understand where you’re coming from. Part of it is that this is a really great group of people.
But all things must come to an end. Literally as soon as training finished, I had to book it for my flight back to Siberia (during which the need for me to find a Russian husband was once more emphasized). It was actually difficult to say goodbye and drag myself away (not least because I was leaving a summery -4 degrees to return to -35).
It’s good to be back, though, and I’m feeling revitalized and optimistic for my classes and life here. In other news, these journeys have revealed to me my spirit animal. I’m ready to channel my inner water buffalo and water buffalo it up.