Wednesday is known as hump day, and by Wednesday last week we were all feeling a bit worn down by our humdrum routine of lessons. Having just received our passports, we decided the best course of action was to take a mini-break! In the morning we bought our tickets from the station, half an hour before we left our room we booked our hostels, and by 10pm we were sitting on an overnight train on the way to Nizhny Novgorod. We initially were very fearful that we had bought the wrong type of ticket, as we were sitting in upright chairs facing each other rather than lying in a bunk (as we had chosen to travel in the ‘general’ carriage rather than sleeping in a separate compartment). After some hasty messages to Russian friends and with the help of some kindly ladies sitting opposite we converted our seats into beds. However, it took some time to get used to the lack of headroom on my upper bunk (with Emma trying to ‘help’ and inadvertently folding me into a position which left me stuck and unable to move!). However, even with bunks we didn’t get much sleep on the train; we were situated right next to the main door to the carriage, so people were bustling next to us throughout the night. I think I managed to get about eight 20 minute naps, rather than sleeping through…
Thursday: We arrived in Nizhny Novgorod and got our tickets for our imminent train to Vladimir (our route being Novgorod -> Vladimir -> Suzdal -> Vladimir -> Novgorod -> Kazan, simple!). After boarding a very sleek train with classic music playing in the carriages and in-ride entertainment, we promptly fell asleep. Two hours later we reached a very very snowy Vladimir and trudged to the bus station to travel to Suzdal. The bus was very old and rickety, but thankfully we safely arrived at Suzdal by midday. Suzdal is one of the oldest Russian towns, which was formerly a capital of the principality (with Moscow merely being a subordinate town). Nowadays, it is a small town forming part of the ‘Gold Ring’ around Moscow.
After wandering around, slightly lost, we eventually found the Kremlin (a predecessor to the Moscow Kremlin). We quickly stocked up on some blinis and tea, before having a look around. The main church of the Kremlin was as impressive as ever, although the museums inside left something to be desired…
The Monastery of Saint Euthymius, despite being at the other end of town and forcing us to make a treacherous slippery trek across the icy paths, was well worth the visit. First of all, the churches there were stunning.
Secondly, the museum of the ex-prison there was fascinating. It was originally built in 1764 to house religious dissidents (another ‘reformatory dormitory for naughty boys’) but was used also for POWs and for political dissidents during the Soviet period.
By the time we reached the bus station we were exhausted from missing the night’s sleep before. However, some very friendly cats living in the bus station made the wait more bearable. We soon arrived in Vladimir and found our hostel (Hostel Dostoevsky..), and after being ‘interviewed’ in the kitchen by some very inquisitive Russians (who filmed and took photos of us, even though we were in our pyjamas and had just hoped for a quiet cup of tea before bed!), we promptly fell asleep.
Friday: The morning faced a slow start, but we eventually pulled ourselves out of bed to meet up with Ellamae, another Cambridge student studying in nearby Nizhny Novgorod! We took a walk along the historic centre, which had amazing views over the town. There were more tourists than in Suzdal, and we ended up meeting some more European students from Moscow who were somewhat less impressed with Vladimir in comparison with the bustling capital city. We, of course, did our rounds of the churches and then saw the less than impressive ‘Golden Gate’ (which was basically a grey arch in the middle of a sludge-filled road).
To escape the snow, in the afternoon we went to a museum about the history of Vladimir and bought some of the renowned local gingerbread. Then it was time to get the train to Nizhny Novgorod, before settling into our second hostel.
Saturday: Nizhny Novgorod saw the coldest weather we had experienced in Russia, and it was hard to spend much time outside/wandering around the vast Kremlin.
The real highlight of Nizhny Novgorod were the two excellent art museums there. Firstly we went to the State Art Museum which contained lots of icons and more classical works. It was strange to see the icons being displayed in a more ‘sterile’ setting, having just been in a church (what a surprise) where many people were kissing icons and praying. After a very late lunch we then visited the Arsenal, which housed modern art. The exhibits here were extremely interesting and varied, with works depicting the lives of those living in Russian cities, discussing the erasure of women in society, and a display of South Korean art that was previously exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery in 2012.
In the evening we caught our final train home; the weekend away really helped us reignite our passion for everything Russian and it was great to explore local cities. Yet, sitting on the train home we concluded that Kazan was still our favourite city. Our weekend away had shown us more typically ‘Russian’ towns, which made us appreciate all the more the Tatar quirks of Kazan; the Tatar announcements on the buses, the mosque in the Kremlin, the excellent culinary tradition..! Arriving at 6am in Kazan we took a walk through the deserted main street and looked at everything around us with newfound fondness. We were swiftly brought out of our reverie by a woman at the bus stop, who scolded us for walking around without our coats properly done up and not covering our heads with our hoods; it was good to be home!