A slight detour off the “normal” Trans-Siberian Railway line brought us to Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. With a quite tumultuous history going back to the mid 15th century, Kazan is now a centre of Tatar culture and proud to be recognised as such a multi-ethnic city, notably of Muslim and Christian faith.
Kazan has a different “feel” to it. Not so Russian, but more cosmopolitan. Everywhere we looked, the Kazan flag (with its coat of arms) flew alongside the flags of Tatarstan and Russia.
The Old Tatar Settlement beside Lake Nizhny Kaban contains several mosques, all with distinctive crescent moons atop green spires.
We later stumbled upon the Museum of Soviet Life; a quirky museum above some store shops. It was essentially the owner’s lifetime collection of fun (and slightly weird) Soviet related stuff. A wacky but original experience to be had!
The main commercial tourist area is Bauman Street. Nearby the brick Epiphany Church with its tall bell tower, street artists perform while tourists and locals watch on from the many cafes and souvenir shops. We met up with our travelling friends, Sophie and Steve (who we initially met back in Krasnoyarsk), for lunch.
Kazan Federal University has an impressively ominous facade. A statue across the street of a young Lenin don’t actually mention that he was expelled from here!
The surrounding streets contain several important buildings with exquisite facades.
Peter and Paul Cathedral is heavily detailed with pastel colours over fine craftsmanship. It also bears the visible scars of flooding years ago.
A brief visit to the Kazan Hermitage museum allowed us to come face-to-face with some prehistoric friends. Notably the smiling face of a sabre-toothed tiger and Protoceratops (last seen in Mongolia, twice).
Overlooking the Kazanka River, stands the overly grand Agricultural Palace. It’s big, has some creepy gargoyles watching over it and has a giant bronze tree as its centrepiece.
Only in Russia.
The focal point of the city’s historic centre is the white Kazan Kremlin. Home to government offices, parks and religious buildings, this large expanse is enclosed by thick walls with multiple turret towers. Climbing these walls provides some stunning views inside and out over the city.
Of interest is the slightly leaning 59m high Syuyumbike Tower, named after a long-suffering wife of three successive khans. The legend says that Ivan the Terrible launched his siege of Kazan as a result of Syuyumbike’s refusal to marry him. To save her city, the princess agreed to marry the tsar, but only if he could build a tower higher than any other mosque in Kazan in a week. Unfortunately he did, so she jumped off the upper terrace to her death shortly afterwards. Maybe the desperately quick construction has caused it to lean…
The clear highlight of Kazan Kremlin, however, is Kul Sharif Mosque. Standing tall like an exotic Disney castle, this awesome mosque is amazing both inside and out.
Inside there is a display of the history of Islam and calligraphy, as well as a visitor’s balcony to peer inside.
With its varying architecture and relaxed feel, Kazan was an enjoyable and worthwhile detour on the way to Moscow. It really provided a true reflection that Russia is actually a unique blend of many cultures the make up the largest country in the world.
Visited 31st August to 2nd September 2014.