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Kazan

Kazan is gorgeous, even in winter when it’s fairly empty. Moscow and St Petesburg are big, international cities, so they’ve got tourists and crowds even now in the way-off season. Kazan, not so much. Once again, the chorus rang, ‘it’s so nice here in the summer, why are you here NOW?’

Still no regrets. The frozen Volga river is a thing to behold. You roll across it as you come into Kazan’s central station, and it was mid-morning when I arrived so I could see snow-covered everything. There were people out there straight up walking on it. (I don’t know what they were doing particularly, maybe ice fishing?)

I found the right tram and got off at the right stop despite them only announcing about every 3rd one. Then my fantastic host Maria let me take a shower while she made me breakfast. (Everyone is making me breakfast! Delicious, delicious, hot breakfast. It’s amazing! I freaking love breakfast! This country is INTO it.)

There isn’t a whole lot to do in Kazan in winter. I managed to see the Kremlin, where the mosque and the cathedral sit happily next to each other, and the Soviet Lifestyle museum within a few hours, then sat in a cafe with a pot of tea and a massive piece of poppyseed cake wondering what I’d do for two more days.

The Soviet Lifestyle museum is a private collection I’d really been looking forward to seeing because you’re allowed to play with about 50% of the stuff in there. There’s clothes and hats you can try on and lots of toys and old books and magazines and things to look through and tinker with. It’s basically a bunch of cool old stuff, which wouldn’t be nearly as remarkable if you weren’t able to interact with it. It was a fun way to spend an hour. Definitely one of the times I wish I’d had someone with me for more goofing off potential.

The first night, I bought some snacks and wine in the quietest, most awkward grocery store I’ve ever been in. this was my usual adventures in foreign grocery shopping where I just pick up a bunch of stuff that looks like it might be good and hope it all goes together. Unfortunately, because I can’t read Russian, I didn’t realise I’d picked semi-sweet red wine (boooo) so I failed there. Maria and I drank it anyway, after she impressively used a stiletto heel to open it, having lost her corkscrew. I promised to make dinner on my last night and buy actual good wine to go with it. She promised to take me to two Russian craft beer bars in town the next night. Hooray!

The second day I walked around the Tartar quarter for a bit before seeking out a Tartar food restaurant Maria had recommended for lunch. It’s mostly different sorts of pies and meat. I had some triangular meat pies with clear broth and a sweet rice, cheese and fruit pie, which was all right, a bit greasy. I later tried the national Tartar dessert, Chak Chak, which reminded me of a giant rice-krispie treat.

Before I met Maria for dinner and beer, I went to the Soviet Arcade museum. They have a branch on St Petersburg and Moscow as well, but I saved it for Kazan, which was good because I had nothing else to do. No one was in there so they turned on all the machines for me, and I tried most of them but got a bit hooked on the pinball and another one where you fling spinning rods at patterns to knock them out. Again, a good way to spend an hour, but would have been more fun with a buddy to play some of the two-player games.

After killing some more time out of the cold gandering around a less-awkward grocery store, I began my foray into Russian craft beer. Being very into my strong porters and imperial stouts, I didn’t waste time and went straight for the strong stuff. I haven’t had much vodka in Russia (more on which later), but I have had many beers over 10% abv!

Maria seems to know everyone in Kazan, including the guy who owned the first bar we were in, and he gave me some personal recommendations. I even took a bottle of triple IPA away to drink on Christmas, continuing my tradition of drinking some kind of super strong fancy beer every December 25th. We met a guy there with his English language group who wanted to got to the other craft bar we were headed to as well, so he joined us. His name was Sasha and he was a medical student trying to improve his English in order to improve his medical studies.

More very strong stuff in the next bar, which was the polar opposite of the first in terms of style, but had equally amazing beer. I also had some smoked cheese bar snacks and was allowed to choose the music from the big record collection. (When trying to explain to me that this bar had records and a record player, when he couldn’t think of the word ‘vinyl’, Sasha described records as ‘big black CDs’. Soetimes working across languages provides some excellent descriptions.) So I got to listen to Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday while sipping some 13% Russian deliciousness.

Maria told me about how Kazan is quite a tolerant place being half Russian half Tartar. Everyone pretty much gets along. Her parents celebrate Muslim holidays with their friends, despite not being Muslim, and she said that kind of thing is pretty normal. Lots of international students come to university in Kazan because it’s easier for people of all different cultures to get along here than it is in Moscow or St Petersburg (as well as being less expensive).

The next night when I made dinner and bought decent wine, we talked about how Russia is never what Westerners expect or are told to expect. I was saying how I was shocked I’d had more wine and beer and barely any vodka after having read everywhere that wine in Russia is terrible and everyone will be trying to get you to drink their vodka. the reality is, most Russians I’ve met don’t like or drink vodka, and prefer wine or beer. Maria showed me this awesome website called Bears and Vodka, which expands on these subjects and I can’t believe I never found on my own.

I had to get up at 4am to catch my train to Yekaterinburg so we couldn’t stay up and continue solving the world’s differences. Maria was good enough to wake up at 4.30 and call me a taxi to the station so I wouldn’t have to work it out in Russian. Just another amazing display of Couchsurfing hospitality.

Check out the full Kazan flickr album