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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

St Petersburg

So once I remembered that I have very little patience for (most) museums, I kicked off three months of Kate Walks Around Foreign Cities Looking At Things Til She Can Barely Stand Up and Also Eats A Lot. My two favourite travel activities!

On my first full day in St Petersburg, Elena made another incredible breakfast and then we set out to do an epic walking tour of the city. She had printed out loads of information from the interweb and she proceeded to hit me with just the right amount of facts about everything we saw all day. We walked about 15km in 7 hours. Later on when I was looking up lists of must-see things in the city, I noticed we’d seen pretty much ALL of them –  the standards and the ‘often missed’ stuff. It was pretty nice out all day too, windy but sunny with no rain, so we were lucky.

We went up on the wall at the Peter and Paul fortress and all up and down the river on both sides. Then after a pizza and wine stop we walked down the Moika embankment in the dark and saw my favourite sculpture of the day, the monument to Alexander III, DIRECTLY OPPOSITE a bizarre sculpture of a baby riding a T-Rex (because St Petersburg knew I was coming). After we saw where Elena went to university, we went to an amazing bakery (Sever) and picked out some cakes to try once we were home with massive cups of tea.

Sunday was a bit of a day off because I couldn’t walk for another 7 hours THEN dance. So we had an easy walk to see some close-by sights in the rain, bought a bunch of local chocolates, then made a tasty, traditional dinner of salted herring, potatoes and salad. Then I went to the regular Summertime Swing Sunday night social at Freedom Palace! Slightly nerve-wracking at first, but I had a lovely evening. I even got a high five from one of the guys I danced with, because ‘It’s so cool that I don’t speak much English and you don’t speak Russian but we can still dance!’ And yes, it totally IS.

(I’ll do a full post on dancing in Russia once I’ve been to the Moscow Lindy night tomorrow.)

Monday was another rainy day, and I managed to get proper soaked in the morning after going to start my visa registration. I bought some postcards and then went back to the Freedom Palace to dry off and write them, which is actually an anti-cafe where you pay for your time there instead of your drinks, then you get to have as much tea, coffee, and cookies as you like while you sit in various comfy spaces and use the wifi. It’s such a great idea! The first one was started by a dude in Moscow and now there are different ones all over Russia and popping up in some other European cities as well. I’m already trying to figure out how I can open one in Edinburgh.

In the afternoon, I went back to the Peter and Paul Fortress to go to the small museum on the history of rocket development, because SPACE! And I also went to the History of St Petersburg museum, because why not? (also it was free with my rocket ticket.) And actually it ended up being really good. I spent more time in there than I expected to, and I was last out. The guy in the coat check was giving me a good-natured hard time for it. They just had all sorts of stuff on the progression of the city and whole rooms on travel and cinema and kitchens and everything else you could possibly want to know about what things were like in the city for the past 300 years. But the thing that made me wish I had more time was this crazy little video in one of the rooms on how they raised the Aleksandrovskaya column in Palace Square. It was all in Russian, but it was animated in that weird Monty-Python-esque style of like, moving cut out illustrations on static backgrounds with matching ridiculous sound effects. I really wanted to watch the whole thing but there wasn’t enough time. It was hilarious AND informative.

There was an hour between museum closing time and when I was supposed to meet Elena and Elena (yes two!) for dinner, so I wandered around looking for a cafe and found an amazing coffee shop (Double B I think it was called) where I had a much-needed flat white and a sit down before being introduced to the tasty, tasty world of Georgian food at Tbiliso. Oh my god. I clearly need to go to Georgia because they have the most delicious stuff ON THIS EARTH. There was fried bread with cheese, there were all sorts of dumplings, there was chicken in some kind of heavenly nut sauce, there was a spicy red beef soup, there was VERY GOOD WINE, and there was some kind of nuts in grape and honey stuff for dessert. And I wanted to try just about everything else on the menu too, which all looked so different from anything else I’ve ever had. I practically rolled home and flopped into bed like a beached whale.

Then I was down to my last day, which was lovely and sunny again, and I finally went IN to a cathedral. that Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood is covered top to bottom in mosaics, which is pretty impressive. And there was a wee display on the restoration of everything which made my dork heart happy. I took another long walk in the freezing sunshine, broken up by a fancy lunch and a trip to the central post office (massive!) for stamps. And my last stop was the Kunstkamera, which was all right, but by the time I got to all the weird medical specimen babies in jars (um, yeah) I was a little too tired to keep my stomach from going all blergh. So I left and had a coffee and cake before one last dinner at home with Elena. Then it was off to catch the Red Arrow overnight to Moscow.

St Petersburg is beautiful. I can definitely see why it’s called the Venice of the North, and I’d love to come back in summer for all the festivals and dancing and WARMTH. All the better for endless walking and eating. It’s a nice bridge between Scandinavia and the rest of Russia though, so it was a really good way to start I think. And big, big thanks to my first host Elena, who went out of her way to make me feel at home. Hooray for Couchsurfing! It was my first guest Tatiana who put me in touch with Elena in St Petersburg as well as my hosts Yana and Ifan in Moscow and I have been incredibly well taken care of so far. What an awesome way to travel.

Here’s the full Flickr album of St Petersburg

Couchsurfing is the answer

Last weekend I had a MA-HOO-SIVE party, the likes of which I will be lucky to top anytime soon. I had a flat full of Lindy Hoppers, 20 pizzas (TWENTY!), booze, good music and a floor that, it turns out, is plenty big enough for a dance party into the wee hours.

My new toy, takin' over the hallway.

All the plans.

I won’t ramble on about it, but it also meant that a whole load of people saw my Ridiculously Giant Post-It Calendar Of Planning, so I suddenly had lots of good new tips about various parts of my trip where people had been before. Perhaps most importantly: the info on Vietnam is all lies (up to 15 days for UK passport holders visa-free) and I DEFINITELY need to sort out a visa before I head off.

It’s so good to know who’s been where though, and now I can pick even more people’s brains about specific countries.

But maybe the best thing to come out of everyone seeing it is that the other night in the pub, my friend George said he hadn’t realised I was definitely going so soon until he saw that on my wall. So I was asking him for advice, first on what to do in China, but then just in general because he’s been all sorts of places. And that’s when he convinced me to reconsider the whole couchsurfing thing.

I’ve never really talked to anyone who’s done couchsurfing at length before, but George has both used it while traveling and at home. He’s currently hosting people, and actually brought the girl staying on his couch for the weekend to that party I had, which: what an intro to the city! But that’s also awesome. He had nothing but good things to say about his experiences with it.

I guess before I wrote it off without much thought (ERROR) because I let THE FEAR bred by safety concerns of being a solo lady traveller in someone whom I’ve never met’s home cancel out any sensible consideration. But once I properly checked out the couchsurfing website, my mind was easily changed. I spent all last night looking up hosts in some of the cities I’ll be in, and it’s clear from the honest and glowing references that most people have an amazing time with their hosts and surfers, and it’s really quite easy to find verified, well-reviewed hosts who have things in common with you.

I wholeheartedly believe that most people are good and friendly and trustworthy and just want to help you have a great time in their city. But it helps when you can see evidence, you know?

I also filtered some of my city searches by searching ‘Lindy Hop’ and found tons of dancers. I didn’t expect it would be so easy, but it’s exactly what I wanted to happen! I’ve been excited about dancing everywhere, but the logistics of that when you’re on your own are a little intimidating. The actual events themselves weren’t so much what worried me, it was the going to and from places, most likely at night, and looking after my stuff, and just all the little things I take for granted at home. If I stay with someone who knows the local scene, a lot of that anxiety fades away.

Staying with locals also means I’ll get to see their favourite bits of their own city, which isn’t the kind of thing you’ll usually end up seeing when you’re just looking things up online or speaking to people in hostels. When I went to Helsinki last year and stayed with Carolina and Johanna, I did one or two touristy things, but most of the time we were just wandering around or hanging out with their friends hanging out in the places they like to hang out. And it was great! That’s what I’d like to do everywhere. And that’s kind of how George sold it to me. He said it would be the most memorable part of my trip, and I believe it.

The other side of this is that I’m going to try to host some people here before I leave. Partially for references, but also because I love MY city, and I love showing off all my favourite things in it. I think this will be especially nice during the festival, because the place is overrun with tourists and the city kind of becomes this whole other animal. If you’re working the festival or staying in a hostel, you probably don’t see much more than Edinburgh’s festival face. I know that’s how I saw it in the beginning. And there’s nothing horrible about that, but how nice would it have been to see the local side during the most non-local part of the year? So hopefully I can show that to a few people. I shall report back!


PS I’ve done a wee overhaul. New theme! (Still by Anders Noren because I love his stuff.) After a year, it was definitely time for a change. Still doing some tweaks on it (need to get tags showing outside of a tab among other tiny bits), but I’m liking it so far. Hope you do too!