Kazan (Казань in Russian, Казан in Tatar), Russia’s fifth largest city, had been at the top of my domestic travel list way before exploring our own country became a reality that we had to learn to embrace. What was it that drew me to the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan located in central Russia? I had expected it to be definitely somewhat different from anywhere in the country I’d been, something I probably couldn’t quite articulate. Of course, that must have been horse meat, chakchak, but was there anything more than local food specialties..?
Having explored the world through my own (linguistic, ethnographic and generally curious) lens, I am beginning to see more clearly what set this city apart from others on my list that I had been mentally preparing since the world went insane. First of all, I was intrigued by how being one of the most multicultural regions in the country, this republic (which is not in the state border like Adler I visited earlier this year), has been (re)negotiating its identity throughout its history. This ethnic diversity, close contact of religions and the language situation would certainly be interesting to explore even at a quick look.
Secondly, I was indeed eager to get a taste of the resulting culinary identity of the place. Of course, I wouldn’t expect people around me (expect tourists like myself) to eat nothing but horsemeat, chakchak and echpochmak, but the beauty of being an explorer is that you can get a somewhat exaggerated version of a food scene of a place you are visiting by having exclusively local food.
Finally, in the process of doing my research prior to the trip, I became aware of considerable gaps in my knowledge of the Russian history and the Volga region in particular. Being a straight-A student back at school certainly didn’t help.But this quick investigation did give me a new appreciation for historic facts on Golden Horde that every Russian was taught back at school. So, on this second domestic trip after a long break, I was going to contemplate the complex culture of the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan as well as lives of some great people who are known to have roamed these streets and to treat myself to the national cuisine.
This time, due to the hot weather, limited timing as well as complicated historic context of my surroundings, I decided not to commit to any specific genre while documenting my memories. So, a lot of these «travel notes» made during my four full days in the Republic of Tatarstan have been written retrospectively, but with a fair amount of original sentiments kept. As a city with the history spanning more than a millenium, Kazan is not an easy city to process after all. Of course, using this scenery as a background for my own ideas and thoughts, it was hard to avoid mentioning some of its history. Even though I have done some research as I said, I am not taking it upon myself to give History classes about Kazan and the Republic of Tatarstan either to foreigners or let alone fellow Russians. What I am going to do instead is to merely scratch the surface — just as with everything on this short trip – but hopefully enough to capture the image of the republic and its capital city as it was created in my mind during my stay to probably inspire someone to visit this magnificent historic city.
Hello, Kazan! On the Kremlin and Food
As I was staying in Kremlin Street right next to the seat of the Republic’s President, the first thing that I saw on the left exiting my Stalin-era apartment building was the stone-white Spasskaya Tower of the Kazan Kremlin, the UNESCO site since 2000. With this fortification structure arresting my attention, I got this «Moscow» feel despite being around 800km east of the capital. But I got reminded I wasn’t there as the street around me was deserted and the price per night in my private apartment might not have even gotten me a hostel bed anywhere within a walking distance from the Moscow Kremlin. I instantly loved being in the capital of Tatarstan which seemed to be projecting a somewhat similar degree of grandeur and pomp (while being surprisingly affordable).
Knowing that I was having the next day to explore the Kremlin complex, I rushed through the Spasskaya Tower straight to Kul Sharif mosque, one of the most recognizable sights in the Republic of Tatarstan and the first religious building of this type I’d ever seen in my country. It was everything I had been imagining — hypnotizing and breathtaking — especially during the golden hour! It is while being confronted with that level of beauty and architectural prowess that you know from the get-go that the trip has been certainly worth it. Do most tourists start their exploration of Kazan peering at this mosque from multiple angles? The Islamic element of this historical landscape seems particularly appealing. Why? I assume you must be Russian to fully comprehend the feelings one experiences seeing a Kremlin (we have a total of 10 in Russia) and a mosque blended into one architectural complex.
The word «Kremlin» dates back to the 14th century and is something we typically associate with Mother Russia. This fortified structure has to encircle and isolate something which is inherently Russian. Of course, the main one (evoking major bursts of patriotism) is in Moscow, but the one in Kazan (built in place of older fortifications after the city had become part of the Russian Empire) is generating special feelings as well. The Spasskaya Tower right at the entrance to the Kremlin complex was actually designed in the 16th century in the same style as the one in Pskov (one of the oldest cities in the country lying in the North West) and made of local sandstone.
After marveling at the mosque, I ended up admiring Latin dancing on the Kremlin Embankment. Yes, just as any Kremlin, this imposing architectural complex is strategically located. This Kremlin lies at the mouth of the river Kazanka. The word казан («qazan») is still used in Russian for a large cooking pan («a boiler»). According to one of the legends, the princess Söyembikä accidentally dropped a «qazan» into this river and that was where the city was founded. So I froze here for a bit looking at the opposite river bank amazed at how those couples dancing to some Latin music on my right didn’t seem out of place at all… It somewhat took me back to a similar scene I got to witness during one of my last days in New York in one of Chelsea Piers overlooking the Lower Manhattan…
It was already getting dark and despite being able to navigate the space easily, I decided to make my way back to my apartment earlier. On my way I paused to marvel at one of the Kremlin walls (and to touch it of course) and again in front of the Kul Sharif mosque which was captivating lit up.
There was some room for the first culinary explorations as well as I had my late lunch and dinner at a fast food place called Tubetej (after a traditional Tatar cap). Its owner studied in the U.S. and got inspired to create his own version of McDonalds selling national Tatar food. Yes, that was what I had wanted to come here for before a lot of other lenses started dominating my traveller’s vision. I started with the first most familiar Tatar dish echpochmak (sounds weird for Russians) or just referred to as a «triangle» (a pie stuffed with meat, potatoes and onions chopped into cubes). It is a staple Tatar dish we identify the Republic with and it goes back to the nomadic past of people who used to inhabit the area. As an equivalent of this homely feel this dish provides, in Russia we have «pirozhok» (a pie). For dessert I had chak chak (fried honey cake), another iconic Tatar dish, andwashed it down with some herbal Tatar tea. For dinner I had elesh(which I found somewhat similar to echpochmak) and gubadia for dessert (a small pie stuffed with cottage cheese and raisins). I know it doesn’t sound like a healthy meal, but the Republic of Tatarstan is a wrong place for discarding your unhealthy food cravings. Life is too short not to indulge in this exquisitely tasty Tatar pastry.
I made my way to «my» Stalin-era apartment building right across the road looking at the majestic Spasskaya Tower on my left and the minarets of the Kul Sharif mosque puncturing the sky behind it. I was so happy I had four more nights to enjoy the view… Good night, Kazan!