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Moscow sites – Arbat

 

                Many
Russian cities have at least one popular shop-lined pedestrian street filled
with street musicians and small kiosks selling arts and crafts.  Moscow is no exception.  Moscow’s pedestrian street is called Arbat
and is very famous in Russia and many of the former Soviet Republics.

                Arbat
street in Moscow is very centrally located. 
It is walking distance from the Kremlin, located about a fifteen minute
walk to the northwest, and it stretches for about two kilometers.  There are metro stations on either side of
Arbat.  On the south side of Arbat where
the famous pedestrian street meets an extremely busy vehicular street called
New Arbat, or Novy Arbat, there is the metro station with the same name,
‘Arbat’.  This metro station is one of
the oldest stations, and is quite a distinctive landmark on its own.  Arbat Street, sometimes known as ‘Old Arbat’
runs diagonally away from it’s traffic filled neighbour, Novy Arbat, from this
point onward.  A super expensive
restaurant, ‘Praga’, is situated on the corner where the two Arbats meet.  Fortunately, not everything on this street is
as expensive as the ‘Praga’.  The place
where the two Arbats meet is always busy with cars and it is hard to imagine
that less than two hundred meters away is a peaceful escape from traffic.

                Within
a couple meters of entering the pedestrian zone, there are street vendors
selling beautiful landscape paintings or stereotypical Russian souveniers such
as nesting dolls, vodka flasks, and funny T-shirts with slogans or pictures
depicting old Soviet propaganda or a mix of pre- and post- Soviet lifestyle
such as a silhouette of Lenin’s head on the McDonalds logo.  After passing a couple of banks and currency
exchange offices, we start seeing plenty of shops and cafes.  Not surprisingly, many of the shops cater to
tourists.  There is a large number of
souvenier and jewellrey shops.

                Further
into Arbat, you can find plenty of places to eat.  There is no shortage of eateries in Moscow
and you can find almost every chain possible on Arbat.  You can find everything from fast food to
cafeterias, from coffee houses to sit-down restaurants.  Moscow’s Hard Rock café is located on Arbat.  When Starbucks opened its doors in Russia in
2009, they didn’t hesitate to open up shop on this prestigious street and now
you can find two of them here.  Many of
Moscow’s big chains such as Yelki Palki, Mu Mu Café, Coffee House, Yaposhka,
Shokolodnitsa, and McDonalds can be found on Arbat.  Arbat is also the location of many ethnic
cuisines such as Japanese, Italian, Ukrainian, Turkish and German.  Many eateries are also popular hang outs, and
on certain nights, for example, you can see a gathering of Harley Davidson
motorcycles outside a local diner.

                Arbat
also has its share of entertainment and sightseeing.  Along Arbat, you can find graffiti wall, an
area filled with planned graffiti and an old out-of-service red bus which has
been converted into a restaurant.  Arbat
also has its small version of the walk-of-fame with its stars on the sidewalk
like in Hollywood.  Towards the far end
of Arbat near the Hard Rock Care, there is a popular monument of Pushkin and
his wife.  And of course, on any given
day, you can find plenty of street performers from string quartets and
breakdancers to magicians and comedy acts.

                After
the two kilometer walk along Arbat street, we finally come to a rapidly moving
six lane monstrosity which snaps us out of our peaceful walk and back into the
stressful, traffic-filled reality.  Arbat
street ends with an enourmous Stalin era concrete skyscraper, one of seven such
buildings in Moscow which has become known as the seven sisters.  Moscow State University is among the seven
sisters.  I don’t really know what this
particular building is currently used for. 
At this end of Arbat, we find the metro station ‘Smolenskaya’.

                Arbat
and its neighbouring street of New Arbat are fantastic places to go for a walk
and get a feel of typical Moscow.  Arbat
is a great escape from the surrounding busy Moscow life right in the center of
town.  It is wonderful whether you’re
there to shop for souveniers, have a bite to eat, or just go for a relaxing
stroll in the big city.

 

 

Tyumen’ – Exiles and Oligarchs

                Travelling eastwards into Asia, Tyumen’ is the first major city once entering the vast
land known as Siberia.  Tyumen’ is
located about a four hour drive from Ekaterinburg and the Ural mountains.  Being the first city in Siberia going east,
it only seems natural that Tyumen’ is also the oldest settlement in Siberia as
the Russian empire expanded eastward. 
Today, Tyumen’ is a modern, vibrant city of over half a million
residents and an important stop along the Trans-Siberian Railway.

                Tyumen’s city center is a fine mixture of historical buildings and super modern glass
and steel highrises.  According to the
residents I have talked to , Tyumen’ is one of the most expensive cities in
Russia and even thoughy it isn’t quite as expensive as Moscow, the prices are
comparable.  Much of the city center is
filled with modern expensive looking shops and seems to be a popular place for
the wealthy.

                At the same time, Tyumen’ has also had quite a dark history.  As the first major city in Siberia, it was an
important junction for exiles and prisoners being sent eastwards.  Many prisoners were shuffled around and
sorted out in Tyumen’ as they were separated into their destinations further
down the road.  And of course many
prisoners were not so lucky as Tyumen’ became their final resting grounds.  The person who showed me around the city
would point to an old building and mention that this building was a temporary
jail for transported prisoners or that building was where certain famous exiles
were kept.  One of the most eerie things
she mentioned as we walked along one of the main streets was the fact that a
sizeable stretch of sidewalk was much softer than the surrounding asphalt and
had a very ‘spongy’ texture because this particular area had once been an open
pit where the city administration dumped the dead bodies of unknown
prisoners.  The sidewalk was in fact
noticeable ‘spongy’ and although I don’t know if the story is genuine, it seems
wrong to be walking over such a mass grave.

                Another interesting fact about Tyumen’ is that it was in this city where the communist
leader, V. I. Lenin was embalmed. 
Tyumen’ was also the temporary resting place of the embalmed Lenin
during the second World War when it seemed that Moscow might be taken
over.  There is a monument to the scientist
who embalmed Lenin in front of the university building where he was embalmed
and kept during the second World War.

 

Kaluga – A Long Stretch

 

            If you look at a map of Russia, you will notice that the country is divided up into several dozen oblasts and that the oblasts to the west of the country are much smaller than the oblasts to the east. Around Moscow, there are seven oblasts that border the Moscow oblast. Each oblast has its oblast center, the main administrative city of the oblast. Most of the oblast centers of the oblasts surrounding Moscow is quick and easy to get to and can usually be done as a day trip. With this in mind, I tried taking a day trip over to Moscow’s southwestern neighbor, Kaluga. Although I succeeded in making a day trip out of it, the trip was long and tiring, and I definitely didn’t see as much of Kaluga as I could have or should have.
            Kaluga is a city of about 325,000 people located 150 kilometers southwest of Moscow. Although there are elektrichka trains that run the whole distance from Moscow to Kaluga, they are rare and understandably only run in the mornings and evenings. Having missed the last morning train to Kaluga, I decided to take an alternate route rather than saving the trip for another day. I decided to take the train to the city of Obninsk, a city in between the two cities about two thirds of the way to Kaluga and counted on a quick and easy transfer the rest of the way to Kaluga.
            Things don’t always work out as planned, but that is part of the adventure. The trip to Obninsk took several hours and I finally arrived in the early afternoon. After looking at the schedule, I found out that I had at least an hour to kill before moving on to Kaluga! Well, at least this gave me an opportunity to see a little of this small academic town. As I found out, an hour was more than enough time to realize that unless you were a top scientist with access to unauthorized areas, Obninsk was a boring town with very little to do. Obninsk is definitely not a tourist city and I felt like if there was anything in the form of entertainment in this city, it was not obvious to an outsider.
            I decided to continue to Kaluga and finally arrived in the mid-afternoon. After checking the train schedule to see about the trains back to Moscow, I realized that I didn’t have much time to spend here. Less than three hours. Not only that, because this was an improvised trip, I had no idea where to go or what to see.
            I hopped onto a trolleybus which would take me away from the train station, and I assumed towards the center since it seemed that there was only one direction out from the train station. The trolleybus kept going straight down what I assumed was the main street and eventually drove past large shopping areas and the central football stadium. I keep going until the street ended at a T intersection and the trolleybus went right. I got off the trolleybus here and realized that I was right in the middle of a square and in front of the statue of Lenin. The square was surprisingly empty and the low red-bricked architecture surrounding the square didn’t seem like a typical administrative area. I never did find out what those buildings were, but it wasn’t the oblast’s administrative center. Just around the corner, where the trolleybus continued on, there was a large yellow building with an arch which turned out to be the entrance to the city park. I didn’t have time to take a relaxing stroll, but I managed to rush through it, seeing as much as I could.
            I returned back to the area around the central stadium and took a walk at a nice brisk pace along any street that seemed interesting. The center of Kaluga was definitely more crowded and vibrant than the square and the park. I walked around taking photos of anything remotely interesting but not pausing for too long. I managed to get a few monuments, the theatre, even a church. Then I quickly walked back to the train station still snapping photos of anything that caught my eye. I made it back to the train station and was able to catch the last non-stop train to Moscow.
            For somebody who had very little time in a city I knew nothing about, I felt that I did quite well in seeing what I could. However, I definitely rushed through everything and didn’t look at things in too much details. Although I can officially mark Kaluga as a place I’ve been to, I definitely can’t say I know the city well. All I know is Kaluga is a difficult destination if you’re looking for a day trip from Moscow.

Cheboksary – Chuvash Republic

 

            There is a tiny autonomous republic located relatively close to Moscow about a days train ride away. This tiny republic is called the Chuvash Republic, or Chuvashia. The Volga River flows through the tiny republic and Chuvashia is surrounded by several other autonomous republics like Tatarstan, Mary El, Urumur and Mordovia. The capital and only settlement that can be called a city in Chuvashia is Cheboksary.
            The people of Chuvashia have a distinctive non-Russian appearance, and speak a language much different that Slavic. The Chuvash language is still widely spoken and everywhere you go in Cheboksary, you can see a dual language system. Given the fact that Chuvash-Russian and Chuvash-English dictionaries and phrasebooks can easily be found, it seems as if the Chuvash people are actively promoting their language and succeeding. The people of Chuvashia have a slightly Asiatic appearance noticeably different from the surrounding areas. Although I haven’t confirmed this fact, it seems that the communist leader himself, Vladimir Lenin was partially Chuvash.
            Cheboksary is quite a significant medium size city. It is a good half an hour to forty five minute walk from the bus station to the riverfront. The walk is actually quite interesting, taking you past many of Cheboksary’s sites.
            From the bus station, follow the main traffic-filled road. After two or three blocks, the road forks at a huge park mostly dedicated to the Chuvash people. There is a large monument to the Chuvash hero on a horse, and a museum about Chuvash history.
            Continuing on down the main road, you pass by a handful of other monuments. Eventually, you arrive at the main administration building of Cheboksary and university where, as expected, you can find a Lenin statue. If Lenin is partly Chuvash, the administration didn’t do anything to spruce up this Lenin statue and commemorate his background. This Lenin statue is as ordinary and normal as most Lenin statues. The area here has relatively light traffic and you actually feel like you’re in a small city.
            Further down the road, the traffic stops and the pedestrian street begins. Cheboksary’s pedestrian street is extremely beautiful and picturesque with relatively few people, and small one or two story quaint shops that don’t dominate the scenery. Black ornate street lights line the street and there is no shortage of street artists and souvenir vendors selling their arts and crafts. The brick sidewalk is specifically laid out in the pattern of Chuvash embroidery, the same pattern you can see on the Chuvash flag. 
            The pedestrian street leads to the waterfront featuring fountains spraying straight out of the river and a huge jetty unusually well designed and landscaped. Off to the left, where a tributary of the Volga branches off, is the main landmark of Cheboksary. Here, across a pedestrian bridge stands a huge man with his arms out like wings high up on a pedestal which itself is on a small green hill overlooking the Volga and its tributary. The park like surrounding has a fair share of temporary tent cafe’s and makeshift vendors renting out outdoor sports equipment or advertising for people to have their photos taken. There is no shortage of cyclists and rollerbladers here.
            Following the tributary back up towards the bus station, along the pedestrian brick walkway, we continue to see well manicured landscapes. Not far from the standing man, there is a towering skyscraper, probably the tallest building in Cheboksary and definitely the tallest building in the area. A long stairway leads up from the river to the towering government building of Chuvashia, and from the top of the stairway next to the entrance to the building, you get a great view of the river. Again, a fountain sprays straight out of the river and the opposite bank is beautifully landscaped in the Chuvash pattern.
            Chuvashia is a very interesting and beautiful republic with its own distinct culture and traditions. For people who want to be in Russia but feel as if they weren’t in Russia, Chuvashia is probably the best place to go. It’s relatively close to Moscow, and although Cheboksary has its fair share of Soviet architecture, you feel as if you are in a different country.

Pereslavl Zalessky – Behind the Woods

 

 

        Pereslavl Zalessky is a small town located northeast of Moscow on the way to the city of Yaroslavl. The second part of its name, ‘Zalessky’, literally means ‘behind the woods’. The area around Pereslavl Zalessky has lots of forests, so the name is very relevant. Pereslavl Zalessky is one of the cities that make up Russia’s Golden Ring.

        Pereslavl Zalessky is close enough to Moscow to go to as a day trip. However, unlike many other Golden Ring cities, Pereslavl Zalessky is not located along any railway so trains is not an option. Buses run regularly to Pereslavl Zalessky. You can catch a bus to Pereslavl Zalessky from the bus station at Shchelkovskaya.

        The ride to Pereslavl Zalessky is uneventful and the bus station is located on the southern outskirts of the city. From the bus station, you can get a marshrutka into the city, or spend a good half hour walking towards the center. Although there isn’t much to see for the first fifteen minutes of the walk, walking is a good option because Pereslavl Zalessky’s main tourist attraction, it’s Kremlin is located on the way to the city center. And even though it is located on top of a small hill, it’s a bit off of the main road, so unless you know exactly where to go, it can easily be missed.

        From the main road, you can see the Golden domes of the Kremlin church poking out of the surrounding Soviet style archetecture. Because of the shabby looking surroundings, it’s not so obvious that this is the Kremlin. From the main road, the road that leads to the Kremlin is unpaved. The only indication that you are on the right path is the number of old cafeterias serving up shashliks. But once you get closer to the golden domes, you finally see the Kremlin walls rising up from behind old apartment buildings and military barracks. The entrance to the Kremlin pops out of nowhere and you suddenly see a handful of tour buses and a whole line of souvenier stands.

        Although the Kremlin itself isn’t much different from other Kremlin’s, the dramatic appearance makes it memorable. Another thing that makes this Kremlin memorable is the wonderful view you get from inside. Pereslavl Zalessky’s Kremlin is located on top of a hill, so you can see quite far off into the distance from inside. Off to the north, you can see the rest of the city itself and it’s handful of additional onion-domed churches poking out of the landscape. To the northwest is Pereslavl Zalessky’s lake which apparently is a good location for recreational activities. And to the west is a dense birch tree forest, the trees with white trunks a familiar sight in Russia.

        Another ten to fifteen minute walk from the Kremlin will take you to the city center. From here it isn’t so easy to find the churches seen from the Kremlin. Everything seems to be off the main road. Once off the main road, the streets are a maze of twists and turns mostly unpaved and the onion domes don’t poke out of the surrounding buildings unless you’re close to it. After a few twists and turns on dirt roads, I finally managed to find my way to Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral, probably the most famous landmark of Pereslavl Zalessky. This church, like the Kremlin is well hidden and you really need to know where you’re going. Still, a few dozen tourists and a tour bus or two also managed to find their way here, and the church itself is quite photogenic.

         From the church, I took a leisurely stroll through the maze of streets and even walking along a high earthen wall which was once the boundaries of the city. Even from up on the wall, it’s difficult to get your orientation of the city.

         Eventually, I found myself back on the main street where there was one more photogenic onion domed church. This small church in the shape of a cube with a single black onion dome above it is quite similar to some of the churches found in other Golden Ring cities, particularly Vladimir and Bogolyubovo. From here, a small river separates us from the commercial and administrative districts of Pereslavl Zalessky.

       Pereslavl Zalessky has quite a unique characteristic among Golden Ring cities or touristy cities in general and I really enjoyed its subtleness. Unlike other tourist sites, the sites at Pereslavl Zalessky are not so in-your-face obvious. Even though it can be a bit frustrating walking around trying to look for a place, its dramatic apprearance out of nowhere makes the sites truly memorable.

 

 

Tomsk – Made of Wood

 

 

        Tomsk is a medium size town deep in the heart of Siberia. It thrives today despite the fact that the transsiberian railway does not pass through it because of its educational institutes. And because the transsiberian railway does not pass through the town, it hasn’t grown into a huge city like its closest neighbors, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Omsk. This also means that you can only get to Tomsk by road, but it is an easy road trip from Novosibirsk through extremely flat plains.

        Tomsk is mostly known for its collection of beautifully ornate wooden archetecture, the main tourist attraction here. You can easily find transportation from the bus station to the main street in the center of town which runs parallel to the river and to the street where the wooden archetectures are mostely located. When I travelled to Tomsk, I saved the wooden structures for last.

        First, I went to the center of town and got off at the park. For the most part, the park is normal like any other park. But to make this park distinctively ‘Tomsk’, the city has placed a huge wooden monument of a one rouble coin. It may not be super spectacular, but is unique enough to take a photo.

        From here, it is a nice leisurely walk through the cinter of town and along the river. Eventually one arrives at the Tomsk theater which overlooks the river. Here, you can see a hill where Tomsk’s main wooden structure stands overlooking the rest of the city. This is Tomsk’s old firehouse. The walk over is quite an uphill climb from Tomsk’s theater and it’s Lenin staute which is situated in the middle of a traffic circle just before the hill.

        The bright yellow firehouse doesn’t exactly stand out, mostly hidden by the trees growing on the hill. But its usually pretty easy to spot the wooden tower on top. And once arriving at the firehouse, it is quite impressive. The inside of the firehouse is a small museum about wooden archetecture, and the small admission fee includes a chance to climb up the wooden tower and get a nice view of the city. The hill is mostly green with trees and with the river in the distance, it makes for a very picturesque view.

        Another leisurely walk back down the hill will lead back to the center of the city, and this time, you can walk along the street with its wooden structures. Most of the wooden structures today function as normal businesses and organizations. But of course, these businesses and organizations don’t mind people taking photos. After all, the beautifully ornate wooden structures will naturally attract photo takers.

        Once at the end ot the street, there really isn’t much else to see. There are a handful of museums one can visit, although I haven’t visited any other than the old firehouse.

        Tomsk is a comfortable size city located an easy distance away from Novosibirsk and transportation between the two cities is frequent and easy. It is a good day trip to take from Novosibirsk. If you ever find yourself in Novosibirsk, Tomsk is definitely worth a visit.

 

 

 

        Rostov Veliky is a very small town famous for being one of the cities that make up the Golden Ring. It is located directly on the route from Moscow to Yaroslavl and is very easy to get to by bus or by train although it is far enough away from Moscow to make it a difficult day trip. Because of its location between two major cities, and its dignificant tourist value, buses and trains run quite frequently despite its size.

        The bus station and the train station take up one small building on the very edge of town. It is not very busy and seems to only develop a crowd five to ten minutes before a bus or train is scheduled to leave. It seems to be quite normal for such a small city, but doesn’t seem to fit the stereotype of a tourist location. The main reason for this is that most foreign tourists who come here go directly to the sites in comfortable large air-conditioned tour buses and most Russian tourists come here in their comfortable large air-conditioned sports utility vehicles.

        From the bus station, it’s about a twenty minute walk to the Rostov Veliky Kremlin through quiet, traffic-free neighborhoods. Most buildings here are not more than five stories high, and you can see the black onion-domes of the churches off in the distance giving you a clear point of reference. However, once you start walking, you don’t see the Kremlin domes again until you are practically there. So the only indication you have that you are still on the right track are the big tour buses that drive by, a very strange sight to see on these quiet neighborhood streets.

        Towards the Kremlin, the streets become wider and busier though by no means anywhere as busy as a stereotypical tourist destination. Small shops and discreet coafes line the street. Eventually, when the Kremlin is in site, it starts to look touristy. Collections of buses and passenger vans line up in large plots of land which act as a parking lot although its original purpose was probably meant as a square. Dozens of street vendors line the sidewalks selling all kinds of souveniers.

        The main attraction of Rostov Veliky is the Kremlin. Compared with the rest of the town, the Kremlin is large and imposing and definitely is the center of attention. But if you compare Rostov Veliky’s Kremlin with other sites around the Golden Ring, it seems quite plain and not so impressive. The buildings are white with black onion domes and has less of an amazing impact than those of its Golden Ring neighbors. However, the plain style of this Kremlin seems to fit in quite well with its surrounding environment. Other Golden ring cities may be more eye-catching than Rostov Veliky, but at least Rostov Veliky is not trying to be something it is not.

        Inside the Kremlin, many tourists gather in groups around tour guides and you can hear a plethora of languages from German to Japanese. Much of the Kremlin is quite similar to other Kremlins and you bigin to feel as if you’ve ‘seen one Kremlin, you’ve seen them all.’ But Rostov Veliky’s Kremlin features a pretty impressive bell tower which is the distinctive landmark of Rostov, and for a small fee, people can climb to the top and get a wonderful view from the tallest place in the city. Rostov Veliky’s Kremlin also has a significant vegetable garden which I stumbled across while walking around in an area I may or may not have been allowed to enter judging from the complete lack of tourists. But nobody said anything, so I snapped a few photos and moved on.

        Rostov Veliky’s Kremlin is right on the coast of a huge lake, Lake Nero. Here, you can hire a boat and take a ride out for a view fo the city from a different perspective. Although the lake is right next to the Kremlin, it seems empty and quiet much like th erest of town and does nt seem ot take advantage of its tourism potentials. Plants grow naturally right up to the coast, and nothing has been cleared away to make beaches or outdoor cafes. Boats are small and mostly wooden, and lake traffic is very light. It seems as though Rostov Veliky’s entire tourist population is centered around just the Kremlin and very few venture out into the rest of town.

        A trip to Rostov Veliky is a great way to experience what small town Russia is like. At the same time, Rostov Veliky offers necessary tourist amnenities. It’s a great place to visit. It’s not too far from Moscow, it’s easy to get to, and it’s a great place to spend a day or two.

 

Tver’ – The beginning of the Volga

 

 

       Tver’ is a city of about half a million people located north of Moscow. Being a relatively small Russian city, it is often overlooked because of some of its bigger and more famous neighbouring cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Veliky Novgorod and the cities of the Golden Ring. It seems like most westerners who know about Tver’ only know about it from marriage agencies. It is true that Tver’ doesn’t have much to offer in terms of tourist attractions, but because if its relatve closeness to Moscow, it is a nice escape from the big city lifestyle.

       Tver’ is easy to get to by train or electrichkas. Tver’ is a major stop between Moscow and St. Petersburg so it has a lot of daily traffic. It is also close enough to Moscow to go there as a day trip.

       Although Tver’ doesn’t have many points of interests for tourists, it is a nice place to go for a walk. Tver’ is a comfortable size city with very little traffic. It is also very close to where the Volga River starts, so not only is it a nice place to walk along the river, but the river is not so wide here. Much of the things to do in Tver’ are along the river.

       The walk along the river is best started where the two rivers, the Volga and the Tvertsa Rivers, meet. At the meeting point is an old, dilapidated river port which is no longer in use. Even though the building is falling apart, it still has some charm to it and is quite photogenic in a nostalgic kind of way. The area is empty and seems to have been reclaimed by nature. It is very green and shady, and almost reminds me of a Miyazaki film.

       Continuing along the north banks of the river past the first bridge we come across a distinctive and unique monument. If there were any landmark that could be unmistakenly called ‘Tver”, this is the landmark. The landmark is a monument to Nikitin, and shows a bow of a ship coming out of a brick foundation. Nikitin stands grandly above it facing the Volga as if ready to cross it to the other side.

       After another traffic bridge, the riverside becomes sandy. The beaches here are relatively nice and residents have the opportunity to take part in a variety of outdoor activities. Swimming in the river and sunbathing are just two of the many things you can do here. Little shacks along the beach rent out bicycles, rollerblades, scooters, and a random assortment of other sports equipment. There are also areas for beach volleyball, and courts for basketball and tennis. The only thing missing from the beach are outdoor cafes and shops to get refreshments. Beyond the sandy beaches, the city seems to phase out to the countryside.

        Going back now and walking along the south banks of the river, we come to Tver’s lively park where all the major entertainment seems to be. The park offers a little bit of everything for everyone. There are several attractions ranging from children’s merry-go-rounds to go-carts. There is no shortage of refreshments or attractions here. Random mascots walk around for kids to have their pictures taken. You can get a ride on a horse or a horse drawn carriage (or a pony for the young ones). The smell of shashlik, popcorn and cotton candy fills the air. This area is much more crowded than the other areas along the river bank, but not nearly as crowded as a popular Moscow hangout. It is still quiet enough for couples to take leisurely romantic walks along the riverside or sit with Pushkin, who stands by the riverside as if ready ot orate a poem.

       Tver’ lacks the things that attract tourists, but that is part of its charm. Because Tver’ is not overcrowded with tourists, it is a lovely place to get away from the big city, hectic lifestyle while at the same time being in the city.

 

 

Podolsk – Rapid Growth

 

 

      In the Moscow oblast, obviously Moscow is the biggest city. After all, it is by far the biggest city in the whole Russian Federation. So tgo come in second place in population is quite a feat. Surprisingly, the second biggest city in the Moscow oblast is a city of less than half a million, a city that is forty times smaller than the biggest city. This quiet city is quickly growing, however. The city is called Podolsk and it is located just south of Moscow about an hour by train from the center of Moscow. Not surprisingly, most of Podolsk’s residents are people who work and commute to Moscow everyday.

      Podolsk still has a small town feel even though it is quickly becoming a major suburb of Moscow. The city center is located near the River Pakhra. On the banks of the Pakhra River is Podolsk’s city park located on high grounds with an excellent view of the main roadway leading in and out of the city. At one time, there was very little on the other side of the Pakhra. There still is a lot of empty land on the other side, but the city limits had stretched out to include a region called Tsilikatnaya which used to be known for its cement factory. Now, the area is littered with half-finished luxury gated communities catering to the ever increasing demand of people who want to live near the capital, but not in it. At the time of writing, this area had dozens of city blocks with modern looking skyscrapers just completed and still empty making this area feel like a surreal ghost town.

      One area of interest on the far side of the river is a very little known Lenin house museum. This museum is so little known that it is not usually open. When it is open, they are extremely surprised to have visitors. This house is just across the river from the park and slightly hidden from the main road. Apparently, Lenin had spent some years in exile in this house making it significant enough to turn it into a museum.

      Once across the river and in town, the first thing there is is a McDonalds next to an old dilapidated monument to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Two blocks further up the road, the main street splits in a Y shape with the Lenin statue directly in front of you. One road leads to Kaluga while the other eventually ends up in Tula. The road to Tula, known as ‘Bolshaya Serpukhovskaya’, is better for those who are interested in shopping as it goes past Podolsk’s popular department store, a favourite weekend hangout for residents. The road to Kaluga, however, is better for siteseeing.

      Immediately to the right on the road to Kaluga is Podolsk’s main square. The square is dominated by a fountain and a small Disney-ish clock tower which locals have nicknamed the ‘Little Big Ben’. This area is popular for people who want to relax outdoors and have a couple of beers. At night, it is a meeting point for motorcyclists who live to race up and down the relatively empty street. The city administration and a monument to Pushkin are also close by.

     Our siteseeing tour continues along this street when we eventually get to a unique war monument. This war monument depicts three soldiers running into battle in a rough geometric pattern that makes the monument look like the incredible Hulk. Further down is Podolsk’s ice area, known as ‘Vityaz’, where they host major ice hockey matches.

      The main landmark of Podolsk is not actually in Podolsk. Podolsk’s most famous building is Dubrovitsi church, a small church built outside of the city. This area is a nice place to visit at any time of year, but is especially festive during Russian holidays and of course, city day. Although the church is just outside the city, the city is also expanding on this side as well and dozens of modern high rise apartment buildings are beginning to pop up like weeds in an area that used to be open fields where sheeps used to graze.

      At the moment, Podolsk is still a comfortable size city with a small town feel even though it is the second biggest in the Moscow oblast. But Podolsk is bursting on all sides and even in the middle with all kinds of new apartment buildings. At the rate things are going, Podolsk will be completely unrecognizable in a few years time. And with the sudden population increase, Podolsk is destined to lose its small town feel, and soon end up as a mini-Moscow.

 

 

 

 

      Veliky Ustug is a very small town located in the middle of mowhere in the north of Russia. The closest big cities are Vologda to the west or Kirov to the south, both of which is about a five hours drive away. And you can only get here by motor vehicles because the closest train station is about an hour away in the neighboring city of Kotlass.

      Such an out of the way small town would normally not be worth a visit, especially since Veliky Ustug has very little in terms of siteseeing. Yet Veliky Ustug is a very famous city among Russians and receives a fair amount of visitors every year with wintertime in December and January being its peak season. This city is especially popular with Russian families with small children. So why would anybody in their right minds want to go through so much trouble to go north to some out-of-the-way small town in the dead of winter and bring their children along? The answer is quite simple. Veliky Ustug is the home of Dyadya Moroz, or Uncle Frost, Russia’s equivalent of Santa Claus. How Veliky Ustug became known as home to Uncle Frost, I don’t know, but if I had such a special title as the Santa Claus of Russia, I suppose I would be from an inaccesible small town in the far north as well.

      My trip to Veliky Ustug started with an overnight train ride to Kotlass. But not properly prepared for the trip, I didn’t know exactly what to do once I arrived in Kotlass. Once I arrived, however, it was quite easy to find my way to Veliky Ustug. Since Kotlass is the closest train station to Veliky Ustug, naturally many travellers who don’t drive or take the bus would go here first. Since I was travelling in January, it was the peak season for Veliky Ustug travellers and a row of marshrutka vans were waiting right in front of the train station to take travellers to the small town. It didn’t take long for the marshrutka to fill up to maximum capacity and we were on our way. The ride over to Veliky Ustug was uneventful mostly because the freezing cold temperature outside mixed with massive body heat inside fogged up the windows making it impossible to see out anyway.

     We arrived at the Veliky Ustug bus station, a small, old and relatively crowded building in the middle of nowhere about a half hour walk from the center of town. After I got off the marshrutka, I didn’t know where to go from there, but decided to walk anyway. The half hour walk in minus twenty degree temperature was long and boring.

      A few blocks from the center, still not knowing where to go, I started hearing music and used that as a beacon to follow. I eventually arrived at a large outdoor ice rink where the music was coming from and saw dozens of bundled up skaters braving the sub zero weather. This is where the festivities were. Just beyond the ice rink, the city abruptly stopped and a huge area of whitness continued on until I could see trees in the dixtance. I imagine that in the summer time, when there is no snow, this whiteness is actually a river or lake. This probably meant that I was now walking along the riverside.

      The road that ran parallel to the empty whiteness was full of bundled up Russian families enjoying the winter festivities. Despite the biting cold the streets were crowded with people out and about with their children. It didn’t take long for me to realize that everything here catered to children leaving me, a childless adult slightly bored and wanting to escape the cold. I did, however, brave the cold long enough to get a breathtaking photo of the sunset as the sun went down in the early afternoon beyond the empty whiteness with a picturesque view of an orthodox church on the far side of the white plains.

      Then I went indoors to warm up. This is when I met Uncle Frost himself. Like Santa Claus in western cultures, Uncle Frost is a jolly old man with a long white beard. However, he is not quite as fat and he is dressed in blue from head to foot rather than red. He almost reminds me of Merlin the magician. Children don’t sit on his lap, but they do line up and tell Uncle Frost their wish. Of course, the main difference between Uncle Frost and Santa Claus is their choice of helpers. Where Santa Claus has elves dressed in green, Uncle Frost opted to stay traditionally Russian with Snegurichka, a young, sexy woman clad in a mini-skirt, not exactly the best choice of clothes for winter, nor for entertaining children.

      Although the festivities in Veliky Ustug is mainly for children and the weather is far from ideal for outdoor activities, I don’t regret making the long, tiring journey out there. It was a unique experience. I wouldn’t recommend it for young single adults, but for parents and their children, it can be an unforgettable adventure.

 

 

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