Western Russia Archives

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.

Kursk – In memory of a submarine

 

 

       The city of Kursk shares the same name as a submarine that became famous about a decade ago when it had an accident in the Arctic sea killing everyone aboard. This was one of the worst military disasters during peace time in modern history. Ever since the accident, the city of Kursk hosts an annual half marathon in honour of those who lost their lives.

       Kursk as a city seems to be growing and prospering well. It’s a comfortable size city with a population of just under half a million inhabitants. It is also the capital and main city of its oblast.

       The competition takes place on the outskirts of the city, far from the train station and the center. It is not too difficult to find, being next to several distinctive landmarks. The area where the marathon takes place is unusually wide, open, and really nice. Along the main street, where there is relatively light traffic, there is a strip of land and a smaller street, the street where the runners would run. The narrow strip of land dividing the two streets is a nice place to take a walk. Although there aren’t many trees here, there are a lot of interesting things to see. Right next to the start / finish line, there is a monument to Marshall Zhukov, an elaborate arc which resembles a miniature arc du triumph and a towering church. The route of the half marathon goes past these three sites and sown the road for another two and a half kilometers before turning around and heading back. This is repeated four times allowing us to see the arc, church and monument over and over again. The towering church almost acts like a beacon allowing runners to see how far to the finish they are. Along the two and a half kilometer route, we pass by dozens of massive multi story blocks of flats on one side and a collection of military vehicles on the other. The course is fast and flat, great for running a personal best.

       The rest of the city is not as wide and open as its suburb, but still seems very spacious compared to other cities. Not far from the center, there is a small tree-lined park with a huge war monument and very elaborate, well-kept gravesites to what appears to be prominent military figures. Even this small, tree-lined park seems spacious. The area around the government building and Kursk’s Lenin statue is also wide open and again light with traffic.

       The center of town seems to be a unique blend of old Soviet concrete and super modern glass and steel archetectures. A perfect example of this can be seen while walking down the main street. A modern glass and steel office building is perfectly built to act lika a mirror reflecting a colorful orthodox church hidden behind a Soviet style concrete five-story block of flats. Although none of these three buildings would be eye catching on its own, the three together becomes very photogenic.

       Also in the center is Kursk’s small central staduim and the central theatre with a monument to Pushkin in front. Both of them are very Soviet-style and quite dull in appearance. Their dullness is almost amplified by the fact that right next door are the bright, flashy lights of a super modern looking department store. Even for those who are not interested in shopping, its many fountains and bright light seem to attract people. It especially looks nice in the twilight hours as the sun is setting.

      Despite the horrible submarine accident that happened a decade ago, the city that shares the same name has grown and prospered well. It is true that the city and the submarine really don’t have anything in common with each other besides their names. Although tragedy never hit the city like it did the submarine, it is still honorable that the city recognizes and pays its respect to the submarine.

 

 

 

 

 

Smolensk – Western Frontier

 

 

        Aside from Kaliningrad, which is separate from the rest of Russia, Smolensk is one of the western most cities in the Russian Federation. Smolensk is located close to the border with Belarus about 360 kilometers west of Moscow. It is not quite close enough for a day trip, but can easily be done in a weekend. It is not a big town, but it has historical significance.

        Smolensk is most famous for being a Hero City, one of thirteen cities in the former Soviet Union which played a significant role in the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. Naturally, most of the sites of the city revolves around this fact. A half an hour walk from the train station across the Dnieper River and up a slight hill will lead you to a fortified red-brick wall where you can find Smolensk’s eternal flame and the plaques commemorating the thirteen Hero Cities. Not far from the eternal flame is a monument to the struggles of war and a very interesting war museum.

        The museum is built into the fort’s walls and is much bigger than it initially appears from the outside. The innerpart of the museum has acollection of the uaual war memorabilia, badges, weapons, old photos and maps. In the back of the museum, there is a large courtyard where you can find a much more interesting collection of wartime vehicles. Here, we can find lots of different artillery guns, tanks, transport vehicles, and even an aircraft. You can climb on top of these killing machines and have your photo taken, or like dozens of children in the courtyard, just have a good time on them.

        Much of the other sites of Smolensk are in or around the red-bricked fort. Just inside the fort is a large park with roller coasters and ferris wheels visible from outside. You can walk along the park and find evidence of older fortifications such as earthen walls and moats is quite a nice walk along the moat, and occasionally, you can find a group of senior citizens exercising or doing yoga. The bridge over the moat is filled with locks placed there by lovers locking their love together. Many of them have the couple’s names and a date on it.

        Located a little bit further in the fort is the center of town with its wide open square and large rectangular government building. In front of the building is a large stone statue of Lenin. The statue faces Glinka park, names after the composer Mikhail Ivanovich Glinda. In the middle of the park is a monument to Glinka with a short fence circumnavigating him. Engraved in the fence is the musical notes of his compositions. Close by, you can hear music coming out of a building. This is a music school, an ideal place for the school so close to the great composer.

        Just a block away from the music school is another park. The centerpiece of this park is a large monument to the Napoleonic War. Large ornate cannons surround a pillar with information about the war written in old Slavic.

        Once you walk around the fort, you have pretty much seen all of the sites of Smolensk. Although the fort is only a small part of this not so large city, the rest of the city is not so interesting to walk around. It’sl the same boring Soviet blocks of flats and lines of shops you can find in any other Russian city. Although you can see the sites of Smolensk in a day, it is still worth a trip out there. Since it isn’t too far away from Moscow, Smolensk is an easy and inexpensive trip to make.

 

 

 

Oryol – Improvised Journey

 

 

        I very often travel to some place new whenever I get the chance. Many times, I choose my destionatons based on places I want to go to because they are famous tourist sights or because I’ve heard good things about the place. Sometimes, I’ll go to a place just because I’ve never heard of the place and want to go exploring a lesser know location. In this situatuion, I usually find some information about it, usually on the internet. Then, there are those rare occasions when I end up at a place that I had absolutely no intention of going to, but decided on the spur of the moment to go and check it out. Oryol was one of those cities.

        I try to take advantage of any long weekends I get by going some place. So when we had a three day weekend one October, I had originally planned to head over to Volgograd. Unfortunately, after trying to get a train ticket or a seat on a bus without success, I had to change my plans. Rather than spend the rest of the holidays bored at home, I impulsively hopped onto the first bus available out of town. This bus just happened to be going to Oryol.

        Oryol, which means “Eagle” in English, is a town of about 315000 residents and is the center of its oblast. It is located about 370 km south of Moscow. It is possible to go there and back as part of a long day excursion. When I hopped on the bus to Oryol, I knew its geographical location relative to Moscow, so I had a rough idea of how long it would take, and I wasn’t too worried about getting there or getting back. However, I didn’t know anything about the city itself, so I didn’tknow where I would go or what I would do once I got there. But still, I wasn’t too concerned about that, as it would be part of the adventure.

        When I arrived, I got off the bus and started walking towards the center. Compared to other cities in Russia, Oryol was relatively easy to navigate, so I didn’t feel the need to buy a map. Within the first ten minutes, I was already at my first monument, an interesting monument of , a Russian storyteller who was surrounded by characters from the stories he told. By chance, I asked a stranger to take a photo of me and the monument, and after a small conversation, he agreed to show me around town. After all, Oryol isn’t a tourist attraction and he was quite surprised that anyone would come here just to see the sights. Like an excited child who has an opportunity to show off his possessions, this gentleman led me to the interesting places around Oryol.

        For the rest of the day, I followed this gentleman (whose name I’ve forgotten) as he proudly showed me the sights of Oryol, successfully portraying this quaint little town as an attractive city with lots to see. Our first stop was a local church which was interesting, but not really unique. The grand tour got much better when he led me to the center, where a beautiful footbridge crossed a calm and peaceful river. This was one of the places that residents were extremely proud of, and I was impressed at how clean and well kept the area was. The footbridge was the start of a pedestian street which continued on towards the main square. Rather than going on the pedestian street, we continued along the river until we reached a point where this small river met with the much bigger River . On both sides of the small river was a park, better kept than most river banks in Russia. The point where both rivers met featured a huge column and several war monuments which made up the most famous landmark of Oryol. Despite the cold autumn weather, the area was still green, and it was absolutely beautiful in the setting sun. This was the highlight of my trip to Oryol. We continued on to a handful of other war monuments and churches before the gentleman and I parted at the Lenin statue. I had dinner and walked along the pedestrian street once more, realizing how amazingly beautiful the footbridge and the river was at twilight. I headed for the train station, where there is an enormous bush sculpted in the shape of an eagle, and easily found a bus back to Moscow.

        Sometimes, it is the trips that aren’t planned that end up being the ones that we enjoy most. Oryol was a pleasant destination for an unexpected journey, and ideal diversion to an extended weekend. Although going all the way to Oryol on an impulse was a long way to go for a nice long walk on a crisp autumn day, it was a refreshing change to a normal routine.