“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”
– Marcel Proust
Kazan is known as the “third capital of Russia” and the “sports capital of Russia”. Located about 800 kilometers due East of Moscow, the city lies on the Volga River and is the capital of the Republic Tatarstan (a word that I love to say because it reminds me of “tartar sauce”) 🙂 Tatarstan has its own language (Tatar) spoken by approximately half of the region’s population. The two main religions practiced here are Orthodox Christianity and Islam, and it is one of the few places in the world where both religions coexist peacefully. Native Tatars have quite prominent Central Asian features and most speak both Russian as well as Tatar. Kazan’s population is 1.2 million, which is the population of the island of O’ahu, Hawai’i where I am from (just to put things into perspective.)
The streets in Kazan are immaculately clean and very well-kept. There are several cobblestone streets which are a bit difficult to walk on, so I don’t recommend heels! (Then again, I would never recommend heels while exploring during traveling, but that’s just the casual Hawaii girl in me.)
We just so happened to arrive in late June, when FIFA’s Federation Cup (soccer for not in the know) was in full flux. On the day of our arrival Mexico played Portugal and tied. Even with the greater influx of tourists, we had many of the roads and sites to ourselves!
Here I am with Mexico fans on Baumana Street, wearing the honorary sombrero. If any of you are familiar with Boulder, Colorado, this street reminded us of Pearl Street Mall and is lined with shops and restaurants. Baumana Street is a pedestrian only lane and therefore vehicles are prohibited from driving here.
Having spent two weeks in St. Petersburg and one week in Moscow (check out my blog post on Moscow here), it was nice to have a small break from the crowds in the bigger cities. I found the people of Kazan to be incredibly friendly. Our main mode of transportation here was Uber and walking, because there is only one metro line that is only open sometimes. Ubers are relatively cheap here (compared to Seattle especially.) For example, a 15-minute ride from our Airbnb into the center of town would be around $3.00 USD. In Seattle, especially during rush hour traffic, the cost would probably be around $10.00.
Because Sasha is fluent in both Russian and English (and speaks English without a Russian accent), it really threw people off and they loved to ask where we were from. I would respond with “ya s Gavai” which means “I am from Hawaii”. Sasha responded that he was born in St. Petersburg and raised in the States. Hawaii is a far away dream for most people in Russia, and many likely cannot fathom such a different place that is so polar opposite to this side of the world. I feel incredibly lucky that I am here exploring such a foreign place and soaking up the incredible culture. While we were dining at a restaurant, our server knew the word “Aloha” (which impressed the heck out of me!) and the fact that Dwane Johnson (“The Rock”) is from Hawaii. The spread of pop culture is funny that way. He told me that I looked like the character Moana from the Disney movie, which I took to be a compliment because she looks quite ethnic! I am half Chinese, so my features fit in here, but the way I dress and talk is quite clearly American because locals always asked if I wanted a menu in English. 🙂
We were on the fence on whether or not we wanted to take a side trip to Kazan because for five days including airfare, accommodation, food, transportation, etc. it was an extra $500 for both of us. However, based on friends and family’s recommendation, we decided to come and we sure are glad we did! Sasha joked that Kazan is the Venice of Russia (minus the crowds). It is filled with beautiful architecture, mosques and churches and is very romantic, especially while lit up at night.
We spent a total of 3 full days in Kazan, and had plenty to do to fill our days!
Things to Do in Kazan
- Visit The Kremlin
Kazan’s Kremlin (fortress) is on the world UNESCO heritage list and is the most popular tourist attraction in the city. It houses the Qolsharif Mosque, built in 2005. (If you want a fun way to remember how to pronounce the name of this mosque, think of saying “cool sherif” in a thick Russian accent, so it comes out “kool chereef”.) Even though it was game day (Mexico vs. Portugal), we had the place to ourselves! I was absolutely in awe as this is the first Mosque I have ever seen in my entire life. Entrance to the Kremlin and Mosque are free.
Being that there were few people around to crowd our photos, we decided it was a prime opportunity to do some yoga poses in front.
Be sure to check it out from all angles. The secret tip for the below shot is to use the panorama option, then flip your phone sideways to take the pano vertically rather than horizontally. Make sure you come back at night time to see it lit up! (In June, the sun does not set until after 9:00 PM)
The Mosque was closed on Sunday when we visited, so we came back on a Tuesday to go inside. At the entrance they provide you with sarongs to wear around your waist if you are wearing shorts, as well as a scarf for ladies to cover their heads. As with all churches, men must remove their hats (I find that to be so counterintuitive that women must cover their heads but men must expose them.)
Just on the other side of the Kremlin walls is a Russian Orthodox Christian Church, pictured below on the right. I found it so fascinating that two conflicting religions were right next to each other.
2) Take a Photo at the Tatarstan Ministry of Agriculture Building
This enormous tree sculpture is made from cast iron.
Go back after the sky is completely dark to see the building illuminated in bright green.
3) Walk Along the Embankment
The above photos are at the entrance to the embankment, which lines the Kazanka River. We spent an entire half a day here because there is so much to see and discover. The relaxing pathway goes for quite a ways along the river, which is so lovely when the sun is out, which it was that day! We got lucky with warm, sunny weather and were delighted by all the interactive life-sized games such as chess, twister and battleship along the way. Here you can also rent bikes and rollerblades. (Click on each photo to enlarge it.)
There are cute benches and chairs that call for excellent photo ops!
And fun murals…
Along the path is a giant map on the ground that show different country’s cultural wear. Some are more accurate than others (I love the cowboys to represent America, ha!)
Make sure you go back at night to see the blanket of lights illuminating the pathway. How romantic!
3) Visit the Kazan Central Market
This market is partially indoors and partially outdoors and contains every possible food item you could imagine! There is a section for produce, as well as one for seafood, poultry, dried goods, and even a gardening section if you want to plant your own fruits and vegetables! We bought fresh ingredients for $30 USD (a huge bucket of strawberries, ground veal (sorry to my vegetarian readers! I felt terribly guilty eating baby cow, but it is one of the most common meats to eat here in Tatarstan), veggies, herbs, and an Indian sauce) to cook a meal at home. Here is the result:
And speaking of Food in Kazan, you may be wondering what the typical cuisine is here. Tatar cuisine is influenced by the people of Central Asia (especially Uzbeks) and Russian cuisine. A popular dish that you will find throughout the city is called pillaw, a rice and meat dish in which the rice is cooked in a seasoned broth. After being in Russia for three weeks, this was the perfect burst of flavor I had been craving after eating relatively bland food for a while. A delicious restaurant that serves this dish is called Uriuk pictured below.
Russians love kombucha. I love kombucha. Kvass is a traditional Russian fermented beverage made from rye bread. It is similar to beer only without the alcohol and tasted a bit like prune juice to me. It was delicious, and for only 15 roubles (25 cents), you can’t go wrong! Just look for the wooden barrel as it is sold throughout the markets!
4) Take Pictures at the Temple of All Religions
Located about a 15-minute drive outside of the walled city, lies a colorful temple under indefinite construction. There’s even a sign out front that says “donate to indefinite construction” so at least they are upfront about it. I believe the incompletion of the temple to be symbolic of our religion-driven wars. Sadly, to have a temple where all religions could be practiced peacefully seems unachievable, especially in this day and age with all the recent terrorist attacks.
You cannot enter this building, and it’s a bit dilapidated if you look up close, but from the outside it is impressive and festive.
5) Take Photos of Dragons Outside the Family Center
A decent walk (or short Uber drive) from the Kremlin is the Family Center, a large cauldron-shaped building along the river. Kazan means “cup” or “bowl” which is what this building was shaped after. It is where couples go to register to be wed. I imagine that this is why there are statues of dragon families out front…? A bit of a strange place, and I’m unsure what the significance of the dragons were, but it looked very Sci-Fi.
6) National Museum of the Republic of Tatarstan (300 roubles, approximately $5.00 USD)
If you’d like to learn about the people of Tatarstan from prehistoric times through WWII, this is a small and quaint museum that teaches you about the history of this city. We happened to be there when the Russian Police Force were taking a guided tour! We listened in and Sasha translated (it was in Russian).
7) Lenin Museum (300 roubles)
I don’t recommend this for anybody who is not a native Russian speaker, because everything is in Russian without translation. However, Sasha is a native Russian so he translated for me.
Vladimir Lenin loved playing chess. He played with a partner in a different city by sending him a letter with his move choice. The game lasted half a year. Lenin led the Russian revolution in 1917 that overthrew the Czar and established the first communist nation where the idea was that farmers and workers were the leaders of the country and had a major voice. However, this ideal never materialized and the country was ruled by a priveleged class of party members for the next 75 years. Lenin was revered throughout all of Russia, and there were hundreds of statues of him erected in his honor all throughout the country. After the break-up of the Soviet Union the statues were decommissioned in the 90s, and one even stands to this day in Fremont, Seattle in Washington State!
The museum is actually his former place of residence. Here is his room. Vladimir Lenin’s room…very cool to be standing in history.
NEXT UP: RUSSIAN FOOD & LANGUAGE