Monday, 25 June 2012

“MARI CHODRA NATIONAL PARK”, or “An exasperating experience with Russian public transport and some unfavourable encounters with local fauna”

Based on some stuff I’d read online, plus a recommendation from a British guy I met in a bookstore here in Kazan, I decided last weekend to go to Mari Chodra, a national park a couple of hours drive west of Kazan, in the neighbouring republic of Mari El. Last year, when I travelled around the Balkans and Central Europe, I had no trouble finding myself transport from one place to the next, despite no knowledge of local languages. Here, armed with a basic knowledge of Russian, I figured it would be a walk in the park. The Briton who I’d spoken to in the bookstore had told me that to get to the national park he had taken a bus towards Yoshkar-Ola (the capital of Mari El), and gotten off at a place called “Yalchik”. A bit of internet research revealed Yalchik to be the name of a lake within the national park, purportedly a popular destination for people from Kazan. Efforts to find online information about the best method of public transport from Kazan to Yalchik, however, were more or less entirely fruitless. It was very much apparent that Mari El and Tatarstan are not popular backpacker destinations: the forums and websites I had relied upon for information about transport during last year’s travels were of no use. Furthermore, Russian bus and train companies seem to only have limited online presence, and no options to change their websites’ language. All I could ascertain for certain was the existence of a train station not far from Lake Yalchik.

So, the evening before we intended to go, my friend and I trekked to the train station to ask about times and prices. After a lot of queuing and being redirected to different booths, we eventually learnt that there was only one daily train from Kazan to Yalchik, at 17.30. No good for a day trip. And of course, nobody working at the train station knew anything about buses, so the bus station was our next port of call. By the time we got there, however, all the information windows were shut. On the wall was a sort of makeshift timetable, but it had no mention of Yalchik. However, just as we were beginning to despair, a man went up to one of the information booths and started banging on the window. Eventually, someone came and opened it. An argument ensued: the general gist being that the woman in the booth had clocked off and wasn’t going to help with whatever the man wanted. During all this commotion an elderly woman, who we had asked if she knew anything about how to get to Yalchik, took it upon herself to help us. She physically dragged us to the booth and started shouting at us “Спрошите! Спрошите!” (“Ask! Ask!”), despite the fact that the employee was already engaged in an argument. Eventually, motivated by the fervent encouragement of this old babushka, we managed to butt in with our enquiry. We were told to go and ask a bus driver, before having the window slammed shut in our faces. We thanked the old woman and headed to where the buses were waiting, behind the station. There we found a bus driver who explained to us with confidence that every bus to Yoshkar-Ola goes via Yalchik. So we returned to the timetable, and decided to take the 9.35 bus. Easy. Or so we thought.

The next day we arrived promptly and asked for tickets to Yalchik. “No buses to Yalchik, you need to get the train.” “But we asked a driver yesterday, and he said the buses to Yoshkar-Ola stop at Yalchik.” “No buses to Yalchik, you need to get the train.” Let’s just try the other booth. A similar response, though this time a bit more sympathetic: we got given directions to the train station. We walked out of the bus station, downtrodden. What were our options? We knew it wasn’t possible to go by train, and we were loath to admit defeat, so after some debate, we decided to just go to Yoshkar-Ola. After buying tickets (about 250 rubles each) we asked when return buses were. The response was predictable: “Я не знаю” (“I don’t know”). Of course, it’s completely unreasonable to expect that an employee of Kazan Bus Station might know anything about buses to Kazan. Luckily for us, the 9.35 bus that we were originally going to take was almost an hour late, so we could still catch it despite our considerable delays. As we got on, we asked the driver if it would be possible to get off at Yalchik. He had certainly heard of Yalchik, but seemed more interested in what on earth us foreigners could be doing in Kazan, and whether we liked vodka, than telling us whether he would drop us off there. After several attempts at bringing the conversation back to our destination, we eventually retired to the back of the minibus fairly sure we were going to be dropped off at the elusive Yalchik after all. 

The bus was packed full of locals and mysterious cardboard boxes, and it was unbearably stuffy as we rolled through the city’s heavy traffic. Once we got out of town, though, we sped up, fresh air started blowing in the open windows and we entered Russia’s enticing wilderness. We glided through vast meadows that seemed to stretch into infinity, through aged-old pine forests, past wrinkled old women selling berries by the roadside, past decrepit wooden barns and past pristine luxury dachas. For the first time since the train from Moscow, I felt something of the land’s enormity, saw the natural beauty to be found just a short drive out of Kazan, and was reminded that Russia is above all a land of boundless open spaces. I realized with regret just how small a section of this country I was going to see during these four weeks, and felt the call of the road: I wanted to travel out into the landscapes around me, to see it all, to live it. Russia, the behemoth at the top of the world map, dwarfing the nation states around it, was suddenly a real place, and I was in it. Eventually, the bus slowed as we approached a bus shelter with a large sign reading “ЯЛЬЧИК” (“YALCHIK”). Relieved that we had reached our destination, we started to stand up, when the vehicle sped up again. 30 seconds or so down the road the driver caught sight of us in the rear-view mirror, apologized, and turned around to take us back to our stop. 

This is where we got off the bus, just after the crashed car.

The wooden sign translates as "Yalchik Forest Area"; the blue and red
sign underneath is about not starting forest fires.

After asking a woman selling strawberries about buses to Kazan, and being assured that there was one every hour until some indeterminate point in the evening, we headed towards Lake Yalchik. On the way we passed what we thought at first to be a quaint little Mari village, but soon realized to just be a collection of dachas, probably owned by wealthy city people. As we walked through the woodland towards the lake, it really felt as though we were out in nature, far from civilization. However, when we found the lake the illusion was shattered by numerous groups of Russians scattered around the shore, sunbathing, barbecuing, playing badminton, paddling in the water and – in some cases – playing inappropriately loud music. Nonetheless, it was an undeniably beautiful area, and we found a quiet spot, settled down and enjoyed the cold water of the lake. Every Russian I’ve spoken to about Lake Yalchik has told me with pride about how clean the water there is, and it certainly seemed clean to me. There were plenty of small fish swimming in the shallows. There was a brief panic when a huge (well, OK, average-sized) black snake appeared inches away from me in the water; but after a lot of splashing and a few expletives on my part, it swam off into the reeds never to be seen again.

But the snake wasn’t the only wildlife we had to contend with: any parts of our bodies that weren’t covered by clothing or submerged underwater were constantly being plagued by mosquitoes and horseflies. Foolishly, none of us had thought to bring insect repellent. Adding insult to injury, the Russians around the lake seemed to be strutting about, scantily clad, without being in the least bit pestered by bugs. We eventually decided to head away from the lake, deeper into the forest, reasoning that mosquitoes live primarily by bodies of water. After a short walk we found ourselves surrounded by fantastic woodland, with no footpaths to be seen or cheesy Russian music to be heard. We had successfully recreated the illusion of being incredibly distant from humanity: we were in real, natural forest, without a sign of modernity. After relishing the ambiance for a while, however, we found ourselves being attacked by more mosquitoes than ever. Eventually it got so bad that we found ourselves physically fleeing; we were running full-pelt through the trees to escape the bloodsucking besetment. Eventually, exhausted, we happened upon a small outdoor bar, where we sought refuge, won over by the insect-repelling incense they had burning. But the measly incense stick was no match for our predators’ hunger, and scarcely had we put our beverages to our lips when we could stand it no longer, and resolved to go back to the bus stop.

We weren’t waiting long when a bus to Kazan arrived. This bus could scarcely have been more different than the last: a huge, comfortable, air-conditioned coach that was less than half full. We paid the driver a mere 100 roubles each for the return journey, and it was unclear whether we were really buying tickets or whether that money would be going straight into his own pocket. The next day, when our fellow students saw us covered in bites and scratching all over, they were hardly envious of our excursion, but I have to say that being lunch for hundreds of mosquitoes was a price worth paying for an opportunity to spend time in such wonderfully unspoilt nature.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

What's that in the undergrowth?

Today, while walking through central Kazan, a Russian friend of mine pointed, with a cheeky grin, at a patch of weeds at the side of the road. Curious, I bent down for a closer look, and was more than a little surprised to recognize a certain iconic leaf: it wasn’t just weeds, it was weed!

He explained to me that the stuff grows all over the city, but that no-one ever harvests or smokes it, and that to do so wouldn’t produce any sort of high. I really couldn’t believe that cannabis was growing, quite visibly, in the streets of a major city in Russia, a country with strict anti-drug laws. Nor could I understand why smoking it wouldn’t yield any effects. I tried to enquire further, but the language barrier prevented me from understanding any fuller explanation.

When I got home, however, a bit of online research eventually shed some light on the situation. Cannabis does indeed grow wild (or, perhaps more accurately, feral) in much of Russia and other parts of the former USSR. However, from what I’ve gathered, the plants that grow here are of the species Cannabis ruderalis, while the two species smoked around the world are Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Cannabis ruderalis contains much less THC (the chemical that produces a high) than its two cousins, and as such has no potential for recreational use. Instead, Cannabis ruderalis was historically cultivated for the production of hemp, not just in Russia but also in North America. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union was the world’s largest producer of hemp, and cannabis had been cultivated for this purpose in the region for thousands of years. It is thought that these plants growing freely in Russia today are remnants of the once-lucrative hemp industry. Similarly, feral Cannabis ruderalis plants do grow across the Midwestern USA. However, since cultivation of cannabis for any purpose has been banned in the US since the early twentieth century, the American government has gone to great lengths to eradicate any free-growing plants, hence them being less prominent than in Russia, where the authorities seem to have a more pragmatic attitude.

So it turns out that these plants are not the same cannabis that can be smoked, but that does not make it any less surreal to see them growing in the streets. It really serves to remind me that I really am not in northwestern Europe anymore. Furthermore, it serves to emphasize that Tatarstan’s links with Asia and the Middle East are not just cultural, but also geographical, ecological and climatic: cannabis growing in the streets is something one would expect in Afghanistan more than in Russia.

Look carefully and you'll see that all the plants along the edge are cannabis.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012


The institute at which we’re studying told us on Friday that they would organize various excursions for us to go on at the weekends. The first of these, on Sunday, was a boat trip to an island called Sviyazhsk, which is situated about 25km west of Kazan, in the middle of the Volga. I had some recollection of having heard this island recommended as one of the main tourist attractions in the area, so eagerly signed up.

After a week of almost endless sunshine and temperatures above 30°C, I naturally left the house in flip-flops, shorts and a vest, armed with plenty of sun cream. Unfortunately, the weather was overcast and there was a strong wind, diminishing my enjoyment of the two hours spent sitting on the deck of our fine vessel, an East Germany ship vintage 1974. The fact that the “guided tour” element of the trip consisted of a very monotonous woman’s voice drawling in incomprehensible Russian over the PA system, along with the relative lack of anything interesting to see, ensured that the journey to the island was something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Moods were lifted when, upon arriving at Sviyazhsk, one of the men who helped moor up the boat perfectly fulfilled the stereotypical image of an agèd fisherman. This created the impression that we had come to some distant and isolated island. The first scenes we saw after alighting were in line with this impression, complete with dusty tracks, ramshackle wooden houses and a rusty old motorbike.

However, as we ventured further inland, the island started to seem less like a remnant of a bygone age and more like a building site.

As my friends and I opted out of the guided tour in favour of exploring by ourselves, we had no clue what we were supposed to be taking from this visit. The island begged explanation: despite a spattering of attractive historic buildings, it seemed deeply depressed and dilapidated. I really couldn’t tell whether visitors were supposed to ignore the bleak landscapes and piles of rubble, or whether they were part of what we had come to see. Most tourists who come to Tatarstan are Russians, so it is possible that they’re just so used to this kind of disrepair and desolation that they see through it and enjoy the old churches. Certainly, the landscapes did fit what many Westerners expect Russia to look like: grim, dreary, dismal and kind of half-finished.

There was an atmosphere that the island was partway through the process of being renovated, but I couldn’t help but feel that it would have been a more appealing destination if it had been left alone. It is an unhappy trend in the former Soviet Union that in misguided attempts to encourage tourism, historic charm is sacrificed in favour of soulless modernity. This is what was seen in Baku, Azerbaijan in the lead up to this year’s Eurovision, and it can also be observed in parts of Kazan. 

One of the oddest attempts at a tourist attraction on Sviyazhsk was a walled yard in which were a tent, a yurt, an anvil and a few other scattered artifacts. There was no information of any kind, and no apparent way that this made anybody any money, so it almost felt as though it was really just a small encampment of people who wanted to live as if it were 13th century. There was a guy dressed in traditional Tatar-Mongol attire, but he was busy doing something or other with his yurt and didn’t appear to be available to provide any sort of explanation.

It should be noted that the historic buildings around the island were very nice, despite their unusual surroundings. The monastery was definitely the highlight, although even that is under renovation. The church within the monastery complex was replete with absolutely wonderful artwork, but most of the church’s interior was inaccessible due to works going on.

I usually love to visit remote, run-down locales, but this place was run-down in a way that was more unsettling than charming. It was certainly interesting to visit, but not really in the way that was intended: the most interesting thing about it is the very fact that it is considered a tourist attraction. As a final addition to the strangeness of this visit, after walking from one end of the “island” to the other, we were rewarded with the revelation that Sviyazhsk is in fact connected to the mainland by a road. My feeling as I got back on the boat to Kazan? Perplexed.