A Short Stay in Nizhny Novgorod

Continental divide? Totally anti-climactic. Just a quick blur of an obelisk saying Europe this way, Asia that way. But it meant that I’m back in the West, as much as Russia can be the West, and then my phone skipped back by two hours to put me in the Moscow time zone and I arrived in Nizhny Novgorod.

By now my stories of arriving in a new Russian city are either like a car crash (you just can’t look away from the drama: how oh how will she get lost this time? Stay tuned!) or funny. You tell me – I’m the one living through them and therefore no great judge. This time it was the fault of the hotel website, which told me the wrong bus number. Yes, it really wasn’t my fault for once.

Shortly after I found my bus (in the snow, might I add? First snow in Russia and I’m not even in Siberia anymore), it pulled into the terminus. I showed the driver the map I had printed out and he wrote down what bus I needed to take to get close to the hotel, then made me wait in the warm bus until my bus had pulled in and he’d talked to the other driver about the lost American girl. That driver and the conductor (a lady who sells the tickets) told me where to switch buses, made sure I got off at the right stop and crossed to the other bus stop, and even wrote out a note for me to give to the next conductor so that person could tell me at which stop to get off. I’m not sure what the note said – I think I’m going to keep it till I can get a Russian speaker to translate (“I’m a stupid lost tourist who needs to get off at the stop for the hotel Ibis and don’t speak a word of Russian. Can you help me?”). Whatever it was, it worked! Like Blanche Dubois, I always depend on the kindness of strangers. This time it worked out well. I might splurge and just have the hotel call me a taxi for my return this evening, though.

I got to the hotel before noon, pretty much exhausted. I munched on leftover Trans-Sib food (mmmm, Nutella) and watched most of the rest of The Lizzie Bennett Diaries on YouTube (great show). Then I figured I should use a couple of hours of daylight to explore a little bit of the city while the snow had lessened.

I walked out to the Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, a pedestrian shopping street lined with classic Russian 18th or 19th century architecture painted pale greens and blues and yellows. Bronze statues of people in 19th century dress dot the street – a shoe shiner, a lady with a parasol, a man on a bench. Even in snow, it’s charming, though I fear that some of the lovely facades are only that: facades. Looking at the sides of buildings, they’re not in as good repair.

The street ends at a big square in front of the Kremlin. (No, not that Kremlin. A kremlin is really just a word for fortress.) After going to the end of the square to look down at the view of the magnificent Volga, a huge river, I wandered back through one of the Kremlin’s imposing gates and explored inside and outside the ring wall. At that point my boot had leaked and it was snowing harder, so I headed back to the hotel, where I had beef stroganoff. You can’t not have beef stroganoff in Russia, right?

The weather was better yesterday, my only full day in Nizhny Novgorod, so I took full advantage of it and walked a lot. I headed out to try to find the Ostrog, a prison museum (this city having been used as a place of internal exile), and then looped back through a different part of the city to explore the Kremlin again more thoroughly. (No luck on the Ostrog, but it’s on the list for today.) This time I saw the church at the center, with the eternal flame and WWII monument behind it (again surrounded by cadets like in Irkutsk), and the amazing view down to the bottom of the Kremlin near the water. The Kremlin sits on a very steep hill, the walls circling the descent down to the Volga as well as part of the flatter top. One can imagine that if invaders managed to take the bottom of the Kremlin, they’d still have a hard time getting up to the heart of it as the defenders have the high ground.

The State Art Museum is in the complex, and is supposed to be one of the best regional collections of Russian art (about which I am profoundly ignorant), so I popped in for an hour. Russian museums (small ones, anyway) are very interesting: instead of guards in each room, they have babushkas who guide you about which rooms to enter in which sequence, often going ahead to open doors (in house museums where they have humidifiers going) and turn on lights. I’m guessing the Hermitage will be more like the western museums I’m used to – I’ll find out later this week! (I am so looking forward to St Petersburg! Seeing a great city and meeting up with a great friend from college.)

I saw a floor of Russian icons and then a bunch of 19th century Russian artists. I feel a little more knowledgeable now! On my way out, I stopped to buy some postcards and had a great chat (with a few words of English and a few words of Russian) with the lady selling them. She wanted to know where I was from, how long I was traveling for, whether I were married or had kids – the usual questions I’ve encountered from my nice older train companions. She also managed to tell me she had travelled to Marrakech. Then she saw a younger colleague whom she called over to speak more English and give me recommendations on what to see.

Following her recommendations, I took the road down to the bottom of the Kremlin and walked out onto another historic street, lined with 18th century houses and a church whose dome is covered in multi-colored tiles. (Somehow the word bijou comes to mind.) Then I had a relaxing lunch at an Italian cafe where I devoured some fresh vegetables (all this train travel has made me very happy to eat fresh food) and risotto and rested my poor weary feet. I must say, I love Russian “business lunch” specials. They usually run until 3 or 4 pm and provide 2 to 3 courses for $8-$15, the same price one dish usually costs at these restaurants. It’s great for the budget traveller. Since I ate lunch so late and there was a supermarket just down the street, I bought some picnic food to have dinner in my room.

I continued walking on the Embankment by the Volga, until I came to the immense Chlakov Staircase (closed for repairs over the winter). The Staircase goes from the banks of the river all the way up to the plaza in front of the (top part) of the Kremlin. At this point I was really tired, and the area was pretty empty of pedestrian traffic except for a few men taking smoking breaks by the river, so I decided I’d feel more comfortable in a more populated area. I headed back to the hotel, retracing my steps (and yes, that means climbing back up the steep road to the top of the Kremlin).

And now it’s today, Tuesday, and I have till this evening in the city and then it’s the overnight train to St Petersburg! Yay for less than 24 hours on the train! So I’m off to pack and hopefully mail some postcards.

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