Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.
Honalee, Sumeria, Shiraz, and Andalucia, they are distant places whose names tickle our curiosities. The very arrangement of letters on a map can signify exoticism. Often a delicious arrangement of syllables or particular resonance of a vocal chord seems to divide the Regina’s of the world from the Montreal’s, the Pittsburgh’s from the Prague’s.
Names can enchant us long before we understand the reality which alluring words describe. Each part of the earth possesses an individual history that adorns a city or region with architectural accoutrements that mark the passage of time and shape the lives of those who breathe life into them. It is this intrinsic quality of places, and those who inhabit them, that intrigues us initially.
Still, the names of some locales attract us more than others. Kazan, a city in western Russia, is one of those places.
Riding toward Kazan from the Ural Mountains, the earth becomes a series of steep hills that curve sharply like the arched backs of pilgrims praying before a prophet’s remains. On top of one, you can see for miles. Fields of golden wheat and groves of yellow-leafed birch trees undulate before me.
Cool fall weather, that magical time of year where one can work outside comfortably all day without breaking a sweat, overtakes the hill country on our first day of riding. But as late afternoon wanes, an Arctic cold front moves in, chasing the pleasant weather away like a rodent fleeing a starving cat. We camp in a field. I can feel the temperature plummet as I fall asleep.
By daybreak, it is near freezing. Heavy dew formed on my tent overnight. It is soaking wet. I pack it up with quivering fingers that quickly go numb in the raw cold. It feels like December. The beaming sun does not affect the temperature today. I wear a wool pullover and pants to stay warm on my bicycle.
Today, for the first time, we turn off the federal highway onto a secondary road for 200 miles that will lead us to Kazan quicker. We have never done this before. In Siberia, even the main roads were in such poor condition, we would never have tried this. But we are in Europe now. Our map suddenly abounds with a web of criss-crossing main roads that could save us time.
After several hours on this secondary road, I feel like I have returned to Siberia. There is no traffic. Large distances separate small towns. We are near areas of Russia with large fuel reserves. Occasionally, oil wells line the roadside.
We travel more than 100 miles to Celti, a small outpost of simple log cabin-style homes far from civilization. At a small cafe in town, we gorge ourselves on food. While finishing our meal, two older women who work in Celti’s town hall invite us to their table. They have been drinking heavily. A nearly empty vodka bottle sits between them.
“Our town is poor,” they tell us, “because there happens to be no oil in our district. There is no money here.”
That night we camp by the local police station. The cold front lifts overnight, gliding back to the frigid Arctic. Warm sunlight basks Celti in the luminous glow of Indian summer as we ride out of town the next day.
The road quality decreases as we continue. Giant potholes and cracked pavement destroy the vestiges of navigable road. We quit early in the afternoon and sleep in a small village. We already know the bad road will bring us to Kazan a day later than planned.
The next morning, pavement disappears entirely. The earth is sandy here. The passage of cars overtime has churned the dirt road into a fine dust resembling beach sand. Riding a road bike here is like driving a car downhill on an icy road. I fall frequently when I hit a deep patch of sand and slip. Oftentimes the sand is so deep I must stop and push my bike.
Towns on this road rarely have a post office or even a small store. People here grow crops, raise animals, and chop firewood to survive. In some villages old ways of life persist; in others, they seem abandoned. In a small village called Gorky, log cabins are boarded up, their dilapidated frames sinking into the foundations. A nearby mine, or whatever industry once brought people here, dried up. Only several families remain.
After Gorky, the road ends at a large river with a fierce current. There is no bridge. We must wait with cars and ferry across on an old barge. On the other side, we meet with a paved road leading to Kazan. That afternoon, we enter Tatarstan, an independent republic in Russia of the Tatar people, where Kazan is the capital city.
Kazan rests on the banks of the mighty Volga river, which for centuries has marked the point where eastern and western culture collides. The more than 10,000 Tatar people worldwide, over half of whom live in Russia, reflect this statement. Tatars descend from a mix of Turkic ethnic groups who settled along the Volga and in-termixed with Eastern European peoples long ago. Tatars were once nomadic, and, even today, significant Tatar communities exist as far away as Finland, China, Uzbekistan, and New York City.
More than 1,000 years ago, missionaries from the Middle East converted people along the Volga to Islam. Most Tatars today still practice Sunni Islam despite the Russian conquest of Kazan in the 16th century. The Islamic faith in Tatarstan evolved differently due to its distance from the Islamic world. Tatars have traditionally practiced tolerance for other religions and given Tatar women the same rights as men.
Riding into Tatarstan, the minarets of mosques, instead of Christian churches, rise from the centers of small Russian villages. I feel like I have been whisked away to Turkey.
Arriving in Kazan really feels like stepping into another country. Strolling toward the town center, the Kazan Kremlin, a walled citadel within the city based on the design of Moscow’s Kremlin, comes into view. The towers of the massive Kol Sharif Mosque rise from within the Kremlin’s white walls looking over the Volga like silent sentries. The Kazan Kremlin is a visual tour of the city’s diverse history; towering mosques stand between the colorful onion domes of Christian churches.
Tatarstan’s history follows a bumpy road of clashing empires and religions. The winding path of Tartar culture today ends in a vibrant Russian city where Muslims and Christians live peacefully together. Kazan’s diverse architecture represents how the past influences the present, and rushes forward into an exciting future. Walking through undeveloped Russian villages feels like just looking into the past. The future is uncertain there.
“Russia is at a juncture,” I think while walking along Kazan’s shaded alleyways, “The road I’m standing on seems to link the past and the future. Perhaps that is the answer to further developing Russia,” I think to myself smirking, “build better roads.”
I stop to rest by the water. Behind me, the call to prayer emanates from a mosque and echoes over the Volga. “This is Kazan,” I think. An interesting name on the map that for so long wordlessly enticed me to visit.
For a moment, I recall the beach sand road we traveled on to get here. Exotic sounding names can beckon one to travel to new and interesting places. But oftentimes, just getting there is the biggest adventure.