Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Old Town, New Town

My "holiday" started at 11:00 on Sunday as soon as breakfast was over in the Saint Petersburg hotel and I had said goodbye to my charges. It started snowing at 11:30. This was not a great start. Although there are several daily, direct, trains from Saint Petersburg to Minsk, that would have been too easy. Instead I decided to stop at Novgorod along the way. Located some 150km south of Saint Petersburg it is the oldest city in Russia, which is somewhat ironic, given that its name translates as "New Town".

A footbridge over the Volkhov river in Novgorod. The city based its wealth on controlling this important crossing.
It was here at Novgorod that the Rus came to Russia, long before Moscow was even an inkling in someone's imagination. It may sound odd, but the Rus were not even Russian. Russians are a Slavic people (who speak a language related to Polish, Czech and Bulgarian) whereas the Rus were actually Vikings who came along the waterways of eastern Europe on their way to Byzantium and Arabia to trade*. A group of them, under the semi-mythic leader Rurik, came to the Slavs living around today's Novgorod and became their leader, giving rise to the kings and rulers of Ukraine and Russia until 1598. Whatever the case I thought it worth stopping off at for a night at least. I didn't realise though that although they had moved on from the days of the Rus, Novgorod's hoteliers maybe hadn't passed the threshold from Communism, and the first place I turned up at didn't have a permit to admit foreigners. Luckily the girl behind the desk was friendly and helped find a youth hostel that would take me and saved me from having to trudge through the driving snow.

Novgorod being an old Russian town had the traditional central kremlin (which means nothing more than simply fortress) with its obligatory old frescoed church. As I entered a gaggle of middle-aged ladies with shawls were chanting a liturgy in Church Slavonic. Although I hold no truck with religion per se, Slavonic chanting, especially with the reverberating acoustics of a church, has a beautiful, haunting quality to it.

The walls of Novgorod's kremlin disappearing off into the fog.

Although Novgorod's history is long and rich, there isn't that much to show for it thanks to the rising power of Moscow that taught Novgorod not to get too uppity in 1478 by burning down half the town and massacring a good a fear-inducing proportion of its population. One day was easily enough to see what Novgorod had to offer before moving on. The nearest station on the mainline to Minsk was a town to Sol'tsy, so I bought myself a bus ticket and set off. Sol'tsy is a nothing little town, and arriving after dark in the miserable drizzle did little to improve my impression of it. Nevertheless the Saint Petersburg to Minsk express stops there every night for a couple of minutes, where it meets the Brest to Murmansk train. It's what I love most about the ex-Soviet train network: trains criss-cross the former bloc from corner to corner, so that you can embark in an obscure station and end up half a world away a few days later without having to change trains. From Brest there is a train to Karaganda, from Kharkiv there's one to Almaty, from Murmansk to Vladikavkaz and so on. So there I was, standing on this desolate platform, alone and wondering whether I was, in fact, in the right place. I was, as I found out when both the Saint Petersburg to Minsk, and Brest to Murmansk trains simultaneously converged on me from opposite directions. The platform itself was barely any higher than the rails and suddenly on either side of me were two towering snakes of steel boxing me in on my dark strip of security. I frantically waved my torch (I've come to find that smartphones are actually really quite useful) until a provodnitsa opened up one of the carriage doors, let down the steps and let me into the belly of the iron beast, where I found my bunk, unfurled my bedding and did what I do best.

Standing on a deserted, drizzly platform in the middle of the night - up until the train came through I wasn't certain that I was in fact in the right place.

 The next morning I awoke in Minsk, eager to explore this strange new world (Belarus and Russia - and Kazakhstan - have a customs and border union so that there aren't any border controls between them). But to hear about that you'll have to wait a little longer... 

*To this day the Finns call the Swedes "Ruotsi").


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