It was a trading town, on the old road between Moscow and Peking, our guide told us as she led around Kungur. This was a place where spices and tea were exchanged for goods from the Orient. Leather goods and textiles were also made a traded here. The town was quite prosperous in its day and still has a nice warm feel to it today. Older buildings with arched windows were markets, we’re told. About half the buildings have this architectural feature, although few of them are used for their original purposes. We pass an older brick building with arched windows. Laid into the brick, between the windows is the Star of David. I find it odd that such a building would have survived Stalin’s reign of terror and ask our guide about the stars. “They are for decoration,” she says. “What?” I ask. “They are a religious symbol.” “No, they were just decorative,” she insists. I shake my head and think, “yeah, right, everyone in this country known for its pogroms wanted to identify with the Jews.” In the back of the pack, Daniel, whose is Jewish, quips, “My Great-Grandfather came from this country and he would be pissed.”
|Notice the Star of Davids in the brick|
Kungur is in the middle of the Urals Highlands (to call these mountains is a stretch) about 1500 kilometers from Moscow. We arrived mid-day on a Sunday morning and are met by our guide, a bubbling blonde school teacher. She takes us to our hotel where we’re met by one of the most unwelcoming receptionists I’ve ever encountered. Maybe she was just having a bad day. But the hotel is nice and we’re allowed a few minutes to settle in and clean up, before heading out for lunch at a local restaurant. Then we begin our walking tour in which we’re told about the town and in which she points out ancient markets and various statues.
Along our tour, we stop at an overlook of the river valley. It’s a beautiful city, sliced in half by the Kunguraka River. The steeples of a half-dozen Orthodox Churches can be seen glistering in the sunlight. Many were closed during the Communist years; most but not all have reopened. One of the older churches near the hotel is now a theater. We drop into the Tikhvinskaya Church, for a quick tour. It’s the tallest and finest building in town with numerous onion domes. I ask about the tower and am told that for 50 rubles, we can climb it. Ana and I both want to climb, so our guide gets the key and climbs the tower with us. We spend some time looking around the city and take photos of the city and the bells. I ask our guide if I might take her photo of her standing in front of the bells with her scarf and hair blowing in the wind. She immediately poses and I snap a few glamor shots.
|Our guide modelling in the church's belfry|
|Lenin and Old Water Tower next to tracks|
In Frazier’s book, Travels in Siberia, he discusses Russian women. One of the Russians he talks to during his journeys jokes that next to oil, Russia’s most valuable export is its women, a lamentable truth for one of the problems in Russia is the trafficking in women. Frazier acknowledges that during the Cold War, the image many in the West had of Russian women was that of overweight sour-faced woman (like the train attendant we had between Ulan Bator and Ulan Ude), but this was not what he discovered. He blamed this misconception on the fact that during the Cold War we saw little about Russia except for the wives of some of the Soviet leaders who often looked as sour-faced as their husbands (the wife of Mikhail Gorbachev broke that stereotype). Like Frazier, I would admit that one of the pleasant surprises of Russia is their women. Well dressed women in heels seemed to be everywhere. Yulia, our group leader, and all the women tour guides were attractive as well as a number of our the train attendants (with one notable exception). Another exception was the stone-faced woman at the hotel desk in Kungur, but her problem wasn't with her looks but attitude. A smile would have done a lot for her, but it might have cracked her face.
Our last stop is at a local establishment where they bottle the town’s famous lemonade. We all try a bottle of which I drink only a few swallows. Carbonated lemonade just seems strange. One of the surprises in Russia is that they like everything carbonated. Even buying water, you have to be careful or you’ll get frizzy water. After our walk around the town is over, we hire a couple of cabs and head to ice caves located just outside of town. Getting there, we have to wait an hour for our tour, so I take a walk by myself along the Sylva River and listen to Carl Hiassen’s book, Nature Girl on my ipod. Then the time comes, we pull on all our clothes and head into the cave, that have a two major sets of doors designed to keep the cold inside.. The caves are cold, but there isn’t much ice except in the opening chamber. But it’s pretty.
|Olga and her daughter, our Russian hosts|
teaching us pastry making
After touring the cave, we walk to the apartment of a local family who has prepared us dinner. The family has two cute blonde-headed kids, a girl and a boy, who met us on the street and led us to their home. They run up the stairs and as we come into the apartment, they present us with bread and salt, a traditional sign of greeting. We are introduced to their parents, Sergey and Olga. While their parents prepare the table for our dinner, the boy shows me his room and toys. Ana and the girl play with her dolls, dressing them and fixing their hair. The kids are so cute. The girl and her mother have their hair braided. We’re all called to the table where we help prepare pastries. Vatrushki is a cottage cheese pastry and shangui is one containing mashed potatoes. We have a hardy meal that includes a salad made of beets , potatoes and mayonnaise . Ironically, it’s like a similar salad I had last year in Costa Rica, and they even called it “Russian Salad.” I was surprised to learn it was an authentic dish, the only notable difference was that the Russians add herring to the mix. After the hard meal, the family walks us down to the bus stop where we catch the bus back to the city center and our hotel. The day’s light is fading, but still go for a walk around the riverbank and across it to check out a distant church whose orthodox crosses upon its onion domes glow in the low light.
We had the next morning free. After breakfast at the hotel, I head back to the Tikhvinskaya Church for their morning service. There are only a few people there and, in Orthodox tradition, we all stand. Most of the congregation that morning was older women, but in front of me is another man, about my age, who seems as clueless as I am when it comes to crossing oneself during the prayers. Much of the service consists of alternating chanting from the balcony (done by a man and a woman) and from behind the icons (done by a priest). Everything except for a few readings is sung, without any accompaniment by musical instruments. I don’t understand much of what’s happening, but it is beautiful. At one point in the service, a man comes in and starts to speak to me in Russian. He smells of alcohol and seems distraught. I shrug my shoulders and whisper that I don’t speak Russian, only English. He leaves me and goes and lights a candle in one of the corners and stands there for a few minutes. Then, as he’s leaving he comes back to me and in perfect English says, “I’m sorry, my father died this morning.” I put my hand on his shoulder and told him I’d pray for him, which I did. He then left the service.
At one point, the priest opens the door through the icons and prepares communion. I was not sure if I should take communion or not, if offered. A few people went over to receive the bread, but most did not, so I remained where I was at. Then, a woman who’d been helping out with things brought me the bread and offered it to me. I wasn’t exactly sure what it all meant, but I decided that communion is at best a mystery and the polite thing to do was to accept and be gracious. After all, the Lord’s Supper is a mystery and I am not sure I if any of us is really sure what goes on during the meal. In For the Life of the World, by Alexander Schmemann, an American Russian Orthodox priest, the author questions the debate over the Lord’s Supper in the West between Roman Catholics and Protestants (and even between some Protestants). Schmemann reminds us that the meal is a symbol and a mystery. I read Schmemann’s book nearly two decades ago, but the wisdom of his argument has remained with me, so I accepted the bread from the woman who showed me hospitality, and prayed for her and for the congregation that welcomed me at the table.
|waiting for the train|
Afterwards communion, a family who’d come into the service right before communion (a man and woman with an infant that looked to be maybe 6 or 9 months old), took the child to the priest and it looked like he gave the child a piece of bread soaked in the wine. Then there were prayers said over the child and each parent lighted a candle, then left. After some more chanting in Russia, the service ended. It was nearly 11 AM and I ran back down the hill to the hotel and checked out.
The group was met by a minibus which took us to a market to buy food (none of us wanted to try the diner on the train again) and then on to the station. The train we were catching was late by about an hour and we loitered around waiting. This wasn’t really a Trans-Siberian train as it only ran on the TransSiberian line from Kungur to Moscow. The train originated in the north of Siberia, not in the east. We were in Car #12, which I would have assumed would be toward the end of the train, but the cars were inverted and number 12 was the second car behind the engine. This was only a two minute stop and our car was a good 50 meters beyond the end of the platform, which meant we had to run on uneven ground and quickly haul ourselves onto the train. The train was stopped for more than two minutes!
The ride on to Moscow was uneventful. We passed Perm, a large city to the north of Kungur, where Paul Theroux (Ghost Train to the Eastern Star) on stopped along his most recent Trans-Siberian trip to check out a city many of the 19th Century Russian authors traveled through on their way to a Siberian exile. Here, at Perm, there is a huge freight yard. Although Perm is industrial, I was shocked at the rural nature and the large forest that exists in western Russia. At Balyezino, we have a long stop as we change engines. I wake up early in the morning during a disturbing dream about a friend having a blotched surgery. I slip out of bed and out of the compartment and look for the kilometer markers, hoping to see the Volga River. But we’d passed it during the night. While everyone sleeps in the compartment, I use to the time to write in my journal, reflecting on returning back to my regular life once the summer is over. Later in the morning, after breakfast, we take the last long stop of the trip in Vladmir. I go out on the platform and walk around. No longer are there women selling food and beer along the platform as they’d been through much of the trip. We’re in Europe now where people dressed business-like and all seem to be in a hurry as they take the train to Moscow or another destination.
A couple hours after Vladmir, we arrive in Moscow. Yulia leads us through the station and onto the subway. The inner part of Moscow’s subway (that which was build between the 30s and 50s) are works of art and we marvel at the beauty of the underground stations. Police are everywhere, but then even Moscow has had their subways attacked. We check into the hotel, clean up, and then head out on the city.