Russia – Nizhniy Novgorod, Vladimir and Kazan (trip with Grandma)


I might have overdone it with the driving in a single day from Miass to Kazan. The distance wise it is about 470-500 miles, basically something that i do once in a while when driving to see my parents in San Jose. Back in California this drive usually takes me 7 hours 30 minutes with a personal record of 5 hours 55 minutes, but thats back home…where the roads are decent.
Actually the Russian roads, a butt of a joke for many centuries, have finally risen to a decent standard. The road surface is good, the only downside is that most of the time its only a single lane in each direction. Before we crossed the Ural mountains this was not a problem, but here in the European part of Russia the truck traffic is a hundred, no, a thousand times worse.

For those 500 miles you are not just cruising down some empty road in the Southwest of United States, here you are battling for space as you heart rate goes up every time you try to pass a big rig.

Nizhniy Novgorod (GPS: 56.32857, 44.003505)

Not wanting to repeat the same mistakes we drove only a little bit to visit the great Nizniy Novgorod. There are two cities in Russia called Novgorod (means Newtown), one somewhere North of Moscow and this one. People usually and lovingly refer to this Novgorod as just “Nizhniy”, meaning the lower one.


When considering visiting this town, lets actually talk about Russia and visiting this country. Most people end up visiting Moscow and/or Saint Petersburg and call it a day. True, those are both cities in Russia, but they are in themselves already very distinctive. So can you imagine the sheer breadth of character the city of this great country can offer?

Nizhniy is a perfect example, it is small enough that you can stay in the historical center and walk around everywhere you want by foot. The hostel cost us somewhere around $15 per night, and the beds were as clean as can be. Next, you have a very typical Russian Kremlin, which is basically just a castle. This one, just like in Moscow is made from red brick and i think just as good looking.


All the good stuff in the city is right there, just outside the Kremlin you can stroll down towards the river and if the weather permits enjoy a beautiful walk. There is a quaint and relaxed feeling to the city, without the hustle and bustle of the country’s capital. Yet, it doesn’t have the stagnated feel of an outpost somewhere far east, next to China’s border.


Unfortunately, the weather was already starting to show its true colors and after quickly taking few photos around Kremlin we went off to get some food and beer.


Only to discover this beautiful walking street, called Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, there is no regular car traffic on it. The street is lined with shops, restaurants and reminds me of Seoul very much, except its much colder and about a quarter of the people. The food is also a bit different, but the prices are much better. Even though we are getting closer to Moscow, in Nizhniy Novgorod you can still enjoy a beer for a couple of dollars. We liked it so much here that we stayed an extra day, just to relax, drink beer and walk around. If you are get a chance, drive through the city and stop for a night…its one of the more pleasant cities we visited.

Vladimir (GPS: 56.128889, 40.407521)

Only a few hours from Nizhniy Novgorod, it was nice to not have to spend a whole day stuck between trucks. Here we are meeting with an old family friend Gregory (Grisha in Russian) and his wife Olya.


He knows me since i was a little baby, one day i will be saying these things to my friend’s babies but for now i’m the one being told this. Since the childhood encounters we managed to cross paths again in Riga, when i was old enough to walk, talk and even drink beer.


This time Grisha, or in Russian dyadya Grisha (unlce grisha), is showing me around, this time Vladimir.

Ancient capital of Russia, the city is full of historical buildings, fortifications, churches, prisons…all the good stuff. Back in the 12th century this place was really happening in Russia, basically until the Mongols came in the mid 13th century and kind of captured everyone. The next time anything remotely interesting was happening here was when during the Soviet times, the bastard commies made religion illegal and started to close churches, even went as far as demolishing them. Not a regular church goer myself, but a lot of these buildings have been standing for centuries and at least deserve the respect any old architecture gets. Some of the churches in the city are from the early 12th century….by now they have outlived the countless generations of Russians, the Mongol invasion and thank god the Commie times. Revolutions are great, but let history be history.


Like any good tourists, we set out to the center to run the noses of statues and take pictures.


We did find this cool old bike. Back in the day before chains became mainstream, these bicycles, also known as penny-farthing, used a direct pedal drive on the front wheel. Due to the larger diameter of the wheel you could go much faster and in more comfort. Falling off this thing would have been less than ideal.


In the morning the following day, my dad took a train in from Moscow. Not only does he get to see his world-wandering son and daughter-in-law, but he gets to reconnect with his friend and remember their good-old-times! If you are unclear my dad is the on the right, in the red jacket.

As a nice gift and surprise, my dad and Grisha hired an English speaking guide for the day. Wait, for what?

Oh, right next to Vladimir is right next to a very famous village of Suzdal.

Suzdal (GPS: 56.41939, 40.448789)


Why should we care? This little town, more like a village, has the highest number of churches per capita in all of Russia. There is something like 30 churches for about 9000 people. Thats more than the deep south of US, where you see a church on every street corner.


Our guide for the day, check them out if you are in the area


We walked around for a few hours, listening to the stories of the past. This is our first guided tour on the whole trip and i think that i really enjoyed it. A good guide doesn’t just walk around monotonously talking about the buildings, they make you feel and appreciate the history of these places. A really, really enjoyable experience. If not for the cost of the guide, we would be taking them more often.


Thanks to our guide, we got to climb up to the top of a bell tower and take a look around the town. You realize just how small it is…and that is all just churches, churches and churches. And then boom – fields and forests. There is even a kremlin here. This is what i love about places outside of Moscow, they have the typical golden kupola’s (onion church domes), but there is nature here, fields, mushrooms and fresh air.


These beautiful churches are older than many countries on this planet, yet they are standing here watching the planets get older, while they remain the one constant in this crazy world of ours. If you only have a couple of days to get through Nizhniy, Vladimir and Suzdal then i recommend you to spend all your time in Suzdal…definitely worth it. The GPS for the photo above – 56.196267, 40.561443


In the evening we gather the troops, Grisha invited his brother with his wife and went out for a night on the town. Good company, good food….just my brain started to hurt after a few beers and hours of Russian-English translations.


Loaded with an extra passenger….something which we haven’t done since Peru, we sat out towards Moscow with my dad. Thanks to Grisha and Olya for the present and warm welcome!

Kazan (GPS: 55.782354, 49.124225)

My great-grandmother, Nina, is from a very large family in Kazan. She was born in 1914, youngest out of 8 siblings. Although all her brothers and sisters have past, she is still alive an well in Moscow, at a young age of 102. Needless to say that we have a lot of relatives still living in Kazan and i would consider it THE family town for my whole side of mom’s family.

This all should explain why we skipped ahead to Moscow so that we can meet up with my grandmother and go visit Kazan together.


Thats my grandmother (right) and Lena, her niece. The first day in Kazan, we went to the cemetery to visit the family burial grounds and pay our respects. I’m not sure if it polite to take photos near a grave, but we decided to be cautious and didn’t record the moment. Grandmother went off to meet a myriad of relative and gave us a few hours to explore the center of the city.


Russian city for many centuries now, it has had an interesting history of Mongol rulers, Golden Horde, Khanate of Kazan, being captured by Ivan the Terrible. The city’s population is evenly split between Russian Christians and Muslim Tatars. Within the Kazan Kremlin walls you will find both a traditional Russian orthodox church and one of the largest mosques in Europe – Kol Sharif.


We were allowed to go inside but only through a special corridor, leading to a balcony overlooking the the whole mosque. Inside you will find the usual presence of intricate patterns and arabic writings, no images of angels or depictions of any humans. The interior is in immaculate condition with brilliant blue colors coming through in every corner of the building.


The mosque is so colorful and so new it looks like a toy from a Disney movie.


In contrast to the red Kremlins of Nizhniy Novgorod and Moscow, this Kremlin is painted white. We walked around for a little bit and nothing attracted our attention like the mosque. There are probably galleries, museums and tons of interesting stuff there but you know we are not that kind of travelers.


Instead we walked for a bit along the streets of Kazan, ducking in for a coffee shop now and then to warm up. Yes, although this is still September in this part of Russia its already smells like winter. Wind, gloomy skies and cold rain…my favorites.

We accidentally stumbled upon a “walking street”……i know its dumb, all streets are walking streets. This is just a new name for a place where the traffic is limited to human powered devices and you can stroll in leisure while gaping at the shop windows and some historical architecture.

Hyein found the biggest “matryoshka” ever and we hoped that we could open it up and climb inside, no luck today. By the way, what is the point of this toy? How do you play with it? All they do is just have mini versions of themselves inside…like some sort of a real life version of a Mandelbrot set.  I just looked up the world’s largest matryoshka set, 51 pieces from 54 cm to 0.31 cm tall. That’s actually not that impressive, am i missing something? Couldn’t someone with some woodworking skills just make this in a couple of weekends? Anyway, if you ever decide to set a world record, i’ll help you stack them.


Family dinner, grandmother (left), Joseph (behind me), Vova (center), Leva and Lena. Over a traditional but this time, very delicious table of salads, pies, wine and vodka we sat late into the night talking about old family stories. I tried to translate as much as possible, but with increasing amount of alcohol in the system the abilities start to quickly diminish after an equivalent of 3 beers. For me it was a very special treat to visti Joseph and Lena’s house that i visited when i was a wee little baby. We celebrated New Years here, stole tangerines with my cousin from the secret hiding place, danced around on the sofa…my childhood is in this house.


In the morning, we went to the island of Sviyazhsk. Its about an hour drive outside of Kazan and is definitely a place worth visiting, especially if you are overlanding.


During soviet times, the island which housed a lot of churches and a monastery was in complete disarray. The government even used the monastery as a mental institution. Now things have been restored, the monastery is still full of crazy people…they just wear different clothes now and pray to a single god. The streets are now paved and the churches have windows. The island is really important historically, as it was the base of operation for the siege of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible.


Chak-chak a local sweet delicacy made from deep-fried dough shaped together with honey into a cake form. Its the simplest of all desserts, but super good. Hyein got a first taste of it in Novosibirsk and has been craving it ever since.


Ah…the spoils of war. One of the uncles in the family was able to bring a actual BMW motorcycle back from German to Kazan. In Soviet Union any vehicle had to pass an annual technical inspection. So we have records of this bike in service since the end of the war and the time it took to come back in 1946.


This is the BMW R23 bike, all original except for the tires those are kept off the bike until they are needed for a show.


Built in 1939 one of just 8000 model produced, most likely was used by the German military during the war….or as any collector would say…it was just collecting dust in some grandma’s garage.


My uncles also got other toys…like this diving helmet. Although it looks like it belongs in the Victorian era, this things are still in use today.


My uncle Vova helping me with the securing the front window glass and Kostya (my other uncle) supervising.


My grandma being my grandma couldn’t let us have all the fun and wanted to try it on herself. This things is heavy…and my grandma is still on crutches from a little hip break in the summer. Yet, this doesn’t stop her, actually nothing stops her. I’ve never seen her complain about anything that has happened to her, she is not afraid of new technology, got her driver’s license when she was almost 60. When she flew over from Russia for our wedding in Seoul, while my parents went to sleep because they were tired. She invited Hyein and I to go out and party a bit in Seoul…cuz sleeping is not what you do when you just got off a flight and haven’t seen your grand-kids. She has more projects than time she is always busy and thus always a bit late to every meeting. I’ve never seen her just sit and rest…honestly, maybe she is just like a photon…if she doesn’t move we can can see her. Love you grandma!


Forgot to mention but instead of driving we decided to take the train to Kazan. Train rides to Russians is like Thanksgiving to Americans, you do it every year, always with you family…usually its a holidays and there is always drinking and eating involved. We thought that although Hyein has traveled Russia from Vladivostok to Moscow, she really can’t be called a true Russian until she experience a train ride. Although the quality of the trains is miles above what it used to be…Hyein will remember that ride for a looooooong time.

A farewell photo of the Kazan part of my family. Thank you for hosting us, treating us to delicious food and most importantly spending time with us. I’m glad I met you all again when I am older.

2 Comment

  1. qin-hong says:

    Love this post. Nothing is more important than spending good quality time with family and old friends. Russia is beautiful!

    1. says:

      Thank you, we are going to Beijing next week, I hope it’s as good as moscow or better 🙂 any recommendations?

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