The hardest thing about travelling across Russia on the Trans-Mongolia train is deciding where to break the journey
Top sights in Kazan, Russia
I’ve always wanted to take the train across Russia to Mongolia. In fact the guidebook I’m using on this trip is from 2007 when I first started thinking about this epic journey. Finally I’m living my dream and taking two weeks to travel from St Petersburg in Russia to Ulan Bator in Mongolia.
The journey across eight time zones can be done non-stop in just under a week but where’s the fun in that?!
Stop one and two were St Petersburg and Moscow, which means stop three and four must be Kazan and Yekaterinburg. Have a look at my Recommended Two Day St Petersburg Itinerary here and my speedy One Day Sightseeing in Moscow blog post here.
Kazan, capital of Tatarstan – a perfect stop after Moscow on the Trans-Mongolia or Trans Siberian train route
Russia is a federation, meaning it’s made up of eighty-five ‘federal subjects’ including twenty-two republics. Tartarstan became a republic in 1920 but originally the Tartars were a Turkic people descended from the Mongols of the Golden Horde. Ivan the Terrible overthrew the Kazan khanate in 1552, beginning the Russian colonisation of the region.
We arrived in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, at 8am after an overnight train from Moscow, our first proper Trans-Mongolia train experience. Outside the temperature had dropped another four degree to minus five – I’m definitely not looking forward to minus twenty-five in Mongolia! After leaving our luggage at the hotel, we headed out to explore.
Top sights in Kazan – first stop Kazan Kremlin
Many people think only of Moscow when hearing the word kremlin, which means fortified complex. In fact there’s around twenty preserved kremlins in Russia and the Kazan one is particularly beautiful.
The Islamic faith and Christianity go hand in hand in Tatarstan and we often saw churches and mosques right next to each other. The Kremlin is no exception. The impressive white and blue Kul Sharif mosque dominates the skyline, with the Cathedral of the Annunciation right behind it.
The Kremlin complex is free to enter (unlike Moscow where you pay an entrance fee) and the mosque and cathedral can also be visited free of charge. There are a few museums, each with a small cover charge.
Leaving the Kremlin we wandered along Kremlyovskaya Street with its grand buildings before dropping down to pedestrianised Bauman Street, packed with souvenir shops and cafes. The Kazan cat, who so impressed Empress Elizabeth Petrovna that she imported them in 1745 to the Hermitage to catch mice, is a symbol of the city and cartoon cat models or soft toys everywhere.
The old Tartar Quarter in Kazan
I was happy to have found a little vegan cafe on Google maps and even happier when we arrived to find it was in a beautiful building overlooking the frozen river. We ordered soup and falafel wraps, with flat whites. The girl serving was delighted with my order, telling me the falafel is their most popular dish. I was more excited by the delicious looking chocolate brownie which I spotted in the counter top display….
After a walk around the old Tartar Quarter, with its colourfully decorated wooden buildings dating to the medieval period and single minaret mosques, it was time to head to our pre-booked tour at the Chak-chak Museum
Kazan Chak Chak Museum
When researching Kazan before the trip, I found some reviews about the Chak Chak Museum housed in an old Tartar merchant house. Reading that the private tour includes tea and traditional Tartar snacks at the end, I was hooked. I emailed them and requested an English tour and received an immediate response offering a selection of times.
At the house, we were directed upstairs where we left our shoes and coats and were welcomed into the sitting room by Alina in traditional Tartar dress. She welcomed us and invited us to sit anywhere we liked. Then we had about 45 minutes of conversation about Tartar customs and ways of life in Tartar households in 159 years ago.
We learned about the significance of Chak Chak. This simple but tasty snack or treat was made for weddings and other large events. Very few ingredients go into Chak Chak – it’s essentially fried strips of dough, rolled in honey and made into a pudding shape. It’s then decorated with dried fruit and nuts. However as eggs and honey were extremely expensive back then, it was a status symbol of how many eggs were in your Chak Chak dish!
Alina then went into the next room to prepare our tea and snacks, inviting us to look around and take some photos. And finally, we were able to taste the Chak Chak, washed down with thyme tea. I really liked mine – despite resembling Rice Krispies cake, it wasn’t too sweet and was very light. We also tried tiny leaves of ‘fruit leather’ – pureed and dried fruit which is often used to decorate the Chak Chak.
Next stop on the Trans Mongolia adventure – Yekaterinburg