Nizhny Novgorod in a Day
The challenge was simple, and set by the airline S7 (formerly Sibir) – an online special of a one day roundtrip for “business travellers” from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s third largest city. Fly in the morning and return in the evening. All for a grand total of a little less than $80.00 including taxes.
Check-in was swift and we settled into one of Domodedovo’s many coffee shops to wait for our flight to be called. An announcement is made – our flight will be delayed for one hour. We will lose more than 10% of our time in the city, but this gives us time to formulate a simple plan – get to the Kremlin, spend some time walking around it, find some lunch by the banks of the Volga, an afternoon of walking the streets of the city, perhaps taking in a church or a museum, before getting ourselves back to the airport by 7:30pm.
I realize we are somewhat underdressed as we climb aboard the bus that will take us to our “comfortable and reliable Boeing 737” that S7’s website proudly states will be our mode of transport. All around us are men in suits, many with mobile phones clamped to their ears. The doors close and we trundle off towards our plane. After a minute the bus comes to a halt alongside a small and old jet with oversized porthole windows. Transtatar is emblazoned on its fuselage. Its nose is glass, presumably for a navigator, rather like the bombers I used to watch in war movies as a kid. While I am wondering whether I would be happy to fly in such an aeronautical museum piece, the front door of the bus opens and a flight attendant steps out with a clipboard. My heart skips a beat, but the other doors do not open. “She’s just having a quick chat with a friend,” I tell myself. But with a hydraulic hiss the doors in front of me open. It seems that the comfortable and reliable 737 will not be in service today as we climb aboard a Tupolev 134.
“Next time we’ll drive,” one passenger reassures his wife as we take our seats in the Tupolev (manufactured between 1966 and 1984 I later discover). “I hope this is not going to be my last flight,” my friend says in all seriousness to me, echoing my exact thoughts. I reach for the dog-eared safety instructions in front of me; “Our plane is fitted out with modern and reliable equipment, which guarantees a safe many-hour-long flight. It is hardly probable that you will need the on-board emergency equipment.” Like the man’s wife in front of me, I am not reassured. There is no safety demonstration by the air hostess and as we gather speed, I resolve to try and sleep so as not to be conscious of any disaster.
An hour and a half later and we are trundling towards town in a marshrutka (mini-bus), asking the air hostess who is also heading into town what was wrong with the 737. “Oh it is normal,” she explains, “We do not use it if there are not so many passengers. But don’t worry; we will be using the Boeing to return tonight.”
The marshrutka drops us off at a bus stop twenty minutes later and the driver tells us which bus to take to get to the Kremlin. The lady who gets off the bus with us kindly tells us not to take his advice, but to take either number 20, 40 or 140 because although longer, the route takes us along the river and is much prettier. We immediately like this Nizhny Novgorod.
A succession of stubby little buses chug along the road, and after a few minutes we spot the 140. The bus stops every two minutes and the journey takes 40 minutes, costing 8 rubles. The immediate impression I get is one of provinciality; from the dress of the young people to the cars on the streets. Gone are the blacked out Mercedes, BMWs and Audis of Moscow, and in their place teem mostly Russian cars. But then, Nizhny Novgorod is at the heart of the Russian car industry, home to GAZ, the manufacturer of the Volga.
The suburbs seem to go on for miles as we trundle down wide avenues, lined with trees and Soviet tower blocks. We pass the headquarters of GAZ, one of their older models sitting atop a plinth. We chug along the banks of the Okra River towards the confluence with the Volga River and Kanavinsky Most, the bridge that will take us over to where the12 meter high Kremlin walls can be seen, dominating the city. A large statue of Lenin, his arm outstretched in what seems to be a gesture of welcome, slips past the window.
Once inside the Kremlin’s 14th century walls, we stop briefly to watch children clambering on a collection of military equipment, and then head straight across to the other side of the Kremlin to see the view, passing an old woman picking dandelions which she puts in carrier bags. As we get closer to the view (and the river), so the number of flies increases. In the foreground the majestic Volga moves impassively, a large barge slowly making its way downstream. Beyond the river lies a great expanse of green that continues as far as the eye can see. To our left is the confluence of the two rivers and the docks and warehouses of Nizhny Novgorod, the combination of which made this city the powerful trading center that it is.
The flies start to bite, so we decide to move on. Conscious that lunchtime is fast approaching we make a swift visit to the 17th century Cathedral of the Archangel Michael before watching four army cadets (two male and two female) goose-step to the somewhat futuristic monument to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War, where they lay carnations by the eternal flame. They then stand facing each other, the girls trying desperately to keep straight faces and not to giggle. I try my best to encourage them.
At Alexandrovsky Gardens, we lunch on shashlik and salad while the flies feast on us. A young boy sits on a bench overlooking the river with his grandfather who dotingly unwraps the child’s ice cream and holds it while the child devours it. All the while Radio Maximum blares out at maximum volume from the speakers of a nearby kiosk that have been attached to the trees on either side.
We walk off our lunch by strolling along the promenade overlooking the Volga, passing groups of teenagers sitting in the sun, chatting, with beers in hands. A strange collection of impressive buildings line this street; a neo-classical Roman temple, a baroque mansion and the ubiquitous wedding cake affair. Two old women in berets pass by, chatting animatedly, wrapped up in their coats even though it is 25 degrees. Below us is a lagoon with a water park with cocktail-stick parasols neatly interspersed along its beaches.
On arriving at Bolshaya Pokrovskaya ulitsa (the city’s main street that has been transformed into a pedestrian mall), we immediately duck through an interesting looking alley that leads to a courtyard full of market stalls. Brightly coloured pyramids of fruit and vegetables sit alongside dried fish, flowers and nearby, a seed seller, her packets of seeds neatly filed like library cards awaits customers. The courtyard and its produce are a long way away from the relative sophistication of the likes of Mango and Hugo Boss, 10 meters away on the charming pastel colored Bolshaya Pokrovskaya.
Deep resonant rumbles of thunder greet us as we emerge back on Bolshaya Pokrovskaya. An ominous mass of dark colored clouds are amassing, and although we are still bathed in sunshine, large drops of rain start to fall. Souvenir sellers scurry around their stalls, draping plastic sheets over their wares. We head for shelter at the nearest restaurant, taking a table and coffee under an awning by the side of the street. To our left, a large bearded man is contentedly eating a plate of ribs and prunes while reading his paper, washing his lunch down with vodka, wine and beer. We giggle – a real business lunch! He spots my guidebook and asks in perfect English which edition it is before joining us.
Steffan is in fact a Swede who has been coming to Russia since the sixties, writes a weekly column on Russia for a Swedish newspaper and is currently in Russia doing a lecture tour of various cities. He delights us with stories of his marriage to his Russian wife and about his conversations with the dissident nuclear physicist Andrey Sakharov, who was exiled here in Nizhny Novgorod in the 1980s when it was still a closed city. “He was ethnocentric,” Steffan states emphatically. “He told me that the powers that be had let it be known to him that the leftist movement of the time in the West was created by the Kremlin,” he adds with a chuckle. Steffan agrees that we do not have time to visit the museum dedicated to Sakharov because it is too far out of town, but recommends that we return to see it. We extricate ourselves because time is ticking away and I want to visit Stroganov Church, purely because its name tickles my fancy.
We make our way along a short section of Ulitsa Maslyakova, a main artery, the cars driving at a more sensible speed with less use of horns than in Moscow. I realize that people do not use private cars as taxis here, but use the plentiful trams. We leave the traffic and wind our way through back streets of wooden houses and through a complex of 1960s apartment blocks. At each doorway, rough hewn benches have been placed, some of which are occupied by old people who look at us inquisitively as we pass by.
We make our way along a series of tracks on the hill behind Stroganov Church, which I am delighted to find is similar to St. Basil’s in Moscow, complete with multi-coloured and gold domes that glint in the late afternoon sun. We wind our way down, passing a young girl standing by her easel sketching the church on the canvas in front of her.
The church is closed so we decide to cross the Okra River to the other half of Nizhny Novgorod by walking across Kanavinksy Most, before finding a cab to take us back to the airport. The sky looks dangerously broody and the wind is picking up. Two women hurry past us with their shopping bags. It’s going to rain, but we decide to risk it and walk across the bridge.
I look over the side of the bridge and notice a man fishing with a Chinese style net, dragging it and then hauling it up, empty. The wind picks up and strong eddies start to swirl in the river. The old cranes on the docks on the far side of the river stand forlornly like fingers broken at the knuckle. The bridge further downstream has entirely disappeared, with just its stanchions remaining.
As we get close to the halfway mark on the bridge, the heavens open. We are soaked to the skin by a monsoon-like deluge in two minutes, despite the fact that we have umbrellas. The streets turn to rivers, and the prospect of another six hours of being in wet clothes inspires us on a hunt for cheap clothing. As we near a department store, the sun comes out and I stop to look back at where we have come from. On the other side of the river a magnificent rainbow starts at the white walls of the13th century Annunciation Monastery, arches over the city and ends at the Kremlin.
I am very keen to replace my sodden clothes with an authentically fake Adidas tracksuit, but am foiled by real labels and proper prices. We give up on our quest for a change of clothes and sit in the early evening sun, drying off by Lenin’s statue while steam rises from the pavement.
For 500 rubles we ride in a Volga back to the airport where the promised Boeing 737 does await us. On the short flight back to Moscow we resolve to make use of S7’s other special offer day trip for business travellers, and fly to Kazan for the day. With a ticket price of 1,300 rubles plus taxes, how can we resist?
Nizhny Novgorod: Practical Information
Hotel Volzhsky Otlas Address: Verkhne-Volzhskaya nab. 2a Tel: +7 (8312) 39 19 51 Fax: 19 48 94 Prices: R315/210 (with/without bathroom) – R1050 (Overlooking Volga)
Hotel Tsentralnaya Address: Ulitsa Sovertskaya 12 Tel: +7 (8312) 77 55 00 Fax 77 55 1000 Prices: R 700/1000
Hotel Oktyabrskaya Address: Verkhne-Volzhskaya 9.A. Tel: +7 (8312) 32 06 70 Fax: 32 05 50 Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Prices: Single/Double with breakfast: R1700/2000
Hotel Volna Address: Ulitsa Lenina 98 www.volna.nnov.ru Prices: Single/Double with breakfast: US$ 120/180
Sibair Address: Ulitsa Alekseevskaya 16. Office hours 9-19 (Mon-Fri), 10- 18 (Sat/Sun)Tel: +7 (8312) 33 87 39 Fax: +7 (8312) 75 99 89
Aeroflot Address: Ploshad Gorkogo 6, Office hours 9-18, Closed Sat/Sun Tel: +7 (8312) 34 40 40 Fax: +7 (8312) 34 41 88 Email: email@example.com
DHL Address: Oktyabrskaya Ploshad 1, Office 102 Tel: +7 (8312) 60 30 05
Alpha Bank Address: Ulitsa Semashko 9, Open 8am – 8pm Mon-Fri (Handles cash advances and has an ATM) Central Post Office Address: Ploshad Gorkogo (Open 24 hours)
Internet Sitek Address: Ulitsa Sovetskaya 12 (8th floor of Hotel Tsentralnaya) (Open 24 hours) Tel: +7 (8312) 77 58 44