The REAL Нижни Новгород

22 Oct

Not of course to be confused with Новгород or Нижни something or other – there are many ! Put simply, the rapid economic development, mostly heavy industry, across the USSR kindled the growth of villages into cities. The delegates mandated to the naming of the cities got bored after the 1st three and played pick’n’mix with the rest until the job was finished.

‘Are we there yet?’

Stepping out of the traditional cement bunker, affectionately named “воксал” (train station) we were met by a lot less affectionate wind and spittle, both intent on forcing us out of the city as soon as possible. Seeking refuge from the elements, we headed towards the universal place of solace for foreigners in need of comfort, Mc Donald’s.

Warming up over a 50rub coffee and some beautiful circular shaped omelettes and fake meat, we did the second thing of the day that only a foreigner would do: open a Lonely Planet Guide. After a quick group discussion, teeth brushing and an overwhelming majority of votes for the number 1 N.N. tourist site, we headed out into the unknown.

According to the guide’s map, the centre wasn’t far so we decided that we were definitely “well ‘ard” enough to brave the weather and walk there. Bad idea, N.N is deceptively big! It houses over 1million inhabitants and boasts trams, buses and  a metro (1line which does not venture into the heart of the city). This agglomeration straddles the Volga, centre on one side, train station on the other. A long and dauntingly high bridge links one point to another. The metro doesn’t go to the old city so I can only assume that it serves a more labour based purpose and travels to the industrial depths of N.N. Trams and gypsy taxis will get you across the Volga. Walking will take you about 45mins if you don’t get lost, count 90min if you do… The city around the train station is in upheaval due to road works and a new bridge they are building across the river, the map is therefore unreliable. We spent a certain amount of time, doubling back on ourselves, avoiding flooded streets and the occasional dead cat. It felt a bit like a British seaside resort in winter,  grey, wet and empty. Needless to say, we eventually stumbled upon the Volga, where Lenin proudly surveys the opposite bank from his lofty perch.

No town is complete without the local Lenin statue

Break on through to the other side

The Old Town. Just across the bridge, the land rises up to meet the sky in what seems to be an impenetrable mass of hill, branded Нижни Новгород in bright petunias. Look right, you will see a Monastery. They occasionally receive visitors, if you bribe the guards, if not you can turn left and follow the banks you will get to a mini St Basil’s cathedral, which is very pretty (from far away at least). Having all lived in Moscow for  various durations, one thing we definitely shared was a lack of interest in churches, due to their vast number and variety in the capital alone.

Religion to the left, and to the right, we made our way forward, up the mighty hill behind which the Kremlin did lie. By this time, we had indeed been in the city for about 2hours, climbing up and down steps, zigzagging through unmarked streets, avoiding the mini sinkholes which decorated not only the roads but the foot paths also. The erosion left the limit between the former and the latter open to interpretation, but luckily for us, there were too few cars to make us pick sides.

The city centre in N.N. is discreet, something you happen upon unsuspectingly. One moment, you are in a random residential street, then it appears to you, nonchalant, silently taunting you for taking so long to get there. As in Rome, all the roads lead to the Kremlin which stands watch over the Volga, a reminder of more medieval times, when horses where the most common form of transport and bows and arrows the most efficient means of distant combat.  The Kremlin houses the regional and local council buildings and entry is free of charge. Taking photos of the WW2 tanks and airplanes is also free of charge, as is climbing on them – toilets however will put lighten your wallet by 10rub. The gardens and buildings are well maintained but don’t live up to expectation. Wander down towards the river and you will be rewarded with a superb view of rolling plains and a Volga which spreads it weight around majestically, comfortably dominating the landscape. By then, the weather was still battering us silly, so we took another few hideous photos, faces distorted by the sheer force of the wind, and headed out of the Kremlin and into a bar.

3 beers and a plate of grenki (garlic bread) later, the weather’s bad mood still hadn’t wavered. We bravely donned our scarves, our coats and our dingy rucksacks and headed back out to see the sights. We strode up the Arbat, debating on whether to follow the map or wing it. Improvising seemed the best solution – in hindsight, we were probably all nursing a secret desire to uncover the REAL Нижни Новгород, the one which had been hiding from the timid tourists and populist travel writers of the Lonely Planet guide. Indiana Jones was our guiding light, and we were on our way to break the seal on this enigmatic urban space. Desolate streets, old wooden houses, a strip bar, 2 parks into the future, we had arrived at Gorki Park – which is admittedly smaller than our beautiful capital’s demonstration of Gorki greenery, but it did have the merit of both being in the Guide and on the map. That day in June, it looked like the park needed a haircut or a herd of cows to graze it – but it was somewhere, and by that time, we were ready for another drink.

Gorki park is a rather insignificant piece of land with a statue at the top. The main point of interest is the bustling main street with lies at the bottom of it, as well as the selection of restaurants reviewed by the Guide. So we moved on, and back down towards the Kremlin, at a guess, maybe 20min away walking at a normal pace. This street is nice, and pedestrian, with mid range to expensive restaurants along it. It is paved and towards the centre of it, there is a building not unlike the entrance to the Old Tretyakov in Moscow. It didn’t unfortunately warrant me taking my hands out of my pockets to capture the moment, nor did it warrant me making an effort to remember its name*. I was already captivated by the sheer persistence of the wind and the indecisive clouds which were making a half arsed attempt at rain.

Time for lunch, choice, indeed, there was on the street, German, Czech, Shaslik, in other words, sausages and beer OR pork and beer OR meat and beer … So we chose meat and beer Czech style, more by concern for our core temperatures than by true love for Czech gastronomy. That may have even been my first time. After the meal and a few more beers and rowdy name calling from the beer fuelled mancunian, we decided to put a lid on the tourism and open another can of beer. One of the joys of the Anglo-Saxons and New Zealanders, is to know that alcohol is always a satisfying replacement to sight seeing.

Нижни Новгород and the travelling zoo

So there, strolling along the Arbat, scintillating with the early signs of inebriation, our imaginations were caught by the exotic animal show in the basement of a lovely grey building. No self respecting New Zealander nor Irish would miss the opportunity to pet some illegally imported boas, so, neither did we. We left the Mancunian and his self professed fear of some creature (which? We still don’t know). The exhibition cost the best part of 300rub, but well spent that is sure. In two small rooms, they had crammed at least 100 types of insect, 15 breeds of snake, a very large lizard who could only fit half his body into his water bath, and some very angry parrots. I’m sure that PETA would have a lot to say about it, and we also felt a pang of regret and sadness for these caged animals, away from the sun, with no mate and no room to move. We had to admit though, it was by far the coolest outing of the day, so upon exiting it, when we saw a kitten exhibition which cost a measly 50rub, we coughed up… and spent  15 glorious minutes basking in the fluffy joy of seeing little baby cats, before promising to never admit this episode to anyone. Obviously, I did, and for that Dave, I apologise.

Would you like some salo with that?

Salo? Yes, that delicious pork fat appetizer brought to us courtesy of the Ukraine. But before that, a pub crawl was in order. We reinjected our hard-earned monopoly money into the N.N. economy through alcohol. Only one place was of note, an obscure hole in the walll, on the Arbat, yet hidden from view. The lights were so dim, Stephen Hawkins would have been attractive. Behind the bar, a woman as old as the hill the Kremlin is on, handed us a menu and, lo and behold, we were expected to order at the counter – we were in love. Beers came in cans, a sink decorated the far right corner and the only other guests were two ageing transsexuals. Needless to say, despite the many beers, we struggled to spend our money. A few too many later, we decided food was in order and, as per usual, wandered around in beer tinted indecisiveness as to what to eat. It had already become apparent that N.N. does not have any culinary speciality, instead, they have a Ukrainian restaurant, and a damn fine one at that. “The Merry Godmother” put its name into practise, and upon arrival, all guests are offered a complementary shot of home made elixir, indisputably delicious and siropy. The smiling waitress, indeed the staff smile here, escorted us to the table and distributed the menus. Warm and polite, we weren’t hassled into a later-to-be-regretted choice, nor scowled at for asking questions and had many dishes to choose from. Most come cooked in earthware pots, and everything was delicious. It’s not the cheapest restaurant in N.N., standard Moscow prices apply, beer/150rub, main course/350rub generally, but it’s worth the investment.

The taxi was ordered, our remaining hour was fast disappearing, much to our reluctant relief. Toasting our fabulous day in the city we promised we would never return to, we all agreed that this restaurant was the highlight of our 12h stint – after the travelling zoo and kittens of course.

‘Crums, that was a barmy trip’

Dan, the Manc

Follow the link for all the photos:

*Dan has a photo I think – if you do ever plan to visit Нижни Новгород after these chronicles, I would be happy to obtain it for you.


One Response to “The REAL Нижни Новгород”

  1. fuck off October 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

    hi. воксал is spelled вокзал. I stopped reading because if you can’t spell a simple word in russian, then what the fuck are you going to tell me about anything important, and why should i waste my time reading your crappy “hipster-without-a-cause” blog.

    Shouldn’t you be out protesting at some we hate wall street function?

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