Saturday, August 29, 2015

-- In Soviet Russia: Kazan, the Water of Life --

Almost a routine procedure by now, I once again walk through the busy hallways and security checks of Dublin Airport for yet another very early morning departure, along with heaps of holiday makers who unsuccessfully try to smuggle large liquid containers or some classic sharp objects.

A rather different trip is about to begin, particularly since it has been quite a while since I travelled abroad for a swimming competition, which only adds a bit of both excitement and anxiety to the 3-flight journey ahead of me.
It is also the first trip I make on my shiny burgundy Irish passport, therefore, also representing Ireland in swimming for the first time.

As soon as the red-tailed-white-crossed Airbus takes off, we are served a small pot of granola with Swiss yogurt, in preparation for our arrival into the small airport of Geneva.
The Swiss Airlines promise of a possible transit in 30 minutes is fulfilled, swiftly joining the queue for the departing passengers to Moscow, followed by an exhaustive security and visa check, Russian style.

The Eastbound four-hour flight takes me over the Austrian Alps, the colourful crops of Poland and the flat land of Belarus, before starting our final descent into the Russian capital fighting some heavy crosswinds.
Domodedovo International Airport is finally reached and, whilst waiting on the tarmac for our gate to be available, an interesting assortment of Russian-manufactured Tupolev and Ilyushin aircrafts taxi just beside us.

Once inside the terminal, I rush through corridors and escalators to the 'fast track immigration point', thanks to the competition's organising committee.
Little eye contact is made by the immigration officer whilst my passport and visa are thoroughly checked.
Scan a page here, type a few other things here, print a little stub there and my passport is handed back to me with a big stamp over my visa and a little piece of white paper which, if lost, could mean a serious headache in the country.

'I have now officially entered Russia, my 75th country visited'.

The public area of Domodedovo Airport is a clear reminder of the scale of this massive country, with long queues dominating the departures lounge and entire families travelling with piles of canvas bags heading towards places I had never heard of in my entire life. Maybe I should consider visiting Nizhnevartovsk in the future.

The economic crisis in Russia can only mean that the Ruble is ridiculously cheap when exchanged to my Euro-based wages, so the chance of having a full meal and a luscious strawberry smoothie at the airport for only 6 Euro is completely feasible. Take that Schiphol Airport McDonalds!.

I finally board my last flight of the day on a rather dingy Boeing 737, which departs eastbound just as the sky takes a strange tone of orange, something I would like to call 'Siberian orange'.

The lights of the shiny and disturbingly quiet Kazan International Airport mark the end of a day of solid flying.
Minutes after, I am greeted by two young locals holding colourful uniforms and a welcome sign at the luggage claim hall.
Competition mode is on, starting by having an entire bus for myself whilst I am being driven through an empty motorway into the Athletes' Village, a meticulously surveilled journey considering that the vehicle gets checked thoroughly and a mirror is placed under the engine to check for strange artefacts just as we enter the complex.

Three people welcome me into some sort of solemnly-built building working as a registration point, whilst my passport is tossed around through many departments who seem determined to check my eligibility into the country, finally granting me access by handing me high-tech competition badge and driving me around the village in a cute golf cart.

Checked in and nearly unpacked, I meet my friend who travelled all the way from South America for the competition and take the opportunity to walk around the quiet village to blow the cobwebs of three flights and settle into Russia, enjoying the breeze of the cold late night at the edge of Siberia.

In the morning, anxiety takes over my body and I feel like I can barely tolerate or swallow a bit of the generous breakfast provided.
Everything else for the next three hours seem to happen in a blurred mixture of deja-vus from ten/fifteen years ago and the reality: the transfer to the competition and the sight of a fantasy-like blue building working as the main swimming arena, the changing area, the warm up, the stretching.

And soon I approach the call room, and the second call room, and the third call room and finally, I see myself walking over blue carpets and white tiles, looking to that intimidating clean lane of still water and nearly thinking: 'why am I doing this to myself?'.
Names are called and placed on two massive electronic billboards, seconds later, the thoughts and the whole arena become silent when the whistle timidly blows, when a mechanical 'take your marks' follows and when finally the automated system shots a start sound.
Instinct tells you to jump and the sound of water bubbles is followed by a long sequence of 'stroke-kicks and turns' until I feel my right shoulder slowly succumbing to the effects of a long sprint.

I touch the wall and look at the electronic billboard. It is a disappointing result, which adds bitterness to the feeling of stepping out of the pool with every muscle in pain, and a test of self control and learning for the future. A reminder that a season finishing my Masters degree and training in the pool whilst working full-time has come to an end and it is time for some rest.

The competitions continue rolling and my friend soon arrives for his time, completing the same 'warm up - calls - sprint' sequence and then, it is finally time to explore Soviet Russia.

Public transport has been made free-of-charge for the competition participants and the locals have told us to take the '59' into the Kazan Kremlin, which could easily be seen from the swimming arena some mile down the road.
Nonetheless, the locals did not specify that the '59' would first give us a tour of the city, through long dusty avenues lined up by apartment buildings which have seen better days, along with sharing the journey with a mixture of local passengers which range from stooped over elderly women carrying grocery bags, to the new pop-Russian teenagers, wearing skinny jeans and constantly staring at their smartphones. Probably the best insight of suburban Central Russia.

The Kazan Kremlin crowns the top of a hill overlooking the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers with its ocean-blue and golden roofs, enclosed into thick white walls in some sort of medieval complex.
The Kremlin was indeed built in the 16th Century under the orders of Ivan the Terrible over the ruins of the former castle of the Kazan khans, working as a sign of conquest over the Republic of Tatarstan.

Inside, several architectural styles and materials have been combined, ranging from red brick used on the worshipped leaning Soyembika Tower, to the local pale sandstone used for the thick walls and the newly-built Qol-Sarif Mosque, postcard of the city of Kazan.

The end of the afternoon is spent having a typical Tatar dish, consisting on kebab skewers with some light salad and yellow rice, topped up by a massive cinnamon roll and a walk around the 'commercial street'.

Only a couple of hours later, I am transferred to the Kazan Central Station, where I am forced to pay 100 Rubles for a 'VIP Seat' in the waiting lounge.
Anything for an electric plug, wifi and a rather grumpy woman keen on reminding me every five minutes that my train is due to arrive soon.

The arrival of the train coming from Ulan-Ude is announced and two volunteers from the organising committee find me walking around the platform and take me inside the carriage and into my cabin to make sure that I am all set.
Time to finish my short visit to the Republic of Tatarstan and begin a 12-hour train journey on the Transiberian Train towards the largest city in the country: Moscow.