We often walk into a place unaware of how our backgrounds and what we’ve seen before affect our expectations and our experience of it. In India, the 6 largest cities are all highly developed and urbanised metropolises. In Delhi (my hometown), monuments and cultural sites near the city’s centre find themselves embedded among the high rises, the trendy hotspots, and the rapid pace of the city. This is the same experience one gets in any of India’s 10 largest cities, and most places that I’ve travelled to in other countries have been very developed as well. So my natural expectation was that Nizhny Novgorod, as Russia’s 5th largest city, would follow suit.
Our train arrived near dawn, which was when the entire city was closed. As my friends and I took a short walk from the train station towards the city centre, I discovered that there was a sharp contrast between expectations and reality. Nizhny Novgorod has retained its old world charm as a beautiful riverside city – split into two by the Volga, with bridges for crossing to the other side. The city’s left side has the station, and seems to house most of the city’s population. Almost all the major historic and cultural sites, which lie on the other side, are visible from near the Yarmarka, that is a short walk from the train station. The Nizhny Novgorod Yarmarka is a country fair that once had tremendous national importance as Russia’s main fair, and is inolved in what led to the coinage ‘St Petersburg is Russia’s head; Moscow its heart; and Nizhny Novgorod its wallet’.
During this walk, we also passed other sites that told us about the city’s history. This includes a large statue of Lenin with workers in front of the Yarmarka, followed by a turn towards a memorial built to those that the city lost to the disaster at Chernobyl, behind which is the Savior Cathedral. From the statue of Lenin, we glimpsed at many of the places that we wanted to see on the other side of the river – the Kremlin, the Church of Nativity of the Holy Mother, Ploschad Minina and so on, except those which sits on the other side of the hill.
Contrary to expectation (again), Nizhny is a very laidback city. Many travel guides describes it as lazy – the residents wake up late and sleep early. Unlike in Moscow or in America, there was no place open in the city early in the morning, and most of the city didn’t open till past nine. At around then, we wandered off to explore the rest of the city.
The first visit we made was to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which sits on the riverside. The interior of the church is beautiful, and features a giant ornate bell outside. Here I saw for the first time a proper orthodox Russian church service. There were many attendants (mostly families), and even children took it seriously. The service was also broadcast on speakers for listeners standing outside or near the Cathedral.
Following the visit to the Cathedral, we decided to cross the river by Matrushka (the main mode of public transport in Nizhny Novgorod) to see the rest of the cultural sites. Our first stop was Ploschad Minina i Pozharskogo, which is the center for most of the historical sites in the city.
From here, we walked past the Kremlin to the Chkalov Staircase, which went all the way down to the base of the hill. The staircase was once called the Volga staircase, but was renamed after Valery Chkalov, who was a local hero of Nizhny Novgorod who was the first man to cross the North Pole by flight. A statue of him stands before the staircase, followed by what are estimated by some to be over 1500 steps! Its construction itself is an interesting story, which began in 1939 when Aleksander Shulpin (head of Nizhny Novgorod at the time) managed to get approval and financial backing for the construction of the staircase. Shulpin employed German prisoners for the cause during the years of the Great Patriotic War and the costs of construction (8 million rubles at the time) turned out to be so high for the Soviet government that he was quickly expelled from the party and arrested.
In fact, this reverence from the residents of the city towards their local heroes is visible not only in the form of the Chaklov Steps but also in the Sakharov and Gorky Museums, among others.
The Chkalov steps afforded beautiful views of the river, and also had high powered telescopes for viewing the other side of it closely. At the base of the staircase, we saw three groups of uniformed people practice marching. One of the locals told us that this was all part of the celebrations for the Victory Day parade. There were also several newly wedded couples taking photographs in this area and around the Kremlin.
After absorbing what we could of the rest of Ploschad Minina, of the view from the steps, and the Volga, we headed towards the Kremlin.