As my flight touched down in Kazan daylight at 1.50am, I wasn’t sure if I had missed the sunrise… or the sunset was still to come.
It’s not quite the land of the midnight sun – but sunshine at 2am reminds you, Kazan’s a long way from Kansas (or Cammeray).Australia’s host city for the 2018 World Cup is stunning though. I can’t put it simpler. It’s a beautiful, beautiful city. There’s none of the brutalist concrete bleakness normally associated with Soviet Russia ( well, there is, inevitably, but it’s out in the suburbs where no-one will see it except football magazine editors who like to walk a lot…)
Instead, mix Edinburgh’s city centre castle on the hill and its Old and New Town vibe with Barcelona’s showpiece cathedral and low-key gentility, throw in a shot of Melbourne cool and even Brisbane riverside, run it through a Russian blender, add some Islamic splendour and Orthodox Christian charm, and top it off with a twist of ancient Tatar and you get Kazan.
There are minarets, domes and towers in glittering shades of gold and turquoise everywhere. Pre-and post-revolutionary Russian architecture looks out over north European styling, broken up by elements of more modern buildings like Kazan Arena, where the Socceroos will play France next week.
It should be a mish-mash but it all gels wonderfully – and there is so much of it to see. Every time you think you’ve probably seen the best, you’ll turn a corner and find something else that has you reaching for your camera.
LISTEN TO 442FM HERE NOW:
Throughout the city, final preparations are being put in place for the World Cup party. A week out from the first kick off, and it’s fair to say the party has yet to start. There is no buzz yet. I feel like the bloke who turned up early and is sitting awkwardly on the couch eating all the olives and dip while the hosts are still getting dressed. (NB I did turn up early but there are no olives or dip.)
There are a few flags on lampposts, the FanFest site is ready to rock and the stadium has its World Cup colours on – and I’ve seen one solitary bus with a WC colour scheme.
But that’s about it. One building in the city has a giant mural of… a volleyball player for Zenit Kazan. By contrast, there is a bus shelter ad for Messi selling crisps…
One of my cab drivers wasn’t even interested in the World Cup. He mimed that he likes to play football – but watching it sends him to sleep. Participation rates vs fan numbers are a universal theme it seems. I tried to ask what he felt about NRL and AFL but I think I lost him at that point.
Russian authorities are taking no chances. Literally every street corner in the city centre is home to half a dozen police, army or security personnel. Everyone gets their penetrating stare. Any time, day or night, I feel totally safe here, but I am Scottish and we misguidedly think we’re safe everywhere.
Tourist information stalls in pop-up tents have appeared everywhere in the city… and when they are closed at night, every single one of them has a khaki-clad soldier or security guard stationed inside to prevent anyone (I’m not blaming here, but yes, penniless football fans may well be the target market) from using it as a free bed for the night. It seems like a lucrative AirBnB partnership opportunity missed though…
Ubers and taxis are dirt cheap - the ride in from the airport costs just $7.50, nowhere in the city has cost me more than $4 to get to so far, and coffees cost the same as they do in Sydney…and are actually pretty good.
There’s a cafe near the city centre that does flat white and long blacks, and served by a bloke with a top knot and a beard, who almost certainly was vaping out the back between customers. I mean, really, who even NEEDS Melbourne now? They even sell a Rick and Morty Wubba Lubba Dub Dub coffee.
But language is a huge barrier, far more than it ever was in Brazil. Google Translate is the universal babel fish though - it’s the go to for hotel receptionists, taxi drivers and police (yes, I’ve had a couple of run ins already) and if you have the app on your phone, it can translate menu items in real time using the camera. It’ll even try to match the original font.
Sometimes though, it’s actually simpler than it looks. Coming into Kazan, I saw what I thought was a suburb sign for the Cton area. Then I saw it again, and again. And then I realised it was literally just Cyrillic for Stop - the C is S, then T and O and the n is actually pi and pronounced P. It’s literally STOP in a Russian disguise.
But that where it stops (see what I did there?) being simple. Russian language is complex and our Western tongues are just not used to trying to get round the multi-syllable, multi-consonant words.
My attempts just to say Hello leave me sounding like a drunk Scot having a stroke. Which is probably foreshadowing me one day actually being a drunk Scot having a stroke – and someone thinking I’m just fluently saying Zdravstvuyte.
I want to just say Privet, which is like Hi! But sadly, that’s apparently too informal for me to say to strangers. The subtleties of foreign language, eh?
On the rare occasion I do actually pull off a pronunciation, the other person mistakes me for someone who is not an idiot, and starts a conversation with me until I remind them I am indeed an idiot – and it all grinds to a halt again…
For those heading over to Russia this weekend, here’s a few top tips after having been here a few days now.
Kick, push and shove everyone out your way getting off the plane at Moscow and go straight to passport control first. It’s all done manually and you will be stuck in the queue for ages if you don’t get there first. No, really.
They will check, double-check and triple check every single detail and match you repeatedly against your pic. It is not a quick process.
I got lucky and befriended an off duty Russian air hostie who steered me through that and customs and check in to Kazan painlessly – but be prepared for a lot of paperwork and checking. Everyone takes their job really seriously and mistakes are not allowed.
Get a Russian sim as soon as you can. They can be dirt cheap - I have one with two weeks of unlimited data and 30 minutes of calls (yeah, like anyone uses phones to call people) for a whopping $15.
Just remember to take your passport and fan ID/visa and be prepared for a lot of tedious paperwork. This is true of everything in Russia. Changing dollars to roubles? Paperwork literally in triplicate, multiple rubber stamps, signatures, the works. It’s much easier and simpler to withdraw from an ATM.
Always carry some cash – taxis and some Ubers will only take cash although Paypass works in most places – and make sure you also have your hotel address printed out so you can just show the driver. Google Maps is your other essential app along with Translate, which is why a Russian sim is vital.
You might also want to invest in a month’s subscription to ExpressVPN and install it on all your devices (and turn it on) just to safeguard your personal details from prying eyes. It may also help you watch TV from back home too…
The police can be in your face, but a Louis Theroux-style smile, a handshake and immediately showing your ID has immediately defused all situations for me so far.
There’s a Las Ramblas-style pedestrian area in the city centre which is lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and shops and leads up to the Kremlin and Mosque which dominates the city skyline. You will end up here. It also has a craft beer bar (Top Hop) so you may not remember it though. Take pictures, just in case.
And finally, bring a jumper/warm jacket. The weather is also Edinburgh/Melbourne-like – it will be beautiful and mild in the sunshine, then suddenly the breeze turns to icy blasts with a sprinkling of actual cold rain. Apparently there was a tornado last week but, you know, whatever.
Oh and finally, finally. Don’t joke about Putin and stuff like that. It’s a tough crowd. But that’s a blog for another day (possibly after I’ve left…)
See you when you get here…