I visited Yoshkar-Ola in the Mari-El Republic this weekend. Yoshkar-Ola is the capital of the Mari El Republic. It took me about 2 ½ hours to get there.
The journey there was by an intercity minibus – essentially a маршрутка. These are minibuses which usually provide cheap and quick travel around town. Most маршрутка drivers in my experience drive somewhat at the edge and the journey to Yoshkar-Ola was no exception. I’d booked my hotel online.
A slight surprise when I discovered that the hotel was located in an industrial area of the town. Directly opposite the hotel was a large power station.
I felt a little trepidation as I arrived. However, I needn’t have worried. The hotel was modern, very clean and pleasant. The staff were helpful; the manager on the day shift spoke superb English. She said she had learned English at University and seemed happy to practise it.
Yoshkar-Ola was smaller than I had expected. This is an experience I often have in Russia. A clothes shop selling “European Fashions” is not the department store I picture to myself in my imagination; it is two small rooms selling some clothes which the owner has probably brought back personally from Italy. The “Children’s’ Charity” I thought of volunteering in Moscow turned out to have no actual children. Somehow despite the size of the country many sites and attractions are on quite a small-scale.
The centre of Yoshkar-Ola seemed essentially to be a happy place. There is a park with attractions including a big wheel, a boulevard for families to stroll along, and benches to rest on. The boulevard extends from the park through a street with shops and restaurants and cafés on either side to the main square. The main square is a recent creation.
The cathedral (pictured) was only completed in 2016. The Tower (visible in the picture) is also recent – and is a copy of the Spasskaya tower in the Moscow Kremlin. Another architectural feature in the centre of town is the Bruges Embankment, a row of townhouses next to the river basin constructed in the style of the medieval town houses of the Belgian city of Bruges. The main square, as is not unusual in Russian cities, offered a large assortment of small electrical powered vehicles for children wto whiz about in intermingling with the people walking about. It crosses my mind that it would be impossible to do this in England. Health and Safety regulations plus insurance fears would absolutely prevent it. (It might be permitted in a corralled area – and then I doubt it would be permitted to become a regular feature).
The Mari El Republic is the ethnic home of the Mari people, a Finno-Ugric people. This was apparent even as I got onto the bus in Kazan when the two passengers just in front of me were two sisters of a distinctively Finish look. There seem to be two main types of this race. A fair-haired type (the minority), who would not look out of place at all in Finland, and a darker wiry type with curly black hair. (Obviously, these are two patterns and there is range in between). I was only in Yoshkar-Ola for two days and really only spoke briefly to a hotel receptionist and a young man serving me in a restaurant but, based on those two interactions, they are a gentle race. My trip to Yoshkar-Ola, only 200 Km from Tatar Kazan, really brought it home to me how Russia is a patchwork of different ethnicities. Apparently there are 4 branches of the Mari language. I learned the word for hedgehog (in Eastern Mari): шоҥшо. Russian is spoken as the first language though I think I heard some girls talking in Mari in the street. Like other Russian Republics there are ethnic Russians alongside the native group.
The museum of Mari Culture was an interesting visit; the costumes and some of the decorations did indeed seem entirely Scandinavian.
I was only in Yoshkar-Ola for two days; a short time. But enough to feel, quite acutely, that I had moved to a totally different world from Tatar Kazan. Such is the Russian Federation.