Yoshkar-Ola: discover the other side of Russia
Russia is the biggest country in the world. It’s the perfect place where to get lost. Once you have visited the most popular places (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sochi, Baikal lake…) why don’t you dare to discover the “real Russia”? I invite you to visit Yoshkar-Ola (Йошкар-Ола) where soviet buildings and fake Europe get together. A place where is not very likely to find any other foreign visitor.
You have probably never heard of Yoshkar-Ola (don’t worry about your geography skills, I’m quite sure many Russians wouldn’t be able to locate it either). This small Russian city can be the perfect destination if you want to discover another side of Russia. I have to confess that I am not objective when recommending you visit Yoshkar-Ola. I was living there for one year and I am emotionally attached to the city. Nonetheless, I am sure that if you continue reading you will be captivated by the charms of Yoshkar-Ola!
A brief background
Yoshkar-Ola is the capital of the Mari El Republic, close to Tatarstan. You might be thinking that it’s impossible to pronounce and that’s because it’s not a Russian name. The name is in Mari language (the other official language of the region) and it means “Red City”.
Yoshkar-Ola does not preserve many old buildings since most of them were destroyed in wars or fires, but the city is quite old. Yoshkar-Ola was established as a military fortress in 1584. Most of the oldest buildings you can find in the city now date back to soviet times when the city experimented a significative growth. Some of the trolleybuses in the city might be as old as the soviet buildings. That’s, in my opinion, part of the city’s charm.
What to see in the city?
Although there are not many historical sites, there are several spots in the city worth visiting. Keep on reading if you want to know what to see in the city.
The place that will for sure catch your eye right away is the Brugge Embankment. When I first learnt about the existence of the red city and I googled “Yoshkar-Ola”, I found breathtaking pictures of the riverside surrounded by colourful buildings. The houses seemed to be taken out of a fairy tale. Once I saw them in person, my opinion changed a bit. All the houses on the embarkment seem fake, like a version of Europe imagined by a child on a sugar rush. Still, I love this place! Its fakeness is unique and a big part of its charm. Furthermore, sunsets here are simply amazing.
The clock at Natsional’naya Khudozhestvennaya Galereya
Following this idea of creating a European-like city centre, there’s another “fake Europe” site in town that you must visit. It’s supposed to be a shopping centre, but I have never seen anyone shopping there. The square is generally quite empty, but sometimes you might find people waiting to see the donkey with the icon that comes out of the clock every hour.
The Mari Theatre
It’s probably one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. This bright yellow theatre is the Mari theatre where you can enjoy plays and representations every week. The spectacles in this theatre are linked to Mari Culture. I had the opportunity to watch a theatre play in Mari. Although I could not understand a thing, it was a great opportunity to come closer to the language and the traditions of the region.
The Forest (Cосновая pоща)
This place is a natural paradise that can be found within the city limits. I used to live in a rather ugly Khrushchyovka with views to this beautiful forest. I was such a lucky girl! I enjoyed the forest the most in winter when it was all covered in snow. We would often go skiing or just for a walk on a Sunday morning. On one of these Sunday walks, we discovered a place in the woods where people installed birdhouses. It’s amazing to go there, stand in silence and enjoy the sound of the birds singing around you.
Other interesting spots
If you want to know more about the different sites of Yoshkar-Ola, there’s a mobile app that might help you. It contains plenty of information about almost every interesting building in the city and you can also enjoy it making use of augmented reality. The app is named “Я здесь: Йошкар-Ола”. Unfortunately, it is only available for Android at the moment.
A natural paradise
Although I love the city of Yoshkar-Ola and all the weird things you can find there, if there’s something that truly stands out in the Republic of Mari El is nature. It’s the land of the thousand lakes.
Nature forms part from the city but, If you have a bit of time, I would recommend you to leave the old grey soviet buildings behind and to head to one of the many amazing destinations in the region. One can get lost in the forests, swim in one of the many lakes of the republic or visit places like Чимбулат or Kart lake. Wherever you choose to go I’m sure you will find breathtaking nature.
Yoshkar-Ola has more than just Russian culture to offer. Russia is a multi-ethnic and multilinguistic state divided into different republics. In the Republic of Mari El, you will find both Russian and Mari People. The Mari are Finno-Ugric people and their language belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch. That means that it’s more similar to Finnish than to the Russian language. It’s a really interesting language but, due to non-effective language policies, is very rarely used in the city. Students have some Mari language lessons at school, but they are generally not enough to learn the language. It is more frequently used in the villages. You might feel like you are in a different country when walking around the lovely houses in the Mari countryside.
Besides the unique language Mari people talk, another thing which I find fascinating in the Republic is religion. Although most of the populations are either agnostic or orthodox/Muslim, in this region there’s still a high number of pagans. There are people who still worship the sun and the elements like it used to be done in Russia before Christianity was adopted. If you have the right connections and mingle with the locals you might be invited to some of their celebrations.
In these celebrations, you would also have the opportunity of getting closer to two core elements in Mari culture: food and music. They are always present at celebrations. On the following video, you might be able to listen to some Mari music.
How to get there
I’m sure by now you are already thinking you should visit Yoshkar- Ola. Although the city is located in the European part of Russia, is not very well connected to the rest of the country. To make things easier, I have gathered the most relevant information about how to reach the city.
From Moscow: Belive it or not, there’s an airport in Yoshkar- Ola! If you travel from Moscow you might be able to reach the city in less than two hours by plane. There’s also direct train connection from Moscow which will take you to Yoshkar-Ola in 15 hours. It is comfortable and convenient and you will also be able to start connecting with the citizens of Mari El Republic. Although I cannot promise it will happen to you, I was a couple of times invited to share tea and sweets. This is a plus to take into account when deciding which type of transportation to use.
From Saint Petersburg: Unfortunately, there are no direct connections to Yoshkar-Ola. You might either take a 23h train to Cheboksary or a two-hour plane. Cheboksary is located 90km away from Yoshkar-Ola. It might also be worth checking the trains and plains heading Kazan which is not far away from my beloved Yoshkar-Ola.
Russia is much more than Moscow and St.Petersburg. It is such a diverse country that it would be a pity if you don’t take some time to explore that diversity. To do so Yoshkar-Ola is a great starting point. I hope to see your pictures with Yoshkin Kot soon!