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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Stowaway's View of Golden Ring Vistas

When you leave Moscow as infrequently as I do, going to Yaroslavl and Rostov-Veliky, two towns in the historic Golden Ring northeast of Moscow, is almost like going to another country. The air is cleaner, the trees are greener and the beer is cheaper. The people up there talk funny, pronouncing a long "o" even on unaccented syllables.

So it's strange to think that Yaroslavl is only 282 kilometers from the capital, and Rostov 225 kilometers, or a mere 2 1/2-hour car ride.

Unfortunately, when you're at the mercy of this country's train and bus systems, the journey becomes a bit longer and a bit less pleasant. So despite the proximity of the cities, if you don't have your own four wheels, it's not a trip you'd want to make every weekend -- although as a one-shot deal, it's well worth the hassle.

We were not spared hassle when we set off to Yaroslavl on a scorching Friday in June. We arrived at Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station about 20 minutes before the 9:50 a.m. train. When we finally reached the front of the line at the ticket counter and shoved our passports under the window, the ticket agent examined my Russian visa with a look of extreme dissatisfaction.

"I see Tallinn, Moscow, St. Petersburg," she said, noting the points of destination listed on the visa, "but I don't see Yaroslavl."

We didn't have enough time to go to the Intourist counter at the Leningradsky Station and deal with the problem. And I hadn't gotten enough sleep to put up a fight. So I just glared at Volodya, my travel companion, with a look that said: "It's your country. Do something about it!"

"We'll take one ticket then," he said to the agent.

Four and a half hours later, we were in Yaroslavl. On the train, I pretended to be seeing off Volodya, and then I hid from the conductor while she was collecting tickets. We had planned to bribe her if she questioned us later, but I guess she decided it wasn't worth the trouble.

Yaroslavl is probably the least touristy of the Golden Ring cities. With a population of 680,000, it has a cosmopolitan feel. The city was founded in 1010 by Yaroslav the Wise, the son of Prince Vladimir of Kiev. According to legend, when Yaroslav took an interest in the spot, the hostile locals set a bear on him. Yaroslav killed the bear with an ax, which is why the city's coat of arms has a bear and an ax on it. An alternate, slightly more colorful version has it that the locals were bear-worshipping pagans, so Yaroslav killed all the bears in the area.

Today, the city has one real bear: 5-year-old Masha, who is kept in a cage at the Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Savior, the historic center of the city. Her kindly middle-aged caretaker explained that Masha was captured as a cub by some hooligans. Separated from her mother at a young age, Masha would have had a hard time in the wild, so she stays in the monastery.

The monastery, as the presence of the bear makes clear, is a museum, not a working religious center; when we were there, the big event was a reptile exhibit. It dates back to the 12th century. By the 16th century, it was one of the best fortified in Russia. The oldest building that is still standing, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, was built in 1516. Since then, however, it has been altered.

Although the monastery is held dear by the locals and harbors historical significance, it doesn't leave a big impression on the visitor. The smaller churches around the center are far more interesting. From our hotel room, we had a great view of the Church of the Epiphany -- a vaulted, brick structure decorated with colorful ceramic tiles. The Church of Elijah the Prophet on Sovietskaya Ploshchad has beautiful frescos and was another of our favorites.

One of the most historically significant buildings in Yaroslavl is the Volkov Theater. Founded in 1750 by the actor Fyodor Volkov, it has long been considered one of the finest provincial theaters. The current building was erected on the site of the original theater in 1911.

Since we were there on the hottest weekend in June, we were much more interested in staying cool than in seeing the architecture. Luckily for us, Yaroslavl is situated on the banks of two rivers -- the magnificent Volga and the more modest Kotorosl -- and produces a great local beer.

The latter, rather unimaginatively named Yarpivo, costs about 4 rubles (67 cents) and is available at every kiosk -- a surprising number of which have refrigerators. They've recently begun marketing Yarpivo in Moscow (they even have had ads during the World Cup broadcasts), but the stuff they sell in the capital doesn't quite equal our fond memories.

As for the rivers, neither of them are particularly clean, but they probably aren't as dirty as the Moscow River. There are several popular beaches and swimming spots, which are all open to the public free of charge.

In the summer, the sprawling Rechnoi Station on the Volga's shore is bustling with activity, including restaurants, a disco and, of course, boat trips. One fun, short trip is up the river a short way to the Tolga convent. Most of the ferries there leave from Krasny Mayak, a small pier about a 10-minute walk from the main station. Water transport is heavily subsidized in Yaroslavl, and the trip to Tolga costs less than 2 rubles.

We didn't make it all the way to the convent. Our enthusiasm for churches having almost reached its limit, we enjoyed the view of Tolga from the river and disembarked at the preceding stop on the opposite shore. We were able to take a brief dip there before the ferry returned.

After 24 hours in Yaroslavl, we boarded a bus to Rostov-Veliky. The first mention of Rostov dates back to 862. Although 40,000 people live there, Rostov feels like a tiny village. On our way into town from the station, we saw more cows than humans.

As you walk in on the dirt road, the emerging view of Rostov's kremlin on a hillside on the shore of Lake Nero looks almost unreal. Built in the late 17th century, long after the Tatar threat, it was more of a playhouse for the local Orthodox metropolitan than an actual fortress. Today, most Russians know the kremlin from the movie "Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession," which was filmed there.

The kremlin's belfry is also pretty well known. Volodya recalled a record from his childhood titled "Rostov Chimes." The belfry's 13 bells produce complex sounds unmatched in all of Russia. The largest bell weighs 30 tons and can be heard up to 20 kilometers away.

The magic of Rostov was ever so slightly tainted for us during our first hour there. From Yaroslavl, we had called the town's main hotel, located within the kremlin, and were told that rooms were available and there was no need to make a reservation. But once we arrived, we were told that all the rooms were, in fact, occupied.

The only other hotel in Rostov is located a bus ride away from the center, and having just gotten off the bus -- hot and sweaty and wanting only to remain near the water -- we stubbornly refused to go there.

We figured that, as this is a frequently visited tourist destination, enterprising residents were probably in the habit of renting out rooms. We soon learned that this was not the case. Everybody we asked said they didn't know anyone who would want to do such a risky thing as let two very grimy-looking strangers into their home.

But we remained optimistic. We figured it was hot enough to just sleep on the grass by the lake, although we were warned of merciless mosquitoes at night.

The solution to our problems came in the form of a 25-year-old Rostovian named Oleg. He works at the boat station and, that Saturday, he was on the night shift.

He agreed to let us sleep in the boat station, and we promised to compensate him grandly. The one condition was that we not return until midnight, when all his drinking buddies had dispersed.

Volodya and I then set off in search of food. The town's only restaurant, Teremok, was unfortunately completely occupied by a group of rowdy teenagers throwing a graduation party. We bought some cheese, crackers and oranges at the only store still open at 9 p.m., wolfed them all down and returned to the lake.

We decided to return to our friend Oleg's and rent a rowboat from him. We watched the sunset and gazed at the kremlin in the soft dusk light from the water. It was so beautiful we almost forgot about our sketchy sleeping arrangements for that night.

Back on shore, Oleg -- whose job it was to save drowning victims -- had been drinking large amounts of vodka, while a large sign outside the boat house proclaimed Khmel na vode -- chelovek v bede!, or "Alcohol on the water means danger!"

Oleg was feeling pretty chatty, so he sat with us in the boathouse for a while. I could tell he wished that he was a better host. He kept trying to offer us tea, even though he didn't have any. He had a guitar, so we ended up singing the choruses of songs of which we couldn't remember the verses.

The night was certainly a memorable one. Oleg locked up the house, promising to come back and let us out by 7 a.m., and went to see his girlfriend. The bed in the boathouse was pretty filthy, and it was incredibly hot and stuffy in the room, so we decided to risk the mosquitoes and open the window. That turned out to be a bad idea. A couple of hours, 30 mosquito bites and not a wink of sleep later, we climbed out the window and crawled under a tall fence around the building. We settled down on a bench in the lakeside park -- which for some reason didn't have any mosquitoes -- and slept soundly until about 6:30 a.m., when a caretaker came around sweeping the park's stone paths.

When we returned to the boathouse, Oleg was already there. He took us on a tour of Rostov in his beat-up Zaporozhets. He showed us one of his favorite spots, the Yakovlevsky Convent, a working convent that we had viewed the previous evening from the lake.

From the convent, we returned to the kremlin and strolled around the grounds. We ended up collapsing from exhaustion under a tree in the center of the kremlin, and it took a whole 10 minutes before they kicked us out.

After another makeshift meal on the grass, we exchanged addresses with Oleg and said goodbye. As we rode away, we fantasized about buying a nice piece of Rostov real estate before the little piece of magic on Lake Nero becomes a New Russian country-house haven.

How to Get There

The train from Moscow to Yaroslavl leaves from Yaroslavsky Station and costs 50 rubles for Russians. For foreigners, the ride costs 108 rubles -- if the cashier lets you buy a ticket, that is.

Since the trains do not run on the most convenient schedule, buses are another viable option. In the heat, the bus is much more comfortable than the train. Moscow's bus station is located at Shchyolkovskaya metro station. You can also travel by bus between Moscow and Rostov, as well as between Yaroslavl and Rostov.

If you're really on a tight budget, you can make the whole trip by elektrichka, or suburban electric train, switching trains in Alexandrov.

In Yaroslavl, long-distance trains come into the city's main station while elektrichki and buses arrive at and depart from Moskovsky Station.

Where to Stay

Everything in Yaroslavl is cheap except for hotel rooms. This is where you really get ripped off.

A very ordinary double room with amenities at the Hotel Yubileinaya (085-2-22-41-59), on the bank of the Kotorosl River, costs 270 rubles for Russians and 380 for foreigners. They have single rooms for 165 rubles, or 250 rubles.

Hotel Yuta (085-2-21-87-93) has single rooms for 240 rubles and doubles for 330 rubles. Prices are the same for Russians and foreigners.

At the Hotel Kotorosl (085-2-21-24-15), a single room costs 165 rubles for Russians, 250 rubles for foreigners. A double costs 270 rubles for Russians and 380 rubles for foreigners.

The hotel in the Rostov kremlin, Dom na Pogrebakh (085-36-3-12-44), has double rooms ranging from 100 rubles to 250 rubles. The prices for Russians and foreigners are the same.

It is not recommended that you try to stay in the boathouse.