World Cup diaries: What are you, Kazan?

After a month travelling across a strange (and vast) country, when you've tried to take in everything that's on offer - from Bolshoi to the Battle of Stalingrad - your mind is overloaded, your spirit a bit jaded. You want your next destination to be vanilla - undemanding of the senses, somewhere you can put your feet up, metaphorically, and not have to think too much about too many things.

And then you come to Kazan. It's nothing you've wished for, and yet everything you could have hoped for. It demands that you pay attention, that you open your mind, your senses, your heart, maybe, to this town. In exchange you get to ask a few questions: Is this Europe? Is this Asia? Are you old, are you new? What are you, Kazan?

A couple of days is obviously not enough time to get all the answers but one thing is clear: Kazan is many things and will not fit into one box. (That probably makes it Asian.) The history, to begin with, is a mix of cultures: Kazan, more than 1000 years old, is capital of Tatarstan, home of the Tatars, that legendary group of warriors. It maintains a distinct identity even in increasingly monochromatic Russia; to begin with, it's officially bilingual - Russian and Tatar - which means my recent progress in making sense of road and shop signs has stalled while here.

It's also multi-ethnic, multi-religious. Islam and Christianity coexist here peacefully; one taxi driver, explaining what Kazan was, said, "Christian and Mussalman, no fight", clasping his hands together in the universal symbol of bonding. It wasn't always like this, of course; the city was ravaged by Ivan the Terrible (following which success he built St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow) the Muslim population singled out for treatment. But Catherine the Great, one of his successors, was more benevolent and followed a policy of freedom of religion - a policy that has been restored today after the non-religious Communist years.

Nowhere is this multi-ethnic identity more evident than in the local bazaar. It's not merely the stuff on sale - dried fruit, sweets that resemble baklava and barfi, ceramic ware that is from Uzbekistan and Turkey, all manner of cheeses and meats, and breads that are a distinct cousin of our "naans" and could have been as easily sold in Tashkent.

There are surprises at every turn. The hotel I'm staying in, for example. It used to be the "House of Press", a home for all the newspaper and other publications in Kazan and also a printing press. The hotel is apparently designed as an open book - probably a mystery novel because it's a maze of staircases and corridors with guests (self included) frequently losing their way. There are remnants of the past on display at various spots, including a small press. Not on display, sadly, are the Ice Age fossils found in the basement - including 100 mammoth teeth.

It's a city with a profusion of strange "museums" - many of them a couple of rooms of collectors' pieces. The names don't always live up to their hype - the Museum of Illusions sounds intriguing but it's little more than a giant's house crammed into an apartment.

The Museum of Happy Childhood is a vast collection of what kids in the USSR grew up with. For a child of 1970s India, this is all very familiar; the same focus on national heroes before sport and cinema entered the poster market; the same aspirations in a closed economy (fake Adidas); the same yearning for jeans and the belief that wearing denim was a sign of rebellion. It makes for fun viewing but one becomes aware that all this was actually someone's - or many people's - memories. The portrait of a soldier with "Kandahar '79" inscribed on one side - did he perish in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?

Also see: World Cup stories: Jayaditya Gupta in Russia

And this question: Why the need to emphasise on the "happy childhood"? Maybe some questions are best unasked.

Then there are the parts of Kazan that play tricks with the mind. I went to the "old Tatar quarter" - where the Tatars were ghettoized by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. The houses are painted in the traditional colourful way and all look no more than a few years old. The Mardzhani mosque, built in 1767, is striking in two ways: first, it's in pristine condition and second, it's unlike any mosque I've ever seen. From the outside it could pass off as a mansion in Bavaria but this is the Tatar style of architecture.

Finally, food. And fittingly so, because the word Kazan apparently means cauldron or cooking pot. The most famous dish here is the splendidly named chak-chak - so famous it has a museum to itself. Basically, fried dough balls soaked in honey. Not for the calorie-conscious. There's plenty of other baklava-type stuff, referencing the Turkish influence here. And gubadiya combines the best of all foods - rice, raisins, eggs - into a filling for a pie. And horse meat. No way of getting around this. If it's legal, it's worth trying. I did (so you won't have to). My verdict: It's like mutton, if I hadn't seen the menu I'd never have known it was horse. Also, I survived the night, with no nightmares of Black Beauty or Seabiscuit. But I will probably be disowned by several people for this revelation.

That's what Kazan does to you, I guess; forces you to push your boundaries, to open your mind to experiences you wouldn't necessarily be used to. Best of all, it's evidence that cultures, peoples, religions - even football fans of different teams - can exist in harmony. More of that, please, but hold the horsemeat.