Along the Old Trans-Siberian Route: Galich, Soligalich, and Chukhloma

The northern part of Kostroma Oblast (province) is an area with its own way of life that is located away from major cities and not yet very popular among travelers. Forests occupy almost the entire area to the north of Kostroma. The land is barren and the summers are short here. At the end of the 19th century, these places were called the «women’s side» because, starting from a young age, up to half of the male peasants went to work in big cities, primarily in the capital, Saint Petersburg. For this reason, they became known as «Petersburgers». In the summer, the «Petersburgers» worked as carpenters, joiners, and house painters, and, in the winter, they returned to their homeland, where their families were waiting for them. Nowadays, nothing has changed: many residents are only formally registered here, but work in Moscow or in other cities and come home on holidays or vacation to visit their relatives.
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Three small cities reveal the character of this part of Kostroma Oblast. It’s easiest of all to reach Galich because it is located on the northern branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Galich has quite a rich history. In the 13th century, the city ranked in the hierarchy of Russian cities after Vladimir, Kiev, and Novgorod. In the 15th century, the Galich princes fought with the Moscow princes for the right to grand reign, but the city gradually lost its political sway, remained isolated from trade routes, and became a district town of Kostroma province. As a remnant of the turbulent past centuries, the ramparts of one of the fortresses still frame the city center.
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Galich is located in a picturesque place. From the height of Baltschug Hill (which was also a fortress in the past), there is a panoramic view of the city and the vast Lake Galichskoye. Galich was renowned for its numerous temples and monasteries. Before the revolution, the city had two monasteries, seventeen churches, and five chapels; there was one priest for every twelve residents. Today, you can get a great view of the stately Trinity Cathedral and the churches in the Rybnaya Sloboda area from Baltschug Hill.
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Rybnaya Sloboda (Fishing Settlement) is an isolated settlement on the shore of Lake Galichskoye where fishermen’s families lived. The area of the lake was split up into sections between various fishing cooperatives that monitored conditions on the lake shore. The characteristic Rybnaya Sloboda Ulitsa (Fishing Settlement Street) has been preserved: there are houses on one side of the street, and on the other side there are vegetable gardens that extend all the way to the lake. The soil in these gardens has been fertilized with silt from the bottom of the lake, which helped produce a good crop of cucumbers. Industry also thrived in the city, although manual labor was at its core: by the end of the 19th century, a fur factory, a glove factory, several tanneries, breweries, and distilleries were operating here.
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Today, mobile cranes that are well known throughout Russia and Eastern Europe are manufactured in Galich. There is a major poultry farm and a factory that produces custom-built wooden houses. A plywood factory is being built.

Until the end of the 1980s, the only way to travel north from Galich was by a dirt road or by airplane. To this day, there is still no natural gas supply. This is mainly why the little towns of Chukhloma and Soligalich (each with no more than 5000-6000 inhabitants) exist as if they’re in a different dimension: there are no buildings higher than three floors, people have vegetable gardens and heat their homes with firewood, and some even rinse their laundry in the river. Here, a lot of men are hunters and fishermen. You can even see hand-drawn signs and posters in the streets.
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Chukhloma is a city that has always been deeply provincial and it was mentioned by Russian writers as a synonym for a remote place. There have never been any industries here, and it’s easy to forget the fact that you are nevertheless in a city when you leave the central square. There is a park at the site of the ancient fortress and a wooden gazebo overlooking the Avraamiyevo-Gorodetsky Monastery (founded in the 14th century) is located on the northern shore of Lake Chukhloma. After having strolled around the central square and park for about 1–1.5 hours, you can drive from Chukhloma on a road through the forest to the terem in the former village of Astashovo.
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Soligalich, Kostroma Oblast’s northernmost city with a melodious sounding name, is located 48 kilometers from Chukhloma. Soligalich sort of resembles Moscow: in the city center is Red Square, from which streets diverge outwards like rays, and there are several ‘ring’ streets that connect the ‘ray’ streets. Red Square is the location of Russia’s last wooden shopping arcade, which has been preserved without significant changes. Before the revolution, there were ten churches in the little town of Soligalich, the most famous of which is the Nativity Cathedral with its wooden iconostasis.
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Soligalich had once been a rich town thanks to its salt works, but now, its residents earn a modest living from logging and lime mining. By the beginning of the 19th century, it became unprofitable to mine salt here, but an enterprising merchant, Vasily Kokorev, while trying to find a highly concentrated salt brine, discovered mineral water and established a mineral spa. There is a sanatorium in the city center named in honor of Alexander Borodin, the famous composer of the Prince Igor opera and the chemist who was commissioned by Kokorev to study the healing properties of the local mineral water.

Due to its distance from major cities, Soligalich produces its own bread, gingerbread, lemonade, dairy products, and felt boots (valenki). The felt boots here are handmade from natural wool and may be decorated with colorful designs upon the customer’s request. The boot-making enterprise is located in a former prison and conducts excursions for tourists.
The special charm of the northern part of Kostroma Oblast lies in the harmony of its small towns that merge with nature and in the sincerity and kindness of the local people.
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