As I've said several times on this site, Russians often make sure to tell me that Moscow and Petersburg aren't real Russia, and while I've noticed this in several of the cities I've been too, like Irkutsk and Vladimir, this was the starkest difference. It almost feels like I've stepped back into an old Soviet industrial city that's somewhat overgrown by forest, which makes it pretty interesting after Moscow and Kazan. The first being a fully modern capital with 13+ million people, then the second a smaller, picturesque cultural city, and now an older, industrial city by the riverside, but with a truly authentic feel.
At first, upon my arrival to the train station, the city seemed a little off putting. Much of the surrounding area was pretty run down, and there seemed to be a lack of anything to do other than live and work there (i.e. no restaurants, cafes, entertainment, or bars). But as I got to exploring later on in the day, I realized that the city actually has tons of character. It was just substantially different than anything I'd come across so far. It was a city for residents, not visitors, and this gave me insights into regular Russian life that Moscow and Petersburg never could have. I spent almost the entirety of my three days here walking around from neighborhood to neighborhood just to see what I could see, and it was all so fascinating, in an odd way.
Also, as a little side note, this was the first time in Russia that I've came across a city with an actual beach. And I don't count the shore in Pertersburg along the Neva as a beach. Here there was sand that stretched for several miles along the bank of the Volga, pretty much as far as the eye could see. Towels and umbrellas were set up, and everywhere people could be seen doing things like sunbathing and playing volleyball. Although I'm not much of a beach person, this did come as a pleasant surprise to me.