Transsiberian Part 6 - Yekaterinburg
Panic! Despair and calamity! My slippers have gone missing! It's essential to have a pair of comfy slippers for long hauls on trains for sure! It makes things like going to the loo actually possible without feeling like you've stood on caltrops! Fortunately, the Provodnitsas are very good salespeople. Seeing that I was sans slippers, I was immediately handed a pair and asked for 200 Rubles (£2 roughly). Not a bad price at all I thought.
We are heading to Yekaterinburg via a 14 hour (roughly) day train. We are traveling third class which means there are no cabins and although the bunk layouts are sort of similar, there is a third bunk on the opposite side of the train. All of these fold down or away to make for tables and chairs. We are sharing our small spot with the first, cliche Russian we have encountered; an early forties, bored, non-english speaking chap who has been drinking non-stop from a cheap looking, plastic, 1.5 litre beer bottle. Stay classy Russia!
He certainly seems enamored with my Yuri Gagarin t-shirt. In fact he finds not only that, but my camera, my laptop and especially our handpresso coffee maker quite funny. We try to communicate somewhat but it doesn't really work so well, so both Katie and I try and bunker down and ignore the chap as best we can. At one point he suggests we all go to the dining cart together. We politely refuse. He goes to sleep.
Yekaterinburg is quite special because it's the first stop in Asia. Past the Ural mountains we leave European Russia - Europe full stop - and enter Asia. It's also special because this is where we meet the classic Transsiberian Railway. So far we've planned our own route to take in a few places we thought were more interesting, but from this town onwards, it's classic Transsiberian all the way to Irkutsk.
The journey itself passes reasonably quickly. We have lunch in the dining car which is straight out of the eighties yet again! It's all plastic and lime green pleather. The food isn't too bad considering it's on a train but be prepared to like grease and cheese. It's not too expensive and you can get a decent beer as well. I notice a few French tourists sitting in our car but the majority are Russians. Our drunken friend is given a severe telling off by the provodnitsa and sleeps off his hangover for the rest of the trip. I get on with some coding whilst Katie reads more about the history of Russia.
We pull into Yekaterinburg at about 6pm local time. The hotel is a 3 star, ex soviet place just opposite the station. The usual dance of chargers and showers ensues. We have sushi and noodles for dinner in the restaurant next to the hotel. Vegetables and rice seem like just the thing for us right now. An evening of sorting out all the technology ensues. We have our VPN back but Katie's iPad is suffering a little bit; it's screen is a bit purple. Apparently this is a known problem and requires precise bashing. Typical! Apple products just can't handle backpacking! My Thinkpad however, is kicking ass!
The next I'm pretty knackered due to early starts and the time difference. We crossed a couple of timezones on the train and are now two hours ahead. This means wearing two watches (because it amuses me mostly) - the black one for local time and the red watch for Moscow time. All train timetables are Moscow time, no matter where you are. I suspect the Red watch will double as the China watch too because, you know, it's Red! AFter a hearty breakfast of pancakes we head down into the centre of town. Yekaterinburg is big but the centre is small so it's easy to navigate.
The guidebook says that Yekaterinburg is drab on the outside but there's a lot going on underneath. It's a mining and industrial town and the local capital. Set-up by Peter the Great in order to exploit the Ural Mountains, it has a feel of the Northern UK Town about it. It's less fancy than Kazan. There is graffiti in places, in English that isn't half bad. Some of the buildings are fancy but not many. Many are modern and there is quite a nice waterfront area that wouldn't look out of place in the UK. In addition, there are more people with a central Asian ethnicity than we've seen so far.
We visit the Photography museum which has a photography studio below it that has existed in the same building since it was started a hundred or more years ago! It's a lovely little place with some amazing photos of Yekaterinburg over the years. Not so long ago, it looked just like a town in the wild west of America; wooden buildings with raised porches and verandas. There are photos dating from World War 2 that seem to describe either a unit from here or patrolling near here. World War 2 is something the Russians really haven't forgotten and it's easy to understand why. The museum has some excellent aerial photos too, showing off modern Yekaterinburg and it's modern, high-rise blocks.
Further down the central canal is a strange monument; a Qwerty Keyboard made out of stones, set into the ground. There's even a wikipedia entry for this particular art! Apparently locals are a bit mystified as to why foreigners like it, but like it I do. We continue on to a very western looking mall with a very western feeling supermarket in order to stock up with food for the longest, single train journey we will take. From there we head out back into the centre, passing the old water town and damn that used to power the industry here, and is now an attraction.
Further up we enter the Museum of Literature. It's housed inside a beautiful wooden building. Wooden buildings have become much more of a feature the further east we go, as trees are abundant. Just like the photography museum, the older caretakers are very welcoming and keen to tell us about their museum, which has clearly had a lot of thought, attention and love. The displays are really interesting; from children's books written in the Urals to letters and postcards from soldiers. World War Two features again here as many of the intelligentsia were evacuated here which boosted the local culture, creating theaters and a healthy literature scene.
I'm a bit in love with a cafe chain called Stolle. It sells Saxon style pies. These are basically tasty, tasty pies! Proper bottoms and everything! Two pies and coffees is about £6. Mine has rabbit in it whilst Katie's is vegetarian (we've had surprisingly few problems in that regard). We visited this cafe in St Petersburg too and it's quickly becoming my default choice.
We walk up to an embankment overlooking the Church on the Blood. Our final challenge here is to photograph the partial solar eclipse that is happening later today. The church is a memorial to the Romanovs - the last Tsars - who were murdered here by the Bolsheviks (Yekaterinburg has seen some important events!). I've never photographed the sun before but we are in totally the right spot for it. Through the viewfinder I can see the moon making a crescent out of the Sun, just over the omnipresent onion domes that have come to represent Russia in my mind. I just hope they come out!
We pickup our bags from the hotel and wait for the Rossiya to be assigned a platform. This is the big one; the pride of the Russian railways and the classic Transsiberian train.