There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Yekaterinburg: Part 2 of the Trans-Siberian Railway 2007

Our comfortable four-berth sleeping compartment was nominally second-class, though it was much the same as a ‘soft sleeper’ on a Chinese train and offered the same opportunity for a close encounter with complete strangers. On our journeys in China we have sometimes had interesting travelling companions, sometimes companions with whom no communication was possible beyond a smile but we have never encountered a problem. There were to be no problems for us on the Trans-Siberian, either. We shared our compartment to Yekaterinburg with Erling, a retired Danish police officer travelling to Vladivostok for the fun of it. He spoke excellent English and was a most genial companion.

Comfortable sleeping compartment
- and Erling's knees

On Russian trains much depends on the provadnitza, the woman (and they are all women) in charge of the carriage. The modern style provadnitza understands that she works in a service industry and looks after her passengers. Not all are of the modern style, but our first provadnitza could not have been more helpful; smiling cheerfully, she fetched an English menu from the dining car and then brought dinner to our compartment. When we departed she seemed more than reasonably delighted with a very modest tip and hugs were exchanged.

Villages of wooden houses
Leaving Moscow in the late afternoon, we stopped at a couple of towns and passed through several villages of wooden houses, but spent most of the evening travelling through birch forest. We slept. Sometime in the night we crossed the River Volga and in the morning we were still in the birch forest. We emerged from the trees, eventually, arriving at Sverdlovsk Station in the early evening.

During soviet times, many cities changed their names to those of revolutionary heroes. Although most have reverted to their pre-soviet titles almost all retain their statue of Lenin and have their main streets named after Lenin and Marx. Yekaterinburg was founded in 1723, became Sverdlovsk in 1924 and reverted to its original name in 1991 - a change Russian railways have yet to acknowledge.

Yekaterinburg is an industrial city of just over a million people standing on the boundary between Europe and Asia. It is a fine example of the ambivalence with which Russians are coping with their past.

After the revolution Tsar Nicholas II and his family were imprisoned here in the house of military engineer Nikolai Ipatiev. In July 1918 they were murdered on orders from the local commander, General Sverdlov. In 1977 the Ipatiev House was destroyed amid fears that it might provide a rallying point for royalist dissidents. Its destruction was ordered by local party chief, Boris Yeltsin, who later played a major part in dismantling the Soviet Union. Today Nicholas II has been declared a saint and ‘The Church of the Blood’, dedicated to the Romanov family, has been built on the site.
The Church of the Blood, Yekaterinburg

Women are expected to dress conservatively in Russian Orthodox churches, while outside the trend is to make the most of Yekaterinburg’s brief summer by wearing as little as possible. In the entrance to the ‘Church of the Blood’ our guide Maryana, a slim dyed-blonde with very long legs and very short shorts disappeared into a stall to borrow some appropriate clothing. She returned looking like a little old lady in a long dark skirt with a black shawl draped over her head and wrapped round her shoulders.

Exhibition of photographs of the Romanovs
Church of the Blood, Yekaterinburg

The church is on two levels: the lower, surrounding the space where the murders took place, is dark and sombre, the upper is light and airy, symbolising hope for the future. It was full of pilgrims, praying and lighting candles. At the front of the building is an exhibition of photographs of the Romanovs. At the back, somewhat incongruously, is a monument to the ‘Urals Young  Communists’.

The Church of the Blood
and the Urals Young Communists monument, Yekaterinburg
Stranger yet, on a nearby bridge the city proudly displays the Lenin medal it received for being a model Soviet city and.....
Yekaterinburg, a model Soviet city
.....less than a kilometre away on the central reservation of Lenin Street, is a statue of General Sverdlov, the man who ordered the killing.

General Sverdlov
Yekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlosk between 1924-1991
The city is twisting itself in knots as it tries to express regret for the gruesome murders while holding true to its revolutionary past. And the recent past holds its demons, too. Walking to the ‘Church of the Blood’ we had passed the war memorial for the ill-fated Russian adventure in Afghanistan between 1979 and ’89.  It is a striking monument, and, perhaps, a warning about our own ongoing involvement.

Afghan war memorial, Yekaterinburg
Next day our driver Dennis (‘I’ve got two cars in case one breaks down’) took us out of town and into the forest. Seven newly built wooden churches, one for each member of the Romanov family, cluster round the mineshaft where their bodies were dumped - there is no church for their family doctor or the three servants who died with them. It was raining and water dripped from the trees. Inside the buildings smelled of new wood, whilst outside there were the dark, musky odours of wet forest. There were few people about and the churches were largely empty, though the small crowd in the one church where a service was being held emerged for a procession amid much showering of holy water.

Stations of the Cross Procession
Romanov graves, Yekaterinburg
 It should have been impressive, but the churches seemed too cute to be taken seriously. It was difficult to shake off the belief that the design for the largest was based on a Walt Disney cartoon train.

Is it a church?
Is it a train?
Romanov burial site, Yekateriburg

After lunch we visited the line marking the boundary between Europe and Asia. The boundary follows the watershed of the Ural Mountains, but as the mountains peter out well north of Yekaterinburg the positioning of the line in the flat local landscape is somewhat arbitrary. It seems they want to develop this site as a tourist attraction, but they have hardly started yet.

Sometimes I feel we are on different continents

Close by, the construction of a new road led to the discovery of unmarked graves. The road builders had stumbled upon the last resting place of some thirty thousand victims of Stalin’s purges. Here, at least, the Russians have faced up to their past appropriately and the resulting memorial park is dignified and moving.

The victims of Josef Stalin

Our hotel was an example of the new entrepreneurial Russia. One floor of what seemed to be an office block had been converted into a comfortable boutique hotel – not that anyone would know, there was no sign outside. We breakfasted in the block’s communal cafeteria - an unreconstructed soviet canteen. The buffet had no knives and only one cup when we arrived. We pointed this out to the woman in charge. Her look said ‘What do you expect me to do about it?’ We persevered with our pointing. It took some time, but eventually she scowled, shrugged her shoulders and fetched what was required. Just because a Russian is paid to perform a service, you should not expect them to do it willingly, and certainly not with a smile. But, we had also read, they are a warm hearted people and small acts of random kindness are not uncommon. As our cutlery arrived the security man from the front door came in bearing a pot of homemade jam. We had nodded and smiled at him as he pressed his button to let us in and out and he recognised us, came over to our table and insisted we shared his jam. Damson and blueberry, it was, and very good too.

Lenin, Yekaterinburg
Even in post Soviet times most cities still have a statue of Lenin
Jam apart, eating in Yekaterinburg was hearty, rather than elegant. The first lunchtime we sat outside a café in the city centre, studied the menu and eventually deciphered the word ‘shashlik.’ We enjoyed a kebab in a spicy tomato sauce. That evening we found a more up-market restaurant. The sight of foreigners struggling with a menu in a language they do not speak in an alphabet they can barely read, often prompts restaurant managers to send over their youngest waitress – because she is studying English at school. Sometimes the only English they have mastered is the embarrassed giggle, but in this case a charming young lady helped us choose very reasonably priced starters of chicken and salmon salad, and a satisfying main course of beef with rice.

After our sojourn in the forest, Maryana was charged with finding ‘typical local food’. We were mildly surprised when she took us to a supermarket cafeteria, but have to acknowledge that ‘herrings in a blanket,’ is a traditional Russian favourite. Fish with beetroot and sour cream does not sound appetizing to the English ear, and the colours were a little alarming, but once you have slurped your way through a portion straight from its plastic supermarket packaging, its virtues become obvious. Comfort food is comfort food, in any language.

Central Yekaterinburg

For that evening we had earmarked a cheap and cheerful restaurant on the far side of Lenin Street, but a sudden downpour turned the road into an impassable torrent. Instead, we descended into a basement on our side of the flood which may, or may not, have been a Ukrainian restaurant. After negotiations with a giggling girl we ordered a rabbit starter and a pork main course. We had apparently stumbled into a ‘destination restaurant;’ all the other diners were dressed up and we were the scruffy peasants in the corner. We ordered draught beer while around us the local oligarchs purchased elaborately packaged bottles of vodka. After extensive research in Poland and Armenia, I have concluded that all vodka tastes the same, and that paying more than the minimum required to avoid blindness and death is a waste of money. I could see nobody who shared my view.

Our ‘rabbit’ turned out to be liver, served with a schooner of raspberry coulis. Liver and raspberry sounds even worse than herring and beetroot, but there was enough acidity in the coulis to make the dish surprisingly successful, though too filling for a starter. For our main course we were each served a slab of pig the size of a house brick. We wrapped one in a napkin, dropping it into Lynne’s handbag for tomorrow’s picnic, and shared the other. Even that was more than we could eat.

At 3.15 the following morning Dennis came to drive us back to Sverdlovsk station, where the 03.51 train eventually turned up at half past four. We crept into our compartment, stowed our luggage and tried to sort out our bedding in the dark, anxious not to disturb our roommates – after all we were going to have to live with them for the next 54 hours.

Back to Part 1:  Moscow

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