Trans-Siberian Railway: Part III

Yekaterinburg (also known as Ekaterinburg) is a large city in the Ural Mountains, a low range that essentially marks the unofficial border between Asia and Europe.  After a 50-hour train journey from Irkutsk I arrived here on another hot July morning.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from this big city.  Most guidebooks suggested it was a bit bland and some just glossed over it all together.  I had two reasons for stopping there; I needed to break the journey somewhere between Irkutsk and St Petersburg, a journey that would probably involve a change of trains in Yekaterinburg anyway.  Secondly, I had been interested in Russian history since I studied it in high school and Yekaterinburg marked the place where the Tsarist regime ended forever because this was where the last Tsar and his family were killed by Bolsheviks in 1917.

Just like in Irkutsk, the hotel was happy to give me an early check-in but my main problem was the next day.  My train didn’t depart until after 10pm yet check-out was at noon.  I thought I’d solve that by booking an extra night on arrival but it turned out that not only my hotel but all the hotels in Yekaterinburg were sold out to accommodate a huge conference.  The hotel were still keen to sort that out for me and in the meantime I decided to spend the day in my room catching up on laundry and writing, leaving sightseeing for the next morning which would also fill in time whilst I waited for my train departure time to come around.

The next morning the hotel informed me that they could accommodate me in my current room until 9pm at no extra cost.  Once again I was blown away and very happy.  So I set off to explore Yekaterinburg on foot before the day got too hot.  Like Irkutsk, the city has painted a line around the town that walkers can follow in order to see all of the main points of interest.  In Yekaterinburg it is a red line and takes about 3 hours to do the whole thing.  My main goal was simply to see the Church on the Blood that marks the spot where the Romanovs were killed but I decided I’d follow the line until the heat got too much.

My hotel was in the city centre on a long boulevard named after Lenin and there were two things that really struck me about Yekaterinburg.  The first is the juxtaposition of old and new.  Many glittering glass towers and modern buildings have been erected in the downtown area yet many older buildings remain including a few wooden ones.  This was highlighted by two of the first photos I took.  The first didn’t come out very well so is not included but showed an old wooden building with a modern glass tower in the background, one that is visible from almost all over the city.  The second is the statue of Lenin shown below with the McDonalds sign next to it.  I’m not too sure he would have approved.

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The other thing that stood out in Yekaterinberg was the wide avenues that somehow reminded me of cities like Madrid or even Paris.  I think part of that was the vibrancy of the city that was filled with lots of young people dressed in the latest fashions heading to work in the morning and to bars or gyms in the evening.  Joggers were everywhere and it generally had a cosmopolitan feel to it.  I wandered down the main avenue and found myself at a wide part of the Iset River.  I did a pleasant walk around most of it and again found a vibrancy with lots of people using it to exercise and socialise.

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I doubled back from there and made my way through a slightly more run down and arty part of town to the Church on the Blood.  Construction of the church began in 2000 as a monument to the place where the royal family were murdered thus ending the Romanov dynasty and it is now a popular tourist attraction.   The church itself is beautiful with gold onion domes and impressive stained glass but I didn’t go inside, instead I was entranced by the huge photographs of the Romanov family erected around the perimeter of the church grounds.  What struck me was this familiar theme of old and new as these giant images of a long-gone Russian era were framed by this mostly modern post-Soviet city.

Just like I wondered what Lenin would make of the McDonalds sign next to his statue, I wondered what Tsar Nicholas II would make of this new Russia.    Russian history is vast, complex and fascinating.  I can’t think of another nation that has gone through so much in such a short time.  In not much more than a century it has been ruled by a monarchy, had a brief attempt at being a kind of constitutional monarchy, lived under communism, fought in two world wars at a massive cost to the population, survived the iron fisted rule of Stalin, the Cold War and is now finding its feet with capitalism and democracy.  Some of Russia’s history is tragic, some of it good and a lot of it well intentioned.   But I think it is safe to say that the jury is out on the rest of it in terms of what it means for Russia in the long term.  Perhaps it will take several more generations before we can look back and state for certain what the impact was of so much change in just a few generations.

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All of this was running through my mind as I looked at these huge graphics overlooking the city and tried to figure out what I thought of Russia today.   My gut feeling was that I liked this Russia and felt positive about her future.  At the same time I was well aware that is a danger of being a tourist; you don’t see it all and you don’t have to live it every day.  So the jury is out for me too.  All of this had left me in a contemplative mood and I wasn’t ready to go back to the hotel.  I walked around the city for another hour admiring buildings and statues, and watching the locals go about their daily lives before finally heading back to my hotel to get ready for the train that evening.

My last leg from Yekaterinburg to St Petersburg took just 34 hours.  I even made a joke on Facebook that I was clearly a graduate of trans-continental train travel if I now considered that a short journey.  The train left just after 10pm and I was back in First Class but this time in a more ornate compartment that was more akin to the European sleeper cars you’d imagine in an Agatha Christie novel.  I was sharing with a middle aged man who spoke no English and who was very disappointed to find that we couldn’t chat for the entire trip.  He hadn’t bought anything to read or any games to play so spent most of his trip staring at the wall above my head looking disappointed and bored.

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About 10-minutes after we pulled out of the station he started typing into his phone then showed me the screen which said “I eat supper mind do you?”.  I indicated that was fine and he proceeded to lay out the most incredible Russian picnic dinner I’d ever seen.  It might even be the most incredible picnic I’d seen anywhere in my entire life.  There was salmon, caviar, Russian sausage, fresh crusty bread and a selection of delicious-looking Russian salads.  As I contemplated my packet of instant noodles with my tummy growling in jealousy he pulled out a bottle of vodka and proceeded to tuck in.

Once he finished the food he offered me some vodka that I politely declined as I didn’t like my chances of surviving the night if I started doing vodka shots with a Russian with only instant noodles to line my stomach.  One thing any traveller to Russia should be aware of is that Russians will be respectful if you decline alcohol from the outset and won’t press the matter but once you start drinking you will find it extremely difficult to stop as they won’t take no for an answer.  That’s not too much of a problem if you can excuse yourself to a hotel room or another engagement, but can be an issue if you are stuck in a train compartment with someone for 30 odd hours.

As we continued to St Petersburg the next day I marvelled that the view out the window just didn’t alter.  Other than the odd change in the colour of wildflowers or the prevalence of a particular type of tree in the forest, the landscape really didn’t change at all for a good 6 or 7,000 kilometres when we neared St Petersburg.  At that point paved roads and towns became more frequent, signalling the approach to a more crowded area of Russia and eventually the rest of Europe.  The view for those other 7,000 odd kilometres was always a pleasant one of rolling hills, forests, meadows and rivers interspersed by the odd village or town so I didn’t find it boring, it just didn’t vary at all.

One of the many reasons I wanted to travel across Russia by train was that I’d always had a hard time grasping the size of it in my head.  I’d hoped the trip would give me a true understanding of that.  Unfortunately it didn’t.  I still find the scale of this country mind blowing and something that cannot be fully comprehended.  The fact that the landscape could be so utterly unchanging over such huge distances only compounded that.  It was almost dreamlike that you could look up once every 1,000 kilometres and see the same thing.  That also played tricks with you as it felt like you couldn’t possibly have travelled so far if the landscape hadn’t changed.    At least in summer I got to enjoy the forest and fields but in winter it must be even more difficult to comprehend when everything is covered in a thick white layer of snow.

Later that afternoon I suddenly noticed that English was being spoken in my vicinity and as I tuned in my hearing to my own language for the first time in almost two weeks I realised that I was listening to an American family.  I didn’t want to intrude on them but eventually the prospect of having a free-flowing conversation was too good to resist so I gate crashed their compartment where we spent a long time exchanging our travel stories.  They said they’d follow this blog so if you are reading this then hello to the lovely family from Indiana that got on in Kirov and thank you for patiently letting me rabbit on in English for a long time.

My roommate departed that night and was immediately replaced by an immaculately made-up Russian woman about my age.  She spoke some English but as it was late we pretty much went straight to sleep and it was only the following morning that I heard her story.  She was off to meet a Swiss man she’d met on the internet a few months before.  He was flying to St Petersburg for a few nights before going to meet her parents.  She was worried about her English as that was their only common language so wanted to practice with me for a bit.  I was worried about the whole thing but she was a grown woman who had to take her own risks so in the end I gave her my Russian phrasebook which contains a Russian to English dictionary I thought might help her then simply wished her good luck.

I said goodbye to her and the Americans in St Petersburg where the journey ended.  I felt sad to be leaving a train journey that had definitely managed to feel like home over the past 10-days.  My trans-Siberian trip was incredible for lots of reasons but I think the highlight was the immersion in Russian culture in such a personal way.  We ate together, slept together and pretty much took baby wipe baths together.  It was also amazing to travel overland all the way from the Pacific coast to the Baltic Sea.  This afforded time contemplate this vast region and all of its history.  Although you spend a lot of time napping and reading just like you would at a beach resort, the Trans-Siberian Railway isn’t really a relaxing way to spend your vacation.  At times it can be hard work to deal with strangers in such close proximity and to navigate your way around when you don’t speak the language or understand how things work.  Then there is the endless diet of noodles, tea and instant coffee.   But so far it is one of the most interesting and satisfying travel experiences I have had.   If you want to experience something unique then it is definitely for you but if you are hoping for a luxury train vacation then you’d best head somewhere else.

I’ll talk about my stay in St Petersburg in my next blog post but for now here are a few more of my Russian travel tips…

Immigration:  Probably the most challenging thing you will experience happens before you even get to Russia when you apply for a visa.  The process is actually fairly straight forward once you get to know it but you might find a few curveballs thrown your way such as having to have evidence that all your transport and accommodation is pre-booked, having an official invitation letter from someone in Russia (local based agencies like RealRussia can provide these) and the fact that you can’t apply more than 90-days before you arrive.  So allow plenty of time for all of that and thoroughly read through all material on the website of your nearest Russian embassy or consulate before you start the application process. Keep in mind that currently Russian tourist visas are only issued for the exact time frame you said you would be there so you can’t turn up earlier or stay later which restricts the ability to travel without a plan.   This is another reason why booking at least some of your trip through a travel agency is worthwhile because they will be able to assist you with all the necessary documentation and most do that at either no cost or at a very reasonable cost if you booked your trip through them.

Language:  There are a lot people out there, mostly lurking in online travel forums, who think that any person who visits another country without learning some of the language is lazy and arrogant due to the underlying assumption that everyone speaks English.  That kind of talk is a lot of snobby old rubbish that you can safely ignore.  Unless you are emigrating to a country or planning to undertake study or business there, there is no reason at all to learn the language unless you have the desire and the time to.   I don’t expect a Japanese or German tourist in my country to speak English any more than they expect the reverse of me when I visit their country.  And what about trips like mine?  According to that rule I’d have had to learn some Korean, Russian, Finnish and Danish just to get through the first few months and by the end I’d have to speak about ten different languages.

What matters is how you go about not speaking the language and making the effort with learning a couple of words like yes, no and thank you.  A phrasebook coupled with an app like Google Translate will help you get through the trickiest situations but other than that the main thing to remember is to not panic.  If you take a deep breath and think about a situation logically you’ll be able to figure it out.  You might need to use gestures, a bit of sign language, maybe draw some pictures and perhaps even be reduced to making some humiliating sounds (moo for steak, baa for lamb), but as long as you keep a smile on your face whilst remaining polite, appreciative and where necessary apologetic, you’ll be fine.

A bit of research before you go and a willingness to logically and methodically work your way through situations along with a big dose of humour will get you just about anywhere.  Apart from some of the staff in Russian train stations who clearly thought I was an idiot tourist (and in fairness I am) people were very understanding, patient and helped if they could.  Once I got used to not being able to use language to communicate it stopped being intimidating and I got by just fine.

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