Time actually passes quite nicely on the train as there is a relaxed stately pace to progress and nothing particular pressing to do at any one time. We arrived in the late afternoon to Yekaterinburg and we took the metro to where our hotel entrance was supposed to be.
Little did we know there were construction works going on – not knowing of the back entrance we dutifully scrambled with our backpacks across the aggregate, up the wooden pallettes until finally we got to the front door which was locked in the expectation that no-one would try to come in that way!
The Hotel Renomme was a really delightful French-styled hotel and a comfortable place to lay our heads and have a nice long shower. We headed to a local Uzbek food place where we had another great, if heavy, meal before heading to bed.
The hotel had a very welcome full breakfast spread on offer even if there were only a handful of other residents and we welcomed our guide Tatyana and our driver Irina who would remain silent for the remainder of the day.
Yekaterinburg is an odd mix of old European ornate wooden houses which seem slowly crumbling mixed with Soviet grey hulks of building along with some newer glass and steel interlopers. The town hall was an impressively imposing building on the main square where Lenin still stands today – his arms incongruously gesturing toward a Samsung sign and a shopping street.
Lenin seems to have fared better in the historical tradition than Stalin whose statues and street named have long been effaced from various cities. Indeed when trying to find Yekaterinburg on an old pre-Soviet collapse atlas it was only recognisable as Sverdlovsk, a communist luminary from the 20s, before being changed in the 90s
The city itself was off-limits to travellers during the Soviet period due to the concentration of military industry such as missile rocket and nuclear facilities present. That said the local municipality has pained lines around the city to guide tourists around to main sites and kept the centre looking in reasonable condition.
Next stop was the Romanov memorial church which was built in the 1990s on the site of the merchant’s house where the Czar and his family (and some servants – who rarely get a look-in) were murdered in the basement in 1918. Tatyana explained the history while we navigated through several hordes of headscarf covered babushkas who seemed to have priority on the exhibits as old grannies en masse are wont to do.
The merchants house itself was destroyed in the 1970s by Boris Yeltsin who was at the time the mayor of the city acting under orders from Moscow. The intention being to avoid creating a pilgrimage site but seemingly only clearing the site to build the subsequent enormous cathedral!
After we drove out of town to visit the Europe – Asia border which is variously defined as the watershed between the two sides of the Urals. On the way we stopped at a memorial to those who died in the Gulag and Stalin’s purges. Given the millions who perished it must have only been a local memorial but the uniformity of the death dates of 1937 and 1938 (height of the terror) was a grim reminder of a very dark past. Our guide herself recounted a tale of her grandfather who at a birthday party among close friends sang a humourous song about Stalin and received the knock on the door the next day – her grandmother never saw him again and they don’t know where he went or what happened to him. While every town and city has a memorial to the Great Patriotic War (WW2) it doesn’t seem as though there is a collective state effort to remember some of the darkest days of the 20th century.
On our way again we skipped the newer and more conveniently located marker on the motorway and headed to the historical red granite obelisk which was far grander and where there were no coachloads of people – just us in a freezing forest with an old lady who from her stained hands had been collecting blueberries and was asking the best way to walk back to the city which must have been 40km away! We had some sparkling wine at the putative border. It wasn’t clear what we were celebrating but given the encroaching cold a welcome restorative nonetheless.
Next we visited the Galina Monastery where the Orthodox church had raised some pleasant devotional buildings to the Romanovs in a wood where the mineshaft where they were supposed to have been thrown down after being killed in the city. Subsequent investigation indicated that the actual site was a few kilometeres away but in true religious authority style they have refused to acknowledge this inconvenient fact and maintain the location as where they have built the buildings!
Tatyana arranged to have us dropped back in the city at the war memorial. We were hoping to see some of the artifacts from the famous U2 spy plane flown by Gary Powers which was shot down over the city in 1960. Unfortunately these seemed to have been moved or out of sight as there were nowhere to be seen but we had a wander around regardless. Nearby was the memorial to Afghanistan and Chechnya – an unusual statue of an exhausted soldier with his head bowed which is in stark contrast to the WW2 memorials.
After some shopping we headed to the station for our longest 36 hour trip to Krasnoyarsk.
Before we left through we were sitting in the station waiting room (the stations were similarly palatial as the metro) which was decorated with the most intricate murals, one of which captured the shooting down of the U2 plane