Day 10-11: Yekaterinburg, Russia

by - June 19, 2011

Day One: Church on the Blood and Yekaterinburg City Centre

Church on the Blood, Yekaterinburg
The train rolled into Yekaterinburg Station at 3.40 and we rolled out of it onto the platform and then into the waiting room.  It was dark in the small ‘dark section’ of the night, so we decided to hang around the fairly busy station, rather than walk through an unknown Russian town in the early hours of the morning.  The waiting room was fairly comfortable and the two of us had already passed the tired barrier into the 'light headed but awake’ state.  With the sun only setting for a couple of hours a night, it wasn’t long until we were able to get up and find our hostel - the 'Meeting Point’ hostel in the town centre.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite such a good meeting point as we struggled to find it, due to the fact that the city’s street numbers seemed to have been assigned at random. When we did find it, there was nobody in.  This wasn’t what we wanted to hear after being awake for so long, so we asked around for help as best as we could.  The best help came from the nearby  Park Inn Hotel, who looked up our hostel on the internet and rang them up.  It turned out that the owner had just popped out, so we were good to go.  Which was a massive relief.  After getting in we both had wonderful showers.

Statue of Nicholas II and his family
The main reason that I had wanted to visit Yekaterinburg was that it is the place where Tsar Nicholas II and his children were killed - a barbaric event that really shaped Russia’s history.  On 17th July 1918, the Tsar and his wife and children were shot and bayoneted to death by Bolsheviks at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg.  His son Alexei, famous for being hemophilic and being 'cured’ by Rasputin was amongst the five children killed.  In 1977 Boris Yeltsin, the mayor of the city (later to become the Russian President), ordered the Ipatiev House to be pulled down - I can’t quite work out why, but in 1990 the plot of land was handed from the government to the church for them to build a memorial chapel.  In 1981 the Orthadox Church had canonized the members of the Romanov family who were killed in Yekaterinburg.  The full name of this chapel is the 'Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land’. The bodies of what was thought to be the Romanovs were found in 1979, but this fact wasn’t made public for some years to come.  In 1998 tests began by research centres around the world, using DNA from Prince Philip amongst others (most European royals are related) and the tests came back positive.  The bodies of the Romanovs were moved to St Petersburg.  The church isn’t the most stunning of Orthadox churches I have visited, but it is certaintly one of the most poignant and important.  In the basement of the church are larger marble plaques bearing the names of the Romanovs and the day that they died.  It seems that the murder of the Tsar and his families is seen by most Russians to be one of their country’s darkest moments.

View over the lake, Yekaterinburg

QWERTY keyboard monument
After this pretty sombre sight, and really the only place that I knew of being a major attraction, we decided to walk around the rest of the city.  I had never heard of Yekaterinburg before I started researching this trip, yet it is the 4th largest city in Russia with a population of 1.35 million.  It is a large industrial and financial centre and, from what I have gathered in a local newspaper, will be the furthest east football stadium used in the Russia 2018 World Cup.  Apparently they are planning to building a high speed railway line from Moscow which will shorten our 28 hour journey to just 7, which is pretty impressive.  The city is set around a lake and is fairly clean and pleasant.  It has that clean but sterile feel of a place that is used mainly for economic purposes, rather than as a cultural centre, but there is a large student base and there are many displays around the city of works by art students.  The most interesting (and bizarre) of these os the QWERTY keyboard monument - a large set of concrete 'keys’ that are set in the ground as a monument to…keyboards.  Also there is a large Beatles following in the city and there is also a memorial to them too.  A dear old lady came up to us as we took photos of this Beatles monument and asked us to translate the lyrics that had been put up on the wall - she had lived in the city her whole life but had never had an English person to read them to her.  Unfortuantely we couldn’t translate them, but we gave her the gist in English.  We might not have fitted loads in today, but Yekaterinburg is definitely a place that you can only squeeze an afternoon of sightseeing out of and frankly we were ready to just crash at our appartment having had next to no sleep for the previous 36 hours.

'The Beatles’ monument

Day Two: Asia/Europe Marker and History Museum

The Europe/Asia border
We were thinking that we might have a bit of a nothing day in Yekaterinburg today - having seen the majority of the city’s sights yesterday.  Our hostel is basically a flat, run by the lovely Katya and we met another English guy called John who we talked to in the evening.  He was in a similar situation and we decided that the three of us found out that it is possible to get to the Europe/Asia border by taxi for about 20 pounds.  Splitting the cost between three of us made this quite an economically sound plan.  We were woken up by John at 11.30am, having crashed last night. Katya had arranged for us to be picked up at midday by a taxi, so we had a quick breakfast and headed off.  The journey itself was interesting, as we passed through the relatively compact Yekaterinburg suburbs listening to a Russian radio station that played non-stop western music, including classics such as Eiffel 65’s Blue.  We arrived at about half 12 and got our fill of photos of the monument at the border.  It is interesting to know that the border is dictated by river basins, so a drop of water that falls on the east of the border ends up in an Asian river whereas a drop of water on the west ends up in a European river.

Russian military hardware, Military Museum
We got back into town at about half 1 and made ourselves lunch while John went to explore the Church on the Blood.  Our afternoon plan was to get visit the Yekaterinburg Military Museum.  The exhibits are completely in Russian, but it is worth visiting because it contains fragments of the famous U2 spy plane, flown by Gary Powers, that was shot out of the sky near here during the Cold War.  For those who don’t know the story, the spy plane was shot down by the Russians and the pilot survived.  The Americans pretended that the oxygen supply of one of their weather planes had failed over Turkey and that the pilot had become unconscious - the autopilot had taken it into Russian airspace.  Cunning Khruschev however hadn’t actually told the Americans that the pilot had survived, so all the time that they were making up a cover story, Gary Powers was confessing.  He didn’t have much reason not to - he had been captured with hundreds of roubles and fake identities, so it would be a pretty tall story to suggest that he was finding information about the weather.  Aside from fragments of the plane and bits of Powers’ emergency kit, there was also a lot of WW2 memorabilia which was interesting to see.  It was definitely worth the two pound entrance fee, even if I couldn’t read any of the information.

Afghanistan War Memorial
On our way back to the hostel we stopped by at a memorial to Russian soldiers who had died in Afghanistan and Chechnya.  This was quite a poignant memorial as they go, as it was a statue of an exhausted Russian soldier with his AK-47 pointing towards the sky - a far cry from the usual upright and proud Soviet war statues.  This statue had a completely different kind of dignity though, and seemed to be far more suited to a memorial to the dead.  This was about all we had to see in Yekaterinburg and we walked back to the hostel via the pedestrianised shopping street (named the 'Arbat’ of the Urals).  We got back to our hostel and said goodbye to Katya (if you stay in Yekaterinburg, you HAVE to stay at Katya’s Meeting Point Hostel).  We had stocked up on food at the supermarket for the upcoming three nights on the train to Irkutsk.  Yekaterinburg isn’t an obvious choice for Trans-Siberian travellers, but I would thoroughly recommend it.  It is cool to see what a normal Russian city is like and it has plenty of things to see for a day or two.  For some reason I felt really at home here and I think that it is perhaps because it is the last bastion of Europe (although it is JUST in Asia) before we head out east.  By the time we get to Irkutsk, we will be thoroughly in the middle of Siberia.  So see you there!

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