Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Yekaterinburg Diaries

Wednesday November 5th 2008
My train arrived 4:30am Moscow time and to be honest I was only too happy to get off and set my feet on solid ground. After becoming aware of my surroundings I made my way down to the entrance to the station to wait for me friend. Sadly for me while I was standing in my dishevelled and confused state my mobile phone decided to break so I had no way to contact my friend. Prior to leaving Moscow we had arranged that she would come and pick me up from the station and I was to wait for her. While I was waiting I suddenly became very aware of the fact that I was miles from Moscow in a town that I had never been to, it was 4:30am and that I hadn’t seen my friend for some time so I wasn’t a. exactly sure what she would look like and b. if my visit really was true and not some horrible trick. I also realised the fact that this was the furthest I had ever been from home in my entire life. Panic subsided once she arrived gave me a huge hug and we set off for her house where breakfast and a hot mug of kakao was waiting.
Once I had recovered from my journey my friend, Polina, and I had a walk around Yekaterinburg to see the sights. First and top of my list was the Romanov death site, this may sound a bit morbid to want to see the place where someone died but since the Russian Orthodox Canonised Tsar Nicholas II and his family a beautiful Cathedral has been built on the site and Icons of the family have been written, that and given Russia’s rich and varied history it was almost essential to pilgrimage there and be able to say that I had seen the site where Russia had killed her Tsar and traded him in for the ideals of Communism.

Thursday- dawned bright and early as I set off to meet with some of Polina’s English students, given that Yekaterinburg is in the middle of Russia it is very rare for English people to venture there and rarer still that they happen to make their way into Urals State University to happily engage in conversation and answer any questions they are asked. After being asked about my views on Russia, Russian life, life in England and other aspects of English culture like James Bond it was time to leave. I found it very interesting speaking with the Russian students about England as a lot of their knowledge was based upon stereotypes or the films that they had seen. One thing that was particularly interesting was their knowledge of English festivals and traditions they knew more or less all of our festivals but often confused how we celebrated them. For example some of them thought that carol singing happens at Halloween while we are trick or treating.
While Polina was teaching I went with her Mum to the Urals Stone museum, the Urals is renowned for its natural stones and minerals so being a proper tourist I had to visit it and experience this aspect of Russia.

For centuries the debate as to where in Russia Europe ends and Asia starts has been raging and the usual conclusion is somewhere in the Urals, the questions though is ‘Where exactly?’ In the nineteenth century this was proved to be 30kms from Yekaterinburg. After a rather interesting journey through snowy Russian roads in a Lada we arrived. Naively I thought that I was going to be going to Asia for the first time, it was only when we arrived that I realised that the whole time I had been in Asia and was in fact returning to Europe! After some pictures of me with one foot in Asia, one foot in Europe we return to Yekaterinburg for lunch and more sights. One of them that I saw was the University where the former president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, studied and photo graphed the plaque telling me this. Being as I was a tourist here and not a resident a lot of my time was spent photographing interesting sights and visiting places of interest.

It is impossible to go to the Urals and not venture into the mountains, so on Saturday we dressed up warmly and set off through the snow to climb the nearest mountain and generally take pictures of the snow, squirrels, the forest and the view of Yekaterinburg from the summit. After putting on my industrial strength Russian tights and numerous Russian jumpers that I borrowed to stem off frost bite we set off. The mountain was beautiful and wonderful to walk, or in my case slip and side, up and down. Half way up there was a ski lodge come restaurant so we stopped of briefly for some tea and chat about what to do next. For me this conversation was very confusing because of the fact that it took place in English, Czech and Russian, Czech because the Consulate General of the Czech Republic and the Czech Lecturer at Urals State University had joined us in our adventure, English because I was there and Russian because we were in Russia after all. For me this experience felt quite surreal not only was I in Russia but I was in the mountains and was walking around in the snow!

As the saying goes ‘River deep, mountain high’ well having done the ‘mountain high’ part on Saturday it was time to do the ‘river deep’ part, well not river more like lake, either way it was still a huge body of water that was semi frozen and looked AMAZING with the snowy forest surrounding it. To get to the lake we had to walk through the snowy forest I felt like I was Lucy seeing the forests of Narnia for the first time, I half expected a faun to cross my path. Sadly for me there were no fauns only real Russian Squirrels. In my view Russian Squirrels are so much cuter than the American squirrels we have living in England, mostly because they have cute little fluffy ears and big bushy tails but very tiny bodies so they appear to be simply balls of fluff. We also saw the local pack of wild homeless dogs, which were enjoying a run around the lake and a nice drink of the cool water. After falling on my bum numerous times we returned home. It seemed to me that I was the only person slipping and sliding, this was probably because I only had my Russian Autumn boots and not Russian winter boots. Lesson learnt for the future when the snow will arrive in Moscow wear winter boots not autumn fashion boots. After I had recovered from my falls it was off to the theatre with Polina’s sister Varya to The Stone Flowers, a ballet written by a famous Urals writer and set in the Ural Mountains with music by Prokofiev. The whole ballet was amazing! The colours in the costumes, the dancing and the music all mixed together beautifully to make our experience at the ballet wonderful. I would recommend this ballet to anyone just read the story or a summary of the story before viewing as in places the story is unclear and there are a lot of group dance scenes in traditional costumes.

Being my last day in Yekaterinburg I saw the rest of the statues and monuments in the city most of which were located on the Yekaterinburg equivalent of the Arbat. There was a lovely range from the classic statue of Lenin to more modern statues of painted bears and cats. I also used this day to buy souvenirs from one of the street markets. In my opinion souvenirs are one of the nicest ways to remember the place you have visited. Photos are great to look at and show others the appearance of the place but souvenirs raise the real memories and emotions that you felt while you were staying in that place.

Tuesday and train home
After buying and being given enough food to last from Vladivostok to Moscow it was time to climb back on the train and make my return to Moscow. The most entertaining part of my journey was when the Russian soldiers in the platskarta cabin next to mine decided to pass the time by organising a party with disco music and beer drinking. I spent my 27 hour return journey reading Twilight Watch, doing my homework and watching the Russian countryside the steadily slipped past my window. Part of what makes the journey is the people you share your cabin with in this case it was a lovely little old man who spent his time offering me Russian sweets and biscuits and thought it was wonderful when I put on my Red hat and started to tell me the story of Krasnaya Shapotchka (Red little hat aka Little Red riding hood). I am now sat in Moscow having spent a total of 56 hours on Russian trains in platskarta so for the mean time I am staying put and not venturing away from Moscow unless it is by plane, car or on foot, having said this the train journey was totally worth it to visit my friend and to see a different area of Russia, in my view the more real, natural side to Russia.

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