August 3rd: Yekaterinburg
After getting just barely six hours of sleep, we had to be ready at 10 am for a tour of Yekaterinburg. The city is 2 hours ahead of Moscow but we never adjusted our clocks on the train journey as the train always stays on Moscow time. We paid for the time difference with barely enough sleep.
Yekaterinburg is a bustling city.. One that we had never even heard until we began planning this trip. It is the 4th largest city in all of Russia after Moscow, St.Petersburg and Novosibirsk( our next destination). It was founded by Peter the Great in 1723 as he wanted a city from where he could gain access to the mineral rich Ural Mountains. He started by building a dam..the original structure still stands today. He named the city after his wife, Katherine. There has been a lot of gold and precious metals mined in the Urals and has made many fortunes. You can still see some beautiful old mansions that were built over 200 years ago in remarkable good condition. Our guide told us that these buildings are now protected by the state… Which reminds me, we had an excellent guide. Olga, learnt English at the Institute of Foreign Studies in Yekaterinburg during the Soviet Era at a time when Russia was completely closed to foreign tourists. Many questioned her need to even learn the language but she had the foresight and persevered. Needless to say, the English is superb and we were thankful for her knowledge of the city.
Yekaterinburg is a modern city with a central lake (owing to the dam) and most of the buildings surround the lake. There is a central Lenin Avenue much like an MG Road (named for Mahatma Gandhi) in every Indian city. The city is currently one of the applicants to host the 2020 World Expo which would bring further attention to it. One of the things that really struck me was the number of road signs in English…they were everywhere! It really surprised me coming from cities like Moscow and St.Petersburg where at every turn we were guessing where we should be going, to a smaller city only to find it a lot more tourist friendly. Incidentally, the city is also on the border of Europe and Asia and there is a small obelisk at the border. That definitely made for a fun photo. I’ve never crossed a continent on land before though I imagine one could do it at many points across the globe. Istanbul comes to mind.
The city also has some dark memories. It was in Yekaterinburg that the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II and his family (wife and 4 daughters and 1 son) were murdered in cold blood in 1918 during the October Revolution. The youngest, son Alexei, the Tsar in waiting was only 14. They were last in the line of the Romonov Dynasty started in 1613 by Peter the Great’s grandfather. The dynasty would be celebrating their 400th anniversary this year. We visited the Church on Spilt Blood (an extremely grand cathedral)built in their memory on the very spot they were killed. It was a very somber atmosphere and we got the sense from our guide Olga that most Russians today feel awful about that part of their history, especially the killing of the children(they were all shot in the basement of the house they had been seeking refuge in).
We also visited the spot where their bodies were dumped afterwards. There are 7 wooden cathedrals built there, each dedicated to one of the family members. Despite the atrocity that took place there, today is very peaceful and felt like more of a fitting tribute than the very grand cathedral we visited earlier in the day. It reminded me a little bit of our visit to the Killing Fields in Cambodia, now also a very peaceful place despite the events that took place there.
After driving around the city a bit more, we finished up our tour at the neighborhood McDonalds..right next to our hotel!! Yay for globalization. It was one of the few times where they understood our order without us having to repeat it. There aren’t many ways to say ‘Big Mac’. 🙂
We finally got back on the train… Next stop, Novosibirsk…the capital of Siberia and also the city that right in the geographic centre of Russia.