A Stroll Around Yekaterinburg

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Domey GoodnessAs the train rolls through the city outskirts we watch the buildings and parks drift past us in the bright morning sun.  The city feels palpably different to Moscow and St Petersburg already.  No rush and crazed pressure of Moscow, but a different kind of laid back style to St Petersburg.  We are now just south of the Urals mountain range and have entered one of the cities at the heart of Russia’s mining industry.  Yekaterinburg was founded founded by a couple of likely lads, Vasily Tatishchev and Georg Wilhelm de Gennin; sent there by none other than Peter the Great.  It became a mining and industrial centre early on and this task has only grown and evolved since then.  Yekaterinburg was the site of the execution of the last Tsar and his family and it was this piece of Russian history that had first drawn me to spend some time in the city.  At the time of the Great Patriotic War (World War Two) it became the heartland of Russian industry after the German advance reached Moscow.  Without this city, perhaps the outcome of that war would have been quite different.  Once again, the hand of Peter is laid heavy on the destiny of the Russian people.  More recently it became famous as the home of former president Boris Yeltsin and a transit point on the heroin trade route into Europe.  Not that the last two are connected in any way, but the Russian mafia’s presence in Yekaterinburg was well known and publicised.  In any case, we arrive at the station late in the morning and have to entertain ourselves for the day while we wait for our hosts to finish work.

Self-destruction; the cycle is complete

The Gringo Building: Self-destruction; the cycle is complete

We find the left luggage storage area and join the crazy long queue to continue developing our skills in the Russian national sport of queuing.  This is a good queue for honing our amateur talents and as we approach the end it becomes clear we will have to provide paperwork and money and some information in Russian to leave our bags.  I watch the people in front of me and prepare my passport and the right amount of money for the sudden moment of interaction.  One man sullenly takes my two bags while the other copies information from my passport onto the piece of paper on which everyone’s identity is stored.  I watch with bated breath, enjoying being at the head of the queue for this sport’s triumphant moment.  He produces two numbered tags that find their way onto my bags and then asks me for more money than anyone else.  I rise to the challenge of the queue and offer the same amount I’ve seen being passed.  He counts it and, with the aid of sign language, indicates that I’m leaving two bags – one of which is quite large.  I bow to his wisdom and, not wishing to delay the queue more than strictly necessary for sporting endeavour, I dig out the money and retrieve my passport.  Was I clear? Had I finished my event? Yes, he looks to Don for his bag and I sail free! I move to stand to the side of the queue in order to pack everything away while Don and Lari stow their baggage.  As I watch the man charge both of them the lower rate I realise I had not excelled in the queue this time at all.  I had moved aside to allow the queue to continue unabated.  This is bad form and none of the Russians before us had done any such thing.  I curse my ineptitude and vow to improve my queuing skills in the future.

Russian Clocktower

Russian Clocktower

We drift out of the train station and into the city, trying to decide where to go for the afternoon.  Looking down the street it’s impossible not to be struck by the giant clock mounted in the top floors of a most curious office building.  Above the giant, but simple, clock face, the building forms a square archway at its summit that seems to contain further offices with the same partially mirrored glass windows.  It still stands out in my mind as the only building with this design that I saw in Russia, and certainly the only giant clock face.  It’s clear this has to be fairly new and glancing around the city you can’t help but notice the sky cranes scattered around town working on different building sites.  This was a common sight and theme across Russia, a country under construction – or reconstruction.

We decide to head for the centre of town and just stop off randomly as we pass interesting things.  It’s friday morning and everyone in the city is hard at work   Don and I scour guidebook maps to find out what’s interesting and which way the town centre actually is.  It’s a warm summer day and we flow with the crowds down the streets and sink into the feeling of the town.  Yes, it felt more like a town, so much more laid back than the horror rat race of Moscow.  We actually comment that it seems Sasha the Siberian had been exactly right in saying that once we reached this town and beyond, then we would experience real Russian people and cities.  There is a pace to life here, but it runs a slower heartbeat than the bigger cities.  I wonder if Yekaterinburg will maintain its lazy style for much longer, how long can it hold onto this comfortable pace before disappearing in to the rat-race vortex of cities like Moscow.  There comes a point in a city’s growth where it stops being a great local town and starts merging into being a part of the country of money.

We decide some breakfast is in order and that the first café we pass will win our custom.  This goes on for almost half an hour as we can’t actually find anywhere that either looks appealing or is even open.  Since we have some leftover food from the train, we head for the shelter of the trees in a small a park we’re passing.  We sit with the city’s traffic buzzing past us and munch on salami and tomato sandwiches.  Other people are using the park as a convenient and picturesque spot for eating as well.  The cathedral we can see across the road starts a curious pealing of its bells.  The tune is strange and unfamiliar and now set in my mind as belonging to the new and shining white walls and glowing golden onion domes of the building.

The Musical Cathedral

The Musical Cathedral

As we sit idly in the park enjoying the beautiful day we become aware of the seemingly endless procession of cars decorated for wedding parties.  Stretch limousines and processions of new cars all bearing the streamers and bouquets of a wedding day’s festivities.  Sometimes they’re pounding the horn to make sure we all know what’s happening, other times a group of these cars simply slides by us in the heat of the day.  As we walk along the river for a while we even notice a small boat decorated in the same way arrive at a large bank of stone steps descending into the water.  It arrives to pick up the blushing bride and groom for a spin around the river and yet another photo opportunity on the big day.  The Russian tradition for your wedding day is for the wedding party to travel around the city, visiting a number of famous locations as well as the houses of important relatives.  We had just discovered this part of the river was definitely one of those places. We agree that if we lived in Russia, we’d want to be married at the height of summer on a day like today as well.  Travelling around the city with a big group of your friends seems like a great way to spend some time anyway.

Lenin's Toothpicks

Lenin's Toothpicks

Strolling across the bridge over the river Iset in the middle of Yekaterinburg we feel the last vestiges of the big city weight and pressures evaporate from our shoulders.  We then find a strange, huge, red sculpture in the middle of the bridge.  At first we’re baffled by this crazy monument, a collection of pointed red spear point shaped objects aimed at the sky.  If they launched as surface to air missiles we wouldn’t bat an eyelid.  I set about trying to read the Russian inscription and Don checks the guidebook to try to resolve the mystery.   With our combined efforts we discover it’s a giant Order of Lenin that had been awarded to the people of the city in recognition of the pivotal role they played in the Great Patriotic War.

We continue into the city, wandering the streets idly looking for an internet café somewhere.  We pass buildings and statues, monuments and parklands.  Tram lines run in different directions and we consider jumping on one to see where it goes.  Hunger changes the discussion quickly and we decide it’s become late enough to venture for some lunch and look around for somewhere appropriate.  We find some food and enjoy some beer together in a nicely air-conditioned building; the idea of being so hot in the middle of Russia is still strange.  We then start wondering how we will organise the next morning.  My host, Nastya, has arranged for us to visit a local national park called ‘Deer Streams’.  This will be with a group of other Couchsurfers, locals and travellers, who will all spend the day enjoying summer in beautiful natural surroundings.  We receive text messages from both our hosts confirming times to meetup tonight; we need to be back at the train station by six.  It’s already past four, so we finish up and begin walking back to the station.  I collect money from Don and Lari to help pay for the food tomorrow and then farewell the intrepid duo as they jump on the bus to their host’s house.

Elven Nastya

Elven Nastya

I meet my host Anastasia, or Nastya, along with two other locals; Irina and Masha.  Nastya’s incredibly fine face structure, long blonde hair and tiny, slim body make her look like an Elf from the Lord of the Rings films.  Which is probably why I’ll call her Elven Nastya.  Lari christens her the crazy fairy the next day because she is crazy in a wonderfully beautiful way that is not quite connected to reality.  Masha is a voluptuous redhead, with thick flowing hair cascading around her almost porcelain white face.  Irina has something partially Middle Eastern in her looks, but it is the combination with Russian beauty that makes her stunning.  And she knows it.  And loves it.   I christen her ‘Princess’ the next day; much to her delight.

Irina

Irina

Elven Nastya takes me to her apartment first to drop off my suitcase before the shopping mission.  She lives on the third floor and there are no elevators, so I drag my suitcase up the stairs and arrive at the top with a very red face.  We leave my bags there and leave for the shop straight away.  As we arrive there I hand over all the money to her and its clear the three of them have established what’s required and set about retrieving everything.  Elven Nastya asks me cheekily what we’re having for dinner, since I had promised that I would cook for her during my stay.  I smile and grab another basket to go in search of my ingredients.  I know she’s mostly vegetarian, or, in her words,
“I try to be a vegetarian but my mother works in the factory that makes processed meats that I like and I keep having them.”
So I set about creating a simple stir fry and ask if she likes chilli and if there’s anything she can’t eat.  With a little use of charades I determine she hates cinnamon.  Reading spice names in Russian is an amazing challenge, some of them are similar enough that I can understand, others have pictures I can recognise.  I end up settling for some kind of curry blend in a packet and some fresh onion, ginger and garlic.  And about six different kinds of beer.  I’m determined to experience as many different Russian beers as possible while I’m here, since I’d never seen any of them in Australia.

Masha

Masha

We leave the shop with a sack of cucumbers, an equal sack of tomatoes and some sundry other bits and pieces.  Farewelling Irina and Masha, we return to Elven Nastya’s apartment where I take the moment to have a shower.  It’s been a few days since I’ve had one, so I’m sure the smell is getting to a bad place now.  Luxuriating in my new found cleanliness, I wonder if I can wash some clothes.  I look at the dial on the machine with Russian labels and baffling arrays of numbers then decide this is one machine my male instincts can afford not to conquer.  Nastya sorts it out for me.  Feeling better every minute after the shower I move to take over the kitchen for a while.  She is so amazed at how I quickly I can ginger that she makes me stop so she can film it.  With years of practice, I can reduce a sizeable piece of ginger to finely shredded slices quicker than you can say ‘anti-disestablishmentarianistically’.  Then she asks if it’s alright if her mother and sister come over to meet me.  I tell her she has to invite them over to have some the vegetarian noodle stir fry.

Elven Nastya does not look anything like her mother.  Her mother, Lyuda, has a more rounded Russian face with dark hair that curves around her face.  Her sister, Lena, is certainly more like her mother, and has her smile, but has Elven Nastya’s long flowing hair.  Elven Nastya then makes me come up with a sentence in Russian to prove to them I really have been studying.  From somewhere the words come together and I only get the gender of the number one incorrect in the sentence.  Not bad for eight months work, only eight more years of work to make it come good.  We talk about why I’m travelling in Russia and they are amazed I would actually travel to see an eclipse.  I talk a little about Australia and put on some Australian music for them to enjoy.  They both like it and make me promise to leave it for them on Elven Nastya’s laptop.  I remember I have some more Tim-Tams and dig them up to encourage everyone to try a Tim-Tam slam.

They only drink tea, but I think that will work okay too.  I demonstrate with my coffee how to draw the liquid through the biscuit and eat it all at once.  The resulting sugar and chocolate dosage makes my eyes shine brighter and puts an even bigger smile on my face.  Elven Nastya takes a biscuit and repeats my actions, but only puts half of it in her mouth at the end.  I say excitedly she has to finish it all at once, but it’s too late and it dissolves onto her fingers.  Everyone laughs as she starts to suck the sticky chocolate paste off and her mother tentatively takes a biscuit to have her turn.  She slams it perfectly and enjoys the effect, as does Lena.  I decide to have another one and they all follow suit.  The smiles on everyone’s faces glow and we laugh together.  They soon bid us goodnight and Elven Nastya turns her couch into a bed for me and then moves out to the mattress on the balcony where she sleeps.  It is much cooler there, the apartment absorbs heat all day and the breeze of the balcony is needed to be comfortable for sleep.  I search my luggage for the battery powered fan I’ve brought with me and set it up to draw the cool air from outside across my body.  After another lovely quick shower to cool off I drift off wondering exactly where we are going tomorrow.  I have faith in my Elven Nastya and I’m sure it will be glorious.  I think I underestimate just how glorious.

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