The fifth stop on our Trans Siberian Railway adventure
(WRITTEN ON THE TRAIN FROM YEKATERINBURG TO MOSCOW)
Our next section of the journey was the hotly anticipated 57 hour train journey from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains – three full days and two nights straight. We had stocked up on supermarket supplies before leaving, meaning that we had a disproportionately excessive amount of food and drink (enough to sustain a family for a month). Once on the train, the boys jumped up to the top bunks and I took bottom bunk.
The first few hours of the journey seemed okay – they passed in a vortex of naps and binge eating and reading. However, after the first night’s sleep, time became increasingly meaningless as we travelled through different time zones and as the hours whirred away backwards. We would occasionally jump down from the train as it pulled into a station every few hours and stop for a couple of minutes. The toilets automatically locked for an hour around each station call which we seemed to consistently forget, so we would find ourselves brushing our teeth out on the station platform or hanging off the train steps. Out of boredom, we ate a grotesque amount of snacks – particularly the Russian equivalent of Pot Noodles (each carriage provides boiling water, so hot drinks and pot/packet foods become a life-source).
The last two days of the train journey were spent tossing and turning in a fever like state. We had bought lots of vodka in anticipation of the drunken nights on the train, which we expected would be spent playing cards with our new-found Russian fellow travellers. The reality is that the train is far too hot to drink; there is little to no ventilation. And if you are brave enough to slide open your carriage door for fresh air, you will be inundated with a whole host of odours: we had a young family next door to us, with a toddler learning to potty train – every hour or so, the dirty potty would be whisked past our door to the toilet, leaving a cloud of pooey particles in its wake. The boys had anticipated that we may have a Russian supermodel as our fourth member in the carriage, who would make the time fly by with just a flick of her hair. In fact, I spent the first 24 hours living thirty centimetres away from an old, rather smelly, Russian man – which was nothing compared to our next guest, who definitely had the look of a Mafia gangster that are so famed in the legendary Yekaterinburg mob feuds of the 1990s (complete with shaved head, silver chain, wife beater and engraved pinky ring). When we finally arrived at the Red Star Hostel in Yekaterinburg, it was late in the evening so we headed straight to bed ready for our first day of exploring.
We woke up to heavy rain the next morning. It was decided that we needed to spend the day doing ‘indoor things’ so mapped out a day of cultural delights. We first headed over to the Urals Mineralogical Museum, which had been described to us as a private collection offering a stunning introduction to the region’s semi-precious stones and fossils. The museum is located through a doorway in a structure that resembles the Berlin Wall – and when I say ‘doorway’, I mean that someone has clearly just hammered a hole through this concrete, spray-painted wall (watch the top of your head on the jagged stone edge as you duck down to get in). Once inside, we were ushered into a dark upstairs room which contained not just all the minerals in the museum, but also a small tent where the collector seemed to live. He came into the room after a few moments of us stumbling around in the dark and switched on the cabinet lights, revealing an impressive collection of rocks and fossils (how genuine some of there were is debatable).
Our next stop was the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts, which had a good collection of icons, painting and decorative art. The most notable exhibition for me, however, was the collection of photographs. This was mostly due to one particularly creepy photograph of a girl in the woods with a monster following her, holding a sign that says “Don’t look behind”. It should probably have scared me, since it reminded me of being at home and walking in the woods every day – but, for this reason, I liked it.
After the museum, we walked to the Romanov Death site, where the Church Upon the Blood is situated. This site is where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered in 1918. I read a lot about the family when I was younger and was slightly obsessed with the idea of Anastasia’s disappearance, so I was particularly interested to see the site – especially since having been to St Petersburg previously, and seeing the Hermitage. Unfortunately however, the church was closed was renovation so we were only able to peek inside the door. With just some of the afternoon now remaining, the boys were keen to see the Urals Military History Museum; this cost 250 rubles and, I’m afraid to say, definitely not worth the entry fee. We wandered around in about twenty minutes, with an elderly gentleman walking a step ahead of us the whole way and switching on the screens as we arrived at it.
The best part of the day was dinner. We went to a Georgian restaurant called Khmeli Suneli, which was setting up for a concert event but a waitress let us sneak in for a couple of hours before it started. The restaurant was lovely and large and colourful, with delicious foods to sample, birds singing from their cages and the smell of shisha in the air.
We were up early on Saturday morning as we had booked a hike into the Ural Mountains. The website described it as an eight mile hike, which sounded perfectly pleasant to me – this is about the maximum length I will regularly walk at home (although I do usually tend to have a pub stop about half way around). We met Andrey, a computer science student who was going to guide us through the mountain, and drove for 90 minutes to Deer Streams National Park. On the way, Andrey pulled over to show us the Europe/Asia border and we obligingly had our photo taken in the different continents.
The first section of the walk was lovely. Andrey stopped to show us small caves, waterfalls and let us climb higher up the rocks to get panoramic views of the River Serga. We crossed the river over a really cool swingbridge, with people swimming in the river below us. There were a few mosquitos hovering around but these were easily swatted away. Andrey promised us that we were soon passing a much larger cave that we’d be able to look into. We turned the corner, walked down a staircase built into the rock and saw the big dark cave looming below us. Andrey led us into it and there was an immediate huge drop in temperature as darkness surrounded us. The rocks were slippery as we clambered down into the cave and I couldn’t see a thing. Andrey had given me a keyring torch which gave off the same amount of light as if I was holding a lit cigarette out in front of me. Of course, I immediately slipped over and got covered in the mud that layered the rocks. It seemed that Andrey was prepared to turn around at this point but the boys were excited by the prospect of the darkness looming ahead of us and wanted to continue. We slipped around in the same fashion for another fifteen minutes or so, our hands reaching out to the freezing rocks for safety before reaching an underground river that prevented us going on any further. At this point, Andrey told us he had never come this far before, that it probably wasn’t safe and that, if we died, there would be nobody to take responsibility for us.
We finally emerged from the cave like survivors from The Descent, covered in dirt and groaning. The heat was immense; it suddenly felt very tropical and the wet mud dried to our skin. We took a quick drip in a stream to clean off and then Andrey took us under a ‘Forbidden’ rope to edge down a dodgy looking staircase into a sinkhole in the ground, just like a huge collapsed cave. Here, Andrey pulled out his map and suggested that we turn around and go back for lunch. As I nodded happily in agreement, the boys pointed out an alternative route that took us in the opposite direction and would, essentially loop back on ourselves – across the river – and back to the beginning. Andrey paused for a moment and then agreed. “We have a saying in Russian,” he said. “No matter what, if you turn right – you die. If you turn left – you die.” We looked at one another for a confused moment and then nodded emphatically as if in agreement. “Let’s do it.” After all, this guy had just told us a fairy tale about a loaf of bread who ran away from home because it was too round.
The rest of the walk was a battle through overgrown fields, over wide streams and up constant hills. It was 30 degrees and…the mosquitos. The. Mosquitos. We were surrounded by an angry black swarm that followed us the entire walk. Imagine four people walking down a path (though you can’t really see them since there is a hazy, dark cloud of flies obscuring them), and each one is twitching and waving and floundering like a gorilla possessed. I wrapped my hoodie around my head, despite the heat, to protect my ears, while the boys waved sticks around their faces like loons with swords. (FYI – these preventions did absolutely nothing – my legs were bitten to smithereens the next day, despite my leggings. I had to cover my legs up for the rest of the holiday so I didn’t itch). It was a shame, since the countryside was absolutely beautiful – we walked through meadows filled with colourful wild flowers that were taller than us, fighting our own way through.
Every so often, we would pass a walker coming in our direction, dressed in a full mosquito plastic jumpsuit. “How much further?” Andrey would beg in Russian. “Ah three hours, at least. Without a stop,” the stranger would reply, shaking his head regretfully. We passed a nude couple on the river bank, which was a welcome momentary distraction from the thistles and threat of tics. It was around this point, or perhaps just as we began climbing the next hill, or perhaps as we took the wrong turn through another field to try and cross the river across a non-existent bridge, that I cried. Yes, I cried. Doing exercise. A walk, in fact. CRIED. I can assure you that has never happened before and hopefully never will again. It was silent, and it was at the back of the line, and I didn’t mention it to the others until later. But yes, there were tears of desperation and woe. We finally reached the elusive bridge and were on the home straight (well, not so straight as uphill. But it was an actual path now, rather than wild mountain terrain). Then we were back at the entrance and driving home listening to Andrey’s eclectic mix CDs, all as though nothing had ever happened.
Please enjoy my pictures instead of the commentary, since those do the walk so much more justice! And Andrey, if you’re reading this – we did actually have a really good day and are now looking back on my pain and laughing.
For our third and final day in Yekaterinburg, I was resolute in doing nothing but sunbathing following Saturday’s excursion. I walked down to the river and lay out on a wooden bench by the water fountains and watched all the beautiful Russian people walk past all day. Later that evening, we went to a vegetarian restaurant and Patrick told us about the time he punched a seagull. Then it was time for bed, ready for our final train journey to Moscow the following morning.