Yekaterinburg, Russia

We are staying In Yekaterinburg for 2 nights. The first doesn’t really count since we arrived so late, but we will have a full day and a half here before boarding the train for the last overnight leg of our trip. The day started with a well needed shower and a nice breakfast. We met our tour guide at 10:30 am, or we would have if she had showed up on time! I have been practicing my flexibility on this trip; I believe I was told that the walking tour would be one to one and a half hours; when the guide showed up she announced that it would be a 3 hour tour (hopefully not like that on Gilligan’s Island!). There have been quite a few inconsistencies between the published itinerary from the company and the reality of the trip. My only issue with that is meals. I am always thinking of my next meal! If I am told that we will be done by noon, I am thinking of when the best time to eat breakfast is so that I don’t get too hungry before lunch arrives. We had breakfast at 7 am thinking that we would have lunch at noon. Too bad it turned out that lunch would be at 2 pm! Normally we bring granola bars to tide us over but we ran out of those by the time we left China. Next time, pack more!

Our guide, Natalia, was an extremely enthusiastic young woman with a great sense of humor. The city of Yekaterinburg was not open to tourists until 1991; the only non-Russians to visit here during the soviet era were Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh. Notice anything about the three of them? Though the city became available to tourists in 1991, it didn’t really get many visitors until 2000. Even now, it is not a popular tourist destination even though it is the 4th largest city in Russia. This may have to do with its location as much as anything. One nice thing the city has done to help tourists is that they have painted lines on the sidewalk to show the walking route that will take you past all of the major tourist attractions. The red line is for general tourism; the blue is for religious sites.

Peter the Great originally built a metallurgical factory here for his wife, Catherine the Great. The city was founded when the factory was built. The center of the city is the site of the factory which no longer exists. It is a mixture of architectural styles with the predominant one being ugly soviet style buildings.

Street art is popular in this city. The city has offered the wall space on some of the uglier soviet buildings here to the local artists.

Our first stop was at a park on Lenin Street, the main drag. To the left of us was Yeltsin University. University is free for most Russians (depending on major) and there are 29 universities located here. Certain majors cost, such as medicine and technology since they tend to pay better when you graduate. To the right is a theater; the city is known for its 20 plus theaters; each having its own resident artists. Most of the theaters are known for their wonderful acoustics rather than their beautiful architecture. At the end of the park was a statue of Sverdlov. The city was named after him until the USSR fell at which point it was renamed Yekaterinburg.

Eighty percent of Russians consider themselves part of the Orthodox religion here. However, only about 15% actually attend church and practice the religion. That number is on the increase. We passed by the blue Ascension Russian Orthodox Church. During the soviet era the church was “repurposed” to become the Museum of the Revolution. As an insult to the Christians that formerly worshipped there, a statue was constructed outside the church with the posteriors facing the former sacred space. Across the street from the church was the Church on Spilled Blood; more about that later.

Natalia pointed out the Palace of Pioneers (now the Palace of Youth). The Pioneers was a group similar to Boy and Girl Scouts that existed during the soviet era. Natalia described it as having more of a social component than scouting and she apparently felt bad that it no longer existed when she was old enough to join. I have different memories of the Pioneers. I visited Russia in the early 1970’s. Our tour group had a several hour wait at the border crossing into Russia and noticed teenagers marching around in uniforms carrying rifles. We were told they were headed to Pioneer Camp where they would learn how to be soldiers during their summer vacation. I don’t know if Natalia was a victim of propaganda or if she was just sugar coating the Pioneer group. Or, who knows, my memory could be faulty. That particular incident does stick pretty firmly in my mind, however.

Natalia kept telling us that Yekaterinburg is about more than the Romanovs, but honestly, I am sure that most who visit here do so to visit the place where they were executed. The house no longer exists; it was ordered to be torn down by Yeltsin in 1977 and the Church on Spilled Blood was constructed on the site in 2003.

The lower part of the church contains a museum about the Romanovs, Tsar Nicholas and his German wife, Alexandra. During the soviet era, they were considered evil but were sanctified by the church in 2000 and are now considered heroes once again. Nicholas II met Alice when he was 16; she was only 12. They fell in love but his father would not allow them to marry. He eventually changed his mind and they wed. They had five children; four girls and a boy. The boy, Alexi, was a hemophiliac. Alexandra had a strong belief in miracles and tried all sorts of things to have her son cured. Rasputin was part of her mystic system of beliefs. Oddly enough, even Rasputin is considered to be a star in modern day Russia.

Anyhow, the family was exiled to Siberia in 1917 but eventually taken to live in Yekaterinburg. They lived there of 78 days until the night they were awakened at 11 pm and told they would be moved to a safer place. Instead, they were taken to the basement of the house, supposedly to have their picture taken. Instead, they were shot. Most died instantly but the women did not; the metal corsets in their dresses saved them. Of course, they were killed after this was discovered, but this gave rise to the legend of Anastasia having survived the massacre. DNA has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that none of the Romanovs survived, including Anastasia. Oddly enough, the church does not accept the DNA results.

Photographs were allowed in the museum area, but not the downstairs area of the church. People come here to pray to the Romanovs for mediation and help with personal problems. In the upper area of the church we were able to take a few photographs. Our guide called this an ABC church: Another Beautiful Church! She was absolutely correct.

When we left, we saw a couple that had just wed. Natalia had us all call out, “gorka!” This apparently means sour. So, to counteract the sour, the couple kissed to provide the sweet. Cute!

We walked down Literary Street where there are museums of literature. There were a couple of cool wood buildings here built in the traditional style (brick on the lower level, wood above). The city used to have many wood buildings but the soviets tore these down in favor of the ugly concrete monstrosities one sees all over.

Across the street from the river some older mansions were visible. These originally housed single families until the communists took over. Just like in China, they were split up into apartments for up to 20 families. Now, they are falling apart.

The river here is the heart of the city. People fish in the city year-round, including ice fishing during winter. The teal palace in the picture below belongs to Putin; he stays here when he visits the city.

We stopped in place where the original factory was located. There is a dam here. We continued our walk to the main square in town, across from city hall. An enormous statue of Lenin resides there. Our tour ended here. The rest of the day was our own. We split off from the rest of the group and started walking back to our hotel, about a half-hour walk. We stopped for lunch along the way. I needed the afternoon to catch up on my blog. I had been writing along the way but this is the first time I have had both time and an internet connection to upload anything! So, that is what I did and boy, does it feel good to be current. Fleeting, but good.

Our last overnight train ride is tomorrow and will take us to Moscow. After spending a couple of days there, we will take a high-speed train to St. Petersburg which is where our tour ends.