Ryan was awoken to discover the man with a small boy sitting on his lap were talking to him. We had already been in the cramped, musky platzkart (3rd class) carriage, for thirteen hours and we had another eighteen to go, but it seemed for our neighbours that their stop was coming and this was their last chance to speak to the strange non Russian speaking foreigners. Through the man’s limited English (entirely consisting of ‘hello’, ‘how are you?’ and ‘my name is…’), our limited Russian (mainly consisting of ‘piva’ which means beer and ‘banan’ which means banana) and our trusty phrase book we managed to work out the boy was called Alexander and that the man was from Uzbekistan. Another guy, who may have been some kind of travelling religious preacher, emerged and could speak some English, well enough to tell us he’d been to the Netherlands to see a life-size recreation of Noah’s ark. Our conversation ended with handshakes and everyone saying ‘paka paka’ or bye…we had made friends on the Trans-Siberian railway.
Unsurprisingly a thirty-day tourist visa isn’t enough time to see the largest country in the world, so we couldn’t stop everywhere along the way from Irkusk heading west. We decided to opt for a couple of nights in Krasnoyarsk, a city of a million people and famous for rock climbing. We weren’t planning to do any for ourselves but we did venture out to the nearby Stolby Nature Reserve where the impressive rock formations nestle among the trees. It was here that we got our first real taste of how we imagined Siberia to look. Pine trees as far as the eye could see blanketed in snow… occasionally punctuated by a squirrel scurrying about in the undergrowth. There was more wildlife in the park, like chipmunks, however we where glad not to see them. Why I hear you ask? because chipmunks hibernate next to bears, so if you see chipmunks, the bears aren’t far behind. No wonder Russians have a reputation of being unfriendly and gruff, if back in the day you weren’t struggling with -40C in blizzards then you might get eaten by a bear… it’s a lose-lose situation.
After a full day hiking around the rocks, slipping on the ice and falling in the snow, we came back to the city to find ourselves as guests of honour at an english speaking club. By guests of honour I mean we were the only native english speakers, and by club I mean two other people… that’s still a club right? Anyways, we met some lovely local folks and talked about everything from the weather to what it was like being Russian… it also transpired that Ryan looks like a priest from the Orthodox church because of his blue eyes and beard…Karl Marx in China and a priest in Russia?! What a trip.
Talking of Orthodox priests, it was Orthodox Easter all over Russia which is traditionally celebrated by an all night service, with its peak at midnight. With out new Russian friends we crowded into the local church, and tried to look like we belonged there amongst the people holding candles and straining to hear the priests through the crowd, it was like the strangest music gig we had ever been to. At midnight the whole congregation, led by the priests and some altar-boys carrying images of christ on engraved poles, left the church to do the traditional lap of the grounds. Unfortunately the sleep deprivation must have been getting to one of the altar boys who managed to get his image of christ caught in the chandelier causing unexpected commotion in the middle of proceedings. After everyone inside had finished a lap of he church some shouting was in order before we could go back inside. A priest would shout ‘has he risen?’ to which the crowd answered ‘yes he is risen!’ (obviously in russian) accompanied to the sounds of bells ringing from churches across the city. The following morning we continued with tradition and had Russian easter cake for breakfast, it would have been a shame to break tradition….
After all the festivities it was time for another thirty odd hour train to Yekaterinburg! The landscape through the window was unchanging for much of the journey, flat countryside, covered with the white trunks of birch trees, punctuated by the occasional small cluster of wooden homes, or remote train stations where ladies would try to sell smoked fish or fur coats to anyone who looked their way. At the horrible hour of 4am we made it to our destination, too early to go to our hostel but not too early to sleep in the waiting room. It was here that Ella achieved a new life goal, falling asleep bent over with her head on her own lap… Winning.
Yekaterinburg’s claim to fame is to be the place where the last Tsar of Russia (and his family) where brutally executed in 1918. The alleged site of this now has a huge memorial cathedral, complete with large photographs and a gift shop full of tacky tsar-based souvenirs, It all seemed a little strange, treating the guy like a hero after so many years of hate (he wasn’t the nicest chap), and no memorial for the thousands of others who were killed under the Communism… O well, the cathedral still looked nice.
The city’s second highlight is being close to the Europe/ Asia border, which may not sound like much… but to us was a pretty big deal. After almost 15 months on the road and even longer away from home, it seemed momentous to be stepping into the last continent where this trip would eventually end. The border is marked by a few obelisks in different places, so to make sure we went around all and lunged across them… just to be thorough
Our final light-hearted stop in Yekaterinburg was the city’s largest cemetery. This may sound like a unusual and depressing stop, and it was… However, we had heard of some weird and wonderful things to see that we wanted to check out. In the past the city was renowned for its high level of organised crime, and because of this a lot of rich gangsters died. With each godfather trying to outdo the other, this resulted in some incredibly large and elaborate graves, the preference seeming to be three meter high headstones with life-sized etching of the deceased complete with AK47 machine guns. It was a pretty surreal experience, only heightened by the convoy of shiny new hummers driving past in the graveyard…. maybe the mobs are not things of the past after all.
After some great food, one meal of Georgian fare and one from Uzbekistan, it was time to head deeper into Europe and get back on the train.