Monday 8 July 2013

Asian Russia

From Trans-Russia 2013


After a journey of a little over 25 hours my train (TR #60) and I arrive in Ekaterinburg (Екатеринбу́рг).

The journey from Moscow was uneventful but I was surprised that we seemed to gain little elevation during the whole trip even though we had crossed the Ural mountains to arrive here at Ekaterinburg, the capital of the Urals region. It seems that the southern section of the Ural mountains are quite low.

Konstantin, the proprietor of the KGB-Hostel I would be staying at while in Ekaterinburg was waiting to meet me at the station. He asked if it would be ok if we took a diversion so that he could get an injection for Japanese encephalitis as he had had an encounter with a tick while walking in the forest earlier in the day. It turns out that there is a significant risk of Japanese encephalitis and Lyme disease in the forests around here. (Note to self!)

The hostel is well situated and once inside the rooms are excellent.

Ekaterinburg has an interesting history and is very different from both St Petersburg and Moscow. It was founded in 1723 and became known for the exile of the Tsar along with his family and their subsequent execution. It also gained prominence during World War II when many facilities were relocated from western Russia.

From Trans-Russia
I was only planning to be in Ekaterinburg for a few days and decided not go anywhere that I could not walk to. To orient myself to the city I decided to walk the «Red Line», a 5.5kms circular walking route around the center of Ekaterinburg. The «Red Line» is literally a red line drawn directly on the footpath surface. Once you are on it, it is hard to lose your way, except in a few places! The accompanying map identifies 35 architecture sights, historical places and unusual monuments.

One of the sights is "The Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land" which stands on the site of the Ipatiev House, where the the last Tsar and his family were executed. The main Russian Orthodox Church was consecrated in June 2003, 85 years after the executions took place. The church was built to commemorate the Romanov sainthood.

From Trans-Russia 
The Military Museum has examples of military hardware produced in the local factories, in front are Katyusha rocket launchers, tanks and an SA 2 (С-75). Presumably the closed city of Ekaterinburg with its factories and military bases was part of what U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers was spying on when he was shot down nearby by a locally produced surface-to-air SA 2.

Afganistan War Memorial...     From Trans-Russia
With the ever present reminders of "The Great Patriotic War" it is easy to forget that the Soviet Union was involved in other conflicts. There was a large memorial dedicated to another, more recent, conflict was which did not end well, i.e. the Afghanistan War. A great many people were visiting the memorial as well as lots of fresh flowers while I was there.

The longest of my train journeys...

This leg of the journey included 3 nights on the train (TR #340). I am getting used to the routine now and settle into my upper bunk in a 4-berth sleeper. My three fellow travellers are all Russian, one elderly lady and a young couple. The train leaves at its scheduled departure time of 22:20 (local time) and as soon as we are underway it is time for a celebration. It took me a while to figure out what was going on given the language barrier but it seems that today was the young lady's birthday and her husband had brought along food and drink to celebrate. We ate snacks and drank Russian Cognac (not vodka!). I slept well.

In the morning we were continuing to get to know each other when the carriage provodnitsa arrives with breakfast for my three companions. There is lots of spirited discussion and off she goes. After a while she returns and hands me a breakfast. This was a surprise to me, I hadn't booked or paid for a breakfast with my ticket but my fellow travellers didn't let that stop them! The same pantomime played out each morning.

With about 80 hours to pass we slowly get to know something about each other and to enjoy the company. By the time we arrive in Irkutsk I am sad to leave them as they continue to Vladivostok.


Today Irkutsk (Иркутск) is a large industrial city though it is still one of the largest suppliers of furs to the world markets. The size of the modern city wasn't really apparent to me since I was staying in the historical center of Irkutsk and only visiting places I could walk to (with one significant exception).
I was staying in a private home near Rossiyskaya ulitsa. My host was a lovely lady who spoke German and a little French, both which I can get by in. Every day she prepared a huge breakfast and we spent an hour or so chatting and all the time teaching each other some Russian and English.

contemporary wooden building...     From Trans-Russia
I spent a couple of days wandering aimlessly soaking up the atmosphere of this strange place, I may have been in Siberia since crossing the Urals several days ago but Irkutsk is a very long way from anywhere and unlike anywhere I have been before. The infrastructure has to deal with seasonal variation in weather that is enormous. Irkutsk may be towards the southern edge of the Taiga but there are still countless trees in the millions of square kilometers of forest. Buildings were traditionally built of timber and there are still lots of traditional wooden buildings as well as more recent grand buildings in the Soviet style. There are even contemporary wooden buildings inspired by tradition!

One of the reasons I wanted to stop at Irkutsk was to visit Lake Baikal. Even before I arrived in Irkutsk I had come to the realisation that I had not allocated sufficient time to do the job properly. Like everything in Siberia the lake has some impressive statistics associated with it. It is the world's deepest lake, the largest freshwater lake by volume, the world's oldest lake, and the seventh-largest lake in the world by surface area.

It is about 75km to Listvyanka on the west bank of Lake Baikal so I board a Marshrutka (minibus) that takes me all the way. I spent a few hours walking by the lake from Listvyanka which was all I could manage with the totally inadequate amount of time available to me. While at Lake Baikal is saw something I had not seen anywhere else in Russia, namely, CCCP emblazoned on a small speed boat.

The return journal should have been simply a matter of reversing the journey. After getting on the bus successfully we returned to Irkutsk... BUT, after travelling through unfamiliar parts of Irkutsk I realised that we were not going back to the bus station I had left from! I jumped off the Marshrutka at the first opportunity and figured a way back to my accommodation.

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