On our previous visit to St Petersburg we visited the Peter & Paul Fortress and the church of St Isaac which is also the traditional church where members of the Romonov family and especially the Tsars, were buried. Whilst we were there, we saw the burial plaques of Nicholas II and his family and their staff who were murdered at the same time in 1918 in Ekaterinburg. So on our first day in Ekaterinburg, we visited the Church on the Blood which is an Orthodox Church that has been erected on the site of the house where the Romonovs lived until their execution in 1918
. In the 1970's the then-Regional Communist Party Leader ordered the house to be demolished as he feared the building would be a rallying point for monarchists. Little did Boris Yelstin realise that his decision would have absolutely no effect!
Today, the church is visited by Orthodox and tourists alike and is an extremely popular stop on all Tours. Our comments – it’s time to include English in their displays and explanations so that non-Russians can read the Romonovs’ story, and also know how to behave inside the Church.
After our visit to the church, we walked back to our accommodation to meet our Couchsurfing hostess. Yes, we had already spent a night in Katya’s house and she wasn’t even there! After having a lovely Russian lunch of fresh potatoes, home-pickled gherkins and tomatoes, plus bread, Nick and I headed out to visit the Central Stadium (it’s really a park). Wow! Outside the park were a number of stalls which were selling fruit trees to take home and plant in your yard (in Russia, a “Yard” is like an English allotment). There were apple trees, pear trees, cherry trees, plum trees, all sort of berry canes… MJ was almost in tears because there was so much variety, they were so cheap and she couldn’t take any of them home.
We spend the afternoon walking around the park which was great – we watched Russians at play as they enjoyed sunny weather - finally! We felt very much like locals because we caught the No. 21 tram back home, but then it turned left when it should have turned right! Should we get off? At one stop, we got off and got back on again
. We went a few more stops and got off again, but the tram was going further away from where we wanted to be. Nick wanted to get another tram back and then work out what tram we should catch, but MJ said, that the No. 21 was a circle route and we should get back on and keep going. Guess who was right!! Yes, we got back on the No. 21 and ended up back at the beginning, just around the corner from our digs.
On our last day in Ekaterinburg, we sat in on an English lesson – our hostess, Katya is an English teacher and does private lessons at home. She asked us to sit in on her lesson and participate with her students. In the afternoon, after the lesson, we walked to the Museum of Stone Cutting and Jewellery Art. At first, we’d expected just a room full of semi-precious stones that had been polished. Instead, we found three floors with a number of rooms, each of which was devoted to either a different stone or a particular style of decoration. We saw large vases that had been carved out of a single piece of malachite or jasper (actually, there were several vases), table tops, maps of Russia with each region done in a different type of stone. It was amazing to see how intricate the craftsmanship was.
So, now we are on Monday and today was going to be one of our high-points
. As many of you may know, Nick is the proud owner of an Ural sidecar outfit. And this particular motorbike is built in a town called Irbit which is about 240km north-east of Ekaterinburg. As we drove there, Nick was rather concerned that he was being unrealistic in expecting a tour of the factory, but he hoped to visit the Museum which is attached to the factory. So, we arrived in Irbit, located the Factory (or had we?) but we couldn’t find the Museum. We went into a café and asked the babushka behind the counter. She indicated that the Museum was around the building. So we started walking along this long, very abandoned-looking building when suddenly, a man came up to us and asked (in German) if we were looking for the Museum. Well, to cut a long story short (I still have so much to tell you about), first he told us that the Director of the Museum would be back at 3pm (it was 1pm). So I told him that we had hoped to get a look at the factory but we weren’t sure if this could happen. Next thing, he was on the phone to the Manager of the Factory. Next question – did he know where we could take our car for an oil change. Within 15 minutes, he had organised a tour of the Ural Factory with an English-speaking guide, and had organised for us to go to an Auto Workshop to get an oil change done. We followed Sergei (we had discovered his name) as he drove like a madman through the streets of Irbit, to an Auto Service Centre. During their lunch-break (which is generally sacred), a mechanic did an oil change for us, and then whilst the car was up on the hoist, he checked and greased everything underneath the car. Nick was totally stoked with this guy’s skill and ability to do a good job, and it only cost us 1000 Roubles (that’s about A$33.35) for an hour’s work! Admittedly we supplied the oil and new oil filter, but still… where would you find a mechanic who would even answer the phone during his lunch break for less than $80 an hour?
So the car is now all ready to continue our journey and we were heading back to the Factory for our tour
. Marina was waiting for us and took us throughout the factory and explained what happened in each section and answered all our questions. After the factory tour, Sergei took us to the Museum and introduced us to the Director. I was wondering why he felt that he had to stay with us. Anyway, as we walked around the Museum, he would point things out to me in German and I’d translate them for Nick (if he hadn’t already worked it out). Then he showed us an outfit which had set a Guinness World Record and explained that the Museum Director was one of the 4-person team who had set this record – riding the sidecar for 25,505km NON-STOP – it took 20 days! Then Alexander (that’s the Museum Director) pointed out some awards and indicated that these had been won by our guide, Sergei. Yes, Sergei was a multiple Soviet & Russian Champion, as well as a European Champion, and all his awards were won riding an Ural motorbike. Now we understood how and why he was able to arrange things for us. He had even asked us if we were moving on or staying the night. We asked him which was the better hotel in Irbit and next thing we knew, he was on the phone to the Povorot Hotel and then took us there! Nick couldn’t stop grinning like a Cheshire cat – our time in Irbit had turned out better than he could have hoped for. But wait, there is still more to come – Sergei rang us and told us that he would be at the hotel in the morning, after breakfast, with a reporter from the local paper!
Can you imagine how funny it was – the reporter would ask her questions in Russian, Sergei would translate them into German and then Nick and I would formulate an answer in English, which I would translate into German and Sergei would then translate our response into Russian! Sergei even escorted us to the outskirts of town and made sure that we knew which direction to drive to get back to Ekaterinburg
. If you’re not interested in motorbikes, then you probably wouldn’t be interested in Irbit, but if you love motorbikes (particularly sidecars), then a visit to Irbit should be included.
Time to head back towards to Ekaterinburg, but only because we had a spot we had to visit on the western side of Ekaterinburg, about 25kms along the road. Yes, this is the border where Asia becomes Europe. As you can imagine, we took lots of photos and continued westward looking for a nice spot to camp for the night. After a night under canvas (sounds better than “under nylon”, doesn’t it?), we drove to Perm and found our hotel. Sadly our night in Perm will have to rate as one of our dodgiest hotels stays. Actually, it wasn’t really a hotel, but a room in an apartment block that was rented out! Anyway, it was a roof over our head and offered a nice hot shower. OK, so we had to run the water for about 15 minutes before the hot water reached our room, but we were getting used to that! Russians obviously have not concept of water restrictions!
From Perm, we headed off to find another spot to camp. We found a town on a river and thought that it would make a good spot to set up camp and we were right! The weather was glorious, so we enjoyed some sunshine. Our campsite was on a ridge about a river but it gave us glorious views down the river. The only downside of this spot was the fact that the rain bucketed down for a few hours, but we didn’t get wet at all (except for the outside of the tent, but that had dried by the time it was time to pack up).
So, today is Friday and we are having a disagreement with “the Bitch”, as we affectionately call our GPS
. She was telling us that we had 415kms to drive to reach Kazan’, but all the signs (not so many signs) were saying 205kms to Kazan’. Hmmmm, so we turned the Bitch off and followed the signs. It wasn’t long before the road turned to dirt but it was a pretty good dirt road and we hadn’t been very impressed with Russian paved roads. According to our Russian Road Atlas, we would encounter a river in about 60kms or so. We found the river but there was no bridge. So that’s what those signs we had ignored meant! We turned back and followed one of two detour signs, which brought us to a clearing and an old barge that was moored on the riverbank and was clearing being used as an on-ramp for a vehicular ferry. We had a 90-minute wait for the ferry, so we boiled the kettle and had a cup of coffee and waited patiently. When the ferry got there, there were about 11 cars waiting for the ferry to Malmish. So, for the princely sum of 115 Roubles (less than A$4-00) we enjoyed a ride down the river. At the other side of the river, we continued our trek to Kazan’. We forgave the Bitch for giving us different directions as she was obviously trying to save us from travelling on dirt and crossing a river on a ferry. Once on the western bank of the river, we turned the Bitch back on and allowed her to direct us to Kazan’.
Ever since 1970 when I first read the book "Nicholas & Alexandra", which told the story of the last Russian Tsar and his family, I have always wanted to see Ekaterinburg. But likewise, for many years, I never believed that would be an option until the break-up of the USSR and the subsequent increased tourism to Russia. So when Nick said that we would drive across Russia, I made sure that Ekaterinburg was on the itinerary.