Yekaterinburg

Thursday, September 27, 2018
Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russian Federation
Train 309E coming in from Novy Urengoy arrives at Tobolsk station having already been enroute for a day. Could not help wonder what sort of a place it was. Checking on the map, it lies in the far north of the massive Siberian region, hugging the arctic circle. If you guessed that the reason why a town would exist at that latitude would be oil or gas, you would be right. If you guessed that people who live there enjoy a couple of weeks of summer weather with a peak of 18 Celsius, you would still be right. Shrugging off the thought of being in such a place now, boarding in happy warmth in Tobolsk to retrace our way back to Tyumen. We caught sight of the Kremlin from the train and kept looking at it until it disappeared behind the trees. It was Wednesday afternoon and we would not have a temporary address till Sunday in Saint Petersburg, still far far away. The next 4 nights would be spent on trains and the days spent walking in a strange city, new to us.
While it made sense to book the lower+upper combo on the same side for journeys that involved significant daytime travel, we realized that for journeys that only involved sleeping, we would have been better off with the lower+lower option. Live and learn.
It was dark by the time we pulled in to Tyumen and now it was time to resume our Trans Siberian rail journey proper after a day's interruption in Tobolsk. The train stopped for an hour at Tyumen where much shunting went on to chop and change the coaches. We did not have to change as 309E's destination matched ours, the city of Yekaterinburg, named after Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great. Much has happened in history there and we'll cover some of it during the day we planned to spend there. More recently, it was the easternmost venue for the 2018 World Cup, 2 hours ahead of Moscow which caused some murmurs of complaint from the teams that played there. The 6:49 am arrival at Yekaterinburg seemed to suggest a very slow train given that the distance from Tyumen is 200 miles and the departure 9:50 pm. Turned out that the train stopped at Elanskiy for 3.5 hours in the middle of the night. Most likely to ensure a comfortable schedule for the arrival at Yekaterinburg. Or the intermediate stations. Who knows. Still, inquiring minds want to know. Wondering how it would be to sleep on a motionless train. Turned out not to be a problem.
We managed to locate the "cloakroom" easily enough and had to take a few steps down and enter a large hall that looked more like a factory floor. We got our receipts and headed out into the rain to what we hoped would be a hospitable city until we returned back at night to retrieve our bags and head to our next destination. Our rain gear kept us dry and warm but negotiating the flooded street corners turned our walk into a mini adventure. We could see that these were caused by the depressions at street corners that were intended to make it easy for those on wheelchairs to safely cross the street. 
A brief walk in the rain brought us to one of Yekaterinburg's most important sites, the magnificently named Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land. This was where the last Tsar family - Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia (Grand Duchesses) and son Tsarevich Andrei were shot and bayoneted by the Bolsheviks in the early hours of July 17th, 1918 after having been imprisoned there for 78 days. The decision to kill them was made due to the news of the impending arrival of the Czechoslovak Legion (fighting with the White Army against the Bolsheviks) and fear of their potential liberation. The whole family was elevated to sainthood in 1981 by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church took over the plot and constructed the present day church, eventually consecrated in 2003.
After listening quietly to the singing at the service on on upper floor, we emerged into the rain and descended back to the street level. Our next stop did nothing to lighten our moods. The Black Tulip Memorial is a recreated cargo space of a military transport plane that used to transport the bodies of dead Russian soldiers back home from the Afghan war. Such aircraft were called "Black Tulips" by the Afghan veterans. In the center of the memorial is the figure of a seated soldier with a gun, surrounded by metal pylons engraved with the names of the soldiers killed during the war in Afghanistan. The defeated expression on the face and entire body of the seated soldier kept our attention for a while before we ventured out to look at the nearby tank kept in display in the square. 
The rain did not let up at all as we splashed our way past the Opera and Ballet Hall (having made a mental note of the evening's performance of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet) towards the Vysotsky skyscraper named after Vladimir Vysotsky, Russia's answer to Bob Dylan (or so it is said) with his singing, song-writing, poetry and acting, he was a major influence on Russian culture during the Soviet era. Despite the overcast sky, we felt that it would be good to view the city from a height while staying warm and dry and maybe learn a thing or two about Vysotsky at the museum on the top floor. We saw that it opened only at noon and so decided to move on for a bit and come back later if the walking logistics fit in. So that is two in the backlog: Ballet, Vysotsky. 
The Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts on the Iset River looked very inviting with the combination of our penchant for looking at things with labels (hopefully in English) and for staying dry, we won't break down which was the dominant factor. Right near the entrance is its most arresting exhibit - the Kasli cast iron pavilion. As we bought our tickets, we also contemplated taking the audio guide as we feared that not all the exhibits will have English labels. Interestingly, we noticed that the board also mentioned the izi.TRAVEL app as an alternative way to buying the audio guide. We tried to quickly download the app but were discouraged by the slow download speed and decided to buy the ticket. The woman at the counter was taken aback by this and we both tried to gesture our intent at each other for a while before she gave up and came out of her seat and pointed to the sign on the board about the app. So, it appeared that it was not just an alternative recommendation. They were asking patrons to use the free app. By this time, the app had downloaded and all was well.
The cast iron plant in Kasli (name of a town) was used to make plenty of artwork and this pavilion is its most famous product. It was molded for the World's Fair held in Paris in 1900. The audio app had this to offer : "The dazzling combination of bilberry red and royal yellow velvet, magnificent gilded ornamentation and elaborate cast-iron lacework were the right solution to the challenging problem: The Kasli craftsmen created the masterpiece that by far justified all the costs." 
The pavilion showcased a variety of art castings: Inside, it had shelves for smaller items; wall bracket light fixtures and openwork plates were mounted on the walls; table-top compositions were placed on the balustrade at the front entrance. At the foot of the pavilion, in the corners of the formidable podium there were pitchers and pots, skillets and roasting pans. The most daring ideas of the architect were brought to life by skillful hands of remarkable Kasli masters: openwork cornices, cut-through reliefs of the sailboat, high reliefs of the Birds of Joy and Sorrow, sculptures of dragons – all of them were elegantly juxtaposed, complementing each other and demonstrating the highest quality and workmanship of pattern designers, molders, founders and casters. Shortly after its triumph at the World's Fair, the masterpiece sank into oblivion for many years: In 1922, some fragments of the pavilion were handed over to the Ural Society of Natural Science Amateurs to be saved from recasting. The reconstruction of the pavilion started only in the 1950s and it was finally restored to its glory when it was given its velvet and silk attire on the day of its 110th anniversary. Having taken center stage in the Kasli Cast Iron Exhibition Hall of the museum, the pavilion stands there as the manmade monument to several generations of Ural artisans who created and restored it.". Indeed, we spent a while walking around the pavilion and admiring the handiwork and also noting the known sculpted personages - Russia as a woman warrior, horse carriages in full movement, Mephistopheles and several other figures.
The rest of the museum was filled with masterpieces of Russian and Western European art. Please be sure to check the photos of some of the artwork that we have included here :-)
Buoyed by all that art, we hopped across the river to look for 2 outdoor monuments. Our earlier attempts to find them had been thwarted by the presence of some construction work near the river bank. But a brief visit to the Tourist information center helped us find them this time. The first was the Monument to the Beatles and the other a giant computer keyboard in classic black on white laid out on the river bank slopes.
After stopping at a trendy cafe (with the inviting menu board written in chalk) staffed by young people with some English skills we managed a brief mini meal and coffee before continuing on towards Ploschad 1905 Goda (Plaza of the Year 1905). A statue of Lenin (still intact unlike those in the other former Soviet republics) oversees Lenin Avenue, clearly the city's main thoroughfare. Right across was the handsome City Administration building. The avenue was covered with trams wearing colors that brightened the grey afternoon. 
A short walk brought us to the striking Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center. Despite the presence of numerous such centers and libraries dotted all over the US, we had never got an opportunity to visit one. And here we were ready to learn all about Russia's first ever President. Most of it was in Russian and we needed the audio guides to make sense of the exhibits which were laid out thoughtfully. His official limos were displayed at the entrance. His early days from distant Yekaterinburg and his dramatic rise to the new nation's top office from being a lowly Moscow city official, his dramatic letter to Gorbachev which was roundly condemned by Politburo members, his popularity among the population, his decisiveness through "7 days that changed the nation" (not consecutive), the August 1991 coup attempt, the 1993 Siege of the White House, his re-election that he felt was needed to prevent the resurgence of communism and his resignation due to ill health - were all covered with plenty of photographs, document exhibits and videos. The expansive size of the center and its multimedia exhibits were impressive. A typical Moscow living room was recreated with TV playing Swan Lake while the attempted coup was going on in 1991. Archival footage from various sources were projected onto giant screens to immerse the visitor into that period in history. 
We emerged from the center at a little after 5 with several hours to go before our night train to Kazan. We quickly decided to foot the 2 km to the Ballet theater and managed to procure cheap upper balcony tickets for a few dollars each. We were not sure of the length of the performance but after the second interval break happened, we peeked at our neighbor's brochure and realized that we will have to rush back to the station if we stayed till the end. We opted to exit and found a Chinese eatery for a hot dinner before boarding a municipal bus to the station.
Too bad we did not get to go to the top of Vysotsky or learn much about him. At least we got two thirds of a Prokofiev ballet! Lets hope for drier weather in Kazan. It would be a shorter day there as our night train reaches there at 11:15 the next morning. But after the long wet day in Yekaterinburg, we were warming up to the idea of a leisurely morning transported on wheels.
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2019-06-17