Good Morning Everybody!
Tonight is our last night in Yekaterinburg, and, to answer my previous question: I am in Asia, but not yet Siberia. That will happen sometime tomorrow afternoon. In a few hours we will be boarding yet another train for our third-leg of this trip. We are only on for 12 hours and will be arriving in Omsk at the very civilized hour of 5:40 pm. Which will beat waking up at 5:40 am...
A lot has happened (sort of) since my last post and I will do my best to write about it while also giving the history of what we've seen, since I haven't really been doing that to date.
First of all: we left Nizhny Novgorod. We boarded a train quite early in the morning and spent a good portion of the trip sleeping. Edward and I both got to enjoy a good deal of reading as there is little else to do on the trains. This country is amazing during the winter. Outside our window rolled a continuing stream of frozen forests, small, abandonned towns and grey skies. It's bleak yet, in it's bleakness there is a surprising beauty. But it is not the beauty I'm sure it represents in the summer months. It is not the beauty of an Italian village or the Swiss Alps; rather it is the beauty of a very sad, forlorn looking woman. One can almost feel this sadness, and yet it does not make the viewer sad, calm yes, but not sad.
After more reading and napping and looking out our window Ed and I decided to forgo the dining car (we'd found it iffy at breakfast) and instead sample the local cuisine. At the town of Balyezino we got off the train and wandered the platform. I'm pretty sure we were a funny-loooking site as we hadn't bothered to get dressed. (On the train we've been wearing gym shorts, t-shirts and slippers as it is too warm for any more clothing). So here we were, two guys well above 6' wandering about in shorts, slippers and huge puffy coats. The guide books talk about how at these smaller stops locals will hawk different goods and it isn't a bad way to scrounge up a meal. Ed found a woman selling roast chicken and boiled potatoes already wrapped up and so while I bought two of those, two beat salads and a loaf of homemade bread (all from different old ladies), Edward managed to find us two bottles of local beers. I wish someone had taken a picture of us: two tall guys buying food from a gaggle of 4-foot-nothing-75-year-old babushkas.
The meal was actually quite good and we polished it all off. After some more reading and napping Edward suggested we go to the dining car and play cards, maybe get a couple more beers. This constitutes his best and worst idea EVER.
We went. We played a little gin. We played a little poker. And, I was in the process of teaching him how to play speed when a man wandered over to us and offered up a bottle of vodka. Now, in addition to giving many good tips the guide books also discuss how Russians want to share with you and, if they come offering drinks, it is very, very rude to deny them. What the guide books don't mention is that the Russians love to get drunk and, more than that, love to get you drunk.
There was no stopping them, and believe me, we tried. Shot after shot after shot of vodka was poured. Round after round was consumed. First the three of us, then two of the restaurant car employees joined in. Then some other people. We speak no Russian and they speak no English, but somehow, despite all of that we solved issues of world peace and the proper method of pouring a drink. We decided Obama was good for the future and that war should be ended. Above all else we decided vodka connects people.
Now, I hate vodka. Hate it. And I should have realized the night was not going as planned when I started to like the vile stuff. Shot after shot after shot. Round after round. Ed and I protested. We told them we had to get off some time. We said we'd had enough. In Russia, there is no such thing as enough. Eventually we pried ourselves away but by then, the damage was done. Edward, being about 30 pounds less than me and having not eaten as much bread as I had was in...not very good shape. How I got him, myself, both our bags, both our carry-ons and all of our personal belongings off that train at 3:30 am I will never know.
What I do know is this: that was two days ago, and we are still slightly hungover. Our guide in the morning was incredibly understanding (we woke up still intoxicated) and she found Ed some sort of miracle-cure-all thing which might have helped, not sure. I somehow managed to pass myself off as totally ok the night before and all yesterday but I felt like 31 different flavors of death. Vodka is refferred to as "The V-Word" and is not to be mentioned, or thought of. Because, if we think of it, we both gag. Neither of us wanted this to happen, but it did. The guide who picked us up extremely early and the other one who gave us our tour at 10 am the following morning both laughed and said that this often happens, it can't be avoided, regardless of one's constitution.
Ok, so I don't have much time left on the computer (I'm at an Internet cafe on Lenin Street aka Main Street) so here goes some cultural learning.
Yekaterinburg is known as the place of Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov family's final days. We visited the Church of the Blood which was constructed a few years ago on the site of their execution. A room, matching the same dimensions and in the same location of the room where they died was built in the basement of this cathedral. Several holy relics lie here, including the cross of Nicholas II. Every Romanov male carried this cross (for 300 years of their family's reign) and before that it belonged to a German princess, and before that a French king and before that an English one. Pieces of 40 different relics are encased in this cross (about the length of my middle finger and about half again as wide) including a sliver of wood from the Holy Crucifix itself, or so they say. Apparently it was clutched in his hands when he died.
Originally the city was a refuge for "Old Believers" or people who had not reformed when the Russian Orthodox Faith was revamped. For those who don't know: the Russian Orthodox religion was modelled after the Greek Orthodox one, but somehow, in the initial attempts at translation, various different symbols and practices were lost. After a couple hundred years the Russians presented their holy texts to the Greeks seeking approval. The Greeks immediately burned these as heresy saying that the Russians had perverted the belief system. The Russians tried again but there were many who didn't want to undergo this reform, they were known as the Old Believers and they had to live in secret or far from the eyes of Moscow and St. Petersburg. This all happened in 1672. Fifty years later Peter the Great, in need of his own ironworks foundry sent scientists into the Urals to discover the proper minerals required. They found these here, in Yekaterinburg.
The city got its name from Peter's second wife, Catherine. Normally cities in Russia (at the time) were named after the local river they were on, but the scientists thought Isetsky sounded stupid. They also probably wanted to garner favor with Peter, so they suggested it be named in honor of his beloved wife. During Soviet times the city was renamed Sverdlovsk in honor of the man who orchestrated the execution of the Romanovs. Go figure, the Russian's would name a city after a guy who saw to it that the wife and 4 daughters of the hated Tsar were hacked to pieces with shovels and trowels.
While here we have seen the Church of the Blood, the Ascension Cathedral (home of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch), the Urals Geology Museum/Mineralogy Museum, the Afghan War Memorial and the Europe/Asia marker (about 40 km outside of the city, along the modern Moscow Road). We also went out to the mine where the Bolsheviks tried to dispose of the remains of the Romanov's and their 4 faithful servants. In 2003 it was consecrated as holy grounds and a monestary built atop it. There are 7 churches - one for each of the Tsar's family - but they are not dedicated to the Romanov's, rather, different saints or groups of saints. The technique used to create them was the traditional Siberian wood construction, which is much like the ski lodges of America but with rough-hewn sides and no stone. They are beautiful and inside smell heavily of incense and pine. There are 11 monks who live there and tend to the various buildings and it is a very popular spot for people to come and pay their respects to the murdered family. During the Soviet era it was illegal to even think of the Romanov's but people would come out into the forest and leave crosses near the area of the royal family's impromptu burial. The monestary itself is built throughout the forrest and there is very little open space. Dotting the ground between the trees, the crosses which have gathered for the past 90 years can still be seen.
The city of Yekaterinburg itself has it's beautiful moments. This might just be because it's the first time I've seen blue skies in a long time or because it actually is beautiful. I'm not sure which. One odd thing about it is that whenever one turns on the hot water the most unusual smell comes out. It's kind of like the fat of bacon being cooked on a grill. But not when it smells good, rather when it has been left to sit or something. It's hard to describe. Showering requires a lot of breathing through one's mouth.
Well, with all of these interesting little tidbits I have uncovered I will leave you all to ponder the meaning of life and the sins of our forefathers. Or at least the sins of the Latvian 11 - the name given to those who shot, stabbed and hacked apart the Romanov family. It is a sin that the whole country seems intent on repenting for. Much like modern Germans seem to do in regards to the Holocaust. Also, as promised, I will give you a haiku. Now, while it is not dedicated to some nonexistant counter-culture movement in the 1980's or 90's, I did see it on a T-Shirt once, and it's kind of funny.
Haikus can be ccool
But sometimes they don't make sense
Next time on "Armen's Trans-Siberian Account", Omsk, and whatever it has to offer...