Our trip through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway feels like it finally got started after visiting Vladimir/Suzdal. Prior to that, we’d had an overnight train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow that left late in the evening and arrived early morning, as well as a 2 hour trip from Moscow to Vladimir. Our trip from Vladimir to Ekaterinburg on the other hand was a full 23 hours! We’ll cover our train experience in an upcoming post, since at this point it feels like we’re living in two separate universes — train life and town life.
Part of the reason that we chose to stop in Ekaterinburg (also spelled Yekaterinburg) was to break up our train ride a bit between Moscow/Vladimir and Irkutsk/Lake Baikal. Going straight through would mean more than four days straight on the train! Ekaterinburg is located at the base of the Ural Mountains close to the border between Europe and Asia. The town is where Tsar Nicolas II and his family were held after their capture and eventually killed in 1918.
Our train put us into Ekaterinburg at around 9pm local time — although after our day on the train we were now two time zones ahead of Moscow time. Despite being on the train for the last day (or maybe because of?) we were both exhausted. We had about enough energy to get to our hostel, deal with hostel drama (despite having booked a private room, they didn’t have one, but it all ended up okay because they put us in a 6-person dorm room with no one else in it that cost less money), and start a load of laundry (yay!).
The next morning we got a semi-lazy start while we tried to figure out exactly what it was that we wanted to do before our 10pm train departure that evening. Ekaterinburg has two big out-of-town attractions that both sounded interesting in theory: (1) Ganina Yama, a monastery built near the site where the bodies of Nicolas II and his family were originally buried after the family was executed; and (2) a monument marking the border between Europe and Asia where Tsar Alexander II allegedly stopped for a glass of wine on each side. In a complete about face from our experience over the last couple of months, everyone we asked regarding our transit options to get to these sites would only tell us about the public bus option. When we asked if there was a tour option, our suggestion was immediately shot down as “too expensive.” And, also completely out of character with our travels over the past few months, we actually wanted a tour this time! WHAT IS HAPPENING? In our defense, we only wanted a tour because the public bus times to Ganina Yama were extremely limited since it was a weekday out of season — taking the bus would mean that we would have no remaining time to explore Ekaterinburg. We had also heard that there was no signage at the monastery in English, so we were hoping from some insights from a guide to make the visit more meaningful. Ultimately, we opted against going out of town and decided to explore the city instead (making this run-on paragraph a long story about absolutely nothing). I think it ended up being a great decision for us.
We started by visiting the most famous Ekaterinburg tourist destination — the Church Upon the Blood:
The church is built on the spot where the Romanovs were killed on July 16, 1918. The execution actually took place in the basement of a local engineer’s house. Apparently, the house later became a museum of atheism under the Soviets. The building was later ordered demolished by then-governor Boris Yeltsin in 1977 because he thought that the building would attract and act as an important symbol for monarchist sympathizers. I can’t imagine that clearing the way for a huge church is quite what Yeltsin had in mind though. The church itself is lovely (more gold!). Although we were only able to visit the chapels in the basement (the main building was closed and we couldn’t read the sign), there was a service going on. This gave us a chance to hear singing and watch the minister administering blessings to those in attendance.
We spent the rest of the day walking around Ekaterinburg and found ourselves frequently following the red line painted on the sidewalk by the tourist board connecting the city’s main attractions. It reminded us of the Freedom Trail in Boston!
Perhaps the most unexpected hit for us in Ekaterinburg was the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center. We happened upon the center after seeing a random flyer left by another guest in our hostel and may not have visited it had we not stumbled upon the flyer. It’s brand new — opened in 2015, after our guidebook was published — and occupies a shiny glass building along the riverfront.
The exhibits were very creative and followed seven big “moments” during Yeltsin’s political career. While we would have appreciated a few more signs in English, there was enough to allow us to follow along and the many (very interesting) videos had subtitles. It was a great way to get additional insights into Russia’s more recent political history and was presented in an engaging manner.
As expected considering this is Yeltsin’s presidential center, the exhibits did try to paint him in a good light, but we thought that the coverage was reasonably fair that they did highlight certain controversial issues in which he struggled. Obviously, Michael was in heaven — but I really enjoyed it as well.
Ekaterinburg turned out to be a great stop for a day, and I suspect that we also would have enjoyed more time in the area to explore the sights just outside of the city and to visit the Ural mountains (about a four hour drive away). Unfortunately, we were on a time crunch to get through Russia before our visa expired, so we settled for a 25 hour stopover.
[This post describes our visit to Ekaterinburg, Russia on September 20-21, 2016.]