Russia Part 3 – Yekaterinburg

Day 157: August 16, 2018

We slept until 9:00 am, but it was still only 6.5 hours sleep after we arrived so late on the train the night before. We had breakfast downstairs then met the group for a tour of Yekaterinburg at 10:00 am.

Due to conflict with Sweden, Russia wanted a more stable supplier of metals. The Urals were far from the capital so Yekaterinburg was created in 1723 by Peter the Great. The town is named after the patron saint of mining/industry or possibly Peter the Great’s wife Catherine I. In the 1690s mines were first constructed in the Urals.

We visited a merchant’s house from the 19th century. From 1924-1991 the city was called Sverdlovsk after a Bolshevik leader.

Merchant’s House

In the main square there was a statue of Lenin put up in 1957. All main streets in a city were named after Lenin in Soviet times. There was a cathedral in the location of the statue previously, but it was exploded by the Soviets.

Across the street was the city administration building with a painting of the Russian victory in WWII on May 9, 1945.

Painting on the City Administration Building

Up the street was a blue mansion from the 19th century. The owner wanted to show off by creating the most beautiful building in the city. He combined three architects’ designs. In the 21st century, it was turned into an official residence of the President.

19th century mansion

We saw many buildings of the constructivist style or what we have been calling “Soviet”. The Soviets wanted to get rid of anything resembling the past regime including highly decorated buildings. Across the road was the city dam decorated with granite on the outside and a beautiful lake on the other side.

Yekaterinburg

We saw a statue of Alexander Pushkin, a great Russian poet and author, in the literary district. From there we walked to the Church on Spilled Blood. It was built between 2000 and 2003 in the Byzantine style. A house used to be situated there and it was location of the Romanovs imprisonment following the revolution. In July, 1918 the Romanov family was sent to the basement and shot. The bodies were then brought to an abandoned mine so that no one knew where they were buried. In 1977, the house was knocked down to expand the street.

Church on Spilled Blood

Outside the church were pictures of the royal family and a statue of all seven murdered members of the family. It is interesting how perspective changes. During Soviet times the people who killed the Romanovs were heroes and now they are seen as murderers. The Romanovs were seen as murderers of the country and now are considered martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The walking tour of the city ended and we went for lunch. Danny and I both ordered salads then shared some dumplings. We tried a buckwheat and orange soda which had an interesting flavour.

After lunch we boarded a bus and drove 17 km out of the city to the Europe-Asia border. We were given ribbons to tie on a tree to make a wish. There were tons there already. Danny and I wound ours together and tied it to a small tree and each made our wish. It was a very nice moment.

Ribbon with a wish

We walked up to a monument showing the exact delineation between the European and Asian continents. The monuments shows an “A” and “E” together in a shape almost like the Eiffel Tower.

Asia-Europe border

Down from there was a cute little area for taking pictures. Many weddings are held there or couples go to take their wedding pictures there. There was a board with Beauty and the Beast where we took one of our best pictures.

Beauty and the Beast

Next we drove to Ganina Yama Monastery constructed in 2009. Nicholas II, the tsar during the Russian revolution, wrote in his journal that he didn’t feel well prepared for ruling Russia. He was well educated and knew many languages, but did not have a military mind.

In 1917, Nicholas was stopped on his way to St. Petersburg and forced to abdicate. His family and him were first imprisoned in St. Petersburg. Then the White Guard, who supported the tsar, moved them to a remote Siberian town, Tobolsk, far away from the fighting with the Red Army. Nicholas II hoped to escape to Europe from there. He was related to many other European rulers, but none of them wanted to risk themselves to save him.

In spring 1918, a decision was made to return the family to Moscow for judgement by the people. They were stopped in Yekaterinburg on the way. The town was very against the tsar and imprisoned the family in an engineer’s house (the location of the Church on Spilled Blood).

In mid-July the White Guard was approaching the city so the Red Army sent a telegram to Lenin asking permission to execute the Royal family. An affirmative answer was received the same day. The family was taken to the basement in the middle of the night. They were read an order that they were to be executed. There were 12 soldiers present. Nicholas, Alexandra (the empress) and their son (Alexei) died immediately. The daughters had jewels sewn into their dresses that stopped the bullets. The soldiers had to stab them with their bayonets. They took the bodies to an abandoned mine and threw them inside. It was full of water so the bodies floated. They tried to explode the bodies with a grenade, but it didn’t explode. Instead they cut up the bodies and applied acid so they wouldn’t be recognized.

Mine where the Romanov bodies were found

The monastery was created to commemorate the Romanovs who were recognized as martyred saints by the Russian Orthodox Church. Seven churches were built inside for the seven members of the family that were killed. We purchased some kvass (drink made from flour and molasses) made by the monks and gingerbread which was tasty.

Romanov children, Ganina Yama Monastery

We drove back to the city, but traffic was quite bad. The typical working hours in the city are 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. We walked to a sushi place and got take out then went to a supermarket to stock up for our upcoming 55 hour train ride.

Back at the hotel we ate our sushi which was a bit disappointing as it was more cream cheese than fish. We drove with the group to the train station and then waited half an hour before boarding. We are in a room with the Punjabi ladies from the UK. They are very nice. They told us all about the origins of the Sikh religion and we discussed spirituality. It was nice to hear their thoughts. We went and hung out in the dining car for a bit then went back to the room to go to bed.

Day 158: August 17, 2018

We went to bed quite late and then I didn’t wake up until my alarm went off at 9:00 am. I laid for a bit watching Orange is the New Black. I didn’t sleep very well as I felt the train was much more rocky than last time.

We were given breakfast by the train: crepes with ham and cheese then yogurt, a bun and cookies. It was all pretty heavy. I watched a bit more of our downloaded Netflix then we got off the train a bit to stretch our legs.

I had yogurt for lunch and Danny went to the dining car to play a game of chess with Sasha. I ventured to the dining car later to see how their game was going. It took them two hours to finish the game and Danny won.

Chess game in the train dining car

We got out for a bit and went to a train engine display with the group for a photo. There were a billion mosquitoes there and we all got bit. We returned to the train and I watched more Orange is the New Black. Danny went for a walk and I found him drinking with the American Couple.

Train stop

At midnight we had a 50 minute stop. We went outside the train station to a fast food place. I had quesadillas and Danny had a shawarma. It was actually very good. We returned to the train after our small dose of freedom. Then we curled up for bed.

Day 159: August 18, 2018

I woke up and watched some Netflix while everyone else slept. I slept much better than the night before. We didn’t have our oatmeal breakfast until 11:00 am. The time changes have messed up our schedule. We are now +4 hours from Moscow time.

We watched Archer on Netflix then we were able to get off the train for 45 minutes. Just outside the train station we went to a coffee shop. I got a milkshake which was not very thick, but had a very nice taste. Beside the train station was a mural of Lenin.

Mural of Lenin

Back in the train we sat in the dining car for a bit watching Archer. Then we read in our room for a bit. There was another 15 minute break to get off the train.

Danny riding the rails

We returned to the dining car and Danny played another game of chess with Sasha while I read. Sasha won this game. Back in the room we ate sandwiches for supper before our cheese went bad. Then we got ready for bed.

Yekaterinburg was an interesting town, but nothing too exciting. The train ride has been interesting. We have had lots of free time to chat with the others on our tour and catch up on Netflix. I’m looking forward to getting off the train at our next stop, Lake Baikal.

M

Russia Part 2 – Suzdal and Vladimir

Day 154: August 13, 2018

Danny and I woke up early again and went down to the gym in our hotel in St. Petersburg. I didn’t push too hard the day before because I was worried of straining my muscles. After this workout my arms were sore.

We packed then had to wait ten minutes for the elevator. Apparently everyone was leaving at the same time. We caught an elevator going up, but then the lady in there with us ended up pushing five more floors with her back. We boarded our bus for a three hour drive to Suzdal.

Suzdal is called the Pearl of the Golden Ring which is a tourist track of nice towns. In the 12th century, Russia didn’t exist. There were just fighting principalities. In 1125, Suzdal was made capital of one of those principalities.

We had a lunch of salad, borscht, rice and breaded chicken. I’m not sure how I feel about Russian food yet as there seems to be a lot of pickles.

After lunch, we started a walking tour of Suzdal. Suzdal has 30 Orthodox churches and 14 bell towers. Its current population is approximately 10,000. The town was founded in 1024. The Mongols captured Suzdal in 1238.

The first church we saw had black cupolas and was built in 1667.

Church, Suzdal

During the rule of Catherine the Great she passed a law of securalization of church land which passed church land to the state.

Then we moved into an active convent founded in 1207. It was closed by the Soviets who opposed all religion then reopened in 1995 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Inside the convent was a white church built in the 1550s that we walked through. In Soviet times it was a power station.

The gate to the convent had glazed tiles not common to Suzdal. After WWII, rabbits were kept inside. The bell tower was constructed in 1812, but was put on hold during Napoleon’s siege. It was then completed in 1819. A couple of us in the group climbed to the top of the bell tower to get a nice view out over Suzdal.

View from the bell tower in the convent, Suzdal

We walked on to the Red Monastery built in the 14th century to protect Suzdal from the Moscovites. At the height 25,000 peasants would have been inside the wooden walls. In the 1660s, the walls were changed to brick, but were no longer required for defence.

Red Monastery, Suzdal

Next was the White Monastery which was established in the 14th century and is still active. Basil the Third, the Grand Prince of Moscow, had his wife become a nun there. She was then married to God and he could divorce her. After twenty years of marriage she had not produced an heir so he remarried and Ivan IV (also known as Ivan the Terrible) was born.

Inside the White Monastery, Suzdal

Next was the Kremlin which used to have a wooden wall built in the 11th century, but it has since burned down. We saw the Nativity Cathedral built between 1222 and 1225. The Mongols burned the upper part and it stood without a roof for 90 years. It was reconstructed by Basil the Third.

The Nativity Cathedral, Suzdal

The guide had a very dry humour which was enjoyable. He also filled the tour’s quiet moments with discussions of Russian cars which Danny enjoyed.

Suzdal

After the tour we returned to our lodgings, a quaint inn. We relaxed a bit then went up the street for some groceries and honey mead. Back in the inn, we sat in the common area with some of our group.

At 7:00 pm, we went down for supper with the group. We had fried zucchini, dumplings and steak which was pretty yummy. We sat outside for our meal and enjoyed the cool air. The flavoured vodka is very good here. After supper we returned to drink some more mead before bed time.

Day 155: August 14, 2018

We had a nice breakfast buffet in the inn. Then we checked out and drove to Vladimir, a larger city on the Golden Ring and took over the title of capital city from Suzdal in 1157. Vladimir was first believed to be mentioned in chronicles in 1108, but newly discovered chronicles mention it in 990.

The current population of Vladimir is around 360,000. The Soviets built many factories to attract people to the area which made it grow to its current size. It was also able to grow larger than Suzdal due to the Trans-Siberian railway passing through town.

We started our walking tour in front of the “Three Lazy Men” statue which shows a soldier as the protector of the city, an architect representing the prosperity of the city and a worker symbolizing the industry of the city.

We visited the Assumption Cathedral founded in 1158. Limestone from near Moscow was brought along the rivers for the construction. The chapel and bell tower in front were built later. In the 15th century an artist decorated the cathedral’s interior with frescoes. Catherine the Great funded restoration, but people didn’t know how to do it.

Assumption Cathedral, Vladimir

Next was the Cathedral of Saint Dmitris which was founded in the late 12th century and made of limestone. The church has 1,504 different carvings on the exterior showing images such as lions and palm trees.

Cathedral of Saint Dmitris, Vladimir

Religion came to the area from the Byzantine empire which is why the icons inside showed very Greek looking people as shown below.

Relief in Cathedral of Saint Dmitris, Vladimir

From there we went to the Golden Gate Tower which was the main entrance to the city. The height of the wall was 15 m. The doors used to be gilded, but were taken by the Mongols who thought the doors were pure gold. The city walls were eventually removed to allow the city to expand. Inside the gate tower was a diorama of the Mongol invasion of Vladimir in 1238.

Golden Gate Tower, Vladimir

We went for lunch up the street and I had a very good burger and fries. The milkshake I ordered was typical European, not very ice creamy. After lunch we got back in the bus to drive back to Moscow. We stopped at a grocery store to purchase food to eat on the train.

Then we went to the train station. We are on the top bunks in a room of four with the American couple, Wendy and Gary. We shared some mead then ate our supper of yogurt, berries and buns. We played two rounds of Hidden 31 and Danny won both. Around 12:30 am we finally went to bed.

Day 156: August 15, 2018

I woke up and really had to pee so jumped down from the bunk. Most of the group was out in the hallway so I waited out there for everyone else to wake up. We had oatmeal for breakfast then sat chatting. It was interesting learning more about the American legal system. They were very good at explaining their views on American politics.

We got off the train at lunch and walked around for a bit then back on the train. Sadly, our train did not have a dining car so we had to rely purely on the food we brought. For lunch we had little baguettes, cheese and sausage. We read for a bit then had a nap. For supper we ate packaged noodles.

By the end of the train ride we were ready to get off. It felt like being a caged animal or imprisoned. You just wanted to escape anywhere, but there was nowhere to go.

Ready to get off the train

We got off the train around 11:30 pm in Yekaterinburg. We met our driver who took us to our hotel. We checked in and went to our room. I had a shower so that I would feel a bit better for bed. We stayed up a bit chatting about the people on our tour then fell asleep.

Suzdal and Vladimir provided a bit of history about Russia during the Middle Ages. Suzdal was a beautiful town and I wish we had a bit more free time there to explore. Our short train ride was just a taste of what is to come. For now, I am glad to be off the train and am ready to explore the city of Yekaterinburg.

M

Russia Part 1 – St. Petersburg and Moscow

Day 150: August 9, 2018

We were up super early (1:00 am) to catch our flight from Batumi, Georgia to St. Petersburg, Russia. We had breakfast then packed to go. We called a cab with an app similar to Uber; it was supposed to be a minute away. After about seven minutes of waiting outside we gave up and just hailed a cab on the main street. The airport was only seven minutes away so it was a cheap ride.

At the airport there was already quite a line of people waiting to check in so we were in line for some time. Once through security we got on the plane quickly.

Our journey had a stopover in Minsk, Belarus. In Minsk, we filled out a landing card for the Russian Federation and went through customs there. It wasn’t too long before we boarded our plane to St. Petersburg. We went through customs again on arrival then once we had our bags we found our transfer driver.

Driving from the airport I was surprised how much it looked like Canada. In the downtown area, it was less like Canada and the buildings looked more Austrian inspired.

Our hotel is right in front of one of the many canals. We were too early to check in so we ordered lunch at the restaurant in the hotel. Danny had borscht and I had chicken with vegetables. We went for a walk around the block then our room was ready.

I ended up napping for a bit then we went up the street to a restaurant. We ordered three different types of dumplings. They were all yummy. Lots had pumpkin inside them which added a sweetness. They were much better than the Australian use of pumpkin.

Dumplings

After supper we purchased some water at the store because we read we shouldn’t drink tap water here. Back at the room we went to bed right away. At 9:45 pm we were awoken by a call from the front desk that there was a letter for us. At first Danny said, “Oh, we’ll get it in the morning,” but then curiosity got the better of us. We were wondering who would have known the hotel’s address to send us something. It turned out to just be our train tickets which was pretty anticlimactic.

Day 151: August 10, 2018

I did not sleep very well. I forgot to turn off my alarm from the previous night so it went off at 1:00 am. Then I woke up around 4:30 am because it was cold.

We went down for breakfast in the hotel then met our tour guide in the lobby at 10:00 am. We had booked everything for Russia through a tour company because we weren’t sure how it would affect our visas if we did it ourselves. We now know it wouldn’t have mattered.

We had a private active walking tour and boy was it active. I had 38,000 steps by the end of the day. Our guide, Natalia, started with explaining the founding of the city by Peter the Great in 1703. He moved the capital unofficially to St. Petersburg in 1712 to be closer to Europe. It also was the base for his navy. The city’s name was changed to Petrograd in WWI to avoid it sounding German. Following the revolution, it was changed to Leningrad.

Peter the Great wanted his nobles to dress in European fashions which were much more risqué than Russian fashions. He also forced men to cut their beards and taxed those who didn’t comply. He valued education so nobles were required to finish their exams before getting married.

St. Petersburg is made up of over 42 islands. In Peter’s time there were no bridges only boats to get across. The city started with Peter and Paul Fortress on an island then expanded to three main streets.

We visited St. Isaac Church which was originally constructed in 1712. Peter was married inside. It was destroyed multiple times before the current one was constructed between 1818 and 1858. The cupola (dome) is a mix of mercury and gold. Prisoners were used for the construction and were freed if they lived. The cathedral was not bombed during WWII as it was used as a point of reference for the Nazis. The Russians suspected this and stored items from the palaces inside.

Inside St. Isaac Church, St. Petersburg

We visited the summer gardens where only dogs and sailors were not allowed so they would not disturb the noble ladies. The pond within is said to be where Tchaikovsky got the idea for Swan Lake.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was next. It was built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church was constructed between 1883 and 1907. In WWII it was used as a temporary morgue. After the war it was used as a warehouse to store vegetables.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

Next we visited an Impressionism art display which was part of the Hermitage Museum in Palace Square. I thought I would be very bored, but it was actually very interesting. Our guide knew a lot about the artists which added to the experience. Renoir, Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh’s works were displayed inside.

Palace Square, St. Petersburg

We then moved to the Winter Palace portion of the Hermitage Museum. We saw throne rooms, ballrooms, many paintings collected mostly by Catherine the Great, a statue by Michelangelo, Madonna paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, then some other palace rooms. We were thankful to have a guide to point out some of the important items in the museum. If we had gone alone and without any preparation we likely would have been stumbling around.

Inside the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

Our tour ended around 6:00 pm. We left our guide and walked over the river to Peter and Paul Fortress. We walked along the beach there then inside the fortress. Many souvenir shops were selling Putin shirts and mugs.

Peter and Paul Fortress across the water, St. Petersburg

We walked within the fortress for a bit then went around and back across the river. We went to a trendy courtyard with different restaurants. We chose a deli one. Silly me, I forgot to request no mustard so I was very disappointed with my sandwich.

We returned to our apartment which seemed extremely far away for our tired feet. We relaxed in the room before bed.

St. Petersburg was very different than I was thinking. The buildings were very grand and it didn’t look like other cities. I imagined the people in Russia would be different somehow as well, but they are just the same as us.

St. Petersburg
Day 152: August 11, 2018

We woke up and went downstairs for breakfast. Our transfer picked us up at 11:00 am and took us to the train station. The transfer driver’s car remote wasn’t working well and at one point while we were driving the alarm went off and the car stopped. He got it reset and we made it to the train station.

Around 45 minutes before we were to leave our track number came up. We bought burgers to eat on the train for lunch. The train left from St. Petersburg train station at 1:00 pm and we arrived in Moscow around 5:00 pm.

We tried to use an app similar to Uber to get a ride to our hotel, but the app said there was an issue. It said the cost for a cheap ride would be 350 RUB so we went out to get a cab. The first guy said it would be 2,500 RUB. It was going to be metered. I thought maybe that was just the cost so we agreed and got in. I guess we should have asked a couple of other drivers…

We arrived at the hotel and the driver said it was 4,000 RUB. We said that was ridiculous and he had said it was going to be 2,500 RUB which we already thought was extreme. We finally ended up paying part of it and walking out. He didn’t follow us so he must have been ripping us off. Danny was very upset. Inside the hotel, we sat to cool down for a bit.

The tour guide from GAdventures showed up with two other people on the tour. We chatted with the couple while our guide, Sasha, checked us in to the hotel. The couple is from New Orleans and are just retired.

We went up to our room and dropped our bags then hurried down to meet the group for supper. We walked a bit from the hotel to an interesting looking restaurant. Sasha suggested beef stroganoff in a clay pot so that it was what we had. We also had some very tasty vodka.

After supper we went to the grocery store and picked up some breakfast food and water. We figure it will be much cheaper than breakfast in the hotel. We then returned to the room for bed.

Day 153: August 12, 2018

We woke up at 7:30 am and went down to the hotel gym for 45 minutes. They had ALL the machines. Back at the room we had yogurt for breakfast then went to the lobby for 9:30 am to meet the group.

We took the metro to Red Square and met our guide for a tour of the Kremlin. Kremlin actually means fortified complex. The Moscow Kremlin was founded in 1147 and started as a small village with a wooden wall. In the 12th century the Mongols invaded and the village grew as people sought protection.

In the 14th century Russia had different principalities fighting each other. They were unified under Moscow and the tsar settled in the Kremlin. The Kremlin is now the working residence for the President, however, Putin does not live in the Kremlin at this time.

The Kremlin is divided into two parts: administrative and tourist. It covers 28 hectares. The walls originally had 18 towers which used to have double headed eagles on top. The Bolsheviks replaced them with a five pointed star which symbolized them populating five continents on their spread of communism.

The current Kremlin walls were built between 1485 and 1495. A yellow building in the square was built by Catherine the Great for the Senate. Later the Bolsheviks lived inside.

Inside the Kremlin, Moscow

We saw a 40 lb. canon cast in the 14th century and a huge bell that weighed 200 tons built by Empress Anne. There are very few birds in the Kremlin area as falcons are used to keep them away. The birds used to scratch the buildings many of which are gilded in gold.

We walked through Cathedral Square which has three cathedrals. We entered the Assumption Cathedral then the Archangel Cathedral. The third cathedral is the Cathedral of the Annunciation shown below.

Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow

We then went to the armoury, which was a museum. We saw dresses from the empresses, different carriages, Fabergé eggs, different gifts the Royal family received, armour and chain mail. I found it very interesting, but Danny was getting bored.

After the tour we were given free time. Danny and I went to the Red Square. There was a concert going on with stands covering the square so we didn’t get a very good view. We walked around to St. Basil’s Cathedral then over the bridge to get a good view.

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

We walked back to the square to see if we could find Stalin’s grave which we thought was near Lenin’s mausoleum, but we couldn’t find it. Leinin’s mausoleum is only open from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm every day and there is a huge line up to enter. We think Stalin’s grave must have been inside the mausoleum somewhere.

We walked up the road a bit to get a taste of Moscow away from the Kremlin are, but it was a pretty boring walk with not near enough ice cream. We returned to the Kremlin area and found the Metro station near the State Historical Museum.

Square in front of State Historical Museum, Moscow

Upon return to the hotel we chilled for a bit then went to a nearby Italian restaurant before bed.

St. Petersburg and Moscow have always been near the top of the cities I would like to visit. They both had much different vibes than I imagined. St. Petersburg is called the Venice of the North and it had a similar whimsical feel to Venice. I think the movie Anastasia gave me a different impression of St. Petersburg. Moscow I found a bit boring honestly. I was not as awed by the Kremlin as I thought I would be. Maybe I was growing tired of cities as well by this time. I would like to see St. Petersburg and Moscow in the wintertime covered in snow. I think it would give both cities a different feel.

Tomorrow we head out of Moscow to the countryside to visit some small towns. I’m looking forward to escaping the big cities for a bit.

M