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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  



August 11. YEKATERINBURG  The next morning we ran into Guy and Stephanie heading out for breakfast.  Together we made an exhaustive search for something that we could consider breakfast food.  The term Cafe in Russia tends to refer to a small restaurant more than a place that serves coffee and pastries.  We tried one such cafe but only found lunch type meals.  The man at the next table we being served up a shot of vodka and beer with his meal, and it wasn't even noon!  We continued our search until we found a small market serving Nescafe and some passable, if not fresh, baked goods.  The customers there were also getting their early morning supplies of beer and vodka.  

After breakfast we split up from Guy and Stephanie to tour the city.  The weather was spotty but we were getting used to the rain at this point.  The city was pretty with a more European feel than Irkutsk.  Many of the buildings were pastel colored with white ornate trim.  Through the middle of the city ran a wide river that reflected the domes of the nearby Church of the Blood.  We started our tour by visiting the souvenir market.  It was the standard stuff we had already seen but I found some interesting pins and Rob found a great collection of Russian money.  He passed over all of the stalls without much luck until we notice a woman waiving us over to the side.  On a nearby bench sat an elderly man neatly dressed in a short sleeved button down shirt and slacks with his somewhat long white hair brushed back behind his ears.  The woman appeared to be his daughter and she quietly watched as he opened a very well organized binder of money.  It was all sorted neatly into categories with prices noted on the sides.  As Rob thumbed through he silently pointed out different unique features of certain bills.  He didn't speak because he didn't know English but because he appeared to have a problem with his throat.  Rob finally decided on a set of bills and the sale made the old light up and he even threw in a couple of old Russian bills for free.  As we walked off he made a garbled sound to his daughter and she said, "Thank you."  Taking a break after our rigorous souvenir shopping Rob decided to buy another set of the old man's money.   He looked surprised to see us again but was happy again when Rob bought more of his bills.   He tried to give Rob more free bills in addition to what he had bought but Rob reciprocated by giving him some Mongolian money and crisp dollar bill.  He was really a charming old man and we had a good feeling that he was a serious collector of money and was charging fair prices for what he was selling.  

The weather improved throughout the day and we continued on our tour around the city.  There was an awesome statue of a Russian soldier in a defeated crouching positions, his gun  standing vertically in front of him.  Around him stood black pillars commemorating the many recent wars of Russia's Soviet history.  It was a powerful and depressing monument.  Across the street was the Military Museum, not currently open, but in front stood a military truck, a tank and an anti-aircraft missile, the same model used to down the US U2 plane near Yekaterinburg.  The museum was supposed to house some remnants of the plane.

Some of the historical buildings in the city were quite dilapidated but much reconstruction work was underway.  The city has had an interesting history as the place where Russia's last Tsarist family, the Romanovs, were brutally murdered by communists and the home town of Boris Yeltsin.  The newly constructed Church of the Blood was built to honor the Romanov family as they have now been raised to the status of saints.  The new church was impressive and we happened to catch the end of an evening service.  The Russian Orthodox service takes place standing, which is probably one reason that most Russian churches seem taller than they are long.  The congregation stands as the priest faces the alter and gives mass.  Unlike the clean cut image of many Catholic priests the Orthodox priests have longer hair and beards, very much in the image of Christ.  Many that we saw seemed quite young as well.  The singing by a group of women in the upper balcony during the service was chillingly sweet.  

In the lower part of the church there was a memorial to the Romanov family with photos.  The church was constructed next to the place where they were murdered but their remains have been taken to St. Petersburg for final burial.  For years the fate of all family members was uncertain but modern day DNA testing has confirmed that the remains of the family have all been recovered.

The city of Yekaterinburg was undergoing plenty of reconstruction and many of the buildings had already benefited from some work.   It would be a much more attractive city once all of the work is complete.  However, like in Irkutsk there were groups of beggars lingering outside the churches.  They were of all ages and some were quite persistent in asking for money.  Certainly not unique to Russian cities (San Francisco, for instance) but at least some indication that in spite of the increasing city wealth there were some that still needed help.  The heart went out more to the older people that we saw because the fall of the communist system has left them in retirement age without any retirement funds.  

Our walking tour took us a good full day but we stopped part way through to break for lunch.  It was the first day that I had been able to handle much food at all and I was craving something mild to eat.  The heavy Russian food with mayonnaise and sour cream was not very appealing.  We ventured into a Japanese sushi restaurant, of all places, and had some pretty mediocre food (especially for the price) but it was easy on the stomach.  It was late when we returned to the hotel but we still met up with Guy and Stephanie for a late bite.  They were off early the next morning for Moscow.

August 12. YEKATERINBURG  On our last day in Yekaterinburg we tried to visit some of the museums but soon realized that is was Tuesday and most were closed.  That is what happens when you lose track of what day of the week it is.  For breakfast we ate some pastries at a general market.  The service in many places had been quite unfriendly compared to Irkutsk.  We struggled to mail some postcards and were lucky to have an English speaking woman give us some help or we would never had found the correct mail slot.  The concept of using gestures seems lost on many Russians and the effort of trying to communicate with foreigners is more than they want to bother with.  It gets tiring after a while when you have to go through so much effort to express simple things to people that just don't care one way or another.

Rob wanted to get another piece of money from the old man at the souvenir market but we didn't find him around that day.  He probably only comes out sporadically when his daughter can join him and act as his voice.   Feeling fairly done with Yekaterinburg we used the rest of our morning to write emails and finished our visit with lunch at Subway sandwiches.  If we had found that a day earlier I would have forgone the overpriced sushi meal!

When we went to collect our bags at the hotel we tried to ask them to call a cab but didn't get any results.  Our phrase book was incredibly broad in its coverage of topics including useful words for going mushrooming in Russia and how to tell someone they have a nice bum but they neglected the phrase, "Will you call me a taxi?"  Using gestures I think the woman understood but instead just waived us outside to find one on our own.  We stood on the nearby street corner and watched car after car go by but none of them were taxis.  Getting worried that we wouldn't get to the train station on time we decided to try a Russian gypsy taxi, i.e. anyone that will stop and let you pay them to take you somewhere, only a step above hitchhiking.  After a few minutes a young man stopped and only asked us to pay half as much as the taxi we had used to get into town.  It worked out well and with two of us there seemed to be little risk in getting a ride that way in broad daylight.

Our cabin mates on the train were a grandmother and granddaughter this time.  We were having incredibly good luck.  We had heard many stories of getting stuck in a cabin with drunk Russian men.  The granddaughter was about six and was a bright blue eyed little girl with long blonde hair.  The grandmother didn't look old enough to be her grandmother either.  She was a full figured woman with red hair.  We used our phrase book to communicate a bit but the most we understood about their plans were that they were coming from the far East of Russia.  The grandmother made some attempts at trying to explain Russian grammar to us but we could only return a glazed look.  We hadn't even mastered our numbers yet.  In thumbing through the phrase book she came upon the section of swear words and gave us a shocked look.  We just shrugged and shook our heads.  We hoped that she didn't find the section on "Intimate Russian" that Lonely Planet felt necessary to include in their phrase book.  They were really trying to do too much with the phrase book.  We just needed more info on foods, not how to explain to someone you just met on a trip that you need to discuss your relationship!  For people that want that kind of holiday perhaps they should just buy a complete Russian dictionary.   The granddaughter was adorable and was trying to play games with us up until she had to go to bed.  For all of the inhospitable people we seemed to encounter during a regular day in Russia it was sure nice to get good cabin mates on the train.

TRANS SIBERIAN RAILWAY Ulan Ude Aug 6-7 Irkutsk Aug 4 Aug 5-8 Yekaterinburg Aug 8-10 Aug 11-12 Kazan Aug 13 Nizhny Novgorod Aug 14 Golden Ring Aug 15 Aug 16-17

MOSCOW Aug 17-19 Aug 20-21 Aug 22-23