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Published: August 6th 2007
Nico and typical Russian babushka
Women have to wear a skirt and a headscarf to enter Russian orthodox churches. These can be borrowed on the way in. Happily, this is a very good look for me.
Evgeny's friend Vitaly, a retired airforce colonel and former MIG pilot, now working as a nightwatch man in Evgeny's research institute (such is the state of the Russian pension system), drives us to our home for the next 2 days. Vitaly started learning English at the age of 70 and tries out a few phrases on us. V impressive. We say goodbye and climb up 4 flights of stairs in the soviet style apartment block to Evgeny's snug aparment. Fabulous Russian welcome, feel immediately at home. Try some Georgian red wine and some Russian beer,spicy sausage for Nico then to sleep in the comfy bed prepared for us. Like Evgeny straight away. It feels strange and good to turn up at a virtual stranger's house thousands of miles from home and be welcomed like this. I made contact with him through couchsurfing.com, a website on which people invite others to stay in their homes - no question of payment - just for the pleasure of meeting new people and offering hospitality to travellers. I read about it last year in the Guardian and thought it was a brilliant idea - planned to try it out as soon as I had a
chance, and this trip was it. So far so good.
Woken in the morning by the excited giggles and whispered childish russian of Evgeny's two daughters, Arina (4) and Polina (10). Breakfast with the family, including Evgeny's lovely wife Marina - freckles and brown hair, could be Irish no worries. We eat pancakes and a kind of Russian porridge, cake, fruit, cheese and bread. Eclectic and delicious mix. Suitably stuffed, we discuss plans for the day. We will visit Ekaterinburg's new museum, shopping centre, pick up tickets for the Ekaterinburg Phiharmonic Orchestra in the evening, and squeeze in a few sites relating to the Romanov family, last tsar of Russia.
Ekaterinburg is not the most obviously beautiful of cities - not helped by the drizzly snow and the grimy mud left by recent spring thaw. However the company is good, the buses are cheap (7 roubles = 15p - Ken Livingstone, take note) and a very nice person at the Philharmonic Theatre has sorted us out a rendez-vous with someone who has face value price tickets for tonights sold-out Rachmaninov gig. Above and beyond the call of duty - v impressed. Obviously realised what experienced and sophisticated appreciators
of classical music we are. Evgeny hails what we think is a taxi but turns out to be just a bloke who will drive us to meet the lady with the tickets. This is how it works here - anyone who wants to will stop and taxi you about if the price is right. Handy. Fon-a-cab would be quaking in their boots were this catch on in Norn Irn.
The museum is worth a look - in former KGB club house, constructivist architecture, cool spiral staircase, amazing 5000 or so year old wooden statue found in Ekaterinburg bogs and a cute stuffed baby bear who I am assured lived a good life and succumbed in the comfort of his own bed.
Concert is good too although the hall is a bit too warm and comfortable as evidenced by my light and attractive snoring through the first half. There isn't a spare seat in the place and the crowd are all ages, shapes and sizes. The orchestra gets a standing ovation (though not sure what the girl in front of us - who had her headphones on for most of it - is clapping about) Evgeny meets us in
the foyer afterwards and we walk through the city chatting and getting the Ekat insider gossip until the rain defeats us and we dive underground for a tour of the metro stations. Mad! Like 5 star hotels with chandeliers and everything! Unfortunately there is only one short line so almost totally empty. Still, that line goes nearly to Evgeny's house so we're laughing.
Highlight is trip to supermarket. No, really. 2 whole aisles devoted to vodka, caviar piled high, frozen berries in open baskets like pick and mix, dumplings and blini as far as the eye can see, chocolate bars wrapped in russian flag paper and cartons of apple juice called Nico. What's not to love? I can't get enough of food shopping in new countries😊 We get some mushroom pelmeni for me, caviar, meat pelmeni and more for the others and amazingly a bottle of Nico's favourite ale for Evgeny to taste (price equiv to about 8 litres of vodka). Dinner is another crazy affair with so much food on the table we can hardly squeeze our plates on. Nico delirious with happiness. Not sure whether we fall asleep or slip into a carb-induced coma.
Cross marks the spot
Where the murdered bodies of the last Tsar, his family, doctor and some servants were found
in Ekat and it's snowing. Hurray! All we need now are some furry hats and a couple of bears and my all my Russian stereotypes have come true. After a belly-dancing display from Polina (v popular in the Urals apparently) and a minor tantrum from Arina (who wants to come with us but is going to her grannys instead) we head off with Vitaly and Evgeny to visit the site where the bodies of the murdered Romanov family, last tsars of Russia, were found nearly 80 years after being shot, doused in acid, burned and dumped here. The Russian Orthodox church has built a cluster of atmospheric, incense and icon-filled wooden churches as well as a monastery here among the birch trees. It's a secluded site about 45 minutes drive from the city - feels like a different world as I don the obligatory headscarf and long skirt and watch the beared, dark eyed monks stride through the trees. The excavated burial pit has not been filled in but wild grasses now cover its base. Evgeny says in summer it is covered in flowers. A wooden walkway around the pit has a display of photographs - on one side black
and white pictures of the family, - formal portraits, the children playing, the tsar inspecting the troops, the tsar and his wife - on the other side modern shots of Russian Orthodox priests in full regalia blessing the site following confirmation of the identity of the recently discovered bodies. Depite the grim history the place does not have the gloomy, tragic feel I was expecting. I don't know why.
Back in Ekat we have tea and biscuits with Evgeny and Vitaly and a brief conversation in English about Vitaly's pets. Nico talks about his fine-french-cheese-loving dog and Vitaly roars with laughter - 'Dog is good!!'. More lovely dumplings and beer for dinner and loads of craic with Marina and Evgeny. Sad when they leave us off at the station for the 01:20 to Novosibirsk - many hugs and promises.
Good to be on the move and to be just the two of us again though 😊
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