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July 18th 2010
Published: July 22nd 2010
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Six hours on a train whose rock-solid seats were shaped roughly halfway between an L and a < took me from the European Russian city of Perm across the Urals and into Siberia, finally releasing me into the city of Ekaterinburg. After so long of being jammed in between two passengers and staring directly into the faces of three others, as the seating arrangements had forced me to, I was at a loss as to what to do for the eight hours before my train would arrive and above all irritated and tired. I wandered lamely around the station area but could see little of any interest. Still seven and three quarter hours to go, damn it. I bought a shawrma and ate it. Aargh! Still seven hours and forty minutes, and now with that half-guilty, half-sick post-shawrma feeling. I changed some rubles to dollars, which I had heard were easier to exchange in Kyrgyzstan, my destination. When I looked at my phone and saw that there were still seven hours and twenty five minutes to go, I swore. The day was swelteringly hot. There was no free seating inside the station and exhaustion had long ago set in - I had been up until 3 packing and had woken up at 4:30 to catch my train. In exasperation I decided to go against one of my strongest principles: I signed up for a guided tour.

It was not as bad as it sounds. For US$7, the same price as my train ticket, I got an hour and a half on an air-conditioned minivan crammed full of people and a kindly, elderly, babushka guide whose voice could sadly only be described as a screech. Thankfully I had the front passenger seat next to the driver.

"Excuse me, young man, would you mind swapping seats with this lady?"

On hearing these words I turned round slowly, dreading what I might see and yes, Devil confound it, she was looking straight at me. The lady she was talking about looked as surprised as I felt.

"You sit where he's sitting," the guide said to the lady, "and you can sit where she's sitting."

"Why?" I asked.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said, drawing herself up to her full, still rather squat, height, "I didn't realise we had a foreign guest!"

"It's OK," I said, "I just don't understand why you want me to move."

"No, no, no problem, of course you don't understand..."

"Listen," I said annoyedly, "I understand what you're saying, I understand Russian, I just don't understand the reason why you want me to move."

"It's fine, fine, of course you don't..."

She was displaying a rather common Russian charisteristic of assuming that foreigners, because they don't know Russian, know nothing at all. It is shown at its most irritating when they ask you for directions in the street, not realising you are a foreigner. You tell them exactly and correctly how to get there. They, however, upon hearing your foreign accent, back off with a semi-embarrassed, semi-anxious expression on their face as if they are trying to escape from a conversation with a madman and without even having heard your instructions. I have been asked for directions in the street many times and every time the person has reacted in the same way.

"Look," I said to the woman I was being asked to swap with who was clearly as confused as I was, "do you want to sit here?"

The blank expression remained on her face for a second. She glanced at the guide then at me before saying embarrassedly, "Well, if you don't mind..."

"Of course I don't mind," I lied, getting up and shooing her into my old seat, the best in the entire van. I sat down in one of the only two backwards-facing seats and, as we set off, curled my neck round uncomfortably to look out the front. I never did find out why we were asked to swap seats.

Our first stop was one of Russia three "Churches on Blood", places of worship commemorating the murder of a member of the royal family. This one was an impressive golden-domed structure built after the fall of the Soviet Union on the site of the merchant's house where the last Tsar, his family and children had been murdered after the Bolshevik Revolution. We saw the room, a few paces to the right of the altar, where according to a member of the firing squad the bodies had had sulphuric acid poured on them to dissolve the flesh and prevent them from becoming objects of veneration.

After that our bus passed some fascinating old buildings and some stunning views across the river but we were not allowed to get off at any of them. Instead, our only other stop was in a rather dull area below a bridge whose only notable feature was a giant rock that the guide got particularly excited about. She also pointed out various factories, hotels and banks as we walked back to our vehicle.

We drove on to the zoo where half our passengers got out. "Are you sure you don't want to go to the zoo?" she asked me.

"I'm fine thanks," I replied, "I'll come back to the station with you."

"Are you sure I didn't upset you by asking you to swap seats?" she asked me for the third time since we had begun our tour.

"No, no, no, really it's fine."

We drove on. After she had had and won an argument with the driver about how much longer was left before our 90 minutes were up, we stopped and had the history of yet another factory explained to us.

The other mind-numbingly boring hours I spent waiting for my 54-hour train to Kyrgyzstan do not even bear going into.

Click this link for advice on independent travel in the Urals


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