It was a rocky start to our stay in Yekaterinburg. After feeling uncomfortable staying, we decided to leave our couch surfer after 11pm and head into the city centre to find a hostel. We got the last metro on the only line in the city and got out the guidebook as we had no internet. It listed two hostels. We found the building of the first but it was full of unknown signs, dark closed doors and bars (even an English pub). I got up the courage to ask in one bar that was closing, fearing to be shooed back out on to the street and instead was greeted with smiles and more and more people coming out from inside to help us. They’d never heard of Hostel Omnomnom, I felt silly even saying it. The guidebook was two years old now and the app 2GIS (amazing offline maps for Russian cities) said it didn’t exist, but there was a Hostel London in the building instead. Perhaps it had changed names? Our helpers even tried to call the number listed, it did not work. They knew there was something in the building and started walking round then pointed to a blank door. On opening, they pointed to the second floor (UK first floor) and we saw a sign for accommodation. We thanked them greatly and headed up. We had stumbled upon a kitschy hotel, decorated like it was the 70s and very similar to Fawlty Towers, where the woman simply said “no hostel” and gestured to go further back round the building. We left, headed round and tried all the other plain doors but nothing opened. At the English pub were several jolly Russian men drinking not in the pub, but outside from half full 2 litre unlabelled bottles. It was beer, not vodka at least. They found it funny and I think we made their night by asking them for help. They led us back to the same hotel door unfortunately. One more try in another bar and again a very friendly woman led us out and walked round the building again, pressed a button on a gate and led us into a car park. She handed us over to a stern looking butch security guard with a limp. We followed him, a little warily, and he led us to a brightly lit door. “Это хостел”, he said (“this is hostel”). We opened the door and we were warmly greeted by Oleg and Dennis, the latter of whom spoke some English. We had made it to the friendly and clean Hostel London for only £7.50 a bed a night. Bargain. Finally could relax at just before 1am. The Russian guy in the bunk next to us proceeded to listen to tinny Russian pop music – luckily we were so tired we just fell asleep to it.
After the shaky start, Yekaterinburg was a wonderful city full of friendly people who enjoyed our attempts at speaking Russian. Several more times when we needed help people appeared out of nowhere. We were a puzzle they had to work together to solve. It felt more welcoming then St Petersburg or Moscow. I mainly wanted to stop here and was aware of the city because it’s where the Romanovs were executed in 1918, nearly a hundred years ago. It’s much more than that of course, to Russians it’s probably more famous for its mining industry and the jewellery made from gemstones. I collected gemstones when I was a child and I was very pleased I could remember the names (they’re very similar in Russian). The Russian favourite representing wealth and hierarchy is malachite, my favourite as a child. (I was also told my name is very Russian and related to a town in the Golden Circle named Рязань pronounced ‘ryazan’, woman have the name ‘ryazana’ – my interest in Russia is growing.) Mostly all the malachite has been mined from the Urals now, though it’s still found in parts of Africa. In a park by the Iset River which flows through the city, various stones and rocks are littered with plaques we could not read. It was here we stumbled across a stage and live music – from Russian rap to Russian folk including men with sticks. And right next to the stage was a stall full of guns (rifles, not hnd guns) being taken apart and put together again – neither the people doing so or watching looked about 20 years old.
The capital of the Urals was founded in 1723 and real mix of very old and very modern buildings, as well as communist blocks. I was pleased to see signs in front of the old buildings in both Russian and English. It’s very walkable and full of monuments and statues everywhere, there’s even a statue of Michael Jackson down the main shopping street. I’m not sure what’s weirder, that or the qwerty monument by the river.
I wanted to spend longer here but there was one downside – pollution. After the first day our throats were dry and raspy, you could taste the dust and dirt in the air. Even after drinking a lot more the next day you still felt it in your throat. Yekaterinburg isn’t on the list of very highly polluted cities anymore, it’s only high…
Church on spilled blood
Tsar Nicolas II and Tsarina Alexandra Romanov with their five children and several servants were executed early one morning in 1918, in the basement of a house in Yekaterinburg. They had been exiled and held after the Tsar abdicated the throne in 1917 to the Bolsheviks. The execution was carried out badly and the bodies dumped in a pit on the outskirts of the city. Years later, after trying to blame left-wing revolutionaries for the killing and also claiming the Tsarina and a child were still safe and alive, their remains were dug up and reburied and the real truth came out after the USSR collapsed. Prince Phillip, a relation of the Romanovs, helped to prove the remains were true using his DNA in 1998. The house of the execution had been demolished fearing it would become a monarchist symbol and people would flock there. Instead, the Russian Orthodox religion built a church on the site and sainted the family, to which Russian tourists flock to. It was sad to walk around inside and outside the church knowing the story of the family. Nevertheless, however brutally they were killed, many many more were killed in worse ways throughout that era.
Before leaving this trip a friend gave me a travel diary of Colin Thubron who drove and camped through western Russian and USSR states in 1983. “Among the Russians” tells of his meetings with dissidents, every day people and the KGB. He notes how brides and grooms solemnly have their photos taken in front of important monuments and memorials and the bouquet is left there. In front of the church was a statue of a giant Orthodox cross surrounded by the seven Romanovs. A happy bride was posing on the steps and having her photo taken with her bouquet – a snapshot of Russian tradition.