As well as crossing the Urals, the 'Trans-Siberian Handbook' informed me that we had passed through the town of the chemist who developed the Periodic Table, near the birthplace of Tchaikovsky, and past the country's largest freight yard at Perm... but, along with my snoring carriage-companions, I had slept through them all - thank God for earplugs!
Stumbling down the steps from the carriage, onto a dimly lit platform, my watch read 0609 but, as we had gained two hours since Moscow, my protesting body clock was saying otherwise. After depositing my pack in left luggage till my 22.55 departure, I shuffled into the welcoming waiting room, planning on a couple more hours of sleep, only to find out that use of the room is charged at 1.50 euro an hour! It wasn't that I couldn't afford it, it was the principle of the matter that bothered me, but having briefly stepped back out into the gusty main hall, I opted to cough-up and then spread myself out for some shut-eye.
Ekaterinburg, in an region rich in iron ore, began to develop in the early 1700s with the establishment of an ironworks to furnish weapons for Peter the Great's warmongering. It is better known, however, as the location of the murder of the Romanovs- Tsar Nicolas, his wife Alexandra, and their five young children. They had been imprisoned here by the Bolsheviks who, perceiving them and their supporters, the White Army, as a threat to the security of the new order, had them shot and their bodies burned and disposed of in a nearby mine. Having previously read the story, heard about the later 'Anastasia imposter', and viewed the St Petersburg tombs where the remains were finally interred in 1998, I felt compelled to visit the site of the brutal murders.
In honour of the now canonised 'Tsar martyrs', The Church of the Blood now stands in place of the house where the royals met their end. I perused the enlarged early 1900s photos of the family, displayed around the outside of the memorial, the aristocratic lifestyle depicted marking a sharp contrast with the towering modern city blocks in the background. Inside, the sanctuary was brightly lit by huge chandeliers, below which were gathered a cluster of old women, heads bowed before the richly-robed priests saying mass. Delighted at this opportunity to indulge in some aural therapy from the choir, but too tired to
stand at length, I sidestepped as inconspicuously as possible, over to the bench provided for the old and infirm - this morning I felt that I qualified on both counts! As a stern security guard approached me, I feared I would be asked to move, but instead he indicated that I must cover my head, as is conventional in an Orthodox Church. I rifled through my daypack and pulled out my brightly patterned fish sarong to drape over my hair, a garish contrast to the others present, and closed my eyes to enjoy half an hour of vocal harmony.
The rest of my tour of the city was led by Tania, local couch-surfing member, doctor and mum, who showed me around some of the sights, took me to a cheap eatery to sample 'Uralski pelmeni', delicious local-style dumplings filled with wild mushrooms and cream, and then did me the massive service of taking me home to her flat to use her shower... extremely welcome after two nights on a train! We sat and chatted for a couple of hours in her bright kitchen and she explained the difference the end of the Soviet era has made
to her life: she described her time as a young doctor when public employees endured six months without pay due to insufficient funds and she had to cross the city on foot to reach work, lacking enough for a tram fare, while pointing out that, even when she did have money in her pocket, she had to queue at length to try and buy the meagre rations in stock in the shops. While corruption is endemic and public money mismanaged, at least she gets paid a reasonable wage now, allowing her to live in a comfortable home with her daughter and to choose what to eat, knowing she has the means to buy it.
I could have stayed and talked much longer but I had another train to catch... this time for three nights until my next day stop in Irkutsk.
I awoke to find myself in Asia, my train having crossed the Urals in the night, the mountain range marking the Europe/Asia boundary. Ekaterinburg is just three hundred km from the beginning of Siberia and the inhospitable cold winds whirling round the station certainly suggested this, as did the row of shops selling big fur coats and hats, on the main street.