It’s no longer Europe, in Yekaterinburg
Lucky me, the Planet had a good tip in store for me this time. A travel agency, Sputnik, was a very good help in getting a place to stay in Yekaterinburg and also in getting a train ticket out of the city as well. Although the Planet stated that Sputnik was a one-man-setup, the place had grown to a reasonably sized office, with 5 very nice girls arranging travel services for a whole bunch of people at the same time.
The girl that helped me spoke perfect English and assisted me in finding a place to stay. She gave me a number of options in several price ranges and after deciding which one I wanted, told me where I could get a train ticket for leaving again. She had to check whether the hotel was available, which gave me time to first get the train ticket. The girl was going to help me in stopping a car in the street to get me to the train ticket office.
Turned out the car that she stopped held a couple that was very good friends with the girl that was helping me out. They too spoke very good English and dropped me off right in front of the ticket office. I said thanks and went inside. Here, it was chaos.
The whole office wasn't really small, but with the 25 or so counters and the long lines of people waiting in front of them, in addition to the hordes of people walking around from one place to the other, I had absolutely no idea where to go to get my ticket. The girl from Sputnik had been so nice as to write down, in Russian, where I would like my next ticket to bring me, Novosibirsk, so I had something to get me going. Question was, where to start.
I decided that a first good guess was to try it with the 'Office manager' and stood in line there. I figured that (with only three people ahead of me) that would be the quickest way in finding out from which counter I was to get my ticket. Turned out, I was lucky.
Although I had the idea the lady at the counter was constantly cursing me and she did walk away almost immediately after I gave her my piece of paper with the text saying where I needed to go, I had a feeling things where going better than I had hoped they would. She was actually arranging my train ticket for me! After a couple of minutes she demanded my passport, visa and some cash and only minutes later again, I walked out with a perfect ticket, entitling me to take a train, two days later, to Novosibirsk.
Back to Sputnik.
The Sputnik girl (who, together with her girlfriend from the car, had visited the Netherlands only months earlier) had checked the hotel, and they had rooms available for two nights. We took the company car, with chauffeur, and drove to the hotel. At the same time, the girl gave me a short tour of Yekaterinburg. Showing me the world trade center (with good hotel, restaurant and international newspapers), the circus and one or two other sights (Yekaterinburg just doesn't have that many sights).
At the hotel, together we looked at the room, she ordered it to be cleaned once more, I paid at the reception of the hotel the amount due and she was off. The room was a really good one, with bathtub, satellite TV, fridge and a very good and very big mattress. Only one drawback though: there was a curfew at twelve o'clock…
Yekaterinburg used to be called Sverdlovsk, after the man who masterminded the killing of the Romanov family (the former Tsars) at the beginning of the century. A big statue in the center of town, still reminds people of this gruesome act. A second memorial isn't to the mastermind himself, but to the ones he had killed. A wooden frame-of-a-church and a small chapel made out of wooden logs have been recently built on the exact spot where the house used to stand in which's basement the Romanovs had been shot.
Afraid of the house becoming something of a memorial during the Soviet regime, Yeltsin, who used to be party head here in Yekaterinburg, had it torn down. They never got round to building something else for it in return and recently it was agreed, a church would be built on the spot. They have long stopped building again. However, now its a real memorial and many people flock to the spot to remember the family.
The first stop of my tour into town led me to the WTC where I spent a couple of hours reading yesterday's Times and drinking expensive tea and coffee. I also managed to place a pricey call back home, which I hadn't managed from my hotel.
In many of the cities I went to, a lot of the streets still carry their old names. Many streets where re-christened after 1991 change, removing names of Soviet greats and replacing these names with their pre-Soviet counterparts. Here in Yekaterinburg, surprisingly, although many streets had changed names, most still carried their old street signs.
Since the Planet was wholy inaccurate (besides the Sputnik travel agency) in relation to Yekaterinburg, I had a hard time finding a place to eat. Just like anywhere else I had been, it was easy to get loads of ice cream or fast food, but finding something of a restaurant was a real task.
I bumped into something of a cafeteria where stale bread was served with watery soup and mushy fries (although I didn't know that until after I ordered), so at least I was able to get a hot meal. The place looked really tacky, with plastic plants everywhere, small rugs on the table, covered with see-through plastic with cigarette holes in it. The walls where covered with Christmas decorations (remember that this was only July) and everything was done in a very unstylish dark brown. To me, this was Soviet. The food definitely was Soviet; among the worst I had had. Anyhow, my tummy was filled again and I was able to wash it down with that Dutch beer of beers, Bavaria.
Feeling that the less then average meal I just had was in need for a supplement, I added a not-so-good slice of Pizza from one of the pizza stands and spent the rest of the evening at a neighboring terrace, enjoying the site of people passing by. As I went back to the hotel some time later, I came across a group of people doing karaoke. On the street.
Without a doubt they where very much enjoying themselves but I wandered what they would do with their equipment if it would start raining. And the sky looked like it was going to rain.
It is remarkable to see that Yekaterinburg is no longer Europe, but Asia. It could be any other city in European Russia. The buildings are the same, the shops are the same and sell the same goods. The people look the same and speak the same language, wear the same clothes and eat the same food. Still, its Asia and no longer Europe.