Somewhere before Yekaterinburg a monolith marks the symbolic border between Europe and Asia in the middle of the Ural mountains (they are not really high, they are more like hills), but I was not able to see it.
In any case, Yekaterinburg felt much more European than Kazan.
Light snow greeted me on my arrival, but easily enough I walked all the distance to the far centre from the train station (around 40 min), to get a room at Hotel Bolshoy Ural.
It was not very cheap and the rooms were definitely seedy, with a noisy sink inside, cracked wooden floors, doors that didn’t closed properly, corridor toilets in a very bad state, and shared showers in the basement.
The facade of the building was cracked also, and some bits really fallen down.
But as most rooms in Russia it was overheated (I always wondered about the huge amount of energy they waste in every building of Russia for months and months of winter weather), and the bed was not that bad.
Yekaterinburg itself was not very charming.
It is not an ugly city at all, but there are very few reasons for tourists to stop by, apart from the obvious landmark of the fictitious division between Europe and Asia.
It has some interesting buildings, some old and some of modernist architecture, and the general impression is quite agreeable, especially around the pond in the middle of the town. But a walk around is enough to see what the city has to offer.
Unfortunately I couldn’t meet anyone in Yekaterinburg, despite I had arranged meeting with a Russian girl I met in my hometown at a Japanese party just days before my departure, and that I was also supposed to meet a friend of a Moscovite friend of mine.
If I had had a Spring day in Nizhniy and a wintery one in Kazan, then I had both on the same day in Yekaterinburg. The weather was very changeable; it was sunny and warm during the morning and the noon, snow almost nowhere to be seen on the pavement, but all of a sudden a windy snowstorm arose and then we had metres of snow on the streets. Crazy.
Undoubtedly the bizarrest of all things in Yekaterinburg is the cult around the deceased Tsarist Royal Family.
After the October Revolution in 1917, which gave way to the first ever Socialist State, the Tsar Nicholas and his family fled to Eastern Russia, but they were captured and executed in Yekaterinburg.
Nowadays the Russian Orthodox Church has established a cult around them, and even cannonized them as Saints and Martyrs.
Now in the place of the massacre some three newly built temples stand and inside the main church you can behold the icons of the Tsar’s Family, even with the Saints’ Aureolae, and people kneeling in front of them, kissing the images, praying and everything.
Outside there is a tomb where people regularly deposit roses and other flowers.
The experience inside the train
After two days in Yekaterinburg I had a real challenge before me: spending two days inside the transsiberian train, some 52 hours, no stops.
No Russian people do like that, I changed at least three times of companions in the four beds compartment.
And, just for the record, I had 2nd class tickets (kupe), for the first time, since I had been travelling in 3rd class (platskart) all the time.
The main difference is that in 2nd class the comparments are limited to 4 beds and they can be closed and locked, so allegedly you can have more privacy, while in 3rd class all the beds are exposed to the corridor in a big open compartment.
I must confess that it was hard in the beginning.
Many circumstances joined together made the trip a little more difficult.
I need to say that I was having a hard time coping with Russian behaviour at times all over my journey in these lands. They can be really rough, strict, inflexible and irrational sometimes.
Well, when I got on the train I only wanted to stay on my upper bed, calmly and undisturbed, but that was obviously not possible when you share your comparment.
Russians feel they really need to communicate while on board and there is no escape to that, probably they feel much more obliged to talk with their companions when confined in a 2nd class compartment than in the 3rd class open compartment (remember this if you are taking the transsiberian).
They know the trip is going to be long so they are in that travelling mood when you need to socialise in order to pass the time faster.
It can be both a warming welcome or an unnecessary annoyance, depending on how you consider the matter.
Even if you don’t understand what they are saying they keep and keep trying, and in the end I was surprised that I understood much of what they told me in Russian, in spite of my limited knowledge.
Some old guys get really drunk and annoying, even possibly violent if you reject their invitations. I tried pretending I didn’t understand, but trust me, that doesn’t work.
They share all the food they have in the compartment and it is not uncommon that they offer you vodka or some shots of other alcoholic drinks.
One funny thing is that soon after I departed from Yekaterinburg finally I learned how to use the tap in the toilet of the wagon.
They all work in the same way from Ukraine to Vladivostok, and so far I had thought simply that there was no water in the toilet.
But there was! Only that at both sides of the tap there were two wheels, which misleaded me to think that if I turned them water was going to pour down from the tap.
To get the water from the tap you only had to push upwards below the tap, touching directly the source of water. Not very convenient, but at least I could wash my hands and brush my teeth!
So well, it was boring, but I passed the time talking, reading (Anna Karenina), writing and watching films on my laptop.
It was far worse this first ride than the second one, when I took my final train from Irkutsk to Vladivostok.
My only stop in Siberia: Irkutsk
An error of calculation didn’t let me know that I was arriving at 3 a.m. to Irkutsk till I was already on board.
All times in train tickets in Russia are set to Moscow time, but I didn’t realise this when I checked the ticket, so I thought I was going to arrive at 9 p.m.
Russia is very long and Siberia spans through many time zones, which that in itself has an effect on a traveller of long distances, a kind of a slow-motion jet-lag.
Funnily enough, I tried to live at Moscow time inside the train (and had my watch set to this time), so my body were not so tired when I got to Irkutsk, but I had only partial success.
Inside the train, I went to sleep when my watch showed 10 p.m. and woke up when it was 10 a.m., but of course reality was different, so actually I slept past midnight and woke up past noon.
In any case, I was lucky and my Couchsurfing host in Irkutsk saved me!
I had contacted her only some days before, and our last communication said that she was going to meet me at 9 p.m. But only later I realised that I was not arriving till 3 a.m.
Anyway, she saw my train was arriving at that time and came to pick me up and drive me to her place (30 min. walking away from the centre).
And she even had to work early in the morning next day… I am amazed by that kindness of spirit that allows such a sacrifice for your guest. I won’t be able to forget this.
Next day I walked around Irkutsk, a city with its charms but no clear sights either (that happened for the most of Russia).
I found out about the timber houses in Siberia, quite different from those of the European Russia, and more colourful.
I must remark that Irkutsk is a big city with 1 million people population, and that people don’t feel that they are in the middle of nowhere as I thought.
In fact, there are big cities every six hours on the train all over Siberia, so further north is unpopulated, but at both sides of the railroad, it is not so empty.
On the following day I day-tripped to the shore of Lake Baikal, some 60 kms away from Irkutsk, but there was nothing much to see, for it was still completely frozen: two metres deep of ice, even cars were freely driving on top of it.
I walked on the ice too, but I was kind of cautious, not to slip, and moreover, not to step on broken ice and fell into the lake, haha, very unlikely!! But that’s how I felt.
I was awed by the beauty of the frozen waves, forming suggestive shapes, curves, slopes, peaks…
There were also transparent layers of ice that almost allowed you to peek into the crystalline waters of the lake.
There was a nondescript port and a poor-looking fish & souvenir market where vendors tried to get my attention, happy to see a turist.
On my way back to Irkutsk I met two Australian son the bus, who were the first travellers I met in Russia.
I suffered an episode of TD, perhaps thanks to the tap water I drank (they told me it was completely safe, because Baikal is the greatest source of drinkable water in the world), and a bizarre situation that I won’t tell here.
Last stop: Confusion & Last Minute Diversion
No soon had I returned to my host’s in Irkutsk that I read about the earthquake that had just happened in Japan and dramatically changed the course of my journey.
In the first moment I was just worried, but I thought that everything would be fixed soon. I was going to be in Japan just in about a week later.
So I got on the transsiberian train for the last time, heading to Vladivostok.
Before that, I spent my last night in Irkutsk at the resting room of the train station, because I was departing very early in the morning, but the story of how crappy that night was is too long to be properly told here and now.
This was probably what is going to be my longest train ride or ride whatsoever in a looong time. More than 70 hours.
But I was more mentally prepared than on the previous ride, so it was not that hard.
Besides, I only crossed two time zones, so almost no “train-lag” there.
Aaannd, I was so lucky that I got, just by chance, the first comparment of the carriage, which only has two beds, and is more spacious. For the same price/ticket, of course.
I shared it only with quite a silent guy, and not for the total length of the ride.
I was surprised too that they served us food trays, breakfast and lunch, so I didn’t have to bring my own food.
A memorable coincidence was that I was watching the classic movie Dersu Uzala just when we were crossing the taiga, and the characters arrived to Khabarovsk when my train was just passing by.
I arrived to Vladivostok around 7 a.m., exhausted yet again but with a big smile of illusion. The transsiberian journey had ended, the real trip was about to start.
The end of the uninterrupted railway from my hometown almost 10.000 kms West of there.
Then the nightmare started.
After 3 days isolated from the world, I had tons of messages of friends and relatives telling me that the situation in Japan has gotten far worse, and that I should not go there.
I dedicated some minutes to read thoroughly the news on the net, and saw the catastrophe caused by the tsunami and the radiation leaks into air, sea and ground in Fukushima.
The fact that I was crossing the whole of Russia in March as fast as possible just in order to get to Japan, my real desired destination, made the situation far more frustrating.
I wandered looking for a place to crash, but it was not that easy, and the streets were chaotic (badly paved, no street names, littered and crappy looking).
Due to the effect of the sea, snow was very very scarce in the streets, and the temperature was warmer, but the wind was chilly.
I didn’t see anything special in Vladivostok apart from the beautiful and emotive end-of-the-rail train station and the port, full of Navy ships.
Yul Brynner’s birthplace was Vladivostok’s main attraction, I guess, so you can picture it.
I wasn’t in the mood for anything, really. I was tired, hungry and depressed. I had spent all my energies in the longest train ride ever with just one purpose, and then it couldn’t be done.
I got a room in a really expensive hotel (Hotel Vladivostok), overnighted there and next day, saddened but hopeful, I got aboard of the Korean-run ferry to Donghae, South Korea.