The border crossing between Kazakhstan and Russia was easily the most hassle-free of our trip. We reached the Kazakh side of the border at 1am, expecting a thorough questioning as we had experienced at the Kazakh side of the border with China. Instead the Kazakh officials boarded, recorded our passport details and placed the exit stamps on our visa page without further questioning and deboarded. At the Russian border officials likewise checked and stamped our passports. The entire ordeal was over in maybe an hour and a half, unexpectedly leaving us most of the night to sleep.
It is incredible how quickly and dramatically the landscape changed as we crossed the border. For weeks we had been in dusty arid lands of little to no vegetation save the spindly rigid grasses and a few lonely struggling trees recalcitrant to the oppressive dry heat. And literally overnight a change as we woke following our early morning border crossing to fields of black dirt wet with the snow melt, and everywhere the white of mature birch trees. The small farm towns out our train window consisted of old unpainted wooden homes alongside deeply tilled pitch black dirt ready to be sown, a stark contrast to central Asia’s adobe homes and dusty soil that trails away into the wind when tilled, a practice the Kazakhs at least still employ for some unfathomable reason. It was a heartening sight to see all of this abundant life after months of sterility, but it must be said that while their nature is sterile the character of central Asia’s people is as alive as it gets. Perhaps in Russia the roles are reversed.
Ekat, as the locals refer to Ekaterinberg, proved a warm welcome to Russia. That we had such a nice experience in a town which is routinely left off tourist itineraries was in no small part due to our amazing couchsurfing hosts Alyona and Dima, who went out of their way to make us feel welcome and took us out to show us the city.
Ekaterinberg is a fairly typical Russian city, it’s center a mix of splendid older buildings and tastefully consistent newer structures all oriented along the gentle Iset River. It has two features of the Soviet era that define many Russian cities in remaining Khrushchev era flats and a large prominent Lenin statue, this one depicting him as he might be delivering a speech.
Romanov Death Site and Church upon the Blood
We were visiting Ekat one week before the Russian orthodox Easter and the churches were generally quite busy. The upstairs portion of the Church was closed, but in the lower section many were praying and bringing in pussy willow branches as is the custom on the weekend before Easter. During our visit, the priests walked through the gathered worshipers and observers singing, praying, and blessing with incense. One priest then approached the altar and continued to sing, something we were told might continue on for quite some time.
The adjacent museum about the Romanovs was in only Russian, and we were left to mostly viewing photos about this place where the Bolsheviks killed the last tsar and his entire family, though we also asked Alyona and Dima to translate certain items.
Ekaterinberg City Center
We spent much of our time in the city just walking and enjoying the pleasant city center. There isn’t much in the way of tourist stops here but we found Ekaterinberg to be a very nice city and a pleasant place to walk around.
We did stop at the Metenkov House Photo Museum which displayed various artists and their photographic work. There were a few old cameras and such, but the main focus were the artistic exhibits, including an exhibit of photos taken by non-Russian artists before, during and after the fall of the Soviet Union which we found interesting.
The exterior of the 100 year old theatre was quite nice as well. While it was closed and we could not enter, photos posted outside the building showed the inside to be a classically decorated old theatre with red velvet cushioned seats and clean white balconies with gold gilded trim.
We went to see the movie Samsara under Alyona’s recommendation and this wordless documentary set to music was definitely an interesting watch. It shows some of the best and worst of the world with absolutely stunning photography and videography from 25 countries.
On Alyona and Dima’s suggestion, we stopped at a restaurant and tried pelmeni and vareniki, which are delicious Russian dumplings. Pelmeni are filled with savory items like lightly spiced meats and veggies while vareniki were sweet dessert dumplings filled with cottage cheese, apple/honey or cherries. Our favourite w the vareniki filled with the cherries and served with cream or the cottage cheese served with raspberry jam. We had never realised that cottage cheese could be so versatile and delicious.
Another Russian specialty we were introduced to here was the old Soviet era soda machine. The original machines dispensed either plain carbonated water or fruit flavored water into a communal glass which was connected to the machine on a chain and was rinsed by a clean water jet before the beverage was dispensed. The somewhat more modern version will for about 25 rouble ($0.75) dispense the flavored soda of your choice into a disposable plastic cup – be that flavor lemon, pear, cream, or the green-colored tarragon-flavored soda known as tarkhun.
Alyona and Dima made our stay in Ekaterinberg a great one. When couchsurfing, there is no expectation for the hosts to provide anything but a place to sleep but Alyona and Dima went well beyond this by making dinner and breakfast, helping us with mailing items, showing us how to easily buy train tickets at the incredibly simple to operate electronic kiosks, showing us around the city and helping us buy a SIM card (which is incredibly complicated in Russia – they still have regional roaming). We had many issues with the SIM card and they called customer service and dealt with it all. We were so grateful and comforted to know that people like them exist in the world. As we have been traveling, we keep running into such people that display generosity so are so very unselfish. It’s a great feeling and a lesson that we will take away from our travels.