Monday, 21 April 2008

Just open the damn door

Leaving Kazan for Yekaterinburg, we share our carriage with an imposing, swarthy Russian worker, with blackened fingernails and a surprising taste for cognac, not vodka. Not an obvious linguist, but after some basic introductions, and the production of a small bottle of whisky, he is more than happy to chat away quite charmingly....albeit in part sign-language, part Russian, very tiny part English. His compatriot in the other bunk is less chatty (and didn't bring any drink, earning him some disapprobation from our new friend Sergei), but our questions spark a political debate between the pair that lasts well past our bedtime.
Yekaterinburg is our welcome to Russia's slightly schizophrenic political history. The memorial to the Romanovs is here, in "The Church of the Blood" near the place of their execution. There are several paintings of the Tsar and his family inside the church, and a collection of some of their jewellery (supposedly - one of the watches is suspiciously modern). Across the road is a memorial statue for young communists of the Urals (the local area) and the city is also the home of Boris Yeltsin.
Other than that it is a less interesting place than we were led to believe, although that could be something to do with the fact that three out of three of the supposedly fascinating museums we tried to visit were closed. One for a holiday; one for refurbishment and one that had simply vanished and been replaced with a building site. None of the museums had much outside them to indicate what they were - it was simply a case of deciphering which door was most likely to be an entrance and then wandering in, not particularly cautiously, until someone shouted at us or told us it was closed, or simply turned away when we tried to explain that we didn't speak much Russian and could someone tell us whether the museum was open. Hmm.
Back out on the streets, Yekaterinburg is no different to other Russian cities - mostly concrete skyscrapers with the odd traditional wooden house dotted here and there, and shops with blacked out windows so that there's no way of telling whether it sells computers, vegetables or clothes. We are briefly misled into thinking that there a lot of mexican restaurants until we realise that MEXX is Cyrillic for fur (as in furry boots) and actually, there's just a big trade in animal skins. Being Scottish and at a loss for something to do, we quickly identify the off-license and treat ourselves to a bottle of Russian champagne. (About 2 of your British pounds, thankyouverymuch)
Our hotel is something of a museum piece in itself. Reception and concierge alike would rather die before smiling at you, and the room we have booked is a twin with a sink, furnished in a delightful 1970s swirl of brown and orange. Toilets are down the hall (paper not always provided) and showers, which cost 20 roubles extra, are 4 floors down in the basement and communal. Breakfast is odd on the first day - madeira cake and bread paired with rice, frankfurter sausages, cheese slices and watered down juice. On the second day it is unspeakably awful - squares of cold omelette, plain spaghetti, something that looks like a cross between american grits, rice porridge and wallpaper paste and goes untasted.
One success - we did manage to go to the opera. Dress smartly warned our guidebook, and indeed the Yekaterinburg opera house is one of the nicer pieces of architecture we have come across so far. With faces duly scrubbed, shoes wiped, best gear assembled and even jewellery, makeup and perfume applied (especially on Athole) we arrived for our performance of Tosca, groomed for an evening of sophisticated music and theatre. However, the rest of the audience seemed more interested in swapping seats to get the best view of the stage, noisily discussing the plot and unwrapping the many-layered bags of sweeties they had brought to pass the time. Apparently you can pay for a cheap seat, then move to a more expensive one once the performance starts if they are unoccupied. Hence the vast game of musical chairs that took place during the 3 intervals. Still, the music WAS lovely.
So what have we learned about Russia so far? It is a country of closed doors. You just have to be bold enough to wrench them open and peer inside to see if it's what you're looking for.

1 comment:

Cursed Tea said...

hi guys
sounds like you are having a blast!! what's with the scottish music/pub thang in Russia?? the wooden hoosies look very similar to the n'awlins hoosies -only they paint them here ... oh but you'll get to see for yourselves!!!! ... its going to be wonderful to see you both!! (although by that tie you may be hankering for a bacon butty and an irn bru - I'll have to see what I can do - at the least I'll make shortbread :)

And the Russian opera goers must all be professional musicians - that's exactly the kind of thing we do when we go to concerts and get crap seats :)

enjoy, take care, stay safe
lots of love
Kirst & Dazza