After a full day of reading and drinking tea and looking out the windows of a train with only one other person in my compartment who spoke no English and kept the TV on all day despite only watching it about 15% of the time, I pulled in to Yekaterinburg for a whirlwind stopover before my 3-day-2-night train to Irkutsk.
Ksenia was my host for the night. I’d met her for about 5 minutes in Edinburgh when she was Couchsurfing with a friend of a friend who was helping deliver a couch to Eva’s new flat. She found out I was going to be in Yekaterinburg and insisted I stay with her, so I found her on Couchsurfing a few weeks later and locked it in. She’s only been speaking English for 2 months, so there was a language barrier, but we got by just fine on enthusiasm alone.
She and some of her friends met me at the train and took me to dinner, where I had borscht and pelmeni, traditional Russian stuff, and delicious! She and I then went to this Mexican themed bar called Agave to have a beer. The place was enormous but mostly empty. About 5 dudes sitting at the bar, one or two people at tables, and us.
Ksenia knew one of the comedian guys working there, Alex, who came over to say hello. Alex was very clean cut and was wearing a wooden bowtie. His sidekick, whose name I didn’t catch, was a bit scruffier and was wearing a green baseball hat with red antlers that said ‘Oh Deer’ or something like that. He sort of reminded me of Frank from 30 Rock.
When Alex discovered I was from Scotland, he later worked it into their act, quizzing the whole bar (well, all 10 or so of them) on all the Scottish things he could think of. The colour of the flag, whisky, kilts, the usual. And between comedy sets, the dynamic duo were replaced by a pair of scantily-clad men dancing on the bar to bad techno, trading off with a pair of scantily-clad women doing the same. I guess this would have been slightly less bizarre had there been some actual people in the bar, but the staff and the performers outnumbered the customers by at least double.
During this dancing one of the bartenders who had been reeling off names of single malts during the quiz with nods of encouragement from me sent me a bright blue cocktail as a gift. It was sweet and had a massive orange garnish. Not my usual thing but since he went to the pains of matching it to the Scottish flag, I gracefully accepted.
After the bar I was up til 2am sorting things on the WiFi, as ever. Then up early when I got ANOTHER amazing breakfast, this time pancakes filled with lots of lovely things. Went to drop my bag off with Ksenia at her work so I could walk around for a few hours unencumbered before my train. It was clear and sunny but absolutely freezing with lots of snow and ice on the ground. It’s the first day I’ve really felt very, very cold. It’s a wonder I never slipped badly enough to fall on my face too. I’m sure it’s going to happen at least once before I’m out of snow zone. I just hope it’s not when I’m wearing a full backpack.
I was roughly following the red line walking tour, which is literally a red line they’ve painted on the ground in a circular route around the city centre, going past all the main things you’d want to see. This is an incredible idea, and I was actually pretty surprised it wasn’t completely obscured by the snow and ice packed onto most of the ground. It’s so nice to have something to orient you without having to look at a map constantly. And I managed to see most of the major sights this way.
I kept having to duck into shopping centres and cafes to warm up, and I happened to stumble on this wee coffee shop called Papa Carlo. I walked in and asked if they spoke English, and one of the girls sitting at the counter said yes, we do! She was an English teacher, also called Kate, and she taught classes at the shop, including to the people who worked there. Timor was sitting with her and I asked him if they did stuff like Aeropress and Chemex and he was like, you’re our perfect customer!
I told him about my friends Steve and Kate’s shop, Machina Espresso, back in Edinburgh, and we chatted about coffee and stuff for a while. He made me a Moscow-roasted coffee two different ways as part of his preparation for a barista competition, and wondered how I’d found them (sheer luck) because not many people in town ‘get’ what they do yet. I was there for an hour or so and they refused to let me pay. Instead they made me promise to take pictures in Machina with their cards. Hopefully I can send them some stuff from Edinburgh because all my little Scottish gifts were in my big bag. And I’ve been telling everyone I meet headed west to check them out when in Yekaterinburg.
It was such a fantastic thing to happen, and I’m glad it did because without it the day would’ve been far less balanced. I walked around a little bit more and did some grocery shopping for the long train trip ahead before going to collect my bag and getting the metro to the train station. Then stress time started.
Just as I walked up to the station, everyone started coming the opposite direction and the police were clearing everyone away from the station and the entrance. I had no idea what they were saying and I was early enough not to panic yet, so I just kind of followed the crowd, randomly asking people if they spoke any English (no one did). Everyone was going to the outdoor entrance to the tracks and just crossing over the tracks to the platforms that way, but I had no idea where I was supposed to be and still no clue what was happening. And it was COLD. And my bag isn’t super heavy, but it’s not nice to wear for an hour in the cold, which is what I ended up doing.
I kept asking people if they could explain to me, but while everyone was very nice, most people didn’t have enough English to really help. One woman finally said ‘bomb’. So I assume there was a bomb threat or a suspicious package. I still don’t really KNOW. And it was getting closer to my train time, so I was getting more worried about what the hell to do, and colder. But I just kept having to tell myself to calm down and just take the next logical step.
I fished out my online ticket confirmation and found a group of police officers. None of them spoke English either, but I showed them the paper indicating I needed to know where to go. One of the women motioned for me to follow her and we walked towards the station and back while she spoke to someone on the phone. By the time she’d worked it out, they opened the station back up so I was able to go look at the board 10 minutes before my train arrived.
This all made me incredibly happy I didn’t store my bag at the station during the day because I may not have been able to get it back in time to board. And it was also a good move to get groceries earlier in the day or I’d have ended up on a 48 hour train ride with no food. All in all, it wasn’t a disaster of an experience but the language barrier and the cold can really make a confusing situation so much more intimidating and tiring.
I collapsed in a bit of a discombobulated heap when I made it into the train. This was also the only train when I’d requested a female only compartment, which was really nice after having shared with a lot of old dudes who didn’t seem to want to communicate in any way. And there was a girl in my compartment who spoke a little bit of English which was a fantastic relief after the kerfuffle in the station.
I do wish I’d had more time in Yekaterinburg because I got the impression it was a pretty awesome city, but I was incredibly happy to get on that train. However, I was probably just as happy to get off of it 48 hours later. More on which next time.