Time for Tea in Vladivostok

There’s an English tea-room in Vladivostok??? Indeed there is. This is me in my real-life job, as a reporter:



The Train’s The Thing

(November 2001)

As if going to Mongolia wasn’t a memorable enough experience in itself, the train journeys to and from Ulaanbaatar were beyond unforgettable.

To Ulaanbaatar

After I boarded the train in Ulan-Ude I met five other Westerners travelling with the same company as me. I would be sharing a compartment with three of them; the other two, J and T, were next door, with two Mongolian men. The guide booklet supplied by the travel company had been pretty rubbish so far, but it was right to warn us to expect an “interesting” journey.

The bulk of our fellow passengers were Mongolian traders, returning to Mongolia with goods they had bought in Russia. However, they had perfected a way of, shall we say, ‘minimising’ the import/export taxes due at the border.  As we left Ulan-Ude, the carpet running down the corridor of our carriage was peeled back and the trapdoor underneath was lifted. Men (as far as I could see it was only men) appeared from nowhere and started to cram goods into the compartment below: coil after coil of electrical flex, and countless pairs of shoes. Seeing as this activity wasn’t exactly subtle, I assume it was happening with the blessing of the provodnik.

Apart from the racket outside, our compartment was relatively peaceful. Next door, however, had become a clearing house for hooky stuff. J and T, who sought refuge with us, thought they had figured out how the system worked. Anything that wasn’t concealed was shared among the traders. One person would have, say, 10 CD players. He would get four other people to take two each – for ‘personal use’ – in exchange for him taking maybe two food processors, four duvets, two sets of pans and a microwave from them. Each of those four traders would be striking deals with other traders, who, in turn, were arranging swaps of their own. This wasn’t happening in just our compartment, though; the whole train was alive with men staggering from carriage to carriage laden with consumer goods.

It was a(nother) overnight journey, but needless to say, even though we were left pretty much alone, we didn’t get much sleep. Nothing disturbs your slumber quite like a man carrying a television tripping over a trapdoor and stumbling against (and nearly through) the wall of your compartment at 3am, or a bewildered soul flinging open the door offering a set of bedding then changing his mind when he realises you’re not in on his act. And that was just on the way to the border. Once we were through that and on our way to Ulaanbaatar we had to go through the whole process again, only this time in reverse.

From Ulaanbaatar

On the train for the final part of our journey, to Beijing, I tucked into my ‘afters’ to my veggie lunch. It was a tin of Del Monte peach slices I had carried all the way from home, to stave off the scurvy I was sure I would have got by now, thanks to the dire warnings in the ever-reliable guidebook about there being no such thing as veggie food in Mongolia. (I’d brought two tins – would have been more but I could barely carry my luggage as it was – but I had given one to Z, my host in Yekaterinburg, because she seemed to be rather taken by it.)

Our journey to Beijing was enlivened by a) the gross realisation that we had spittoons – spittoons! – under our bunks (better than the alternative, I suppose) and b) spotting camels out on the steppes.

But in terms of excitement, neither came anywhere close to what happened when we reached the Mongolian/Chinese border and… the wheels were changed! The tracks are different widths (no idea how that happened), so the Russian/Mongolian-sized bogies had to be taken off and replaced with ones that fit the Chinese tracks. Although the guidebook had warned us about the whole wheel-changing thing, it was still rather alarming when it happened; one minute we were travelling in the pitch black (it was another overnight journey) the next we’re in one of the biggest sheds I’ve ever seen watching the carriages around us being jacked into the air.

I didn’t realise it was actually happening to us until the carriage started to jolt and sway. It was really unnerving to look through the window and down and watch the ground getting further and further from us. We must have been raised about 10 feet (three metres). The whole process took something like three hours. And, of course, the toilets were out of action for the entire time – which for me was far more concerning than the whole being stuck in a carriage above 10 feet of fresh air thing.


Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

(November 2001)

I’M VEGETARIAN and my first meal in the capital city of what was once known as Outer Mongolia was…? Pasta with fresh spinach sauce, and a cappuccino. Both of which tasted as they should (ie not exactly as you would get them in Italy, but almost – the cappuccino was espresso with milk and foam, not, say, instant coffee with frothy milk). So much for the tour company guide booklet; that had warned us not to expect anything other than meat, and especially not vegetables, as the Mongolians were suspicious of anything that came out of the ground. (Plus, I suppose, try growing anything in land that’s frozen for umpteen months of the year.) Whoever wrote the guidebook had clearly been caught out by the rise of globalisation; our lunch venue, the Millennium Café, wouldn’t have looked out of place in any city in the world, it really wouldn’t. Our tour guide had met us off the train, taken us to the café and then, after lunch, given us a handful of hours to enjoy Ulaanbaatar on our own.

Ulaanbaatar is the capital city of Mongolia. Modern Mongolia, a country in its own right, lies on land roughly equivalent to what was once known as “Outer Mongolia”. As in the place that when I was growing up was shorthand for absolute remoteness and inaccessibility, but … I WAS THERE!!!! How jaw-droppingly amazing was that?

I hadn’t really thought about what I wanted to see in Ulaanbaatar – just being there was overwhelming enough. However, while flicking through a magazine (in English, so much for Mongolia being the back end of nowhere!) in the café I spotted a plug for somewhere that sounded like just my kind of place: the International Intellectual Museum. Not because I consider myself an intellectual (although of course I am…) but because it sounded so downright weird. And it did not disappoint. It was run by a little old man and it was stuffed full of toys. Some were indeed “intellectual” – metal puzzles and chess sets with the pieces made from interlocking bricks, like a puzzle; some not quite so intellectual – farting figurines, anyone? “American toy, American toy,” the man would tell me as he followed me round, or: “Mongolian toy, two years old.”

Having failed to solve any of the puzzles, thereby proving myself to be an International non-Intellectual, I headed to the hotel where I was to meet my fellow travellers and our guide. We piled into a minibus and were driven to our accommodation for the next couple of nights – a ger (the Mongolian word for yurt) camp on the steppe about 50 km from Ulaanbaatar. Despite the unusual location and nature of the accommodation, I couldn’t help feeling that I was just in a funkier version of Butlin’s, without the redcoats, obviously.  Sure, the gers were, we were told, ‘authentic’, built just like the ones lived in by real nomads, but it was still, after all, a camp for tourists. Even so, I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.

Considering a ger is nothing more than animal skins stretched over a wooden frame, with a wood-burning stove as a centrepiece and we were on a freezing Mongolian steppe, the ger was bloody boiling inside. After a mammoth supper I tried to sleep in what felt like a furnace. In the middle of the night I had to go to the loo. The toilets – hole-in-the-ground compostable ones – were a little way from the ger, and the short walk gave me chance to appreciate how amazingly clear and starry the sky was – no light pollution here! It was spell-binding, if too cold to hang around for long.

The following morning it was time for what was supposed to be our main/mane? (ha ha) event: a horse-ride across the steppe. I wasn’t really that bothered about the ride – I was happy just to be on the steppe – but I was so glad I did go; it was incredible. It was a 16km round trip on (supposedly) wild horses. We were assured that there would be no nasty accidents in the middle of nowhere, as the horses had been trained to ignore tourists and respond only to the instructions of their handlers plus just a couple of basic commands from whoever was on their backs. To get them to move we were told to jerk our heels into their sides and shout “Chew, chew!” which, apparently, means something like “Giddyup!”. Only I suspect it probably means “fart”, because that’s exactly what the horses did every time we told them to chew, chew. We must have been quite something to behold, eight riders trotting across the steppe on our stocky, trumpeting mounts.

Our destination was a ‘monument’, best described as a Mongolian equivalent of British standing stones. It was set in a truly gobsmacking landscape: we could see nothing for miles around, other than steppe – even if that steppe did have electricity pylons strung across it – and, right by the monument, two grubby kids from a nearby (real) ger playing around a mobile phone mast.

Over supper, T, our guide, told us a little about what life had been like when Mongolia had been a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Then, she said, there was usually just one style of shoe on sale, usually made in Poland, almost always in black. “Everywhere you looked,” said T, “People were wearing that shoe, just in different sizes.”

In the mid-1990s, after the Soviet Union had collapsed and Mongolia was in a mess, T went to the shop and all it had to sell was salt. How things have changed! As I had read in that magazine in that café in Ulaanbaatar: “Five years ago Mongolians wouldn’t have known the difference between a tomato and a taco, but now they’re both widely available, and other foods as well…” and it was right. It was bollocks what the guidebook had said about you starving in Mongolia, especially if you were a veggie – pretty much all foods were available, if you could pay for them. It was a bit unnerving, though: I was so used to veggie food being the cheap option at home, but in Mongolia, where meat was widely available but so much veg was imported, veggie food was at least as expensive, if not dearer than, meat.

After supper, T showed us how to play ankle bones, which involves shaking and tossing a handful of small bones onto a table (a bit like throwing a dice), then flicking together the ones that have landed the same way up (which are called sheep, horses, camels and goats, according to which side is facing upwards). Well, if you don’t have access to Subbuteo…

The following day was our last in Mongolia, and it was a full day in Ulaanbaatar. The famous winter palace of Bogd Khan, the last proper ruler of Mongolia, was closed, but the Natural History Museum was open. Mongolia has one of the richest collections of dinosaur fossils in the world, and although some attempt had been made to display them properly, it was all rather sad. There was an entrance fee of US$2, but additional fees of US$5 if you wanted to take pictures of the most impressive stuff – massive dinosaur bones – and $20 for shooting video. The Choijin Lama Museum was beautiful, if tumbledown, but most of the temples were locked, including the main one. A woman got a member of staff to open it for me; it was lovely but absolutely freezing.

Having seen Lenin in Moscow, I was desperate to see the preserved body of Damdin Sukhbaatar, the “hero of the revolution”, who in 1921 declared Mongolia’s independence from China. (‘Independence’ was a bit of a loose term, however, as Sukhbaatar drove out the Chinese with the help of the Soviet army, which stuck around afterwards, thereby replacing one bunch of foreign overseers with another.) Sukhbaatar was supposed to be on display à là Lenin in a mausoleum in the central precinct, Sukhbaatar Square, but it was closed, so I couldn’t. [And I will never get another chance, as the mausoleum was demolished in 2005 and replaced with a hall to … Genghis Khan! Sukhbaatar’s body was cremated in the presence of Buddhist monks.]

One sight I hadn’t expected in the city was a small encampment of gers – which looked like ‘real’ ones, as opposed to something set up for tourists – just a short walk from the downtown area. That  kind of summed up Mongolia in a way: on one side of me sophisticated, mobile-phone-wielding urbanites in the city centre, and on the other, Mongolians living as they had for centuries, shifting their gers and goats from place to place.

Before meeting the others and catching the train to Beijing, I had a veggie lunch at City Coffee, described as “Ulanbaatar’s best internet café” by the English language newspaper the Mongol Messenger (three concepts I did not expect to experience in Mongolia – “veggie lunch”, “internet café” and “English-language newspaper”!)


The journey to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, was another overnight one. I and a Russian girl found ourselves sharing our compartment with a pair of drunken Mongolian men. One, who spoke really good English, explained that they were on their way home to Ulanbataar after a three-day bender with friends in Irkutsk. Eric would not let me go to bed, telling me how glad he was to have someone to practise his English with. He insisted on showing me a book about his father, who had had 10 children, all of whom he had managed to send to university. He had been a (Buddhist) lama, so he had had to keep his head down during Soviet times.

Eric was a perfect gentleman, interested in nothing more than a conversation in English, and what he had to say was all rather interesting. However, I really was knackered and desperate to go to sleep, not to mention concerned about how his loud slurring might be disturbing passengers in the compartments on either side of us (and probably the compartments beyond them, he was that loud). Eventually, his head slumped onto the little table between the bunks and I had peace, although not for long. Within a couple of hours we were pulling into Ulan-Ude. Passengers (me included) were bustling about getting off the train, new travellers were boarding, and the strident station announcements could hardly be heard over the shouts and calls of the hawkers on the platform. I said a cheery goodbye to Eric and his mate, but for some reason neither of them was anything like as jovial as they had been earlier on.

Like Yekaterinburg, Ulan-Ude was closed to foreigners until 1991. I wondered what doing the Trans-Siberian was like before then (if it were even possible, that is). Imagine the frustration, going through all these interesting-looking places and not being able to get off the train to explore them.

Although the official ‘border’ between Europe and Asia is in Yekaterinburg, it was only in Ulan-Ude that I actually felt like I was in Asia. Sure, Z, my host in Listvyanka, looked as though she might have a little Asian blood in her, but almost everyone else I had contact with around Irkutsk looked defiantly European. However, the indigenous people of Ulan-Ude, the Buryats, share the same genetic heritage as their next-door neighbours in Mongolia, and it shows.

Ivolginsky Datsan Buddhist monastery near Ulan-Ude, with a light covering of snow on the ground

Ivolginsky Datsan Buddhist monastery, around 10 miles from Ulan-Ude.

Despite the Asian nature of Ulan-Ude, my hosts in the city were ethnically Russian: A, his wife S and their two young children. S took me for a tour of the Buryat countryside around Ulan-Ude. Our first stop was the Ivolginsky Datsan monastery. Like their Mongolian neighbours the Buryats are predominantly Buddhist, and the Datsan is the most important Buddhist centre in Russia.

As S and I ambled around the Buddhas, stupas, prayer bells and prayer wheels in this Buddhist monastery in the middle of nowhere, or rather on a steppe around 10 miles from Ulan-Ude and more than 5,000 miles from my home, we were engaged in conversation by two young trainee lamas. They, naturally, wanted to know where I was from. And their reaction when they found out? “Manchester? Manchester U-ni-ted!!!” (This was a novel experience for me at the time; later I half-considered renaming myself Alison-from-England-near-Manchester-yes-I-know-Manchester-Un-it-ed-!)

Our trip also took in an ethnography museum, an open-air village that wasn’t that different to the one K took me to outside Yekaterinburg. This one did, though, appear to be a popular venue for people having wedding photographs taken. On the way back to the city we passed a pretty cool statue, of a plane taking off. It was up a broad flight of steps at the end of a wide avenue, with the plane taking off towards us. S told me it was a monument to an aeronautics factory; Ulan-Ude is an important centre for the aviation industry.

The world's biggest head of Lenin dominates the city square in Ulan-Ude.

The world’s largest head of Lenin, Ulan-Ude, Buryatia

Ulan-Ude is famous for another reason:  the city centre is the home of the world’s biggest head of Lenin. I have no idea why the city fathers of Ulan-Ude decided to build it – whether, for example, Lenin had any special connection with the city – but it’s there anyway, 25 feet tall (7.7metres) and weighing  42 tonnes. I have to admit that it does look pretty impressive and dramatic, dominating the square around it.

S had taken me shopping in the city centre. I needed to change some money so S took me to the black-market moneychangers outside the market. Our moneychanger of choice was going to give me change for US$10 rather than the $20 I had given him, but S realised what he was doing and made him pay up properly. S told me that even now the Soviet era was over, the black-market was still the best way to change money. Until a couple of years ago, she said, she, A and the children had had to share the flat with A’s parents, until they had been able to find enough money to buy a separate flat for her in-laws. When they were buying the flat, S said, they had used black-market moneychangers, as the rate for US$1,000 was so much better than the official rate. I asked her why, in such a massive country, where land is so plentiful, families had to share (usually quite tiny) flats, but she said she didn’t know.

In the market – which was huge and chock-full of stuff – S bought me a treat: “Sirra”, or “Siberian chewing gum”. It’s basically pine resin and I think it’s fair to say it’s an acquired taste. That said, it started disgusting but after I’d been chewing for a while, it improved a little. But then a new problem emerged: it sticks your jaws together! I think it’s OK if you don’t open your mouth, but if you do, the cold air makes the resin set solid! S said it was good for your teeth, and it probably is. Firstly, because if your jaws are stuck together you can’t cram in anything else that might be bad for your teeth, and secondly, if you do manage to get something else in your mouth, the sirra has coated them so thoroughly nothing harmful will find a purchase!

Back at home, A showed me a video of him and his mates driving over Baikal in winter, when the lake was frozen, when a four-foot wide crack appeared in the ice right in front of them! They managed to stop the car just in time (even on the ice!), but it was one of the maddest things I had ever seen.  A said he wanted to build a sledge hotel, so he could take tourists camping on the ice in winter. I’m thinking that if he did manage to make that happen, he would share the video with them after they’d spent a night on the ice, not before. (Ulan-Ude is probably not that much further from Baikal than Irkutsk is from Listvyanka and the lake, probably only around 50 miles or so. It’s like the two cities are at either end of a flattened-out U-shape, with the narrow end of the lake sitting in the bottom of the U. For probably half of the journey the train line is running along the edge of the lake, but as I was travelling overnight, viewing the lake from the train was an experience I missed out on.)

Lake Baikal, Listvyanka and Irkutsk (proper Siberia!)

November 2001

Lake Baikal and Listvyanka

The next stop for me was the Siberian city of Irkutsk, an incredible 48 hours away. The train was just as comfortable and cosy as the previous ones, and for the first 24 hours I had delightful companions – Sveti, a 10-year-old girl, and her mother. Sveti was learning English at school, so we could communicate a little; enough, anyway, for her to ask me to write out the words to “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. Sveti was extremely polite and had lovely manners, although I think she tried her mother’s patience a little. But then being confined on a train for a whole day and night can’t be easy when you’re just 10 years old.

A guide met me at the station in Irkutsk and took me from there to Listvyanka, a village on the shore of Lake Baikal.

Z, my host in Listvyanka, had a red-velvet-padded-toilet seat! Her cottage was compact and very pretty – lots of bright coloured textiles everywhere. It was one of those log cabins that Siberia is so famous for. You’d expect to feel like you were roughing it, that a log-cabin would be like a glorified tent or whatever, but this actually wasn’t. It was like being in a brick-built house, and it was only when I went outside that I remembered that I wasn’t. All the walls inside were finished properly, just like brick walls, so no draughts could get in through the tree-trunks. I guess the first pioneers in Siberia had to work with what they had – trees – and have perfected the design over centuries. However, probably the biggest structure inside Z’s home was a brick cube maybe four feet square and the full height of the room, which housed the wood-fuelled fire and oven. (A coalman in the UK told me once that houses with coal fires are so warm because the heat doesn’t come from just the fire itself, but the chimney acts as a massive storage heater.) Z was very welcoming, although she did seem to be a bit flummoxed by the prospect of catering for a vegetarian. In fact, vegetarianism was something of a novelty in Russia; I’d been asked about it umpteen times since St Petersburg.

A novel experience for me was a session in Z’s banya, or traditional Siberian sauna. It wasn’t much different to a conventional sauna, although would a traditional sauna be hot enough to have my plastic soap bag on the verge of melting, I wonder? It was lovely to feel deep-clean again, after my days on the train.

View over Lake Baikal on a grey November day.

Lake Baikal, Siberia, on a dark November afternoon.

My guide, T, showed me some of the ‘sights’ of Listvyanka – such as the church (timber, of course) and an ‘art gallery’ displaying some rather trippy paintings. We also took a ride on the ferry to Port Baikal and back. It was not unlike practically every other ferry ride I’ve taken, only during this one my mind was being persistently blown by thoughts of the size and age of the expanse of water I was passing over. Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume – ie when you consider the length, width and depth of water. Oh, and it’s the world’s deepest, too – nearly five and a half thousand feet or over 1,500 metres at its deepest. It’s also supposed to be the oldest – the rift valley it lies in was sealed around 25 million years ago. It’s home to goodness knows how many species of plants and animals, and some of them are unique to the lake. No wonder it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1996. This lake is nearly 400 miles long and (in places) nearly 50 miles wide. There are whole countries that are smaller than that!

However, just talking to T was as interesting as seeing the sights. She told me, for example, that in the 1970s she was refused permission to take a job that would have used her English language skills, because her then-boyfriend was a black marketer and considered “unreliable” by the authorities. During the 1980s she had the chance to work overseas for a year. She had to be “vetted” by the KGB and during the interview she was asked if she would spy on her colleagues. She refused, and so wasn’t allowed to take the job.

T was of an age that meant she could remember how shocked people were when they discovered the extent of the things done by the State under the Soviet system, such as the work camps and the interpretations placed on events. However, in 2001, she was worried about her son not being able to get a job when he left university. In Soviet times, graduates were guaranteed a job. But then, the previous day she had told me how her mother, a native of St Petersburg, had been sent to work in Ulan-Ude (my next stop) whether she liked it or not. K in Yekaterinburg had told me something similar about his relatives – they had been assigned to jobs all over the Soviet Union, and there had been nothing they could do about it.

During Soviet times St Petersburg was renamed Leningrad. The siege of Leningrad is one of the most notorious and horrific episodes of World War II. The city was besieged by the German Army for around three years, during which time around 630,000 residents died – many from starvation or cold. T said that, as a daughter of Leningrad, the authorities would pay for her mother and T and her sister to make a return trip from Siberia to Leningrad every year. That entailed T’s poor mother trying to keep two small children entertained for five days – each way – on the train; no easy task. Mind you, if T’s mother had survived around 1,000 days of being starved and frozen I guess she could handle anything.

After three days in tranquil Listvyanka, it was back to Irkutsk. I had a day to explore before I caught the train on to Ulan-Ude. I had a ‘host family’ – a history teacher and her daughter – but they were happy to let me just dump my bags in their apartment and, after a brief orientation tour, explore the city on my own. Irkustsk, with a population of over half-a-million, is like the capital of Eastern Siberia. There didn’t seem to be many tourist sites in Irkutsk – or if there were, the city didn’t (at the time) seem particularly geared up to being shared with tourists, but it was good just to wander around and soak up the atmosphere. I found the Irkutsk art gallery, which wasn’t dissimilar to an art gallery at home, only at home I’m not followed around by a posse of older ladies who switch off the lights in each room as I leave.

Wooden former home of Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, now a Decembrist museum.

Decembrist Museum in the former home of Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, Irkutsk

I also happened upon the Decembrists Museum, in what was once the home of Prince Sergei Trubetskoy. The Decembrists were a group of mainly well-to-do people who in 1825 set up a revolt against the then Tsar, Nicholas I. (Nicholas was clearly not a good name to have if you were a tsar!) The revolt failed and the Decembrists were exiled to Siberia. The house was surprisingly grand for someone “in exile” but it was very woody; it wasn’t obvious whether it was made entirely of wood, but with the interior walls lined with plaster or mortar or something, or if it was mainly stone but with the exterior clad in wood. It’s not the only house of this type in Irkutsk – the Decembrists created their own little colony in the city, an area of ornate wooden homes.

Shopping centre in Irkutsk, Siberia, on a postcard copyrighted 1986

Shopping centre in Irkutsk, Siberia, on a postcard copyrighted 1986 (possibly by a company called Plakat

Next stop was the waterfront of the River Angara, which flows through Irkutsk. The prime sight there was probably a group of teenagers and men lounging around swigging from bottles of alcohol. Clearly, drinking on the street in the middle of the day isn’t a purely British phenomenon.

Loo-st in translation

Yekaterinburg railway station.


Waiting for a train. That will be more than three hours late. Something malevolent is trying to explode its way out of my guts. It’s either a space monster, à la Alien, or (more likely) the evilly sulphurous mineral water I drank this afternoon while observing the Travellers’ Dictum of sticking to bottled water in Funny Foreign Parts. Whatever the cause I need a toilet – like NOW! – but the security guard WILL NOT LET ME PAST HIS DESK SO I CAN GET TO ONE!!!

Why did I insist that K go home as I would be “fine” on my own? He didn’t want to leave me but I didn’t see the point of making him hang around, especially as he’s due to leave Yekaterinburg himself in just a few hours, on some travel industry junket (to Egypt, of all places).

As I pointed out to K, the waiting room is warm, safe and comfortable; I had something to eat, something to drink, and a selection of books to keep me entertained if I got bored of people-watching. Heck, the waiting room even has its own security guard! Besides, I told K, the journey is as much part of the travel experience as the destination.

Unfortunately, about half-an-hour after I made K leave, this particular travel experience manifested itself as excruciating stomach cramps and colicky pains and a slushy gurgling in my guts. Knees buckling with pain I carried my luggage towards the ladies’ toilets and pushed the door. It was locked.

I flicked through my phrase-book then hobbled towards the security guard at his desk. “Tualetti!” I gurned, wafting an arm feebly between the (locked) toilet door and the station concourse.  He tapped his desk, and a piece of paper bearing the details of my delayed train, and said something in Russian. I fished out my phrase-book and plonked it in front of him. “Tualetti!” I whimpered, jabbing at the page, “Tualetti!!!” He gestured that he didn’t have his reading glasses.

Clearly, K’s little chat with the guard before he left hadn’t been a whinge about the unreliability of Russian trains, but a threat about what he would do to the guard if he let me out of his sight and something bad happened to me before I was safely on the train. Great. There are other people around, but do I really want to risk pouncing on some stranger on a Russian railway station in the middle of the night and babbling on about toilets? Er, no.

So I am sitting here carefully copying (what I hope will look like) the Cyrillic word for “toilet” in massive letters in my notebook, so thick and black they could probably be read from Moscow; if the situation gets much worse, I will try slapping that in front of him, in the hope that he can read it then. Otherwise I may be reduced to finding a waste bin and a quiet corner…

Post script/tip for other travellers: If you ever need to take your mind off even the worst situation, making countless rubbish attempts at copying a strange script works like a dream.

Gangsters’ Graveyard and other highlights of Yekaterinburg, Russia

November 2001

It was in Yekaterinburg that my journey began to get really interesting. Whereas St Petersburg and Moscow had been welcoming foreign visitors for decades, Yekaterinburg was closed to tourists during the Soviet era. The city had been an industrial base for centuries, but during Soviet times it was called Sverdlovsk and was a centre for the manufacture of military equipment.

In 1991, after the fall of the USSR, the city was given back its old name and made open for tourism. However, in 2001 (and even today, in 2017) the city attracted/attracts only a tiny proportion of the visitors to Russia. Most tourists stick with St Petersburg and Moscow and, according to research on tourism to Yekaterinburg, few of the foreigners taking the Trans-Siberian Railway choose to stop off there. However, if the tourism industry in 2017 is ‘immature’, in 2001 it was little more than an embryo.

When I did the Trans-Siberian it was supposed to be almost impossible to take such a journey independently; for a start, you couldn’t get a tourist visa unless your accommodation was pre-booked, so I was using a travel company. I had to get myself to St Petersburg, but after that I was pretty much in the company’s hands. They booked my train ticket/s and accommodation in each destination, and arranged for me to be met at the airport (St Petersburg) and, after that, whichever train station, and for me to have a guide/escort in each place.

My ‘fixer’ in Yekaterinburg was a small, new local company. My guide was Z, the company’s office administrator and secretary, and I was staying in the two-roomed, Soviet-era flat Z shared with her parents.

If there were any tourist hang-outs in Yekaterinburg I missed them. In fact, as far as I know I didn’t see another tourist the whole time I was there – not another foreign tourist, at any rate. Now? Well, do an internet search for “Yekaterinburg” (or “Ekaterinburg” or similar variant) and “tourism” and see the range of delights that comes up.

Z’s tour of the city was informative, but it didn’t have a professional gloss. That wasn’t a bad thing, though, as I felt like I was having a day out with a friend, rather than being processed through a well-oiled tourist machine.

Memorial to Afghanistan (and Chechenya) war dead, Yekaterinburg

Memorial to Afghanistan (and Chechenya) war dead, Yekaterinburg

The ‘sights’ included a collection of rocks in a museum-type place in Z’s office building (Yekaterinburg is famous for its minerals); the Plotinka, the dam built on the River Iset in the 1720s, which is supposed to have been what made possible the industrial development of Yekaterinburg; a chapel demolished during the Soviet era and rebuilt in 1992; several pieces of public art erected over the previous 10 years, and a haunting memorial built in 1996 to honour the soldiers killed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and during the war in Chechenya.  And, of course, the site of the Ipatiev House.  That evening, K took me to the opera, at the State Opera House. Even though it was Eugene Onegin (not exactly family-friendly, I would say) the place was packed, with people of all ages – including children.

The next day was our trip into the countryside, including Ganina Yama. We visited a reconstruction of a typical Siberian village (lots of wood cabins of various degrees of sophistication) and a museum in a house where Tchaikovsky had spent part of his childhood. During the drive K told me a little about his experiences during (compulsory) military service – including how he and his fellow conscripts had had to forage in the forest for food when the food supply broke down. He was less than complementary about Chechens, too. (This was after all, only shortly after the 1999-2000 “Chechen War”, only the latest in a series of conflicts between Russia and Chechenya.) The Highland Chechens tortured Russians and used them as slaves, apparently. (Although no doubt the Chechens would have equally respectful things to say about Russians.)

Ganina Yama wasn’t the only grave-site on the trip. After a lot – a lot – of pleading and insistence on my part, K finally agreed to take me to what I could only describe to him as “a gangsters’ graveyard”, which I had encountered in a book about the laboratory responsible for keeping (dead) Lenin in tip-top condition. (I’m as sure as I can be that it was Lenin’s Embalmers, by Ilya Zbarsky.) In the 1990s, Yekaterinburg had been plagued by gang wars. Apparently, the families of dead gangsters, reasoning that what was good enough for a much-revered ex-leader was good enough for their child/parent/husband/whatever, entrusted preserving their bodies for eternity to the Lenin lab technicians.

It wasn’t the embalmed bodies of gangsters that I wanted to see, of course, but their tombs. As you can imagine, families with the confidence – and cash – to bring in Lenin’s embalmers wouldn’t be prepared to settle for a bog standard headstone (or its Russian equivalent). Nope, what they went for were almost-life-sized slabs of marble or whatever, with many of them having the dead gangster’s image etched onto them. About US$5,000 was the going rate for a tomb, according to the book.

As a massive fan of anything kitsch, I couldn’t think of anything more fun to see (in a sick kind of way), but K was initially really reluctant. The first time I asked about seeing the tombs, he seemed not to know what I was talking about. Then he acted as though they were no big deal so why would I want to see them anyway? Similarly, he implied that the gang wars themselves hadn’t been a big deal either, when I asked him about those.  However, by the time of our trip outside Yekaterinburg I must have worn him down, because he took me to the cemetery. And it did not disappoint. The graves were awesome.

Examples included a Mafioso in a James Dean-type leather jacket etched into a six-foot or so tall piece of black marble, and an extremely curvaceous, life-size, glowing white sculpture of a gangster’s girlfriend in what appears to be a shrine. Now the cemetery, Shirokorechenskoye, seems to feature on every tourist itinerary for Yekaterinburg. But this is now, when Yekaterinburg is relatively peaceful. I think back then the city may still have been suffering the tail-end of the gang wars, and K wasn’t too comfortable about the prospect of who we might meet at the cemetery. Or maybe I didn’t fully appreciate how traumatising it must be to go from having your home celebrating freedom and the dawn of a new era to being torn apart by selfish, greedy, violent thugs within just a handful of years.


In Moscow, I failed to post small parcels to two friends; the Post Office would accept letters but not parcels. I visited St Basil’s Cathedral and The Kremlin, where I coveted the handful of Fabergé eggs on display. The museum also boasted a collection of carriages, including an ornate winter sledge that had belonged to the Imperial family. It must have been a joy to travel in. For the royals, anyway – they were enclosed in glass. The driver, however, had to brave the elements outside. Little wonder there was a revolution, really. Speaking of which, I was a bit miffed by the difference between the ‘foreigner price’ and ‘local price’ for attractions; the admission charge for The Kremlin, for example, was 150 roubles for locals but 650 roubles for people like me. I didn’t mind paying more than locals who were poorer than me, but what really rankled was the thought that Russian oligarchs could waltz into museums in Britain for free, while I had to pay 500 roubles more than them to get into a museum in Russia.

I also pondered how much more interesting Moscow must have been when my friends visited the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Then, a trip to Gum, the pre-eminent department store, was the retail equivalent of a sojourn in a Siberian Gulag, and Western jeans so desirable that a tourist could probably swap a pair for an entire apartment block. (And if the jeans were Levis, the vendor would probably hand over their blood relatives as well.) By late 2001, Gum was almost indistinguishable from any shopping mall anywhere in the United States or Europe, selling goods from the likes of Estée Lauder, Christian Dior, Lancôme – even Frederick’s of Hollywood.

'7 November' parade, Moscow

Moscow: ‘7 November’ parade, by people who wanted Russia to return to pre-Perestroika days.

Mind you, not everyone approved of the ‘new Russia’: en route to a chocolate shop I happened upon a ‘7 November’ parade, featuring several hundred (mainly older) people, some of whom carried placards of Stalin (yes, Stalin). A fellow spectator explained that these were: “People who think the Revolution was a good idea and want Russia to go back to those times”.

The following day I went to the Lenin mausoleum where, after the parade the previous day, I shouldn’t have been too surprised that, of all the memorials to former presidents, the one that had the most flowers was that for Stalin. After being herded at a rate of knots through the room where Lenin lay in state, I decided that the reason cameras were banned is because photographs would probably reveal that Lenin looks more like wax than preserved human.

I also visited the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. They were looking, so a leaflet I picked up read, for any help in expanding. The museum wasn’t a wreck or anything, but it was a little rough around the edges, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether that would have been the case if the Americans hadn’t stolen the Soviet thunder by beating the Cosmonauts to the Moon (even if the Soviets had got into space first).

Ganina Yama, Romanov burial site, Yekaterinburg

November 2001

“That’s where the Tsar was buried,” K had told me.

“That” was a simple wooden Russian Orthodox cross set among snow-sprinkled trees. It was late 2001 and K and I were on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, the city notorious as the place where Tsar Nicholas II and almost his entire family were wiped out during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Simple wooden cross in the trees, marking the site of Ganina Yama.

Ganina Yama, or ‘Ganya’s Pit’, in November 2001. Just visible through the trees, between the cross and the tree with the plaque is the pale outline of a simple building that could be the beginnings of the monastery built to commemorate the murdered Romanovs.

I took a picture of the cross but I didn’t find out where it actually was. So nearly 15 years later it was still uncaptioned in the album. If I was going to do a proper job of writing up this trip, I decided, I really should find out where that picture was taken. I did, but I found out, too, a little about how Russia has changed in that decade and a half.

I started by doing an internet search for the burial place of Nicholas II. The top result was Ganina Yama, or “Ganya’s Pit”. There were lots of pictures, and countless reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor. But that couldn’t be the place where my photograph was taken. Sure, there was a plain wooden cross, a slightly different style to ‘mine’, but seeing as wood rots it could easily be a replacement for the one in my picture. However, everything else was different too. Behind the cross in my photograph there is a low metal fence and beyond that, under the snow, what appears to be a depression in the earth. Around that are some slender trees, and just visible through them a shadow of what could be a largish building. There are no people in the picture because there was no one else there with us, nor did we see anyone on the road leading to the burial place.

There were lots of people in the pictures of Ganina Yama, though, lots and lots of people. There were some trees around the cross, but far fewer than in my photograph. There was also a depression, clearly visible, but running round the edge of it was a covered walkway, a rather substantial, obviously permanent structure. There were pictures, too, of the seven churches at Ganina Yama, one church for each murdered member of the Imperial family, who were canonised as saints by the Orthodox Church in exile in 1981.

Nah, no way was that the place I had been to. So I (pardon the pun) dug a little deeper. I learned that, while the Orthodox Church still officially regards Ganina Yama as the place where the bodies of the Tsar and the people murdered with him were dumped and burned to nothing, it has now been established that this wasn’t the case. The remains, of the Tsar, members of his family and a couple of retainers, were indeed deposited at Ganina Yama within hours of the killings, but they were not cremated there. (Attempts may have been made, but burning 11 bodies to ash is almost impossible, especially in a wood in the middle of nowhere and without fuel to aid the blaze along.)

Within less than a day it was decided that Ganina Yama was just too public, too easy for the people of Yekaterinburg to find, so the bodies were moved to a place just a couple of miles away but less obvious, called “Pig’s Meadow” or “Piglet’s Meadow”. This fact was established in the mid-late 1970s by three local researchers, but they kept their discovery secret until the Soviet Union had collapsed and the political climate changed. The site was subsequently excavated and the remains comprehensively tested to confirm their identities. In 1998 the bones of the Imperial family members were re-interred at St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, in a formal and very public ceremony. However, senior clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church boycotted the event, as the Church was still insisting that the Romanov bodies had been burned to dust at Ganina Yama.

So, it must have been Pig’s Meadow that K had taken me to. But while there were countless pictures of Ganina Yama, there were hardly any of Pig’s Meadow, and most of what few there were dated from around the time of the killings and the first investigation into the fate of the Tsar. Eventually, though, I unearthed some modern(ish) pictures of Pig’s Meadow. The only marker was a simple cross, but in some kind of black stone. The immediate area was bare of trees – and any possible depression in the earth – and bore no trace of any fence, present or past. Plus, the topography was nothing like that in my picture, unlike that of Ganina Yama.

After a lot more searching, I found an article on a Russian Orthodox Church news website. It was about the then-Patriarch visiting Ganina Yama in October 2000 (ie a little over a year before my trip to Yekaterinburg) to give his blessing to the foundation of a monastery to honour the “Holy Royal Martyrs”. Apart from all the people on it, the cross and the setting looked just like those in my picture.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama, surrounded by scores of people.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama. Spot the difference between this cross and the one in my pic? You won’t – there isn’t one!

So my photo had been taken at Ganina Yama after all! Yet a decade and a half after I was there the place was all but unrecognisable.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend the change in attitudes towards the Romanovs in Russia over just, say, 25 years. For decades the mere existence of the Imperial family was such a sensitive subject that it was only in 1989/1990 that the discoverers of the remains in Pig’s Meadow had felt safe enough to report their discovery to the authorities in Moscow. Yet now, in 2015/16, Ganina Yama is an officially-recognised, openly-visited, substantial shrine to them. (Even if the bodies were only buried there for a matter of hours – despite the official Orthodox Church line.)

Of course it wasn’t just the Romanovs that the Soviets had a problem with – they weren’t too keen on the Church either, seeing it as a challenge to the ethos and authority of Communism. Put it this way, there’s a reason why the Romanovs were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church “in exile”. Now, though, in the 20-teens, Vladimir Putin is bezzie mates with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, and tourists are posting selfies from the churches of Ganina Yama.

If you’re interested, the potted history of how the bodies came to be in Ganina Yama and Pig’s Meadow in the first place goes something like this:

At the time of the killings, in mid-1918, Russia was in the throes of what amounted to a civil war. The main protagonists were the Bolsheviks, or ‘Red Russians’, and the ‘White Russians’, who wanted change in Russia, but nothing as drastic as that sought by the Bolsheviks (some White Russians were actually monarchists). The Tsar abdicated in March 1917 and he and his family were taken into custody by the Bolsheviks. After several months the family was moved to Yekaterinburg. By July 1918 White forces were closing in on the city, and the Bolshevik leaders decided that rather than risk having the Tsar and his family ‘rescued’ by the White army, they should be disposed of. Which is what happened in the cellar of the Ipatiev House on 17 July. Within days the White forces had taken Yekaterinburg, and a magistrate, Nikolai Sokolov, was tasked with establishing what had happened to the Romanovs. Just a few months later, though, the Bolsheviks re-took Yekaterinburg and Sokolov was forced to flee – but not before he had amassed a whole heap of evidence, which he managed to get out of Russia before he left the country in 1920. Although Sokolov never actually found physical proof of the fate of the Romanovs, the earlier story about the remains being totally destroyed at Ganina Yama stuck and no one sought to question it – especially as even mentioning the deaths would probably have led to a trip to a Gulag during Soviet times.

Despite the dangers, in the 1970s two local geologists, Alexander Avdonin and Michael Kochurov, and a filmmaker, Geli Ryabov, and their wives, set out to establish once and for all what had happened to the Imperial remains. Using the material Sokolov had gathered during his investigation, and a contemporaneous account of the murder and subsequent disposal of the bodies, they eventually located the real burial site – Pig’s Meadow.

(In 2007, two other sets of remains were uncovered in Pig’s Meadow. Tests confirmed that they are of the missing children, the Tsarevitch Alexei and his sister Maria, but as of October 2015, they had yet to be recognised by the Russian Patriarch.)

Simple cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House.

Yekaterinburg: Cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House. This was taken in November 2001.

Ganina Yama isn’t the only site around St Petersburg that demonstrates how much attitudes to Russia’s Imperial past have changed. My picture of the site of the Ipatiev House – where the Romanovs and their courtiers were murdered – features a simple cross and a tiny wooden chapel. In 2016, while the cross appears to have gone, the chapel is still there, but now it is dwarfed by the newly-built, gleaming white Church on Blood, which commemorates the dead Romanovs. That said, I suppose the cross and chapel of my picture marked progress even in 2001: it was only a quarter of a century earlier that the house had been razed to the ground to prevent it becoming a place of pilgrimage for royalists. (The demolition was ordered by the then-Chairman of the local Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, although he claimed later he only did it because he had been told to by the Politburo.)