Russia 2019 day 15: travelling to Perm

Only one more hour on the train, sitting opposite a man dying of congestive heart failure or pneumonia or TB or all of them. It’s been some delightful noises to listen to for the last six hours.

The train from Ekaterinburg to Perm is the Trans Siberian Railway from Novosibirsk to Moscow and it’s totally put me off doing any more of the journey. I hate him. The wife, who I think is called Olga, has been nice, once she realised I was a useless foreigner. I don’t have a seat, I have a bunk and mine is a top bunk. She showed me how to make the bed, how to get up and down, where to put my luggage and hopefully in just over half an hour, she’ll show me what to do with the bedding when I depart.

I slept on and off for the first two thirds of the journey. Getting the train at 6.44am meant being up at 5 – and then refusing to leave the apartment because it was too dark. I’ll walk around Moscow in the dark but Ekaterinburg is scarier. I waited until five to six, when civil twilight was well underway and the metro was definitely going to be open by the time I got there.

I arrived in time to get to platform 13, the furthest from the door, with enough time for Olga to have my bed mostly made by the time we started moving. I wasn’t at all sure about being stuck in a top bunk but I was tired and it was pretty comfortable. At our last stop, about an hour ago, Olga requested that I come down and sit on the seat, which means I’ve had views of birch forest and small villages and dying Russians. This is third class. I could probably have upgraded, given that my seven hour journey cost £14. It’s an open bunk carriage, blocks of four opposite two sideways. The bottom single sideways bunk turns into a table for two.

About half an hour before arriving at Perm, the provodnitsa, the woman in charge of our carriage, came round to tell us to get ready to go. That’s why they take your ticket when you board, so they know who’s disembarking when. Helpfully, Olga and her husband were also leaving at Perm so I copied what she did with the bedding and watched her fill in forms and consult passports and wondered if I should also be doing admin for getting off a long-distance train. They had a lot of paperwork with the name AMAKS at the top – a clinic in Perm? A new job? I decided that when I got to the hotel I’d look it up.

First job: which bus to take? Perm 2 station is a long way from the city centre, an hour and a half’s walk to my hotel. There were 6 or 8 buses but I had no idea where they were going, let alone where they stopped along the way. No idea where my local stop was either. This is why the metro is so much easier but Perm has no such thing. Eventually I got on a bus to Perm 1 station. That’s closer and I’d written out walking directions from there.

The last stop before Perm 1 was a hotel called AMAKS. Mystery solved already.

Perm 1 is by the river. It’s pretty and there’s a river station. A boat trip in my future? First, find the hotel. That was easier said than done. I was carrying two bags plus a bag of food. It was 2pm and the sun was brutal and I was still wearing the jumper I’d needed at 6am. I still hadn’t eaten and I’d been awake most of last night anyway. It was not optimal find-the-hotel conditions. Cross the railway. Can only be done in one direction and I started in the wrong one. Forget the instructions, just walk towards the blue dot I marked on my phone yesterday. It seemed i could cut corners. There was a park to my left. Surely the hotel was in the opposite corner of the park? I could walk through it. And I could sit down and take off the jumper. So I did, discovering at the same time that three goats live in the little park, pestering people for food and standing up on their back legs to eat the trees. Very good. A park with goats and a nice river – Perm had already beaten Ekaterinburg.

But then it turned out that this wasn’t the park on the map. The park on the map was a giant cemetery and there was no way round it, through it or past it. I tried. Dead ends everywhere. Yeah, dead. I raged. Loudly. But there was no way. I had to return to the main road and start again. It took an hour and three quarters from Perm 1. If you remember, that’s longer than it would have taken from Perm 2.

I didn’t do much for the rest of the day. Ate. First food in twenty hours. Had a very much needed shower – not as good as the big jacuzzi I left behind but never mind. Slept. Enjoyed being in a hotel, with people downstairs who speak English.

Russia 2019 day thirteen: Ekaterinburg

Today started slower than planned. Ekaterinburg is a noisy city at night and I had no idea if the constant yelling and bellowing was just a good Saturday night our or a repeat of the events that happened here in 1918. Fireworks – proper display ones, not the ones you buy from a cabinet in Tesco – going off quite literally in the street below my window at 4:35am did not help. Neither did the extra two hours time difference or the amazing jacuzzi in my own bathroom which I didn’t want to get out of.

So, first stop today was the supermarket, which is in the huge shopping centre (biggest in Russia outside Moscow) just visible from my living room window. Breakfast of nearly-Weetos and apple juice (no bits! More luck than judgement) and then at last I went off into the city.

This is the fourth biggest city in Russia and at the moment, it feels like it. All I can see from my window is high-rise glass towers. This is far more of a city than even Moscow felt like. Pity its metro is only nine stops on one line – I actually have to walk from the stations!

My main stop today was the Romanov death site, the little collection of cathedrals and churches built on the site where the last of the Russian ruling dynasty that began with Peter the Great was slaughtered -Nikolai II (who used to be bizarre, as they say) and his wife and son and four daughters, plus a handful of friends and allies. They were taken by Bolsheviks into the basement of a local engineer’s house and killed. Shot, and then when that didn’t work because people don’t always stand quietly facing the wall when a firing squad comes for them, stabbed. It took forever to kill them all. The house was demolished for fear it would become a focal point for pro-Tsarist anti-Soviet chaos and in the 70s, the current Church on the Blood was built.

It’s free to go inside. It’s a working church. That’s presumably why you’re supposed to cover your head there when I never had to in any of the churches in Moscow or St Petersburg – they’re all museums now. The “exhibition” downstairs is a low dark room full of gold and icons and a wall of memorial stones to the Romanovs. Their bodies are now in a tomb in the Peter & Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg along with their official memorial.

Upstairs is the main church and that looks a lot like most other churches. It’s high and light and covered in nearly-pastel paintings right up to the ceiling. However, there was a ceremony going on, probably a Russian Orthodox wedding, with a girl in a white lacy dress (not a huge wedding cake with train, just a simple dress), two singing priests in gold outfits, candles, incense, quite a few people taking photos. Some of which I’m now in the background of, with my hood up because it never occurred to me to take a headscarf to the death site.

I sat on the steps outside and wondered what it would look like if we had a revolution like that. How many Mountbatten-Windsors would you need to kill to end our monarchy? More than six. How wide would you need to go? How many cousins and distant relations would you need to wipe them out? Now, a revolution like the one Kyiv had five or six years ago, that might not be so bad for our current predicament…

Next I walked up the main road. This end of Ekaterinburg is less glass and towers. I don’t imagine there’s much that’s recognisable from 1918 but there are some older buildings there. And then I went into the station and bought my train ticket to Perm. It took a few attempts – the machine wanted my card and PIN before I even started telling it where I wanted to go and the list of trains is given in Moscow time, local time not appearing until one screen before the end and you have to enter all your passport details – no wonder the guard wanted my passport when I boarded the St Petersburg train. I even know I’ll be departing from Track 1.

And then I got the metro home and had a very late lunch and jumped back in my lovely jacuzzi.

Russia 2019 day nine : Flying to Murmansk

4:45 is a stupid time to wake up, especially when you’ve paid for breakfast every morning and you’re not going to be able to eat this one. And this is the convenient flight, the rare one that doesn’t dump me into unknown Arctic Russia at 4am.

I’d asked about getting to the airport for an 8.30 flight and the receptionist was adamant that the metro to the airport bus was the best way. He even got out a city map to show me how to navigate there on the metro, as if I haven’t lived underneath St Petersburg for the last three days.

That said, I did jump off in the wrong place. It’s just not fair to have Moskovskie vorota and Moskovskaya three stops apart on the same line. Bus 39 was waiting when I emerged at last and although the orange machines wouldn’t accept my smartcard, the conductor was right there and she sold me the sort of paper ticket I’ve only seen in Kyiv and on the Moors Valley railway.

I had to go through basic security just to get into the airport. I checked in online yesterday but I checked in again to get a paper boarding pass. Then through real security, which was fine except that I had to also go on a conveyer belt through a scanner. The operator clicked his fingers every time it started moving as if he was trying to convince us he was working it by magic.

Now I’m sitting at my gate with a bottle of pear Fanta. My opinion is broadly that it would be nicer if it wasn’t fizzy.

Gate change! I get comfortable at D02 which is on my boarding pass and the screen and then suddenly a flight to Sochi is going from my gate and I’m supposed to now be at D08, which the announcer voice is pronouncing as V.

To be continued from Murmansk. I hope it’s cold because I’m carrying a big coat that’s been most inappropriate for the weather so far.

The flight was uneventful except that I was stuck in the middle seat and the person with the window seat spent the entire flight wearing a sleeping mask. We got given a biscuit-thing and a cake-thing which I haven’t sampled yet – it’s been a long time since I’ve been given free food on a plane.

We landed and the pilot announced that we’d landed so people started to get up only then the cabin crew went marching down the plane ordering them to sit down and slamming the lockers closed. Were we being held hostage on the plane? What was happening? What was happening, as far as I can understand, was that we were reversing just far enough that we’d require a bus to take us to the terminal. (We absolutely did not need a bus. It was right there).

Getting through the airport as a domestic arrival with hand luggage took all of twenty seconds and then I declined several offers of taxis in favour of the bus – by which I mean marshrutka, battered old minibus. I sat in the back corner which turned out to be a very good decision because we picked up a lot more passengers than we had seats on the hour-long drive into the city and you can’t give your seat to someone in more need if you’re wedged in the corner. Just try not to lean on the back door because i have zero faith in that withstanding any pressure.

Murmansk is a grim dirty little mining/port town, just like Narvik, redeemed by its location, just like Narvik. I bet it looks pretty magic in winter, if unbearably cold. We drove up the east side of the Bay of Kola which looks like a perfect dark blue Arctic fjord surrounded by hills just made for snow. Here’s the frontier feel I looked for in Kiruna.

The station where the marshrutka dropped us is only about 200 yards from my apartment but here came the logistical problems. First, I had no idea where no. 22 is and the nice girl in the jewellers (well, if you’re going to approach a stranger in a Russian Arctic frontier town who isn’t going to speak English, that seemed the least threatening option) didn’t either. She’s on the same road but doesn’t seem to know what number her shop is in. Then I found it but it’s an entire building, home to half a dozen shops and 70ish apartments. Where’s the door? How do you get in? You phone the place. The person who answers doesn’t speak English, of course. You text. No response and you wonder if the number is actually working. And then the answer is Russian. I took to my guidebook’s language section and went for “I’m in front of” and eventually got the full address including apartment number. I’d been about to go to the big international chain hotel up the road – they would surely speak English and if necessary, it’s a roof. More expensive than the apartment but it’s an option.

I found the door and rang the bell. About four times. No answer. No answer to my “Да, я здесь” text (Yes, I’m here). It’s now about 1.15. I arrived at the station around half past eleven. I haven’t eaten today. My bag is heavy. I went to the hotel. Trainee Maria was wonderful, once she’d realised my booking wasn’t at her hotel. She phoned my landlady in Russian and five minutes later, I was standing outside the door again, being let in at last. We’d met before. When I’d first phoned, I’d gone looking for someone looking for a visitor and she’d looked like she was looking for someone. But when she spoke to me and I failed to understand a word, she apparently took that as meaning I wasn’t the person who’d just phoned her and not understood a word.

Anyway, arrival, check-in, payment and quick tour was done somehow with no mutual understanding, although I did get straight on the wifi and use the Google Translate app. She’s not very good at typing and I’m not convinced she can see very well either.

But now I have an apartment in Murmansk for three nghts. It’s kind of old-fashioned – in Soviet Russia apartment decorates you, that sort of thing. This is definitely not a major modern cosmopolitan city like the two I’ve just left. But I have a bath and a kitchen and more space than I’ve had for weeks and despite the difficulties, I like Murmansk.

Russia 2019 day 8: St Petersburg

It was raining when I woke up although by the time I got out of bed and had breakfast and packed and got outside it was merely grey and threatening drizzle.

Today was the Hermitage which I’ve been putting off. Finding it was no problem; I ran into it by accident yesterday but finding the entrance was harder – there was no queue yesterday to show me the entrance. That’s because it’s closed on Mondays.

The entrance on the embankment is for your groups. Back to Palace Square. I go in the front door – what’s misleading me is the lack of queue here. People don’t come here on their own without pre-booked tickets and they really should. There were four people in front of me at the ticket machine where there was the population of a small city at the tour entrance and of a large town at the internet tickets entrance. Then it’s maybe ten minutes to get through security and ticket control. “Take a sandwich and a bottle of water” says the guidebook. Nope. No liquids – although if you play stupid enough you clearly can because that tourist didn’t buy that litre carton of orange juice in the cafe. I’m glad I brought a refilled Fanta bottle today and not my own plastic bottle because I would not be surrendering that. Still, probably not many people hiss furiously what I did at the security gate. I don’t like this city half as much as Moscow.

First, the big staircase. Oh, and all the tour groups posing on it. Then back downstairs to see the Egyptian stuff and go in the cafe-lounge for a new drink and a croissant because I was very hot and sweaty and thirsty and furious.

Once I’d done that I could go and have a try at the Hermitage. I’m really not an art person or a museum person but you can’t not go to the Hermitage (and for 700₽ – less than £9! That’s a ridiculous price for something on this scale! Imagine tickets to the Louvre costing €10!) The first few rooms were palace rooms and I did like the Malachite Room, which is mostly a fairly ordinary imperial room, only with endless fireplaces, vases, pillars and tables made of malachite.

Other highlights: the red & gold throne room, the red & gold sitting room and the room that was gold from floor to ceiling. When I have a house, I need a room as gold as that. I charged through the Winter Palace with very little regard for art, though. I paused at the necessary pictures mentioned in my guidebook but the rooms themselves were far more interesting.

As for getting around the place – well, there’s only one staircase to the top floor and only one to the stuff on the ground floor under the nice gold room, which has no public connection at all to the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman art in the New Hermitage. Entire corridors on the middle floors are closed and the obvious routes round them one-way only. There’s no way at all to get into the coins & medals upstairs unless that staircase in a closed room is actually open.

They say it would take a year to see the Hermitage properly. I saw plenty in the four or so hours I was in there. No, I didn’t look at most of it properly but I found more that I liked than I expected to. It would be nice if there were more places you could stop to drink that bottle you brazenly removed from the cafe-lounge – it’s a pain to have to return to the corridor by the Egyptians every time you’re thirsty.

When I left, feet very flat and tired, there were soldier-types practising marching in Palace Square. The mini-platoon in ceremonial uniform was absolutely surrounded by Chinese tourist cameras. The two in camouflage uniform apparently counting steps were getting less attention. Then the platoon returned to their bus on the edge of the square and mini military band took their place, although they took so long about it that I gave up and went home, amused to find hundreds more soldiers in green uniforms waiting at both zebra crossings on the way back to the metro.

I had a quick break back home and then went to find Vladimirsky Cathedral which is almost as close as my local metro & therefore easier and quicker to just walk to. It turns out this is a working cathedral (although it became an underwear factory during the Soviet era) populated by babushkas in headscarves and not a tourist in sight. I didn’t have a headscarf. So I stayed by the door, very quiet, not taking photos, not wandering, just standing silently and looking for a couple of minutes. It’s not very spectacular. Either it has a low ceiling or the main domes are closed inside as well as outside – it’s covered in scaffolding.

And that’s it for St Petersburg. Tomorrow I leave the realm of vaguely-European cosmopolitan cities I’ve been to before and safe-if-boring chain hotels and head to Russia’s ugly industrial slightly-radioactive port city in the Arctic.