So it was me and the knight without fear nor fault along the Trans-Siberian railway, for three weeks, with seven stops.
The reason I had chosen Yekaterinburg as the first stop was that it is the city where the Tsars were finished: I was fascinated by the idea that geographical Europe finishes where Imperial Russia, from a symbolic point of view, gave way to Soviet Socialism. However, as it’s happend with all of the 7 stops (and as I have explained in Italian in this post), I am not actually going to tell about what I had expected to find in each city, but about what I have actually found. Even if to some extent it might deprive the travel of some interesting insights, the real fun was to tack each place with just minimum preparation and then just go with the flow, let things and people happen. So, what happened?
We left Moscow at 00:35 on August the 3rd 2017, it was raining. All of a sudden the crowd was pressing us against the carriage doors and the provodnik started letting us in without even checking our documents. The knight without fear nor fault and I were sitting on the bokovye mestà, the places along the corridor. In front of us a whole family made themselves confortable: a grumpy old father yelled about a hundred times at his daughters in their thirties, ordering where they should put what, asking why they had or had not arranged the travel in a certain way, as his wife started to prepare the table for dinner. I swear, they had 4 bags full of food and they took out boxes, bottles and packages that could be enough for an entire week; that is, right up to Vladivostok. To me, they looked exactly like the stereotypical Neapolitan family.
One thing I like about knowing a foreign language up to proficiency level is that it really becomes for you a sort of outfit. Just the fact of wearing it makes you one of them, and it does it to such an extent that, as you almost stop identifying yourself with the foreigner, they almost stop noticing. Travelling by train, wearing the “Russian spy outfit” gives you the opportunity to observe locals without getting them to pay attention to you. Or maybe it is just an illusion. I still used to hide my mobile or to make discrete use of my camera, but I DO think that the way I confortably wear pijamas, add boiling water to my tea from the carriage samovar, climb up the top bed and eat tomatoes from my hands just as they were apples, make me Russian enough to spy everything without looking like the “tourist”. Without looking like the “tourist” I started stealing images of people and sunsets.
We arrived in Yekaterinburg on August the 4th, at some point in the morning, and for the first time in our life we met a couchsurfer who would host us: Kirill. We had never done couchsurfing before. Of course, I had had a positive feeling when checking out Kirill’s social network profiles, but who knows? I have friends who had been suggesting we’d better go to hotels, not to risk to come across maniacs. Although I recommend everybody to check out the couchsurfing guide on their website and to choose carefully the people they are going to stay with, I am happy not to have given credit to my hyper-protective friends’ advice. Kirill was a real blessing and everything that came from him was a blessing, too. Not only he had days off from his job and took as around by car, telling us the most interesting personal stories about his city, but he organised one encounter that might have changed my life for the better.
Not long before I had planned Transiberiana 7×3, Kirill had taken part in an excursion guided by a blind person: the excursion is called “Trip in the Dark” and the blind person is Vladimir, who became Kirill’s friend after this enlightening experience. Kirill wanted to help Vladimir, and what better way than having me use his “Trip in the Dark” project in one of the video stories about my travel? The video I made shows events in the opposite order for narrative purposes. In fact, we spent the first day walking around the city and the second day with Vova, Vladimir, on his “Trip in the Dark”.
Yekaterinburg counts about 1 million inhabitants and it is well known as the capital of architectural constructivism. It is home to many Old Believers communities (you can also find traces of this in the architecture) and, as I mentioned before, it is the last city where the Tsar’s family were exiled and, finally, murdered.
What we saw during our first day was a mishmash of everything:
- the main promenade, Ulitsa Vaynera, where young teenagers were practicing bike acrobatics. On Ulitsa Vaynera there are many bronze sculptures. Those who caught our attention were Michael Jackson, put just in the middle of an Ural city for misterious reasons, and the monument to Artamonov, Russian inventor of the bike. Did they tell you about this when you were at school? Because I had absolutely no idea that the first inventor of the bike was a Russian! Vayner Street also hosts two Olympic Bears donated by Berlin’s mayor: we don’t know why, but it looked like one of the two had been stolen;
- the red line that connects all the most important sightseeing places! It is a great idea!!!
- the main square, with a big rock marking the centre of the city (my knowledge of Russia convinces me a little bit more every day, that this people has a passion for BIG things: the bigger they are, the better!);
- an underground pedestrian crossing decorated with murals representing Viktor Tsoy‘s face and hosting all day long live concerts;
- elderly people playing chess in the street;
- the Iset, Yekaterinburg’s river, with his promenades and landscapes;
- Ipatiev House: nowadays this is a Church and a pilgrimage site that was built after the fall of the Soviet Union in the place of the merchant’s house where the Tsars had been killed. Before being demolished in 1977, the merchant’s house that had hosted them during the last days of their lives had been part of the Ural Museum of Revolution. Going around Yekaterinburg and paying attention to the representation of the Tsar’s family gives you an idea of how Orthodox Church is taking back its power and of the different forms the cult of personality can take. There is going to be a post about this very soon;
- Vysotsky Tower: from the top you can see all the city and where the forest of buildings gives way to the forest of trees. You can’t see that change from Imperia Tower in Moscow. On the first floor of this business centre you can visit a museum dedicated to Vladimir Vysotsky‘s life.
In the evening we went food shopping with Kirill (by that time, he didn’t feel like a stranger anymore) and prepared him pasta alla siciliana and insalata caprese. He really enjoyed it. As we say in Italian, “he licked his moustache”! (watch our live video on FB)
On the second day we went to the Yekaterinburg Library for Blind People and I was blindfolded before meeting Vova, Vladimir. Vova taught me how to follow him holding his arm and showed me around the library: he explained how blind children are taught to feel the world, what games they play and what devices blind people use to orientate themselves through life. Did you know that there are apps that can voice everything your smartphone does? After exploring the library, we went in the street, and these are the places in Yekaterinburg I did not see (or I saw only after the excursion and when making the video):
- hundreds of pavements, traffic lights, bumps and pedestrian crossings;
- a Mercedes I apparently started hitting with Vova’s cane as he was trying to teach me to find my way;
- a street market with old ladies selling fruits and flowers;
- a bakery shop I imagined grey and that had all warm wooden furniture instead;
- Yekaterinburg’s underground, including the policeman who helped us: while making the video I noticed that I was trying to hold his hand because I was sure it was Vova;
- a woman in the street who was trying to help and had no idea I was not really blind;
- Some sculptures on Vayner Street I had not paid attention to the day before;
- The cheburek I ate at the café where our excursion ended.
After saying bye to Vova we still had time to go to Yekaterinburg’s China Town market before catching our train to Omsk. We got candies to add to my wrappers collection and had lunch at a vietnamese café. I bought the first selfie stick in my life.
We promised to crosspost and see each other again and so it was: at the beginning of October Vova was invited to take part in Ya Mogu!, a show on the Russian first channel, so he came to Moscow with Kirill. This time I was not blindfolded and he holded my arm around the smells, sounds and bumps of Moscow, but that’s another story, and you’ll have to wait for a while before reading it. In the meantime, you can watch Vova on Russian TV from the 1:00:45 minute in this video.