“It doesn’t feel like we should be that close.”
It’s a funny thing to say when you’re still five hours away from your destination, but also funny when you’ve been on the train for 23 hours already. But Sunshine was right. We’d fallen into the rhythm of train life almost instantly, as soon as the gentle rocking began. Our 2nd class cabin had seen a variety of occupants as we rolled through the endless green of European Russia. We’d figured out ways to make the bathroom tolerable; we’d stretched our legs at the station stops and taken the opportunity to acquire local beer along the way. We were feeling pretty good about making it to Beijing with our sanity intact.
Our route took us through some of Russia’s ethnic republics in the central Volga region. Russia is more diverse than most people realize. This is evident in the faces in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but soon after leaving these cities come the Volga republics. The Chuvash live in Chuvashia, the Tatars live in Tatarstan. The Mary live in Mary-El and the Bashkirs live in Bashkortostan. This is just one small region of the country – further ethnic quilts exist in the Caucasus Mountains, in Siberia and in the Far East as well. We rode through the hop farms of Chuvashia at night, but we were able to see the Kazan Kremlin as we pulled in around 3am. A kremlin is a citadel, and many Russian cities have one. Kazan’s is unique in that it has not only a large Orthodox church but also a mosque. The Kazan Kremlin was lit up brightly, and was an amazing sight – probably better than when I visited it in 2004.
We passed through oil-rich Bashkortostan, and cut through Udmurtia as well, home of the Udmurts. Villages grew progressively older as we moved east. Modern suburbs fell into memory, replaced by wooden houses with large vegetable gardens, woodpiles and little wooden banyas pouring smoke from their chimneys. Soon we would arrive in the mineral-rich Ural Mountains, another section of vast Russia, and another unusual gateway into Asia – if you fly into Tokyo or Hong Kong your Asian gateway is quintessential. Ekaterinburg, a few kilometres inside the signpost marking the beginning of the continent, is definitely a different way of doing things.
The city is pleasant, which I guess is good enough. They have a little subway system that took us to our hotel, and we had a drink at a Czech pub. There is a pretty lake in the middle, some older buildings…basically a quiet provincial town that in summer is nice enough. There’s a great beer store there that allows you to buy draft in big plastic bottles to go, so we did that. It wasn’t the most adventurous stop of the trip…so probably the last stop on the trip that wasn’t a little bit crazy in some way.