Sometimes I wonder if my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach to travel isn’t slowing me down. It’s not that I’m disorganised; I have a skeleton of plans months in advance and things like tickets and visas sorted well before I leave.
But the organisation grinds to a halt when I arrive. I like to turn up in a new city and just see what I find, follow my nose. Recently in Moscow this turned up one of the best fleamarkets I’ve ever been to. I’ve written about my love of the unexpected before.
I planned my stop in Ekaterinburg because it was where the last Romanov ruler, Tsar Nicholas II, and his family were murdered. A quick scan online confirmed there was a memorial of some kind, and that was that. I’d investigate when I got there.
Day one, I start hunting. I find reference to Ipatiev House and a church but a quick dig confirms that they are the same site: in 1977 the house was demolished, and only in the early 2000s was this large memorial church built on the site. Its full name is The Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land – and certainly the saints are resplendent in this Russian land. Chief among them are the seven Romanovs, haloed and bland-faced. There is a statue outside the big multi-domed church that dramatically depicts the family descending to the basement where they would be executed. Along the fence huge photos show the five children holding festive decorations, Alexei in a sailor suit, the Tsar in his military uniform. Photos of the last Imperial Russian family always move me; tragedy overlays them with a patina of sadness and heightens the beauty of young faces that never grew old.
Inside, the main church is a cave of red and gold and faces of the Virgin. I have forgotten my scarf, and seeing the faux pas fast approaching I quickly buy a silk scarf from a woman by the door and tie it over my hair. Plaques along one wall and a large saint-ified portrait commemorate the family, but apart from this the rest of the church features other saints and patriarchs (elders of the Russian church). Women kneel and kiss the Virgin and everyone crosses themselves as they stand before the altar. I may have been raised on the simplified rituals of the Baptist church but now I touch my fingertips to forehead, chest and shoulders out of respect for the locals as much as God.
Emerging back into the cold air I take a deep breath and relax my shoulders. I didn’t realise I’d been holding myself erect against the sensory overload of rich colours and saint worship, alert to proper conduct, my eyes taking it all in. I feel exhilarated at the strangeness of it all. But I’ve nearly forgotten about the Romanovs. This ornate church feels detached from a story that I think of as personal and anchored to history. I’m glad to have been there all the same.
Day two, I have this niggling feeling that I’ve missed something. I go back online and hunt around – there. I knew I’d seen a photo of a forest somewhere along the way, and the church was definitely not in a forest. Ganina Yama. Ganya’s Pit. The place where the bodies were first buried (although ‘dumped’ would be a better word; they were partially burned, thrown down a mine shaft, retrieved, had acid thrown on them, and finally, casually, buried). It’s fifteen kilometres north but seems reachable. Information on how to get there is scarce, but I’m getting used to this in Russia. I come across a few tours but it’s late to be booking and they cost about 5000 rubles (AUD$100) which is most definitely out of my budget. I keep coming across tantalising clues: sometimes buses go direct from the station; a local train stops three kilometres from the site; one person came across a random tour that cost just 500 rubles each. The train to the village of Shuvakish seems the only sure thing so after lunch I set off across the city via bus.
Buses in Russian cities are like wild horses. Sometimes you’ll catch one and get on it, or sometimes the one you want just won’t come; when you do get one it may go in the direction you expect or it may veer away; it will most certainly lurch off speeding, stopping sharply from time to time. But, also a bit like horses, after spending some time their ways become familiar and you can anticipate them a little better. At this early point I am yet to learn the mysteries of the Russian bus, so I jump on number 54 which immediately hits traffic. Finally picking up speed we zip right past the corner we were meant to turn down. This is my first inkling that perhaps Google and the Russian transport system don’t communicate perfectly. I jump off and find myself outside a metro station.
Ekaterinburg has the shortest metro in the world, but what there is of it runs like a dream. The grand interiors of stone and ironwork remind me of Moscow stations, and the trains come as frequently. I rattle around for a while, working out which stop will deliver me to the main station, changing a 100 ruble note at what I think is a change machine, having a confused exchange with the lady at the ticket counter, realising the machine gave me subway tokens not coins to exchange for a ticket, descending and getting on a train going the wrong way, getting off and going back, finally arriving at the main station. It has taken me almost two hours to get across town, and it’s not a big town.
I buy a ticket to Shuvakish then join everyone else in staring interminably at the departures board. I can’t see my train listed and all the times are in the past. (It takes me a while to realise that not only do long distance trains run on Moscow time – I had been warned in regards to my Trans-Siberian tickets – but local trains too. I still cannot get over the fact that in a country with eleven time zones all trains everywhere run on Moskva vremya.) Bemused but not thwarted I ask a cashier for the next train time. 18:00 hours. Two and a half hours away! I’m a bit thrown, given that it’s only five stops out of the centre, and started to wonder if I should try again tomorrow. After all, the sun sets at 6:30pm and I don’t fancy wandering in a Russian forest in the dark and cold. But I’ve set my course and stubbornly want to see it through.
By the time the train pulls out of the station I am watching the sky become dull and the further we go the more trepidation I feel. The so-called suburbs are collections of weathered wooden houses amongst dirt-packed streets with few streetlights. As we slide past one rail stop, nothing more than a concrete shelter, people stand in the gloaming and watch the train pass with faces like stone.
I get off at Shuvakish, resigned to the fact that this is now pointless but needing to see it through to the bitter end. The platform is deserted. The darkening forest forms an ominous backdrop. I climb the steps to the overpass and cross to a single lit building. There seems to be a tiny corner store and an office that might be railway-related but no entrance. An old man in a flat Lenin-style cap turns his head to watch me as I check for clues, also stony-faced. But here is a young woman in a high-vis vest. I cobble together a few words to apologise for not speaking Russian and ask if there is a taxi here. “Taksi?” She pauses and I expect her to laugh – if there is anywhere I wouldn’t expect a taxi it’s this station. But her manner is kind. There’s no taxi, of course, and when I explain I want to go to Ganina Yama she thinks hard and looks around before shaking her head. I smile and shrug. At least I tried. “Spaseeba,” I reply, and at that moment a train for Ekaterinburg comes around the corner, its lamp beaming white light onto the tracks. I leap on and squeeze into a seat.
Day three, I wake and decide that if I can get a taxi for a reasonable price I will go that way. The feeling of dread I’d had last night in the greyish dusk of a strange village with the inky forest stretching beyond wasn’t forgotten. Walking from Shuvakish alone might contravene those promises I made to travel safely, even in the daylight.
I make my way to the station quickly, Sunday traffic being light, although not without a half hour of waiting for a bus that doesn’t come. (When I relay this to my new friend Tonya she rolls her eyes in sympathy. “Yes,” she says, “sometimes this happens.”) I approach the first taxi and ask if he can take me to Ganina Yama. He can. “Skol’ko?” I ask. Two thousand rubles, he replies.
I was expecting him to start higher: this is in fact the figure I’m prepared to pay. I’ve taken two short taxi rides before and both cost me 500 rubles – about $10 – for 10 minutes, exactly what I would pay in Perth. I knew the trip there and back would take up to an hour and a half, in addition to which I was asking him to wait half an hour at the site. So I’m asking for a potentially two hour taxi ride for the equivalent of $40, a bargain by Australian standards. Given that a tour would set me back maybe $100 and I know a lot of the history already, this is a good deal.
Today’s trip is painless. We make good time on the way there and back, and the driver waits while I make my visit. When we pull up I see a bank of cars and a few people milling about and suddenly it doesn’t feel so remote.
Ganina Yama is a complex of seven chapels, each dedicated to a family member and each lovely. Tucked between stands of thin-trunked birch trees, the churches are built of logs with curved green roofs and gold domes topped with the Orthodox cross.
Inside they have the warmth of log cabins, which somehow makes them feel like loving tributes in a way that no gold filigree halo on a portrait ever could – although that kind of thing is here too. Candles burn gently by the altars and richly coloured portraits of saints hang on the walls. In one church I come in behind a Russian tour and stand politely while the guide finishes her spiel. As the group leaves I notice everyone turns to face the altar before they cross themselves, and outside again turn to face the front door, crossing themselves while walking backwards a little way. I don’t attempt the walking backwards bit.
Again I find myself wondering about the gap between how Russians see the family and how I see them. I didn’t even know the family had been canonised and I have arrived to find that this is the primary way they are memorialised. The churches are beautiful and restful, but I am more interested in finding the wall of photos I’ve heard about. I walk around the perimeter peeking behind every building, but find nothing. I have just a few minutes before I need to go, so I make a last stab and ask a guard by the gate. When I start speaking in English, using a few keywords like “foto” and “Romanov” while pointing around the site, he looks terrified and laughs nervously. I get creative and pull out my phone to show him photos I took of the Romanov photos at the city church. Usually this kind of approach works, but he is backing away, grinning anxiously. I give up. I have done what I came to do and I am satisfied.