The Trans-Siberian Railroad – Chasing Romanov Ghosts in Yekaterinburg

The Trans-Siberian Railroad:

We traveled to Irkutsk, Russia from Beijing via the Trans-Mongolian railroad – the blue-line on map below, with a three-day stop in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. (See our blog postings on Mongolia and Irkutsk for our stories on this portion of the trip.) The Trans-Mongolian railroad joins the Trans-Siberian railroad at Ulan-Ude, Russia, about 284 miles (457 km) east of Irkutsk.

The Trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok is the longest continuous rail line in the world, 5,758 miles (9,289 km) in total, takes seven days to travel and crosses seven time zones. Irkutsk is a little more than half-way, 3,219 miles (5,185 km) from Moscow and takes about three and a half days to get from Irkutsk to Moscow.

Leaving Irkutsk we boarded train # 001 westbound, to ride the Trans-Siberian through the steppes and forests of Siberia to Moscow. While planning our trip, we decided to break up our trip from Irkutsk to Moscow trip by stopping in Yekaterinburg for two days. Yekaterinburg is a two day train trip from Irkutsk, the longest we would be on a train without getting off since our train trip across Canada.

We are starting to notice that little niceties make a big difference on long train trips. One of the welcome touches on this train is an electrical outlet in our compartment for charging our computers, iPhones, iPads, etc. In many of the local trains we have taken, the only electrical outlet available was in the hallway.

The second nicety is flush toilets at the end of the car. On many of the local trains we have taken in Russia and China, the toilets empty onto the tracks. When flushed, water runs into the toilet bowl and the bottom opens up and you can see the ground passing under the train. Understandably, they don’t want toilets being emptied onto the ground at, or near, the train stations, so the toilets are locked at least 10 minutes before arriving at the station and reopened about 10 minutes after leaving the station. When there are long stops at stations, the toilet can be locked for a long time. The trains with real flush toilets aren’t locked at stations and so other than when they are being cleaned, are always open.

In our Irkutsk posting we told the story of the surly train attendants we had on the local train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk. I am happy to report that we have had very nice and helpful train attendants on train #001 from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg and from Yekaterinburg to Moscow. It made for much nicer train trips, although not as good a story for our blog.

The only disappointing experience on the train from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg was the meal we had in the dining car. It was expensive – about the equivalent of $66 U.S. for the two of us – for food that was only O.K. After that meal, we ate our meals in our compartment from food we brought with us from our stops Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg and food we bought on the platform.

At most train stations, there are kiosks that sell food and drink products. On one of the more memorable station stops, a number of vendors flocked the station carrying food for sale, including; pirogues, smoked fish and other goodies. See the picture below for women selling smoked fish and two pictures above for a woman with a basket of pirogues.

Below is a picture of me with cutting apart the smoked fish we bought from a lady on the platform.

The scenery from the train includes seemingly endless forests of birch trees. Also there are large plains with farms, factories and a few large cities. Below are some pictures I took from the train as it moved across Siberia.

We traveled the Trans-Siberian railroad in early November. There were some areas where the rivers were beginning to freeze over and snow could be seen on the ground and on buildings.

We saw numerous factories and power plants; many, many villages and a few bigger cities.

A snowy scene at sunset:

One of the many villages we passed:

In a previous blog on our trip to Mongolia, I described meeting Clem and Margaret from Australia and sharing some meals together. Another couple that was on that train was Mark and Jenny, a young couple from England. I spoke briefly with Mark a couple of times on the train to Ulaanbaatar and then we spoke to both of them as they got off the platform in Mongolia. Later as we were preparing to leave Mongolia, we ran into Mark and Jenny again at a grocery store in downtown Ulaanbaatar, buying among other items vodka for their upcoming train ride. They were staying on in Mongolia for another day and then going on to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal for a few days and then on to Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian. We didn’t really expect to see them again.

When we got on the Trans-Siberian in Yekaterinburg to go on to Moscow, we ran into Mark on the platform at one of the first station stops. They had stayed longer in Irkutsk/Lake Baikal than we had and they were now taking the Trans-Sib all the way from Irkutsk to Moscow. We made a date to eat lunch together in the dining car, we especially wanted to hear about their Mongolian experience, since it sounded like they had a more authentic “Ger camp” experience than ours.

We learned that Mark and Jenny are both in the accounting profession and had spent five years working in Australia and saving their money so they could take 18 months to travel through Australia and New Zealand and then to get home, they were make a train trip from Vietnam through China and then the same trip as us: Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, Irkutsk, Moscow and then St. Petersburg. We also learned that they had not had the opportunity to drink the Chinngis brand vodka purchased in Ulaanbaatar on the Trans-Siberian with other passengers, so we invited them to come by after their dinner to our compartment for vodka drinking and more conversation. Finally we learned that Mark and Jenny were planning to attend the same ballet performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow as were attending, so the next morning as we were preparing to disembark for Moscow, we invited them to meet us for dinner before the show. (More on this in our next blog on Moscow.) Here’s a photo of Holly with Mark & Jenny in the dining car of the train.


Yekaterinburg, located at the base of the Ural Mountains, with copper, iron and other mineral deposits developed as a mining and manufacturing center. Due to Peter the Great’s need for war material, he gave instructions for new sources of iron to be developed and an iron works was opened in 1721. The town was founded in 1723 and named after Peter’s wife Catherine. Today Yekaterinburg (pronounced: “Yech-tan-borg” by our tour guide) is the fourth or fifth largest city in Russia – depending on the source – with a population of 1.5 million people.

The city administration building across from the Lenin Statue in the main square:

During World War II, Yekaterinburg became one of the major centers of war munitions research and production and until recently housed the Russian “Pentagon”. Because of the city’s strategic importance, it was off-limits to foreigners until 1990. During Soviet times, the city was renamed “Sverdlovsk”, becoming Yekaterinburg again in 1991.

In addition to the usual automobile traffic, there are buses and street cars – below is a particularly colorful street car. One of the pleasant contrasts with China is that, unlike China, in Moscow you can actually cross the street if you are in a cross-walk and a green walk light. Russians seem to follow traffic laws better and give pedestrians the right-of-way, at least when they are crossing at a cross-walk.

Here is the obligatory picture of the obligatory Lenin statue in the main square.

In addition to proximity to minerals, the other reason that Yekaterinburg exists at this location is the River Iset that runs through town. Water power from the river provided the power that ran the original iron works and other factories. The original wooden dam, has now been covered with stone and street, and is the center piece of the downtown river-walk area. Below is a picture of famous local mansion next to the river taken from the dam.

I took a tour of Yekaterinburg Museum with a focus on the history of the city. I was impressed with some really interesting technology the museum used to tell the story of their city, much more high-tech than what you would expect to find in a local museum for a city of this size.

There is a fair amount of new building in certain parts of the city. One can see areas with many beautiful new high-rise buildings:

One can also still see many, many Soviet-era buildings in various stages of decay:

Yekaterinburg is famous for three things:

  1. In May 1960 American U2 pilot Gary Powers was shot down nearby and parachuted into the arms of Soviet soldiers waiting below.
  2. Yekaterinburg is home to Boris Yeltsin, the 1st President of the Russian Federation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin was the local political boss here and there is this monument to Yeltsin near the government buildings in downtown Yekaterinburg.

  1. The murder of the last Russian Tsar and his family. Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Tsar and his family were moved to Yekaterinburg in April 1918 and imprisoned in the house of a rich merchant for two months. Eventually the Bolshevik government decided that the Tsar was too great a threat and ordered his killing. Shortly before midnight on July 16th, Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, their four daughters and their hemophiliac son Alexis, were taken to the basement of the house where they were shot and bayoneted to death.

    For a time, the Soviets were proud of this murder and would take visitors down to the basement to see where Romanov family had met their end. Later the mansion became an embarrassment to the Russian authorities, so in 1976 local political boss Boris Yeltsin ordered the house demolished. In 2000, the Tsar and his family were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Church of the Blood pictured below, dedicated to the new Romanov saints, was built on the site of their murder.

This sculpture of Tsar Nicholas carrying his young son Alexis and his wife and daughters descending the stairs to the basement to their deaths stands in front of the Church of the Blood.

Following their execution, the bodies of the Romanov family was taken to the Four Brothers Mine, about 40 km outside of the city. There the guards spent three days attempting to destroy the bodies, the evidence of their crimes. The bodies were dismembered, doused with gasoline and burned and the remains thrown down a mine shaft. Today on this site there is the Monastery of the Holy Martyrs (Ganina Yama) which includes seven church buildings made of wood logs set in a wooded park-like setting. Below is a sculpture of the canonized children of Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra.

This is one of the most elaborate of the seven churches at the site. The other six churches are all very different in shape and size.

On a lighter note, later in the day we hired a car to take us out to the border between the continents of Europe and Asia. The Ural Mountains are traditionally the border between Asia and Europe. We were told there are several border markers. We wanted to go to a particular border marker described in our “bible” for this trip – the Trans-Siberian Handbook. Language is a constant issue for us, since we have really mastered only three words in Russian: “da” (Yes), “nyet” (no), and phonetically – “spa-see-ba” (thank you). To get to the border marker we wanted to visit, I handed the Trans-Siberian Handbook to desk clerk at our Hotel and pointed to the description of the border and the desk clerk then called the car service. The desk clerk seemed to know where we wanted to go, we figured we were not the first tourists to make this request. When the car arrived, I showed the same description (in Russian) to the driver.

The driver took us first to another border marker closer to the city and just off the highway. This is a nice marker and is next to an area in the woods where couples who marrying go to take photographs. We took a number of photos at this marker with one foot in each continent. Thinking all the time of our previous visits to four-corners in the U.S.A. A nice local man who spoke English came along with some of his family members visiting from out of town and we took turns taking group pictures of each other.

Although this marker was very nice, we still wanted to see the border marker we had read about in the guide book. When we got back in the car, he asked “hotel?” “No” I replied and I handed him the book again. He then called our hotel and with our hotel’s desk clerk acting as our interpreter, our driver came to understand where we wanted to go. The price quoted had been 1,700 rubles (about $53.00 U.S.), but with the additional driving now went up to 2,200 rubles (about $70.00 U.S.). “OK” we agreed and we were off.

This border marker is at a spot that German scientists, Humboldt and Roze, using barometric readings determined in 1829 to be the border between Europe and Asia. The original marker was destroyed in the 1920s and replaced with this obelisk made of concrete and faced with granite.

Next up: Moscow. Stay tuned.

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