The further east I travelled in Russia the tougher the country became.
Moscow is a touristy city, far more so than I expected, and it’s set up in a way that makes it straightforward for tourists to get around. Dual language menus, plenty of English speakers, for example. Moving east, Russia becomes noticeably less accessible. Yekaterinburg is on the border between Europe and Asia. It’s a big city by most standards, around 1.4m people, but it is not in any way a tourist city. Even by Russian standards, it doesn’t get many visitors. When I started considering a trip across Russia I become fascinated with Yekaterinburg. Something about the city really appealed and its proximity to the Ural Mountains made it a definite stopover on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
The 23-hour journey from Nizhny Novgorod flew by. Until then it was by far and away the longest time I’ve ever spent on a train but it was entirely pleasant, if quiet. Three others were in the kupe when I boarded in Nizhny, including a lady snoring like one of the raptors from Jurassic Park. It wasn’t a social trip this time around which meant a lot of listening to podcasts, music and watching the world go by as we travelled through rural Russia.
Yekaterinburg not attracting much in the way of visitors seems strange. It’s a short drive to the foot of the Urals and moving further north looks to unveil some spectacular scenery, including the infamous Dyatlov Pass. Having spent a few weeks moving largely through cities, the attraction of an escape to the country was one of the main reasons for my time in Yekaterinburg.
My first stop was the Three Sisters, a rock formation with three peaks which just tower over the trees enough to provide a view over the lower Urals. The site was used as a sacrificial point by locals around 2,000 years ago but as yet there are still gaps in the knowledge of their culture and rituals. I felt like I was being sacrificed to the clouds of mosquitoes who weren’t even put off by the industrial strength repellent I was doused in.
A further hike away is the Seven Brothers. An even more spectacular formation with some peaks that need some proper climbing equipment to scale, and some that are easier to scramble up.
With this kind of scenery on the doorstep, it’s a wonder that Yekaterinburg locals don’t make more of it. If I compare to the West Highland Way north of Glasgow, it’s rare to walk that and not meet other people but the Urals don’t seem to draw in the locals.
The city itself was a bit of a tough stop. I had four days in Yekaterinburg and while it’s easy enough to get around and explore, a lot of it is less accessible without speaking decent Russian. It’s a fairly large city centre and worth having an offline guide to get to know more of the history (which is fascinating), and takes in the Church On the Blood, the Yeltsin Center, the Iset River, and, being on the natural border between Europe and Asia, certain spots where you can stand with a foot in each continent. This, along with hearing about and seeing some of the changes since the end of the Soviet era, made for one of the most interesting stops on the journey.