Thursday, 8 September 2011

Yekateringburg - the beginning of Siberia

Yekateringburg is on a high plateau in the central Ural Mountains and its where Siberia begins - where Europe meets Asia. Yekateringburg & Kazan argue as to which is Russia's third city after Moscow & St Peterburg. Its has an official population of 1.3 million but unofficilly its nearer 2 million - nobody bothers that much, its an easy going sort of place.

It was founded by Peter the Great in 1723 as an eastern guard post at the edge of the Russian Empire & as an iron ore mining town. It is staggeringly rich in mineral wealth with copper, gold, platinum, emeralds & rubies all being mined locally. The Urals was a closed area to foreigners until 1991 because of its military factories and nuclear facilities; these are presumably what Gary Powers was filming from his U2 aircraft when he was shot down over the city in 1960.

There are still many 'closed' cities in Russia - completely enclosed by fences & guards so that even local Russian's are forbidden entry without a permit. Siberia is also still a location for many prisons for criminals & the small town of Nizhny Tagil has 13 of them.

There's an official oblisk marking where east meets west but its 25km out of town along the Moscow road. Its a popular tourist draw but is also a place where newly weds go to celebrate. On the way to the oblisk there is a memorial to the 18,000 people found in a mass grave. The site was discovered during a road widening scheme during the 1990's but no one is quite sure why they were killed - maybe they had the wrong faces or were in the wrong place at the wrong time or were deemed to have offended the Soviet State in some way. DNA evidence is gradually enabling names & details of the dead to be identified and recorded on the memorial.

Irish themed pubs are found in major cities everywhere but somehow I didnt expect to find the Old Dublin pub here in Siberia. The design & contents were all you would expect, the Guiness was excellent, their menu was celebrating the 50th birthday of America's President Obama (he's part Irish in case you missed that PR stunt) & an England v Wales football match was playing live on TV.

In Soviet times the city was called Sverdlovsk after one of Lenin's senior party officials who hatched the plot to murder the last of the Romanov's in a basement of the town. Sverdlovsk is also credited with designing the classic yet sinister KGB outfit of long leather coat and leather trousers.

Boris Yelstin, often credited with being the father of the counter-revolution, was the head of the Communist Party in Yekateringburg in the 1980's before being promoted to higher things in Moscow & there is a modest modern art-style statue of him in the main square.

Yekateringburg seems a fascinating city & I wish I were staying for a few more days.

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