It’s funny how I’m writing a post about how we celebrated Alan’s birthday a couple of months back, and mine’s round the corner (hint la, it’s tomorrow). But better late than never, I guess!
We ended up in Yekaterinburg (capital of the Urals region, a mountain range full of minerals) for the celebration season — Alan’s 23rd, and our anniversary (5 years together!). Although the city turned out to be far less exciting than Moscow or St Petersburg, we made up for it by splurging on a proper hotel, the Novotel (in general, we find fairly decent places for less than US$50 / per person per night).
What made the deal even sweeter was that we got upgraded to a suite! The aircon system in the hotel broke down but though it was more than bearable (the air was cool), I decided to put my kaobei-ing skills to the test.
The English-speaking staff at first offered me a basket of fruits as compensation, followed by wine. I firmly declined these gifts of appeasement. But third time’s the charm I guess, cos we got upgraded and it was awesome.
The two days we spent in Yekaterinburg were quieter, slower-paced and a little bit more low-key. The city by default doesn’t have the hustle and bustle that overstuffed Moscow and tourist-filled St Petersburg seemed to have, and we were, by this stage, a little fatigued. So it was just as well that we had a lovely hotel room to spend our days in. We woke up for breakfast (clogging our arteries with loads of bacon), went back to sleep and then watched TV (including Game of Thrones’ heartwrenching The Red Wedding ep).
Day 1 — Alan Turns 23
We celebrated Alan’s birthday at a German restaurant called RatsKeller. Slightly kitschy, thoroughly enjoyable — the waitresses were dressed in a shorter version of the dirndl (the kind you see at Oktoberfest) and the decor was warm and cozy with rose-patterned drapes.
We had a hard time deciphering the menu, which came in two languages — German and Russian. Google Goggles did most of the legwork for us, though, so we managed to get the food we wanted (I think).
They even gave us a complimentary vodka shot. One sniff and I was simultaneously invigorated and repulsed; I passed it on to Alan. He gamely took a swig but gave up mid-shot. For all the things people say about how high quality vodka goes on smoothly, I don’t know if they realize that it’s probably cos the high alcohol content has eroded your esophagus lining away or something, like sandpaper on rough wood.
Day 2 — All You Need Is Love
The next day, we couldn’t resist heading down to the Yekaterinburg State Circus.
Alan had never been to the circus before. When I saw all the kids in the 2,600-seat dome arena, I was like, “This is gonna be boring.” Well, as it turns out, I am as easily entertained as a kid! I squealed every single time during death-defying stunts; my favourite/most traumatic one was where this man jumped onto this super big trampoline to land butt-straight onto a chair, suspended high in the air and held by a man, who was in turn hoisted by another man, who was standing on top of another man.
Basically it was intense.
This season’s theme is/was (not sure, since I’m writing about a June event in September) “Safari” so they brought out a whole host of animals like snakes and zebras and horses. They were all very intelligent of course, but personally I’m not a fan of animal entertainment?
After that, we embarked on our own version of the Red Line Tour — a 6.5km own-time-own-target trek through the compact city’s most beloved sights. An actual red line has been painted on the roads, so you know you’re more or less en route to seeing what most people think you oughta see in the city, if you’re ever lost.
We walked along the peaceful Iset River, coming across gorgeous views like these:
The first thing on our checklist was the QWERTY keyboard, a 30:1 scale of an actual IBM Cyrillic keyboard. Why somebody would ever want to build something like that in concrete puzzles me, but I suppose that’s what they all call art, right?
Apparently, if you type out your wish on the keyboard it will come true. I hope that, whoever this mysterious wish-granter is, he/she/it can tolerate typos, cos there’s no way you can type a wish on a giant-ass keyboard without adding a bunch of extra letters along the way.
Then we headed off to the Beatles Monument, apparently the only one in Russia.
The sculpture is supported by the Wall of Love, which depicts the band members’ houses, lyrics and strangers’ wishes all in colour.
Another wall bears a lyric from the band’s song, The End. I had never heard of the song before seeing this (yes, I loved Julie Taylor’s Across the Universe but missed more than half the references) but the line has really stuck with me all this time.
The love you take is equal to the love you make. I am a fervent believer that love is not a fairytale, that it is hard work. It is beautiful in its grittiness, the frustrations, the molding of two people becoming one. There’s a new article that’s been making the Facebook circuit and I heartily concur with the author.
Love isn’t an emotion or even a noun. It’s a verb. Better defined as giving. As putting someone else’s needs above your own. — Pop Chassid
I may use the word ‘love’ liberally with friends (e.g. “ok thanks love ya babe”) but when it comes to the relationships that matter most, actions speak way more loudly than words. I have so much to learn from Alan in that respect, who has been a great blessing in my life, who gives me more than I do, with only the occasional pointed request that “maybe it’s your turn to do the laundry this time????” (Yeah, this spoiled girl had her laundry washed and meals cooked the whole of last year. :p)
Don’t know how I started waxing lyrical about A. Must be the long-distance at work.
Anyway, hardcore local fans created the monument. As it turns out, other fan groups have started colonizing parts of the wall for their own:
We got ready to leave Iset River, but not before snapping this shot.
I think it really captures how laidback the place was — not in a Cali sort of chill, but a genuine indulgence in the solitude and quiet that Yekaterinburg offers. A little ironic since our next stop was the Church on the Spilled Blood (yes, we went to a similarly named one in St Petersburg — the Russians really do have a habit of making tourist attractions out of their dead people).
The church, formerly known as the Ipatiev House, commemorates the Nicholas Romanov (aka the last Tsar) and his family.
On July 17, 1918, Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, as well as their tsar-to-be Alexei, were taken to the cellar and murdered by the Bolsheviks. One reading says that most of the bullets bounced off the jewels sewn into the girls’ corsets, and bayoneting did not work for the same reason. Finally, soldiers put an end to the grand duchesses’ misery by shooting them point blank in the head. Is that not an awful tale?
Today, the tsar and his family have been proclaimed passion-bearers (a saint who died in faith at the hand of murderers, as opposed to dying because of his faith like a matyr) by the Russian Orthodox church. It’s a little eerie walking into the church — there is a real solemnity looking at paintings of the royal family, each member’s head surrounded by gold-leafed halos. I mean, they were only flesh after all.
We pressed on and found ourselves at the Afghanistan War Memorial. While most Red war statues (well, most statues, really) tend to be portrayed in heroic stances, this one was particularly somber and raw.
A lone soldier grips his rifle tightly, his head bent. Around him are 10 pillars, one for each year of the wall. Fresh flowers, all pops of color, line the ground below him — a living testament that there are those who still mourn the dead. 🙁
And yet we saw this… I doubt there are many silver linings in war though, especially as we sit on edge wondering if there will be one coming any time soon…
We concluded our day by walking to the CCCP Pectopah (or SSSR restaurant) that sits opposite the memorial. The whole restaurant has been preserved in Soviet kitsch, and is apparently full of history — high-ups in the Soviet chain-of-command would come here to get a bowl of borsch.
The food was nothing to shout about, but Alan, on his usual adventurous streak, decided to try a bowl of orkoshka. So far, both of us have never tasted anything worse. The soup is served cold, with raw vegetables in a kvass-based broth, which means it just tastes like… things you never want to put in your mouth again.
We went to a great, affordable self-serve restaurant on our third day, Uralskie Pelmeni. Boris Yeltsin used to frequent it, I think, when it used to be a posh Soviet dining establishment. They only understand Russian, so go with a dictionary or an adventurous spirit. But you’ll be fine since you can point a lot, and hopefully you’ll end up with ural pelmeni, the Ural version of a meat ravioli.
This was a long post for a place that supposedly doesn’t have much to offer, and while it is true it wasn’t the most memorable of places, it was where Alan and I celebrated a milestone in our lives.
If I had to do the trip all over again, I’d probably skip Yekaterinburg altogether if I were strapped for time. Those who have that luxury can head over to Ganina Yama, an all-wooden church that has found its niche in being the pit where the Romanov remains were thrown in…
Anyway, to my favourite reader: here’s to more milestones!