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14

Russia - Ekaterinburg
21st - 23rd Dec

Ekaterinburg is the third largest city in Russia, depending on who you are speaking to and where they are from. It was built in 1723 by Catherine I the third and last wife of Peter the Great. It's location was chosen to exploite the extensive mineral reserves in the Ural mountains. Later when Gold was discovered the city doubled in size, much later precious and semi-precious stones. Being sited in the lowest crossing point of the Ural mountains, and hence an easy access point into Siberia, it benefited from the main east road from Moscow and at the building the Trans-Siberian railway in 1891 it was only natural it followed the same route. It became an engineering city building trains and weaponry such as tanks and planes. Due to the number of top-secret military establishments the US ran spying missions which led to American U2 spyplane being shot down here in the 60's, a major embarresment for the west during the cold war. Today these industries survive including the well rspected technical University from where Boris Yeltsin graduated. It is a rich city and as such one of the few donator cities to the Russian economy.

On the train from Moscow to Ekaterinburg, I shared a 4 berth cabin with just one other person, Anna whom had been working in Moscow for 3 months and was now returning home to meet her husband and son. We didn't have a common fluent language, so far I had been getting by on a mixture of English, Russian - as aided by my phrasebook and some German as many Russians would speak at least a little. Often it was an amalgamation of the three, as was the case with Vladimir in Moscow. During my stay in the Uk I had read a book called 'The places in-between' by Rory Stewart about his walk across Afghanistan in the winter. (After he already been walking for over a year through the Middle East and Asia.) He always carried photographs of his family and life back home as people he met along the way were genuinely interested. Seeming like a good tip I made a point of doing the same. Even so I underestimated the value of something so simple, particularly on long train journeys when pointing at phrases in my book was wearing thin. It was also another way of communicating when language provided a barrier and usually lead to, or was sparked off by the production of corresponding photographs of wives, husbands, partners, parents, children etc. Naturally they were just as interested in another lifestyle and culture as I was. There would of course be questions as to what I was doing and what I did for a living, finding these difficult to answer even in English, let alone Russian, Mongolian or Chinese, I later hit on the idea of showing them my lap top with the dates and maps of my journey thus far and my route ahead to China. Apart from being a simple solution they were all the more interested coming from countries where travel had been restricted for many years and even now few can afford to travel as freely as we can in the west. We left Moscow at 4pm on the 21st and arrived the following day at 8.30pm. It is difficult to explain how a bond developes in just a short period of time when communication is limited, but it does and it is tangible. By the time we arrived at our destination Anna had already offered to give me a guided tour of the museum where she was a director, and then after descending from the train, introduced me to her husband and son who were waiting on the platform. Sadly having tried to arrange this with my guide, Constantine, who was also on the platform it seemed my itinerary wouldn't allow for an additional museum trip.

I had booked an ice fishing trip during my stay at Ekaterinburg and being at such close proximity we were going to take the eastern road through the Urals to a frozen lake in Siberia. It hadn't struck me as odd but when friends learned that I was planning to do a trip through Siberia in winter they thought I was mad, knowing I could just as easily have chosen somewhere warm. But as I was told many times on route by locals and guides 'you see the real Russia and the people are diffrerent in winter' and even in Beijing as with the my other stops in China, being out of season the lack of westerners was noticeable which made it a lot more pleasant in tourist traps like The Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an. So I was comforted in the knowledge that although it is reproradly extremely beautiful in the summer months there were benefits to taking this trip in the winter. However, I have to be honest to say that just prior to my departure I was slightly unnerved to read that Siberia is as one might expect the coldest place on earth with temperatures in the extremes as low as -62c. What startled me though was from about -50c, which can be common depending on which part of Siberia you are in, if you just bang your fingers or your ears they can snap off! Now that is cold. I don't mind losing the odd tip of a finger to a bit of frostbite, but to wake up in the morning to find both your ears on the pillow is not funny. To make matters worse I wouldn't even be able to ring a doctor as my glasses would keep falling off!

I stayed with families on route whenever possible, as arranged by the agent in London, for I felt it would be a better way of seeing how the people live and sampling a small piece of their culture. All spoke English and without exception all were extremely hospitable, going out of there way to accomadate and make me feel welcome.

I arrived at Elenas' 1 bedroomed appartment with a bed settee in the lounge. She was a language teacher with two daughters, one living in Egypt and the second in Moscow, speaking excellent English, fluent French and a little German. It was about 9.30pm when I arrived as Constantine had given me a short tour of the city on the way over from the train station, so after feeding me my best meal of the trip so far we stayed up late chatting. The conversatoin progressed from the delicate niceties of two mixed natioanlities observing the eticate of grateful guest and accomodating host to world politics and the meaning of life within about 20 minutes. The initial leap I should add being taken by Elena, which was fortunate as this proved to be our only real opportunity to chat as the following evening, after fishing, I went for a long walk and didn't return until much later than I expected.

The following morning I was picked up by Constantine and Igor to go ice-fishing about one and a half hours drive through the Urals to a lake in Siberia. I had arranged this in haste whilst in the UK and later questioned the logic of this, being a vegan. But it was too late it was done and I was on my way. My initial rational was that only ever having fished on maybe 2 occasions with my uncle as a very small boy, and not recalling ever having caught anything at all, whilst on my journey I didn't know when a little understanding of how to catch fish may be useful. So I accepted the situation and decided to make the most of it. For these people it is a way of life and I knew that anything caught would not be wasted and I intended to give any fish to my Elena who would at least put them to good use and make a soup. So by the end of the day with no fishing experience to speak of I would have been happy to catch 1 or 2 fish, in fact whilst the fish in the lake were small, I had caught about 25-30. Although I don't put this down to my prowess as a fisherman but more to the abundance of hungry, short-sighted fish unlucky enough to be in the vicinty of my hook.

Upon returning to the appartment after my walk, I remained awake until 3am before departing for my train to Irkustk, after a warm hug goodbye from Elena.

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