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8Oct/130

German Guesthouse in Bingi village

I know many Russians who moved abroad for better lives and I know just a few foreigners who came to Russia to change things here for better. I truly admire such people. One of them is Stefan Semken from the Ural village of Bingi.

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Stefan is a German entrepreneur, together with his Russian wife Olga he decided to buy a house not far from Yekaterinburg. He liked Nevyansk area 80km to the north of Yekaterinburg. In 2007 Stefan found a 140 years old wooden house in Bingi, a village of the gold diggers. Stefan and Olga converted their house into a guesthouse with a banya. Guests can also stay in three yurts erected in the yard. Budget-conscious travelers can even pitch their own tent in the back yard. Even though the house looks small Stefan assured that he can accommodate up to 25 people. At least that was a record broke by his Russian friends who came for a visit in a group of 25 persons which made the Semkens spend that memorable night in their minivan. I imagine the house looked like a refugee camp but the hosts didn’t seem to be bothered at all.

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I heard about Stefan from many tourists (they especially praise Olga’s cooking and Stefan’s hospitality) but only got to his place this September before the end of the season. As there is no gas in the house and Olga has to cook in the summer kitchen, their house is closed when the temperature drops to +12 C and lower,  that is from October till beginning of May. The house looks like a very cozy place with lots of antiques. Stefan will show you some old coins of the pre-revolution days that he had found in his garden and a tusk of a mammoth – a gift from a local gold digger.

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Apart from the stay in the farm house, guests are offered a transfer to Yekaterinburg, tours in the area and most importantly an excursion in the village including a ride in a neighbor’s Ural motorbike. Bingi is a pretty village of Old Believers who were persecuted by the Tsar and had to move to the Urals in 17th-18th centuries. The Old Believers were known as hard working people who didn’t drink alcohol. Things have changed though and one of Stefan’s concerns is that it’s difficult to hire local people to help.

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Stefan (in the middle), Johan, a traveler from Sweden (right) and me (left)

The Semkens have to do everything themselves. Next year Stefan is planning to build an extension of the house and says it would be great to find a German carpenter. Germans have always played an important role in the history of Russia, starting from Peter the Great who was found of German culture and traditions. By the way, one of the city founders of Yekaterinburg was a German General Wilhelm de Genin, sent to the Urals by Peter the Great to manage the production of iron ore. Stefan could become a good manager of his area too. He already knows what to do to improve life and ecology in the place where he lives and he never hesitates to say it to the mayor of Nevyansk. He is a good friend of the new mayor of Yekaterinburg Eugeni Roizman and helps Roizman’s fund The City without Drugs. Needless to say if you stay at the Semkens’ place you will learn a lot about current political, economical and cultural affairs in Russia and in the Urals.

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I’ll definitely go there again next season for a countryside weekend and for a banya!

Check the website www.semken.eu to learn more about accommodation in GuLAG Bingi as Stefan puts it.

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8Jun/111

Lake Shartash – a piece of nature in Yekaterinburg

Summer is short, so don’t miss a chance to do a short eco-tour to Lake Shartash. You can walk in the forest, climb ancient rocks, ride a bicycle, go swimming and sunbathing on the beach, what’s more it’s all within Yekaterinburg so you don’t need a car to get there!

Shartash in the east of Yekaterinburg is one of the oldest lakes in the Urals - 1 million years old. It has a shape of a bean; its area is 7 sq.km. Shartash means a yellow stone therefore don’t be afraid of the yellowish waters – it’s not dangerous for swimming. First gold in the Urals was discovered in the lake area in 1745. The bottom of the lake has granite deposits and sapropel.

Getting there: from Lenin Prospect you can go by trams 8,13,15,23,32, “A” or any mini bus that has a weird abbreviation ‘40 let VLKSM’ (in English it means ‘40 years of All-Union Leninist Young Communist League’ – it’s actually the name of a tram stop) You need to get off at Kamennie Palatki on Viysotskogo Street. Cross the street, you will see a big sign Shartashsky Les (forest of Shartash) and stone steps leading up the rock. Climb the steps and you get to Kamennie Palatki:

Kamennie Palatki - granite monuments of the Stone Age can be found only in Middle Urals

Kamennie Palatki (stone tents) is something of the same significance in Russia as Stonehenge in England. The natural monument of the Iron Age is a wall of granite formed by the volcano eruption. Granite layers look like piles of huge pancakes. Archeologists found out that ancient people used the place as an altar.

Nowadays Yekaterinburgers bring food and drinks to Kamennie Palatki too, but instead of sacrifice they make picnics.

In 1905 the place was used by Sverdlov and other Bolsheviks for secret meetings.

Get down back to the street and walk about 400 m. eastward, the forest is on your left. Turn left in front of the petrol station. Cross a railway crossing. To rent a bicycle walk straight on to the forest, the lake is on your right. Continue walking till you see a sign on your right Sportivnaya Baza. Alternatively, from the railway crossing turn right and walk to Sundali Beach http://www.sundali-land.ru

Sundali Beach

Bicycle rentals are open daily from 10a.m. to 8p.m. 1 hour is 100-200roubles. Bring a passport or driver’s license with you to rent a bicycle. Don’t worry about the passport - it’s a common practice in Russia when a rental company keeps your document while you keep a bicycle.

The cycling trail around the lake is 12.5 km. Near the village of Shartash you have to cycle about 2 km on the highway as there is no trail by the lake which is inconvenient especially with children. My favourite route is along the lake anti-clockwise to Izoplit village and back. It takes one hour and apart from peaceful nature you will see an interesting site in Izoplit:  shabby wooden huts standing next to mansions of rich Yekaterinburgers:

Houses in Izoplit on Rybakov Street

And on the opposite side of the same street...

For sale

Shartash is a closed lake. It has about 50 springs and no outflows. The lake is getting shallow; it’s now 2-3m. deep and scientists predict it may turn into a swamp in 50-70 years. I hope you will find some time to visit this beautiful ancient lake before it disappears.

Whenever I have a day off in summer I go to Shartash for a ride. You are more than welcome to join me 😉

25May/110

Europe-Asia border. Is it worth it?

This post is for Don, Michael and many others who asked me if it’s worth going to the border between Europe and Asia and what you can see there, apart from the obelisk.

Honestly speaking, I’ve been there so many times that I take it for granted. But I haven’t seen yet a single tourist who regretted about going there. So, look at the pictures and decide yourself whether you want to go there or not...

Obelisk near the town of Pervouralsk (40km from Yekaterinburg)

The most interesting obelisk is near Pervouralsk (40 km from Yekaterinburg) on Beryozavaya gorka (birch hill). The obelisk was made in honour of Tsar Alaxander II who was traveling to Siberia in 1837. He stopped there and opened a bottle of wine. Since that we have a tradition to drink on the border – one glass in Europe and one in Asia.

The place attracts newly-weds as there is also a tree of wishes where couples hang their padlocks and make a wish sitting on a bench.

Book the tour to the Europa-Asian border here: http://yekaterinburg4u.ru/en/tours/europe-asia-border

German couple under the tree made by local blacksmith Pastukhov. Similar tree grows in London

What to do: drink, make a wish under the tree, take photos of village people

Getting there from Yekaterinburg: by taxi (about 1.000R) or by bus or marshrutka (minivan) to Pervouralsk from bus stop Institut Svyazi on Repina street. Bus fare may vary from 20- to 40R Note: buses stop in different parts of Pervouralsk, so it’s wise to ask the driver how to get to the obelisk.

The simplest obelisk but closest to the city (17km from Yekaterinburg)

The most popular place on the border is 17 km from Yekaterinburg one NovoMoskovski trakt.

What to do: continue drinking, buy souvenirs, tie a ribbon on a tree to make a statement that you’ve been there, take a photo of yourself clad as Tsar or Tsaritsa.

Book the tour to the Europa-Asian border here: http://yekaterinburg4u.ru/en/tours/europe-asia-border

Of course there are many more marks all along the Ural Mountains:

10Feb/110

To drink or not to drink water in Yekaterinburg?

This is the headline from Your Yekaterinburg, the first English newspaper that was published in February 2011. The question is vital as every foreigner who arrives at the city asks me about tap water. So, if you didn’t manage to read the newspaper, here is the answer for you:

Tap water in Yekaterinburg neither looks nor smells drinkable. We joke that you may find the whole periodic table in what comes out the tap. So, chemists may be happy! Specialists calm us down saying a good filter can solve the problem, but most citizens don’t trust filtered water either and look for other sources such as wells and natural springs outside the city. There are about 4 thousand organized open springs and wells in Sverdlovskaya Oblast. Some of them are close to Yekaterinburg, for example in Berezovskiy, Verkhnyaya Sysert or Koptyaki village next to Ganina Yama Monastery. That’s why every Sunday you may see cars loaded with huge water containers coming home from datchas. The most cautious citizens have developed ‘the further – the better’ attitude and only use wells which are at least 100 km far from the city. Many of the springs have not been tasted though. People trust their senses but in fact we don’t know whether this water is clean enough.

“Good water can’t be cheap” 80% of Yekaterinburg citizens think and buy bottled water. There are many companies ready to deliver plastic bottles of proved and certified pure water to your flat. An average family of four spends 1500 roubles a month on bottled water and uses it for drinking and cooking, still many prefer to boil it for little children thus showing certain mistrust.

As for me, I believe boiling water and using a decent filter is enough. Besides, filter is a good idea for those concerned about environment. The saddest thing is that local water stations use pretty good modernized processing systems to purify water. But 70% of water supply system in Yekaterinburg consists of 70 year old iron pipes. Those rusty pipes make tap water dangerous to drink.

In a nutshell, boil water before drinking. And don’t worry about taking a shower, after all it doesn’t smell as bad as one may smell without a shower!   

1Nov/100

Ural rivers and remote villages

My good friend Vitaliy decided to buy a datcha in some remote Ural village. The idea was to find a decent house on the river far from civilization. Fortunately, there are plenty of old partly neglected villages in the Urals and most of them are on the rivers.  Rivers were the main transport arteries in 19th century, that's why Ural villages would spring up along the rivers with the windows of the houses facing the water roads.

The good news for Vitaly was that a shabby house could cost about 1 000 US dollars (of course with some refurbishing needed) What Vitaly didn't expect was the fact that roads in the the 21st century are not any better than centuries ago, i.e. there were simply no roads only forest paths. Upshot, Vitaliy didn't find a nice and cheap datcha but the photos he and his partner Sergey took in summer 2010 are priceless and I'm happy to share them with you!

p.s. Vitaliy finally bought a country house close to his native town of Nizhni Tagil. It's not a remote place but at least it has a cobblestone road built by the German prisoners after the War...