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29Jun/120

Kungur ice caves and air baloons

Kungur is a popular tourist destination all year long but it attracts even more people from 30th June to 7th July when the city hosts a festival of air balloons. Last year my friends and I attended the last day of the festival. I was very impressed by the Mediterranean-like life of this old Ural town.

Lonely Planet guide book on Russia says: ‘Between the blandness of Perm and the blandness of Yekaterinburg, Kungur is like ice cream in a biscuit’. Well, we were certainly longing for an ice cream as we entered the city on a hot July day. Kungur looked like one of those Russian resorts on the Black Sea. People were swimming in the Sylva River in the center of Kungur, sunbathing on the benches of the main street and walking lazily back and forth in shorts and flip-flops with beach towels on their shoulders.

Locals are having a picnic on the river

The Sylva River is a real pearl of Kungur. It’s very pure and slow enough for easy rafting. We rented a motor-boat and noticed that for the locals a boat or a raft is the main mean of transport and also the way of spending a weekend. Picnics onboard are as ubiquitous here as in Amsterdam.

Others, who weren’t lucky to be born in Kungur, come with their tents and spend weekends outside Kungur a few km down the city. By the way, you too should go 5 km out of town to visit the famous Kungur Ice Cave!

The passages stretch for over 6 km and only a small part has been explored so far. 1.5 km will be enough for you to explore. The grottos are "adorned" with columns of stalagmites and icicles of stalactites up to two meters in height. The best time to visit the cave is beginning of spring. That’s the time when icicles are especially big. We didn’t go inside because on that hot day I completely forgot about taking warm clothes and comfortable trainers. So these photos are from the Internet:

The cave is open daily 9am-4pm. Group excursions start every two hours and cost 600Rub. You can have an individual excursion for 1000Rub. An excursion lasts 1hr 20min.

Kungur was founded in 1663. The town is proud of its museum of tea, and old churches. To get a bird view of the city, you should climb the bell tower of this church:

As it got dark, the public in the center changed dramatically and we realized that Kungur is a very working-class town. In other words, to see the balloon show at night one had to be drunk on not to be there at all.

Accommodation: Kungur has two decent hotels which are always totally booked during the first week of July. Iren hotel is on Lenina st 30 in the center. Stalagmit Complex is outside the town but it’s just next to the entrance to the ice cave. However, many Russians prefer to stay in their tents on the banks of the Sylva.

Getting there: from Perm it takes about 2 hours by bus or suburban train. From Yekaterinburg – about 5 hours by bus from Yuzhniy Avtovokzal ( Bus Station) on 8 Marta st. 145

Click on photos to see more sights of Kungur and the river

9Jun/120

Wooden wonder of Kunary village.

Some small villages in the Urals are extremely cute. The old village of Kunary is well known in the region thanks to the house of a blacksmith.

Sergey Kirillov decorated his house with wooden carvings. He started in 1954 and finished in 1967, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the great October Revolution.

The house is decorated with Soviet emblems, a rocket pointed to the sky. There are young pioneers on the roof releasing the white doves and a girl holding a poster with the words of a popular Soviet song: “Let there always be the sunshine, let there always be the blue sky”

The blacksmith lived in the house happily bringing up a son and a daughter and four grandchildren. Kirillov’s grandchildren still live there and the house is maintained by Yekaterinburg businessman Yevgeniy Roisman.

Getting there from Yekaterinburg: by car go north towards Nevyansk (80km) and from Nevyansk follow the sign to Shaidurikha. Kunary is 20km South-East to Nevyansk.

By bus: from Severny Bus Station take a bus or marshrutka to Nevyansk and change there for a bus to Kunary.

21May/120

Red line tour in Yekaterinburg

When walking in the center of Yekaterinburg you can see a red line drawn in the middle of the pavement. Some locals still think it’s a divider for pedestrians or a lane for bicycles. But the truth is the red line is a guideline for tourists. Just find it on Prospect Lenina and go down the line and in three hours you’ll get back to the starting point with photos of all the main sites in your camera!

The Red Line project started in 2011 as a blog by Dmitry Kalaev. The Internet users were voting for the best sites in the center of Yekaterinburg. Eventually, 35 historic objects were chosen including the Church on the Blood, Opera Theatre, the Beatles monument, QWERTY monument, Literary Quarter etc. The Red Line was drawn on June 18 2011. Its length is 6.5 kilometers.

Book the city tour here: http://yekaterinburg4u.ru/en/tours/city-tour

walking to the Church on the Blood

This summer (2012) activists of the Red Line project are planning to draw QR codes for each site along the line, to print maps and to add full descriptions of the objects on the webpage  www.ekbredline.ru

The Beatles monument on the redl line

QWERTY or giant keyboard is a must-see according to Wikipedia and to the red-line volunteers

You can walk along the Red Line on your own or get a guided tour to learn more about the historical places. Sometimes there are free excursions arranged by volunteers for special events.

As a manager of the English newspaper Your Yekaterinburg, I invited the readers of the paper to take a guided tour down the Red Line when the annual Night in the Museum event took place in Yekaterinburg. It took us 2.5 hours to do the whole tour. The weather was great and so was the company! The photos for this post were taken during our tour and you can see me with a yellow scarf 🙂

The first map of Yekaterinburg of 1723. Those days the city was smaller than the Red line route

Book the city tour here: http://yekaterinburg4u.ru/en/tours/city-tour

10May/120

Celebrating Easter in the country. Bym, Permsky Region

Permsky Region in Western Urals is doing its best to promote not only Ural cities but small villages. This spring a small village of Bym (30km to Kungur, 260 km to Yekaterinburg) welcomed tourists to celebrate Easter in a traditional Russian style. The village is planning to host similar fests every year. Their first try was certainly a success.

Very few people among those who arrived from Perm and Yekaterinburg knew folk songs and dances but everyone participated in a cheerful fest.

On that day everyone could go to the bell tower of the church to ring the bells and to enjoy a breathtaking view of the Urals.

The highlight of Bym is Belogorsky Monastery – a beautiful church up on the highest hill.

click here to see more photos:

13Apr/120

Happy Orthodox Easter! Churches of Yekaterinburg

On April 15th Russia is celebrating Orthodox Easter. Russian Easter has neither Easter bunnies nor chocolate eggs. Main symbols are hard boiled chicken eggs painted in different colors and kulich (Easter cake) Russians don’t have a day off on Monday after Easter Day but we have a nice tradition of ringing the bells. During a week after Easter you can go to any church up to the bell tower and ring the bells. This is good fun and the believers also say that it’s a healing activity, i.e. the sound of the church bells can heal you!

The most famous church to go is the Church on the Blood.

The Church on the Blood has 16 bells. The largest weighs 9 tonns

The Church on the Blood was consecrated on the 16th of July, 2003. It was in this place that the Royal Family of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II was killed on the night of July 16, 1918. The inclusion of this place into the structure of the church makes it unique. The full name of the church is ‘the Church on the Blood in Honor of All the Saints Radiating in the Land of Russia’. The church consists of two chapels: the upper one is consecrated in the name of all the Saints Radiating in the Land of Russia, and after which the church itself was named, and the lower one is dedicated to the Holy Royal Martyrs.

Iconostasis on the ground floor

After the consecration of the church, Archbishop Vikenty, head of the local Orthodox diocese, made this address: “We all know that a violent crime occurred at this very place, and thus the unity between the church and secular authorities was destroyed. But now this church stands as a symbol of their reunion and puts an end to their enmity and destruction. From this day forward, this church will be a symbol of repentance, unity and revival of our homeland.”

But the main church in Yekaterinburg is not the Church on the Blood. It’s St. Trinity Cathedral on Kuybysheva st.

St Trinity Cathedral is the main church in the city

The Cathedral was lucky, the Bolsheviks didn’t destroy it like the rest of them. They only took away the golden dome and the bells from the tower. The body of the Cathedral was used a Soviet cinema ‘Rot-Front’ with 500 seats.

The only church that functioned in the city in the Soviet era was the Church of St. Iowan.

St Iowan Church on Repina st.

This small cemetery church was built in 1846. After the Revolution of 1917 the Bolsheviks demolished 43 churches in Yekaterinburg. However, during the Second World War Stalin decided to ease restrictions on churches to appeal to people’s patriotism. So the church wasn’t destroyed but, of course, Father Nikolay, the priest of the church had to be on friendly terms with the KGB.

Today, there are 28 Orthodox Churches in Yekaterinburg. So welcome to the bell towers on 16-22 of April!

29Mar/120

Dyatlov Pass. Hollywood interested in the Urals’ mystery

Every Yekaterinburg citizen knows about a mysterious Dyatlov Pass incident and everyone has his or her own version of what could happen to 9 students in Northern Urals in February 1959. Now it looks like Hollywood got its version as well. Local Mass Media wrote that  Renny Harlin, director of films like “Die Hard 2”,“Cliffhanger” and “5 Days of War” about the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 is going to shoot a thrilling movie on Dyatlov Pass. So far he has only revealed that the plot is going to be set in the contemporary world: a young group of American students travel to the Ural Mountains in order to solve the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass incident and get into trouble there.

Meanwhile, Donnie Eichar, a writer and director from L.A. arrived in Yekaterinburg in February 2012 to gather the facts and documents in order to write a book based on facts and possibly to find the truth. Ironically, the Dyatlov Foundation led by Yuri Kuntsevich hopes that an American can do more than the Russians. The foundation has been trying  to convince Russian officials to reopen the investigation of the case for years but to no avail. Donnie became the first American who trekked in extreme conditions (minus 30c degree) to top of mountain where hikers tent and bodies were discovered. I was lucky to assist him in interviewing the relatives and witnesses which was an incredible experience. But I must say that having heard all the terrifying details, I could barely sleep the following nights.

Oder the book Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar http://deadmountainbook.com/

Four members of Dyatlov's team

Dyatlov Pass in Spring

In the mean time the facts that we know are as follows: It is February 1959 and nine experienced hikers, mostly students, break off on an expedition to the Ural Mountains on skis. Their goal: The Mountain “Otorten”, which in the local Mansi language means “Do not go there!” In fact, they will never arrive there. The “Dyatlov Pass incident“, named after the leader of the expedition Igor Dyatlov, is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the Soviet Union.

Two weeks after their disappearance, local search teams find five of the corpses close to the mountain Kholat Syakhl, the “Mountain of the Dead”, barefoot and dressed only in their underwear.

The empty tent found by investigators

Kholat Syakhl, the “Mountain of the Dead”

Investigations reveal that the hikers must have fled their tent for an unknown reason, tearing it open, leaving in a heavy snowstorm and temperatures of -25 decreasing to -30. The officials explain that they died of hypothermia. The real mystery only begins after the thaw when the remaining four corpses are found. All of them are discovered in utterly strange conditions. Two of the corpses have fractures on the skull, a woman is lacking her tongue and the clothes of two corpses contain a high level of radiation. Further, the corpses show signs of aging like grey hair and a deep orange-colored tan.

A plaque on the rock to commemorate the students

The suspicion that the local Mansi, Finno-Ugric people, had killed the hikers for entering their holy lands and mountain, which play a big role in many of their traditional legends, was refuted. No hand-to-hand struggle could be proved. The fractures of the skulls indeed seemed to be caused by a force much stronger than a human being, as if the bodies had exploded from the inside without any harm to the outer organs. Another group of hikers, camping 50 km away from the Mountain of the Dead, later testified that they noticed strange orange spheres at the sky that night. Northern lights, UFOs or the Soviet military? The conspiracy theories vary. Soviet investigators, unable to solve the mysterious circumstances of the deaths, claimed the hikers were killed by an “unknown compelling force”.

For this post I used the photos provided by Nashural.com and the text from the English newspaper Your Yekaterinburg.

18Mar/120

What to see in Yekaterinburg (video)

I made this video two years ago. It looks like I've put on a few kilos since that while the city hasn't changed at all. Enjoy and come for a visit this summer!

8Feb/123

Mammoth, lizard and the Queen of the Urals. Russian legends.

The Queen of the Copper Mountain is a famous character of the Ural folk stories. Every child in Russia knows a fairy tale written by Pavel Bazhov.

It says that the Queen of the Copper Mountain is a beautiful young lady who owns all the treasures hidden in the Ural Mountains. Very few people met her because she turns into a lizard every time a man comes up. There was one lucky man though: Danila, a local miner. The Queen of the Copper Mountain fell in love with him. She showed him where her gold was, in return Danila had to stay with her deep underground. The man refused for he had a fiancée at home. The Queen was kind enough to let Danila go. She even gave him a present for his fiancée. As Danila got back home he gave the present, a malachite box full of treasures, to his future bride.

However, he never married the girl, for he went insane and for the rest of his days he was dreaming of the Queen of the Copper Mountain…

This winter I was guiding a group of the 2020 Expo Committee. Yes, I should add here that Yekaterinburg is bidding to host Expo 2020 along with Dubai, San Paulo and Izmir (Turkey). We went to the border of Europe and Asia and there she was…the Queen of the Copper Mountain greeting us with karavai (a loaf of bread with salt in the middle, that you bake specially for greeting important guests)

The Queen of the Copper Mountain on the Euro-Asia border

It was a bright sunny day with -20 Celcius so the members of the Committee from Moscow, the USA and Australia felt very uncomfortable, to say the least. The Queen didn’t show us any gold loads but she had something more valuable in store: 40% proof Russian vodka! My guests couldn’t be happier. This is how you begin treasuring simple pleasures…

If you are coming to Yekaterinburg you can book a meeting with the Queen of the Copper Mountain on the Euro-Asia border but it’s better to do for large groups. It’s quite pricey for a group of two or three tourists.

But back to the Queen or is she a lizard? A legend of a giant lizard with horns was known in the Urals since the time of the cavemen. Ancient Mansi tribes called the lizard Mammoth. So the name ‘mammoth’ came from the Urals only the Mansis were mistaken about its appearance.

The coat of arms of Sverdlovsk with a sable (left) and a lizard (right)

When the first Russian gold was found in the Urals in 1745, a lizard came to focus again. In fact, its importance can be scientifically approved: lizards choose the warmest stone in the woods to rest on and the warmest stones are the ones with gold veins underneath. In other words, follow a lizard and you may find gold as there is still plenty of it in the Urals!

Lizard with a golden crown is a common souvenir to buy in Yekaterinburg

You can find many souvenirs with the image of a lizard with a crown in Yekaterinburg. The same lizard was in the coat of arms of Sverdlovsk (the previous name of Yekaterinburg in the Soviet times)

25Jan/121

Tobolsk. A step down from the Ural Mountains to real Siberia

Every Russian knows about the Siberian town of Tobolsk from the history books but very few visited the town. These days tourists choose other routes to the South and it’s rather far for foreigners: Tobolsk is not on Trans-Siberian route. However, this Siberian pearl does its best to attract different travelers and it’s worth coming in summer and in winter.

Tobolsk is 536km to the north-east of Yekaterinburg in Western Siberia. It is in Tyumenskaya Oblast, the neighboring region to Sverdlovskaya Oblast. So, in terms of Russian distances people in the Urals may say that it’s just around the corner. Tobolsk is very old compared to most of the Ural and Siberian cities. It was founded in 1587 on the place where the Tobol River flows into the Irtysh. Very soon Tobolsk became the center of political, economical and cultural life of Siberia.
The main place of attraction is a breathtaking white Kremlin in the upper town. I couldn’t stop taking photos of it:

The downtown is located down the hill on the river bank.

They say that Siberia gave Russia many prominent people and most of them were born in Tobolsk. The most known name in the world is chemist Dmitry Mendeleev, the inventor of the periodic table . Tobolsk also became the land of prisons and exile. Russian Tsars were deporting political prisoners to Tobolsk for centuries. A short excursion to the old cemetery will tell you more about it.

Of course, Russian exiled aristocracy changed the habits and lifestyle of Tobolsk. I was very much surprised to meet many teenagers in the local museum dressed as ladies and gentlemen of 19th century. They came to an annual ball arranged here on the eve of Christmas.

Ironically, the Bolsheviks decided to exile the last Russian tsar to Tobolsk as well. Nicolas II and his family had lived in Tobolsk from August 1917 till April 1918 before they were sent and murdered in Yekaterinburg

The house requisitioned as the Romanovs' detention place in Tobolsk

Study room of Nicolas II in Tobolsk

Tobolsk has always been a spiritual center of Russia. There are 16 churches in the town including a Catholic Church in downtown. You can also arrange a tour to Abalak monastery (30km from Tobolsk)

Outside the monastery there’s a lovely Abalak tourist center with a wooden hotel, bars, skating rinks and the home of Father Frost.

Find more about Abalak here: http://askural.com/2011/12/father-frost-in-abalak-siberia/

Tips for travelers: Most of the museums, cafes and souvenir shops are located in the Kremlin area. Tobolsk is famous for muksun – a type of fish that you can try in local eateries. Smoked fish is available at vendors’ right on the train platform.

The train station of Tobolsk is outside the town. There are several buses to take from the station, but if you are arriving early in the morning or late at night, it’s wise to order a transfer beforehand. The local travel agencies arrange transfers and tours but they don’t have English-speaking guides, so bring your own interpreter.

A woman is selling local fish at the train station

One day is pretty much enough for Tobolsk. There are several decent hotels in the city but I chose to arrive by train at 7.30 am and took a train back at 9pm. Thus you can sleep two nights in a train and spend a whole day in Tobolsk.

Getting to Abalak: by car: from Yekaterinburg take the road via Tymen to Tobolsk
by train: There are many trains bound for Tobolsk. I suggest taking train #310 from Yekaterinburg. This night train is convenient as it leaves Yekaterinburg at 22.16 and arrives at 8.28. A 10 hour sleep in a train will cost you 800-1500 roubles.

12Dec/110

Christmas in German style in Yekaterinburg

Christmas Market is something unusual in Russia. The first Weihnachtsmarkt was opened in Yekaterinburg on December 10, 2011. Renate Schimkoreit, German Consul-General in Yekaterinburg hopes the market will become an annual event that will attract people from all over Russia.

This city has always had close relations with Germany. Starting from Yekaterinburg’s foundation when Peter the Great sent a German General Willhelm de Gennin to manage factories in the Urlas. De Gennin gave the city a German name Yekaterin-burg and called the building of the Main Mining Office Oberbergamt. No doubt he celebrated Christmas in German style as well.

The Christmas Market in the Literary Quarter (6, Proletarskaya st.) had an atmosphere of a real German celebration but with a certain Russian ambience: one can buy valenki (felt boots), drink tea at the soldiers’ kitchen and ride a camel! Well, a camel is hardly a Russian symbol of winter holidays, that’s why its presence puzzled not only foreigners.

I’m sure, Wheihnachtsmarkt will become a good tradition in Yekaterinburg, so make sure to come next year!