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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. Bit I must say that having heard all the terrifying details, I could barely sleep the following nights. I’ll keep you posted on when the book is published in English and in Russian.

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.

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)

29Nov/110

Germans in the Urals

Russian Germans (Russkie Nemtzy) is a generalized term used in the Russian language to name the people whose forefathers moved to Russia before the Revolution or were sent to labour camps during the Great Patriotic War in the USSR. Many of them migrated to Germany in 1990s but some decided to stay. For instance, my elderly neighbor babushka Anna said she was too old to integrate into the western society. Assuming that she lived in the industrial town of Nizhni Tagil, she had probably been a victim of Stalin repressions but she never spoke about it.

There are about 600 000 Russian Germans living in Russia today, over 20 000 of them live in Middle Urals. The Festival of German Culture in Russia was held for the first time in November in Yekaterinburg. About 200 of Russian Germans came from different parts of the Urals to share what they have preserved: folk songs and dances, national costumes and German quisine. By the way, the first Governer of Sverdlovskaya Oblast , Eduard Rossel is Russian German too. Other famous Russian Germans in the Urals are fellow artists Lew Weiber and Michail Distergeft.

Both were sent to Gulag and spent their youth working in coal mines in Karpinsk (Northern Urals). They were released After the Second World War. Weiber studied at the college of Arts in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg). Distergeft did the same in Nizhni Tagil. Of course, they were ‘ne vyezdnie’ (not permitted to travel abroad). There was a term Inner Emigration in Soviet artists’ lexicon in 1960s. It meant that looking for harmony the artists preferred to retreat to nature in order to create something for themselves and for a close circle of friends.

Yekaterinburg Gallery of Modern Art  (www.uralgallery.ru) exhibited the paintings of Weiber and Distergeft  as a part of the Festival of German Culture. The exhibition was called “The nature of memory. The memory of nature” It had Weiber’s landscapes of the Urals and graphic works by Gistergeft who portrayed the life of the Germans in labour camps. The graphic works were made in 1990s when Distergeft lived in Oranienburg, Germany.

17Nov/110

Dutch Journalists in Yekaterinburg

In November 2011 the Dutch travel magazine Columbus is publishing an article on traveling by Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok.

photos by Hanneke de Vries

Marina Ter Woort, a journalist from Amsterdam together with the photographer Hanneke de Vries contacted me in summer asking to show them around during their 5 hour train stop in Yekaterinburg. The lucky ladies were travelling by the Golden Eagle Express, one of the two luxury Trans-Siberian trains. The second one Zaren Gold runs from Moscow to Beijing. Both are priced from 8.000 to 26.000 US$ and both take 15 days with boat and bus tours in big cities. Yekaterinburg is the third city after Moscow and Kazan.

Main Train Station

Marina and Hanneke, however, didn’t want to go on an ordinary excursion: champaign on the border of Europe and Asia – city centre – Church on Blood. They wanted to see something off the beaten track. In Moscow, for instance, they had been to the largest city market instead of the Red Square tour. So, we went to the Uralmash district in Yekaterinburg.

Uralmash is a large industrial district in the north of the city, a ghetto for factory workers and their families. We couldn’t go to the huge Ural Heavy Machine Building Plant that had once been visited by Fidel Castro. Even though the plant doesn’t produce tanks anymore, there are still many restrictions and chances for a foreigner to sneak inside are equal to zero. At least, we managed to go to the factory canteen and Hanneke got some interesting snapshots of the locals.

Factory canteen in Uralmash

Uralmash has got a notorious mafia cemetery. The Uralmash gang had a turf war with the Central gang in 1990s. Allegedly, the gangsters invested in building the metro line connecting Uralmash with the city. The war ended when the gangsters eliminated each other. The mafia cemeteries (both in Uralmash and the central in Shirokaya Rechka) have got plenty of full sized tombstones of local gangsters.

Uralmash cemetery

Using the metro line (the only one in Yekaterinburg) my Dutch friends and I returned to the city. We did visit the place of the Romanovs’ assassination in Church on Blood with Marina while Hanneke went to the train station to take more photos in the sunshine.

Marina (left) and I (right) in the metro train

in Church on Blood

I don’t know what the article in Columbus magazine is going to be about, but here’s the link http://www.columbusmagazine.nl/

And here are the photos that Hanneke kindly sent to me

26Oct/110

Novourask, a treasure of a closed town

Every sun rise is beautiful and it’s similarly beautiful in any part of the world. I spotted my October sun rise in a strange place near Novouralsk, a closed town behind the wall 90 km north of Yekaterinburg.

The town was known as Sverdlovsk-44 in the Soviet times and it was absolutely unknown to the rest of the world until 1994. Since that year it’s not a secret town but a closed town due to the Ural Electro Chemical Plant built there during World War II.  Novouralsk had the first mountain ski track in the Urals but very few people from the outside world could go skiing there (population of the town is 85.519)

Another treasure of Novouralsk is Verkhneyvenski pond with beaches and a yacht club.

Verkhneyvenski pond

The pond is outside the town thus you don’t have to go through the control post which you won’t be able to do anyway. Boat and yacht rentals are available in summer.

Getting there: by car from Novo-Moskovsky trakt drive through Pervouralsk. By any local train bound for Nizhni Tagil. Get off at Verkh-Neyvinsk Station. Novouralsk is on the left side, you will see it behind the barbed wire. The pond is on the right side. And the sun rise is for every one!

watch the sunrise by clicking here:

12Sep/110

Russian Expo Arms. Nizhni Tagil 2011

 

A farewell to arms? Well, certainly not in the Urals. The region has always been a large industrial centre and it’s due to many defence plants that the Urals had been closed to foreigners until 1991.

Russian Expo Arms is held every year in Staratel tank training field in Nizhni Tagil, Sverdlovskaya oblast

VII International Exhibition of Armament, Military Equipment and Ammunition ‘Russian Expo Arms’ was traditionally held in Nizhni Tagil in 8-11 September.  Nizhni Tagil (140 north of Yekaterinburg) is known in Russia as a homeland for tanks. UralVagonZavod is the factory that started producing T-34 tanks in 1941. The latest model T-90C was shown in action on the training field. It was impressive and very loud, just what the public likes.

Highlight this year: T-90C aka 'flying tank'

Prime Minister Putin, who visited Expo Arms and checked out the T-90 tank, said that the exhibition should draw attention of international specialists and promote development of the international  military-technical cooperation. The countries especially drawn to big machines were Vietnam, India, Zambia and Uganda. There were also producers from Ukraine, Belarus, France and Italy this year.

There's something sexy about military machines especially if they are from Ukraine

Russian Expo Arms is an open event – no passport controls for foreigners. Tickets cost 300-500R and it was easy to get free VIP tickets especially if you know someone in Nizhni Tagil. As I was leaving the premises, a TV reporter was interviewing visitors asking what they thought about event.  A local man’s reply was obvious yet very absurd: “I feel so proud of my country, I’m proud of how strong Russia is”. Surely, there is nothing wrong about being proud of the country that can make a big toy able to destroy hundreds of people at a time. But it was said on September, 11, that’s why his comment sounded bizarre to me…

However, there was something for pacifists too – KAMAZ and Ural trucks were my favourite: they can work at -50 and +55C, climb steep hills and swim in lakes. This car is worth buying for those who dream of traveling from Moscow to Vladivostok and back!

Ural truck

Unlike Mr. Putin I visited Russian Expo Arms on the last day and missed a demonstration of air weapons – launches and bombing from helicopters and planes (not that I really regret it). The weather on that day was gloomy so my photos are a bit dark but it adds to the ambience of Russian military pride. There are also sunny photos by Benjamin Gaillard, a French expat in Yekaterinburg. Enjoy!

p.s. ExpoArms is held in early September every second year. The next one is in 2013

30Aug/110

Welcome to Cuba – a green island in Yekaterinburg

Cuba is a district in Yekaterinburg but not many citizens know where it is. It’s an unofficial name of Bolshoy Konniy distict aka Green Island to the west of VIZ (Verkh-Isetsky Factory). The nickname appeared in 1960s when the Green Island of Liberty was extremely popular with Russians. It doesn’t mean they could travel to Cuba easily but everyone knew about Fidel and ‘no pasaran’ became a Russian phrase. By the way, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara visited Yekaterinburg-Sverdlovsk in 1963. Castro gave a long speech in Uralmash Factory. He didn’t see our local Cuba but I’m sure he would have liked it!

A journey to Cuba starts on the pier of Verkh-Isetsky Pond. It was made in 1725. It’s 12km long and 2.5 km wide. The pond is rather polluted but ‘the Cubans’ don’t mind fishing there all year long. It’s about 4 km along the pond from VIZ to Cuba. You can take a bicycle or tram 11. It’s the only tram that goes to Cuba. Trams run every 20 min., get off on the last station Zelyony Ostrov (Green Island) well, technically it’s a peninsula but ‘island’ sounds more romantic, doesn’t it?

I guess Cuba is the most diverse place in Yekaterinburg. The district was built in 1920s along with a power station and it was a true working class area in the USSR. The station doesn’t work anymore and I have no idea what ‘the Cubans’ do there no – not much, judging by their houses. However, there is a luxury beach opened this year in Cuba. So, the citizens might get jobs there although summers in the Urals are very short.

As I went to Cuba in August, the beach was absolutely dead, so I walked around and took some photos of the locals. They were very friendly, by the way. I’ve never been to Cuba but I have a feeling that the atmosphere there is pretty much the same as in our Cuba. Ok, you can’t grow sugar cane here but look at those tomatoes!

Click here to see more photos with captions from the Green Island of local Cuba Libre 

9Aug/110

The oldest cemetery in Yekaterinburg

Many tourists, as I noticed, like visiting Russian cemeteries, apparently because they are so different from those in the West. Yekaterinburg is famous for two mafia cemeteries but there is also Ivanovskoye cemetery in the centre. The oldest cemetery in the city traces the history of Yekaterinburgers from rich merchants of 19th century to Gulag prisoners and the killers of the Romanovs.

Church of St, Iowan is the main church of Yekaterinburg

Ivanovskoye cemetery is hidden behind the blue church on Repina Street, 6A next to the city prison and opposite the Central Stadium. The Church of St. Iowan is the only one that worked in the Soviet Sverdlovsk. 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. Local merchants the Telegins built the church in 1846. The family was buried behind the church. These are the oldest tombstones here.

The cemetery is pretty much neglected. You can only walk along the main alley. The most prominent citizens were buried here in Stalin’s times. A few steps further to the bushes and you will see simple gravestones with Soviet stars – the graves of 1920s-30s. Some graves have just markers with names of the so-called ‘enemies of the USSR’, the victims of repressions.

A small square on the alley has a monument to local writer Bazhov. On the left side from it you will find a gravestone of Petor Ermakov – one of the murderers of the tsar’s family. He was the one who stabbed the children with his bayonet when they were still alive lying on the blood splattered floor of Ipatiev House. When the house became a Museum of Revolution, Ermakov did excursions there, telling people how he killed the Romanovs. No wonder that his gravestone is splashed with red paint now.

You can get to Ivanovskoye cemetery by trolley buses 3 and 17. They run past the main train station and Church on Blood. Get off at Central Stadium.

4Apr/116

Let’s do it for the kids

Having started this blog I was lucky to make friends with many interesting people and get involved into new exciting projects. One of them is a fundraising project launched by Davide Scalzo’s Driving to Russia campaign. On his way from Italy to Vladivostok, Davide is planning to stop In Yekaterinburg in August. So he asked me to find a children organization in the Urals that needs help.

There are 81 Orphanages in Sverdlovskaya Oblast. But it turned out, that most of them are unwilling to admit they need something. Orphanages are State organizations and they are not allowed to ask for help. Finally, via friends of my friends I was directed to the town of Revda (48 km from Yekaterinburg) to catch up with Olga Syrova, the director of Dom Rebyonka (orphanage or baby home). It was a very emotional experience to me and I’d like to share it with you.     

The Orphanage was established 40 years ago to provide medical rehabilitation and support for children from challenged or dysfunctional families, including infants with physical or mental disabilities orphaned immediately after birth.
Today, the orphanage cares for 59 children, the youngest being a 2-month old newborn and the oldest a six year-old boy, with 44 children receiving special treatment. There are children who can't walk and may stay in bed for ever without special treatment. Some children can't eat and are only fed through the tube. Once the children are cured they will join a regular internat (orphanage . Some 25 children with a range of severe disabilities will be provided for later in life by the Dom Invalidov (disabled support home). Fortunately, the state of such homes is improving in the Urals. Some time ago they looked more like prisons with narrow cells where disabled children were lying on bare beds. Now they are equipped with ramps and wheelchairs so that children can go outside.

Olga Syrova, the Orphanage’s Director has led the centre for over 20 years and she is used to treating the children as her own. Nearly 100 staff provides the day-to-day care for the children and arrange medical support in the Yekaterinburg hospitals.

“We now have twin girls with hydrocephalus syndrome (water on the brain); they were three months old when we took them into the orphanage. It is a challenge for us to cover the cost of medicines they need,” she says. “Surgeons predicted they wouldn't last more than a year”. The girls are 4 years old now but there isn't much hope for them. Partly, because local surgeons refused to do the surgery (for reasons unknown, as Olga put it), also because the orphanage can't afford to buy enough medicine.

Victoria is a lucky girl. She had hydrocephalus too and underwent an operation successfully

The oldest orphan Danil is six years old. Danil suffers from serious lower limb disease, and has learnt to walk only on his hands. “He is one of a number of children in the local area with high learning ability, intelligence and commitment to his work but who really struggle from lack of basic access to computers, or educational software or learning support.” The doctors try to teach him so that he doesn't fall behind his peers. But he has to spend his days among 2-3 year olds with CP (cerebral palsy) and it doesn't help his development. Danil’s future is uncertain. There are a few children in the region with similar movement disorders who demonstrate high intelligence. All of them are waiting for a special group to be organised for them but as usual in Russia - nobody knows when it's going to happen.

An immediate and lasting difference can be made to Danil’s life prospects by helping secure the basic funds to provide the orphanage with a Russian language computer from the nearby town of Yekaterinburg. Click here to view the photos of Danil and other children from Revda:

If you are able to provide support either by donating financially or in kind (clothing, children’s toys, hygienic goods) you may do it via Driving to Russia:

http://www.drivingtorussia.com/domRebyonka.htm

If you are in Russia you may contact Dom Rebyonka to get a list of medicine or food (last winter the citizens of Yekaterinburg helped the orphanage with potato) that you can post or bring to Revda.  

tel.: +7 (34397) 5-11-32

fax: +7 (34397) 5-11-34, 5-39-66

There is no Internet, so the website http://dom.revda09.ru/index.php is out of date

P.S. On the bright side of things some children are being adopted by Russian and foreign families. Children from Revda live now in the USA, Israel, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France and Spain. Most of the adopted kids had of course minor illnesses. But one of the recent cases - a couple from Belgium adopted a child with ichthyosis (genetic skin disorder) Social Protection Committee in Russia has a data bank of all orphans in the country, so the information about sick children from Revda can be found in any Social Protection centre in Moscow or any other city. The adoption process in Russia takes about 12 months. Russians can do it within 3 months.

This is the video presentation of Davide Scalzo's Driving to Russia and fundraising project (in Italian)

23Mar/110

Unfinished TV tower – a landmark of Yekaterinburg

Although the landmark of Yekaterinburg is supposed to be Church on Blood, built on the site of Tsar’s murder, there is another famous construction in the city - the unfinished TV tower, aka fun tower or suicide tower. It is now a symbol of Soviet Sverdlovsk.

Construction of the tower began in 1981. The plan was ambitious: to erect a monument of technological progress which would be the tallest TV tower in the Asian part of the Euro-Asian continent with a height of 440 meters, with a restaurant and a viewing platform. There were no technological reasons to build a tower like this but it was to make a statement like Ostankino TV tower in Moscow.

In 1991 the tower was only half-finished (220m) but with the collapse of the USSR the project came to a halt. The unprotected building site was discovered as an adventure playground by base jumpers from all over Europe. One could reach the top by the left over scaffolding inside the tower. Those days in 1990s the tower was called ‘a suicide tower’. Officially, three people died from accidents or suicide at the tower, but the citizens say there were more than twenty. Since that the building site has been closed and the unfinished tower has become an eyesore surrounded by the new shiny skyscrapers.

In the year 2005 when skyscrapers were being built in the center

 In 2007 the city government initiated an investor competition for the completion of the tower. The future investors were permitted to erect a cultural and entertainment center with hotel and conference rooms. But the economic crisis that began in 2008 made the European investors change their minds.

The future of the tower is uncertain. Meanwhile, the citizens got used to it and it's a good mark when looking for directions. As for me, I would be very upset if the tower was demolished. There is something symbolic, beautiful even about this grey unfinished construction that reminds me of Sverdlovsk, the city I was born in.    

     On March, 8th local base-jumper Ratmir parachuted from the tower and landed near the circus with flowers for his fiancée. He got the official permission to do this. Watch his video here: http://www.e1.ru/news/spool/news_id-345421-section_id-124.html

p.s. If you scroll this page down, at the very bottom of it you will see the top of the unfinished TV tower 😉