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Yekaterinburg, Russia

I was no longer cold and barely felt the icy wind. I been walking for a couple of hours now, unable to find a room for under $200. The prostitute I asked for directions briefly answered me before a car stopped to take her from the cold (Note that I didn’t know she was a prostitute, I just thought there must be a hot club nearby). The instructions were poorly understood and were of no real help. It was near 3am when I decided that the expense of the room no longer mattered and surrendered to the temptation of the first real hotel I’d seen in months.

When I’d first arrived in this industrial outpost, I had lots of hope for finding a nice cheap place to stay. The guidebook mentioned several places that were reasonable. The taxi driver refused to take me the 2 miles for the 250 rubles (about $10) I was willing to pay. “Do I look like a negro? Do I look like I am hungry?” The warm Russian charm. I resolved to take a tram or a bus. I wasn’t aware that they’d stopped running for the night. I approached the taxi stand again and found a driver willing to deliver me for my price, but he was not happy.

The hotel was full and the driver was gone. The receptionist was not in the mood to be friendly. But she could see that I needed her help – and that I wasn’t likely to leave without her calling to find a vacancy. Every hotel in the guidebook was full or wanted $200 a night. She refused to call more places. Frustrated, I walked out to find someplace on my own. Much later: numb, weary, and disheartened, I gave up and slept in a comfortable room under a giant neon sign that said “Park Inn.”

The next morning, I woke up early for the hot breakfast buffet included in the price of the room. Ham, bacon, sausage, eggs, cheese, pancakes, and other delicacies overflowed my plate. After I’d had my fill, I went to talk to the two beautiful Russian women working the desk. I explained that I was trying to find budget accommodations for the night and asked for their help. They were glad to and called several places to ask their rates and availability. Of course the rates at the Park Inn would drop to only $160 because it was the weekend. I decided that the best place to stay would be the Hotel Sverdlovsk located directly across from the train station. They hadn’t had rooms available the night before, but this night the basic accommodation was about $25 per room.

I also asked about getting to the Asia-Europe marker West of the city. A fellow traveler overheard and was interested in going as well (he turned out to be a really nice guy – a professional photographer from Canada who had a beat up messenger satchel with a few thousand dollars worth of new and vintage cameras inside). Since there were more than one of us, it made sense to take a taxi there and back. This was going to be fairly cheap for us, about $50 in total, arranged the trip through the tourism desk at our new hotel.

The obelisk is a fairly uninteresting stone of little real significance since the actual boundary between Asia and Europe does not run through it and the original marker was destroyed and rebuilt in the early 1900s. But it apparently serves as a good luck symbol for newlyweds to have their picture taken in front of it. We stayed a few minutes and took some photos and then headed back the 20 or so miles back to town.

During the ride back, the taxi driver talked on his radio for a few minutes, laughing and pointing his thumb at us, as if the party on the other end could see. After he set the handset down, he informed us that it would be another 800 rubles ($20) because we made him wait at the marker. This was an obvious scam, and a variation on one that we’d all heard about before. We pretended to have communication difficulties until we got to the hotel. At this point, we gave him what we owed and a bit more because we didn’t have change and went inside. He followed us and demanded more money. We went to the tourism desk where we’d arranged the taxi ride and spoke with the woman there. She explained that she must have misquoted us and only gotten the price for the ride out there and not back. This was the actual scam we’d all heard of and was different than the driver’s version. We argued and debated for a while and when the driver got very upset, he was interrupted by a woman who slipped him 1000 rubles, forcing a smile, and explained to the tourist representative that there would be no problems now. Everyone was just a bit stunned and the stranger walked off.

A few other interesting sites made Yekaterinburg worth a visit. One of these is the Church of the Blood – a monument to the Romanov family members who were executed near the spot where the church now stands. Another interesting site is the Air & Space Military Museum located in the House of Officers which contains some of the remnants of the U2 spy plane that was shot down near the city in the 1960s. But my favorite site in the city was the Afghanistan War Memorial. In it, a soldier sits with his head lowered in sadness, his helmet off and his gun loosely held. It is a powerful symbol of how Russia feels about this conflict. Behind the soldier is a more recent addition marked “Chechnya.”

The next day, I went to the train station to buy a ticket, but they were not nearly as willing to help foreigners buy tickets as were the Chinese. The woman at the counter shooed me away. So I went back to our hotel to ask for help at the tourism desk. But unfortunately, it was closed on Saturday and Sunday (because who what tourist would be here on the weekend?). Wonderful. Out of options, I returned to the Park Inn where they cheerfully arranged for tickets to be delivered to me at the Hotel Sverdlovsk. Really, the people at that hotel were great!

No other misadventures happened in Yekaterinburg. I got on the train with no problem whatsoever and was off. Next stop, Moscow.