Any given Sunday As I sat on the fold out chair in the middle of the snow pulling off my inadequate Australian clothing and fearing that the cold pains in my fingers might be causing permanent damage, I wondered if we had made a mistake.
Perhaps I had romanticised the idea of ice fishing in Siberia, and the reality was going to involve the worst six hours of my life as I froze to death or cried and asked to go home early.
A few minutes later however I was rugged up in ice fishing gear and ready to go. This included a set of quilted overalls and jacket, a sexy orange knitted turtleneck, boots big enough for a small giant and a pair of mittens so big that my fingers didn’t even reach the base of the thumb hole.
Second thoughts firmly quashed, we set off across the ice. As we walked out, our guide Constantine advised that this ice was at least 7cm thick, generally considered safe enough to walk across, and that a person would ‘probably’ be okay on ice as thin as 5cm.
It did briefly cross my mind that, wearing clothes that effectively doubled my weight, I was not going to have much chance if the worst was to eventuate! These thoughts were quickly put aside and ice fishing was (fish catching aside) exactly as exciting as I’d hoped.
Ice fishing is a very popular Russian past time and by the time we left in the afternoon, the lake was covered with Russian men (almost exclusively) wrapped up in their warmest and sitting on little stools, huddled over their lines. In November, most of the big lakes are still liquid so we had chosen one of the smaller lakes about 1 ½ hours south east of Ekaterinburg. The lake we were fishing in is home to a small black fish, with a prehistoric kind of face, that apparently are very good for frying up.
Our first step was to drill a couple of holes about 15 centimetres in diameter through the ice (which reassuringly turned out to be at least 10cm thick). From there we set up a little tent to protect us from the wind and it made an incredible difference.
From within our little shelter, Constantine showed baited up out tiny fishing rods (they looked like a Royal Show toy) and instructed us how to gentle jiggle the rods from the bottom to the surface in order to appear the most enticing to the fish.
Fish massacre Excitingly, and predictably, the first catch of fish necessitated vodka all round. From there we proceeded to catch over 70 fish. I felt okay about this for two reasons; 1) The fish were all taken home and cooked up by Constantine’s mother and not wasted, 2)Known as the Russian piranha (because they decimate all other fish species), these fish were certainly no peace loving vegetarians themselves.
Lunch started with the usual question (and my shameful reply), “I hope you’re not vegetarian!”. It was however, delicious… more vodka, tea, cheese, lavosh bread, cabbage salad, hot potatoes, mandarins, and (for those who aren’t culinary lepers) smoked pork fat and sausages.
It really was an incredible day. Despite the popularity, being out on the lake had a relaxing sense of isolation. The cosy clothes and vodka picnic within the shelter of the little tent was also enjoyable in such frosty surrounds.
From East to West The following day we explored Ekaterinburg, first with a guide and then on our own. Ekateringurg is notable for a couple of reasons; it is situated on the edge of the Asian/ European continental border and is perhaps best well known as the site where the Romanov dynasty ended in 1918 with the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family.
The house where the Romanovs were executed was abolished during the Soviet era, but after the families canonisation as martyred saints (recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000), the Church of the Blood was built on the site and includes a recreation of the room in which the family was shot.
After our city exploration which included an incredible Uzbeki lunch and a not so incredible Azerbaijani red wine, we were back on the train for our journey to Kazan. It was on this train that we learned that the definition of sadness is wearing clothes fit for -10 degrees in a tiny train carriage that is warmer than a Russian banya.
Religion for beginners Situated on the famous Volga river, Kazan is the capital of the Tartar region in Russia (closely intertwined with Bulgar history and culture). The Tartars originally started out as a nomadic people but due to other cultural groups were gradually forced into more permanent forms of settlement. The region still has both Russian and Tartar as official languages.
The standout feature of this lovely city is its beautiful hilltop Kremlin. This was made all the more lovely for the heavy fall of snow that covered our visit. Although there have been political and social clashes over religious differences in the region, what is most spectacular about this Kremlin are beautiful Cathedral and Mosque within a few hundred metres of each other.
Since the end of state enforced atheism during the Soviet era, religions and their houses have slowly begun to rebuild themselves. Our guide Lyba pointed out that despite the fact that many people kept up their religious practice in secret, religion is very new for most people. As she showed us around these religious houses she kept saying “we are learning the Bible” or “we are still learning the Qur’an.”
Today we will continue to explore Kazan before boarding the ‘Tartarstan’ to Moscow!