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Track Records: Yekaterinburg And The Asian Frontier

I'm sitting in a cabin on the Trans Siberian Railway with a Russian army officer's huge fingers clasped around my throat. He bellows into my face from about six inches away.
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I'm sitting in a cabin on the Trans Siberian Railway with a Russian army officer's huge fingers clasped around my throat while he bellows into my face from about six inches away.

Now this sounds a lot more menacing than it was. I think it was him doing a charade for something he does in the army, something I didn't want to know.

We'd been talking for about an hour, the bear-like officer and another kinder but equally bulky guy, me speaking more Russian than they spoke English, despite my vocabulary at this point totaling about five words.

I'd been practically dragged into their compartment and handed four (or was it five?) big measures of vodka to gulp down (this was three in the afternoon on the train from Yekaterinburg) and was feeling slightly woozy.

In between each round they handed me pieces of thick stodgy bread with slices of tomato that hadn't seen a fridge since Moscow, and chunks of what I think was pure smoked pork fat sliced on the table in their compartment with a small hunting knife.

The build up to the journey had been as odd as this latest encounter. I'd spent two nights in Yekaterinburg, a tough, dusty city with over a million inhabitants 28 hours down the Trans Siberian tracks from Moscow.

I don't know why I chose Yekaterinburg. I probably guessed that the reason would make itself apparent when I arrived.

But nothing makes itself apparent very quickly in Yekaterinburg, except for the toughness of the place. Like much of the Russia I've seen, you have to dig very hard through the rubble and the hard ground with your hands to find the charm.

Technically it's Russia's third city, but in the minds of the people, it has not earned this bronze medal place yet.

The streets are wide and cramped with cars and trucks weaving perilously across the lines, and the architecture is a strange mixture of Soviet monotony and ultra-modern showiness.

Yekaterinburg is the setting for two big moments in Soviet history. It has the dubious honour of being the city where the Romanov family, the last Tsars, were held captive and executed, including their small children. And the family dog.

You can visit the Church On The Blood, which has been built on the site of the house where they were imprisoned and killed together in the cellar.

And in 1960, 45 kilometres south of Yekaterinburg, Francis Gary Powers' U2 plane crash landed after being shot down at the height of Cold War tension.

For real buffs of intrigue and conspiracy, there is a theory that the Soviet army was able to do this thanks to information provided by a young US Marine intelligence operative who had defected to the USSR a few months before. His name, Lee Harvey Oswald. Later he returned to the United States and, well, you know the rest.

On the whole Yekaterinburg isn't the most beautiful of places, although if you walk down to the dam on a warm summer's evening it is very calm and pleasant and a wonderful spot for a bit of people watching. At each end of the lake the dam has created are railings covered in padlocks. I'm not going to tell you why, you'll have to work it out for yourself.

And there are striking Soviet-era buildings everywhere which make it worth a visit. If you're lucky enough to get chatting to a local ask them to point out a few of them and suddenly the city reveals a much more unique and historic side.

It's also pretty much the frontier city between Europe and Asia, and if you're heading East on the train, it's a different type of terrain and people after this. Yekaterinburg is popular as a base to go trekking in the Ural Mountains, the natural border between the continents.

It's easy to get a bit frazzled by the pace and noisiness of the city, so my advice is pay the 250/300 Roubles and take the lift all 54 floors up the Vysotsky Tower. I'm not all that keen on heights these days but it was well worth the sweaty palms (the things I do for you).

It's a short walk from the Meeting Point Hostel where I stayed, which on Malysheva Street puts you close to much of the action. There are also stops for the tram and buses nearby, which are well planned and take you anywhere easily.

The scale of the city is in no way apparent while you're walking around, but when you get up to the top of the Vysotsky Tower you realise what an industrial hub it is. In every direction the city is scattered with tall white and cream tower blocks, most of which date from Soviet times.

This reminded me something about the Trans Siberian that I perhaps hadn't properly appreciated, as did the increasingly stressful and drunken conversation with the army officer with the big hands round my throat. It's not a holiday cruise; it's not really meant to be a backpacker trip at all.

It's a matrix of lines and arteries right through the spine of this giant of a country linking the big powerhouse towns of Siberia to each other, and to Moscow.

Not that it isn't a wonderful adventure; it's a must if you want to do something truly extraordinary.
But don't forget who you're sharing your compartment with. On the whole they're not backpackers, they're people who work very very hard in some very hard places.

And like my vodka drinking neighbours they won't speak English so don't be too shocked, if you end up with a hand round your throat when the word for 'strangle' doesn't come to mind.

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