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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Yekaterinburg, where the twain meet: East and West, old and new

Yekaterinburg is Russia’s ‘window to Asia’ with the possibility of taking a picture with one foot each in Europe and Asia.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | Updated: June 12, 2018 9:19:05 am
Yekaterinburg Yekaterinburg is modern and chic both in architecture and attitude. (Source: Reuters)

“WHAT’S AN Americano? You mean a Russiano.” That’s the response you are likely to have got if you’d ventured into the plush Ogonyok bar-restaurant in Yekaterinburg sometime in 2016 and asked for the typically American version of diluted brewed coffee. The aptly named “Russiano” wouldn’t have been the only jingoistic adaptation of an American favourite you’d have found on Ogonyok’s extensive drinks menu though. American Honey whiskey was “Sweet Russia” and a good ol’ Jack and Coke was now renamed “Zhora (the Russian variation of George) and Kvass”. The classic whiskey-based cocktail, Manhattan, had be rechristened as Maryina Roscha — the administrative district of Moscow, of course. The restaurant had itself claimed on social media back then that they were officially “changing all the politically incorrect names on our menu,” as part of then Putin government’s anti-America stance over the sanctions Barack Obama had slapped on them for the Crimea situation.

While Ogonyok wasn’t the only eatery in the whole of Russia to follow the diktat, their decision left many around the country rather surprised. For, Yekaterinburg has always been a serene city near the Ural Mountains that has tried to set itself apart from the rest of Russia, in terms of being modern and chic both in architecture and attitude. It’s a city that is home to both a Beatles Memorial right in the centre as well as the world’s only Keyboard Monument — an actual QWERTY keyboard made of concrete each weighing 180 pounds and which once saw the F1, F2, F3 and Y keys stolen — along the banks of the Iset River. It also has the shortest metro rail in the world, only 19 minutes long from end to end.

Yekaterinburg is also the easternmost venue for the 2018 World Cup, some 3,046 km away from Kaliningrad, the westernmost. It’s also Russia’s ‘window to Asia’ with the possibility of taking a picture with one feet each in Europe and Asia. Most importantly, Ogonyok have gone back to their old menu, with all the American names, in the build-up the World Cup — even if some insist on a certain Donald Trump’s rise to power having something to do with it. And the two-storey establishment, which hosts the “voice of fire” karaoke, is where fans from eight different countries including Mexico, Sweden and Japan will be found as their teams battle against each other in the league stages.

While most of the focus in terms of the venues so far has been around St Petersburg — the window to Europe — and Moscow, a visit to Yekaterinburg sounds even more intriguing. The city itself drips with this theme of then and now, old and new. The city centre is said to bask in its artsy constructivist architecture now. But the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and Houses of Parliament in London were all built using the metal that came from this industrial melting pot.

Yekaterinburg is also home to the world’s oldest wooden sculpture called the Big Shigir Idol, claimed to be 9,500 years old, which means it’s been around longer than the pyramids.

Speak of being modern, and Yekaterinburg not only is home to 24 theatres, and is rightfully called the theatre capital of Russia, it also boasts of the world’s northernmost skyscraper — the Vysotsky Business Centre which stands 198 meters tall. The first-ever cycle was born here too in 1809. Yekaterinburg witnessed the execution of the last Tsar of Russia and the rest of his family, and then also the birth of Russia’s first-ever President Boris Yelstin. In 2012, it was rated amongst the 12 most ideal cities in the world by UNESCO.

Yekaterinburg ranks high also in nature tourism thanks to its proximity to the Urals but the one must-see sight is the incredible Mafia Cemetery. It’s an ode to the most famous gangsters in Russia and their violent deaths from the gangland wars two decades ago. The tombs, made of granite headstones, are life-size and extravagant with the late members of the mafia shown in expensive suits, gold chains, with girlfriends and their exclusive special skill inscribed next to them — whether it’s about their “knife throwing” skills or their “deadly fists”.

Yekaterinburg is also putting its best foot forward for the World Cup. While its mayor has proudly announced that there would be no hikes in apartment rents for visitors, around 780 of their public catering executives from 77 hotels and 46 cafes, Ogonyok included, signed up for English language classes and successfully completed them as preparation for the glut of visitors. And of course, the fact that you won’t be denied an Americano when you ask for it.

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