Chelyabinsk

AaronSlightly east of the Urals in Asia, Chelyabinsk doesn’t often feature on tourist plans unless a transit point to the Urals or Yekaterinburg. But the once closed (to foreigners in Soviet times) city with a definite provincial feel has often been the transit point to somewhere. That ‘somewhere’ before was Siberia…with the Trans-Siberian railway those that had been ‘deported’ or ‘relocated’ to Siberia would have had to pass through the city. Which is only several hundred years old and takes its name from a Bashkir settlement.

When Chelyabinsk does make the western media it is not so flattering. Articles which call it the oblast or city things such the most contaminated place in the planet (Lake Karachay) where spending one hour by the shore was enough to kill (fortunately the soviets finally decided to fill it with concrete) , quirky stories like the meteor. Lonely planet a bit unfairly alludes it to being in extreme disrepair outside the centre. Something which I would not agree with from what I saw, at least not cosmetically so.
Despite the bad press, Chelyabinsk is actually a pleasant city. It is not a St Petersburg, Yaroslavl or Yekaterinburg but for a transit point it is actually a decent place to visit and definitely worth spending time in. There may be no ‘A’ list sites but there are plenty of interesting sites, nice restaurants, parks and Lake Uvildy within the oblast.

Hungry Hippos or Chelyabinsk Police
picture of Hungry Hippos used under Wikicommons license (and not (c) Travel Emissary)

Hungry Hippos Wikipedia commons If one is acquainted with hungry hippos family game, each player controls an hippo and tries to eat as many ‘marbles’ possible.
The hungry hippos in real life are the police at Chelyabinsk. I have read, even met people who had to pay a bribe when travelling in Eastern Europe. It never happened to me until now. Registration is an issue and it pays to be careful.
I recommend this site http://realrussia.co.uk/Visas/Russian/Registration
You see registering at a private apartment in St Petersburg with a tourist visa is not a problem. In Chelyabinsk it makes you not a tourist. Ok..different rules for a different city and oblast but the aim is to extract money. Apparently going to Russia 3 times in two years meant I was a guest and not tourist! (Obviously guests are fair game for bribes :-) ) However the most ridiculous accusation and obviously false one – my visa is only for Moscow yes Moscow not Russia.
A chance to extract money from a foreigner is like winning the lottery.
I have read in the site I linked to that in Russia tourist have had over 250 US Dollars extracted from them with implicit threats. That was not going to happen but I didn’t experience anything approaching that. My total damage was 4,020 roubles. 2,000 roubles fine, 20 commission for the police woman’s mobile and 2,000 for alcohol.. yes
It was a helpful connection that I won’t name that managed a ‘reasonable’ conclusion.
Welcome to the Russia I had read but until then had fortunately never experienced.

YanaThe provincial city, town actually village feel occurs when arriving at such a small airport.
Having said all that, my reason for Chelyabinsk was not for transit but for my whole trip to Russia to meet Yana and also her family.
For the tourist however a good place to start is Kirova Street (ul. Kirova).
The street has cafes, restaurants, bars and plenty of statues from the beggar man, jazz musician, elegant woman, to the fireman among others doted around, the one statue that definitely should not be missed is the boy with the camels.

Chelyabinsk is in the Asian part of Russia and the symbol of the city and oblast is the camel. The city does also have Tatar festivals as well as the regular major Slav ones too. Not far away from Kirova is a golden domed mosque from 1899 which looks like a Russian church.
Chelyabinsk has it churches too although just a tad bit further from the street). I visited Holy Trinity Church, a gold domed Church, as well as Sacred Simeonovsky Cathedral. Both are active. And the blue coloured Simeonovsky cathedral in particular is beautiful both outside and inside with murals and impressive iconostasis. There may be far more famous churches in Moscow but at least these ones didn’t seem like primarily tourist attractions as some (not all) in Moscow in the Kremlin seemed at time.

The city does have its Soviet feel set in concrete but at least it seemed to be saved the ‘makeover’ of Zlatoust. Zlatoust in old pre-Soviet photos seemed quite beautiful the modern town depressing. While I can’t say Chelyabinsk matches Yekaterinburg in number of wooden buildings, it certainly has them in places as well as parks.
Yana and I visited the beautiful Lake Uvildy for a few days. It is really really a highlight and actually one worth travelling for (within the oblast). But the traveller must use mosquito repellent and coil etc unless one is ready to become a mosquito’s breakfast. The amount of mosquitoes is high but the coil worked impressively.
As for the lake itself it is unquestionably beautiful and there are plenty of cabins surrounding the lake one may rent. While outside they are pretty and in pretty surroundings they are basic. Likely to include a cooker and may for example have what functions as two doubles or 4 singles for different prices but 800 roubles (2015) is typical and generous checkout times.
People will usually bring the food they eat or barbeque here. There are a few shops but they don’t stock much.
I also visited a smaller lake near Yana’s family Dacha. Yana’s family including her grandmother and Yana’s friend Alyona were extremely welcoming.