An Excursion to Ganina Yama

Ganina Yama, Yekaterinburg, Russia

As I walked away from the taxi outside of the Yekaterinburg train station, I felt my hope slipping away. My main reason for stopping in the city on my Trans-Siberian journey was to visit Ganina Yama, the monastery that now stands on the site where the bodies of the last Russian tsar Nicholas II and his family were dumped into a mine shaft after they were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

I arrived in Yekaterinburg on a Tuesday morning and carefully made plans to visit Ganina Yama on Wednesday. The owner of the hostel where I was staying gave me meticulous instructions about where and when to catch the bus that ran there six times a day so it seemed pretty easy.

Until I stood at the bus stop for over thirty minutes and no bus ever arrived.

I gave up, figuring I could still give it another shot on Thursday as my train didn’t leave until 9:00 p.m.  I returned to the hostel, told Ekaterina what happened and she promised to look into it.

As it turned out, the buses weren’t running to Ganina Yama at that time. Ekaterina explained to me that the only way I would be able to make the trip would be to hire a taxi.  She said it should cost about 400 rubles one way, plus about 3 rubles per minute of waiting time.  Assuming I spent half an hour there, this would come out to about 890 rubles (just under $30).

Yekaterinburg, Russia

With this information in hand, and feeling confident in my ability to negotiate in Russian, I headed to the train station, where I knew I could find official taxis. I approached the first one I saw and made my request – to which he quoted me 1500 rubles (about $50) one way. I nicely explained that no, I knew it shouldn’t cost that much but he would not relent. Thinking perhaps I misunderstood and he actually meant 1500 round trip plus waiting time, I tried to clarify but I was not happy with the response. Realizing that he would not budge, I slammed the door shut and walked away.

Not seeing any other taxis in the immediate vicinity, I started walking around to the front of the train station, hoping to find someone a little more reasonable.

What I discovered was even better.

I saw a sign advertising 3-hour excursions to Ganina Yama.

A young guy stood near the sign with a bullhorn – clearly trying to drum up some business. He saw me checking out the sign and approached me, telling me the next excursion would leave in about 40 minutes (1:00 p.m.) and it cost 500 rubles. Yep, that’s right. Less than $20 for a guided tour there and back while the taxi driver wanted to swindle me out of $50.

It took me all of about five seconds to say yes, at which point he ushered me into a nearby van and handed me a brochure explaining all about Ganina Yama in Russian.

I sat there patiently, happy to be in a semi-warm van than standing outside, until just before 1:00, wondering if I was going to be the only passenger and, if so, would the excursion still run for just 500 rubles.

To my great relief, just before we were scheduled to depart, a group of college students fresh off a train from Krasnoyarsk hopped on board.  As they did, the excursion leader announced to them that they had a “foreigner” on the excursion as well and asked if any of them spoke English. As they looked at me shyly, I offered up that I spoke some Russian and soon they were peppering me with questions.

We reached Ganina Yama about forty minutes later and went our separate ways to explore the grounds of the monastery. I visited each of the wooden chapels and walked along the bridge surrounding the former mine shaft where the Romanov family’s bodies were discarded.

Ganina Yama, Yekaterinburg, Russia
Ganina Yama, Yekaterinburg, Russia

Ganina Yama, Yekaterinburg, Russia
Then I made my way to a far side of the site where a long display of photographs was erected.  Ekaterina had told me not to miss this.

And to my surprise, I found myself getting a little teary.

I have read countless books about Russian history and specifically about the murder of the Romanov family. While it always seemed sad to me, it also seemed distant. It wasn’t something that took place in my country or in my lifetime. And it wasn’t something that seemed to rise to the same level of emotional impact as the Holocaust or the attacks of September 11.

Not to mention that Nicholas II was far from a perfect leader and certainly was not overly popular. His reign began with over 1300 people being killed in a stampede at his coronation festival and things went downhill from there as Russia descended into revolution and economic collapse under his watch.

At the same time, by most accounts I have read, Nicholas may have been naïve, ill-informed and unaccepting of some of the realities of the revolution going on around him, but there is little indication that he was evil-minded.

He was no Ivan the Terrible or Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein.

And even if he was, does that justify killing him and his entire family, including five children, in cold blood?

Not only was Nicholas shot multiple times in the chest, his daughters were shot at multiple times, then stabbed with bayonets before finally being shot in the head.

Ganina Yama, Yekaterinburg, Russia

I walked slowly by the black and white pictures of Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, and their children, Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, Maria and Alexei.  Some photographs were formal family portraits, but many were more casual, impromptu shots taken as the children played and they simply enjoyed being together.  They looked just like any other family. They just had the misfortune of being born into the Romanov family.

After I reached the end of the display and wiped a couple tears from my eyes, I headed toward the entrance to Ganina Yama.  There, my feelings of solemnness were interrupted by a state of panic as the van that drove me to the monastery was nowhere in sight – and neither was the group of students. I went back and forth between being certain I had been abandoned and being fairly confident that I must have just gotten the time wrong because the van couldn’t possibly leave without me.

Finally, after about twenty minutes of me frantically pacing around the parking lot, I saw the students heading toward me, smiles on their faces, and, of course, cigarettes in hand. If the visit to the monastery affected them anywhere close to the way it did me, they didn’t show it.

Rather, they cheerfully invited me for tea and then joked and teased each other as we waited for the van to finally arrive.

An hour later, I was back in Yekaterinburg, standing in front of the Church of the Blood, built on the spot where the Ipatiev House once stood – the basement of which was the site of the murder of the Romanov family.

Church of the Blood, Yekaterinburg, Russia

My time in the city was drawing to a close, my mission in stopping there fulfilled.

The day had been an emotional rollercoaster.

The frustration and disappointment of thinking I wouldn’t make it to Ganina Yama.

The relief and excitement when I found an excursion to take me there.

The melancholy feeling of actually visiting the site.

The panic when I thought I was stranded.

The relief (again) when I realized I wasn’t.

And, finally, a feeling of satisfaction that everything worked out in the end

22 thoughts on “An Excursion to Ganina Yama”

  1. We just arrived in Yekaterinburg as a stop over from the long train ride from Moscow to Irkutsk and with the sole aim of doing exactly what you did!

    Noted about tours- tripadvisor seems to suggest taxis are the only way of getting there. The experience itself sounds harrowing and beautiful and can’t wait to visit.

  2. Hi Katie,

    You will never know how much your trip to Yekaterinburg means to me…I’ve just finished reading “The Last Days of the Romanov’s” by Helen Rappaport from 2008. Your trip and photos brought everything alive for me… Ganina Yama and The Church of the Blood. I’m a lot older than you and will and would never have been able to see these beautiful historic sites if it had not been for you. Thank you for bringing this very important part of Russian history alive for me with your documentation and photos! You are a learned young woman and I hope that you continue your travels and share them by internet so that older folks like me can enjoy the historic places you have visited.

    God Bless,

    Ann Duggan
    Oconomowoc, WI

  3. Hi Katie

    I journeyed to Ekaterinburg in June 2012. I wanted very much to visit Ganina Yama, and made inquiries at the front desk of my hotel. They told me that they could arrange a car and driver for a couple of hours for $250 USD!!! I logged online and found your blog. I noted that there was a place near the railway station where I could arrange for an excursion. I set out immediately and found a small excursion office directly in front of the station. Sure enough, I bought a ticket for 500 rubles (about $15 USD) and hopped on the van. When we arrived at Ganina Yama, the guide allowed me to go off on my own. I spent nearly 3 hours wandering around this sacred spot, exploring each church and building, viewed the 500 photographs of the Imperial family on display, and prayed at the spot where the Imperial family’s remains were thrown into the mine. This beautiful place is a must for any one who shares an interest in the Romanovs. Thank you Katie for sharing your experience, it has clearly helped others reach this spot.

    1. Hi Paul! Great to hear – very glad you avoided paying $250 to go out there! Sounds like you had a really nice experience.

      I took a quick peak at your website – it looks great. Will definitely need to look through it some more!

  4. Katie,
    found your blog while searching for how to get to this monastery. cross my finger i’ll make it tomorrow. quickly checked out your site. very interesting that we’ve been doing similar destination recently. i’ve just returned from a trip to the Caucasus, right now in Russia doing the Trans-Siberia.
    thanks for this post.

  5. So glad you weren’t stranded there. What an emotional day. The death of the Romanovs is so tragic. Your post makes we want to pull out my book on them and reread.

  6. Pingback: Summing Up the Trans-Siberian «

  7. Well I’m glad that things worked out in the end! I’m with Andy on this one – I really enjoy short day trips like this in a van or small bus. That way, you get to be around some other people, but can still explore the destination on your own.

    When I was in NZ this spring, I booked a seat on a van to take me to the little French town of Akaroa, which is a little over an hour away from Christchurch. It was great, because I got to chat with some others on the ride there, ended up going on a harbor cruise with our driver, and actually got dropped off right where I was staying instead of downtown. This is definitely one of my preferred methods of seeing places that might be hard to get to without a car.

  8. I know I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record, but I’m really enjoying learning more about Russia through your trip there. I know almost nothing about Russian history, and the little bit I learned in school has long since left my brain, so this is really interesting. I’m glad you found a tour that was such a good deal compared to the taxi!

    1. No worries – I’m glad people are finding it interesting and learning something. And yeah, the tour worked out perfectly – even Ekaterina was impressed with the deal, she didn’t know they were available!

  9. What an amazing experience… I have been learning a bit about the Romanovs lately, and the history is so interesting. Those photos look absolutely unreal too!

    1. Yep, I find it sooo fascinating! After reading so much about them, finally getting there was very memorable.

  10. I love van tours like that. Most of my time in Ireland was spent on them. I like hanging out with a small group of people. Sounds like that at least was far better than even a properly priced taxi.

    Ive studied a small amount of this part of history, but found this interesting. I think we will have to remember this for our trip on the Trans Sib.

    1. Definitely make a stop there! Aside from the Romanov stuff, Yekaterinburg is just a nice town. A few nice museums and some random quirky stuff like a Beatles memorial too.

  11. I am learning so much about Russia’s history just from reading your posts!!! This really sounds like a fascinating place. I’m glad you were able to get a good deal on the tour 😀

  12. I’m glad you made it to Ganina Yama in the end! I’m a bit like you; I was surprised to find myself getting teary at the site of the Ipatiev House. I think what did it for me was the wallpaper with the scribblings about Balthazar being killed by his servants, coupled with the fact I’d been studying photos of the Imperial family beforehand. It’s a very tragic history. When you were in St Petersburg, did you see the Alexander Palace at Pushkin? There’s a small memorial to the Romanovs that said something like, “to the Romanovs from the Russian People. We’re sorry”.

    Sad stuff.

    1. Ok, I totally missed the wallpaper scribblings! Ugh! I did make it to the Alexander Palace but I don’t remember seeing the memorial – what a moving statement.

  13. Yay! What a great experience. I am sure you appreciated it even more because of all the ups and downs! I don’t know as much about Russian history, but I love all the movies they make about the mystery of Anastasia. I am sure it was very moving to see all the pictures!

  14. I love when things work out that way. I’m green with envy–I have been dying to go to Russia. The architecture there seems so unique and gorgeous. I’m glad you were able to make it to Ganina Yama; it sounds like it was a very moving experience. I don’t know much about the history from that area, but it sounds fascinating…I hope I can make it out there some day!

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