Alapayevsk: Hidden Beauty in the Urals
Published: May 29, 2013 (Issue # 1761)
Alexei Kosyakov / SPT
The French-financed narrow-gauge railway is still functioning, though it is no longer the primary means of transporting workers, raw materials and finished goods throughout the region.
Alapayevsk, Sverdlovsk Region — Though storytellers have labeled this Ural mountain settlement an industrial fairytale land, the town is known more broadly and infamously as the place where the Romanov dynasty ended.
According to legend, here also walked the Mistress of Copper Mountain, the beautiful nymph of the rocks. With a malachite cloak and multicolored lizards, she was indifferent in how she dealt with good and evil — doing nothing for the bad, and only occasionally showing favor to the good. That was the Central Urals as described in the early 20th century folklore of Pavel Bazhov. Though the earth is poor here, underneath the low hills rests a fabulous wealth of ores, precious stones and metals.
In 1639, on the confluence of two rivers, Alapayevsk was founded as part of the long eastward expansion of the peasantry, whose wooden homes began to spring up among trees. In the first years of the 18th century, a dam, a church and iron works were built in Alapayevsk with the latter becoming the foundation of the town’s prosperity.
The iron works was one of Peter the Great’s first industrialization efforts in central Russia, and the break with the past was evident from the beginning. Alapayevsk’s Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, with its long body and high pointed spire, hardly resembles the Orthodox churches of old Muscovite Russia. The town’s original factory, the oldest iron works in the Urals, also still stands with its rows of arched windows reminiscent of industrial architecture over the world.
Bazhov’s description of Alapayevsk dates back to a time of serfs, tradesmen and masters. For him, the region’s mineral wealth was something both marvelous and dark, exerting a deep and sometimes distorting pull on the life of those who dwelled above it. This “pull” was further exemplified by the resource exploitation that closely followed after the first settlers, which included mining, smelting, and lumber.
By the 20th century, Alapayevsk had sufficiently grown in stature to attract French capital for the construction of a narrow-gauge railway designed to transport charcoal to stoke the factory smelters’ fires. The first line, with a gauge width of 750 millimeters and built almost entirely by manual labor, began operation out of Alapayevsk in 1898. Over the next 75 years, it became a network of more than 500 kilometers of track linking more than 40 towns, villages, factories, mines and lumber camps in a closed loop that facilitated moving people and raw materials.
However, by the 1970s, with the Soviet economy beginning to stagnate, a liquidation program for unproductive industry began. Lumberyards closed, villages emptied, and track segments were dismantled.
Still, in 1990, Alapayevsk remained a powerhouse. Since World War II, the town had been a center of metallurgy and machine building, along with other such facilities in the Ural archipelago of giant industrial enterprises. Factory workshops within giant fenced-off territories inside the town’s borders, from which towers poked and steam billowed, continued to be the center of gravity for such settlements.
Today, Alapayevsk can be described as having three layers. This first is the historic center, made up by the main factory, a church and dam, which is surrounded by stone and brick houses of the old elite. Among them is the house of Ilya Tchaikovsky, an officer and engineer who brought his family to Alapayevsk when he became the manager of the iron works. A year after their arrival, his young son, Pyotr, left to start his education in St. Petersburg.
The second layer is the Soviet contribution of solid white brick buildings that surround the old center —simple and functional with the occasional splash of provincially scaled and peeling neoclassical grandeur.
The third layer is made of wood — row upon row of single-story wooden houses that spread outward. Their straight lines are wrenched out of shape by snow and time with no two houses looking alike. With a mix of heavy logs and fine carving, some are simply stunning in their beauty. Beyond these houses is the rolling landscape of the Central Urals, carpeted in slender white birch and red pine.
The market economy returned to Alapayevsk after the Soviet collapse with astonishing ferocity. However, where once thousands people worked in each great factory, that number is now in the low hundreds.
With a population of 38,000, many men make the long commute to the mines in the north, where conditions are harsh but the money is good. They also work shifts: a week and a half on, a week and a half off.
As a reminder of local machismo, the town’s representative to the State Duma, Yevgeny Kuyvashev, a special forces veteran with four medals on his chest, looks out from billboards, promsing law and order, always and for everyone. But on closer inspection at the people on the streets, there is a sense that many are down on their luck with survival being a struggle. Men in buffeted black jackets look worn out by life while the women, however, seem better off, wearing fur coats and spotless boots. Proof of limited disposable income can be momentarily detected in gold-toothed smiles.
This hardship does not apply to the whole town, evident by the foreign cars that fill the well-kept streets of Alapayevsk. Here, the buildings are clean, property prices are rising, small business is growing and as a whole, the economy is stabilizing.
Fixed assets worth billions of dollars — machinery and infrastructure — remain in place on factory floors, as the resources remain in the ground. Big business remains profitable. It is simply in the hands of individuals, no longer the mass enterprise it was in the Soviet era.
Having always had strong proletariat roots, it is not surprising that Alapayevsk had a role to play in revolutionary history. Though since the time of Gorbachev’s glasnost, it has taken on the identity of a great national crime.
Alapayevsk was where the extended family of the tsar was held under house arrest after falling into the hands of the Bolsheviks. On the night of July 17, 1918, the family of the tsar were taken out into the forest and executed by the Reds, fearful of Admiral Kolchak’s approaching White Army. Their bodies were then thrown into an open mine shaft.
The remorse from these events has become part of the local spirit, and even a source of pride: Alapayevsk knows it shoulders a burden on behalf of the whole nation.
When asked what distinguishes an Alapayevtsy (what locals refer to themselves as) from other people, one resident answered, “the spark of God.”
What to see in two hours
Stroll through the town center. Start at the hotel Metallurg on the south side of the Neiva River and head up Ulitsa Lenina. Cross the iron-railed bridge over the river – to the left are the towers of drilling-machine maker Stroidormash; to the right, the twisting pipes and red-brick 19th century walls of the Alapayevsk Iron Works, behind which rise steep cliffs as the river curls away. Pass the watchtower and go through the center of the modern town before descending to the smaller Alapaikha River.
Here, amid the Soviet-era palace of culture and a range of beautiful early revolutionary buildings in various states of picturesque disrepair, is the core of the original industrial settlement. Where the first dam once stood, a bridge now crosses the river. Look down to see the four stone walls of the original factory workshop, dating back to 1704.
On the opposite riverbank is the Holy Trinity Cathedral, open daily with free entry. Built in 1702, this is the oldest stone church in the region, complete with multiple domes and a spire. It has recently been partially renovated, having spent its Soviet days as a bread factory.
Di Bor / Wikimedia
The Transfiguration Church in Nizhnyaya Sinyachikha serves as the entrance to the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Folk Art.
Across the road is the stately home in which Tchaikovsky spent part of his childhood. The building now houses a museum offering insight into the formative years and family life of the young man (entry 20 rubles). On the second floor is a concert hall, complete with a grand piano. The real treasure here is the huge collection of musical instruments from all over the world.
Behind the Tchaikovsky museum is the house of Ignaty Safonov, inventor of the first water driven turbine in Russia. The location now houses a museum of local history. The building itself is also an architectural wonder in this area — stone with a wooden facade. However, its opening times vary. Call to set up an appointment.
What to see in two days
On the road from Alapayevsk to Nizhnyaya Sinyachikha stands Male Monastery. Half-hidden in the forest, with new brick work confirming its recent opening, the monastery’s vast, walled territory contains the mine shaft the bodies of the Romanov family were thrown into in 1918.
To fully comprehend all the nuances of wooden house construction, head to the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Folk Art in the nearby Nizhnyaya Sinyachikha. The museum is a vast collection of houses large and small, watchtowers, fire stations, custom posts and all manner of other wooden structures. At the center stands the eight-domed Transfiguration Church, soaring upward in pale blue and is visible from miles around. Lovingly restored by local pensioners in the last years of the Soviet Union, the cathedral is also the entrance to the museum (adult entry, 60 rubles). .
You can also get around via the narrow-gauge train for the commute between towns and villages. The region has the largest functioning narrow-gauge railway system in the country, starting in Alapayevsk and providing a 270 kilometer lifeline to surrounding villages. The line starts from just behind Alapayevsk’s central train station. Train rides cost very little and run daily but by no means hourly, so check the timetable in advance at the information center.
The north-bound train will take you from Alapayevsk to Verkhnyaya Sinyachikha. The approach to the town moves along the lake above the dam towards the now-defunct metallurgical factory. The central station has closed, but the tiny Ugolnaya station on the town’s northern edge still functions. Only 100 meters from the station are the steaming basins of Fankom, in which hundreds of birch trunks lie soaking, softening up for their consumption by the factory and their transformation into plywood.
The next station is Yelnichnaya. Once a burgeoning village with its own brick depot and a factory that produced railway ties, half the wooden homes in Yelnichnaya are now empty, though the depot remains. Sit in a single carriage warmed by a wood-burning stove with firewood stacked under your bench, and watch the forest pass by as you look out of the window.
Where to stay
Alapayevsk’s only functioning hotel is the Metallurg. The hotel offers not only spacious and comfortable rooms, but a wide range of recreational activities as well, ranging from billiards to Pilates. Room prices start from about 2185 rubles ($70) per night.
Where to eat
In the middle of Ulitsa Lenina, you’ll find the most popular restaurant in town: Kichi. It is as stylish as it comes in Alapayevsk and offers tasty Japanese, Italian and Russian dishes for about 300 rubles ($10) per person. While sushi fans will not be disappointed, the classic Russian cuisine may be too experimental for most.
For an excellent chicken fillet in a price range a little below Kichi’s, try Troika further down Ulitsa Lenina toward the cathedral. About 450 rubles ($14.40) will buy a more upmarket experience, with bread warm from the oven, at Cherry.
An essential feature of all Alapayevsk restaurants is a good set of speakers. All of these speakers — though in Kichi the volume might be kept to a minimum — will be playing Russian pop music. Whether the music inspires dancing or the need to sway, one way or another as the evening progresses, people end up moving to the deafening pop beat. Many restaurants have open floor space to accomodate this, while guests make do with whatever floor space is at hand at other places. This is the essence of the town’s nightlife.
For those who prefer a quieter evening, the concert hall at the Tchaikovsky museum and the palace of culture both offer a range of events, from classical music to balls and beauty pageants.
Ask a local about locations of natural beauty and you will get a stream of recommendations and, possibly, invitations. If interested, hunting and fishing opportunities are plentiful in the Ural region, as well as equine sports.
How To Get There
Andrey Bogdanov / Wikimedia
Alapayevsk played a role in revolutionary history but that heritage, while still evident, suffers from neglect.
You can fly direct from St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport to Yekaterinburg’s Koltsovo Airport on any of five daily flights. Flight time is just under three hours. Starting prices with carriers Aeroflot, Rossiya and Ural Airlines start from 7,390 rubles ($236) one-way. Alternatively the journey can be made in approximately 35 hours by train to Yekaterinburg. Three trains leave a day from St. Petersburg’s Ladozhsky station. Ticket prices start from about 2,403 rubles ($77) each way and can be bought online or at the station.
The 150 kilometers from Yekaterinburg to Alapayevsk can be covered by car in 2 1/2 hours. Buses leave roughly every two hours from morning to evening from Yekaterinburg’s central bus station, next to the central train station. Tickets can be bought at the ticket office for about 250 rubles ($8) one-way.
Two trains depart daily: 3:12 p.m. and 4:59 p.m. Tickets cost about 200 rubles ($6.40). The journey time is roughly 4 1/2 hours. Tickets are hard to find online but can be bought at the commuter train counter at the Yekaterinburg central passenger train station.
Metallurg, 2 Ulitsa Nekrasova, +7 343 462 8844. www. metallurg-ak.ru
• Tchaikovsky Museum, 30 Ulitsa Lenina, +7 343 463 4072. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Monday and Tuesday.
• Museum of Local History, 34 Ulitsa Lenina, +7 343 463 3907
• Museum of Wooden Architecture and Folk Art, +7 343 467 5237. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• Kichi, 12 Ulitsa Lenina 12, +7 950 652 2223
• Troika, 27 Ulitsa Lenina, +7 343 462 1261
• Cherry, 93 Ulitsa Pushkina.
Male Monestary, 1 Ulitsa Perminova, +7 343 463 1462, Open daily from
8 a.m. to 6 p.m., services at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. svelizaveta.ru
Transport and Information:
• Alapayevsk Central Train Station, 1 Vokzalnaya Ulitsa, +7 343 469 6253
• Alapayevsk Information Center, Ulitsa Bochkaryova, +7 343 463 3290