Ksenia had brought the Altai mountains to my attention, the so-called Switzerland of Russia. It’s on the border with Kazakhstan and is filled with lakes and hiking bounty. I looked into a diversion, desperately longing to go there, but Russia is one big place and it is not possible to divert too far from plans. What on a map looks like the next-door neighbour is more often that not 15 hours on a train. Next time…
Instead, I was bound for Tomsk, a pretty university town on the Siberian plains. This time the train was 28 hours. It had come from Moscow and by the time I got on it, it smelt a bit fruity. Partly because of a conspicuous lack of showers, but mostly cos it was inhabited by coarse men who didn’t seem to think that soap or clean clothes were journey essentials. Some of these fellows were persistent smokers who then snorted, spluttered and snorer their way through the night. I should point out that in Russia, as in Japan, it is considered rude to blow your nose in public. Which means in effect – unluckily for me – lots of glottal sniffing. Praise be for iPods to at least partially drown them out.
My host here was Sergey, a geologist taking a well-earned sabbatical to enjoy summer and focus on his band of ethno-folk music. He and Elias, a fellow couchsurfer from Switzerland, met me in a cafe after the train had delivered me to the city one bitingly cold Sunday morning. We nipped back to Sergey’s apartment to allow me to sluice the train-grime away and dump my bag before heading to a workshop in a nearby woodland park that Eli wanted to go to at Sergey’s suggestion. I had no idea what workshop it was or really what to do with myself so I tagged along for kicks.
It turned out to be a sort of spiritual chakra workshop designed to improve the voice for singers. Ahem. Not really by bag. I stood by as the group first stood and shook all of their limbs, making a low humming sound as they did so. Sensing my reluctance to join in, Sergey took me for a quick tour of the park while they continued. When we got back, they had divided into groups of four and were taking it in turns to press the shoulders of one person crouched on the floor while he/she concurrently had to scream and use the ‘scream energy’ to stand. Imagine four groups of people doing this. The dogs were going crazy. There was clearly some sort of pain or spiritual element involved as a couple of them broke down in tears.
Then they all had to go and choose a tree to hug.
It was all I could do to focus on my phrase book and gulp down the spluttering guffaws bursting to get out.
Escaping the loons in the woods, we went for pelmeni, a Russian form of ravioli, at the Pelmeni Project down in the centre of town. It’s a really funky restaurant with a modern matruyshka doll theme and excellent food. Me likey. Took the opportunity to get a bowl of borsch down me too. What took me so long?
Tomsk is predominantly a university town, boasting seven universities and institutes. Not bad for a Siberian outpost. It originally came to being because of mining but it also became (and I think still is) an important centre for uranium enrichment and was closed to outsiders until only recently. It’s a short diversion off the Trans-Siberian but a picturesque little spot and worth the extra couple of hours on a train. What’s a couple of hours between friends?
I love Sundays in cities cos it’s when all the locals and families come out and enjoy their parks and open spaces. Towns come alive with people on bikes, trikes, rollerblades and foot. With this in mind, I went to the Lagerny Gardens, a vast park at the end of Lenina Street (every city in Russia has a Lenina Street) with a large monument to those who lost their lives in the Great Patriotic War – 30 million Russians, I’m told; for reference, 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust – and an eternal flame. This is a beautiful monument but the park that it is set in is yet more impressive. Several of woodland and bike tracks stand on top of the hill overlooking a sweeping curve of the River Tom below. A bike/walking track leads down to the river below and, quite naturally, a car park for the rude boys to practice doughnuts in. Shatters the peace somewhat but to each his own?
Went for a walk along a separate bit of the river too, where you can find a less-than-complimentary statue of the famous Russian author, Chekhov. He slated Tomsk in his diary when he passed through and the locals, slighted, raised this caricature statue in memory.
The highest point in the city is the old fire tower – curiously made of wood – and you can nip up to the top for just 25 roubles and get your bearings over the city. Nice on a sunny day, for sure. There’s a gulag museum in town, supposedly dedicated to Political Oppression but the exhibition, while pretty, doesn’t really do much to show you how awful the gulags were or why people were thrown in them. Even my Russian sidekick didn’t really understand the logic of the exhibition rooms. The curator has managed to make the Siberian gulag look more like a holiday camp than an evil to be feared. I cannot believe that this is the desired effect.