08.09.2012 - 10.09.2012 17 °C
Episode 7: Taiga to Tomsk 8 September 2012
Even more birch trees; the elusive hostel; even more wooden houses and windows; students galore; marriages galore
I quite enjoy the writings of Anton Chekov. So with interest, I travel to the city that Chekov described in his letter to A.S. Suvorin in 1890 as dull and intemperate, with no good-looking women. Tomsk, he said while aboding in an "unsavory hotel", is remarkable for the fact that governors die in it. Whatever that means.
The train from Taiga to Tomsk (No. 608 and about 150 km distance) is a local electric train taking three hours. The train passes through lots of flat land covered by even more birch forest passing by the occasional village or house. It was a totally uneventful ride sitting on functional, unpadded wood seats. For the most part, the other passengers showed no life and basically sat in their seats and stared out the window. Nary an IPod to be seen.
There are two train stations in Tomsk: Tomsk II and Tomsk I. Tomsk II, being rather functional compared to the grand Tomsk I, is located in the more northern part of the city. Getting off at Tomsk I would have resulted in a bit of a challenge getting into the main part of the town which was where I was staying.
After some fluffing around the train station trying to find the bus stop, I discovered that the #19 bus went into the center of town. I disembarked at street 1905 (very odd name for a street) and according to my trusty Russian text map I bought in Krasnoyarsk, the area in which the Domino Hostel was located was just a couple of streets away. Upon finding the area, I discovered the street consisted of four contiguous buildings forming a square and the hostel was nowhere to be found. I reckon Russian town planners and owners of hostels have a perverse sense of humour.
From experience, I figured the entrance was in the back somewhere, which is where I went, but to no avail. The best opening I could find was a fenced in parking lot. None of the local shops located in the building complexes seemed to have heard of the hostel. I finally stumbled into a newly opened tea and coffee shop (nice find) and Tania, the owner, very kindly and patiently helped me find the hostel. And it was only with impeccable timing and good luck that we found it. Why a hostel would have its entrance not only in the back of the building (at least I got that bit right) and inside a secured, gated area with no sign or bell identifying it is a bit beyond me. The luck came when a car drove out the gate and we slipped in. At the exact right time a lady came out one of the outside doors of a building and we again slipped in. We took a punt and headed up the stairs…as opposed to down the stairs which was just as feasible.
Just as we reached the top of the stairs of the second floor, a door opened and lo and behold, there was the name of the hostel...on the inside of the door. Absolutely bugger all on the outside. I was later told by one of the hostel attendants that I should have looked for the Domino Hostel sticker on the door of the refrigerator located in the enclosed balcony of the hostel and which supposedly could be seen from the street. Ha! Good info if you have eagle eyesight and know where to look. My only come-uppance was that I could vent my frustration when I submitted my review of the hostel.
I got settled into the clean and functional, Ikea furnished hostel, and the day was spent wandering the streets of Tomsk....wide, tree-lined boulevards, clean and tidy and, the main reason for my visit, to see a great collection of wooden houses. And one could not but see the ubiquitous figure of Lenin right smack in the middle of the main street junction pointing stoiclly to the east. Tomsk is located on the Tom River with a population a bit over a million, the majority, it seems, being human beings under the age of 20. There in an inordinate number of higher education institutions so the city swarms with students.
One very active event that was happening in every city I visited in Russia was weddings. Tradition is that the wedding pictures are taken in parks or some scenic or historical spot. Given the number of weddings in Russia in September, there were brides in chiffony buffonty cotton candy dresses everywhere, surrounded by their entourage of family members and friends in their six inch stiletto heels and heaving bosoms. The vehicle of choice seemed to be a red or white stretch Hummer with chauffer discretely parked nearby to transport the happy couple around. This was also the first time that I really noticed the Russian tradition of newly married couples placing a lock on a bridge and throwing the key into the river. I wonder how many brides or grooms have second thoughts as the key slowly sinks and disappears into the brown water. No one was able to tell me if the lock gets cut off of the couple divorces.
I visited the Oppression Museum which was housed in the basement an old KGB dungeon. As you would expect, there were steep stairs to the basement, no windows, small rooms and pretty sturdy walls. There, the kind lady behind the small desk at the bottom of the stairs decided that this was a great opportunity for a load of students also visiting the museum to practice their English. Oh joy and how convenient for her. It all worked out well for everyone, but I just needed to sidetrack the kids a wee bit so that I could at least look at the pictures (all the text was in Russian). Otherwise, it was non-stop commentary to speak as much English as possible and a bustle to the next display. One of the best displays was the map set into the floor that marks all the labour camp gulags in the former Soviet Union. I always associated gulags with far eastern Siberia, but this map showed that they were scattered throughout the USSR, some not far from Moscow.
My next plan was to walk up pl Lenina to the WWII memorial and look at the Tom River. This was not going to happen immediately as seven male students decided they were going to hang out with me and further practice their English. I tried to wear them out by walking a lot and bore them to tears by taking lots of pictures, but to no avail. Not until the 'girls' called asking where they were did we finally part ways and I was able to make it to the rather impressive WWII memorial.
The park in which the WWII memorial park is located is planted with a rather fine birch tree forest and overlooks the wide, slow flowing Tom River. There is a drop of about 100 feet from the edge of the park to the river giving a scenic view of the river and the flat land beyond and seemed to be a popular spot for paragliding. One paraglider was there trying to take off with little success and the interest of the people waiting at the bottom of the hill waned rapidly. I don't know if he ever got off the ground and if he did, I'm not sure if there was anyone waiting for him.
My main reason for visiting Tomsk was to look at the houses along Ul Tatarskaya and Ul Krasnoarmeyskaya. Again, many were in disrepair, but there were still some fine examples of the traditional wooden lacework. In other places around the city, they have renovated the houses showing the grandness and artistry once incorporated into the houses.
As with many Russian cities, Tomsk provides an array of different modes of transportation to get around the city: electric trams, taxis and buses. However, the best of all and one I had not seen anywhere else in my travels, small buses that run on LPG....the tanks being conveniently stored on the roof of the buses. Wow. One kaboom and the passengers are all in Russia heaven.
The day I left to go to the train station, three students with whom I shared my room kindly escorted me to the bus station. One very pleasant surprise during my travels so far in Russia has been how friendly and helpful people have been. I was not expecting this given the reputation of Russians being dour and cold. Yes, I did come across some grim folks, but very few and this trait seemed to have been confined to people doing mundane jobs. Unfortunately, most of these jobs were ones that dealt with the public such as post office workers, bus and railroad ticket sellers and supermarket ladies, so getting things done at times could be a frustrating, but amusing chore.
So was Chekov right in calling Tomsk a dull town? Conditions in the 1890s would be far different from now and the mass of students in the town certainly added an interesting spark to the city. And even if Chekov was really, really picky, I suspect he would have found at least one or two attractive women, all wearing six inch stilettoes.
Next stop: Yekaterinberg