My Summer in Tomsk

I was reluctant to go to Siberia. It seemed a very long way from England. When my friend Olga asked me if I would like to take a 13 year old to Tomsk and spend four weeks in Siberia helping him with his English, I wasn’t too sure. I knew the family well but wasn’t Siberia a land of freezing snow in winter and midges in the hot summer? Tomsk where I would be staying, was just a small dot on a very large map of Russia. My friend could not understand my hesitation, telling me that it would be the chance of a life time as not many people, even in Russia, got a chance to visit such an interesting place. Well, that persuaded me. So, in early July 2013, my young companion and I boarded our Skyteam Aeroflot flight to Moscow. Four hours later, we were collecting our luggage and looking for somewhere to eat in the busy concourse of Domodedovo airport.. After an excellent meal, we made our way to the boarding gates. As we passed the 50 internal flight check-in desks, I began to have an idea of the vastness of the Russian continent.

It was just after midnight when the lights of Moscow disappeared below us and we were out over the forest and tundra of Siberia. The cabin window framed the sun just below a horizon striated with dark grey clouds, where the deep azure sky was lit from blood red to palest gold. As the sun rose, an ocean of trees and grass in vibrant greens that is Siberia in summer, gradually took shape and colour beneath us.

As we descended into the mist-shrouded area around Tomsk, I felt I was coming to a land of magic and mystery. We landed at 7am local time as the sun broke through to welcome us on the cold runway. My hosts were waiting for us and after a happy family reunion, I felt my heart quicken with anticipation as we left the smart, new airport building. Would I like Tomsk? Would it be too hot? And what about those midges?

As we drove along the main road into Tomsk, we passed communities living on the edge of dark, dense forest. The houses, many of which are newly built, are made of Siberian larch or birch, giving the old houses a soft grey colour and the new ones a golden sheen. I had not expected to see so much colour everywhere on the houses; bright green, red and vivid blue on the steep, angled, roofs, often with windows and doors painted to match. There are still some old peasant houses amongst these brightly coloured ‘butterflies’ and I could see what a hard life it must have been in these small dwellings with dark ramshackle additions in wood or corrugated iron. Each one had a vegetable garden at the back or side of the house but I didn’t see any livestock. Not a goat in sight!

As we drove further into Tomsk, the icy chill gave way to a blazing sun in a blue, cloudless sky and we were greeted by the dust and pollution-filled miasma of a hot morning so typical of Eastern cities. As we passed huge advertising boards at the side of the road I noticed that there were no women in the advertisements but as we got further into town I saw two – one for cosmetics and the other a bikini-clad blond lying on a blue striped lounger by a swimming pool. Was she advertising the pool, the bikini or the lounger I wondered? It is an interesting experience not being able to read the script nor understand a word of a language.

One of Siberia’s oldest cities, I noticed that 400 year old Tomsk has many winding streets and narrow passage ways but the main roads running through the centre, meet side roads at junctions where there is that typical bunching of traffic in the middle, with drivers taking their lives in their hands (or so it seemed to me) and just driving at one another until there is a space. Of course, being a local and driving a big, comfortable 4×4, my host had no difficulties negotiating this vehicular turmoil.

Our journey took us along Tatarskya Street, where its aspen-lined avenues were looking snow-covered as flowers from the trees fell on the road and pathways. Amongst the trees I caught my first sight of the famous wooden houses of Tomsk. We were in the old Tartar district where the houses seem to have stepped out of the illustrations to an ancient fairy tale. Constructed of lengths of whole trees in a log-cabin arrangement, the houses have windows surrounded by delicate, lace-like wooden fretwork. Some houses have been left to age naturally but others are painted green, blue or dark apricot; the familiar coloured roofs of green, blue or red add to the magic-like beauty, whilst others have over the years quite literally started to sink into the ground due to the movement of the permafrost underneath them. Days later, whilst walking down to the river, I felt the timelessness of old Tomsk amongst these houses, as elderly men sat on steps smoking and chatting and women in wrap-around flowered cotton aprons and slippers swept the courtyards with their brooms. The pots of geraniums at the windows and on the steps added a splash of colour as stray cats wandered in and out among the lean-to sheds and young children played ball and ran after kittens.

Food shopping was top of the agenda on that first day, so after a much needed rest, we went to a big supermarket constructed of red brick without any windows. On the outside walls were large, brightly-coloured posters of fruit and vegetables. We had to park on the other side of the road because as my host put it, “Big shop, small parking!”. The fruit and vegetables on sale came from places that seemed exotic and far away to me as we bought small green peppers from Kazakstan and small apples and pears from Turkestan with their sweet, heady perfume. There were many different types of bread and pastries; dried and fresh sea and river fish; cheeses and alcohol.

We didn’t buy all the vegetables and fruit in the supermarket as my hosts like to go to an organic shop. The locally produced soya milk and tofu were excellent and I really enjoyed a glass of the locally brewed Tomsk beer.

The next day as we stepped out into the blazing hot sun to go shopping and sight-seeing, I was glad that I had brought my sun hat with me. The temperature was certainly in the high 30’s now. As the apartment is near Lenina Street, it didn’t take long to arrive at all the fashionable shops which line this wide main road. Clothes, shoe and jewellery shops; cafes and banks; offices and music stores. Small kiosks sell maps and postcards and cosmetics. Tomsk, as a famous university city, has a vibrant cultural life and that mix of bookshops and museums that students need.

I took many photos of the art-deco lamp posts and modern buildings. Snapping the vista down Lenina Street, I was surprised that some of the street names on the map, were still making references to the Socialist era. There was one spectacular example of old-meets-new when we rounded the corner into Tatarskaya Street. A huge modern white building with a blue roof makes a back drop to a large brown traditional wooden house. As I was taking a picture of this architectural contrast, the wind caught my sunhat and it went under the wheels of a car. The driver jumped on his brakes and helped me retrieve my ‘uninjured’ hat from beneath his car. If you want to bring the traffic in central Tomsk to a stand still, just throw a hat in the road! Everyone was so kind in stopping to give us space to get down on our hands and knees.

There were a lot of people out on the streets, enjoying a chance to shop in the sunshine. Traditionally built Siberian grandmothers shared the pavement with tall young women in wince-making denim shorts. Many of the young men had discarded their tee shirts and were in jeans and peaked caps. Judging by the number of buses and trams that passed us, I don’t think that you have to wait long for public transport in Tomsk. The bus drivers had adopted the very expedient practice of opening up the engine covers and vents on their buses to prevent over-heating in the high temperatures of the summer.

Coming from England, I am not used to the heat and brightness of the sun, so one blisteringly hot day when we were walking through Troitskiy skver Park, I thought that perhaps the heat had got to me and I was seeing things as we passed a young woman under an umbrella who seemed to have a snake coiled around her body. A second look reassured me that this was not a mirage, but a place to have a photograph taken with an exotic wild animal. Chained to the chair was a small crocodile! Further along the path under the trees was a man at a computer and camera with a monkey on his shoulder. I felt sorry for the small ponies for hire as they stood decked out in brightly coloured ribbons without being able to shelter from the sun or have anything to drink. There was merry-go-round music from the distant fun fair in the background as we made our way to an ice cream kiosk near the fountains. We mixed with the young people listening to Beatles’ music and joined in leaning forward to feel the spray from the splashing water on our faces.

One of the highlights of my visit was a visit to Novosibirsk, as part of the journey was along the old Silk Route. I was not to be disappointed. In my imagination, much have I travelled in the land of golden light and exotic wares of the Silk Route. Samarkand, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Siberia, seemed exotic far-flung lands of mystery on the staging posts for merchants and their caravans.  The goods and civilisations that lay beyond the mountains and steppes of Central Asia were disseminated along its 4000 mile length.

At the start of our journey, we travelled along part of the great Eurasian land bridge being constructed between Moscow and Vladivostok that when finished, would link Europe to the furthest point in Asia. Huge earth-moving lorries and machinery dwarfed us as we drove along the temporary muddy single-track roads beside what would be the main highway.

Back on the main road again to continue our four hour journey, we drove on in rain and sunshine through deep, dark forest and the flat open tundra with not a dwelling nor village in sight. I could see that the density of the forest is explained by the way the Siberian pine grow very close to each other and so the trunks are tall and thin . (A tree can grow 30-40 metres and live for 800-850 YEARS!).  The bases of the trees near the road are a rich dark brown and then get paler towards the top.  I liked the Siberian larch which is rather a magnificent tree and spreads its branches wide, looking like a giant Christmas tree. I found out later that it was used to build the Olympic velodrome.  Some parts of the forest have dense undergrowth (taiga) beneath the canopy, so it was impossible to see very far into the trees. Small dirt track roads lead off either side of the main road and sometimes I could see the ruins of old brick watch towers and corrugated roofed buildings at the end of them.

Along our route, the forest was alternating with vast expanses of flower-covered tundra interspersed with small coppices of aspen and silver birch. Not being able to focus on one part for very long was like seeing a moving Impressionist painting. As far as I could see, the patches of pink, blue, yellow and purple of rosebay willow herb, meadow sweet, tansy, campions, vetch, St John’s wort, scabious, and what seemed to be tall, cream iris and the scattered red heads of poppies were like a canvas framed by the pine forest . Now and then we passed a ploughed field of rich dark brown earth that disappeared over the horizon, making a sharp contrast with the green of the forest and the vibrance of the flowers. Such colour! Such vastness!

It was some time before we saw small clusters of pine and larch houses set back from the road with roofs of real corrugated iron. Many of the houses lurched to one side or actually had sunk forwards up to the depth of half way up the door. What was it like round the back I wondered?  Did you need a ladder to get into the house?  In these small hamlets you could see just what a hard life it must have been for the peasants. People dwelling near the road had set up stalls to sell watermelons, vegetables, mushrooms, pine cones and pine nuts. The nuts are reputed to have health-giving properties and the cones are stored or used to keep the house fresh. We stopped at the tables of a mother and her young daughter who was wearing a pale blue, traditional scarf tied back over her long blond hair. The sharp smell of the pine cones filled the car. A few days later, I was inducted into the art of eating the roasted pine nuts. They have to be carefully split at the pointed end between the front teeth and then prised apart to extract the nut. Not as easy as it sounds but worth the effort as the pine nuts are delicious.

We were driving along a straight empty part of the road when my host said that we would soon be turning onto the Silk Road. Sure enough ahead of us in the middle of the tundra was a T-junction and a very sharp turn left brought us onto the Road.  At this corner was a very special village that had been there for over a thousand years.  Apparently there was a large hill in the middle and from this look out point the villagers could see the route in all directions and when a caravan came near that was going to turn the corner, instead of being offered refuge and sustenance, the merchants would be attacked and robbed.  The hill didn’t seem to be there anymore but the village had a ceramic name stuck to a large rock at its entrance – Proskokova.   (The root name in Russian is Proskochiti which can be roughly translated as ‘overshoot, jump through, slip past’ so no wonder it is has this name). So there I was travelling on the Silk Road at last!

As we approached Novosibirsk the countryside gave way to more and more housing and eventually we came into the city itself.  We approached from the Tomsk side and so entered the old town first.  Apparently when the Trans-Siberian railway was being built the city fathers of Tomsk decided not to have it through their city because of the disruption and noise it would bring and so Novosibirsk had the station instead.  This meant of course, that Tomsk started to decline in trade but the positive outcome is that a quiet university city has thrived that is called the ‘Athens of Siberia’.  Just visiting the busy, hectic, grid-locked roads of Novosibirsk makes you think that those city fathers of Tomsk had a certain wisdom in their apparent mistake because I know where I would rather live!

So that I might see another aspect of the Tomsk region, we returned by a different road. I was intrigued by the yellow tanks with huge stop-cocks that were in the fields. The small yellow pipes that branched off the main pipe from the tank went to each house and were supplying methane gas from the melting permafrost. I began to appreciate just what a richness of resources Siberia has.

As we neared Tomsk and a line of traditional dwellings with long gardens, I at last saw goats. They were at the end of a garden planted with potatoes. Gorgeous goats. Two big cream adults and five small, dark brown kids. They were sharing their space with a gaggle of geese. As we crossed the bridge over the river Tom the banks looked empty and forlorn on this week day. A sharp contrast to the hot weekends when the Tomasians spend their days by the riverside, stripped off and turning from white, to bright pink to lobster red.

One evening, feeling hot and slightly dizzy after climbing up a creaking wooden spiral staircase to the top of the old look-out tower on the Museum of Tomsk on Voskresenskiy Hill, I saw before me a panorama of the city: the intense green, blue and red roofs; the houses painted a pale washed green or a vivid blue; the white concrete and red brick university buildings and civic offices; the pink, peach and deep yellow of the cathedral and churches. I was surprised not to see the grey uniform tower blocks of flats that seem so typical of East European cities but was told that this is because they are not permitted to build above a certain height within the centre of the city. In front of me in the distance the river Tom wound its way around the outskirts of the city and when I turned round to look the other way, it was then that I saw the white blocks of flats in the distance.

In the museum forecourt is the foundation stone of Tomsk and a rebuilt and restored part of the original kremlin and it was here, dressed in one of the replica costumes from the museum, that I posed in fur hat and green velvet coat for some fun photographs. Would I have looked out of place in Sukirov’s famous painting of the arrest of Boyarina Morozova I wondered?

As it was Friday, we drove down to the riverside to have a traditional Russian meal in the Slavyanskiy Bazar and enjoy the amateur entertainment evening called ‘Chekov Friday’ that takes place each week in summer next to the statue which commemorates the great writer’s stay in Tomsk. Anyone can come along and contribute to the fun. Whilst eating, we watched a very professional belly dance performed by a professor of mathematics from one of the universities; folk dance groups and choirs in traditional costume; modern dance groups; bands and individual players who provided music for bystanders to join in singing the popular songs and traditional couples’ dances. We found out that the organiser of this evening is the sculptor who made the statue and as he spoke a little English, I was able to congratulate him for such a brilliant idea. People were obviously enjoying themselves.

I was keen to sample the local food, so we started with raw Siberian river fish and apple and mackerel mousse and freshly baked rye bread followed by grilled vegetables and locally-caught perch from the Ob river, accompanied by a hot onion flatbread roulade. What a great meal and such an original cabaret! We didn’t stay for desert but instead made our way to ‘Torta’,a chocoholics’ emporium at 55 Gogol Street, not far from the pretty golden wood and blue painted Episcopalian Church which President Putin had built to welcome Angela Merkel in 2006.

Rather than stay in the hot, oppressive heat of the city at the weekends, we went to my hosts’ cottage not far away in the country. I slept in a wooden house in the garden which housed the sauna and I loved the peace and quiet and the smell of the pine from the walls. I found it very soothing after the heat and noise of Tomsk. On my first visit my host took me to the bottom of the garden and pointed into the forest. ‘“Tiger” he said. Tiger? I thought. Well yes I had heard of the Siberian tiger but here so near to a city? “Jungle” said his son. Ah yes of course – Taiga! He pointed straight ahead and said ‘10,000 kilometres to the sea’ and then he pointed to the left, ‘400 metres to the road’. Only in Siberia could you say that I think.

Often on our way to the cottage we saw those typical sights that you can see all over Europe. There would be a very old man driving a very old tractor pulling a very old flat bed trailer with hay on it; an old woman wanting to cross the road in the middle of nowhere and waiting till a car or lorry are near her before she starts walking! At the head of a track into the forest, we would pass an old lorry stacked with wood for the winter with a telephone number on a piece of paper stuck under the windscreen wipers. ‘Country life is country life wherever you are,’ I thought to myself.

On one of our weekend visits to the cottage, we stopped the car at a roadside stall where a typical Siberian grandmother was surrounded by buckets full of fresh chanterelle mushrooms. They had been picked that morning in the birch wood behind her. That evening we had gently sauteed mushrooms in a sauce with potatoes and salad from the garden. We drank home-made kvas. A simple meal, cooked to perfection. Another evening we had a Georgian recipe of green and yellow whole beans coated in a walnut and smetana paste. I shall certainly be trying these delicious recipes at home in Devon and passing them on to my friends.

At the end of my visit the hot weather was changed by spectacular storms and heavy rain. I understood why the tundra and countryside were so green and colourful. Sunshine and showers, just the right climate for growing crops and vegetables and those beautiful flowers. Flying back to London, I was so grateful that I had been able to see Tomsk as a visitor rather than a tourist. I had eaten some memorable food and seen unforgettable sights. I had experienced the kindness and thoughtful hospitality of my hosts as they proudly showed me the unique city and countryside which is Tomsk. Thank goodness my friend had persuaded me to go to Siberia.

(Apologies for the funny formatting)

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