Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tobolsk - The Perfect Russian Village

Tobolsk - Picture Perfect

If Tomsk was a charming modern Russian city, then World Heritage listed Tobolsk, with its white washed Kremlin and star spangled onion domes, looked like the Russia I had imagined from picture books and fairytales.
Set high on a hill, with industry and concrete apartment blocks relegated to an adjoining new town, there were beautifully laid out squares with fountains, flowers and trees. Everything looked freshly scrubbed and as if nothing had changed in hundreds of years.

St. Sophia's Cathedral looked like it was made of marzipan

After a successful defence led by a band of Cossacks, a fortress was built in Tobolsk in 1587 to keep the unruly Tartars in check. However grateful the Tsar might have been, he soon needed someone to keep the unruly Cossacks in check. According to Lonely Planet, (Russia and Belarus, 2006: 502) the first major religious centre in Siberia was established here in 1620 “…to stamp out incest, wife-renting and spouse stealing.” Although Tobolsk went on to become the regional capital, it began to decline in the 1760’s when the new post road passed it by and even more when the Trans Siberian Railway did so in 1901. No doubt, as with Tomsk, this has been its salvation.

The Kremlin- the light poles don't really lean like that!

Unfortunately this has also made the place wildly popular ( I blame Lonely Planet who in 2006 described Tobolsk as Russia's "most memorable" town) and it was hard to get anywhere to stay. Prices had also increased dramatically since 2006. The budget -priced Hotel Sibir it mentioned at 450 roubles was now 2150 roubles and even the Fine Art Museum had tripled its prices. I can't altogether complain about this as the upkeep on golden domed cathedrals must be tremendous and the effect was certainly stunning.

The Upkeep must be enormous - This Cathedral is in the old part of town

With the help of a local taxi driver, I eventually found a shared room in a guesthouse a long way out of town. There was no food or prospect of breakfast and all the shops were closed, but across the road a tavern was still hosting a birthday party. The host was able to rustle up a slice of pizza and a plate of bread and cheese for my breakfast and partner Asiya invited me to stay for a drink. Alas, after three or four train journeys and a long night in Omsk station, I had to take a raincheck on that one, and fell gratefully into bed. The next morning I was supposed to be going on a walk with Asiya, but I overslept our meeting time and ended up walking by myself desperately clutching my Lonely Planet.

It is a religious experience going into a Russian museum. I was the only visitor, but there were many custodians. They spoke in hushed tones and instructed me to put on blue disposable overshoes. After admiring the exquisite bone carvings, some modern paintings and the enormous stuffed animals, I was glad to be back out in the sunshine. The Folk Trade Museum next door, by contrast, was still free and very friendly. The young woman in charge - another Natasha, spoke excellent English and gave me a lovely fridge magnet, doing more for tourism than most of the frontline staff I had encountered anywhere in Russia. 
Stairway to the Old Town

Taking the arched stairway leading down to the Old Town brought me out at a festival in honour of some unnamed saint. The shashlik stands were doing a sizzling trade, a lively band played and children were busy with balloons and jumping castles while adults clamoured for the tiniest bit of shade. Opposite were the stately mansions of past heroes such as Mendeleev, the scientist who invented the periodic table. It was his earlier studies into the composition of alcohols that determined the present amazing strength of Russian vodka. Nearby was the Tobolsk Rayon Administration building which was the last hiding place of Tsar Nicholas II before he was executed in Yekaterinenburg in 1917.

The heat was oppressive, thick black clouds gathered overhead and my foot hurt as I climbed what seemed like ten thousand steps back up to the town centre where the bus stop was. I came out to the left of the square where the notorious Tyuremny Prison was. This was a way station en route to exile in Siberia and one of its more famous guests was Dostoyevsky. It was closed today as I hurried by, but it was not hard to imagine what it would have been like inside - faded photos of long dead faces, a few artifacts and personal treasures, long pages of finely scrawled transcripts and the sense of sadness and regret that so many intelligent and noble looking people had disappeared forever.
Although Tobolsk, like many places in Russia, has it's dark side, the whole place is like a living history museum, where you can breathe the air and feel the weight of events that shook the world.

Tyuremny Prison
The bus came just as the rain began to bucket down and I made my way back to the guest house. The lovely concierge had washed and dried my clothes for nothing and I got ready to leave on the evening train.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

On The Rails II

Cooling off during a stop at a station

There are many Trans Siberian trains - fast ones, slow ones, old ones, new ones and even different routes. Some are so long that the carriages extend well beyond the platform and it can be a long walk before you reach the station. Forget about wheeled suitcases – there are too many stairs, the great leap forward into the trains is steep and the platforms are often very rough. Pity help the slow or disabled.
The lines are always busy. Timber goes west. Mining equipment and machinery, including tanks, goes east and south. It’s not uncommon to see a gas or petrol train pulling sixty – nine wagons.

Another Day, another train
The scenery stays much the same for thousands of miles – mostly taiga (pine forest), or mixed forest with birch - interspersed with huge rolling fields, rustic villages with wooden houses and an onion domed church – very impressive when you first see them, or big cities with ugly industrial sites and concrete flats. If you are lucky, you will have interesting or at least pleasant travelling companions and mostly the ride is smooth enough to read a book if you can concentrate on it. Sleep is a wonderful thing, especially in the heat.

Irene and her balloons - this little girl amused herself and everyone else by making balloon animals for all the other passengers

I think these may have been her very surprised parents
Children seemed to cope remarkably well with these long journeys, but I felt very sorry for their parents who had to wrestle with enormous quantities of luggage, water and food. Some stations had little stalls selling provisions though the queues were long. Occasionally there would be an unexpected stop in the middle of nowhere and the train would be besieged by people bearing fresh food – new potatoes with herbs, smoked fish, wild berries, hot meatballs, or eskies with kvass, beer or icecream.

Food Sellers besiege the train


Trying to keep cool
Tired Couple

It's too much for these ladies

I was also amazed how well people scrubbed up after the journey. Regular passengers have this down to a fine art, long queues for the toilets in the morning, notwithstanding. Though you do feel better after a quick scrub down with soap and water, clean teeth and a change of clothes, I really missed my morning shower and preferred to break my journey often and take many different trains, rather than a single one right through. The drawback was that it was not always easy to get back on as it was the peak summer season and the price for not pre -booking was interminable waits in train stations. Things got progressively worse after Tomsk and I spent whole days (Novobesirk), even whole nights (Samara) in train stations while the weather got progressively hotter. Hell is a Russian railway carriage with 54 passengers on board, stalled in 35oC heat!
I also had a little trouble on leaving Krasnoyarsk. The Left Luggage department decided to withhold my luggage until I had paid again. They kept pointing at one of the signs and yelling at me in Russian. I suspect that it had something to do with the fact that by Moscow Time, we were already twenty minutes into another day and hence the need to pay again. I got the police. They got the Railway Administration, but in the end I simply had to pay up or miss my train.
Many of the stations are very beautiful with high ceilings, fountains and art work. They are also kept relentlessly clean. Just don't try to sleep in them because one of the uniformed guards will rake his baton along the wire seats.
Some also had very luxurious Resting Rooms where you could pay by the hour to stay in the comfort of leather lounges, watch television, have a shower or sleep in a bunk for a while – sorry, no photos allowed, but the toilets remained universally depressing.
Old Station, Kazan, now a waiting room



New Station, Kazan

The new station at Kazan is even more impressive than the old one.

Filigree work in the new Kazan Station

I am sure the only reason I survived was because I had a lot of help from my fellow travellers. Vlad of the crystal blue eyes carried my pack and got me on the right train on the way to Tobolsk. Two lovely doctors Eugeny and Elena, kept me company during the long wait in Omsk. Artur taught me a little Russian on the way to Ekaterinenberg and invited me home to visit his family. Alexander the English teacher from Volvograd helped me in Ufa. Lena the power generation engineer who spoke a little English insisted on buying me chocolates. Reynard and Romea (lawyers from Samara) and their 8 year old chess champ Camille fed me generously en route to Piatigorsk and Natasha translated for me when I unexpectedly found myself three hours out of Moscow. Saddy, Robert and Vitalik rescued me on the way to St. Petersburg.
Here are some of my train friends. Thank you everyone, both named and unnamed, for keeping me sane and on the right track

Vlad who carried my pack and put me on the right train for Tobolsk

Friends from the trip south

Olga, Natasha's Sister on the night train to Rhizan

My three archaelogical friends from St. Petersburg

The Charming City of Tomsk

Tomsk Town Centre - Photo by Albert Valeev

In Tomsk I was met by Albert, another member of the Hospitality Club. Although he was in the process of renovating his apartment and had a gigantic new window arriving the next day, he took time out to show me around this lovely town.
Tomsk has long been a university town and shows the benefit of good planning. In the beautifully landscaped city centre, building heights have been restricted to show the attractive historical buildings to best advantage. Industry and apartment blocks are confined to the suburbs, while lovingly preserved traditional timber houses in the inner city add a rustic feel and a green heart.

Like most Russian Cities, Tomsk has its statue of Lenin.
Here he appears to be directing the traffic

Tomsk began life in 1604 as a humble fortress like this

As we wandered through the streets, Albert pointed out quaint and curious customs which I would never have known about, had I not had the benefit of an English speaking guide. First we walked up a cobbled street to Resurrection Hill. This is where the first Fortress was - now rebuilt, and where Tomsk's Foundation Stone is. There were pleasant views of the town from here and lilacs were in bloom here too. Lilac must be the national tree of Siberia.

Tomsk Foundation Stone

Old wooden houses add charm and rustic qualities to the city centre

Next we strolled along the riverbank , a place where lovers like to promenade. Along the way we passed a statue of a Chekov with a very shiny nose. If you rub his nose, it is supposed to bring you luck. Not that Chekov ever lived in Tomsk. No, he remarked unfavourably upon it while passing through describing it as a rather dull town, so the town fought back with a the statue which was intended to mock him and show him as a drunk. It is, however a popular spot for amateur poets on a Friday afternoon and I am told that the town is much livelier these days.
Rubbing Checkov's brass nose for luck
Photo by Albert Valeev 

At the bridge where a stream enters the river there is a railing bristling with locks. When couples want to declare their love, they attach a lock here and throw the keys into the river. I told you Russians were romantics! The fountain nearby is also popular spot for wedding photos and serves a similar purpose.


Other 'luck bringers' include a statue at the university and an icon in front of the medical school which are diligently rubbed before exams. The strange wire mother in front of the Gynaecology clinic is said to convey good wishes to pregnant women and those trying to become so. I find it fascinating that after such a long period of rationalist - materialist culture, people still cling to ancient beliefs and are also still very devout church -goers.

People add strips of cloth from their clothing to this monument outside the Gynaecology Clinic to send good wishes to pregnant women and those who wish to become so.
Photo by Albert Valeev 

This Cabbage Patch Baby in front of the Maternity Hospital gets its share of rubs too  

This icon is favoured by medical students just before exams

On a more somber note, we also visited the KGB museum which had once been a notorious prison but is now dedicated to the memories of those who were tortured, murdered or sent to the Gulags of which there were several in the vicinity. Outside, the flowers were still fresh at the Polish Memorial to Victims of Oppression.Inside there were faded photos, transcripts and mementoes including small items of children's clothing of those who passed through these walls, many of them never to be seen again.

Fresh Flowers for Victims of Oppression

 One of the Cells in the KGB Museum for Victims of Political Oppression
- Took this photo before I got told off

Back in the daylight we walked quickly through the public parks and on to the university, finishing off with genuine Russian bliny – large filled pancakes made on a revolving hotplate. Albert's had a filling of ham, chicken, cheese and mayonnaise while I chose the one with berries and smetana (sour cream - also served with everything) but I ended up eating half of his too. Both were delicious!

" I don't like Mondays" -The park is usually a busy place- perhaps this donkey is sad because there are no children today

The Park Photo by Albert Valeev  

Mine's Bigger than Yours! - this is what happens when two photographers meet

Tomsk University has been going since 1875
Pancake ladies- Russia's answer to McDonald's and much tastier too!
It was nearly as hard to get out of Tomsk as it was to get in, but one of the nice things about staying in people’s homes for a short time, is that you get a glimpse of what normal life is like in another country.What do people eat for breakfast? What sort of music are they listening to? What are the houses like inside and so on. This kind of living culture interests me more than museums. It's also nice as a traveller to have a few quiet days just to relax, do the laundry and use the computer.
Many thanks Albert, Tanya and Alyenka for making me so welcome and showing me around

My photos have just miraculously returned from Cyberspace so I have added a few of the old ones in. Still can't fix the fonts on this one though.