While I freely admit to having a bit of a boner over trains, being forced to take a bus really makes you realise why. My poor cycled out knees ache when forced to stay in one position for too long and with seats this tight I cannot even get into my usual sleep sitting up position. Maybe this love of the locomotive stems back to when I was a kid and our family won a trip in the cab of a steam train. Or that there are so few trains back home which is such a shame as they really are the best form of transport. It just feels so much more civilised than being herded into some metal tube. Another advantage that trains have is that once you board at a usually central station it just goes. None of this tedious getting out of town through traffic and intersections just two rails pointing in the direction you want to go. Even just boarding is fun. Stand on the platform as a mighty piece of engineering pulls in. The immaculately presented providnista’s stand ready to welcome everyone aboard. Once underway there is so much more freedom to move around and looking out the window is far more accessible than a bus and more interesting than a plane.
So far in out time in Russia the consistent headache had been accommodation. Even when we have thought we had it organised with a prior booking something like a city’s tram network being down for the day would mean that upon arrival it had taken many hours to get settled. It seemed such a waste that every time we would arrive and just feel too worn out to initially be bothered doing anything. To try and prevent another afternoon of walking around with our packs on I suggested one of us stayed at the train station while the other two would go in search of a room. Richard volunteered for this and so Arni and I took the number 4 trolley bus to make sure Tomsk was going to be different a list of hotels in one hand and trusty phrase book in the other. Every city seems to have a different way to collect fares on the respective modes of public transport. Climbing on board there was a lady perched on the engine cover obviously collecting money, there was an array of change spread out next to her. When I tried to hand over some roubles she waved my proffered hand away and shooed us down the aisle. It was very crowded and I was concentrating on not falling into anyone as the driver lurched around the streets. He was probably distracted by the array of saint, charms, and football trinkets that were hanging all around him. Then people started handing money forward with change and tickets going the other way. We copied this. The whole process was repeated after every stop which meant we had plenty of time to get used to it as we were going up to the far end of pr. Lenina.
A very pretty town.
The weather in Tomsk was beautifully sunny and actually hot for the first time in a long while. Even though it seemed every place we tried was full or well outside out budget it was a very pleasant stroll back towards the station. When Arni and I walked in through the station doors Richard looked up with an expectant look on his face.
“We have good news and great news that is kind of bad,” I began. “The sort of great news is that there is the Miss Siberia beauty pageant on in town this weekend.”
“But that means that every hotel in our budget is full,” Arnika finished as Richard’s look turned to concern.
“However being totally amazing we went to the most promising option last and have got us two newly refurbished rooms in the university halls for 15oo рвл total.”
“And that includes registration,” said Arnika holding up the receipts.
As we were in the station and on a roll organising wise the next leg’s tickets to Krasnoyarsk were also purchased. Left to mind the bags, Arnika typically began talking to some random person before realising he was a really clingy, camp American. Thankfully our bus came and that prospect seemed to terrify him.
Thirty six hours and about eight sections making up this leg finally we had arrived and could put our feet up. Rdoc opened one of his riggers of beer from the night before. To call this a palatable would be an exaggeration but what can you really expect from a three litre plastic bottle. At least we could toast our safe arrival and follow that up with a long hot shower. If I can figure out how the multi-nozzeled beast turns on. As it is sitting half a foot away from the wall it will be amazing if it is even plumbed in properly. Just one of the subtle misalignments we have begun to notice have gone wrong during the refit. Door handles on backwards and the like. Not that we noticed any of these when being shown the room earlier by the sweet old ladies who ran the place. To check in I had been sent down the hallway to a small office filled with the type of old school furniture that people pay top dollar for back home. Here of course it is just what they have so they use it. The prim looking lady took our passports and started filling out paperwork in triplicate. Then I handed the money over which she diligently recorded in a ledger before tucking the notes into the back. She then placed this with our passports in the bottom drawer of a grey filing cabinet. Taking the cue that the transaction was complete I returned to the reception area where Arnika had been given the keys.
Tom in front of the River Tom
At the same time that we had been checking in there were two very dusty looking German guys doing the same. They got the last room available so we were all nice and chipper. They were looking forward to their first night indoors for a week. Following in the grand tradition of R. L. Jefferson they were bicycling across Siberia differing from the 19th century pioneer by starting in Beijing rather than London. This 19th century pioneer sounds like one of those slightly unhinged people who existed back then. Not from the cycling as much as what he wore while completing his journeys. When I ride I like to wear my camel hair suit, top boots and a white cork helmet too. He declared that ‘from a cyclist’s point of view, Russian roads cannot be recommended’ a comment that is true today. Even sticking to the lesser roads our new friends tell of many instances of speeding trucks and Mercedes simply not aware that cyclists exist in the universe. With their setup of front and back double paniers with a full pack lain across the top they are hardly the most nimble of vehicles. Listening to them talk it makes our journey seem just a little bit paltry.
Tomsk is a lovely town and autumn seems the perfect time to experience it. Many of the streets and lanes going off streets are tree lined. The differing colours of the leaves would complete a colour wheel from green, past yellow and around to red. Add in trundling old trams still as utilitarian today as when they were designed. Along with the indisputable charm of the rows of wooden houses and some sun and we are very happy just walking around soaking it all up. It is a rustic charm and far removed from the stone grandeur of places like St Petersburg but feels warmer because of it. The houses for which it is famous are constructed of wide wooden planks. It is the brightly painted windows and elaborately carved “lace” around them and protruding from the ridge of the roofs that give them their quiet dignity. None of this is to imply any sort of backwater status. With a number of universities, Tomsk was made into a centre for education in the same way that its near neighbour Novisibirsk was given over for industry.
One nicely restored and one waiting for some love.
On Sundays there is a market ten minutes walk from the TGU Hotel. The tables are piled high with a great variety of vegetables. Nearly all the stalls are surrounded by buckets of potatoes or onions. Freshly butchered meat hangs off awning rails. Next door is for hats. Of course the one time that we do find enticing looking food we do not have a kitchen. Arnika is wistfully stroking marrows and the largest watermelons I have ever seen. Beside every display of potatoes are bunches of dill. Maybe it is this type of marketing that is the reason why this herb is so ubiquitous. The find of the day though is a pack of Stalin cigarettes, his mostachioed face glaring off the red box. Such perfection for only 5 рвл but not to be actually smoked methinks. The day is so nice we continue walking around the city. Coming back from lunch the crowds are pouring towards Trud Stadion where the home team FK Tom Tomsk, I really like a lot of the naming around these parts, are taking on Lokomotiv Moscow. Every person we pass is wearing some form of green and white clothing. While I cannot convince the others that we should go, it is a very cool atmosphere. My favourite thing is the people sitting on the corners roasting sunflower seeds and already there are trails of the black shells leading away from their sites. Pity the cleaning staff in the stadium after 14,000 people have spent two hours spitting these out. From our spot in the park we can hear cheers and jeers and one big groan which was Dmitri Sychev scoring the lone goal in the game for the visitors. For the rest of the afternoon we sit in the main park and mostly people watch and enjoy the sun. A droshky passes us many times each time containing a delighted looking family on their twirl around the paths. At a much slower pace a garishly decorated white horse fulfills little girls dreams though it does not appear to be getting the same enjoyment from being led around like this.
Different ways of enjoying the sun in the park.
Being a student town there was high anticipation of finding some good nightlife. On a recommendation we choose a place that loosely translates to Food Master for dinner. From what we are told it should also be a good place to merge into the night as there is always bands or djs after the dinner hour and a good crowd. Living up to its name with a tasty bowl or borsch followed by a large plate of vegetables and dill covered chicken we settle in with another Baltica and wait for the changeover. Compared to my diet at home which is either pasta or curry this return to the hearty fare of my parents dinner table is surprisingly enjoyable. Why not filling comfort food when you are often only getting around to eating one meal a day? They certainly do thier traditional fods a whole lot better than more Western options like pizza. The overcrowded pizzeria we went to yesterday was more interesting than enjoyable. The waitress brings over another round of drinks and informs us that a charge for the upcoming entertainment has been added to the bill. It really would have been good to know what this entailed before having to stump up 70рвл each. The next hour was spent watching an overweight young lounge singer work his way through an assortment of cheesy tunes backed up by some very midi sounds coming from a laptop. He certainly had moves, just not ones that should be seen by other people. None of this hindered his ability to get the tables around up joining in what must be local favourites. There was even dancing on chairs.
Luckily the next place visited was the best cafe since Cafe Zoom a month ago. With an extensive and mouthwatering cabinet of highly decorated cakes there was no way we were not spending some time here until Arni had sampled some. Not that Rdoc or I took much convincing either. In a very egalitarian way you pay by the weight of the slice. A very unfun system, no longer is there any hope of charming your way into the best slice available. Instead it is all just rational selection balancing your wallet against your greed. For a place called Pop Art the decor was absolutely perfect. Lurid striped cylinders for lampshades, oddly set circles in the table tops and good posters. From the first moment after pushing through the revolving door I knew we would be spending a good chunk of our time in Tomsk here. Each of the three times we visited it was absolutely packed. Sitting in our corner table over the Sunday lunch period we tried to work out the meaning behind the ordering around us. Every single table was only ordering these plates of boiled dumplings that came with some sort of mayonaisse. A group, whether families, older couples, young couples, or sstudents would arrice and soon all at the table would have a plate of pastry parcels in front of them. Most puzzling was that this particular item was not actually on the menu. I had tried to order some but what appeared was not the same. On the second attempt, which involved some more assertive pointing than the first, we had success. If the popularity was based on taste it was well deserved. The Sunday only aspect is still a mystery.
Saturday night had simply petered out post cake eating. On leaving TGU earlier the lady behind the desk had given a stern warning to be back by midnight as the front door was llocked then. There was no intercom system to communicate six floors up either. The consensus was that this rule was probably an arbitrary one simply because she wanted an uninterrupted night. As this curfew was now less than an hour away it was decided that there was little point in trying to find another place to drink at. On the walk back up pr. Lenina it became apparent why most of the establishments we had tried were so lacking in custom. Students always figure out the cheapest way to drink and as the main street had plenty of benches spaced between the lines of trees it was easily understandable why each and every one of these benches was occupied by clusters of young people.
Sometimes with traveling it is the normal little day to day activities that you miss. An enforced early night became an opportunity to lounge around and watch some television. While in my life back home this would be a once in a fortnight thing, this small touch of normalcy was savoured. Television in Russia is fairly hilarious, the newsreaders often look more like serial killers than educated imparters of information. Another prominent trend is overdubbing. Nearly all of MTV is this format apart from a few local videos interspersed around the place. Some of these popstars need to be exposed to a wider audience in the very near future. A show like Room Raiders or Parental Control, usually unwatchable, is nice just for the fact that it is easy to work out what is going on. Each time someone speaks it is possible to hear the first couple of words before the Russian comes in over the top. The truly genius aspect of this is that there seems to be only one voice for each of the sexes and they are relentlessly monotone. So you get a big black guy with the same voice as a skinny little white skate punk. We watch that awful Phantom of the Opera just because the singing is not overdubbed and relish the English language. Then sleep.
Tags: architecture, bus trip, cafe, entertainment, food, hostel life, market, Russia, Tomsk