By Train to the Oxford of Siberia

We arrived at Yaroslavksy station in the evening to catch the Trans-Siberian train that was taking us to Tomsk.  We thought it would be more fun to mix with the locals so had booked berths in a compartment  for four. The other occupants were a girl in yellow top who was reading a Boris Akunin novel and older woman with henna red hair.

In the morning the girl with the yellow top got off early and was replaced by Yuri, who showed us where to borrow glass cups from the prodovnitsa so that we could make tea from the samovar. The older lady got off at Kirov, where I had a look around the platform. It was full of women selling food and soft toys.  Yuri bought a cuddly hedgehog for one of his kids.  There followed an interesting interlude in which I tried and failed to explain about St Tiggywinkles in Russ-glish. At a later stop, I bought some bilberries, and Yuri bought dinner of chicken and potatoes. Lacking any cutlery he had to eat it with his teaspoon. 

Neil and I ate in the restaurant car, trying the  ’bourgeois surprise’, which turned out to be beef with orange and cheese on top.  Later Yuri kindly bought us ice-creams at another stop. The next morning we arrived at Yuri’s home town of Tumen at 10.30 local time or 8.30 Moscow time. The prodovnitsa helpfully gave him a pat on the bottom to wake him in time.

Yuri was superseded by a young woman with a daughter aged about three.  We shared some strawberries that we bought from an old lady at Omsk station with them. The prodovnitsa then decided it was time to vacuum the carriage, including our compartment – we all lifted our legs so she could get at the carpet.

On the third morning we finally arrived in Tomsk. After checking in to the incredibly (for us) luxurious Hotel Magistrat, we set out to explore. We walked down Prospekt Lenina, stopping for lunch of blini at a take-away in Troitsky Skver. In this small park there were electric cars for children to play on, even a mini Ducati motorbike (with stabilisers), pony rides etc. and lots of what appeared to be thistledown everywhere, which actually came from the poplar trees. 

The next day we met our local guide, Natasha, who had recently graduated in translation and linguistics from Tomsk Polytechnic University.  She took us to Resurrection Hill, the site of the rebuilt ‘Golden Gate’ wooden tower, and the stone marking the site of the original foundation of Tomsk in 1604.  Then we went to see the Shushkin House – an example of the traditional wooden architecture and where the writer Shushkin was exiled (apparently in some comfort.) We walked along the banks of the river Tom to see the statue of Anton Chekhov, who was not very flattering about Tomsk and its people, and is therefore depicted from the perspective of a drunk lying in the street. 

Whilst by the river, we saw some young people carrying buckets.  Natasha remarked “I completely forgot to mention it but 7 July is a day when people go around and soak each other with water, so watch out for people with buckets.”

Natasha took us to the University of Tomsk, which has various imported flora and fauna in its grounds, including blue spruce trees and squirrels.  This was the first university in Siberia to admit women (the UCL of Siberia….)  Then we visited Natasha’s own alma mater, the Polytechnic University – according to her, the best, and most expensive of the universities in Tomsk.

After another lunch of blini in the park again, we visited the Museum of Oppression – located in a basement, and genuinely oppressive. There were different displays in each cell: Lenin memorabilia, a cell as it would have been when in use, the superintendent’s office, photos of those arrested and executed.

The next day we visited the wooden houses in Ul. Krasnoarmeyskaya: the Russo-German house (a Russian-German cultural centre, the Peacock House and the Dragon House.  It started to rain, so we sought refuge in a supermarket, where they sold loose frozen mushrooms of several varieties.

We also visited the elaborate Voznesenskaya Church which had beautiful pastel frecoes inside. Ladies needed to cover their heads, so I had to borrow one of the scarves they keep for the purpose.

As a change from blini we had lunch in the ‘English Pub’, a thee pub complete with dark wood fittings and engravings of English castles (Dudley castle, Arundel castle etc.) Many of the dishes on the menu seemed inspired by Robin Hood or were served with ‘Sherwood Forest mushrooms’ and not exactly authentic. The ‘English Channel’ salad contained smoked eel, radishes, cabbage and chips!

I visited Tomsk in July 2010

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