We’d been planning to stop at either Tomsk or Tobolsk, and due to train timings Tomsk won out. I’m not sure if this was the better option but hey – there’s always next time for Tobolsk. Apparently infrequent trains run from Krasnoyarsk to Tomsk directly, but we couldn’t find them. So instead we went via a tiny town called Taiga. We took an overnight train from Krasnoyarsk to Taiga, arriving around 4.45am, and bought a local train ticket from Taiga to Tomsk. We arrived in Tomsk just after 6.00am.
We decided to travel platzkart – third class – from Krasnoyarsk to Taiga. I’d wanted to travel platzkart a bit more, as it’s usually a lot cheaper than kupe. This leg of the trip was the first – and the last – that we travelled platzkart. John didn’t fit in platzkart. We had the top bunk, and it’s only about 18 inches high. At the end of the shorter-than-usual bunks, a diagonal bar makes it almost impossible to get in, and once you’re in you can’t get out. John tried to get in for a while and I stupidly didn’t film his incredibly entertaining attempts. I got into my bunk to show him it was possible. He got in eventually and wasn’t too happy about it. We couldn’t sit up, or move, or do anything. And he’s a little too tall as well – his feet hung all the way across the aisle and so every time someone walked past they hit his feet. He wasn’t very happy, and he refused to travel platzkart again. Sometimes it’s great not being a giant.
We’d booked a hostel – Taiga Hostel – four days in advance and the instructions said to contact them if you were arriving before 8am so that they could be there to let you in. I had sent them three emails, with no response, and made four phone calls to two different numbers, neither of which were answered. And so we thought we’d risk it. Of course, upon finding it, no one was there. The door was wide open – security, anyone? – and the hostel was no more than a shoebox. Two people with bags couldn’t fit in the reception area. John sat behind the desk, hoping someone would come. No one came. It was incredibly annoying as we’d done everything we could and everything they asked, well in advance, and they couldn’t actually be bothered showing up. Two Russian girls and an old Russian man seemed to live there and weren’t very happy about us waiting there. In the end, growing frustrated with the hostel’s obvious lack of giving a shit about travellers who choose to stay there [and the fact that after 8.00am they still hadn’t showed up], we used their wifi and booked a private room for the same price in a guesthouse twenty minutes walk away and much closer to the centre of town.
This was early September. To date, I still haven’t received a response to any of my emails including the one in which I informed them that we would no longer be staying there.
We walked to our new home for the night, Hunter’s House Hostel, and while no English was spoken the girl working there was friendly and showed us to our room. Having not slept well on the train, a short nap was definitely in order!
That afternoon we wandered around the town of Tomsk. Being the start of the university year, groups of students were prowling in groups in matching t-shirts on some kind of orientation activity tour. The main street was lined with pretty buildings, and around every corner was something interesting. Even the bridges were pretty.
We walked past a mosque that was undergoing some extensive renovations.
We explored the backstreets and looked at the old wooden houses, some carfeully maintained and others sinking slowly into the sidewalk, only the top third of the lower windows visible.
We walked along the riverbank to see Tomsk’s newest and apparently very well loved statue – that of the writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, who famously HATED Tomsk. This, apparently, was their revenge, more than a century after he wrote disparagingly about their city. Below the grotesque statue it says ‘Chekhov in Tomsk through the eyes of a drunken man lying in a ditch, who has never read Kashtanka’. It appears Tomsk had the last laugh here.
We didn’t spend too much time near the river as the fragrance was distinctly unpleasant. We headed back to the main street, walking past the pigeons in front of the Philharmonia and the Opera House. I may have jumped at a few flocks of pigeons to make them freak out and fly.
We up along the main street, aiming to get to the churches on top of the hill. Not wanting to pull out the map we took the longer way around, but it was a beautiful day and an extra ten minutes wasn’t going to kill us. Crossing an intersection, Lenin was pointing in the opposite direction to where we wanted so we didn’t take his advice. The same intersection had a tiny chapel in it, made into a little roundabout so traffic could flow around.
The church on the hill clearly had a passionate gardener, as it had the most gorgeous cottage-garden around it. So many brightly coloured flowers, lovingly tended. The church itself, like most churches in Russia, had been restored and repainted in the 90’s, when churches could be churches again instead of storage sheds or bakeries and so forth. So the frescos inside didn’t overly interest me – I prefer the older, richer colours and images rather than the modern pastel-coloured scenes. Still, it was quite pretty.
The next day we took our backpacks to the station in the morning so we’d be able to continue our explorations luggage-free. We started with the Museum of Oppression, which was exactly as positive and cheerful as it sounds. It’s a tiny museum in the basement [dungeon?] of a building previously used as headquarters for the NKVD, the precursors to the KGB, as if it wasn’t ominous enough. There’s no English and I had to sign my life away to be able to take photos, although the woman working there spoke enough English to tell me I could give them fake details if I wanted. It didn’t take long to explore the museum, as we only had our basic knowledge and interpretations of photographs and items to inform us of the history of the building and the fates of its prisoners. Even being unable to read anything, it was clear it wasn’t a pleasant place to be. Many of the people imprisoned or interrogated there were ‘intelligentsia’, and Tomsk – a university town back then as it is today – had no shortage of academics and intellectuals. The hall was lined with photographs and biographies of some of the better-known victims. Many were condemned to gulags, and many didn’t survive the experience. Just outside the museum is a park [with free wifi to John’s delight] with s few small memorials to some of the people with the misfortune to have passed through.
I liked the cell doors though.
As there was an internet cafe right next door, before heading to the History Museum we decided it would be a good time to try to sort out some of the insurance details regarding claiming for my stolen phone. Unfortunately I’ve still been unable to get the police report translated from Mandarin into English, so there wasn’t a lot we could do. And so it was off to the history museum.
We spotted some interesting graffiti – in English nonetheless – as well as a rather curious sign along the way.
We failed to spot any horse-drawn wagons, although after this you can bet we were looking.
The Tomsk History Museum sits atop Resurrection Hill, and has a few different levels. The first part of the exhibition showed a number of Tomsk’s important historical buildings, not only public buildings but elaborate merchant’s houses as well. It was brilliantly presented, with blueprints and old photographs and sketches hanging above scale models of the buildings themselves. They had excellent information in English about the history of each building, as well as pictures of the city itself at various stages through history.
Upstairs they had a more typical collection of objects such as furniture, clothing, painting, ceramics and so forth. John didn’t enjoy this section as much as me, but then I like old furniture and clothing and china!
What we were most interested in was checking out the old wooden lookout tower. It’s not very high, but sitting atop a hill it gives great views over the city. It’s said you can see all seven historic churches of Tomsk from the tower. I searched and searched and searched but could only come up with six. A fireman mannequin kept watch, and I hope the city isn’t depending on him to warn of fires.
We spent more time wandering the streets for the old wooden houses before having delicious pelmeni for dinner and heading to the train station. Even the train station in Tomsk was seriously cute. The whole town was pretty.