It was on a bit of a whim that I dashed to Tomsk which is off the main train line. Without a plan I jumped off the train in Novosibirsk and headed to the bus station. Ten minutes later, I was on a bus pulling out of the station.
Tomsk is one of the oldest Russian towns in Western Siberia, founded in 1604 – Tobolsk being the oldest. Old wooden houses on a river setting appealed and the intellectual and cultural air that comes from a University town.
One fifth of the population here are students and the town apparently drew writers, artists and movie people to it in the 1960’s as the ‘cultural capital of Siberia’. The other 4/5th inhabitants seemed mainly entitled to their pension – but still had a gleam in the eye!
I have to confess that the ‘Oppression Museum’ about Stalin’s gulags and practices was also a drawcard for me – I have a worrying fascination with the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of people’s treatment of others, and the politics behind it. Has my life been too easy? People touched by these events find it hard to understand.
As I arrived in town early evening rain started to set in and things got dark quickly. The town was much smaller than expected (500,000) and the centre felt nearly deserted. I needed to find a hostel and the easiest way was to head to a cafe with wifi and get online.
Twenty minutes later and still no wifi cafe. I asked several people for directions to one. “Nyet!” (“There are none!”) came the response. “You what?” I thought.
My Russian Sim card data not working, and not wanting to dig for my Lonely Planet which had few cheap options in term time, I finally had a breakthrough! Ask someone young!! And, ironically, there across the road was “Traveler’s Coffee”! My saviour, and good coffee too!
Tomsk was not the quaint old town I was expecting. It rained all day and the river was wide, grey and unphotogenic. Still I loved the old wood houses, impressive Uni buildings and the brainy aspiring feel to the place.
The HKBD (fore-runner of the KGB) museum was small and all in Russian but I had to admire the effort made to evidence an awful history that had long been carried out in secret and unable to be acknowledged for fear of the same fate.
I also admire the fact that so many of the old houses and buildings in Russia still remain after so much destruction otherwise in Soviet times. The great early twentieth century buildings speak of a time when Russia was bustling, thriving and a cultural and intellectual leader in Europe. It’s exciting to see them slowly restored and Russian pride (for want of a better word) also.
Playwright Anton Chekhov called Tomsk ‘a boring city… with dull people’. Tomsk recently responded with a statue of Chekhov ‘through the eyes of a drunk lying in a ditch’.
I will leave this tale here.