Tomsk - the town, not the womble

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May 2nd 2007
Published: August 6th 2007
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After elaborate early morning birthday celebrations for Nico (doughnut with candle in Novosibirsk train station) we take the bus to Tomsk where we are spending a few days with Grigory (couchsurfing again) and his family. We entertain ourselves on the 4 hour journey by singing crap '80s songs and eating. Nico's incredible effect on the average Russian girl is again in evidence as while I am buying ice-creams at the half-way stop he is charming free mobile phone calls to Grigory from our fellow lady passengers. I return to find one poor girl giggling and literally swooning. Unbelievable. Nico, of course, is loving it and when we start moving he scours the guidebook for info on Russian residency. Brat!

Short interlude for discussion on 70's kiddies tv show:

During the journey I also make the discovery that all the Wombles are named after places - not just Tomsk! Fascinating stuff. As I will be visiting (Great Uncle) Bulgaria in a month or so and Tomsk is only an hour away a plan is hatched to visited all Womble towns. (Madame) Cholet is in France so an easy one to manage and I have always wanted to see the Orinoco river. Nico is hesitant at first but a few chocolate biscuits help him see sense. Watch this space! (Have since discovered that in the Wombles show all the young Wombles got to choose their name with the aid of Great Uncle Bulgaria's oversized atlas. How cool is that? See for more info).

Normal service resumes:

Grigory's friend Kosta meets us at the bus station - he is big into his heavy metal, used to be in a band, has a very funny, dark sense of humour. We get a great welcome from Grigory's parents, Tatiana and Andrei who ply us with a selection of cabbage, mushroom and meat doughnut things. Delicious and containing about 5000 calories each. Resistance is futile. Back in town we meet Grigory and another friend Kiril, beers already in hand. They all, of course, speak excellent English, however Nico's confident 'greebway' (mushroom) and 'medved' (bear) ensure that, linguistically at least, we don't let the European side down altogether.

The Tomsk boys sort us out with bottles of Siberian Crown beer and we walk up to the site of the towns' old fort which has a fab view over the city and the
At Tomsk fortAt Tomsk fortAt Tomsk fort

Grigory, Kosta, Kiril and Nico - celebrating Nico's birthday with Siberian Crown
river Tom. A 15 ft poster of our old friend Boris Godunov decorates the side of the renovated fort. He granted the town its charter 400 years ago. Notice that the sky has turned a nicotine yellow and can see black rain clouds in the distance. Next thing the thunder starts, and lightening. The boys act cool, I whimper, and as the torrential rain starts we dive for cover under the fort. Never seen rain like it, fast flowing streams appear and the ground turns to mud, can hardly see 2 ft in front of us, then it starts to hail and Kosta announces that Armageddon has come. Can well believe it. As quickly as it came the storm fades and a gorgeous double-rainbow hangs over the city. Welcome to Siberia!! We walk back into town to the banks of the river - v impressive, miles wide - and to see some monuments decorated with the various symbols of Tomsk throughout its history, usually involving a horse.

The rest of the night is spent in a very cool bar which has its own brewery, as chosen by Grigory. Megan from Arkansas joins us too and we have a great nights craic drinking Neffelhof. Grigory gives Nico a bottle decorated in trad Tomsk birch wood for his birthday - Nico chuffed to bits. It's all good 😊 At closing time we walk in the rain to the very impressive Tomsk war memorial on the river Tom - statue of a woman either giving her son a gun (what the boys say), or taking a gun from him (what it looks like to me). The storm is rising again and the river whipped up by the wind is a scary and exhilarating sight.

On returning to Grigory's house at about 2am, Tatiana is still awake. We feel very bad that she has waited up for Grigory and hope she isn't too mad. But no, au contraire, she has a full meal waiting and smiles and chats away. Nico has his first proper borscht and loves every bit of it.

Wake up, open bedroom door, Kot the cat saunters in. We saunter out and spend an hour or so looking at photos of the Altai mountains and listening to music with Tatiana (chat is minimal due to language barrier but our russian/english dictionary provides some useful words). It's then time for another amazing meal of fresh and warm blini with a choice of cavair (for the monsieur), sour cream (moi) and delicious jam. Kot the cat positions herself in her nest on the top of the fridge with a good view over the table and direct launching pad onto the top of my head. I consider requesting a crash helmet but am distracted by the blini and the arrival of Grigory's friend Dennis who is going to spend the day with us. He speaks perfect English and is a smart, funny, friendly and immediately likeable guy (although strangely unimpressed by me being able to say 'I love mushrooms' in Russian). The weather is fab - pure blue sky, warm but not scorching - and after a quick meeting to give Megan a book about Maria Volkonsky, the Princess of Siberia which I have just finished, we head to the park. Walking though the through the trees we pass several interesting communist era monuments which leads to discussion on riots in Estonia re removal of a communist war memorial which we have missed completely through lack of internet access.

Next stop is the Tomsk State museum which has 5 or 6 rooms on traditional way of life, dress and customs of the region. Each room has its own special and formidable little old lady who talks us through the exhibits at 90 miles an hour while Dennis valiantly attempts to translate at similarly top speed. In the hunting and fishing section we are all slightly stumped by the English word for a particular type of weaselish creature for which a specific weaselish creature trap that we are examining has been created. Obviously all 3 of us were asleep in Weasel class at school, so we settle on plain old 'weasel' and move on.

We get to try out weaving (me, I'm a natural of course) and butter churning (Nico, at first not fast enough for the old lady who shouts encouragment til he does it right). All good. My favourite thing is a reconstructed kitchen complete with stuffed cat on the top of the stove and lovely brightly patterned crockery on the table. So cosy.

Before leaving Nico and I pop upstairs in the museum for a quick look while Dennis has a recuperative cigarette or 5. Very interested by the 8ft grizzly bear stuffed in attack mode with long, sharp claws and teeth at the ready and am standing under it hilariously feigning terror when Nico goes up behind it and gives it a push, like an eejit. It wobbles but doesn't thankfully fall, sparing me the shame of death by stuffed animal.

After lunch we stroll along the River Tom to see the Chekhov statue. Chekov passed through Tomsk on his 3 month journey to Sakhalin island (off the east coast of Siberia) and did not hold back in his letters with his disparaging opinions on the town:

'Tomsk is a dull and intemperate town. There are absolutely no good-looking women, and the disregard for justice is Asiatic. The town is remarkable for the fact that governors die in it.'
A Chekhov, TOMSK, May 20, 1890

and again:

'Tomsk is a very dull town. To judge from the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made, and from the intellectual people who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull too'.

Naturally, the people of Tomsk love this story and a statue to their no 1 fan created by sculptor Leonid Usov as seen by

Denis, Kot the cat, Nico and the wonderous Tatiana (Grigory's mum) in her kitchen following massive cabbage doughnut feast.
a drunkard in the gutter has been erected in his honour in a choice spot by the riverbank. No escape to Sakhalin for Mr C now... It's a comical and likeable statue with disproportionatly large bare feet - Chekhov also lost a wellie on his way through Tomsk. We sit on the wall and soak up the sun and the - as it seems to me - very unsiberian ambience. The promenade, fountains, architecture and relaxed atmosphere are like that of small European city. Nico and Dennis discuss Putin and politics and I wonder about Chekhow. I have brought a book of his letters from his trans-siberian trip with me but haven't started it yet so didn't know anything about the Tomsk collection. Will start it as soon as I get a free minute.

We wander around Tomsk for another while admiring the traditional old wooden lace houses amongst the new concrete buildings then meet Grigory as he comes out of work, pick up the obligatory bottles of Siberian Crown and set off for the forest park further down the river. A lot of other people have had the same idea. Grigory tells us that a few years ago
Nico and Dennis at Tomsk State MuseumNico and Dennis at Tomsk State MuseumNico and Dennis at Tomsk State Museum

Following Dennis' massive translation session and babushka demos he required many cigarettes to get himself back on track. I was a bit shaken after narrowly escaping death by huge stuffed grizzly bear so photo may be slightly blurred. Nasty.
a law was introduced which banned alcohol drinking on the streets but people just kept on doing it and it wasn't enforced so has just slipped quietly away. Very few people that we pass in the park don't have a bottle in their hands. Nobody seems excessively drunk, though then again it is only 5pm. We discuss the size of sturgeon (as you do), furry siberian frogs and frogs legs, how long it would take to walk to Ireland and the siberian winter. When it's minus 30 you can still drink outside but your beer will freeze if you keep it in your hand for 15 minutes so you need to keep it tucked in your coat and take it out for sips. Even before 15 minutes it starts to turn a kind of slush puppy texture which is apparently quite nice. Just thinking about it is giving me frostbite but for the Tomsk boys its all good - no question of sitting inside watching dvds and drinking hot choccy for hardcore siberians! We watch some guy paragliding off the riverbank while we wait for another of Grigory's friends, Sasha, to arrive. Sasha is a science lecturer in Tomsk State

Checkhov visited Tomsk on his way to Sakhalin Island and said it was a dull place full of drunks. In his honour the people of Tomsk erected this statue. The writing around the bottom says 'Checkhov as seen by drunk lying in gutter' - hence v large feet.
university and his arrival is heralded by much giggling from the couple next to us who are amazed to see their distinguished teacher out on the beer in the park.

More beer and then more beer again is produced. Sasha's wife Anna and her friend Tanya arrive. More beer also arrives. By this stage it's after midnight and I really am getting frostbite, as is the frenchman. The Tomsk boys, bolstered by beer and siberian winters feel no pain, while we huddle together for warmth and realise that as we have no idea how to get to Grigory's house there's no escape. Resistance, again, is futile. Nico has another beer and I consider setting fire to him for heat generation purposes. Eventually we start moving home - the first taxi - a trusty Lada - goes about 50 metres and then gives up altogether despite the best efforts of the driver. A second rescues us in no time and so it's back to Grigory's for Tatiana's dinner for the boys and immediate sleep for me.

Next morning we are up with the larks at about 11am. More food then sad goodbyes to the lovely Tatiana who is such
Oldest street in TomskOldest street in TomskOldest street in Tomsk

And also loveliest, lined with trees and old wooden houses with fantastic lace-style carving.
a darling. She gives me a gorgeous present of a Siberian birchwood mirror with a ladybird on it, - am v v touched - and after many hugs we jump in the taxi with Grigory who says goodbye and sees us onto the bus back to Novosibirsk. Am sure we will meet him again somewhere. Fingers crossed.

A friendly man sitting opposite us (presumably from Kazakhstan) gives us a tiny kazakhstani coin with a smile and, having no euros, give him an english 20p. This is one of my favourite moments of all - strangers exchanging things from far-off places...

On the road again...

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


Lenin directing trafficLenin directing traffic
Lenin directing traffic

Town council planning on taking this statue down. However as mayor currently in prison on corruption charges progess is slow.
Siberian CrownSiberian Crown
Siberian Crown

The Tomsk boys can't get enough of this
Caviar and pancakes for breakfastCaviar and pancakes for breakfast
Caviar and pancakes for breakfast

Nico spoilt rotten by Tatiana

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