We traveled to Tomsk to see the old wooden Tatar homes, but we instead will probably remember this place for being our ‘most Russian experience’, as Angie has referred to it, thanks mostly to our fantastic couchsurfing hosts who went above and beyond to show us their Russia. We walked all around town to see the classic wooden architecture, made pelmeni and vareniki with our hosts and their friends, and visited a countryside dacha and BBQed shashlyk.
Tomsk is not an easy place to get to. The town has a history as a horse town and, so the story goes, its residents wanted nothing to do with the Trans-Siberian rail line when it was under constructions. Of course now a tangential line reaches Tomsk, but it is off the main line and the town is more easily reached via Novosibirsk by bus. This is how we arrived on a Friday afternoon, meeting our couchsurfing hosts Maria and Dmitry at the bus station as they finished their work week.
On Saturday morning we attended and English class run by another couchsurfing host. Here we had a good time chatting with the students, all women of various ages and English ability. Here we also met Eldad, an Isreali traveler who we would later meet again at Irkutsk. When Eldad asked the class why there were no men, one of the older women in the class said “Russian women are interested, they want to learn. Russian men want to work – or so we hope at least.” A bleak statement on Russian men, perhaps, but the portion relating to women certainly matched our observations while here.
After the class we met our couchsurfing hosts and their friends for a long all-day walking took of the city. We walked through numerous streets of old wooden buildings and also saw Tomsk State University, which is but one of many universities here. In total we walked over 15km during the day seeing it all.
The wooden architecture throughout the city was exactly as we’d expected based on the small tastes of this style we’d seen in Kazan’s Staro Tatarskaya Sloboda. Except here there are entire streets filled with these buildings. Some homes were in good condition while others were barely standing, but all of them are lived in.
Whereas some other cities have not actively protected these buildings, Tomsk has been agressive in its attempts. In Irkutsk, for example, many people have purchased old wooden homes in the desirable central part of town only to have them mysteriously burn to the ground, allowing the new owners to build a new modern home. In Tomsk, this is not possible – when the trend started the mayor decided that any protected building which burned to the ground could only be replaced by parkland. And so those that want to live in the desireable city center will have to do so in an old wooden home or not at all (they are allowed to restored the homes).
We also viewed other restored wooden architecture like the Russian-German Haus, and the aptly-named Peacock and Dragon House, which have peacock and dragon-shaped carvings, respectively, at the apex of the roof.
The most interesting aspect of the buildings was probably the window frames, each of which were carved differently, some left of natural wood color but many painted the greens and blues which are ubiquitous here. The ‘wooden-lace’ that ran along the top edge of the roof often mirrored the design and color of the window frames, and each house was unique.
Tomsk State University, founded in 1878, is the oldest University in Siberia and is one of many Universities in Tomsk. Despite its age, the school proved that it is capable of some humor – the Innovative Technology faculty was housed in a new small wooden building built in the traditional style and was the only building on campus constructed in this style. Of course the building housed some state-of-the-art labs.
We also walked by the Kruger (German) brewery and the park which the owners have funded. We later tasted the brew itself in Irkutsk and we must say that it is easily the best we’ve had in Russia. Along the shores of the Tom River there is also a famous statue of Anton Chekhov which enacts revenge on the writer for his less-than-complimentary comments about Tomsk by poking fun at his appearance. We also visited Resurrection hill, where the founding stone and Tomsk History Museum are located, Ozero Beloye pond, and the Voznesenskaya Church. It was an incredible walk around the town.
In the evening we all sat around the table making pelmeni, a Russian dumpling roughly the shape of a large tortellini which is stuffed with a meat and onion mixture. We also made another type of dumpling called vareniki, which can be stuffed with various fillings but which we stuffed with cabbage. Maria and Dmitry and their friends taught us how to fold the pelmeni, however we must say that they were much better at it than we. It was a lovely evening of conversation and a delightful dinner.
On our second ful day in Tomsk, our hosts took us to a park called Blue Rock where we had a sweeping view of the Tom River. We then continued on to one of their friend’s dacha (a Russian country home) where we grilled shashlyk and enjoyed the country setting. Despite the cold weather we had a great time.
On our way to Tomsk we had passed through Novosibirsk, only stopping for an evening to sleep at a kind couchsurfing host’s home before hopping a bus to Tomsk the next morning.We had honestly not intended to spend much time in Novosibirsk.
Our plans changed, however. While touring Tomsk we met a family from Novosibirsk who was in town showing their Australian relative the wooden buildings. They approached us and asked to tour Tomsk with us and our couchsurfing hosts and so for a while we all had walked through town together.
In speaking with the family we came to know of their unique history and exactly how and why they had relatives in Australia. The family are descendants of a prominent member of the decembrist revolt who was exiled to Siberia and then fled to China. The family as a whole lived in China for nearly a century following the revolt, at which point half of the family moved back to Novosibirsk – where their ancestor had lived – and half moved to Australia. They still are very much a tight knit bunch as this was at least the second time that Mat, the Aussie relative, had visited and one of the younger of the Russian generation, Lena, was planning to visit Sydney in July. A number of Mat’s other Aus-based relatives have also made the trip to Novosibirsk and Russia.
They invited us to contact them on our way back through Novosibirsk so they could show us around and provide us with an opportunity to see a performance at the theatre. We gladly met up with them during our brief six hours in town, and they graciously gave us tickets to see the Russian ballet Юнона и Авось, at the famous Opera and Ballet Theatre – the largest in Russia. The interior of the theater was as amazing as the ballet. We were extremely fortunate and thankful to have such an experience.
The Long Train from Nizhny Novgorod to Novosibirsk
While many people traveling Russia are the train for much longer than the 40 hours this ride encompassed, this was the longest train ride we experienced. We felt really lucky that we were able to have the kupe to ourselves for a brief time, however, we eventually gained roommates – an older man and a young 20’s woman who were traveling together, we suspected a coach and athlete of some type. They were pleasant, but we did not converse with them much due to the language barrier.
The views out the window were pleasant with rolling hills, small wooden home villages, large gardens, and lots of greenery on the ground and trees. After two nights on the train, we were happy to arrive in Novosibirsk to meet our couchsurfing host and have a shower. Many people we have met traveled much longer distances on the train due to time limitations (most visas in russia are only 30 days) or the perception that there is not much to see between Baikal and Moscow, but we were happy to have enough time in the country to break up our travel a bit more.