Ah, Tomsk. If for some vanishingly unlikely reason I was forced into exile in Siberia, I would live in Tomsk*. It’s the Bath of Siberia I think – well, not really, not in any meaningful way. But it’s a small, comfy, laid-back university town with lovely distinctive architecture.
(Forgive the crap photos. At some point on the train I started fiddling around with the settings on my camera, and it took me ages to get them right again afterwards.)
However, unlike Bath, Tomsk is quietly falling apart. A lot of the buildings we saw back in 2012 are probably gone now. Its traditional Siberian architecture, featuring elaborate, decorative wooden ‘lace’, is gradually being destroyed. These old wooden buildings are particularly vulnerable to fire, and sometimes these fires are deliberately set by owners who would prefer something more modern to live in, or more profitable to rent. Those buildings that haven’t been wilfully destroyed are often in a state of neglect. Large parts of the city have an abandoned, forgotten feel.
At the same time, Tomsk is a cheerful, friendly city, and home to some of the best oat biscuits in the world. Our new home, the 8th floor hostel, was right round the corner from a lovely bustling street market selling all manner of fresh produce, smoked fish, and a staggering variety of the aforementioned biscuits.
Everyone we met in Tomsk was almost absurdly welcoming. At one point we were venturing off to visit a church on top of a hill, as instructed by the Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook. We flagged down a tram round the corner from our hostel and I laboriously asked whether it went to the church. Several people fired back quite a lot of Russian and then, when it became clear I had no idea what they were saying, they beckoned us on board.
One of the passengers took charge of the situation. She went round the bus until she found someone who spoke English, and got them to translate the fact that none of the trams went to the top of the hill, but that this one would get quite close, and then we could walk. When we got to our stop a couple of other people got off at the same time. The lady who had taken charge of us gave them some instructions then packed us off the tram in their care. We followed them along a street until they flagged down some other passers-by who were heading the right way, explained where we wanted to go, and transferred us over to them instead. As Chris pointed out, it was like being the baton in a relay race. This new set of people led us up the hill, deposited us in front of the church we wanted to visit, then went on their way. It was all done in a fabulously matter-of-fact way, as if the local people of Tomsk played Tourist Relay with each other all the time while walking around the city.
For our first night we were the only people at the 8th Floor Hostel, so we had the run of the place. It’s a really homely, friendly place to stay. On our second night we were joined by one other person, another English man called Tom. Yes: we met a Tom in Tomsk. He was from East London, near where my aunt lived at the time, but by some extraordinary coincidence he was now living round the corner from where Chris and I live: Finsbury Park. Even more strangely, he worked for Haringey Council, the local authority for whom my boyfriend David was then a councillor. He was the only other tourist we met in Tomsk, and we could easily have bumped into him at home instead.
Considering the fights, knife threats and forest fires we had to get through to make it to Tomsk, it would have been a tremendous disappointment if the city hadn’t been worth the journey. But it more than repaid the heroic effort we needed to get there. I would like to visit again, sometime when the countryside around it isn’t burning, shrouding the city in smoke. The photo below gives you a taste of the city’s strange sense of humour: Chekhov visited once and made a disparaging remark about Tomsk in a letter, so the city has repaid him with this statue of the writer from the point of view of a drunk peasant lying in a ditch. I mean, where else in the world would you find a literary monument like this?
*Or maybe Irkutsk.