Monday, September 05, 2011

Tomsk (Across Russia, Part 6)

Deep in Siberia, there is a town which was bypassed by the transsiberian railroad and where the annual average temperature is just one degree Fahrenheit above freezing. From the bluffs above the river Tom, it is plainly clear that from here land stretches out seemingly endlessly and that the feeling of almost impending expansionism of Moscow has been replaced with far less pressing concerns. Tomsk is a city of students, the river, wood lace architecture, and overall life at a far different pace and it shows. Just take a look at the locals...

Dancing. In the park. Just for fun. In a yellow polka dot dress.

After 52 hours on the train, Tomsk was our first taste of Siberia and one that did not disappoint. We were lucky enough to get a ride to our hotel (the Sputnik) from our cabin mate on the train. We added Tomsk to our list of places to visit after my mother spotted a few videos on Youtube, like this one and this one, which featured the city and reading up in our guide book. She fell in love with the trams, the wooden houses, and made it her goal to take the #2 tram and see the houses along with the route. After the break, we will take a look around town and see what's going on, including a very tasteful WWII memorial, the interior of a wonderful cathedral there, and see some of the houses she wanted to see.

In central Tomsk, which is the historic area of the city, wood is the material of choice and especially log houses. This region of Siberia is verdant, rich in forests, and the residents here have a couple of great examples of wood lace architecture. The yellow house above is the peacock house, which is still used as an active residence today. The current residents are not overly fond of tourists gawking at their house either... while eventually friendly, we were greeted with a sharp, "What do you want?" in Russian. Overall in Russia, there is a national phenomenon of an immediate sharpness wherever you go, and not speaking Russian doesn't help anything at all. If you're lucky, you'll meet someone who is curious about you and what you're doing in the middle of Siberia, but usually you can feel them groan as you walk up. It's a much different culture than Seattle, for instance. Most Seattleites are more than happy to point tourists in the right direction, even there is a language barrier.

Of course, while there are some spectacular houses like the one above and the peacock house, there are far more which are in various states of repair. These houses are workhorses, but all of them have at least some detailing around the soffits or window frames.  The image below is a good example of a standard house in good repair. Sadly, many of these fine houses suffer from negligence or -even worse, poor foundations and drain pipes. Foundations made from brick are one of the prime culprits we could see for the ruin of many otherwise good houses, and the drain pipes pooling water by the foundation often contribute to the premature demise of the foundations.Once the foundation goes, the houses sit on the ground exposed to water, which then causes rot in the wood. There are plenty of houses we saw while there that had succumbed to this fate.

Regardless of what the houses are like, it's what goes on within the walls that makes a city livable and alive. Being a student town (home to a major university), brings a certain level of youth culture into what would otherwise be a pretty sleepy city. Graffiti, along with a few recurrent artists like the one below, can be seen around town and because it's summer there are plenty of students on leave in all of the city parks.

 Some of the younger residents have been up to their own graffiti. While I don't encourage vandalism (like the one above), these types of drawings by kids give an insight into what their world is like: We have the sun, happy faces, a Ferris wheel (which is in the main park of Tomsk), dogs and cats to start off, but we also get a picture into what they hope for the future: Money, cars. Refreshingly, there's also a no-smoking thing drawn by the kids themselves. Smoking is a major problem in Russia today, but maybe the next generation will be able to move beyond being dependent on tobacco and  negative impacts that go along with it.

For sight seeing, there are only a couple sights that really, truly stand out. We have the WWII memorial, the view from which we opened this post with, the cathedral, the ancient trams of the city, and a statue in "honor" of Chekhov, who did not hold Tomsk in high regard.

"Anton Pavlovich in Tomsk—drunkard's view, lying in a ditch, who never read Kashtanka". This is the inscription at the base of the statue. The statue and the inscription is in response to his comments on the city, which he described as dull and full of drunks and ugly women. The feet of the statue are enormous, which can be seen here, as if it was created by memory of the drunkard. We had no clue the statue was there (it's not in the guide book), but pictures of it were everywhere. It's located across the street from the one thing he apparently liked in Tomsk: A restaurant.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the WWII memorial which stands at the end of the main street, Lenina, forming one end of the main axis for the city. An eternal flame stands at the foot of a monumental statue surrounded by forest and between the main approach from the city and the view from the bluff (which is the first photo in the post). At the base on either side are the names of soldiers from the region who died in the war and where people still leave flowers today. The exact meaning to the statue I don't know, but we have a soldier and and older woman in a moment of determination. He is grabbing the rifle from her and I can only assume that the lady is his mother, sending him forth the front. At the same time, her expression is of pain suppressed: Implicitly, her son is one of the names in the monument, reminding us of the human cost of war, even while honoring (idolizing?) the fulfillment of duty.

Memorials like this have to walk a very fine line between honoring the fallen (and their families), while avoiding a glorification of war. I found this one to be fairly successful in this regard, but what makes this space successful, in my eyes, is the ability to create a space of reflection within a rather attractive park. The grounds are birch forest and it's on the bluff, which presents an amazing view. It's a well used park with children playing along side people visiting the memorial itself. Paths through the forest allow for some seclusion (including from the city itself), while the view and the bluff creates both a flow of people past the monument and a dramatic reveal where all of Siberia, earth, water, and air, unfolds in front of you as you approach the edge.

Yes, there was a white dove on the war memorial.

The last two sights to share are the trams and some sights along the street and the cathedral. The trams that run throughout the city are a combination of beyond ancient tram cars and more modern stock. In total, they are about 25 cents to ride and run on rails which look to be nearing 100 years without much maintenance done to them.

These trams are found throughout Russia, most likely due to Soviet central planning, but are still in service today. They are tough old beasts and the passengers are just as tough. It's not uncommon to see a babushka who looks like she can barely walk climbing up and down the steep stairs to get on or off these guys. No low floor or kneeling buses here!

Along all of the streets, there are people selling things, including garden fresh produce, berries and cut flowers.      Some sellers were obviously doing better than others, but this is a fairly common sight throughout Russia. The changes in the economy over the last 20 years has not been easy to adapt to for many.

Finally, we have the cathedral. We met someone who was teaching English at the cathedral there, and while she was talking with my mother she insisted that we take a look at the freshly renovated cathedral. We had just been to the chapel section of the cathedral (which is open nearly all the time), but the upstairs was off limits. While we didn't want to bother her or anyone else at the cathedral, she was adamant and we were happy to be able to take a look. Traditional orthodox churches have a different quality to them, in part due to the tradition of icons and their particular style. While some churches in the 1800s adopted a then "modern" style of painting (i.e. more western), under a period, in this case the interior had just been completely redone in a classic style. The results were amazing. We both were awestruck by it.

Next week, we leave Tomsk behind and head to Irkutsk and the spectacular Lake Baikal!

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