Surviving Siberia (Part One)

Urban landscape. Tomsk, Siberia.
Urban landscape. Tomsk, Siberia.

When most people think of Siberia they picture it as enormous, freezing cold and full of snow and eccentric Russians. These people are completely correct in picturing this because this is exactly what Siberia is. I have been in the city of Tomsk for about a month now and the consistent stream of daily bedlam still shows no signs of drying up. Here are some quick points on the basic set-up.

The student hostel in which I live with my Durham pals and a horde of other internationals really isn’t that bad. There is a café downstairs that sells a full beef stroganoff dinner for the equivalent of £1.50, a small gym with a broken treadmill and 7 skipping ropes, and an ice-skating rink 10 metres from the front door. The bedrooms in the hostel are en-suite but shared between 3 people. I share with Louis, who is 6ft 5, and Martín, a Frenchman. In the time we have been here Louis has already managed to head butt and break the light in the room and I have blocked the toilet twice. When Martín arrived he spoke very little English and couldn’t read the Cyrillic alphabet. On the face of it, his aim to teach himself to speak Russian fluently in 4 months seems a little bit optimistic but you have to admire his boules.

On every floor there is a shared kitchen. The majority of the hostel is made up of international students but for some reason our floor is dominated by Russian Masters students and a handful of Chinese kids. The atmosphere in the kitchen is unfortunately extremely hostile as the Russians only ever talk to us if they want to borrow some milk and insist on opening everything from tins to packets of biscuits with unnecessarily large knives. They also fill the freezer with strange brown slabs posing as bread and take up most of the hob space re-heating putrid smelling yuck that is probably cabbage but could quite honestly be anything. Louis and I try to limit our time in the kitchen and, when possible, invite other Brits for dinner. Safety in numbers.

The hostel’s proximity to the main university is also very convenient. The building in which the majority of our lectures takes place is a mere 5-minute walk through the snow. However, as this is Siberia, one must remain wary; packs of wild dogs roam the streets of Tomsk. The majority of these dogs look more like wolves and are suspiciously well nourished. Their fur is extremely soft looking and they never bother people. All the same, we were advised by Tarik, one of the hostel managers, that we shouldn’t touch them if we didn’t want to catch diseases. Road crossings also require more attention than usual. Drivers will not stop for you if you’re not on a specified crossing and even then the combination of the icy roads and the ridiculous speeds of some of the cars means that stopping distances are greatly reduced.

After working a (sort of) proper job in Spain, it’s nice to be back in a student environment with limited time commitments, although I think it’s fair to say life at university has never been quite this chilled before. We have Russian grammar classes three times a week with a lady called Alla who is a fantastic teacher; although she doesn’t speak a word of English she still manages to get her complex grammatical points across. Her ring tone is also ‘Smack That’ by Akon which caused us all to go bananas the first time it went off in class and since then it’s been an eagerly anticipated occurrence. Translation classes are with Natasha and are usually good fun. In our third lesson we were sent on a field trip to the Tomsk Museum of Oppression which was very interesting (though also slightly unnerving how enthusiastic the guide was when discussing Siberian town death quotas).

I also ‘teach’ English every fortnight which is a larf as it usually involves chatting to the students about British stereotypes and teaching them a few naughty words. In one class I was asked by a boy named Pavil if it was true that people still used two taps in England and how you balanced the use of both cold and hot water – apparently two taps aren’t a thing in Russia. It’s nice to give something back to people who are genuinely eager to learn English, especially after all the help I’ve received with my Russian.

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