Siberia is probably not the first destination that springs to mind when planning a holiday or gap yah, mostly because of its associations with gulags, tigers and the lengthy Russian visa application process. However, if you are willing to be patient with the paperwork then you’ll find that places like Tomsk, in the middle of nowhere, are not quite as desolate as you thought. Here is why.
First day of term outside Tomsk State University main building. Temperature: -24
While it’s true that in the winter months the blanket snows and sub minus 20 temperatures make thermal underwear and hiking boots necessary even for a 5-minute trip to the shops, they also make the entire place incredibly beautiful. The frost glitters in the air and freezes your nostril hair which is actually more pleasant and less gross than it sounds. Plus, the snow does actually start to melt sometime in April, and the clear sunny skies mean that the temperature rises significantly, some days even reaching a balmy minus 3.
Russian food is generally given a bad rap, on account of the fact that not many Russian dishes are that well known, and those that are are the ones that consist mainly of mayonnaise and dill. Whereas I can unfortunately confirm that these two ingredients are indeed staple in the Russian diet, there are many other extremely tasty traditional dishes. These include, but are not limited to:
– Pelmeni: Small, thinly-wrapped, dough parcels filled with some sort of meat that go very well with tomato sauce or sour cream. They’re basically just wannabe ravioli but they’re a pretty solid choice in any restaurant.
– Borsch: A popular type of Eastern European soup made from beetroot and other such veg. I find the taste to be quite tangy and pleasant, and the eating process is like a lucky dip. You never know what you might find.
– Shaslik: Enormous marinated lamb or pork kebabs – simple yet effective. It’s hard to beat the meat in Russia…
Grenki: Sticks of dark rye bread toasted in garlic
I’ve only been to four or five Russian clubs in the time that I’ve been here but I think that’s probably more than enough to get the general idea… The first club we went to in Tomsk was called Pravda. There were platforms with poles for people to swing from, a hype man on the stage at the front hurling napkins into the crowd, and multiple paintings and busts of Lenin adorning the walls. Generally speaking, going out, like everything else in Russia, is very cheap. Bottles of table vodka can range from eight to eighteen pounds depending on quality, shisha pipes are readily available at most venues, and the toilets double up as smoking areas – or is it the other way round? The music is normally something between Russian pop and techno mash-up remixes of British chart toppers, but everyone goes mad for everything so the atmosphere is always good. You can also rest assured that there will always be someone drunker and worse at dancing than you.
Lagerni Sad and the (not so) frozen River Tom
In terms of nipping about town, the public transport systems are surprisingly efficient. Buses and trams are a little shabby, having lasted since the Soviet era, but the interiors are pretty funky and the price of a ticket across the city is a mere 17p. If you have a specific destination in mind, taxis are also a very easy way of getting around. The majority of drivers don’t actually have that great a knowledge of the local area, but all cabs have GPS and, when the ride is just over a quid, it’s not really that big a deal if you get a bit lost on the way. Tomsk as a city is also not particularly large and all the important things like KFC and Harat’s Irish pub are very central so walking is also a viable option, once the snow has receded to below knee height that is.
Krasnoyarsk National park a.k.a also the middle of nowhere
Just like other ordinary and boring holiday countries that aren’t Russia (like France or Germany) there are lots of places ‘nearby’ for activities such as skiing, hiking, climbing and general meandering. From Tomsk, the towns of Krasnoyarsk and Sheregesh are both 10 hours away by coach along motorways that are basically just one enormous pothole. On the other hand, the view out of the windows is pretty spectacular and if you’ve got a good book or a collection of 80s hits then the journeys are more than bearable.