16 December 2010

Siberian Cities

Overlooking an old wooden church in Tomsk
In September, we traveled from Lake Baikal to Moscow on the TranSiberian Railroad, with a detour to the Altai Mountains. Here are my impressions of the Siberian cities that we explored on our journey:

Irkutsk is the only big city near Lake Baikal. It is a standard stopover for European backpackers, on their way from Moscow to Mongolia. It is also typically their only stopover in Siberia. After flying in from Sochi, we used Irkutsk as a base for exploring the south-western shores of Baikal and the start of our Siberian adventures.

Downtown Irkutsk still has a number of old log houses. Some have been renovated, highlighting the ornate roof and window decorations. Sadly many buildings are in a state of disrepair. Many of the houses didn't have plumbing inside and also suffered from sinking foundations, antiquated electrical systems, and warped windows. These old log houses are, in my opinion, the only appeal of Irkutsk. Otherwise the city lacks anything else worth seeing, plus it has horrible traffic and unbearable car pollution. Luckily for us, Irkutsk was not a destination unto itself.

Some buildings were immaculately decorated, yet seemed to be closed up. Maybe for privacy? Also note that the sidewalk/road has risen up and covers the lowest portion of the house's wall.

The leading attraction in Tomsk also was old wooden houses. Tomsk had a greater variety of these homes than Irkutsk. However, we went to Tomsk because Lonely Planet Russia called it the most beautiful, livable city in Siberia. We should have known better than to trust The Lonely.

Tomsk may have been less ugly than other Soviet cities, but it still wasn't pretty. However, we didn't visit Tomsk for the log homes or a few urban trees. Under the USSR, Tomsk was an academic city that was closed off to foreigners and this intrigued us. There are dozens of universities, educating hundreds of thousands of students. We appreciated being back in an atmosphere of youth, education, and progressive ideas.

A common sight - a delapidated house that clearly was strikingly beautiful in it's prime. 

 This is very typical of the many wooden houses that we saw throughout all of Russia: faded wood timbers, light blue window shutters, and white window pains.

 This giant ad on the outside of the futbol stadium said that Putin supports futbol in Tomsk. Way to go Putin. Tackling real issues.  

While I walked around the stadium and took photos, Kristin went for a run on the track. She is on the left in black, ahead of futbolisti

 We climbed a church tower to gain these views of town. It was a holiday and the tower was supposed to be closed, but the lady at the front desk allowed us in anyways. 

Sunset over the Ob River - a pleasant end to our three days in Tomsk.

Novosibirsk is probably the most well-known city in Siberia. It is the hub for everything in Siberia - business, trade, transportation. education, economy, government, and so on. It is the third biggest city in Russia.

The Lonely Planet stated that Novosibirsk wasn't really worth touring. I don't know if Kristin and I were subconsciously trying to prove our guide book wrong, but we actually had a really wonderful time in Novosibirsk. We generally don't enjoy big cities, but there was something esoteric that we liked about this one. Maybe our expectations were low. Maybe we really wanted to like it. Or maybe it was that Novosibirsk wasn't putting on any airs about what it was. There was no pretentiousness.

We experienced this same phenomena in Brazil when we went to Sao Paulo after Rio de Jenairo. Rio is undeniably one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  It also has beautiful people, lively music and perfect weather.  But we we weren't so impressed with it, at least not like everybody else seems to be. Then we went to Sao Paulo. Various sources warned us that Sao Paulo was just a big, dirty, dangerous, hard-working city. However, we loved it, and not just for the great museums, music, food and parks, but the feeling we got just by being there, walking the streets, and talking with the people.

Like Sao Paulo, Novosibirsk was an unexpected pleasant surprise.

 A 10 meter high WW II Memorial with an eternal flame. Novosibirsk played a crucial role in the war, as it was a key supplier of weapons, food, machinery. It was also the meeting point for all soldiers from Siberia, from where they were shipped straight to the war front. 

 Katyusha! In Russian class in high school, we memorized songs and poems to help us learn the language. One of them was the Soviet wartime song Katyusha, which this rudimentary but effective rocket-launching truck is named after. 

A statue of Vladimir Vysotsky, a cultural icon and the most famous musician in Russia. He was a national storyteller. His music was like spoken poetry with acoustic guitar as a secondary instrument, somewhat like Bob Dylan in his old acoustic days. In Russia, this style is called "bard" and it was (still is?) highly revered.  I don't know why his statue was in Novosibirsk as he wasn't born there, didn't die there, and wasn't in WWII. 

 Another famous Soviet figure - Lenin. On Lenin Square. Along Lenin Street. Behind him is the Novosibirsk Theater, which is the biggest in Russia. Yes, bigger than the Bolshoi (which means "big" in Russian). We weren't able to attend a performance at this theater, but a block away is another theater, where I took Kristin out on a date. We heard the Novosibirsk Philharmonic perform a special collection of pieces from Tchaikovsky, as it was the anniversary of the composers death.  

The grey metallic Soviet mural still dominates the stairwell, leading down to the metro trains. 

Akademgorodok means Academic City. This was a special city built by the Soviets for the country's best scientists. It was intended to be a hotbed of innovation, to incubate scientific ideas and spur progress. Professors were highly valued, and as such, were given special perks under the Soviets. They got nicer apartments and had a better variety of food. They didn't have to wait as long to get a car, which could take years. So, it turns out that the Soviets did do SOME things right.

Akademgorodok epitomizes the prestige of science. The town is eminently more pedestrian friendly than anywhere else in Russia. The streets are tree-lined and there are many parks and walking trails. The apartment buildings are interspersed with university labs and classrooms. It's heavenly. It also shows that the Soviets knew how to build a livable city, but that they chose to build otherwise.

Even the couch-surfer with whom we stayed, reflected the intentions of such a city. Our host was French, but had also lived/worked in the UK and Canada. He has a PhD in Chemistry. He was to be stationed in Russia for three years, working for an international corporation. He had traveled all over the world and was fluent in at least three languages. It should come as no surprise that we were impressed and inspired! You can check out his world travel photos and his blog (in French).

In short, Akademgorodok was our ideal city. Yet, it barely got a mention in the Lonely Planet

The only problem, of course, is that it is located in the heart of SIBERIA, where the winters temps hover in the -40 to -10 degree zone.

 The only thing bad that happened was when our host brought out this bottle of French spirits. We were told to dip a sugar cube into the spirit, then eat the sugar. It was intensely unpleasurable. Maybe that's why it's called "fire sugar." (thanks Nico for the correction)

How could you not want to live here?

South of Novosibirsk, Barnaul was the last big city before the Altai Mountains. We stopped her for a night to research backpacking opportunities in the Altai. The city of Barnaul was typical Soviet style (read: grey), but again, we had a lovely time because of the friends that we made.

 Russians like to display their weapons and war machines. On a seemingly random street corner, we happened upon this tank, which is, fittingly, a memorial to this tank. Apparently, this tank model was instrumental in WWII. Barnaul wasn't as photogenic, and so we didn't spent much time sight-seeing. 

We'd like to thank all of our wonderful couchsurfing hosts and new friends! Hope to see you in California someday . . .

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6 Months Ago: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
1 Year Ago: Torres del Paine, Chile


  1. If I'm one day somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, you can expect me to come to California!
    As for the spirit, it is actually French :), called génépi. And you had the chance to taste the 'pure' one. We call those sugars 'fire sugars' and now you know why!!

  2. Nicolas-you're always welcome at whatever home we have!

    As for the fire sugars, we'll have to plan something equally strong for you to drink when you visit us. Consider this fair warning!