Greetings from beautiful Tomsk. And I mean beautiful. After a one-night stand in Novosibirsk, we caught a “mashrutka” (a minibus) about four hours north for our one stop off the railroad line into Siberia. A word about Novosibersk is in order, though.
First, Novosibirsk (“New Siberia”) is Russia’s third largest city. Really? And no one’s ever heard of it? Even Mark, who majored in Russian, had never heard of it. And it’s the equivalent of Chicago. Who knew?
And the hotel. Mark already posted this picture, but it’s worth seeing it again. Beyond the massive Soviet architecture, there were two notable things about the hotel. First, they do your laundry for free. For free! Hotels charge obscene prices to do laundry, which is a particular problem in Russia where we have been unable to find a single laundromat. Not one. And in the one hotel that we’re just staying overnight, they do laundry for free. Yet one more piece of evidence that there is no God.
Almost as bizarre is the strip club in the hotel. This was no seedy rat-trap we were staying in; it’s a nice hotel. But not only is there a strip club in it or attached to it, but they advertise it at the check-in desk and in the elevator along with the other amenities. You know, spa, restaurant, meeting spaces, strip club. I thought it was weird.
OK, time to leave Novosibirsk. We head off to the bus station, an adventure in itself; we took the subway to where we thought it would be easy to walk, and it wasn’t. We wandered pretty lost in somewhat industrial Novosibersk with our not-small luggage, but eventually got there. The mashrutka is nearly full. They pack us in – 12 people, one driver who looked like Rodney Dangerfield, but not so handsome – and off we go through stop-and-go traffic in stifling heat, packed like sardines with Russians. Apparently Siberians think fresh air is an unnecessary luxury, because that mashrutka was stifling. At one point a little kid opened the window next to him just a little. The old woman sitting behind him quickly reached forward and closed it – no fresh air coming in here, she seemed to say. And all with not an extra square inch to move in.
At one point it starts raining, and the minibus apparently is not waterproof. It starts leaking on the guy sitting next to me. It wakes him up, he sees what’s happening … and closes his eyes to go back to sleep. Doesn’t budge an inch to try to get out of the dripping rain. I’m eager to get to the point in traveling like this when the little things – a leaking roof – just doesn’t bother me. What’s the worst that could happened? He got a little wet and it quit raining. A man at peace in his environment.
So the trip was hellish. But we did get off the beaten track, driving through some beautiful countryside with acres of beautiful yellow wild flowers. And we survived. At one point we stopped at a rest stop, a welcome change of pace. As we were reboarding, I saw the driver of a larger bus come out of the little cafeteria with a glass of beer. He boards his bus, puts the beer glass on the dashboard, and, when everyone is onboard, pulls away. You don’t see that in the U.S. every day!
Now we’re in this lovely Siberian college town, kind of a cross between Cambridge and Duluth. Lenin is still here. There are gorgeous old wooden buildings and beautiful stone buildings and great churches and parks and … it’s just really beautiful. In the evenings, which last hours and hours, the sunlight adds a great touch. It was just one evening so far – we have the whole day today to explore and relax – but it was really beautiful.
And dinner! We went to a traditional Siberian restaurant and started with vodka shots, blini, and caviar. It’s just heaven, and honestly not that expensive. It’s not something just for special occasions or for the rich, but a typical starter. And you’ll notice a little red condiment dish in the photo. It was pretty much just tomato and garlic and it was heaven. Something so simple and amazing. Eating our way through Siberia…