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photo credits: David MacDonald
by David MacDonald
I'm an engineer in my late fifties and have traveled extensively in the course of my work and also as a child because my father did a similar job to the one I do now. I love to write and have written a couple of humorous novels which I am revising at the moment. I intend writing a series of novels and maybe try to get them published one day.
work in Western Siberia was coming to an end and, fresh from leave, I was
about to embark on my final trip to Tomsk. It was then, as I sat in a café
at Moscow’s Domedodevo airport, that I began to consider the possibility
of Siberia as a destination for tourists – albeit rather intrepid
tourists. Perhaps it was the soapy Russian beer, but after mulling on this
question for a surprisingly short time I decided that a holiday in Siberia
could be a worthwhile experience, though more for that adventurous kind of
person who likes an ‘off the beaten track’ kind of sojourn.
into Russia is not difficult. A tourist visa should not prove a problem,
especially for American or European nationals. A visit to your nearest
Russian embassy or consulate will explain all; no point my trying to throw
any more light here, conditions and requirements change from month to
month. However, if you want to see the incredible wilderness that is
Siberia before the oil industry carves it up and messes up its cities then
now is the time.
An English Bar in Tomsk. Cheers!
Here's a close-up of a poster outside the bar featuring Russian musicians. Rock on!
A closer look at the English Beefeater. He seems to have a lightly Russian accent.
my time in Western Siberia I worked at several locations. When I first
traveled out it was to Tyumen and at that time I was one of few
ex-patriots working in the city. Now only three years later, Tyumen is
filling with oil workers from across the globe. If you are to visit
Western Siberia now is the time but don’t bother with Tyumen. Once one
of Western Siberia's most endearing cities, Tyumen is an early casualty of
the race for oil.
if you think that a visit to the region may be for you, I’ll try to give
a little info and advice gleaned from my experiences of working there.
This advice will contain much that may put you off. If it does put you off
then so be it; best not waste your time and money, Siberia is not the
place for you.
of all do not make your base off the beaten track, you may never be seen
again. Go to a city like Tomsk, Novosibirsk or Omsk; even as far as
Vladivostok if you have the stamina, and you will see Siberia as it has
been for long years past, albeit with its communist legacies still very
much in place. For the sake of continuity let’s suppose you’ve opted
for Tomsk and we shall continue in that vein.
you leave for Siberia you will need to be vaccinated against Rabies and if
you intend venturing into the forests, Lyme disease and Tickborne
Encephalitis. The latter two diseases are transmitted by ticks and are
extremely unpleasant. It is possible to contract both diseases at the same
time and this achievement is, needless to say, much more unpleasant. Even
with your vaccinations up to date it is still unwise to visit the forests
in the months of April, May and June. In these months the ticks are so
numerous and ubiquitous they will overwhelm any protection. There are also
Lynxes and bears in the forests and further North there are tigers, though
these are very rare and if the protecting authorities are consistent, soon
to go the way of the woolly mammoth. The bears are brown bears, the same
species known in parts of North America as the Grizzly. They are extremely
dangerous. Remember, we are not talking package holidays here, Siberia is
not Naples or Torremolinos.
Siberian women with their horse carts. It's early spring just after the thaw
but it's still really chilly weather.
Here's a close-up of the beautiful Siberian horse waiting patiently
for those lovely Siberian women to finish their conversation.
bridges seem to be an anathema to the Russians and no matter what the
weather you will be bussed out to the Tupolev. After you have found your
seat in the aircraft you can settle into the cramped confines of a seating
configuration that has at least one seat in the row too many. Directly in
front of you there will, more often than not, be a bear-like creature
shoving a huge bag under his own seat. This is because the overhead
luggage lockers are totally inadequate for his outsize luggage, luggage
that should really have been checked into the hold. The reason he didn’t
is because it is full of consumables that are cheaper in Moscow than in
Tomsk and they are in a paper-thin bag tied up with string, the kind of
luggage airport baggage handling systems habitually feed on.
Unfortunately, this all means you will have to spend the whole of the four
hour flight to Tomsk with no legroom. If you try to complain you will
probably not be understood but if you are the situation will not improve.
It is a widely accepted practice so don’t persist in your complaint,
life expectancy in Russia is short enough already.
Siberian street scene
meal on the flight is very Russian, starting with lots of cold meats and
salad and if you are in business class you will almost certainly be given
red caviar. It should be noted however that if you are in business class
the caviar, the bigger seat and the minibus out to the plane will be the
only concessions for the extra amount of money you paid for your ticket.
The rest of your meal will be exactly the same as tourist class and the
frequency and quality of the free drink service could well be worse. This
is because your stewardess will keep disappearing for long periods of time
to help out the staff in tourist class because they are her friends and
they have more people to look after.
food tends to be extremely wholesome and healthy and as tasty as sawdust.
Sauces are uncommon and often surprising, but not in a nice way. The hot
meal which follows the cold platter is always very good and of adequate
portion. It will usually be chicken or beef with vegetables, but beware if
the vegetables are brownish in colour and look like chickpeas. Eat this
only if you enjoy the taste of empty sunflower seed husks. There will be
plenty to drink and an aircraft is one of the few places in Russia you can
drink vodka and be reasonably certain it is the brand it says it is on the
bottle. On the whole, airline catering in Russia is much better than on
most European airlines, which have all but given up feeding people.
New churches like this one are common since the fall of communism.
Most of the old ones were destroyed.
so to Tomsk airport. Russian airliners tends to land very fast, probably
something to do with the pilots avoiding the awful low speed handling
characteristics of their aircraft. It will then stand on it nose as the
reverse thrust and wheel brakes try to slow it down. This usually means a
very smooth landing but it’s a long time before you actually stop. At
Tomsk airport you will then taxi past the rows of dilapidated helicopters
used in the oilfields and Antanov 24s used for internal flights. Those who
use the airport regularly have noted that as time goes by more and more of
these aircraft are cannibalised for engines, wings and other parts to keep
those still in service, flying. They no longer build Antonov 24s and their
passing is not something to grieve. Do not even think about reading the
accident statistics for these aircraft; in this case ignorance really is
bliss. When you get off the plane you will be afforded your first view of
a Siberian Russian airport. Don’t bother setting up the easel.
Lenin’s statue on Lenina Street.
September 2004 Tomsk will be four hundred years old, older than St
Petersburg by a hundred years. This is difficult to reconcile in a town
whose architecture is mainly nineteen-fifties socialist and predominantly
uninspiring. The drive into town takes you through farmland and patchy
scrubland. Soon, as you approach the city, Ill-kempt houses, rows of
anonymous blocks of concrete flats and numerous impromptu rubbish dumps
will vie with each other to provide the traveler with the most depressing
so to your hotel. Do not expect anything in this establishment to rival or
compete with what you know or have been used to, even in Benidorm. The
food in the restaurant will be similar to the food you ate on the plane,
but there will be less of it, it will take longer to arrive and it will
come in the wrong sequence. For example, you could be finishing your sweet
when the soup shows up. A bonus is that few Siberians are overweight. The
décor in your room will be bland and probably scruffy. Your bedclothes
will be changed regularly but will appear to have last been used wrapping
corpses in the Crimea. The shower will be similar to any other hotel
shower anywhere in the world, veering from a zero flow to a torrent and
from scalding to freezing in an instant. The only difference is that
interestingly, your water will come in a variety of colours, from murky
yellow through to muddy brown. Don’t think this unique feature has been
provided just for you, everyone else in the city will be treated to the
same spectacular phenomenon.
not even think of drinking water straight from any tap. Always drink
bottled mineral water. There is not only a bacterial or hygiene problem
here. Tomsk is very near to a shadowy establishment which is still spoken
of only in hushed tones. This is the nearby town of Tomsk Seven, a top
secret military base which in Soviet times manufactured the vast majority
of Russia’s nuclear warheads. Don’t try to visit this town or the men
in huge hats will arrive and take you back to the Tupolev. Owing to Tomsk
seven’s past activities the city of Tomsk is now the most radioactive
city in the whole of Russia. This is quite an achievement for Tomsk
because as you can imagine, it is up against some pretty stiff
too soon you will leave your dinner table and make your way to your room;
you will have dined on the best Siberia has to offer; you will no longer
be quite as hungry and stifling a yawn. Tomorrow will be your first full
day in that country and I really do envy you, the best of Siberia really
is to come.
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