Barnaul, Tomsk

Sorry to have dropped off the face of the earth for a while there. I finished up the Vladivostok portion of my trip on the 21st and headed off to Barnaul (central, southern Siberia) late that evening. While it is still summer in Vladivostok, with lush green trees everywhere, Barnaul is smack dab in the middle of fall.

Barnaul is a comfy “provincial” city, with a small Stalinist classic architecture downtown surrounded by many “private sector” neighborhoods. In Russian this means a mixture of ramshackle and slightly spiffier cottages, barely paved roads connected by unpaved alleys, electricity but no plumbing–people can be seen standing in line at the nearest corner well. There is the occasional multi-story apartment building, like the one I’m staying in, looking out of place.

There are other more modern neighborhoods, but Barnaul is notable, for me at least, by its high concentration of gingerbread-trimmed cottages. Barnaul (pronounced with the stress on the “u”, Bar-na-oool) is pretty green, and the surrounding forests are primarily birch, making for lovely golden fall color.

On Thursday night, I hopped an 8pm bus for the nine-hour, 300+mile ride to Tomsk, for a recon mission. Noone from PE had been there in a while, and we don’t have resources to travel there, so I was only able to make a “day trip” of it. The bus was reasonable, but unheated. The road was mostly paved, although I dimly recall several particularly bumpy segments. Luckily, I can sleep almost anywhere, anytime, unlike most of the men on the bus who I swear all trooped off for a perekur (smoke break) everytime the bus stopped, which seemed to me happened every 30 minutes (probably not). As the hour got later (or earlier, depending on one’s perspective), smokers were outnumbered by tired cranky people who would irritably cry out “poexali, dalshe!” (keep going!)

In any case, Sergey, my local contact, met me at the bus station at 6am and walked me off to a nearby friend’s house for breakfast. Tomsk is celebrating the 400th anniversary of its founding this year.

Unfortunately, the celebration was scheduled to take place the day of the terrorist disaster at the school in Beslan, so it was delayed and seems to have been rescheduled for October. Tomsk is a “college town” home to the prestigious Tomsk State University, among others. They’ve done a nice job fixing it up in honor of the anniversary, and Sergey and I traversed it what seemed like a zillion times, hopping from meeting to meeting on plentiful city buses. It does have a “college town” feel energy-wise, but lacks the exotica and wierd haircuts that Berkeley has to offer. By the end of day, the weather had spoiled completely, and it was snowing steadily. Funny to me, not so funny to folks heading into another long cold winter.

That very same day I took the 7pm train (12 hours this time) back to Barnaul. I went “platzkart”, which means you get a bunk, pillow, and clean linens, but no privacy. In the past I’ve traveled in “coupe”cars, 4 bunks to a cabin, 8 cabins to a car. Here, they squeeze 6 bunks in same space, and there are no doors or cabins per se. People got on/off the train at various stops on the way, not everyone took advantage of the linen offer. It’s sunflower and pine nut season (different tree, same concept), so most everyone could be found sharing a bag of the aforementioned with others in their general area. I love riding the train in Russia, b/c you can almost always get dragged into long conversations with total strangers. Down the corridor, a bunch of men debated answers to the crossword puzzle. In the morning, my car’s conductor finally figured out that I was a foreigner, got very excited, asked me all sorts of questions, realized (to his horror) that he hadn’t interrogated me properly when I got on (to make sure I wasn’t a terrorist), inspected my passport and visa and ticket thoroughly, and then got brave and asked me to sign his “Journal of Complaints and Suggestions.” Very sweet.

The countryside rolled by at a steady pace, rolling steppe forest lands, interspersed periodically by fields harvested earlier in the year for meadowgrass/hay. We stopped regularly at small village stations, each with its own cookie-cutter train station, brightly painted classic architecture building. As we got closer to larger towns/cities, there were stops identified only by their mile marker. These stops are for city people headed out to their dachas. Dacha’s being summer getaways/vegetable-fruit gardens. Since I was getting back on a Saturday morning, oncoming trains known as elektrichkas (local “commuter” trains) were headed out to dacha land, packed full of city folk heading out to harvest the last of their cabbage and winter squash before heavy frosts set in.

Back in Barnaul until next Wednesday morning, when I begin the long trek back homewards. Nursing a cold, going to the botanical garden with friends tomorrow, meetings Mon and Tuesday. Life is good, my hosts even provide a warm sleepy lap cat (Marfa) to hold me down while I type this missive.