The second day of my second month in Russia is also the second to last day of my time in Siberia. If you can parse that sentence.
I am having a celebratory dinner – lamentably alone, but this is the kind of event that is best appreciated when one is by oneself, particularly since that was how I travelled two-thirds of the way across Russia.
(For those who care, the caviar (red – salmon – not black – beluga, and four times the price) was excellent, so was the salad. The Guiness (there are two Irish bars in town – go figure) was up to its usual standard, but the soup was pretty so so.)
And as I sit here, dallying over my second espresso (which, happily, is far better than the first one was, even before I managed to spill it over the tablecloth), I find my thoughts turning to reminiscing about the past few days.
I am in Ekaterinburg – a big Siberian city in the middle part of the Ural mountains (which are more like hills really, and stretch all the way across Russia, from the Kara Sea in the north into Kazakhstan in the south).
The city is famous for many things. The Romanovs (last Tsars) were killed here. I have seen the spot. Ekaterinburg is also the birthplace (and home till 1985) of Boris Yeltsin. And it is very close to the edge of Siberia and of Asia (both 41 kms west).
And, from my limited experience, it is a really nice place. Big streets lined with trees (and not with rubbish). Some attention given to the external appearance of buildings (not something the Russians typically care terribly much about). Lots of little cafes dotting the landscape, with a central “avenue” created by the original dam (and consequent pond) that started things off in 1723. Plus it is sunny, which always helps.
I spent a day looking around Tobolsk. The key thing of interest here is the kremlin, perched on top of a dramatic cliff, with spectacular views from the top across the Siberian plains. But I also found it completely fascinating to just wander around.
Tobolsk is divided into two bits and they could not be more different. The old town is the home of many old wooden buildings (and a few old stone ones too). Residents can be seen drawing water from the public well, and balancing precariously as they walk along planks laid across footpaths that have turned to mud in the rain. Lots of residents can not be seen too, but you can see the places they used to live (now with collapsed walls and long grass growing from the roof), work (now filled with rubble and rubbish), and play (with rusting signs and boarded up windows).
Compare that with the new town, where the wide straight streets are lined with ugly soviet apartment blocks that don’t look good even in sunshine but do have running water. Stuff is actually happening on this side of town – lots of people in the streets, the bustle of sunday markets, children with icrecreams and ballons. An amazing contrast, and only five minutes away and down a little hill.
Before that I spent a day in Krasnoyarsk. The highlight here was the trip to the local nature reserve to see, well, the nature. And the rocks. They have these enormous rock formations just sitting about the place. They don’t do much, but they are cool to see nonetheless. If only someone had told me it was 7km up the hill to the reserve. And 7km back, of course.
And what do I think about Siberia? I think it is too soon to have many high-quality thoughts. But here are some anyway, more about my experiences here than about Siberians or Siberia. Knock yourself out:
* I totally underestimated its size – Siberia (and I include in the this Russian Far East, although I should not) is enormous. And mostly empty. Don’t come here expecting short bus rides between attractions. Those who know me will know that I am usually late for things. This is because I always underestimate how long it takes to get places. And I have done that here in a big way. Big, big, big.
* It is very young and very old – The southern cities are old, at least by New Zealand standards. Irkutsk is 340. They get younger as they go west, but even Vladivostok (the youngest) is almost as old as European settlement in New Zealand. Go north onto the BAM (the other railway line) though, and instantly everything is only 30 years old (since the railway was actually only completed in 1980). Very strange contrasts. But in another way even the old cities are young. They are all rebuilding themselves after the post-Soviet collapse, and you can see the new things supplanting the old in lots of way. There are many Soviet-style things going on. One of the funniest is that many shops still have numbers – Shop Number 5, for example – rather than names and brands, so do schools – Middle School Number 3. The old regime is disappearing slowly. I wonder how long the half-life will be.
* The people are very different – I will say more about this in another post. Suffice to say I still get surprised just about every day by someone who seems to be being extremely unhelpful who suddenly does something unexpectedly nice, and for no apparent reason. On the other hand, I also meet people every day who are just rude and unpleasant. You get that on the big jobs.
* I will come back here to see more of the country – And when I do, I will fly (or take along very interesting travelling companions and many books). The cities are nothing spectacular. The countryside is amazing.
* It has tired me out – I am looking forward to getting to St Petersburg, where there will be lots of westerners, lots of English language books, and a big bunch of people playing Ultimate. I will be there by Wednesday morning, and I have a huge list of things to do.
Oh, I am not from Latvia anymore. A bus driver the other day told me that Russians are not treated at all well there anymore, so being from the Baltic states is not a good things to be.
Parenthetically, I just went to the toilet and got a look at myself in the mirror. They would *never* let me into this place if I were not a foreigner. I look so disreputable. The contrast between my appearance and the picture perfect couples with young babies just beside me is quite stark. I will wash more in European Russia, I promise.
I can’t think of any reason to be sad about leaving Siberia. But I still feel a little melancholy. I guess it is the closing of another chapter in the book of my travels. It is the first time I have been here. But not the last.
Perhaps a good icecream will cheer me up.