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Siberian winter
Siberian Village
photo credits: David MacDonald

Into Siberia

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.

My 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.

Getting 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!
Rock on.
Here's a close-up of a poster outside the bar featuring Russian musicians. Rock on!
English Bar sign

A closer look at the English Beefeater. He seems to have a lightly Russian accent.

Siberian environmental concerns are not yet taken seriously and especially not by the government in Moscow and there is no reason to suppose that this attitude will change at any time in the near future. According to most Siberians, Siberia has always been the part of Russia that works so that those who live in Moscow and St Petersburg can play. But is a holiday to the home of the big brown bear really worth the effort? In my reasonably well informed opinion the answer is yes, but you must go to the right part.

During 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.

So, 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.

First 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.  

Good doggie
Siberian Park

You must visit the museums of that city and the forests and the hot springs in the surrounding area. A visit to Tomsk in winter can be especially rewarding. Wallowing in a hot spring with lots of other half-naked people and then leaping out into an ambient temperature of minus thirty is something you will never forget. Afterwards you will feel wonderful, as all great survivors do. Follow this with a trip into the forest, well wrapped up of course, where you can build a fire and cook shashliks under forest canopies more vast than any on the planet. In winter the forests are a frigid wonderland; in summer they are full of wildlife. It is here that I must inject a note of caution.

Before 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.  

A further note of caution; you will be required to register with the authorities and attend police stations at regular intervals during your stay, a throwback from the days of communism. Do not forget to register or men in huge caps will find you, come and speak unpleasantly with you and then spoil your holiday. Remember to get adequate medical insurance and make sure it covers you for every possible contingency. And be warned, Russian doctors are generally excellent but their facilities and equipment though clean, can often be the next best thing to medieval.  

Siberian women with their horse carts. It's early spring just after the thaw
but it's still really chilly weather.
Siberian horse
Here's a close-up of the beautiful Siberian horse waiting patiently
for those lovely Siberian women to finish their conversation.

And so to the journey itself. But first another note of caution. Do not change your money at the airport bank; you will be fleeced. Checking in for the Tomsk flight at Domodedovo today will not prove much of a problem. This was something I found impossible on my first trip to Tyumen and was only accomplished with the aid of a translator. The airport personnel are much more foreigner-friendly these days and airport life is a good deal more relaxed. We will assume that you are travelling tourist class. Business class on Sibeer Airways, the only airline flying from Moscow to Tomsk, is very expensive and not really worth the extra. It is nice to have some leg and shoulder-room for the flight of four hours, but if you have economic priorities remember you will be spending much more time elsewhere so save any surplus roubles for the holiday itself.

Air 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.  

street scene
Siberian street scene

The 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.

Russian 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.  

Russian church
New churches like this one are common since the fall of communism. 
Most of the old ones were destroyed.  

Soon you will find yourself in Siberian airspace gazing down upon long snaking rivers and vast Tiga forests. Siberia is huge; the four hour flight from Moscow to Tomsk takes you less than a quarter the way across the region and Vladivostok is still half a world away. Flying in summer is much more interesting than in winter unless you like staring at thousands of desolate square miles of snow and immensely long reaches of frozen rivers but having said that, the sheer scale of it all is something to marvel at whatever the season.

And 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.

Your taxi ride to town, which takes forty minutes, could prove to be a lot more dangerous than anything that has gone before so chose your taxi driver with care. Weed out the bleary-eyed wobblers and those with cars you would not even let your boss travel in. The fare you pay will be at least twice that charged to a local but there is no way you can avoid this unless during the course of the flight you have learned to speak fluent Russian and have metamorphosed into a threadbare reindeer poacher in a massive leather coat and cap or, if you are a woman, a top-flight fashion model. Siberian women it must be pointed out are numerous, beautiful and still dress like women. Also, they tend to eat intelligently, so our western burger and fried chicken culture has no impact on their waistline or buttocks. Most western women who visit and hope to stand out in the crowd usually do, but for all the wrong reasons.

In 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 vista.  

ice fishing
Ice fishing

In the outlying areas as well as in the centre of Tomsk there are many of the tumbledown wooden houses typical of old Siberian cities. The architecture of these is functional rather than stimulating though the history of some, especially in the Tartar areas, is extremely interesting. As with old buildings everywhere the foundations of these wooden dwellings are subsiding, often causing them to lean crazily. Unfortunately from a heritage point of view they are very cold in winter, mostly heated only by wood burning stoves, and this often encourages the inhabitants, who rarely own the houses, to set them ablaze. The authorities are then obliged to re-house them in more modern, infinitely uglier multi-story flats built from concrete blocks, but which are warm. This is a terrible way to treat centuries-old wooden buildings which in some parts of the world would be listed and protected. However, in the parts of the world where these buildings are listed and protected, the winter-time temperatures do not go down to minus forty or so.

And 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.  

Do 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 competition.

All 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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