A nightly ride to Tomsk

I’m in Novosibirsk to blog about the Forum Interra. Thanks to the Goethe Institut in Novosibirsk that invited me!

We (Marco & me –  don’t miss a look at his photos!) didn’t have much to do on our first day in Novosibirsk. The forum only started one day later, so Wednesday was the day for some introductions, badly needed sleep after the flights and a tour through the city.

Novosibirsk is a dusty city. I think that’s some of the first things I’ve noticed: There’s a slight layer of dust, rather brown than grey, on nearly everything. On the way from the airport we saw the huge industrial plants alongside the road, not unlike (but exceeding by far) those in my hometown Siegen, with which Novosibirsk shares its metallurgical coinage.

Later we got to see more of Novosibirsk. Our hotel is located right in the center, so we could walk to the opera house, where giant statues still remind of Russia’s communist history. A history that is nearly identical with Novosibirsk’s own. Founded only in 1893 during the construction of the Transsiberian Railway, the city has been built nearly absolutely under the communists’ reign.

I think that’s something you feel. Towering buildings domineer over the city’s streets. As we walk around, we encounter giant apartment buildings that look as if they’re slowly rotting to death. They stand in stark contrast to the opera house, built with the same megalomanic fervor, but nicely held in good shape. It spots a colossal, steely-glazing dome, canopying the country’s biggest stage.

But we should get to see something different, too. We didn’t know though until we had supper. Being driven around in a bus, getting to hear lifeless facts and anecdotes that lacked all feeling, Marco and me were instantly sold for the proposal of our local all-around-helpful-person Svetja to lead us around by foot. We were accompanied by Anastasia, a Russian-born girl from Germany who’s just doing an internship at a local bilingual newspaper. Having her around was (and continues to be) really helpful since she’s always quick to translate for us. Without such I wouldn’t even get my cola, not to speak of being able to follow Svetja’s tales – she only speaks Russian and little English.

Alas, our city tour should take a rather surprising turn. Having said supper, Svetja had the idea to lead us around in – Tomsk. Seen from Novosibirsk, it’s the nearest big city. Seen from our German perspective, it’s a far off town, located 250 km from here – a 4 hours ride, that is. Complaints over our lack of sleep would not be accepted: “How old are you? 19? You can sleep when you’re 80!” So we instantly agreed to take the tour.

It was just a few minutes after 6 pm when we made that decision, but until we had spent a last visit to the hotel, taken up Svetja’s boyfriend and gotten a new rear-view mirror for the car it was more like 7:30 pm. As you might have figured out already, if you need four hours for a ride of 250 km, you’re not driving very fast.

The road that connects two of the most important cities in Siberia is slightly uneven at least. At some points, it’s verbatim a pain in the ass. Marco should even make this experience in a special way. Having his driver’s license with him, he was the only one who could replace our already tired driver Svetja. Well, at least we thought so.

When we’d driven half of the distance, Marco agreed to take over the steering wheel. The question for the allowed maximum speed soon proved to be unnecessary. “Although 90 km/h is the speed limit for overland rides, but it is rarely exceeded due to the roadway,” he writes. But we still got into trouble with the police. Marco had been driving for some time when we reached a police block. He handed his driver’s license to them, and then a discussion between our Russian companions and the police started. It was only after the police had left that Marco and me got to know about its reason: He didn’t have a translation of his German driver’s license. Only Svetja’s luck had avoided a fine (at least she said so). Having become cautious after this incident, she took over the wheel again.

We reached Tomsk shortly before midnight. But it’s a student’s city and we got to feel it. We’ve had incredibly good weather all the time, but then it was only 13° C. Still there were people out in the parks and on the streets where ever we went.

Tomsk is kind of a counterpart to Novosibirsk. For long it has been what Novosibirsk is now: Siberia’s most important city. Having been founded in the early 17th century, it is really old for Siberian circumstances. As we drove down the city’s main street, historical buildings lined up along our way. Each resembling a palace, most of them are home to one of Tomsk’s many institutes for higher education. You can tell I’d like to study in such buildings one day, and if it’s just for the looks.

At some points it was just too obvious how Novosibirsk’s socialist classicism had taken its inspiration from the architecture of its old neighbor city. But unlike Novosibirsk, Tomsk is, to say it in one word, neat. Looking up into the cloudless sky we could see the stars. In Novosibirsk, we were told, that’s impossible – the city’s too light. Looking down onto our feet, we could see what I think indicates the difference between the two cities best. In Tomsk, the pavement is not just intact and clean, but it’s also perfectly even. In Novosibirsk, little Simon – usually not lifting his feet too much – constantly stumbled over bricks sticking out of the sidewalk.

Tomsk is also much flatter – indeed, pointing at one higher building Svetja told us that without it, there would be none of that kind in the whole city. I think this contributes to the city’s atmosphere – to me, high rising towers often seem anonymous, even repelling. Tomsk’s buildings in the contrary are quite unique – also because they stem from different epochs. In Novosibirsk, we were told, old buildings are simply replaced by newer ones, while in Tomsk they receive special attention. And while I’m all for innovation and renewal, the old often has an aesthetic the new is lacking.

Our stay in Tomsk didn’t last long. We left after barely more than one hour, starting a ride that brought us back to Novosibirsk at half past five in the morning. Still, the city has made a lasting impression on me. The aesthetics of its building, the openness of its squares and the beauty of its river quay, nearly reminding of an ocean side make Tomsk one of the nicest cities I’ve been to. Svetja’s short turn to one of the uglier quarters of the town couldn’t change that impression.

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