Irkutsk

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Ten years ago, when travel was altogether an easier undertaking, I travelled by train to Siberia. Following the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and taking a few detours along the way, I eventually got as far as Lake Baikal before I turned around to head back home once more. The most easterly city I visited was Irkutsk. Lying at about the same latitude as Birmingham but as far east as Bangkok, it seemed strange after many days of rail travel to arrive in an Asian city that seemed to still cling firmly to Europe, or at least the part of Europe that was Russia.

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Lake Baikal

Listvankya on the northern shore of Lake Baikal in east Siberia is a small fishing village and port that also serves as a holiday destination for Russians in the short Siberian summer. By late September summer is definitely over and there was a melancholy end-of-season feel about the place when I visited in 2010. It was also surprisingly cold and the fact that Lake Baikal freezes so solidly in winter that you can drive trucks over it seemed perfectly believable.

This was the furthest east I got on that trip, having arrived in the nearby city of Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow. The Russian tourists had all left Listvyanka by the time I arrived and apart from a few fishermen, a handful of locals and a large population of ravens I had the place very much to myself.

Dacha

Reading a recent article on the excellent Earthlines blog about Gerry Loose, and then finding out more about the Scottish hutting movement and specifically the Carbeth hutters community in Stirlingshire, I have come to the conclusion that I am probably something of a closet hutter at heart. The best that I can ever probably hope for though is to have my own shed one day.

It is a common enough passion – indeed, books have been written about British (predominantly male) shed culture. But, with no rear garden and a backyard too small to comfortably squeeze a shed into, the closest I currently get to fulfilling my fantasy is my city allotment where I have inherited a tumbledown structure without door or window glass that is filled with garden tools and grumpy secretive spiders. Too small and decrepit to serve as a comfortable retreat, this shed is clearly no place to linger but at least I have a plastic chair en plein air for whenever I need a rest from wrenching couch grass out of the ground. 

In northern Europe, and especially in Scandinavia and Russia where even the middle classes live in apartment blocks,  the situation is quite different. Here, many city dwellers have a wooden hut and a patch of ground to call their own – a simple rural haven where they can enjoy a little R&R and temporary respite from urban life. No nation embraces this tradition more than Russia, where a country dacha is seen not only as a place to grow vegetables but something akin to a holiday home: a base for collecting berries and mushrooms in autumn, for fishing, for sunbathing; a place for friends and family to gather around food, to drink vodka, play games and sing. A dacha is a place to spend summer weekends al fresco, a place where city children can learn about nature. In Russian society, a dacha serves a function that is a combination of allotment garden, beach hut and social club. To have a dacha is not a Walden-like solitary pursuit but, rather, something that proudly shouts out ‘community!’

I was lucky enough to visit a dacha a couple of years ago on a long, late-summer Russian journey from Pskov, close to the Estonian border, to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. At Krasnoyarsk, 18 hours west of Irkutsk on the the Trans-Siberian railway, I had arranged to stay in the family apartment of a local tour guide and political science lecturer called Anatoliy. After picking me up at the station and meticulously showing me all the permutations of the city bus route to and from his identikit Khrushchevki apartment block (the very last stop, thankfully) he took me out to show me his country dacha that, coincidentally, was close to the railway tracks that I had just travelled along. 

There is more to Siberia than gulags and permafrost but life is hard nonetheless. In the few months of the year when the ground is not snow-covered there are plenty of other things to contend with, notably predatory mosquitoes and nasty infective ticks everywhere in the grass. Given such limitations, I was hugely impressed by the size and vigour of Anatoliy’s cabbages and also by the efforts he took to tend them given that we had driven for more than an hour to reach the dacha. Even more  impressive was the air of autumnal tranquility that seemed to hang over the place like a healing balm. In Siberia, autumn may be just a brief golden precursor to a long dark winter but  September is the most glorious of months.

Tomsk Waits

In contrast to the northwest Scotland of previous posts, the central Siberian city of Tomsk is indisputably East of Elveden – both figuratively and geographically. It is, after all, almost one quarter of the way around the world heading east from where I write. I spent a few grey rainy days here last autumn as a side trip to a long Trans-Siberian rail journey.

Tomsk lies just north of the main Trans-Siberian line, a sizeable city of about half a million sitting on the right bank of the Ob, a river that snakes its way north from here to the Gulf of Ob and the Arctic Ocean. Tomsk isn’t Arctic though – it lies at about the same latitude as Moscow and Glasgow, although it does drop to less than −20 °C in winter. Back in the 19th century, Tomsk was populated mostly by Cossacks, Tatars and political exiles but the city was side-stepped during the building of the Trans-Siberian railway line, when the new city of Novosibirsk (‘New Siberia’) was favoured as a stop instead.

These days Tomsk is a youthful, student-filled city; a relatively attractive place by Siberian standards, with a clutch of trendy brightly lit cafes around Ploschad Lenin, its central square. Trendy coffee bars are all the rage in the new Russia – even in backwoodsy Siberian cities like Tomsk. Here you’ll find ‘Travellers Coffee’, where you can get a pricey ‘bolshoi’ cappuccino, and another place called ‘Food Master’ – in a land where the Cyrillic alphabet reigns supreme, Latin script and English names are considered a guarantee of Western sophistication… or cheerless fast food. Food Master dishes up Mexican food with a pronounced Siberian accent – fajitas with beetroot, refried beans with dill and so on. There’s also an awkwardly translated English menu that temptingly offers ‘Languages with mushroom sauce’ and ‘Fat lard’ – fusion cuisine perhaps, but with a ‘con-’ prefix. Even here, in an establishment that is unapologetically ‘New Russia’, a Soviet-era fixation persists that has each component priced according to weight and itemised on the final bill – bread (the precise number of slices), sauce, garnish, meat (again precise, eg: ‘pig meat, 100g’) – as it would be the humblest factory workers’ stolovaya canteen. Actually, stolovayas are the places that I generally try and seek out – redolent of boiled cabbage, they promise cheap wholesome stodge served up by plump headscarfed women – just point and smile (or scowl if you want to blend in). It’s a genuine retro experience: school dinners, Soviet style. There is one of these tucked away in a basement a little further along Prospekt Lenin.

Stylish cafes are not the only concession to Western culture. Halfway along the high street a gable is covered with an enormous poster of gravel-voiced American troubadour Tom Waits standing astride a railway line and bellowing into a microphone windscreen mounted on a crooked stick – very much Tom the iconic hobo poet. The club in the basement beneath is called ‘Underground’ (a song from Swordfishtrombones) and, of course it is a lovely pun – Tom(sk) Waits – geddit. It seems unlikely that Tom Waits’ management is aware of this brazen Siberian deployment but equally doubtful that Californian copyright law stretches quite this far.  Waits is well known as an enthusiastic litigator of those who besmirch his image but this one seems to fit the brand perfectly.

Drop down a street or two to the west, away from the clubs and cafes of Prospekt Lenin, and you immediately find yourself in Old Siberia. A leafy street called Tatarskaya (this was once the city’s Tatar quarter) has old wooden houses with elaborately carved window surrounds and friezes. Poor, a little tumbledown but undeniably picturesque, this is the sort of thing that tourists  come to see, although most tend not to wander this far off the direct Trans-Siberian route between Yekaterinberg and Irkutsk.

Heading further north along Prospekt Lenin you soon reach a part of town that seems to have far more resonance with the old Soviet Union. Naturally enough, there is a Lenin statue here – this one in ‘hailing a taxi’ pose – as well as some brutalist Stalin-era civic buildings, Krushchevski apartment blocks and rusting boats at the river quay. This really could be a scene from almost anywhere in the former USSR pre-1991 but it is not – it is simply a matter of post-Soviet redevelopment not quite reaching this far uptown yet.

Tomsk may have once been lauded as the ‘Siberian Athens’ thanks to its univeristies and large number of students but Anton Chekhov did not like it one bit, although surely it must have been an improvement on the penal colony at Sakhalin Island that he had visited prior to passing through the town.

He wrote to his sister: ‘Tomsk is a very dull town. To judge from the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made, and from the intellectual people who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull, too.’

Quite understandably, Tomsk citizens have never quite forgiven this scathing dismissal of their city and in response have erected a mocking statue of Chekhov close to the university. Perhaps wounded by the accusation of  dullness, the authorities seem keen these days to instil some European-style civic fun into the Tomsk city calendar. They have inaugurated a carnival, and the one I witnessed last year was the fifth according to the posters. Roads were closed and a stage set up in the main square where a variety of acts came on to dance and mime to Russian turbo-pop. There was even a group of African djembe drummers hired for the task who grinned amiably as they performed to a bemused crowd that did not really know quite what to do. Young families and groups of friends watched the action on the stage and took pictures of each other with their mobile phones before sloping off for an ice-cream. No doubt it will take a while for imported carnival culture to catch on here – just two decades ago, rather than drumming Africans or disco-dancing teenagers, the citizens of Tomsk were watching processions of tanks and soldiers with supersized hats march by.

While Tomsk may struggle with the concept of carnival it is doing well in the world of football. In recent years the city’s home side FC Tom Tomsk (their logo in Cyrillic spells TOMb) has risen like an eagle up the divisions to reach the dizzy heights of the Russian Premier League. It remains there, respectably mid-table, to this day. The Hotel Sputnik where I stayed is located right next door to the team’s stadium but sadly I had to move on to Irkutsk the day before their fixture with Lokomotiv Moscow.

For a look at another quirky Russian city, Kazan, take a look at my feature in the latest edition of hidden europe magazine here.