|Tomsk: deep in the warm cushiony bosom of Mother Russia|
I hadn't slept all night, I was exhausted, I was exhilarated. How on earth could I possibly sleep? It was early in the morning, and I had my head out of the window of a Russian train, hair flapping, beard tugging. The tracks wound like a slithering snake through a thick green conifer forest. Golden morning light streamed through the pine-scented trees, I watched in glee as the long sunbeams and shadows danced across the train. The air was clean and brisk, I gulped it in. We were headed to a small town off the main line in the middle of Russia, where there was little chance of running into another American. Like Bilbo Baggins, I was on my way to an adventure!
|Russian train stations are always painted in pretty shades of pastel. Clearly the work of a female Tsarina|
I jumped a taxi to my hostel and planned my attack. Tomsk is known as a pretty college town, and I was greatly looking forward to a great night out with the students. After all, it was summer break and a beautiful Saturday. Would the streets be alive with frat-style campus parties? Would it be anything like, say, Ann Arbor Michigan with Adidas track-suits instead of khaki shorts?
But the first order of business, as it always is and always should be, was to grab my camera and tromp about the town to get a feel for the place. Like Irkutsk, Tomsk is full of pretty wooden mini-mansions that are remnants of the wealth of the White Russian flight to Siberia. In Tomsk as perhaps nowhere else in Russia, the art of "wooden lace" is taken to the extreme.
|Wood-lace is not as comfortable to wear as regular lace|
Believe it or not, wooden houses do not necessarily stand up very well to blizzards, termites, rain, snow, and the generally insane weather of Siberia. So unfortunately, as I walked through town and admired the houses, I couldn't help but notice how many of them were literally rotting apart. There were broken windows, sunken cross-beams, sagging foundations. And it was a shame, really. These were once gorgeous, artistic, colorful works of architecture full of history. Fortunately, a small handful of the very nicest and most famous houses were still maintained by the city for tourists.
|The awesome Dragon House!|
Once again my expectations of gray Soviet architecture were shattered. Not only were the pretty wooden houses set on leafy streets, but the broad main boulevards were lined with flower-filled parks, fountains, and classic university buildings. The main buildings were bright pastels and cream topped with art nouveau or art deco. It was all almost whimsical. I could not help but wonder if the feminine touch was a legacy of Tsarina Caterina.
The city was beautiful.
Now of course, there are still the obligatory Lenin statues, which seem to survive here and there. All the Stalin's have been yanked down, they are pretty hard to find. Which is not surprising given his murderous gulag campaigns. I couldn't help but wonder if the hulking stern gray Lenin statue in the very center of town was a way for Moscow to thumb it's nose at this town descended from White Russians.
|Peacock House is the prettiest, but sorry. Nothing beats Dragons|
The pretty Russian girl working the check-in at my hostel recommended I end my day tour by strolling the big park at the south of the city. And within moments of arriving, I knew it was my favorite place. The park is huge, with winding paths disappearing into tall dark groves. Within moments I was away from the noise of the city, leafy trees towering overhead, walking down a trail still covered in spiderwebs. No one had come this way today it seemed. And then, the trees parted and I beheld an incredible view across the river valley below. The sun was low, a few boats were floating in the river, silhouetted birds glided on thermals.
Tomsk was a place I could have lived.
|Love me some Russian churches. Gotta love dat Bling!|
I wandered back to the center of the park to the sound of Russian electronic music blasting from an enormous lifted limousine. A gaggle of young Russian girls in unmatched bridal dresses and a few boys in tuxedos spilled out and wandered up to the giant World War II memorial statue that dominated the square. But they couldn't take pictures yet, because another wedding party was already in line waiting for a 3rd wedding party that was actually taking pictures. The whole scene was hilarious, watching these women in perfect hair and make-up and 4" heels standing awkwardly in a park, drunk and yelling at each other over the bass beats.
|A quite moving memorial of a mother sending her son off to fight the Germans. Not shown: 4 wedding parties waiting to take pictures with memorial in background|
I had learned in Irkutsk that Russians don't just take wedding pictures in one location. The entire party drives around town along with the other dozens of weddings going on that day to the 5 or 6 designated wedding picture sites. Of course, within the well-stocked limousines the party goes on all day. As I walked the streets festooned limousines honked and lights flashed and girls standing up in sunroofs waved and screamed while swigging bottles of champagne. All in all, I think the Russians have the wedding thing dialed pretty good! Who needs to wait for the reception when you can turn the day's picture taking into a pub-crawl?! Or perhaps they were just ecstatic that the hour-long orthodox wedding ceremony was over.
Everyone is in on the party, smiling and waving back at the limousines as they drive through. The atmosphere of celebration infects the whole town and I found myself smiling and laughing most of the day along with everyone else.
So when I left the park and found one of the waiting groomsmen suddenly walk over to a trash can and puke, I suppose it wasn't much of a surprise.
This is Russia.
|There are so many weddings that the churches are booked. This was a parking lot wedding outside my hostel|