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Tomsk is not just a womble

To get to Tomsk we have to make a connection that means 6 hours in the middle of the night in Taiga, an unimpressive industrial town. After some phrasebook fumbling and dodging a couple of Russians passed out from the national drink, we find the resting rooms. Above the station they’re like a mini-hotel where it’s possible to crash for a couple of hours if you don’t mind the whistles and toots of trains coming and going. Many of the trains out of here are bearing minerals and logs from Siberia and if you can’t sleep it’s easy to count trains. We’re out in about five minutes.

The matron of the resting rooms wakes us an hour before our train is due to depart. We’re in the notorious platskart, an open sleeper that has bunks crammed into every possible space – up to three lining each wall. There’s always someone walking by and security is nonexistent. It’s a short hop of a couple of hours so we grab a couple more hours sleep and keep our bags close by. Temperature-wise it’s actually more pleasant than the banya (Russian sauna) heat of our kupeyny (compartment class) of the earlier ride, making it easier to sleep. The thermometer in the kupeyny was over thirty degrees which made an odd disconnection from snowy Siberia sliding past outside.

Just off the Tran-Siberian line proper, we arrive in Tomsk, a buzzing university town known for its wooden houses. Today they range from almost derelict to magnificently restored to slanting into derelict. We walk down ulitsa Krasnoarmeyskaya to admire the elaborately carved Peacock House, with doilies of lattice and slender woodwork birds crowning the building.

By contrast there’s the ugliness of former KKVD buildings that’s variously known as the Oppression Museum or Memorial. The NKVD were the forerunners for/of the KGB and were responsible for some of the most horrific acts of Stalin’s purges. There’s no English explanations at the museum, but you can easily work out the stories of priests, poets and intellectuals who were imprisoned and interrogated here.

Elsewhere in the town there’s Christianity, but not as we know it. At Kazansky Church there’s/are icons and bearded priests reminiscent of Greek Orthodox, because this is the faith that was linked to the Constantine Empire which split from European Christianity during the dark ages. The most obvious difference is the Eastern cross, that includes another cross bar at the base where Jesus’ feet would have rested.

Our final chore in Tomsk is to get our visas registered. This should be a simple process where your paperwork is stamped to say that you have arrived in the country, but our hotel takes almost 12 hours. It’s boring but important stuff because in Moscow police reportedly work the train stations to fine passengers as they hop off trains. The visa is returned just as we head to bed in marvel of Russian service. On the trains we’d already seen that our food would cool while a waiter finished a chapter of their Mills & Boon novel. In Russia the customer isn’t always right, they’re just always an irritation for staff.

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