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Friday, September 29, 2006

From Tomsk

Now in Tomsk, an overnight train ride east from Omsk. Go figure.

Email and internet access has been pretty sparse so many stories and pics have fallen between the cracks. So it is I find it hard to find the end of the thread to share it all.

We are in Tomsk, a university town of less than 500,000. It's so far the smallest city we've stayed in and, not surprisingly, the smaller it gets the nicer it is. Somehow more familiar, more accessible, more human scaled.

Chris and I took a bit of a day trip today via bus from Tomsk to a small town on the outskirts. Our guidebook heralds the small village of Kolorovo as the quintessential Siberian settlement. It was breathtaking, the taiga (northern pine, fir, spruce and larch forests) are on fire with autumn colours, the small river passing through the town with its gray wooden houses, dirt roads, and an Orthodox church built in 1799. The one bus stop in town had two old women, one selling the wares from her farm. We bought some fresh cheese curds and tried our best to chat with them. They were joyful and warm and bubbled with kindness. We visited the small church and after I asked if it was OK to take photos, a young woman, head covered, came out to find us and ask if we wanted to climb up the bell tower with her. She opened the padlock and led us up the narrow, steep stairs. She is the bell ringer and organist. Again, with our Russian-English dictionary, lots of smiles and hand waving, we shared a small bit of who we are. She was very proud of the church and happy to share it with us. We returned to the women at the bus stop and sat waiting for the bus, watching wedding after wedding come through.

Which, by the way, brings me to a question I seem unable to ask and therefore unable to have answered here. If any of you are Russofiles and know the answer, do tell: Why does it seem that Russian weddings happen all at the same time? Whenever we see a bride, we see four or five brides. All at the same place at the same time. Yet they didn't seem to be getting married in the church at the same time and the wedding parties were not one and the same. People congregated near each other but not together. Why is this?

Other interesting notes. We've been travelling third class all the way up until our trip from Omsk to Tomsk where only second class tickets were left. We paid the double fare and rode in somewhat style. Platskartny (or 3rd class) are open berths (i.e. no doors) where people are packed like sardines, six into a small space. Kupeyny (or 2nd class) has only four people in a berth with wider and longer beds, table cloths, better service, and doors that close. Travelling platskartny, we've met students, pensioners, teachers, military men, dog breeders. There is no shortage of what appear to me older people, farmers, small village residents. As soon as we got into 2nd class, our cabinmates were a fancy couple who covered their coats in plastic bags to keep them clean, talked on their cell phones, pulled out their laptop. They too were nice and shared their grapes with us, but the connection was somehow different and less easy, less genuinely curious. If any of you have read Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory, I think you'll understand what I'm getting at (yes, Dave, I'm thinking of you). So, our ticket for the day after tomorrow, Tomsk to Krasnoyarsk, will be platskartny all the way. OK the bathrooms are filthy and the air stuffy, but somehow I like the insanity, the melange of people, the way we all share food, conversation, kindness.

Oh my. There is still so very, very much. When we first got to Russia, I was completely overwhelmed. The language barrier in particular was so enormous and everything so complicated, it was exhausting to just walk down the street. But now, somehow, with time, I'm getting used to the rhythms, to communicating in our own particular brand of language, and to Russia in general. Tomsk has been the first town I've actually thought I could settle in for real.

Yesterday we started looking at the "Teach Yourself Chinese" book in anticipation of the same confusion when we get to China. Mongolia will be its own adventure. Chris is looking into meeting up with some throat singers right now.

If I was to say one thing about Russia, I'd have to say two things. The first is that the people, by and large, are extremely friendly, unbelievably helpful, and monumentally generous. They may seem cold at first, but there have been times when we have expected nothing and got everything. Secondly is that yes, this is a different place in so many ways. Sometimes we are saddened when we see things falling apart, especially buildings, or the drab Soviet era apartment blocks. But once you get past all this, past the government stamps on restaurant menus or in bread bags, past the stray dogs and the diesel engines pumping exhaust, past the ancient buses with cracks and rust, you start to see a genuine and deep beauty. Like when you come inside from a sunny day, it takes some time for your eyes to adjust and for you to see fully. Now more than ten days in Russia, little by little the real beauty and ingenuity of this place starts to become evident.

All very romantic, yes? Maybe even a bit cheesy? Maybe. I think I'm pretty good at that.

OK, we'll maybe write more while in Tomsk as this internet cafe is right across the street from our hostel.

Much love to all and everyone!

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Love love love reading all of this...can't wait to see pictures! I can picture you both so easily--working to communicate, always finding something to laugh about. Keep up the writing when you can. I'll ask around any Russian folks I see about the weddings :) Lots of love from us here!