Siberia Archives

Tyumen’ – Exiles and Oligarchs

                Travelling eastwards into Asia, Tyumen’ is the first major city once entering the vast
land known as Siberia.  Tyumen’ is
located about a four hour drive from Ekaterinburg and the Ural mountains.  Being the first city in Siberia going east,
it only seems natural that Tyumen’ is also the oldest settlement in Siberia as
the Russian empire expanded eastward. 
Today, Tyumen’ is a modern, vibrant city of over half a million
residents and an important stop along the Trans-Siberian Railway.

                Tyumen’s city center is a fine mixture of historical buildings and super modern glass
and steel highrises.  According to the
residents I have talked to , Tyumen’ is one of the most expensive cities in
Russia and even thoughy it isn’t quite as expensive as Moscow, the prices are
comparable.  Much of the city center is
filled with modern expensive looking shops and seems to be a popular place for
the wealthy.

                At the same time, Tyumen’ has also had quite a dark history.  As the first major city in Siberia, it was an
important junction for exiles and prisoners being sent eastwards.  Many prisoners were shuffled around and
sorted out in Tyumen’ as they were separated into their destinations further
down the road.  And of course many
prisoners were not so lucky as Tyumen’ became their final resting grounds.  The person who showed me around the city
would point to an old building and mention that this building was a temporary
jail for transported prisoners or that building was where certain famous exiles
were kept.  One of the most eerie things
she mentioned as we walked along one of the main streets was the fact that a
sizeable stretch of sidewalk was much softer than the surrounding asphalt and
had a very ‘spongy’ texture because this particular area had once been an open
pit where the city administration dumped the dead bodies of unknown
prisoners.  The sidewalk was in fact
noticeable ‘spongy’ and although I don’t know if the story is genuine, it seems
wrong to be walking over such a mass grave.

                Another interesting fact about Tyumen’ is that it was in this city where the communist
leader, V. I. Lenin was embalmed. 
Tyumen’ was also the temporary resting place of the embalmed Lenin
during the second World War when it seemed that Moscow might be taken
over.  There is a monument to the scientist
who embalmed Lenin in front of the university building where he was embalmed
and kept during the second World War.



Tomsk – Made of Wood



        Tomsk is a medium size town deep in the heart of Siberia. It thrives today despite the fact that the transsiberian railway does not pass through it because of its educational institutes. And because the transsiberian railway does not pass through the town, it hasn’t grown into a huge city like its closest neighbors, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Omsk. This also means that you can only get to Tomsk by road, but it is an easy road trip from Novosibirsk through extremely flat plains.

        Tomsk is mostly known for its collection of beautifully ornate wooden archetecture, the main tourist attraction here. You can easily find transportation from the bus station to the main street in the center of town which runs parallel to the river and to the street where the wooden archetectures are mostely located. When I travelled to Tomsk, I saved the wooden structures for last.

        First, I went to the center of town and got off at the park. For the most part, the park is normal like any other park. But to make this park distinctively ‘Tomsk’, the city has placed a huge wooden monument of a one rouble coin. It may not be super spectacular, but is unique enough to take a photo.

        From here, it is a nice leisurely walk through the cinter of town and along the river. Eventually one arrives at the Tomsk theater which overlooks the river. Here, you can see a hill where Tomsk’s main wooden structure stands overlooking the rest of the city. This is Tomsk’s old firehouse. The walk over is quite an uphill climb from Tomsk’s theater and it’s Lenin staute which is situated in the middle of a traffic circle just before the hill.

        The bright yellow firehouse doesn’t exactly stand out, mostly hidden by the trees growing on the hill. But its usually pretty easy to spot the wooden tower on top. And once arriving at the firehouse, it is quite impressive. The inside of the firehouse is a small museum about wooden archetecture, and the small admission fee includes a chance to climb up the wooden tower and get a nice view of the city. The hill is mostly green with trees and with the river in the distance, it makes for a very picturesque view.

        Another leisurely walk back down the hill will lead back to the center of the city, and this time, you can walk along the street with its wooden structures. Most of the wooden structures today function as normal businesses and organizations. But of course, these businesses and organizations don’t mind people taking photos. After all, the beautifully ornate wooden structures will naturally attract photo takers.

        Once at the end ot the street, there really isn’t much else to see. There are a handful of museums one can visit, although I haven’t visited any other than the old firehouse.

        Tomsk is a comfortable size city located an easy distance away from Novosibirsk and transportation between the two cities is frequent and easy. It is a good day trip to take from Novosibirsk. If you ever find yourself in Novosibirsk, Tomsk is definitely worth a visit.




Omsk – Gateway to Siberia



        Out in the middle of the Russian steppe where the Om River and the Irtysh River meet, there is a huge city – the city of Omsk. Omsk is the second biggest city in Siberia (eighth in Russia), slightly smaller than one of its nearest neighbors and the ‘captial’ of Siberia – Novosibirsk.

        The land here is extremely flat and featureless, and the city is spread out and feels extremely spacious. Omsk has its fair share of nine plus story buildings, but because they are relatively far apart, Omsk doesn’t feel very crowded. Big buildings here seem to be dwarfed by the size of the land. And Omsk has its fair share of big buildings.

        One of the main landmarks and highlights of Omsk is the Omsk Dormition Cathedral, an enourmous and very colorful orthodox church right in the center of town. This church has one of the biggest onion domes I have ever seen. From the ground, this church is an impressive size, but because the church territory is quite spacious and empty, and because the streets around the church are extremely and unusually wide, aerial views of the church offered on postcards and other courveniers make this church seem quite normal or even small in size.

        Walking alond the main streets of Omsk can be quite interesting. Randomly scattered along the sidewalks of the main streets are bronze sculptures. Apparently, the idea of bronze sculptures randomly placed on the sidewalk which so many Russian cities have copied originated from Omsk. Omsk is the only city that I know of that does this on normal sidewalks rather than on pedestrian streets. Two of the more famous sculptures are that of a man’s upper torso coming out of what is supposed to be a manhole (nicknamed Uncle Vasya), and a lone woman in a very elaborate 19th century dress patiently waiting on one end of a bronze bench for people to sit down and have their photos taken.

        The main park in Omsk is also worth a visit. Across the street from the park is a huge morose monument of Dostoevsky, but there isn’t anything morose aabout the park. It’s quite vibrant, active and crowded. What makes this park unique from other parks is its colleciton of elaborate plants shaped into the form of animals. Different plants are used to give these animals color. Moss and short grass is used to shape a crocodile and a coupld of turtles. Different colorful bushes are used to form a Domovoe, or Russian elf. The biggest and most elaborate animal in the park is a huge peacock with its tail feathers fanned out on the ground in an array of colors. This park is especially quite popular with the kids but is quite a hit among adults as well.

        Omsk also has an active athletic community. In the summer, sandy beaches along the river is a popular place to go swimming and sunbathing. Unlike many Russian cities, Omsk has capitalized on its beaches lining it with hotels and cafes and building decent attractive sidewalks for beach goers. Hockey is the dominant sport in the winter time, and Omsk has one of the best and most well-known hockey arenas in Russia. Omsk is also the home of the Siberian International Marathon, an international standard and foreigner friendly race that offers five different competition distances including a rollerblading race. The Siberian International Marathon is the biggest race in Russia with more participants than Moscow’s Peace marathon and St. Petersburg’s White Nights marathon combined. With a beautiful course that starts and finishes at the orthodox church and runs alongside the river, it’s no wonder its a big race. But the Siberian Internationa marathon is well publicized not only in Russia, but abroad as well.

        Omsk is a huge city located in an even bigger area of land surrounded by nothingness. Omsk has many unique sites, although nothing so famous that it stands out among other Russian giants. Omsk can so easily be overlooked. And yet Omsk has been quite successful at making its prescence known. The tourist sites in Omsk has been well planned out. Hospitality in Omsk is one of the best in Russia and the people of Omsk are very welcoming and foreigner friendly. Most importantly, Omsk has successfully been able to publicize itself to the world and comfortably accommodate visitors A trip to Siberia is not complete without a stopover in this wonderful city.




Novosibirsk – Center of CCCP


       If you and a friend were to start at opposite ends of Russia and travelled at exactly the same speed, one travelling east and the other travelling west, you would in theory eventually meet each other in or around Novosibirsk. Novosibirsk is a huge city of over one million residents. For the person travelling eastward, Novosibirsk is the last city in Russia with more than one million; for the person travelling westward, Novosibirsk is the first.

        There are many interesting facts about Novosibirsk. Novosibirsk has the longest metro bridge in the world, spanning the River Ob, Novosibirsk has the largest theatre in Russia, and probably the most interesting bit of trivia is that Novosibirsk was the fastest city to grow from nothing to one million people in population. Novosibirst was developed in the previous century as a city far enough away from the risk of invasion during the Great Patriotic War and many academics and war planners settled here to strategize far away from the action. Today, Novosibirsk is the third largest city in Russia, and continues to have a huge academic community.

        With all of these huge facts about Novosibirsk, it is no surprise that Novosibirsk likes things big. Novosibirsk’s Lenin statue which is in front of the theatre is not the biggest in the world, but it is really grand and impressive with perfectly chiselled, strong and willing workers backing him up on either side. Novosibirsk’s park is also worth a visit. Randomly dotting the territory of the park are huge color pencils the size of tree trunks. These color pencils stick out of the ground as if a giant got bored of coloring and decided to start sticking pencils into the ground.

        Novosibirsk also knows how to hype up and promote events. I went to Novosibirsk to run its annual half marathon in September. From the minute I landed at the airport, I could see advertisements for the half marathon everywhere. Ads for the half marathon were on every shop window and on almost all billboards. there was even a huge ad for the half marathon plastered on the side of a buildoing right in the center of town. Only a blind person wouldn’t know about the upcoming event.

        The half marathon starts right in front of Lenin and the theatre, and the route of the marathon takes you past the most famous landmark of Novosibirsk. This landmark is a chuch located right in the middle of the busiest street in the city. Apparently, this church is supposed to be the very center of the Soviet Union. I don’t know how people were able to calculate that, but it certainly makes for an interesting story whether it is true or not. During the half marathon which was three laps up and down this main street, I passed by the church six times. On a normal day with heavy traffic, however, you can get to this church by underground walkways in which you have to pass a maze of shops selling everything from underwear to mobile phones.

        Almost all of Novosibirsk’s sights are concentrated in the center of the city, which is great for tourists. If you want to get away from the center for a bit, a twenty minute walk along the main street from the church in the center of the Sovien Union will take you to the River Ob. Along the banks of the river is a semi-decent boardwalk park you can walk around, and see the massive metro bridge that spans the river. About half a kilometer from the bridge is a random section of bridge which starts and ends nowhere. It makes you wonder if this section of bridge was the original plan or if it fell apart. Whatever the purpose was to keep it standing, it’s almost like an artpiece now, making ignorant passersby like myself contemplate its purpose, its past, and maybe its future.

        This is something that we certainly don’t have to contemplate about the city itself. It’s relatively short past is rather quite interesting, it’s purpose as an academic center in Russia is quite clear, and this active, vibrant city certainly seems to have a big future.




Lake Baikal – Running on Ice



       It was early March 2008; not exactly the time when people think about going to Siberia. However, I had a reason to go. The reason for my trip to Lake Baikal during one of the coldest months of the year was for their annual ‘Zimnada’ winter sports competition. The highlight of the sports competition was the Lake Baikal Ice Running marathon in which competitors were to run 42,195 km across the frozen lake from the eastern shores near Tankhoi to the western shores at Listvyanka. Marathons are extreme enough, but this was probably the most extreme marathon I had ever done.

        I arrived at Sheremetovo 1, where I would catch a domestic flight from Moscow to Irkutsk. I had already registered for the marathon, but I did not know that the marathon organizers would be waiting for me when I arrived. As I boarded the late night flight out of Moscow, I happened to notice the huge number of Germans on my flight. I would later learn that I was flying with practically everyone I would compete against.

        As it turns out, the Lake Baikal Ice Running marathon was the brainchild of a German runner who had been travelling to Lake Baikal twice a year for several years now. The annual marathon had begun three years earlier and still didn’t have the publicity of many other marathons throughout the world. Although the marathon organizers were trying to promote the race to a wider audience, the race was still quite small with less than fifty competitors with over half of the participants coming from Germany. As a matter of fact, I only found out about this marathon through an advertisement at an earlier marathon which I had done in München.

        A few hours after take-off, I woke up to the bright sun shining through the small window as we flew east to a place five hours ahead of Moscow. I looked out the window and saw the clear blue sky above, and bright whiteness below. It took me a few minutes to realize that I was not looking at clouds. Below me was the snow-covered Siberian landscape. The only indication that I was looking at the ground was the occasional shack poking out of the snow. There were no signs of trees, meandering rivers, hills, roads, or anything else that resembled normal topography.

        When we landed, I was surprised to see a woman holding up my name as we arrived at the baggage claim. She introduced herself as Alexandra, and she would be the English speaking coordinator who would make sure that everything concerning the marathon went smoothly. Her German speaking counterpart, Yulia, gathered the German runners together. I didn’t know what I was really expecting when I arrived to Irkutsk, but I wasn’t expecting such efficiency. I collected my bags and was herded onto a bus along with forty German speakers. Not even an hour had passed since we landed and we were already on our way out of Irkutsk and heading towards Listvyanka, where the finish of the marathon and our hotel would be.

        As we drove towards Listvyanka, I got to know some of the German runners and tried to practice the little German I had once known and forgotten when I learned Russian. All of the competitors were staying at the same hotel in Listvyanka, the Hotel Mayak. For the next three days, we would have meals together and see a lot of each other. When we arrived in Listvyanka, it became clear that we were going to get to know each other very well. The Hotel Mayak was located right on the shore of Lake Baikal, and other than a café, two small shops, and an ice palace built right on the frozen lake, there was nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. It seems like it would be a boring place. Had I been alone, it probably would have been. However, like summer camp, we were kept so busy and spent so much time with each other that we never had a chance to get bored.

        We had a free day the day before the marathon. I woke up early and had a jog on the frozen lake along with a handful of other runners who had the same idea. Then we had a full schedule of activities ahead of us. The marathon organizers planned a whole excursion for us. We went to a museum where we saw the unusual flora and fauna of the Lake Baikal region. Some of the facts about Lake Baikal is truly amazing. Lake Baikal is famous for being the deepest lake in the world at almost two kilometers deep. Lake Baikal also has more water than any other lake and still boasts as being the cleanest lake in the world with a water clarity almost double of the second clearest lake.

        After the museum, we went to a ski resort where we were able to take lifts to the top of a nearby mountain and get a clear view of the lake down below. The whole lake was a barren, frozen, white desert stretching for forty kilometers to the other side where we would start the marathon. The only indication that there was a lake below us was the fast-flowing Angara River to the south, which stays unfrozen.

        That night, I walked about 100m out onto the ice and looked out into total darkness. The ice palace and hotel behind me were the only source of light. The following day, I would be forty kilometers away running towards where I was standing. It was an awesome thought. I had the pre-race jitters. When I went to bed that night, I couldn’t sleep. Not because of nervousness, but because of jet lag! At midnight, it was only 7pm in Moscow!

        The next morning, I woke up rested and had breakfast with all the other runners. Six vans and three hovercrafts were parked out front ready to transport us across the lake. After breakfast, we headed out to the vans. On the frozen lake was a huge finish line and small red flags every 100m or so to guide us across the lake.

        We loaded the vans and started across the lake. It was quite an adventure. Although vehicles can and regularly do travel on the frozen lake, very few vehicles actually cross the lake, which means there are no roads. For a small pond, which freezes evenly, this would not be a problem. For the biggest lake in the world with its currents, things don’t freeze so smoothly. Large chunks of ice freeze together leaving a jagged landscape, some of the ice chunks forming towers almost twice as high as the vans we rode in. The ride across the lake was slow and bumpy. We were meandering along a path of crushed ice that had been previously carved out by the marathon organizers who had put the red flags in the ice. This would be the path we ran back on.

        After about thirty kilometers, we came across a long delay. The first van had spotted water and the organizers where wondering what to do. It wouldn’t be good to have anyone fall through the ice far from land. Half an hour later, we were ordered out of the vans. The competitors were transported across the slush in the hovercrafts while the drivers of the vans each took turns gunning their vehicles across the small river in the ice. I couldn’t help thinking that if anything were to happen, those vans would sink two kilometers to an icy grave.

        The vehicles made it across, and we loaded the vans and continued on out way. We finally arrived at the start line two hours behind schedule, and one hour after the marathon was supposed to start. Fifty competitors got out of the vans and quickly got ready for the start of the race. In the mean time, the six vans were already heading back towards Listvyanka where they would stop at five kilometer intervals and serve as aid stations for the race.

        The temperature was a crispy -7 degrees, the sun was shining and we were all set to go. The gun went off, and the fourth Lake Baikal Ice Running marathon was finally under way one and a half hours behind schedule. The first five kilometers were very slow going as we ran through about a foot of snow. Most runners stayed in a single file line, running along the tire tracks, and using the second set of tire tracks as a passing lane. When we got to the small river along the course, we saw that the race organizers had improvised by putting a few wooden planks across the water as the hovercrafts hovered nearby in case of an accident. In the heat of the competition, none of the runners including myself seemed too concerned of the danger there.

        It wasn’t until I reached the fifteenth kilometer that it dawned on me how amazingly crazy this was. I was running across a smooth field of ice not covered by snow. Looking down at the ice and two kilometers of nothingness below me, I felt slightly frightened. I could clearly see the cracks where the ice froze together and how deep they went. Fortunately, I was too focused on getting to the finish line and not slipping to worry about the fact that the nearest land was two kilometers directly below me.

        I continued along the endless, monotonous route occasionally passing or getting passed by other runners. Every five kilometers, there was a group of volunteers to cheer us on and hand out goodies. After spending three days together, everyone knew each other, and it felt comforting hearing my name along with encouragements.

        The last five kilometers of the race was the toughest five kilometers I have ever run in any marathon. Because of the landscape, the finish line was now in sight, although five kilometers away. From this distance, I could hear the music blasting away at the finish line. But no matter how much I ran across the jagged surface, the finish line didn’t seem to get any closer. I was overcome by fatigue and frustration, enhanced by the fact that the temperature was sub-zero. It seemed as if the finish line were teasing me, staying just out of reach.

        At the forty kilometer marker with two kilometers to go, I was caught up by a Polish competitor who encouraged me to run the rest together. Somehow, I regained the energy needed to run alongside the Pole and the finish line was finally drawing near. With about 200 meters to go, the Polish runner asked me to help him. He pulled out a Polish flag from his back pocket and handed me two corners of the flag. We ran the last 200 meters and crossed the finish line together waving the Polish flag.

        After hugging each other and getting congradulations from race officials, we were led to a set of tables where other runners were already enjoying hot bowls of kasha. I was just settling in with my bowl of kasha when a journalist and cameraman asked me for an interview. As one of the few foreigners who could speak Russian and as the only Japanese competitor, they wanted to get my impression of the race. I felt honoured although I struggled through the interview.

        After the kasha and a nice hot shower, we went to the hotel’s banquet hall where there was a huge party for the marathon competitors. It was by far the greatest post race party ever. By now, everyone were practically friends. It almost seemed sad that the next day, we would head back to Irkutsk, then to Moscow, and then our separate ways. We all toasted to Andrey, the German race director who had the dream, Alexei, the Russian counterpart who made it all possible, and of course to Yulia and Alexandra who made sure that everything went smoothly for the foreigners throughout the whole marathon weekend.

        Although Lake Baikal is a popular summer destination, it is also a very beautiful place to visit in the winter time. Very few experiences compare to the chance to walk along the frozen lake. Winter time also offers the chance to ski or snowboard at some of the resorts where you can get a clear view of the frozen lake. And of course, if anybody feels up to the challenge of a lifetime, the Lake Baikal Ice Running marathon takes place annually on the first weekend of March. They also offer a half marathon. You can find out more information about this marathon at Aeroflot flies daily to Irkutsk from Sheremetovo 1 at one in the morning.