The Mole Diaries: Tomsk (Volume 2)
Russia is fantastic and bizarre in equal measure. You will need to have an open mind and embrace all traditions, no matter how strange they seem. Whether it’s stripping down naked and being beaten with leaves, pushing the frozen flesh, skin and bones of a herring down your throat, or jumping into an ice pool at -30°C, you’re far better off getting stuck in. I say that from experience.
I chose to study in Tomsk, a city in Western Siberia, not too far from the Kazakhstan – Mongolia border. First things first, it’s worth saying how brilliant a place Tomsk is to spend part of your year abroad. With plenty of universities, the city is teeming with students (over 20% of all inhabitants) and it has a lively, youthful feel. With a population of around 500,000 it is big enough that you have lots to explore, but small enough that you will feel like you know it by the end of your stay. I spent months there from September to January, meaning I felt the full force of the Siberian winter. Here are my tips.
Tomsk is full of students and experiencing the halls life is a good experience. There was a curfew in place at midnight, meaning you had to return by that time every evening, but this has recently been lifted, allowing you to go out speaking Russian until the early hours. My advice would be to just study the Russian language. That’s what I did at Tomsk State Pedagogical University, and my language improved massively. We all know that the language can be extremely hard, so work at it. Work hard and you will reap considerable rewards.
Living in halls, you can meet some great people. There may be times where you feel like a celebrity because people are so interested to hear everything about your life in England. Cherish these moments, as they are confidence boosters and a good chance for you to get patriotic. I paid £32 per month for my room, bathroom shared with one other person and an unnecessarily large kitchen. Everything worked (including the heating) very well and I would say without doubt that it was a better set-up than my first year accommodation in England.
There are many stereotypes about Siberia that you will discover not to be true. One of these is that it is not constantly cold. Yes, in December and January it can drop as low as -40°C, but particularly from May to September, the weather can be rather smashing. Whenever you go, take thermals, jumpers and other layers, but buy the big stuff out there. Buy your goose-down coat (about 4000 roubles for a man and a little more for a woman), fur-lined boots and any other Winter accessories from the central market on Ulitsa Lenina. You should haggle. There is a vast selection there and prices will drop.
If you arrive in February, you will obviously need to come a little more prepared, perhaps with your best coat from home, but even this may not be good enough at the really cold temperatures. Head to the market early on. You will also find the classic ‘shapka ushanka’ there, which will only add value to your new Russian style.
Russia has a lot of oil, so transport is pretty cheap. Taxis anywhere should never be more than 200 roubles, but I would recommend the ‘marshrutkas’. These are quicker than the big buses, fantastically regular and only 15 roubles a pop. You pay at the end of the journey, which might seem strange, but you will get used to it. Download the 2GIS app for your phone or find it online to get a breakdown of all Tomsk’s marshrutka, bus and tram routes.
If not particularly used to living in snowy conditions, you may also find that walking is a fun way to get around. The crunch of snow under your feet, chance to slide around and the crisp, clean air make it an enjoyable experience. Here's more information about Tomsk transport.
There are several clubs: Pravda, Teatro and Studio 46 among the most popular. They all offer something slightly different, so you should choose for yourself which one you like best. If it isn’t clubs you seek, try out the bars, which often will play music anyway. ‘Belie Doski’ near Tomsk Polytechnic University offers very cheap beers and food, but the service is poor. Make sure you order well in advance, or two beers if you’re thirsty.
One thing all bars and cafes seem to have in common is slow service. Food will come at random times, drinks might take a while and you often have to sit at a table and be served, rather than just getting your drink from the bar. Also, a lot of places ask you to book in advance, even when the bar is completely empty. It’s worth bearing this in mind for Kruger and Korona, two popular places.
Some Russian food can be peculiar to us. I recommend you try everything because even something that looks and sounds revolting can turn out to be quite appetizing. I had a bit of trouble with the raw, frozen fish, but I found pretty much everything else to be decent. The Russian attitude towards food is starkly different to that of the Italians or French, for example. Food in Siberia, particularly in Winter, serves the primary purpose of keeping you alive. There’s lots of broths and stews and stodgy, meaty things, which are necessary for the conditions. Eat lots and don’t feel embarrassed to do so. It is what is expected of you.
Go to the food markets and try your luck. It’s cheaper than the supermarkets and can be pretty fun. My favourite Russian dish was Pelmeny, which will be unavoidable. But also marvel in the delights of the bliny, plov and various other authentic goods found in stolovayas all over the place. As you might have guessed, you won’t find Marmite or Twinings out there, but there are Heinz Baked Beans.
Make the most of where you are and the amazing places you can visit. Get down to Novosibirsk Zoo, head further East to Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisei and even further to Irkutsk and the stunning Lake Baikal. There’s more spectacular scenery down in the Altai region, about a 12 hour bus journey from Tomsk which is well worth a visit too. Tomsk is in a part of the world that most of the people you know will never even have heard of. Explore and you will find some fantastic things.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is a must, if only to say that you’ve done it. It is relatively comfortable in the cheapest carriage (platskartniy) and you will meet some interesting characters for sure. Intercity bus journeys are a struggle. Seats that don’t fully recline and bumpy roads make for uncomfortable trips, but you have the reward of some great places at the other end. Here are some useful things to know about the Russian roads.
Setting up a Russian bank account proved to be such a hassle that I never got round to it. You may just have to bite the bullet and withdraw money using your normal debit or credit card. I’ve heard that the Caxton Card could be a good way to go. If you are looking to earn some money while you’re there, teaching English is really the only way.
Food and clothes prices are similar to what we have at home, but accommodation, transport and alcohol are noticeably cheaper. Find some friendly Russians or Kazakhs and they might just show you how to drink vodka, Russian-style. It’s a night you’ll want to remember.