Sunday, 24 August 2014

Aug. 16-22: Yekaterinburg-Tobolsk-Omsk-Tomsk-Krasnoyarsk

Internationally Yekaterinburg is generally only known for being the place where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, but today it's Russia's fourth largest city, with a population of 1.4 million. Like Ufa, it feels like a real metropolis, but unlike Ufa its centre has an appealing kind of imperial grandeur to it, with a pleasant, broad pedestrianized boulevard dotted with sculptures, a large plaza alongside the river, and a wealth of imposing buildings. After two nights in Yekaterinburg we spent some two hours queuing up at the railway station's ticket office before finally getting our hands on tickets for the ten-hour night train to Tobolsk.

Tobolsk, our first stop in Siberia, is a much smaller place, with a population of under 100,000, though in the sixteenth century it served as the capital of Russian Siberia. It has a very provincial, small-town feel, and we felt a little conspicuous marching about with our rucksacks on speaking English, but it has a large, pristine white kremlin as a testament to its former importance. The kremlin is perched on top of a hill overlooking the old town, which consists of a scattering of beautiful churches and manors and a lot of crumbling old buildings. As we were exploring the old town we happened upon some kind of service happening in a small chapel. There were a lot of people there - far more than could fit inside the chapel - and most of the attendees were old babushki in headscarves, but most intriguing was a handful of people in military uniform. A couple of them were in some kind of ceremonial, formal uniform that looked as if it were straight out of the eighteenth century, and the others were in camouflage combat gear. There's an excessive array of different uniformed organisations within the Russian police and military structures, but these uniforms were unfamiliar to us; in fact, there was something not quite right about their uniforms, something a bit fake, which at first made us think they might be some kind of historical re-enactment society. But then we noticed that they were armed: the ones in the atavistic ceremonial dress had batons and the others had whips - that's right, whips! And a couple of these whip-carrying pseudo-soldiers began patrolling the perimeter, telling undesirable-looking alcoholics to vacate the area. Intrigued, we casually walked past a couple of them and inconspicuously peered at their badges, looking for a hint to their identity, and there it was written: Казаки - they were Cossacks, apparently working as unofficial police at a religious event. Before moving on we asked an old man what the service actually was, and he explained that it was in remembrance of those killed fighting in eastern Ukraine. That certainly explained the Cossacks' presence: a lot of Cossacks from Russia are fighting there in support of the Donetsk separatists.

After a day in Tobolsk we took a night train (13 hours) southeast to Omsk, a city of 1.2 million located at the confluence of the Irtysh and Om rivers. We only has three and a half hours there between trains and didn't even bother going to the centre, having heard that there's nothing much to see anyway. Instead we just killed a couple of hours wandering through shopping streets and along the river front before getting another long-distance train (14 hours) east to Tomsk.

Although Tomsk is much smaller than the similarly-named Omsk, with a population of 0.5 million, it's generally considered to be of much more interest to tourists, chiefly due its wealth of ornate wooden architecture. After a day in Tomsk, wandering around and enjoying the sights, we took yet another night train (13 hours) east to Krasnoyarsk.

Krasnoyarsk made an immediate impression on us when we arrived due to its appealing setting: hills topped with towering rock formations face the city from the opposite bank of the Yenisey river. This was especially appreciated after the endlessly flat Siberian plains and forests that we'd been seeing from the trains since Yekaterinburg. And Krasnoyarsk managed to live up to its initial promise: though the city of 1.0 million residents lacks specific touristic sights like those found in Tomsk and Tobolsk, it was generally attractive and had a great atmosphere, with chilled jazz inobtrusively playing out of speakers along the central avenue. After a day of walking around town - and despite getting hopelessly lost on the way to the station - we once again got on a night train, this time 11 hours southwards to Abakan.

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