Siberia: The Exile Trail

New Siberia
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
July 30 2003 2:26 PM

Siberia: The Exile Trail

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Today's slide show: Images from Novosibirsk.

Train platforms are full of dried-fish vendors
Train platforms are full of dried-fish vendors

There's a story, maybe apocryphal, about a Japanese tourist—or possibly German—who got off the train at a remote station in Siberia intending to walk around the station, take some pictures, maybe buy some fruit or the mysterious fried snacks that are always on sale on the platform. Station stops are generously long, from 15 to 25 minutes, but this fellow over-lingered and saw his train leaving without him. The only thing his tour leader could do was toss his suitcase out of the door after him.

It might have happened in a place like Barabinsk, a small station stop past Omsk. Then again, it might not. Barabinsk is not mentioned in any Lonely Planet guidebooks, and it seems unlikely that any traveler would choose to stay there, except by accident.

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As the train pulls in, a crowd of vendors swarms each doorway, wielding buckets of berries, plates with a few stale rolls, and dozens upon dozens of dried fish. They come in all sizes and shapes, from strings full of stubby things, barely big enough for bait, to an impressive 2-foot specimen turned yellow from the smoke. The fish are split open and desiccated, twisted into postures of agony, rather like their gold-toothed, hard-bitten vendors. When they're done at our car, they rush up and down the platform, snarling at each other and shouting at the train passengers.

I buy a small container of berries from an old woman and reflexively drop a couple of rubles (6 cents) into an outstretched hand.

"Nyet!" she scolds. "Alkash!" (Drunkard!) Shamed, I scramble back aboard the train. It seems like forever before we roll out of there.

Things seem to have grown bleaker—that all-purpose journalistic term for everything Russian—as we move east. The landscape is flat and featureless, a grassy plain interrupted only by the occasional dirt-road village or lonely settlement. We pass gasworks, a refinery or chemical plant. Distant smokestacks trail plumes into the jet stream. A highway crosses the rail line, bound for who knows where. And the memory of Barabinsk lingers like the taste of dried fish.

Arriving in Novosibirsk a few hours later comes as a refreshing surprise. Soon I'm walking along a broad, leafy boulevard, comfortingly lined with restaurants and shops. And what's this? A Guinness sign—an Irish pub in Siberia! But to Novosibirskyats it's no surprise: There are two pubs in town, the newest opened in 1999.

Later that evening, tucking into a $6.30 pint of the black stuff, I realize why Novosibirsk feels so familiar. It's a lot like my hometown, Washington, D.C. Both are petri-dish cities, artificially created for some administrative purpose. Novosibirsk is the capital of Western Siberia, a vast territory into which the American West might easily fit. It was established to serve the rail line in the 1890s, but it quickly mushroomed into the scientific and cultural capital of Siberia as well. After World War II, its population hit the 1 million mark. (According to Natasha, the Intourist guide I kitschily hired, it's now 1,427,000, divided into 10 administrative districts covering more than 500 square kilometers ...)

Beyond that, Novosibirsk just feels like Washington, rootlessly cosmopolitan and yet provincial. It's got a limited (but clean!) metro, a renowned symphony, monuments and government buildings all over the place, and a sprawling Euclidean street grid, with rakishly angled avenues and highly entertaining traffic circles. Like Washington, much of Novosibirsk sits on drained swampland. Defense is big business hereabouts; there are even a few secret bunkers around town: Stalin had one built under the opera house, but when the lowest level flooded, he had the architect shot (it's now used to store scenery and costumes). The major difference seems to be that Novosibirsk has 24-hour supermarkets and a casino on the main city square. Advantage, Novosibirsk.

The next day I head out to Akademgorodok, once the jewel in Novosibirsk's crown. Its name means something like "academic township," and that's what it is. Or was. In the 1950s, according to Natasha, "Academician Glavaritiev" had the vision of a town devoted entirely to science, where the best minds of his country (including several of his friends) could come and work together to better Soviet society, untroubled by the hassles of daily living. So the state created this verdant campus (though, like everywhere else I've seen in Russia, the grass in Akademgorodok doesn't seem to have been mowed since Gorbachev left office), with dozens of research institutes tucked discreetly into the trees, and attracted academicians with healthy salaries, good comfortable apartments (it's still a desirable area in which to live), and consumer goodies in the shops. The government even created a beach for them, damming the wide Ob River to create the warm, shallow Ob Sea, which also powered the nuclear physics lab.

When the government funding ended, many of the academicians decamped for elsewhere, including the West. Several hundred computer scientists migrated to Silicon Valley, for example. So Akademgorodok is a shadow of itself, a quiet residential suburb with half-used research facilities—a reflection of the low status of science, and the low pay for scientists, in the new Russia.

As a tourist attraction, Akademgorodok is quite odd. There's no there there, nothing to see, except for a one-room museum of geology, a maze of glass cases filled with colorful Siberian stones and highly informative exhibits on oil and coal. All this would be quite dull were it not for Olga, the guide, who is herself a geologist and amply shares her enthusiasm and knowledge of rocks. I learn that placing amethyst under my tongue will stop me from getting drunk (wish I'd known that before last night's Guinness orgy), and a bunch of other stuff that she then scolds me for forgetting.

The author with Elviski
The author with Elviski

Novosibirsk is so pleasant that I end up staying two days, not doing much of anything except walking around looking at the old houses on the backstreets, where I witness a highly entertaining arrest scene involving a huge jug of what is apparently moonshine. I stroll down to the river port, quite busy during the ice-free season, and over to the main market, where Uzbek and Kazakh vendors hawk fresh vegetables and cheap clothing. I waste more money on Guinness, until I discover that a local brew called Siberian Corona is simply the best lager I've ever tasted—for about $1.50 a pint instead of $6. I actually have my picture taken with a Russian Elvis impersonator. (Me, in Russian: "Elvis! How's it going?" Elvis, in English: "I'm dead.")

Then I remember the words of a friend on the train, a Novosibirskyan named George Aseev who had come into my compartment, his desire to talk stronger than his command of English (or mine of Russian). A stocky, athletic man in his 50s, with piercing blue eyes, he'd said, "You are traveling far, but the real journey is in your mind."

I'm not going anywhere, so it's time to move on.

Bill Gifford, a Philadelphia-based correspondent for Outside, is writing a book about John Ledyard, the first American to travel across Siberia.

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