After an extended look at the Altai mountains and surrounding area it’s probably time to shift-focus eastwards. From here it’s a jaunt into the most southerly depths of Siberia… either into Mongolia and ultimately Beijing, China … or for Trans-Siberian purists: eastwards to Vladivostok.
The Beijing option is the recommended destination for most tourists due to the sights and experiences on offer. Think about it: the traveller would by that point have seen something of Russian, Mongolian and Chinese cultures… and scenery to boot.
The biggest draw for the South-Siberian region is surely Lake Baikal, serviced by Irkutsk, and whose title belies the fact it is essentially an inland sea: huge… and another favourite Russian holiday destination (making sure to avoid the ever-thirsty mosquitoes).
For now, this continental armchair excursion has us pinned somewhere between the Altai mountains and Irkutsk. Not a no-man’s land as such: Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk seem worthy of a mention at least, even though they may not be Baikal-league destinations in themselves.
Tomsk appears to be a city that was almost a major player: a mini-Moscow or St. Petersburg in southern, central Russia, perhaps… though now with compensations of its own. Established on the Tom river in 1604 as a Cossack fortress site, it became a convenient outpost for conquest of other ethnicities in the South.
It achieved “town” status in 1629… only to burn down in 1643. After rebuilding (again as a fortress), it progressed with the influx of tradespeople and developing industry, becoming the seat of the region’s governorate in 1804. This role would see both Kraynoyarsk and Novosobirsk under its authority, as well as Kemerovo and the Eastern Kazakhstan region.
As governorate, its importance bolstered the city’s fortunes and expansion, such that it became more than a military outpost or flip-top bin for the deposition of Russian undesirables exiled to Siberia.
Gold was discovered locally in 1830, accelerating growth still further until a crucial decision in 1896 directed the new Trans-Siberian railway through a village, no less: due south-west of this burgeoning city… (though Tomsk was to be connected via a regional spur-line). As in a failed Olympic bid, developer attention drifted away. Who would have seen that one coming? The village in question was the embryonic seed of what was to become Novosibirsk and which in time would inexorably leach importance away from its governing seat.
The area contains a wealth of natural resources from peat to gold, all of which established Tomsk as a significant centre of oil production, metal work and machine-construction. This extended into nuclear research and production after the Great Patriotic War (aka World War II) leading (unsurprisingly?) to it’s own 120 square km contamination zone, courtesy of the exploding Seversk reprocessing plant (15 km north-west of Tomsk) in 1993. Residents of Tomsk can be infinitely grateful that the wind direction at the time was north east and not south east.
Siberian residents of Tomsk Oblast, north east of Seversk: not so.
The pay-off for towns that missed the bulk of the developmental “boat” as far as commerce is concerned is that they get to keep more of their own character and history… I should know; I live in one. “Progress” has a habit of replacing culture with uniform layers of concrete: a practice that frankly makes me want to throw up. So, mercifully Tomsk gets to keep many of its beautiful, ancient wooden houses …an issue of local pride and perhaps… “belonging”.
They will of course have to be perpetually tended and restored … such is the nature of organic building materials… but even the dilapidated structures have a character and style that I find fascinating. Worthy of note are the amazing, flowing wooden carvings on the boards and boundaries of the windows: bestial, floral… incredible. I notice a certain dynamism to the architecture, well the best of it anyway; those wooden buildings remind me of New England colonial design… somehow, and the stone and brick?: … mini St. Petersburg, perhaps. It’s that baroque thing again…
Ok, more on the region next time… meanwhile check out Tomsk in not-quite-real-time. Hey, I found a page of city-cams.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 50) Somewhere between Altai and Baikal
[Photo by routard05]