Friday May 6
At the Hotel Sibir in Novosibirsk, breakfast is included in the price of the hotel so around 0800 we head downstairs to the dining area. The food that is offered is very similar to the Hotel Ibis in Kazan so we eat well. We want to arrive in Tomsk in early afternoon so we check out immediately and grab a taxi for the bus station. We are really not ready to leave Novosibirsk but our schedule is fixed so we have to move on. Aftoboos pajahlsta (bus station please), we tell the cab driver. The driver takes off but appears to be going the wrong direction. Two minutes later we arrive at the train station! Nyet pohyezd vokszal, Aftoboos pajahlsta …. Not the train station, bus station please! Ahhh, Aftoboos vokszal he replies. We speed through the back streets of NovoSibirisk and arrive at a small building not much bigger than a gas station. Aftoboos vokszal? We ask. Da, Aftoboos vokszal says the driver. The sign does say автовокзал so out we go; it just seems too small for such a large city, but yes this is it.
The normal routine for getting tickets seems to work by now and we quickly find an admin window, hand over our vouchers and passports, and are given tickets in return. The kacca says something in fast Russian , so we nod our heads, but do not understand a word and move on. We have about an hour before our bus departs and was thinking the bus station might be large and interesting, as the train stations are. The waiting area inside is about the size of large living room in the US, and lots of people are standing around. There are one or 2 benches but they are taken. There are 2 small bathrooms that can be used for a fee of 10 rubles. Both of us try the bathroom which is manned by a stern looking babushka but fortunately we have an uneventful trip. There are a couple food vendors so we buy some snacks for the trip, which will take about 4 hours.
We are now curious where exactly we catch our bus. We had envisioned a large waiting area with big blue signs in Russian and English with clear instructions. Of course, we should have known better by now. There is no helpful information on our tickets, so we just start following people, as most of them seem to be following a hallway which leads into a back alley. This works, as the alley leads to a small parking area with another kacca window, a food vendor and 8 numbered signposts. Signpost 3 says Tomck(Tomsk) so I guess we’re all set.
A bit later, a small bus pulls into signpost 3 and we get in line. The driver stays in his seat and a Russian lady in her thirties stands in the door of the bus and checks tickets and identification. Everything goes smoothly as she checks our tickets and passports but then she looks at our suitcases and says ‘bagazh billyet pahjahsta’……huh??…we need to buy separate tickets for our baggage! Jeff runs back to the window marked Билетнаг касса, buys 2 baggage tickets, hurries back, hands them to the smiling babushka and we just make the bus.
Earlier this morning, there was a cold rain and dreary skies but the sun comes out as our bus drives through the center of Novosibirsk, giving us a nice tour as it passes into the countryside of central Siberia. As I think of this experience, I still cannot believe I am able to do this. I am fortunate to be able to afford this but especially glad that Russia is ‘open’ to Americans and we can move freely throughout the country. I do wish I would have started studying the language a little sooner, but we are getting by. I am really fortunate to travel with my son, who is a very experienced traveler at the young age of 30, but also an excellent problem solver! On this trip, there are daily problems that often need quick solutions!
The bus lets us see part of Siberia a little closer up. The countryside consists of low rolling hills much like northern Missouri except for the omnipresent birch trees. There is a small village every 10 miles or so and they look similar to all of the other towns we have seen in Siberia. The green and blue houses stand out from the gray or dull brown wooden ones. The roads are pretty good but the ride is bumpy; must be the shocks on the bus which looks like it’s got at least a hundred thousand miles on it.
About 2 hours into the trip the bus stops at a truck stop. It would end up being a 30 minute stop but we had no way of knowing so both Jeff and I rush to find a bathroom, thinking the bus might leave without us. There is a gas station on the other side of the road that doesn’t look too busy so Jeff heads over there while I wait outside the bus. Jeff comes back in 5 minutes and says there is a nasty babushka controlling the entrance to the rest room and that she was yelling at everyone that went through. I decided to check it out. I enter the building and the babushka knows what I’m there for and starts talking fast Russian. I can see there is a slot to enter in a 10 ruble coin and then you go through a turnstile. It was clear to me that I needed to wait for her permission to enter the coin. She keeps talking and finally gives me clearance so I insert the coin. But at the same exact time, someone comes out of the bathroom from the other direction and goes through the turnstile. The machine seizes, and the babushka goes ballistic! She is now talking fast and angry Russian at me apparently blaming me for taking too long to enter the coin. Now she wants me to do something but I’m not sure what. Another person is behind me and the babushka asks her to enter a coin and walk through, and then she pushes me through immediately behind her without entering another coin. Now she is quiet. As I exit the bathroom, I cautiously make sure I have the appropriate clearance to walk through the turnstile.
Back on the other side of the road, Jeff is talking to a Russian University student named Alex. Alex was sitting across from us on the bus and I noticed he was working on some Oracle program code that I was familiar with. Alex was in his 3rd year at Novosibirsk University and was on his way to Tomsk to see his girlfriend. Alex speaks excellent English and mentions that he lived in Williamsburg, Virginia for a year as an exchange student. He says the first thing he will do upon graduation is to find a job in the USA. He thinks the people are much more outgoing and friendly in the US than Russia. In Siberia, he says ‘everyone is always walking around with their heads down’. It is too depressing for him. He mentions that he saw us boarding and was surprised that we did not know about baggage tickets. He then asks where we are traveling and how much Russian can we speak. We tell him that we are travelling from Moscow to Beijing and know maybe 30 or 40 words in Russian. Alex laughs hard and says “This is not possible! You cannot travel through Russia and only know a few words in Russian; I think your are crazy. ” Alex said he studied English for years before traveling to the United States and still found it to be challenging.
We walk inside the truck stop for a few minutes and they have a large cafeteria with several entrees that look very appetizing. But we’re concerned that we will miss the bus so we grab some snacks and rush back to the bus.
Around 1500 or so we cross the Tom River and arrive at the bus station in Tomsk. The train station is next door and Alex offers to help us get our etickets exchanged for our next train trip which is Saturday afternoon. We ask Alex if he needs a ride anywhere and he accepts a cab ride with us to the hotel, the cost of which we’ll cover. We catch a cab outside the train station and Alex does the talking. The driver is a rough looking but kind Russian man about 50 years old. He knows we are Americans and decides to give a little tour on the way to the hotel as Alex translates. He explains that Tomsk was a staging area for exiles to Siberia in 1800’s and also a forwarding prison during the Stalin era.. He points out a torture chamber run by the NKVD(later the KGB) and a park with some monuments dedicated to the victims of Stalin era oppression. It is hard to understand this because Tomsk is now a positive, upbeat, clean and lively University town.
We’re at the hotel now and the driver opens the trunk of the 1990’s era Volga sedan. Next to our suitcases is a large orange cylinder and I ask about the driver what it is . The driver proudly explains to Alex that his Volga runs on Natural Gas and it is stored in that orange cylinder. He says it costs more per gallon than regular gas but gets better mileage so overall is much better and less costly. After this, we start noticing that many of the buses in Tomsk have the big orange cylinders on the top.
The cab fare is 200 rubles and I leave a 100 ruble tip which is a complete shock to the driver as there is very little tipping in Russia and never for a taxi. He shakes my head and leaves with a big smile. Alex also gets out at our hotel and says his girlfriend lives 3 blocks away so he will walk there. Alex and Jeff exchange email addresses and we say goodbye.