Novosibirsk is bigger than Tomsk. It’s newer. Greyer. There’s a metro.
On a Sunday at the beginning of October, we stood at Tomsk bus station, suitcases at our feet, snow falling lightly around us. We had survived the Trans-Siberian Express; a five-hour bus journey to Novosibirsk was nothing to worry about! And, indeed, the time slipped by. A comparable distance in England would take me from home in South Devon all the way to Nottingham – a journey I would avoid doing if at all possible out of fear of the boredom of it. Yet here in Russia, I peered through the condensation on the window at snow-covered fields and before I knew it, we had arrived.
Fresh snow and chilly evening temperatures greeted us, along with the question of how to reach our accommodation. Even our native Russian teachers seemed to have no idea where to go or how to get there; and so we waited in the dark outside Novosibirsk’s bus station for half an hour, feeling somewhat helpless, until we finally worked it out.
In spite of our doubts about spending a whole week in Novosibirsk, our concern proved unfounded. It turned out that our time had been planned for us by a group of young people from the university there, while our teachers attended a conference. We met them on the first morning, ten students who were all training to teach Russian as a foreign language. They had devised a programme for us to show us their city and to help us learn Russian, which they did remarkably well.
One of the activities arranged for us to attend was a ‘round table’. If this makes you think of King Arthur then you’re not far wrong, the idea being that all of us could participate equally in the discussion. The topic was entitled ‘The problem of adaptation and acculturation for foreigners in Siberia’ and we, the English, were the experts. We discussed the weather, food, the education system, gender roles, bears…
We went to the zoo (such small cages); we went to the theatre (and understood very little); we went to a train museum. Iona and I made contact with a family we had met at church on our first Sunday in Tomsk, who had been visiting Tomsk but live in Novosibirsk, and they very kindly invited us to dinner. On our last evening we went to see ‘Queen of Spades’, a fantastic opera based on Pushkin’s story of the same name, music by Tchaikovsky. One question we were proudly asked innumerable times, and I will now ask you: did you know that Novosibirsk’s opera house is even bigger than the Bolshoi Theatre?
Very early the following morning, having had two and a half hours sleep, I trudged through a white cityscape to the bus station, properly alone for the first time since coming to Russia. Of course, I sometimes spend a morning or an afternoon on my own, but I hadn’t yet travelled through the Siberian wilderness without the usual group of Durham students. I had decided to return earlier than everyone else in order to arrive back into Tomsk in time for a cross-country skiing training session. It was a shame to leave our charming student-guides behind, but I was looking forward to the possibility of settling into a routine over the remaining weeks in Tomsk and thus finding a degree of normality to life in Russia.