In the summer of 2011, I spent 3 months at the Russian language summer school at Novosibirsk State University in western Siberia to work on my language skills prior to starting an MA in translation. This short account describes the bus journey from Novosibirsk to Tomsk that I took one weekend.
It is a hot, sticky afternoon in Novosibirsk, and I am pushing my way through the crowds at the bus station. We assemble on the dusty, melting tarmac beside the bus to Tomsk, and the crowd surges as we start to board.
In front of me, a lady is helping her elderly mother onto the bus. The old lady is wearing the archetypal country babushka outfit of flowery nylon dress, woollen tights and galoshes. Straggles of grey hair emerge from beneath her headscarf. She is shaky on her feet, and the daughter helps her heave herself up the high step onto the coach. I climb on behind them and find my seat. Settling myself in, I notice that the coach’s windscreen is extravagantly decorated with swags of flowered material edged with tassels, the overhead shelves with lacy, blue curtains.
The bus pulls away, and we cruise the suburbs of Novosibirsk. First, the factory districts of crumbling concrete and red-and-white chimney stacks. Then, over the railway lines to dacha country: the clusters of tiny, wooden houses and kitchen gardens where this nation of apartment-dwellers escapes to for the weekend. Occasionally, there are new additions to the landscape: the detached houses of Russia’s new rich. Incongruously, the Russians have borrowed an English word for these substantial dwellings, calling them ‘kottedzhi’.
My previous experiences of the Russian countryside have been depressing: country lanes and river banks littered with discarded beer bottles, cigarette butts and old tyres. However, today, when finally we make it into the open Siberian countryside, it is a delight: an endless, rippled sheet of teal and bottle-green pine forest, alternating with the mottled silver and khaki of birch trees. We pass villages of weathered log cottages, and, once or twice, old signs for collective farms in the clean, curved typeface of Soviet times: once proud but now barely noticeable, faded and coated with dust from the passing traffic.
After two-and-a-half hours, we stop at what could loosely be called a service station. There is no WH Smith, Costa Coffee or amusement arcade, but there is a petrol station and a self-service cafe and some surprisingly OK toilets, which we each pay ten roubles to use. Once toileted, fed and watered, I join the other passengers milling listlessly around the car park. The truck stop evidently provides an income for those living close by, and weather-beaten locals in cheap nylon tracksuits and flip-flops have set up low tables displaying goods for sale: mustard-yellow, forest-picked mushrooms and birch venki , the bunches of twigs that Russians use to beat themselves in the banya. A grey-haired man stands next to a dusty Lada. The car’s bonnet doubles as his shop window and is covered with buckets of tiny wild strawberries.
While stretching my legs, I look around. The surrounding landscape is devoid of signs of civilisation, the truck stop itself a tiny dot in the Siberian vastness. I wonder if this is the closest I’ve ever been to the middle of nowhere.