After 70 hours on the train we were very glad to arrive in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia’s third largest city. We’d read that the city was vibrant, flush with new found oil wealth, but before long I began to wonder why we’d come. Walking from the station we saw nondescript concrete, and the occasional old wooden house sitting slightly askew, paint peeling. The old buildings hinted that these streets might once have been beautiful, but now the air was hard to breathe, and everything was grey with dust. The only place that wealth manifested itself was in the stream of oversized cars that clogged the roads, their expensive paintwork caked in dirt.
However, after spending the best part of two hours wandering the streets looking for our hostel, we were very very glad to get into our room. Our hostel, despite being called ‘Hovel’, was lovely. An IKEA meets Mondrian plywood paradise. I was particularly excited to have a bed who’s length exceeded my height by more than a millimetre or so. In a haze of weary elation, opening the blind to find the poker face of Jesus seemed perfectly natural.
After a bit of a lie down we ventured out again, and began to feel a bit more positively about the place. Some of the old buildings had been restored and turned into museums, and the glimpsed hills around the city were welcome relief from Siberia’s overwhelming flatness.
The next day, as we waited for a bus to take us to the ski resort on the edge of town we watched bus drivers leaping out of their vehicles to wash the all-permeating grime from their windscreens and mirrors. The rest of the bus was left entombed. But it was a beautiful day, and we were headed for the hills, so everything seemed right with the world. With the sun on my skin, the energetic scrubbing of the rotating cast of frantic bus drivers seemed jolly and industrious rather than depressingly futile.
After what would have been an interesting bus tour of the city, had we been able to see out of the windows, we arrived at Bobrovy Log. In winter it’s a ski area, but the chairlift runs all year round, so we took a ride up the hill to walk into the woods a bit and look at some interesting rock formations (called stolby) that dot the surrounding hills. We also caught some reasonably unobscured views of the city on the way back down.
This chap kept us company while we waited for the bus back to town.
It was spectacularly good being out of the city and in the fresh air, and we enjoyed our very brief escape so much that we resolved to get out and about more for the rest of our trip. It’s often logistically difficult to get out of cities, or at least hard to do without spending a lot, but I’m always glad when we do.
Trundling back to the train station for another night on the train we spotted some people taking a dip in the Yenisei, the river that slips through Krasnoyarsk in a mess of side streams and channels. I picked up a book on Siberia by Colin Thubron, to read on the train while we passed through. He visited Krasnoyarsk on his travels, and describes how the hydroelectric dam upstream (which ensures the Yenisei never freezes over) created a reservoir 250 miles long when it was built in 1971, drowning the homes of 48,000 people.
He also mourns the loss of the Krasnoyarsk of the past, a ‘spacious city of gold merchants’ beloved by Chekhov, and explains that the city expanded during the second world war, mostly in concrete put up by Japanese prisoners of war. I read this part after we left, and were off again rolling slowly through birch and snow. Perhaps we’d have passed it by if we’d been forewarned, but in a way I was glad to visit a place which has nothing in particular to recommend it. It’s a slice of life in another world.