I’m on my way home, in место 47 нижнее on поезд 359йц. Once again, the battery on my laptop has failed to charge past halfway and once again I’m starving before my journey even begins. Only this time, I’m in the very last coach of the train and so a) walking to the restaurant car is not an option b) if something crashes into us I’m definitely going to die. My trip to Tobolsk has been neither a complete disaster nor a dream come true, so I’m heading home feeling both tired and a little unsatisfied.
I was meant to arrive at Tobolsk train station somewhere around 11PM on Saturday, but one of my (really fantastic) students offered to give me a ride as he was going to Tobolsk too. Despite obvious nervousness at spending 2.5 – 3 hours in a car with someone I barely knew personally (and who sometimes misunderstood what I said), I took him up on his offer. In the end, it took just as long, if not longer, to get there by car but nevertheless the company was nice and we got to stop as we were entering Tobolsk for pictures.
The hostel owner obviously didn’t get the memo that I would be arriving at 11.30PM (ish) and seemed somewhat pissed off about the whole scenario. I knew I wasn’t about to pay a lot for my stay (about £5 p/n), but even so the atmosphere (and bed) was uncomfortable and I immediately regretted not booking a hotel for an extra £10 a night. It wasn’t a hostel as you’d imagine it; more of a homestay… where the host shares a room with you. And you’re not allowed to leave without telling the hostess WHERE you are going and WHEN you’ll be back.
The next day was possibly even more awkward. I had booked to have breakfast at the hostel, and after almost being conned out of it (which I like to think was an honest mistake), I awkwardly had to eat kasha and boiled eggs under the scrutinizing gaze of a tall, thin and surly looking man – still in his pyjamas, but most definitely affronted by my wet, post-shower hair.
Pasha picked me up again at 11AM, which was very kind, as he drove me around the two main monasteries and Abalak Tourist Complex. I count myself incredibly lucky to have had him there to help me out, but part of me didn’t feel accomplished like I usually do after a sightseeing excursion. It seems I really enjoy the struggle of ‘making it on my own.’ When he offered to take me to the Kremlin in town, I had already decided in my head that I was best off spending a little time going solo.
Tobolsk has been likened to a phoenix in the past by such important people as P.A. Slovtsov (I don’t know who he is either) as it has been both burned down to the ground and rebuilt no less than SEVENTEEN times. Somewhere around the end of the 17th Century, by the Tsar’s order, Tobolsk was rebuilt in stone. Which sounds like a pioneering decision to me, as now Siberia’s one and only stone Kremlin is still around for us to enjoy. In this area you will also find the famous Prison Castle and Garden of Ermak.
Behind the Cathedral of St. Sophia and Dormition is a viewing platform where you can watch the sun set over lower Tobolsk. Lower Tobolsk, unlike upper Tobolsk was more susceptible to flooding, so in the past not many people inhabited this area. Since then, I believe they have found a way to control the Irtysh River.
IOANNO-VVEDENSKY MEZHDUGORSKY NUNNERY
According to my guidebook, this was once the Bishop’s summer cottage, but was then founded as a monastery. Later it became the nunnery that it is today, however life wasn’t exactly peaceful for the inhabitants (as you might have thought). During the Russian-Japanese war wounded soldiers were taken here to be treated and from 1917-1918 the nuns were working hard to provide food for Emperor Nicholas II’s family. From this very spot Archbishop Germogen was also planning an escape for the Tsar family that had been exiled to Tobolsk. Following that the nunnery was used as an orphanage AND THEN a military unit.
Of course, if you’re visiting such a religious building, don’t do as I did and totally forget your headscarf. If you do, there are some that you can borrow. When inside the church, I was approached by a kind of crouching nun who asked me if I needed a skirt. Apart from wondering if I had actually dressed myself this morning, and double checking that fact much to the amusement of only myself, I realised that women wearing trousers had to wear a long skirt over the top when entering churches. Thankfully, I had remembered to put my skirt on today.
I asked if it was possible to take pictures inside and the response was, “you don’t need to, we have pictures. You can buy one from us” and to be honest… I couldn’t argue with them. This was a working nunnery, and not a world famous tourist attraction type of working nunnery. These women weren’t asking for much. But as I was leaving, one of the nuns called me back and because she heard that I was English had collected a bunch of postcards together as a present for me. She even stamped them with a special Ioanno-Vvedensy Mezhdugorsky Nunnery stamp, so that I’ll always remember my trip to Tobolsk. What a magical woman.
ABALAK ZNAMENSKY MONASTERY
The men’s monastery was very different to the nunnery. Both had residents going about their usual day, but the monastery seemed to have two or three tours operating at the same time. The place wasn’t that large and so it was difficult not to end up following them around. The nunnery was also made up of white walls and adorned with gold picture frames but the majority of the men’s monastery was painted… with exceptionally strange artwork. I’m not one to speculate on religion but there were bears mauling people, images of priests with tiny children in his hands and even a satanic child sat on the lap of a holy looking person.
Obviously, the outside was beautiful and I finally found a horse drawn carriage. Pasha did ask if I wanted to ride it and though I desperately wanted to I was kind of embarrassed. So I didn’t. From the monastery you can look out over the Irtysh River and if you look closely you can see cordoned off square areas where sterlet fish are raised for consumption. Apparently it’s very good but I’ma keep arguing that fish are friends, not food.
DO NOT MISS: in one of the monastery’s buildings are a set of stairs that lead down to some kind of crypt, where bodies of (unknown to me) people are laid to rest. Though I’m not sure if this is a permanent resting place…
ABALAK TOURIST COMPLEX
There was more at Abalak to see and do than I was lead to believe. The walk between the monastery and the tourist complex was really short and so the two can be done in one visit whilst also enjoying the views over the frozen river. After translating the website, I think the entrance fee for adults was as little as 100 rubles. You can find a list of prices here.
In hindsight I totally missed out on some of the fun things to do here, including FREE access to the petting zoo (complete with racoons), snowmobiling and ice skating.
But I did get to enjoy that EVERYTHING IS WOOD.
The main attraction for me was Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga is the witch of Russian fairytales and she lives here in Abalak! You can’t miss her chicken legged house as you follow the track around the complex. It is open to the public so you can go inside and see how old village houses used to be set up. There was an oven, next to a bunk type bed which both heated the one roomed house and served to cook meals. Baba Yaga was also there, though less witch like than I anticipated, she looked fabulous in her outfit. It is an extra 100 rubles to take photos inside Baba Yaga’s abode, but I chose not to as it was incredibly crowded. If I had been alone I might have visited again later for the perfect shot. As an extra character insight, if you’re visiting Abalak at Christmas, you can expect to find Father Christmas and possibly even reindeer!
If that isn’t enough to entertain you, you can have fun trapping your friends / parents / most annoying sibling in the stocks underneath the three headed dragon or play on the huge wooden seesaws and slides. You can then visit the White Owl restaurant for a pretty decently priced lunch (soup, pork main course, blini, tea and an unidentified local beverage came to less than 1000 rubles) surrounded by ornate objects of times gone by.
My stay in Tobolsk came to a kind of unsettling end as my host asked me repeatedly over google translate if I believed in God. I told her I did, a little bit, but NEWSFLASH: I don’t, I was just scared of what she might do if I said I didn’t. I wasted away a couple of hours in a hotel bar (as the area around my hostel was lacking in cafes that didn’t look like food was served straight from the floor) and then caught the train back to Tyumen.
NB: Trains between Tyumen and Tobolsk are quite regular and cost about 700 rubles each way. The trip is around 4 hours long, so if you were desperate to do this trip in one day it could very well be done. However, one day wasn’t long enough for me, and I would be happy to return for at least another 24 hours.
In conclusion, I like Tobolsk but I was completely under prepared for my trip and unfortunately didn’t make the most of it. Hopefully, I’ll get another chance to enjoy everything it has to offer.