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Sent to Siberia

Siberia has always been a reluctant destination for most people.  The very name evokes images of the gulag and endless bitter nights at the end of world.  I had that same, brief impression after stepping onto the tarmac of Novosibirsk’s airport one January night.  Snow swirled around the taxiing planes as engines screamed and uniformed officials, shouting over the noise, herded disoriented passengers into dark, unheated buses.

Khruschev’s Akademgorodok housing

The Siberians, of course, have a different impression of the region.  For them it is home: close to nature and far from Moscow.  Novosibirsk is Russia’s third largest city and the unofficial capital of the vast Siberian plain that stretches from the Urals to the Bering Sea.  The busy city of a million and a half people sprawls across the west and east banks of the Ob River, finally diffusing into the rolling pine and birch forests that gave the area its local name: Golden Valley.  Hidden in those snow-covered forests is tranquil Akademgorodok. 

Akademgorodok–literally, academic town–is Novosibirsk’s smallest district.  It is also the most interesting, even if it lacks the downtown’s boulevards, stores and nightclubs.  Instead, private homes, weathered apartments (called, “Khrushchyovki” after Khrushchev) and stubby office building dwell among the trees.  Roads and footpaths defy Euclid and central planning to meander through the forests. 

A snow-bound dacha in Akademgorodok

The town is part village and part university campus.  Many of the buildings hidden among the trees are part of the Novosibirsk State University.  Others make up some of the forty research institutes that put the academic in Akademgorodok.  (The most famous one is Vector, which houses Russia’s stocks of smallpox virus.  Sorry, no public tours.)  Just beyond the woods, a narrow beach of sand separates this post-War science town from the Ob Sea, a 100 kilometer-long reservoir. 

I visited one of Akademgorodok’s research centers at the end of January.  The daytime temperature was a comfortable –4°C.  In a place where winters are long and cold, and summers are hot and short, temperature is something everyone pays attention to–even when they can’t do much about it.  Most of the buildings are heated with steam systems that are either on or off.  If you want to regulate the temperature, you open a window.  It is common to see buildings with dozens of windows open to the winter air.  Twice, I had to open the double-pane windows to let out the sauna-like heat in my hotel room. 
Temperatures aside, Akademgorodok is a pleasant little place in an unusual part of the world.  The stores are well stocked.  The local food is good and Russian microbrew beers are a welcome addition to the Georgian wines and the traditional flavored vodkas.  Cell phones are common; everyone whipped one out the minute the plane landed.  People move around town on cross-country skis or drive too fast over icy, frost-heaved roads.  On the snowy sidewalks, thick furred dogs pull sleds full of groceries or bundled up children.  Stylish young women in fur coats and high-heeled boots maneuvered down the same slick sidewalks with more confidence than I could manage in my hiking boots.  A local interpreter assured me that, “Siberians wear fur because we need to; the Muscovites wear fur because it is fashionable.”  Remembering the young women striding down the street, I was not entirely convinced that was true. 

Socialist art in downtown Novosibirsk

The lobby of the main hotel–Zolotaya Dolina or Golden Valley–has all the charm of a college dorm foyer, but there is a good bar and restaurant off the lobby, and the hotel offers a variety of guestrooms.  Some are typical one-room arrangements.  Mine was complicated affair with a tiny foyer and five identical doors leading to the bedroom, a sitting room, a shower, the toilet, and back out to the hallway.  Every floor also has a traditional “dezhurnaya” who takes care of the floor and keeps an eye on the guests.  In the Soviet era, these women reported to the KGB.  In Akademgordok, they seem content to watch TV and tidy up.  On the top floor, a small café and its single English-Russian menu handle a Babel of Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Mongolians, Brits and Americans looking for coffee or a late night fix of Chicken Kiev and Baltika beer. 

The phones work and you can connect a laptop into the Internet.  (Don’t forget bring a voltage transformer and a line tester).  There is no CNN, but I found were three Russian channels and something that may have been Tartar.  So bring something to read.  Better yet, rent skis and explore the town or find some friendly locals to show you to the nearest “banya”—a relaxing session of eating, drinking, sweating (in a sauna), and plunging into a cold water pool.  Traditionally, a lot of business is transacted in banyas.  Maybe it is because of the vodka, or the heat, or the man “massaging” your sweating back with a fistful of wet birch branches.  In capitalist Russia today, most of the former state- and institute-run banyas are now in private hands so expect to pay for a session. 

Bring cash.  The hotel does not take credit cards, but the ATM dispenses roubles and the post office behind the hotel has an exchange upstairs.  Just beyond the post office is a shopping mall and grocery store.  Inside you can find pizza, bottled water, CDs, batteries and film, a bakery, clothes and those Russian fur hats that always look three sizes too big.  If you can’t tell the difference between rabbit and mink, stick with your wool ski cap. 

Akademgorodok is only four hours from Moscow and a short subway ride back across the Ob River from Novosibirsk.  It seems farther away.  The easy-going Siberians seem happy with that sense of distance and isolation.  Visitors will too.

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