The Pearl of Siberia

Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Tobolsk, Tyumen Oblast, Russian Federation
Located 250km northeast of Tyumen, Tobolsk was founded in 1587 as the center of the development of Siberia. Few travelers make the detour from Tyumen on the main Trans-Siberian line, so we were completely among locals when we got off at Tobolsk train station. We had to dodge mounds of construction material to get into the main station building as the platform was being repaved and the station exterior was getting a face-lift.  A regular city bus plies to the historic center which is 15km south of the station and technically our  sightseeing commenced as soon as we settled down with our bags for the half-hour ride through the modern town. But it was only when we reached end of the bus ride did, that we realized why Tobolsk was a worthwhile detour.  Set in a massive square, amidst beautiful rolling grass, was the only stone citadel in Russia. Its whitewashed walls were gleaming in the afternoon light and towers and blue and gold domes were peeking over the top.
Located at the confluence of the Tobolsk and Irtysh river, at the center of the Siberian province that stretches from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean, Tobolsk was the main military, administrative and religious center of the province. It was also the political capital of Siberia from the end of the 16th to the 18th centuries. 
When the Trans-Siberian railway was constructed in the 19th century and the route bypassed Tobolsk in favor of a slightly southern route, its economic power declined and resulted in its reverting back to a small provincial town. Nevertheless, it remains an historic capital of Siberia and one of the most beautiful cities for those interested in 17th century Russian architecture, earning it the moniker ‘Pearl of Siberia’
The short walk to Hotel Siberia, literally a stone toss from the Kremlin, took longer than is should have since we could not help ourselves but start taking photos. The location of Hotel Siberia would by itself be its ultimate  asset, but the furnishings and period photos that adorned the walls of the rooms endowed it with an impalpable tsarist atmosphere that added to its charm.
It was still early afternoon and having unburdened ourselves of our bags, we walked into the  Kremlin – the most iconic landmark of the city. The elaborate fortress sits spectacularly on the high river bank overlooking the Irtysh River. An ensemble of churches and palatial buildings sits within its white walls. We entered through the north-west corner into the intriguing but disused Gostiny Dvor or Trading Arches. It connects to a central open space wherein on one side lies the gloriously photogenic (1686 built) St Sofia Assumption Cathedral with its blue and gold onion domes.
Besides the cathedral, one of the most beautiful buildings of the Kremlin is the bell tower which is also it’s highest structure. It was not used during the Soviet era; but in the end of the 20th century it became a third headquarters for the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) after Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. Now the whole area of the Kremlin is under the ROC’s control. The bell tower famously signaled a revolt against the Tsar Boris Godunov. Legend has it that after the revolt failed, Godunov order the bell publicly flogged, de-tongued and banished to Tobolsk for its treacherous tolling. Also on the grounds are mansions, museums and the eerie Tyuremny Zamok, once a holding prison. Tsarist exiles who were temporarily incarcerated here awaiting a final destination for their banishment. Its occupants included famed novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Tsar Nicholas II and other Stalin victims.
Tobolsk in fact consists of two main part – the upper city, where the Kremlin is located, and the older lower city, which is located on the low river bank. The kremlin ladder or a series of wooden stairways lead from beneath the kremlin’s gatehouse to the lower city. It was the living area of the former capital with many beautiful churches and wooden houses. 
In the 1920’s, the drainage system that had spared the lower town from massive flooding in the past was neglected and suffered damage.  The whole area fell into decay after suffering frequent flooding. We walked down narrow streets through wonderfully dilapidated buildings, weather beaten churches and half burned houses between muddy lanes. Some areas are still occupied by people who did not want to or could not move to the new town. 
The photogenic Zachary and Elisabeth Church with soaring black-tipped spires also provided a good vantage point to look back at the kremlin - its ramparts, domes and spires dominating the skyline high up on the hill. Little school children with their guardians were making their way home as we approached the attractive Archangel Mikhail Church with its distinctive green roof.  
Our planned walking route took us south to a small square at the corner of Ulitsas Mira and Kirov. To one side is the grand Mendeleev mansion which once housed the family of the famous scientist who organized the elements into the periodic table. 
Across is the Tobolsk Rayon Administration Building (now converted into a museum) which was the exile home of the last tsar. After the revolution of 1917, the last Nicolas II was kept here with his family and the family prayed every day at a small chapel within it. They were in Tobolsk for about nine months  before being finally moved to Yekaterinburg where they were executed in July 1918. 
Walking further south along Ul. Mira, we rewarded ourselves with some baked treats at a small shop before deciding to take a bus that was heading back in the direction of the Kremlin and upper town. Since bus fares are not dependent on distance travelled (R 40 fixed fare), we waited to see which way and how far the bus was headed before we would decide where to get off. Since it was heading north beyond the Kremlin and into the newer upper town, we stayed on until we reached what seemed like a busy intersection with shopping malls and restaurants.  
With pizza dinner under our belt, we started walking back on the main drag (Ul Semena Remezova), in the direction of the Kremlin, admiring the wide, multi-lane road, spacious  pedestrian sidewalks lined with trees, beautifully landscaped dividers and the small parks and play areas interspersed between buildings. Yes, the buildings are massive and perhaps devoid of architectural creativity. But the surrounding space was used creatively and conducive to fostering a sense of community. No, this was not the work a soulless modern Soviet architect. 
One thing that perplexed us though was the sheer number of pharmacies in town. A lit green cross indicated the presence of one and there seemed to be one for every 10 to 12 buildings. This was a good thing since M was in need of some cold medication and we had no trouble finding one that was willing to dispense over the counter. When we tired of walking, a R40 ride took us back to the Kremlin area in no time.
The next morning was spent in  more relaxed exploration. Walking along the Kremlin walls give us opportunities to look out and over the Irtysh River.  Some side trips in the upper city took us through residential areas and neighborhood parks. We lunched at a Turkish restaurant (they did not have any gozleme, but served us some nice soup, pide and ayran) and was the only establishment where the owner was willing and able to give us some kopeks for our collection. 
With all prices rounded off to the rouble (mostly to five or ten roubles), the smaller kopeks have virtually disappeared from circulation. We made an attempt at a bank to get some roubles exchange for kopeks, but only received stares and shaking heads back for our troubles. 
Our walk that morning took as as far as a monument proclaiming Tobolsk as the ‘Pearl of Siberia’. It proudly sits in the center of a busy traffic circle.  Reversing direction we walked through the cemetery in which are some graves of Decembrists before heading back to the hotel to pick up our bags and retrace our way to the train station.
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