Vladivostok, farewells and Russian bar culture

Vladivostok

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Panorama of the Golden Horn Bay bay, click for bigger version

Founded in 1860 as a naval outpost during a period when the Russian Empire was consolidating it power in Siberia and the Far East against China, the name of the city translates to ‘Ruler of the East’. Today it’s a city with about half a million people and it’s the final stop on the 9200km long Trans-Siberian railway, a big international port and home of the Russian pacific fleet.

We arrived late on a Monday evening after spending four nights on a train, and already during the short walk to our hostel I felt I would like the city. Here in Tomsk almost all older buildings are typically made of wood in traditional Siberian style, but Vladivostok had a lot of 19th/early 20th century stone buildings.  (If you visit any city in Siberia built before the Soviet period you will see that only the most important buildings like the university, train station or governmental buildings were built in stone since it was very hard to get building material to Siberia). I’ve lived almost six months in Siberia now, so I was surprised that it felt a bit like being in Europe again even when I was on the other side of the world. The city is also built on several hills at the shore of the pacific (I didn’t realize how much I missed the sea) with a big landmark bridge so it also looked a lot like San Francisco.

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They even had street signs in English!

We didn’t have much knowledge of the city before the trip so we trusted the Lonely Planet: Russia guidebook and TripAdvisor for finding sights, restaurants and cafés, which proved to be a successful strategy. We spent first day walking around downtown, hiking up to the hills overlooking the Golden Horn Bay and visiting an old WW2 submarine that was converted to a museum. The second day we took the buss out to one of the islands where the old coastal battery was situated and in the evening we walked out on the ice to watch the sunset on the frozen pacific.

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Chinese tourists liked the tall Czech guys

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The coastal battery museum

While searching for a place to eat we went to a random shopping mall and I was quite surprised when we stumbled onto a Hesburger, which is a Finnish fast-food chain. Not something I would expect this far away!

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Beforehand it felt a bit stupid to spend in total eight nights on a train just to be in Vladivostok for three nights, but afterwards it totally felt worth it. The weather was really good with sunshine and only a few minus degrees and almost no snow, which was a nice change from the cold and snowy darkness of Siberia.

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Sunset on the frozen pacific

Farewells and new beginnings

For the last two months or so I’ve had to experience the worst part of the exchange year: saying goodbye to all the amazing people from around the world who I’ve befriended here in Tomsk and who were now going back home. First ones started to leave in the beginning of December, and one by one we (the foreign students) got fewer until finally a week ago the last two of the single-semester students left. Of all the international students only about 10 of us are here for the whole year (most of these are in an English Master’s program, I think only three of us are here for a one-year exchange).

One of those two who left had been living in a private apartment which we named “the French Flat”, after the three French guys who lived there. Since the last resident in the flat was moving out it was time to say goodbye to the place in the form of a final farewell party (been a lot of those the last month). At the party I was talking with my friend about how having the final goodbyes here at this flat was a fitting end to the amazing chapter that was the Fall Semester 2014 at TPU. The three guys living there were more than happy to offer their home as a venue for countless dinners, vodka tastings, random get-to-getters and even our Christmas and New Year’s parties. The flat was a real life-safer for us, since having these type of events in the dormitory unfortunately proved to be quite difficult because of the visitor’s curfews (non-residents have to leave at 23.00), not a lot of space for bigger groups and the administration’s dislike to student drinking.

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Another dinner party at the French flat

Still, it wasn’t just nostalgia that evening, which also was the beginning of new adventures. This week saw the start of a new semester and some of the new foreign students had found their way to the party. We ‘Russian veterans’ from the previous semester immediately welcomed them to Siberia, so while the evening was the end of one era it was also the opportunity to turn to a new page. When I think about all the cool things we did last semester I’m quite excited of all the things that still lie ahead of us.

For this semester I’m taking slightly less courses since I don’t need that many credits anymore and I would like to focus more on my language studies. This semester I actually signed up for some courses in my own field of study (electronics) to see if I could maybe learn something useful besides Russian, but after the first week of teaching I’m not impressed by the academic level (to be honest I wasn’t expecting much either, so no surprises here). The teachers seem nice but it just feels like they haven’t planned the courses that well and don’t really know what to do with us. Since local students only study in Russian all the English speaking courses are custom made for exchange students, so they are quite hit-or-miss when it comes to how well they planned and how good the teachers are. Luckily the coursework is not that important for me since I’m here mostly for the language studies (which are excellent!), but I feel a bit sorry for the guys who are in the English degree programs and should actually learn something while they are here.

TPU once again raised my blood pressure when it comes to scheduling, since one course I wanted to take was missing from my schedule and was replaced with a completely unrelated one I had never signed up for.  Also, for some reason the “easy” three credit electronics course has five (5x90min) lessons per week instead of the one I thought it would, so once again my schedule is a bit unnecessary full. I’m expecting to travel more this semester (at least Lake Baikal area and maybe Mongolia and/or Altai Mountains) so I don’t want to take too many classes I would miss anyway. The one thing that pissess me off the most is that I have some days completely free of shcool, while othe days I have lessons 8 hours straight without any longer breaks! They even gave me lectures on saturday morning, but I’m gonna do everything in my power to change the schedule for that. If it’s not possible I’ll just have to skip the course or the lecture, I really don’t see myself going to class at 8.30 on the weekend….

Besides traveling to Vladivostok these one and a half months have not been that eventful. One weekend a group of us visited a small town called Parabel, situated at the shore of the Ob river about 400km north of Tomsk.  The town itself is not really anything special, but we were there to visit a “spa resort” with natural hot springs. The “resort” wasn’t really anything else than a few huts quite literally in the middle of nowhere, and we had the opportunity to enjoy real Siberian weather with the temperature dropping to -40 degrees (fun random fact: did you know that the Celsius and the Fahrenheit scale are both the same at that temperature) while living in a tiny cabin with just a small wooden stove to keep us warm. Besides the warm springs we also did an excursion to a museum that had exhibitions about the history of the region. The museum was actually in a house Josef Stalin himself had hidden in during his revolutionary years.

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Grilling some shashlik in -40 degrees was interesting

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The resort was at the riverbed of some small side branch of the Ob

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The water was pumped straight from the ground and there was a strong methane smell. You could actually light the waterhose on fire because of all the gas. Even if the air was about -35 when we were bathing the water was almost burning hot.

Visit to the regional museum:

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Rest of the time has involved an easy living of sports (skating and beer), food and beer. We’ve been going out a lot to “kill some time”, and I think we managed to go through most of the Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor bar and restaurant recommendations for Tomsk and found several cool cafés and restaurants (you can definitely see that Tomsk is a student city). It’s been a lot of fun but I am still missing European style bars or pubs. For some reason Russians like to combine a little bit of everything when it comes to night life, and many places are a mix of night club, bar and restaurant. This means you usually have to reserve a table beforehand to get in, and once you get in they play music really loudly and you have to wait for ages for the table service to bring your beer (if you thought Finnish customer service was bad you should see the Russian version). Still, what you lose in the quality they make up for with the cheap prices and the fall of the ruble has made a cheap country even cheaper, so life here is pretty okay even if the restaurant culture is really strange.

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The Trans-Siberian railway

Since Tomsk was pretty dead in the beginning of the year a few of us exchange students who weren’t going home for the holidays started talking of traveling somewhere. Some were talking about Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, but many didn’t feel like going there when it can easily be -30 degrees (in hindsight we now currently have had exceptionally warm weather). I suggested to go visit Sochi but for some reason the others weren’t that interested in that, and some were thinking about just going somewhere away from Russia. I don’t remember who said it (might have been me….) but Vladivostok was suggested more jokingly than seriously, and somehow the idea stuck. Not really any other specific reason to visit the city than the legendary “why not” or “what the hell, not like I have anything else to do”. So we started looking things up and the facts were that it takes four (4!) nights to get to Vladivostok with train from Tomsk. After a lot of Facebook messages and convincing people to join, we found ourselves with seven Tomsk-Vladivostok-Tomsk tickets.

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Eddy, Vojta, David, Ha, Chiara and Tomas ready to go!

The Transsiberian

The longest railway in the world with about 9200km from Moscow to Vladivostok. Built during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century to connect European Russia to Siberia and the Russian Far-East, the Trans-Siberian railway is one of the many landmarks one associates with Russia and a popular activity among the more adventurous travelers.

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Still, the railway isn’t exactly a tourist sight. It’s (usually) a fully functional railway, or rather a network of railways, built to move people across the vast distances in the world’s biggest country. The Trans-Siberian is the “classical” Moscow-Vladivostok line, while the Trans-Mongolian deviates towards Ulan Bator and the Trans-Manchurian towards Beijing. Besides the main lines there are several smaller regional networks, and even more different trains running on these lines.

There is a big difference in what train you take. The lower the number of the train, the faster it is. The most important lines also have names, for instance train nr. 1 which is the Moscow-Vladivostok classic is called Rossiya (nr. 2 is the return trip). We took the train 7/8 which I think was called Sibirsky and runs between Novosibirsk and Vladivostok. The service standards of course varies between the trains. The Rossiya is from what I’ve read quite nice and has a good on-board service, also the Moscow-Tomsk connection I briefly rode with between Tajga and Tomsk was very modern with LCD screens and everything. Some private trains even have showers and super fancy restaurant wagons. Our train was of the “very basic” type and built in the Soviet Union. Not much service except a few times a day a small cart with some snacks would pass through the wagon. On the way back there was an actual restaurant wagon where you could get warm food, but it was quite expensive and not really worth it.

If you want to see Russia on a train it’s important to remember that you can’t hop off the train and continue with the same ticket, since each seat is reserved for a particular date on a journey. So if you want to go from X to Y, and stop at A and B, you need tickets for X->A, A->B and B->Y. In that case it’s usually not worth it to take the fancy long distance trains like the Rossiya that are quite expensive, when instead you can just take a more local train between your stops.

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Russian tickets are quite fancy. 

On most trains you have three classes: 1st class which is a private compartment with two beds, 2nd class or kupé which is a compartment with four beds and 3rd class or platskartny where six beds (two against the wall in the isle and four beds in a group) form an open compartment. On some regional lines you have a 4th class which are normal train wagons with just seats and no beds, which can work if you aren’t traveling that far. We of course chose the platskartny, since it was half the price of a kupé and wanted “the real deal”. I read in some Trans-Siberian guide that “ 3rd class on Russian trains might be a bit too much Russia for many travelers, which is why we recommend buying a 2nd class kupé ticket”, so I was quite excited about how this will work out.

Tomsk is actually not on the main railway line. Apparently the ground was not that good for construction work when the line was built, so the Trans-Siberian passes about 50km south of Tomsk. To get there you have to take a local train to the small town of Tajga, so this is where our trip started. Of course the schedule are what they are here and we had a six hour layover at the train station while waiting for the train to Vladivostok. `

When the train finally arrived we immediately had to do a bit of running with the conductors yelling quite aggressively at us to hurry up and get moving (typical Russian customer service), to make it to our wagon during the short two minute stop the train was at the station (the train had about 20 wagons so it was quite long). After finally getting on board and settling in I had the chance to see what I’ve really gotten myself into.

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We were seven travelers, so four of us had one group of beds while the three other were in the neighboring section, with one stranger sharing it with us. When we arrived that guy was drinking beer in my bed with his friend. I had one of the lower beds while he had the one on top of me, and I quickly learned that if you have the lower bed you actually share it as a seat with the person in the top bunk (since you can’t really sit there). So when I woke up after the first night I was immediately greeted by the gold-teeth filled smile of my top-bunk neighbor and his random friend, who were once again drinking beer in my bed. Of course they offered to share some of their beer with me, but I politely declined and said I should probably eat breakfast first, to which they replied with something I think was either an insult or a joke.

I have to admit that about the first half of the trip to Vladivostok I was quite miserable. I had gotten a bit of a flue from sleeping under the drafty window, and that combined with not sleeping well in the hard bunk and noisy environment and the added extra dose of “Russian culture” like described before didn’t exactly mean a smooth ride.  After the second night I was starting to get used to the train and didn’t feel like shit. On the return trip I was already used to living on the train and could actually enjoy the ride.

A normal day on the train went something like this: Wake up at some point in the morning, if it seems to be too early keep sleeping (on the trip to Vladivostok you go through four time zones, so your internal clock is never synced with the actual time of the day). When you finally wake up, eat some breakfast, usually some bread and kolbasa, maybe even some cheese if it’s still edible. Take a post-breakfast nap and afterwards it’s already lunch time, so get some hot water from the train’s samovar and mix some instant noodles. Read a book or play some cards. See if your fellow travelers are in the mood of having a conversation, if not take another nap. Listen to music. Eat dinner (more instant noodles). Play more cards. If you happen to have beer, drink it. If not, try to buy some on the longer stops. Go to sleep when you run out of beer. Repeat for four days.

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Most stops were only for a couple of minutes, but a few times per day there was a longer stop of 20-30 minutes and during
this time you can do some resupplying if you are quick. If you are lucky there is a supermarket next to the station, but usually it’s just a small produkty or kiosk with the basic stuff, which for most passengers seemed to involve buying more beer. You see, technically alcohol is not allowed on the train, but that didn’t stop most of the men in our wagon to be drunk from morning to night. As long as you didn’t disturb the other passengers the provodnitsa doesn’t care. (Each wagon has a conductor or provodnitsa who checks your ticket, cleans the wagon and makes sure everything is okay, and their word is the law!) Just make sure you hide the beer bottles when the cops arrive, they seemed to do a round through the train at every major station. Since alcohol is not allowed on the train, the kiosks at the stations are also not allowed to openly sell beer, but you just had to ask “Piva jest? Kakoi? Skolka stoit?” (Do you have beer? Which beer? How much?) and they will bring it in a black bag from the back room. Finding the place that sells illegal beer was easy, just look for the kiosk with the longest queue!

Interacting with strangers is something you won’t be able to avoid on the train, and our group of four Czechs and an Italian, Vietnamese and a Finn with big backpacks was bound to draw attention. The weird paradox is that while Russians can (like Finnish people) be quite rude or cold to strangers, they still love to small talk (and very few topics are taboo, don’t be surprised if someone asks for your salary or gives you their whole medical history). My Russian is still on a beginner’s level, so for me it was quite hard to have any meaningful conversations. The Czech guys on the other hand are more or less fluent in Russian and functioned as our spokespersons, while i chose to observe and listen. Most travelers were not going the whole way to Vladivostok (flying is nowadays quite cheap so there really isn’t any point to take the train for four days) so the people in the wagon changed after every night or so. Most were just ordinary Russians going back to work after the holidays or visiting relatives. Perhaps the most interesting passengers were the group of four or five North-Koreans. They didn’t speak much and when they were not sleeping they were chain-smoking (smoking is also not technically allowed but you can do it in the small compartment between the wagons). The guys were on their way from Pyongyang back to their work at some Siberian factory, and apparently it wasn’t that rare for North-Koreans to work in Russia.

Now afterwards I can say that the train ride was definitely worth it as an experience. Traveling this way is slow and inconvenient, and spending four nights in a very warm train wagon with 50 other people can be an intimidating idea.  Still, once you get used to the heat and the smell (which is a mix of instant-noodles, sweat and old alcohol) and adapt to sleeping in a hard bunk bed and being without a shower for four days, it can be a lot of fun even when you are basically not doing anything. But as they say “it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that counts”. It’s also a relatively cheap way of traveling so if you have the time it can be worth it. The only thing that I was really annoyed at was the lack of power plugs, there’s only two in the whole wagon, which is not much when every babushka has an iPad these days. So for now you should make sure you have some analog entertainment with you since most of the trains have been built long before the smart phone era (I managed to finish two books on during the trip). The electrification of the Trans-Siberian line took 73 years (the project started in 1929 and was completed in 2002) so it might be a while until they can serve the needs of the modern passenger….

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Typical breakfast/lunch/dinner on the train.

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The short stops are a good for getting some fresh air (or having a smoke). Notice the provodnitsa clearing ice from the train, they did this at every longer stop and it was quite loud and will wake you up if you are sleeping!

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The stations on the Trans-Siberian main line are quite impressive, even the small towns have a fancy vokzal. Top: Khabarovsk, Chita, Belogorsk  (Eddy and Tomas didn’t feel like changing from their shorts and were running around quite lightly dressed when it was -30 degrees, which got some strange looks from the locals), Vladivostok

Here’s finally a tour of the train, starting from the restaurant vagon and ending in our compartment. Directly after the restaurant is the 1st class, followed by 2nd class and then several 3rd class vagons.


Guns, dancing and food

A few words about eating. Back in Finland I usually eat my lunch at a student restaurant, where you get a nice warm meal for a very affordable state-subsidized price. Over here when I’m not eating at home or getting a quick snack from the blini or kebab kiosk you can find me at a stolovaya. These are buffet-style restaurants (or cafés if you ask a Russian – here песторан is an expensive place where you have a fancy dinner, while кафе is where you would eat lunch) that became popular during the Soviet era, and the idea is that you pick your meal from several dishes. In Russian dining culture the portions are usually quite small since they prefer to take “a little bit of everything”. So you’d get a soup, maybe a salad or other side dish, bread, some warm food and perhaps a desert. With the food you usually drink tea, but as someone who grew up drinking milk to lunch and who prefers coffee to tea, I find the idea of it as a lunch drink a bit strange. The ingredients in the food are not really different from what I’m used to (potatoes, meat and some more meat) so it’s quite easy to digest (the only thing I won’t eat is пичень – liver). One thing you will notice though is that Russian dishes are either covered in fat and/or sugar (note: if you order sparkling- or regular wine it will most definitely be [very] sweet unless you specifically order it сухой), which together with dill (I’ve never eaten as much dill as during the months I’ve been here, they put it in EVERYTHING) seems to form the main ingredients in Russian foods.

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The standard stolovaya. It’s an easy place to eat when you don’t speak much Russian, since you can just point at what you want.

I usually pay a little bit more than the student lunch back home (2.60€), but I definitely get more for the money. If you feel cheap or don’t want to eat that much you can also eat very affordably. The only negative side is that it’s perhaps not the healthiest choice of food as I explained earlier (the few salads you have are drenched in oil or mayonnaise).

Here’s a few selected meals I’ve had at my regular places (the price for each meal was between 2 and 4 euros, so quite good value for the money):

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Borsch soup, chicken sashlik and salad.

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Mjaso pa-tajskij (Meat Tajikistan?)

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Soljanka and Borsh. I accidentally ordered two soups when I didn’t know what Soljanka was (soup with sausage and olives)

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Kebab s risom, or kebab with rice. Also a soup with meat dumplings (don’t remember the name).

Everyone now and then we (other students in my dorm) will make some dinner for each other. So far I’ve gotten Italian pasta, hamburgers from the Czech guys and some Vietnamese food. The Russian students don’t really cook that much, and when they do it’s the typical student diet of pasta and sausages. The kitchens that can be found on each floor are the only common rooms in the dorms, so it’s a usual place for hanging out and if you’re bored you can certainly find some people to chat with by going through the kitchens.

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Food made by my Vietnamese neighbour.

One night the Russian students in our dorm surprised us with some live music during another evening in the kitchen.


6th of December was Finland’s Independence Day, which also happened to be on a Saturday. I’ve already promised a while ago I’ll cook something Finnish for the guys in my dorm, and since the end of the semester was rapidly approaching I figured the 97th birthday of Finland would be a good occasion. On the table we had mushroom soup, salmon and Finnish pancakes (pannukakku).

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Since guests have to leave the dorm at 23.00, some of us went to a Russian birthday party for the jatkot. The apartment was maybe the biggest bachelor pad / party place I’ve seen. The kitchen was separated from the living room with a bar counter. There were also three TV:s, which were connected to a computer and showing playlists with either music videos, Russian military propaganda or soft-core porn. The large attic on the second floor also had two additional TV:s showing the same stuff, and the apartment was decorated with Christmas lights and military camouflage netting. A few months ago I would have though what the hell is going on here, but now I’ve slowly gotten used to the absurdity that is Russian way of life (I really should make a list of all the weird “Only in Russia” moments and things I’ve seen here, I would probably have a book by the end of my exchange year).


Country Presentations

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The main event the Buddy Building Club (which is a student run club at the university that organizes events for foreign students) is organizing is the ”Country Presentation”, which is held around two times per month. It’s basically just a big party in one of the local bars, but it also features students presenting their home country in the form of showing a self-made video and optionally making some local food or presenting some games, shows or dances. Each time 2-3 countries do their show. I’m the only one here from Finland so it was my responsibility to do a video. I have to admit I spent way too much time on this, but from the feedback I received it seemed to be worth it. I got some help with the food part from Laura, who’s from the UK but has Finnish parents and together we (or mostly her and the other British guys) baked some Korvapuusti. It was not much compared to the huge variety of food made by the Germans and Austrians, who also had their presentations at the same time. At least I made a funny video! Check out here: (I apologize to all Finnish people watching this, don’t take it too seriously.)


I’ve also managed to experience something that was on my to-do list for this year: Go shooting some Russian guns. There is a small gun-range in the basement of an athletic facility and after a few weeks of visits, phone calls and usual Russian bureaucracy my Austrian friend managed to get hold of the people in charge and reserve a shooting session.

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This was the first time I’ve gone shooting since I completed my mandatory military service in 2009 (yeah I’m not a good reservist) so I was quite excited. We were a quite large group, around 15 people, and most people had never touched a gun before. There were four “instructors” watching out for us, but to be honest I was a little bit scared since they treated shooting with the same not-really-giving-a-fuck attitude that is so common here. Just for comparison, when I was in the military we drilled with our guns for a week before we were even allowed to be anywhere near live ammunition. Not much of that here, I am not exaggerating when I say that they literally just put a loaded Kalashnikov in the hand of a total rookie, pointed at the target and told them to get going. The range was also quite small and we were a big group so I felt a bit nervous with people with no shooting experience holding a loaded assault rifle while 10 of their friends are standing a few meters from them. Still the only casualty in the shooting was a table a few meters from the line of fire that one of the girls somehow managed to hit with the AK.

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From left, AK-103, Moshin Nagant, some sort of sniper rifle, and  RPK light machine gun

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I used the Smith&Wesson in the middle.

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10 rounds with the pistol from 15meters

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RPK Light Machine Gun

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10 rounds with AK-103 (standing) and 10 rounds with the RPK(laying down) from 50 meters.


One event from about a month ago I forgot to write about: I somehow found myself at the autumn ball of the TPU Dance Club. I didn’t even know TPU had a dance club, or that there is an actual dance “arena” in the electrical engineering faculty building (in my experience EE student’s aren’t that active dancers). To my surprise many of the participants were older and definitely not students. I’m not sure if they were faculty members, alumni or just dance interested Tomsk residents but around half looked like they had graduated decades ago.

The ball started with a polonaise and continued with waltzes and other “classical dances” and later transitioned to Slavic folk dances. I was just there to watch, but it didn’t take long until I was dragged to the dance floor by some very determined older Russian ladies. I tried to explain that I had no idea how the dances went but they didn’t take no for an answer and just took a firm grip of me and led me through it, I was just a passenger in that show.


Those exchange students who are here for one semester or those who go home for Christmas have already started leaving or are in the process of packing their stuff, while those of us who are staying have started to discuss what we’re doing for Christmas. As you might know, the Russian/Orthodox Christmas is in January and Christmas Eve (24.12) or Day 25.12) are normal working days here, which means I have a class at 8.30 on Christmas Eve. I’ve also gotten exams the 22.12 and 26.12, so merry christmas! My holiday will be whole of January, since the spring semester doesn’t start until February and I finish all my exams already in December. We’ve been talking about plans for then, there isn’t much to do in Tomsk so we’re looking for somewhere to travel. The problem is that it’s a bit cold to be outside in this part of the world at that time, so we’ll see exactly where we end up and what we’ll do.


I know I’ve promised more texts and I’m sorry for not delivering so much on that promise. One reason is that I’m mostly just doing the usual stuff and I don’t feel like making this blog a personal diary (instead I’d like to focus on specific topics or some more unusual activities). I’m also currently really busy until after I’ve finished my exams, then I’ll have a lot of free time to write some more lengthy posts. I’ve almost finished a post about academic life in Russia and the courses I’m taking. I’m also planning a post about the Russian language, I’ll probably do it while studying for my Russian language exam. In other words, stay tuned!

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Material in my Business Communication Class

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A page from a Russian language book, the chapter was about learning the colours. Apparently the topic isn’t difficult enough since they printed the book in black-and-white, which makes learning colours a bit challenging.

Lastly a bonusvideo with the Russian’s from our dorm performing Katyusha, those who are familiar with the Scandinavian Academic dinner party tradition will immediately recognice the melody from the drinking song Sörnain Gusha


Trip reports

Sorry for the long absence. I’ve been both too busy or too uninspired to write anything for a while. Now I’ve got a few stories in the bag so expect to see more updates. Lets start with reports from some excursions outside of Tomsk I’ve made during the last two months.

Сини утес

My British friends decided to visit a village a bit outside Tomsk, because “they heard it’s nice” and it would be a nice change-of-scenery to get out from the city.  We were also joined by the three Italian girls Chiara, Anna and Elena and Honza from Czech Republic. The place was called Сини утес (”Sini Utjes”), which means ”blue cliffs”. After taking a 30minute bus ride we got off at a stop that was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. After first walking in the wrong direction we found the village itself with some help from locals.

We decided to check out the local department store, which was nothing more than a room in the basement of an apartment building. A customer at the store offered to show us around, which we accepted without really knowing where we’ll end up. With her help we found the center of the village, which consisted mostly of a swimming pool (not many villages I know that have their own pools, apparently they got some money from the government and decided the best investment was to build a swimming pool), a small central park and a house that was either a tuberculosis treatment facility or a mental institution (or both, we didn’t quite understand her description of the place). There really wasn’t anything to see here so we decided to find the blue cliffs the place was named after. We hiked down a long set of stairs and found ourselves at the riverbed. We still didn’t find any blue cliffs, but the rocks on the riverbed were still somewhat pretty and it made a nice stroll along the river.

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Our local guide showing us around

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The local store was in the basement of this building. The graffiti is the street sign with the name of the street.

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Strolling through the park.

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Found a hill with a nice view over the river.

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Good place to take pictures!

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The whole group. 

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The way down to the river.

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The neighbour village can be seen in the distance

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 Around half a kilometer from where we were we saw the next village, which we decided to check out. It was the typical Siberian settlement, with small wooden houses (which looked to be really cold when it’s -40 degrees), a church and a small store. We asked the store if there’s a restaurant or café where we could spend some time, since it was still a few hours until the buss back was leaving, and the response was mostly in the realm of “are you kidding me?”. Therefore we went to visit the church, but unfortunately there was a baptism going on meaning we couldn’t see the whole thing, but at least the lobby and the outside was pretty. All-in-all it was a day well spent. We didn’t see anything that you would put on a post card, instead what we got was the real deal which was the local country side. The few people we met were quite friendly and really wondered what three Italians, four Britts, a Czech and a Finn were doing in the middle-of-nowhere in the Siberian countryside. Must have really seemed like the circus was in town for the locals! Also it was the first time I got out from Tomsk, so a nice change of scenery.

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Local taxi?

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Novosibirsk

There was a national holiday coming up, which meant two days off from school. I was getting a bit bored in Tomsk so I decided to travel to Novosibirsk and check out the capital of Siberia. I was joined on the trip by my local tutor Valeria and my German friend Fabian.

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Typical Novosibirsk landscape

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Fabian and Valeria under the watchfull eyes of Lenin.

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The theater.

When you imagine a “Soviet city”, you probably think of huge concrete buildings, gray landscapes and big patriotic monuments. That’s pretty much what Novosibirsk is. It’s a big city, with its 1.5 million inhabitants being the third most populous city in Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg and the administrative and economical center of Siberia. The city is only a bit over one hundred years old, which makes the thing a bit weird. The city was formed at a trans-Siberian railway bridge in 1893, and later rapidly grew during Stalin’s industrialization of Russia when a whole bunch of factories were built to process the  huge amount of natural resources found in Siberia. WW2 also found a big amount of industry being relocated to Novosibirsk, since Siberia was far enough from Europe to not be touched by the war, further increasing the size of the city. A interesting fact found on Wikipedia is that the city hit the one-million-inhabitants-milestone in just 70 years after its founding!

The easiest way to get to Novosibirsk from Tomsk is by buss. One thing I immediately noticed is how bad the road network is over here and the concept of a modern highway doesn’t exist. The distance between Tomsk and Novosibirsk is 260km, but even so the buss takes a bit over four hours to get there! (okay, this includes an around 20-30 min break half-way, but it’s still quite slow!)

Once in town we headed to our hostel, which to my surprise was a basement space of a apartment building that had been modified to a hostel. I was also very surprised by the standard, everything seemed to look very new and clean. It was quite small so there were beds even in the common room, (which BTW featured a huge plasma TV and a X-Box) but we had our own room. One interesting and slightly creepy detail was that the rooms had security cameras in them, so someone was always watching you sleep….

We hadn’t really planned that much activities for the trip, and to be honest even if it’s one of Russia’s largest cities it is a bit unfriendly for tourists, which also is acknowledged by the modest 3-page-long chapter of the city in the Lonely Planet guidebook: “It may be the capital of Siberia and Russia’s third largest city by population size, but there isn’t actually very much to see in Novosibirsk”. This was also something I had been warned by friends here who had visited the place: “Make sure you know what you want to do, since the city is just apartment buildings and roads so you can’t just stroll around and walk around the city, there isn’t anything to see”. I still counted four reasons why you would like to visit the city:  1. Watch some KHL ice hockey (I hope Helsinki Jokerit will make it to the playoffs and play against Novosibirsk Sibir here in Siberia, then I’ll definitely be going) 2. Do some shopping (there aren’t that many malls and stores in Tomsk, so people usually go to Novosibirsk a few times a year to buy the stuff they can’t find in Tomsk) 3. Visit the Novosibirsk Zoo, which I was told was “world famous” 4. Visit the Novosibirsk Theater for an opera or ballet. We did all except the first one, since there were no hockey games scheduled during our visit. Apparently there’s a fair amount of concerts and other cultural events like that going on (it’s Russia’s third biggest city after-all) but we didn’t do any of that.

The Zoo was a bit of a disappointment to be honest when comparing to how everyone kept saying it was very good. It’s spread out on a very big area and you can spend quite a while wandering the grounds. Many of the large animals were housed in small cages, which made me feel more sad than excited about seeing them. The weather was also getting colder so many of the cages were empty, so it wasn’t the best time to visit. The best part was seeing polar bears for the first time (those things are huge!). Still with a student discount it was around 2 euros for the entrance so quite worth the money any way.

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Maybe the sades looking bear I’ve ever seen.

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A thing that stuck out for me was that for many of the cages there wasn’t really anything to stop you from reaching out and touching the animals, the only thing preventing this was signs warning of that some animals might bite you. Also many of the guests were throwing food into the cages (!!).

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Siberian tiger chilling, couldn’t get a better picture.

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For one of the evenings we had booked tickets for a ballet at the world-famous Novosibirsk Theater. The show was called “Night of the ballet” and was actually three different 45-minute pieces with different styles. The first show was more of a classical ballet adapted to a modern story, and was quite funny to watch. The second one I didn’t like that much, it was a modern version of ballet with just six dancers and no orchestra. A bit too boring/modern/expressionist/whatever for my taste. The last show was a traditional Russian ballet with epic scenery, classical ballerina outfits and a live symphony orchestra, which together made an very impressive show. It was a fun experience even for a person who hadn’t been to a ballet before, and just too see a show here would be worth a stop in the city.

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Valeria’s local friend Anna joined us for a visit to the only movie theater showing movies in English. As in many other countries they dub the movies here, so I haven’t had a chance to see any new movies for a while. There’s a few movies coming out I’d love to see (The Hobbit 3 or Interstellar for example), but I don’t feel like watching them as dubbed versions (the idea of Gandalf talking in Russian is a bit too absurd for me) so I guess I’m stuck with Netflix streaming or other sources when I’m here. For the last night Anna invited us to her place, and we brought tortilla ingredients with us (we had a long discussion of what’s the difference between a burrito and a tortilla). When shopping for the ingredients I happened to find Fazer’s chocolate in the supermarket, which made the evening even better (haven’t seen it anywhere else yet).

There was really no sightseeing to be done in Novosibirsk as I explained earlier, so the rest of the time was spent in cafés, restaurants, pubs and shopping malls. I’m definitely coming back to the city to see a hockey game, hopefully with the Helsinki team playing here.

Ski trip to Sheregesh

The Buddy Building Club organized a ski trip to one the most popular ski resorts in Siberia called Sheregesh. It’s located about 600km south-east from Tomsk. Of course the roads are what they are here, so the one-way trip took 10 hours. We left from Tomsk on a Thursday evening to return on Sunday night. One the way there was quite a lot of partying going on in the bus, until we arrived very early on Friday morning at the ski-resort. After check-in and unpacking we had one hour to sleep before we were out on the slopes. It had been over a year since I last was skiing so I was a bit rusty. The slopes were also not in that good condition with a lot of deep snow making it even more challenging. After spending the whole day in the slope we transitioned to the after-ski, and our hostel had a sauna which my sauna/banja fixated Austrian friend immediately booked (in the end we booked it each night we stayed in the hostel).  Since we hadn’t practically slept at all the previous night and spent the whole day in the slopes the partying didn’t last that late for Friday night.

The whole Saturday it was snowing and very windy so most of the ski lifts were closed. I chose to spend the day in the hostel working on my Finnish country presentation (more of that in the next post) and chilling with other guys who didn’t feel like trying their luck in the snowstorms. For the evening the hostel was supposed to organize a “Glühwein and BBQ party” (Glühwein being the same as the Finnish glögi). Unfortunately they didn’t get the glühwein, so we got standard red wine instead. It was still very windy and around -20 degrees cold so perfect weather for being outside enjoying warm sausages and ice-cold wine!

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The travel agency organizing the trip took also had a photografer, check out the photos here: https://vk.com/album-43431856_206312651

An interesting difference with Sheregesh compared to ski resorts in Europe I’ve been to, is that there were three or four different companies operating the ski lifts, and a ticket for one company could not be used in another one’s lifts. And I’m not talking about one mountain belonging to a certain company, there was two lifts literally next to each other, operated by competing companies, so you had to do some planning in your skiing and check where your pass was valid. Gotta love Russian efficiency! Overall it was a very entertaining trip, it’s hard to be bored when you pack 35 students on a bus and travel to a ski resort for the weekend.


Birthday celebrations, bureaucracy and heavy metal

On September 25th I turned 25 years old, which I guess is some sort of milestone. I didn’t know anyone here in Tomsk before arriving so I had the pleasure of celebrating it with a whole bunch of new friends I’ve made so far. The morning started with a surprise when two Germans knocked on my door with a  homemade birthday apple pie (which is quite a feat when you factor in the state of the dorm kitchens). featuring Finnish flags (where did they get those??)

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The day was spent fighting both the Russian grammar (even quantum physics makes more sense than the usage of the Russian genitive case) and bureaucracy in the bank (more of it later in the post). For the evening I had invited some people to Krüger House, which is a brewery restaurant located just next to our dorm. The beer there is quite cheap while still being drinkable, so it’s a quite common place for students to hang out. Besides a restaurant the brewery also has its own “kiosk” that sells all the brands they produce. The kiosk sells the beer straight from the tap in 1.5L bottles for a student friendly price. Very convenient. While the restaurant is popular among students the staff there really doesn’t seem to like us and each time I’ve been there the service has been very lousy (in this country it really seems to take a while to get a pint, and Krüger takes the 1st price when it comes to slowness). I’m quite certain they have ripped us off more than once (including on my birthday) by putting a few “extra” beers on the bill (When going out here you usually have a table – don’t forget to reserve it a few days beforehand – and you pay all the drinks and food consumed by the table when leaving. So when you are more than 10 people this starts to get complicated and then it’s easy to hide a few beers in the bill and suddenly you realize you are are several hundred rubles short of the total sum when collecting money from everyone). I don’t know why the staff at Krüger dislike the only group of people that are willing to get drunk in the middle of the week. It might be because the students are lousy tippers, but since the service is always bad we haven’t felt the need to pay any extra. So it seems we are stuck in a never-ending circle of bad service / bad tipping with that place.

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Beer kiosk.

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Students doing what they do best.

At Krüger’s most people left slightly after midnight since it was a Thursday after all. I was convinced to join a German and an Austrian to go to “this really cool rock bar” since they felt it was too early to go home when it was my birthday. To find the bar we had to walk through a dark industrial area with what looked like abandoned buildings (probably still in use though, this is Russia after all) and if I would have been led there by some locals instead of my Austrian friend I would have been sure that I was going get robbed and/or beaten up. Luckily that was not the case and we arrived safely at the bar, which didn’t had any signs or other markings on the outside. It was just a big metal door with a security camera guarding it and a doorbell. We got in without problem and I realized that this “really cool rock bar” is actually some sort of club room for a motorcycle club. It also featured a big stage and I later learned that even if it’s a MC club it’s still a popular place for people not involved in the MC life when it comes to seeing rock gigs while having a few beers. My Austrian friend was already a regular here and I’m not sure how he found this place, but nevertheless it was a refreshing change of environment from all the clubs that most exchange students for some reason prefer. Beer was cheap, the few people who were there on a Thursday night were very nice and polite and the music was something else than the top10 pop-hits I’ve had to listen to so far. I’ll definitely be going here more often.

I had booked a table at stake house for Saturday evening so that I could celebrate properly without people needing to worry about early mornings. The place was called People’s and while being on the more expensive side on local standards I didn’t mind the prices (a quality pepper stake flamed in cognac was about 10 euros). Since it was Russia you always have to expect everything and my reservation for 14 people meant that we got a table for 9. Luckily it wasn’t a hard problem to fix and we could enjoy good food and drinks (they even had French and Italian wines that weren’t too expensive, we were getting tired of drinking the Russian stuff) in good company. This was definitely the best place I’ve gone out to so far: It only took around 20 minutes to prepare food for 14 people, the staff was friendly and spoke English (both of these things seem to be a rare thing here) and they even game me a free cocktail when they realized it was my birthday dinner (it tasted quite bad, but it’s the thought that counts I guess?). First time I didn’t feel bad when leaving a tip! Afterwards the night continued the usual way close by at a local club/bar.

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Russian Bureaucracy, episode 34821

Let me give you a little story of the documents and paperwork I’ve had to do so far. Firstly I had to register my residency to get a “registration card”. This was done by the university and I “only” had to give them my passport for a week (meaning I had no official ID during this time). A copy of this registration card was needed by both the dorm (which also required the medical certificate mentioned in the previous post) and the bank. Once I had registered my residency the university could process my enrollment, which took three weeks (!!!). With a certificate of enrollment I could finally get a student ID that gives me access to standard student services like a library card and also functions as a semi-official ID at the school. Also, a few days ago I got a strange email saying that I need to go and sign an exchange agreement with the university, so apparently I’ve been studying here for a month without an official agreement being in place?

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The laundry room at my dorm. Each time I’ve seen this sign the break actually lasted 25 to 30 minutes

To open a bank account I had to besides the registration card and student ID also provide a copy of my enrollment form, show them my visa, immigration card (this is a small piece of paper you get when entering the country, it’s not the same thing as an registration card and it’s veeeery important to keep this paper until you exit Russia) passport (which is the only form of acceptable ID pretty much anywhere here) and give them my student number, faculty of study (I had no idea about this one since I’m taking courses all over the place), major of study while in Tomsk (no idea again, and why does the bank need this info???) and place of birth (they were extremely confused since my passport lists PoB as “Helsingfors” and not “Helsinki”) and finally I had to sign a document where I promised I am not and have never been a citizen of the USA and that my parents aren’t politically significant persons. After all this it STILL takes a week for them to process the information and formally open the account. The funny thing is that to get my account info and ATM card after this “week” (from what I heard from the other guys a “week” is apparently more like two to three normal weeks)  I would again have to show my passport (neither my Finnish driver’s license and/or a local student card is acceptable ID). Of course I have already given the passport to the university visa office because I had to extend my temporary three month single entry student visa to a full one year multiple entry visa (why I couldn’t apply for this visa while in Helsinki?) and this process takes “about one month”.

Paying the rent for my dorm is naturally a pain in the ass.  I haven’t done it yet, but apparently this is how it works: When it’s time to pay, you will be handed a note from the security guard when checking in or out from the dorm, and the note tells you to see the “administrator” of the dorm (администратор is a quite loose concept here and can mean whatever manager/secretary/clerk/boss/whomever that is in charge of something). The администратор will inform you that it’s time to pay and will give you a note that says how much you owe. Sometimes they want you to pay one month, sometimes two. How this is decided is a mystery.  Of course you cannot pay the rent at the dorm, instead you have to take this note to main building. There you have to run a gauntlet of desks and more администратор:s until you finally reach the администратор that handles the money. From what I’ve heard you can’t pay with card, which means I have to get two months of rent from the ATM and hope I won’t go over my withdrawal limits. Finally after paying your rent you will get a receipt that you will bring back to the dorm дминистратор. Hopefully you will get this done in time before you have to the whole process from the start.

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I did not expect to see this. It’s the toilets of the Mechanical Engineering faculty. My Austrian friend, who’s on a mission to find the worst public toilet on campus, tells me there’s one that actually has a normal toilet seat inbedded in the floor to make a squat toilet.

I haven’t gotten my bank account yet but I’m quite certain these guys haven’t invented internet banking yet. For instance your phone or internet bills are all paid through random ATM-like machines found in many shops and stores (you select your operator, input your phone number and put bills in to the machine). Why can’t I use this same machine to pay my rent? Another interesting fact is that the scholarship TPU pays exchange students (Yeah, they actually pay foreigners to come here. I guess it can otherwise be hard to convince people to move to Siberia instead of Australia or Spain) can only be paid to a local bank account. I don’t know why I can’t just use the reverse process to pay my rent (or even better, why can’t they just subtract my rent from the monthly scholarship?).  The best part in all this? The bank the university specifically told us to open an account with just happens to be on the list of banks the EU and the US have applied sanctions against. Yey.

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Local student ID that takes one month to make.

Heavy metal

My buddy had told me about a Finnish metal band coming to Tomsk and of course I had to see these guys live. The band is called “KYPCK” (written in Cyrillic, pronounced “Kursk”) and play this industrialish type of metal with the added twist of singing in Russian. The gig was at a small music bar and there were only about 150 people there so it was quite an intimate feeling. Even if it was a small gig the boys of KYPCK gave everything and really seemed to enjoy what they were doing. I thought it would be funny if I’d wear my “Siperia Opettaa” (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Siperia_opettaa) t-shirt, and while hanging out at the bar I was spotted by some of the band members who asked if I was a crazy Russian or a crazy Finn. I explained how I ended up in Tomsk and the guys were really amazed that there was a Finn on their gig here and the boys invited me to hang out with them after their show. I had school the next day and was already behind in my homework but it was hard to say no to partying with rock stars. (Un)fortunately it was just casual talking about their band and all the crazy things of Russia, and I was home around midnight. Still it was one of the better concerts I’ve gone to and the band found a new fan in me.

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Other stuff

The Buddy Building Club organized a trip to the Opression Museum, which is situated in the old NKVD (predecessor to KGB) office and prison. Recommended by both locals and the Lonely Planet Russia guide (which btw. lists Tomsk as a “hip and friendly city” and “worth a detour from the trans-Siberian railway”) the museum presented the horrifying history of the systematic oppression, murder, deportations and other scary stuff from the Soviet times. We had an English speaking guide who was very good and quite passionately told stories from those times. Be sure to visits the place if you for some reason find yourself in Tomsk!

Pics taken by Markus S.

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A few weeks ago Tomsk celebrated its 410th birthday. The weekend featured historical reenactments, exhibitions and outdoor concerts. The whole thing culminated in a huge concert by the riverbed, which ended with a gigantic 15 minute firework which probably was the biggest one I’ve ever seen. Here’s the last 1.5minutes of it.

I’m still struggling a lot with my language studies. Often electrical engineering is regarded as black magic that not even the engineers themselves completely understand, but that honestly makes way much more sense than the clusterfuck that is Russian grammar (to be fair the Finnish language is not easy either) . Currently we have been practicing the use of the Genitive case. This is according to my teacher pretty much one of the hardest things in the whole language and it should get easier after this, but I still feel I’m barely making any progress after being here for one month. So far my knowledge of Russian is a few phrases and commonly used words. At least I now know how to count to 100 which makes some daily things easier. This week we had a small test just to see how much we have learned, and I’m quite sure I could see the disappointment in the eyes of my teacher when she went through my answers. To be honest I’ve probably not studied as much as I could have thanks to other distractions here. It also seems that I still got a bit too many courses and have to commit a lot of time for studying, which is a bit annoying when most of the courses feel poorly organized, not relevant to me or just plain boring.

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Yeah. Not easy.

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Being only 6 people in our Russian language group makes alternative teaching methods possbile. For instance a lot of time in class is spent practicing the language and learning the grammar through different types of interactive games. This is a good way to practice and makes class a lot more interesting and fun. 

My schedule has also been changed again a few times for unknown reasons and every time it happens it just seems to get worse. For instance at the moment on Mondays I only have school from 16.00 to 20.00 (2 x 90min classes of Russian), and a few days have lectures 8 hours a day with just a few 20 minute breaks. In Finland I’m used to mostly study on my own schedule and I usually skip most lectures since they are not much of use for me (and instead focus on doing the exercise problems or project works that are the core of most engineering courses). That’s not possible here and the learning (if you even can call that) happens in a much more controlled fashion (which isn’t surprising since they treat students as kids that must be supervised).  Really makes you value the way things work in Finland, where students enjoy (on a global comparison) an exceptionally high degree of freedom and are given both responsibility and authority.

The initial excitement of moving here seems to have faded and I’m now faced with the harsh reality that is daily life in Russia. I’m still doing relative fine though and currently my biggest concern is the slow internet in my room and most of all the cleaning lady on my floor, who comes a few times a week to sweep my floor or to bring new towels and sheets. It’s a bit annoying if I happen to have a late morning and get woken up by her bursting in to my room (they have their own keys, of course). In Russia the workweek is six days but I’ve tried to explain to her that I absolutely do not need cleaning or new bed clothes 9 in the morning on Saturdays, but she just keeps trying to come in anyway. Still I’ve made a little bit of progress and now she has learned that if my shoes are in my lobby I’m at home at she won’t come in to my bedroom (I still wake up when she very loudly opens the outer door). Hopefully she’ll learn my schedule after a while, otherwise this will be a long year.


Two weeks and still alive

Food, drinks and culture

The first time I tried cooking in the dorm kitchen it was quite the experience. The first impression of the kitchen was that it isn’t too bad since I’ve seen common kitchens in the Otaniemi campus that were in worse shape.

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Not too bad, I’ve seen worse.

There were however two problems: The few pots and pans that were there had seen their better days and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were manufactured in the Soviet Union. There were a couple of very small cutting boards and one dull knife. No bowls or other stuff, so I marinated my chicken breasts in the package they came in. My dorm room had one soup plate and one small plate from Ikea (!) and a spoon, fork and a knife. Many readers probably know that I like cooking and feel quite comfortable in a kitchen, so I asked Valery to show me a hardware store where I bought some supplies. The second challenge was that the kitchen stove itself was probably the worst one I’ve ever used since it didn’t heat up properly. Just making some chicken breasts and vegetables took me one hour! Dunno if the oven even works, maybe I should buy my own grill? Another annoyance was that the Finnish dish-washing-broom doesn’t exist here, could someone send a few in the mail? I don’t like using disgusting sponges for washing my plates  #FinnishProblems

A combined club/restaurant seems to be common here and it’s a bit weird to go to place where there is a security guard with metal detectors checking you for weapons and having to listen to loud club music while enjoying your meal . Last weekend I was at a club called Pravda which is one of the popular places here and it gave me my first proper taste of Russian nightlife. The men’s restroom in the club functioned as a smoking room (this seems to be common at other places also like the football stadium), so when you were doing your business at the urinal you had 10-15 Russian guys smoking and standing very close to you, eyeing you suspiciously. At some point a scary looking dude with tattoos on his chest approached me and asked where I was from, and after answering “Ja Finlandi”a huge smile filled his face and I was immediately introduced to his homies and was offered some shampanskaja.

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Going out is quite cheap. 

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Siberian pancakes are a local specialty, and you can fill them with pretty much whatever you want.

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For some reason clubs have both a DJ and a dude whose job is to talk to the crowd and falsly sign along vocals in a song.

My first “culture” event was a football game between the local FC Tom Tomsk and some team from the Leningrad Oblast (St. Petersburg area). This was a first division match, since FC Tom had been dropped from the Russian Premier League last year. Even so there were probably more spectators than in a normal football game in Finland, and the section reserved for the hardcore fans was quite loud (Their fan flag said “death to the enemies” so they took this thing quite seriously). The game wasn’t really top football and the home team had trouble scoring, but it was still entertaining with some drama that included a disqualified offside goal and a failed penalty kick. Final result: 2-2.

Yesterday was my first experience with a Russian Banya when I joined two other exchange students for a visit to a public Banya in town. As a Finn who loves the sauna I had been very eager to try the Russian variety, which was a bit different compared to what I was used to. The highest bench was a platform mostly reserved for standing (!) and the temperature was a bit higher than what would be comfortable in a Finnish sauna. Most guys seemed to be vigorously beating themselves with a birch vihta (that you could buy for around 1 euro) and Sauna hats and gloves (??) were used by most. The washing room only had two showers, and instead was filled with stone benches where you were supposed to wash yourself from a bucket. The benches also functioned as a place to relax and cool down and some guest were even sleeping on them. To me it seemed like the Russians prefer shorter and more intensive rounds compared to Finns who like to have a more relaxed approach with longer times spent in the Sauna. This was maybe the most Russian experience I’ve had so far: The Banya itself was a genuine Russian public Banya with the standard crumbling-Sovjet-infrastructure-look, the guests were mostly older men who by the look of it had seen some shit (I really want to learn enough Russian so that I can have conversations with them) and who came to the Banya to gossip with the pals, the bathing process itself was quite exhausting and demanding and the reception even sold cheap cold beer. 150 rubles well spent!

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Баня № 3

School

I’ve had classes for about one week now and have some sort of idea how it will work out. There’s still a lot of confusion going on and they have changed the timetables for all exchange students two or three times. To get rid of half of my courses (as I said in the previous post I had double the amount of courses I should have) I couldn’t just “undo” my signup, instead I had to actually fill in an official petition that will be sent to some head of some department. There’s a group of Czech students who haven’t  gotten any timetables yet, so they have been here two weeks without having any classes. Apparently it was because their papers needed to be signed by five (5) different people, and each one took around four days to get it done.  Russian bureaucracy in action again.

The classes taught in English are more or less custom courses just for the exchange students. The lecturers are quite friendly and speak English pretty good with some exceptions. Class sizes are very small, in my biggest class we are around 12 people and in one class we are just two students (some exchange students have been the only person in their class!) which is a good thing I guess. Coincidentally after dropping some courses I no longer have lectures on Saturday (would have had one lecture but the teacher moved the class so that he wouldn’t have to come to work on Saturday, this is an attitude I can respect). I’m taking mostly management/economics/business courses (for a minor subject in my Master’s degree) since there weren’t any suitable Electronics course for me. I haven’t studied anything like that before so I’m quite eager to do something else besides calculations and simulations. Just to make sure I don’t get too comfortable I also signed up for courses in experimental statistics and C++ programming

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The material might not be the fanciest new stuff but it’s quite effective.

My language course in Russian is probably my best course. The teacher is quite good and even speaks good English. Apparently many of the Russian language teachers (whose job it is to teach Russian to foreigners) don’t speak English, but this is not a problem if you ask the academic coordinator: “We have special method to teach Russian without a common language”. I’m not sure what the “special method” for this is, but my teacher is doing quite well. Back home I took some Russian intro courses in the summer, organized by the Helsinki Summer University, and there’s a difference in the approach used. In Finland we had quite a lot of grammar straight in the beginning, the course tempo was fast and we were constantly given a lot of words to learn. Here the tempo is a bit slower, we only get a few important words at a time to learn and the focus is on speaking and pronunciation and grammatical concepts are explained as needed. The teacher is really forcing us to actively use the language during class, either by asking someone in the group (which is around 8 students) to read a text loud or to translate something. Since we have five 90 minute lectures in the week (which amounts to 9 credits this semester) we get a lot of practice, which is just what I want.

Social Life

It seemed most people already have had the time to meet and knew each other. I arrived quite late in Tomsk because I didn’t want to miss a wedding (thanks M&B for an awesome party, and good luck with married life!) so I was a bit of an outsider in the beginning. Luckily it wasn’t hard to get to know the people and quite quickly I was adding new people to my Facebook friend list and exchanging phone numbers. After classes started just asking people to join you for lunch was a quick way to make new friends.

Anyway it seems like 80% of the exchange students are German and since I’ve been mostly hanging out with the other foreigners I’ve heard as much German as Russian ( Ich spreche kleine Deutsch. Kartoffel.)There’s also a big group from Czech Republic, and other countries include France and Slovakia. I’ve also gotten to know a group from the UK who are studying at another uni here in Tomsk. I seem to be the only one from the Nordics, if you don’t count the British girl who speaks Finnish. All exchange students I’ve met are quite cool and we seem to get along well. I guess moving to Siberia requires being a little bit crazy so this mindset is a common factor for us.

Russian students are a bit harder to approach since many have a level of English similar to my Russian. The exception to this are the girls (yes, for some almost all of them are girls) of the Buddy Building Club, which is a student driven organization at TPU that organizes events for international students and provides a personal buddy to each new exchange student. While there are some other clubs for various activities like sports or English language practice it isn’t the same as the student culture found in Helsinki. On the other hand life in Russia itself is quite the experience so I think I’ll be perfectly fine. I guess this will actually be some time off from life in Finland and I won’t even be tempted to apply for local organizational positions while here. I still might organize some sort of birthday party for myself in a few weeks if I get the feel for it.

#JustRussianThings

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Each day brings seems to bring new “Only in Russia” moments. My biggest problem is still my lack of language skills and just getting daily chores done can be really frustrating. One example was that the laundry service at my dormitory has been offline for over a week now (I also don’t haven’t had a warm shower this week, I guess they are doing some pipe work?) so I found an alternative laundry place close by. It was just one small room with a бабушка and her washing machine. I had brought two bags of laundry but the old lady didn’t seem to want them, and we had a lively discussion in Russian and English where neither one could understand each other. Finally another customer entered and she had some English skill so she could translate. I understood that the laundry lady had a problem with something, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Finally the other customer called her son’s English teacher, who then translated for me and I got the information that this laundry place doesn’t wash socks or underwear. This is just a normal day for me, a task which should take only a few minutes can easily take an hour when you factor in the language and/or the Russian bureaucracy. Getting things done requires a lot of patience and a positive attitude. “In Russia nothing works but everything can be arranged”.

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Ash tray in the classroom.

Another interesting experience besides the Banya or the laundry place was trying to join a gym. There’s a TPU athletic facility literally just next to my dorm with a good gym. I first went there by myself and tried to sign up, but I again had communication problems with a very scary looking gym instructor with a big mustache and who looked like he competed in weightlifting for the Soviet team in the 60’s.  I returned later with a local translator but apparently I could only use the gym a few fixed hours two times a week? A Czech exchange student had found a private gym a bit further away so I joined him and managed to get a membership. The gym was again hilariously Russian with local thugs pumping iron without shirts, the girls wearing what looked more like underwear than training clothes and of course the speakers blasted Russian techno.

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Local infrastructure planning.

For some reason I needed a medical certificate for living in the student dormitory, which meant visiting a local clinic. I had to see a doctor who performed what was maybe the weirdest medical exam ever: First she examined my hair for lice, then she checked my hands and finally wanted me to lift my shirt (to check my skin looks normal, I guess?). After this I had to take a chest x-ray to prove I don’t have tuberculosis. I was a bit worried what sort of radiation I was subjecting myself to but I guess I’m fine since everyone else had done it? A lot of waiting, bureaucracy (of course) and a few rubles later I had a certificate that I was healthy enough to live in dorm rooms. All the female nurses and doctors were wearing high heels, naturally.


It’s not dangerous, only bad for your health

Foreword: Здравствуйте!

Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m not sure how often I’ll post, probably when I have something interesting to write. I don’t really care about keeping a “diary” and instead I’ll try to focus on the fun stuff. This first post is about my impressions from my first two days in Tomsk!

 


 

National Research Tomsk Polytechnic University 

I arrived early Monday morning at Tomsk International airport (which is maybe the smallest airport ever) where I was picked up by someone who works for the university, who then drove me to the dormitory I was going to live in. Before arriving I had received absolutely no information regarding introduction sessions and course schedules, and the girl who brought me to the dormitory was as clueless as me. Therefore I did the only thing that made sense and went to sleep, I hadn’t slept at all during the very uncomfortable flight so I was barely standing. I didn’t wake up until 14.00 when my “buddy”  Valery texted me, informing me she was on her way to meet me. Each new international student gets a local “buddy” student, and Valery’s job is to help me with practical matters and to try to guide me through the Russian bureaucracy and keep me away from harm.

 WP_20140901_18_25_04_ProLots of things to do and places to go to, luckily Valery helped me with that.

Valery had a long list of things I need to do. In Russia all sorts of registrations are very important, and just getting my dorm key required signing my name on three different papers. First on the list was some sort of international office where I had to again sign some papers and provide documents. I was also simultaneously given a brief intro to life in Tomsk: don’t drink and smoke in the dormitory, register your residence permit within three days and when shopping in the supermarket only buy stuff that you are familiar with because “some Russian products can be of a bit different quality than back home” but apparently it’s not too bad since “it’s not really dangerous to eat it, it can just be bad for your health”).

Namnlös


After that I headed to my personal “educational manager” who is in charge of course registrations and that sort of business. Now this is where things get interesting: Early in the spring when applying to Tomsk Polytechnical University (TPU) I submitted a list of courses I was interested in taking while in Tomsk (which is one academic year). Apparently TPU thought this was the courses I wanted to take during the fall semester, meaning I got one year’s worth of credits in one semester. Also the schedule is a bit interesting, in Russia the academic week is actually six days and it’s completely normal to have lectures on a Saturday. On Tuesday I went back to the educational manager and explained the situation, and she was only slightly surpised that I don’t actually want to take 40+ credits in one semester (back home over 30 credits in a semester would be quite a lot). She still recommended me to go to all courses this week and check out which courses I would like to drop. I haven’t yet been to class but tomorrow morning I should get a taste of the local academic life in “History of Russia”.


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Of course the schedule is entirely in Russian, including course names. I had to use a separate reference sheet that listed all the courses taught in English and the name of the course in Russian. Also the schedule is different depending on if it’s an “odd” or “even” week, and this has nothing to do with odd or even calendar weeks but instead is according to the academic week (now is week 1 for instance.)


The university web services for courses etc. is also very confusing. Naturally it’s only available in Russian. I’ll save all the insane details for another post.

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 “Institut Cybernetiki” or the computer science/IT building

 For some reason I also need to register my computer at the university IT-center to get access to the dormitory internet. When I went there on Tuesday I was met by an older gentleman who spoke no English. My buddy was at work so I had to do this one by myself (better to get used to it anyway). After repeating the phrase “Internet, Arkadiya Ivanova?” (name of my street) for a few times he gestured me to come in and sit down. The man started talking in Russian and I kept replying with “ja ne gavarju pa-russki” (I don’t understand Russian). Frustrated, he gestured me to pull out my computer and asked me to log him in. He connected a network cable and went to town on the computer. I was quite impressed since the guy looked like he was over 70 and he quite effortlessly navigated my Swedish version of Windows. (Apparently he needed the computer’s MAC address, took him a while to find that one). The internet is not included in the rent (350RUB / month), and you pay by logging in to an ATM-like-machine found in every university building (you can imagine how long it took him to explain that to me).

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Old dude fixing my internet


First impressions: Yep, this sure is Russia

As a person who has some experience with international students from my home university, I’m still a bit surprised about how things are organized over here: It was quite hard to get some sort of schedule of the first days and information on what exactly I’m supposed to do (no way I could have managed it without Valery), there doesn’t seem to be any info sessions or introduction lectures and I’m still not sure when classes begin. Apparently it was yesterday, but I spent all day running around offices and there’s also currently a two week period when you can change all your courses, so I guess they don’t start for real until that?

The good news is that my dorm room is really nice, it looks quite clean and somewhat modern and I share a bathroom with another room (I think there’s two people living in it, but I haven’t seen them yet). There’s a common kitchen that seems to be pretty okay. One thing I noticed is that the living arrangements are much more “controlled” than I’m used to. In Finland students enjoy quite a lot of individual freedom compared to the rest of the world, and are very much treated as adults and individual responsibility is highly regarded. For instance my old student apartment was pretty much like any normal private apartment, except the rent was cheaper and the neighbors where less prone to mind your partying. Here each student has a dorm ID card that is given to the security guard at the door when you enter to get your key. When leaving the dormitory you again give the key to the guard. Also it’s “quiet time” at 23.00, and of course drinking and smoking is forbidden (I tried to ask how strict they are about the drinking part but got only vague answers….)

 WP_20140901_08_33_07_ProMy home for now.

One thing I noticed (which also was quite expected) was that few people speak even a single word of English, for instance the guy who sold me my SIM-card didn’t understand the phrase “data cap” when I tried to figure out the details. The information available in English is also quite limited. This means I’ll be relying on Valery or exchange students who know the language better than me. I’m guessing life here will be a bit frustrating until I get some basic grasp of the language, which I hope will be in a few months. I’m taking 9 credits of Russian this semester, and just seeing and hearing it everywhere has quite effectively brought back the things I learned in my summer courses. Still, people are quite friendly and have so far always tried to help me out even though we don’t speak the same language. So far I’ve managed to order a Subway and a döner kebab (pro tip if you don’t want the sparkling kind of water: just use the word for “no” and gesture wildly with your hands while making a “pfwwwschhhht” sound – the kebab dude found this extremely amusing), have bought groceries and have gotten an old dude to fix my internet (although it’s still not working and I’m stuck with using a mobile hotspot).


 

I haven’t been to class yet and today Valery was at work so I’ve been completely alone the whole day. I’m not sure where the other  international students are, so far there have been no events on Facebook or it’s Russian copy VK.com and there are only Russians on my floor  and they don’t speak English. There’re apparently lot of Germans and Italians here so I’m guessing they are sticking together. Hopefully I’ll meet some new people when I have my first lecture tomorrow.