Heading east from the Urals, the influence and reach of Moscow noticeably begins to wane as one enters Western Siberia (Западная Сибирь). Unforgiving winters and a history of Gulag camps give the region a bad rap. The reality is much different. Western Siberia opens its arms to visitors and has plenty to offer the passing traveller. Expect contrasts and extremes, from glaciated mountains to underground cafes, fine art museums to gentle forest rambles. For the international visitor there's no getting away from the fact that Western Siberia is not the easiest place in which to travel. Visitors need a willingness to rough it, and outside the big cities it helps to be able to speak at least rudimentary Russian. But those who make the effort will be rewarded with an insight into the Siberian way of life and – perhaps more importantly – receive a dose of the locals’ legendary hospitality.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Western Siberia.
The centrepiece of the tower-studded, white-walled, 18th-century kremlin is the glorious 1686 St Sofia Cathedral. Less eye-catching from the outside, but with splendid arched ceiling murals, is the Intercession Cathedral. Between the two is a 1799 bell tower, built for the Uglich bell, which famously signalled a revolt against Tsar Boris Godunov. The Kremlin prison is now the Castle Prison Museum, where you can get a sense of the grim life behind bars in both tsarist and Soviet times.
Riverside Trinity Monastery is undoubtedly Tyumen’s most appealing architectural complex. Its kremlin-style crenellated outer wall is pierced by a single gate tower. Behind, gold domes top the striking Troitsky Church in the centre of the courtyard and, next to the black-turreted main gate, the 1727 Peter & Paul Church. In summer the flower beds of the complex burst with colour. The monastery is a pleasant 30-minute walk northwest from the city centre.
This museum is dedicated to the works and life of the painter Nikolai Rerikh (Nicholas Roerick), beloved in these parts because of his life-long passion for Altai. There are both original paintings on display and reproductions, which provide a thorough synopsis of his life's work, and you can buy affordable prints in the excellent gift shop.
Central pl Lenina isn’t really a square so much as a jumbled collection of beautifully restored historic buildings interspersed with banal Soviet concrete lumps. The frustrated Lenin statue, now relegated to a traffic circle, points at the ugly concrete of the Drama Theatre, apparently demanding ‘build more like that one’. Fortunately, nobody’s listening. Topped with a golden angel, in a second circle beside Lenin, is the Iverskaya Chapel, whose celebrated icon is dubbed ‘Tomsk’s Spiritual Gateway’.
The gloomy basement of this former NKVD (proto-KGB) building is now a museum dedicated to the unspeakable horrors that took place here. Look out for the Gulag map, the system of Soviet labour camps depicted as an uncountable mass of red dots across the territory of the former USSR.
Tobolsk's best museum, and indeed one of the best museums in Siberia, occupies a beautiful 18th-century former administration on the southwestern edge of the Kremlin. The Romanovs called in here during their brief stint in Tobolsk in 1917, and a section of this remarkably modern museum is devoted to their time here. Tactile multimedia exhibits profile the characters who shaped Siberia before the Bolshevik revolution, as well as hometown heroes such as Dmitry Mendeleyev, who created the first periodic table.
Housed in a wonderfully dilapidated 1912 merchant’s house with original art nouveau fittings, this fine museum is home to standing stone idols, petroglyphs and a weathered old shaman's coat that locals consider lucky and so pop coins into the display case. Everything is written in Russian but one member of staff speaks French and will gleefully give French speakers a (very) detailed tour.
One of the more unusual sights along the Chusky Trakt is this sublime turquoise blue sulfur lake and geyser. This is no Yellowstone-style geyser erupting forth in drama; but it's a subtle charmer. Indiscreet bubbles mingle with black silt in the blue lake waters to form slow changing patterns in the lake floor. It's especially colourful and beautiful when the sun shines on it and the waters positively glow.
This well-put-together museum offers a good introduction to Altai culture with a range of ethnographic exhibits, wildlife displays and local art and artefacts, including a room dedicated to the Altai landscape painter Grigory Choros-Gurkin. It also houses a stuffed collection of the local wildlife including a snow leopard and an interesting display on prehistoric life in the region (complete with mannequins living in the most sterile looking cave you've ever seen).