I adore Tobolsk. It's the only town in Siberia with a real Kremlin. Its old town, replete with a half a dozen fabulous if mostly derelict old churches, is sinking into the swampy river flood plain which is sad for the residents but great for photographers. And the people, many of them Tatar, are warm and hospitable. On my 2002 visit to Siberia, Tobolsk and nearby Abalak had been my first stop. My guide had been a producer for the local Radio Ekspress and in return for her translations I'd recorded a few radio jingles. To my amusement these are still regularly aired three years later. With us had been the wonderfully inspiring, larger-than-life Tobolsk artist, Minsalim Timergaeyev. This is an entry from my 2002 diary
'Where on earth am I?' Geographically the answer was Abalak, middle of nowhere, Central Russia. Spiritually the question was much more complex. I'd come to visit the region's holiest Christian site - a once grand monastery built on the site of a miraculously appearing (and later disappearing) icon. However Minsalim my companion was nominally 'Muslim'. And, beside the sunset-gilded bank of the Irtysh River, I watched as his Islam melted into animism. With a deep, resonant howl, half bear-call half ecstatic prayer, he saluted the life-force and connected us with the river-spirit. Not a bad first day in Siberia. "Religions are all the same", Minsalim assured me. "30 years ago I was an atheist. A great atheist, too. I was leader of the local komsomol. I used to volunteer to work on the land here. Back then this monastery was where we parked the tractors! We were pleased to make it into something useful. Of course I was a Muslim then too. At least that's what it said in my passport, I think. Anyway I have to be Muslim as I'm Tartar. It's shorthand. It goes with the Tartar language and these Mongolian eyes!" He screwed up his face expressively.
"In the end it's not the name of the God but the connection that matters. People with people, people with nature, nature with spirit. Harmony. Maybe I'm a shaman."
It was hard to know when Minsalim was joking. His moon-rounded face would slide instantaneously between gimlet-eyed provocation and laughter cracked mirth. His shock of shoulder-length grey hair gave him the look of an eccentric artist. Which is precisely what he is. Sitting at a tiny table in a roomful of dust, by day he grinds old bones into animal shapes using a little drill run by Heath Robinsonesque systems of flywheels and rubber bands. But this evening he is indeed a shaman.
It's great to be back in Tobolsk despite the drenching rain. As usual in a place where I have friends, I don't announce my arrival until AFTER I've done the bulk of my research. Local contacts are fun and potentially helpful with specific queries, but hospitality slows down the main drudgery of hotel checking, café testing and map-making (which for a new map like the one I'm making for Tobolsk means basically walking every street - local source maps are almost entirely unreliable). Local contacts also tend to blurt out the fact that I'm researching a book, a fact which I rarely reveal at all (or at least not until I've seen how a 'normal' tourist is treated). Fortunately I'd almost finished my research when I bumped into Minsalim outside the kremlin. He hugged me and before I could do anything about it he was arranging a series of meetings. So began a superb parade of entertaining if hardly work-focussed encounters. First was a chance to see inside the normally closed vaults of the art gallery where some Russian avant garde works had recently returned from loan to the Guggenheim. The manager of the local bank received me at his ludicrously oversized walnut meeting-room table and showed off his self-published book of Siberian nature photos. Later I had coffee and fat free cakes with the delightful Iranian-British owner of the Art Café who showed me press-cuttings from his days as a circus-style "Samson" - pulling cars with his long, super-strong hair as a remedy for what had once been diagnosed as incurable spinal injury! Finally I was bundled away to dine with a Dutch tourism expert who, by bizarre coincidence, happened to be in town on a mission to analyse Tobolsk's potential for increasing tourist numbers. A delightful group of local dignitaries listened patiently while I added my voice to the Dutchman's plea to market the town for its existing charms (the photogenically decrepit as well as the obviously historic) rather than make a doomed-to-failure attempt to sanitise the old town. Then, with vodkas multiplying, it was time to whip out my harmonica for a blues jam with the restaurant's versatile band. What a great day.