Chapter Six

“It was on the night of Wednesday, August 28th [1901]—after I had
watched the sun set like a huge crimson balloon behind the line to the
far rear of us—that the conductor came and informed me we would be
at Omsk within the hour. I intended to halt there for a day. So I threw
my belongings together… and then looked out the window. We were
going at a dead crawl. But far ahead I could see the moon-like glow of
many electric lights. We rumbled across a huge girder bridge, 700 yards
long, spanning the Irtish—the mast gleams of many boats at anchor,
and the red and green lights of a steamer churning the water to a quay
side, showing far below—and we ran into a big, brilliantly lighted
station, crowded with people and with the grey and red of military
uniform everywhere.”

John Foster Fraser, The Real Siberia, 1901

While northwards of Tobolsk the Irtysh flows into country traditionally inhabited by the Khanty and Mansi (and further still, by the Nenets), upstream it passes through a string of settlements once predominantly inhabited by Siberian Tartars.

The Scottish physician John Bell noted the Tartar presence in January 1720 in his Travels from St. Petersburg while tracing a course along the frozen Irtysh towards Tara, today the largest river town between Tobolsk and Omsk. It is an interesting account because Bell gives us a glimpse inside a Tartar house and something that was common in Siberia at the time among the Tartars: using ice as “glass” for windows in winter.

We passed through many Tartar villages, and at night lodged in one of
their little huts, and warmed ourselves at a good fire on the hearth. These
houses consist generally of one or two rooms, according to the ability of
the landlord. Near to the hearth is fixed an iron-kettle to dress the vict-
uals. In one end of the apartment is placed a bench, about 18 inches
high, and six feet broad, covered with mats, or skins of wild beasts, upon
which all the family sit by day, and sleep by night. The walls are built of
wood and moss, consisting of large beams, laid one above another, with


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Siberia: A Cultural History


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