1st stop in Russia. Only 5185km to Moscow
Trip Start Jul 11, 2005
62Trip End Apr 04, 2006
Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma
- Winston Churchill
ˇ Irkutsk, Siberia, Russia
ˇ Prague time +7hrs
ˇ Days to get to Prague - 18
Okay. Russia. For real. It felt weird to be here having just stepped of a train from Mongolia, somewhere obviously Asian. That's a weird statement I know, But Russia feels anything but Asian, even if it is only a 20-hour train ride away, a short distance in the grand scheme of things.
If I may, a few observations about Russia I had after only a few minutes of stepping off the train?
ˇ just to reiterate what I've already said, there are NO Asian looking people here. Well, not yet anyway. Now that may not sound like anything of note but if you had just spent the last 10 weeks in the company of Asians it's certainly something you would notice.
ˇ this time of year paths (or sidewalks for you North Americans) are dangerous places to walk, especially with a backpack on your back. If the ice on the ground doesn't get you the overhanging icicles might. But it beats walking on the roads and running the risk of getting arrested (not something I'd recommend in Russia) or mowed down by a Stalin-esk tram. This wasn't an issue in Mongolia where there were few paths of note.
ˇ it's warmer here, thank God, than in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. We though it would get colder as we went further north. Umm. Hey, it's even warmer here that it was in Kingston, Ontario, in November and December. Not that we'll be donning our shorts and t-shirts of course; it's still awfully cold. I guess it had something, or maybe a lot, to do with the absence of a cut-you-in-two Siberian wind.
ˇ Russians love Ladas. Do they ever. There are a few German sedans here but the Lada rules the roads for sure. And they all look the same - filthy with soot and dented with years of use/abuse.
ˇ All Russians have the same sallow pale complexion; they all dress in dark clothing and carry their possessions in plastic bags. And yes, they do all look pissed off. Very.
ˇ Russia is going to more expensive than we though. No more $4 rooms here. We nearly died when we were told the shared accommodation in the local hostel is a meer 400 Rubles ($16) each. Breakfast included? Het!
And again, if I may, a few observations having been here a day or two?
ˇ Russians are allowed to drink on the streets and beer is feely available in corner stores. What a cool country. I probably should rephrase that as I'm not actually sure if they are allowed, per say. But it sure is common practice. And with the ambient temperatures there's no fear of your beer going warm. Joking aside, the country has a huge problem with alcoholism. People drinking homemade spirits, or just too much, is one of the biggest killers in the country. Another issue is the growing AID's crisis. But that's a different story.
ˇ thankfully accommodation is about the only unreasonably expensive overhead we have. But it's an important one. Makes them long overnight train trips even better value.
ˇ everyone is still pissed with everyone or everything else. Seriously. But we've interacted with enough of them to know that the cold Russian exterior is just a front hiding a warm people. We had great fun with the lady in the train station buying our train ticket west to Tyumen as well as the girls in the café/bar we frequented on our first night in the city.
ˇ as tourists it's no good trying to fit in. We tried. Mainly because we though we'd get away with it. We're white, Caucasian looking males after all. Plus we kept our mouths shut, dressed in dark clothes, left our day-packs at home, hid the phrase book and tried to look pissed off with life in general. Hell, we even drank beers in the street. But no. We still stood out as tourists. Maybe we should have carried a plastic bag each? Next time. Maybe .
ˇ Russians love of Karaoke probably exceeds that of the Japanese. And no, I didn't see that one coming.
ˇ still no Asians. White Caucasians only, Others, seemingly, need not apply.
ˇ it's still cold.
The Paris of Siberia
As for Irkutsk (or Ирку́тск in Cyrillic... fancy, eh?). Well again our time here is better portrayed by viewing the accompanying pictures. What the pictures won't tell you is that Irkutsk is only 5,185 km by rail from Moscow (have to keep reminding myself this is the biggest country in the world), is one of the largest cities in Siberia (population over 600,000), is an archbishopric of the Russian Orthodox Church and is the administrative center of Irkutsk Oblast (an Oblast being an administrative region, much like a state). According to my 'sources' (Lonely Planet) by 1900 the city had earned the nickname "The Paris of Siberia" due to its streets being straight, broad, well paved and well lighted. It certaintly wouldn't be called the Paris of anywhere these days. But it is the middle of winter, not the most attractive time of year I guess. Between 1918 and 1921 Irkutsk was the site of many furious, bloody clashes between the "Whites" and the "Reds" during the Russian civil war. In a totally simplistic overview of recent Russian history, the Whites were the good guys who supported the under siege Russian Royal family. They eventually lost the war to the "Reds", otherwise known as the Bolsheviks or communists. They were the bad guys, lead by a guy called Lenin (more on him later). Their victory saw the ending of hundreds of years of dynastic rule in Russia and the creation of the USSR, or Soviet Union. And it was during these Communist years that the city of Irkutsk suffered and, I guess, lost its Paris of Siberia title. The industrialization of this, and other Siberian cities, was heavily encouraged and today the city shows the signs of inconsistent upkeep. But I guess that's the story for all Russian cities. We had a good few days trying in vain to fit in, admiring the wooden buildings Siberia is famous for, getting our first look at Russian onion domes and, of course, visiting the nearby Lake Baikal. And what a treat that was. Read on.