Paris of Siberia

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
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Trip End Oct 11, 2006


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Flag of Russia  ,
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Fifth Pit Stop: Irkutsk, Russia (Country Name in Local Language: Rossiya)
Local Time: 1PM, Thursday
US Central Daylight Saving Time: 11PM, Wednesday

Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia, was the largest city in this region of Russia. Partly an academic center filled with scientific research institutes on Siberia and many national universities, one could sense an educated population walking around on the streets. Despite the fact that communism had ended more than a decade ago, the major street names remained unchanged. Lenin St, Karl Marx St, Proletariat St, Fifth Army St, etc were the main thoroughfares around the city. Appearing very European, the buildings in Irkutsk had a neoclassical charm, and the tree-lined streets were reminiscent of St. Germain/Latin Quarter on the Left Bank of Paris. However, the similarity ended there. Still very impoverished, the infrastructure of Irkutsk was in gravely poor condition. Earning an average annual income of $12,000 USD (Source: CIA Worldfact), the people of Russia did not have much economic leverage compared to their counterparts in the West. The government remained slow in modernizing this city and upgrading its infrastructure, so the atmosphere in this region of the world was still very third world.

Perhaps partly due to the harsh climate or the protracted history of oppression, the Russians living in the cities were not very friendly. Their introverted, quiet demeanor and cold stares betrayed a sense of internal struggle within them, a struggle for a better life, a more pleasant climate, or an elusive happiness. Relative to the Mongolians or the Chinese, the Russians seldomly greeted foreigners with a smile. They had no patience for foreigners who could not speak their language.

For example, I went with the group to a local bar/diner called Liverpool. Not only was the service slow like in Mongolia, our orders were completely messed up, partly due to the language problem and also due to the fact the waitresses were unfamiliar with the names of the dishes at the restaurant. Some of us were even waiting for 3 hours without receiving any dinner; some simply walked out. The waitresses and all of us were equally frustrated. A Russian man, sitting next to us, overheard us speaking in English and yelled to us in English, "You foreigners should bring your dictionaries to my country next time you eat out!" We were stunned at how presumptuous and impulsive his reaction to our problem was. I turned to him, said, "Spasiba (Thank you)," and decisively ended our conversation right there.

Apart from that incident, the live band in this bohemian bar was very good. Melancholy Russian folk songs and tunes from Eric Clapton and The Beatles were very well performed. If Russia was going to be like this, I really had no expectation what Moscow and St. Petersburg would be like.

Tonight will be the start of our 65-hour train ride from Siberia to Moscow. The train will depart at 4:30PM Thursday evening, crossing 5 time zones, and pulling into a town outside Moscow on Sunday morning. Of note, all the clocks across every train station along the Trans-Siberian route have Moscow time, even in Vladivostok, which is 11 time zones away. Who knows what kind of adventure awaits me on this longest stretch of the Trans-Siberian route....
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