Irkutsk and the 2nd Leg of the Trans-Siberian
Trip Start Jun 21, 2011
9Trip End Aug 06, 2011
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As I’ve gotten older and more financially secure my style of travelling has changed over the years. In the past I was quite happy to stay at any old backpacker hostel that would give me a place to crash for the lowest price. In recent years I’m much more likely to stay in a budget hotel as I can normally afford it. Russia is extraordinarily expensive when it comes to accommodation, however, so I found myself ringing the bell to get into an apartment hostel near the center of Irkutsk called the Baikaler.
‘Uh, hello, do you have beds?’
‘How many of you are there?’
‘OK, come on up.’
The door was buzzed and I made my way up three flights of stairs into an old Soviet style apartment building
After settling in, young and pretty Masha turned out to be one of the most helpful hostel managers I’ve ever come across in years of travel. With her lovely British accent (though she is Russian) she explained to me how to go about getting a train ticket for Moscow. She also went into some detail about going out to see Lake Baikal. All in all, the most helpful person I’ve come across in Russia to be sure.
Using her advice I went to a ticketing office and secured myself a train to Moscow, and I also planned for an overnight stay in a village called Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal the following day.
That night in the hostel I was really reminded of why staying in such places can be so much fun. Sitting in the kitchen I sipped beers with a very funny French kid and an American guy from Indiana. As it got later Masha came out of her little office next to the kitchen and curled up into the large ledge of a window to join in the discussion.
‘I’ve seen Lenin everywhere, why no Stalin?’ I asked, Masha.
She gave me a slightly shocked look and said, ‘Maybe because he was a mass murderer.’
‘OK, fair enough, it was a stupid question. What about Trotsky? Why no icons for him?’
‘Uh, maybe because he lost.’
'Yeah, to a mass murderer.'
I didn’t press with any of my questions. I’m certainly no expert on Russian history, but what I do know fascinates me. As far as my ‘stupid question’ goes, I feel it is somewhat legitimate insofar as Lenin was pretty much Stalin’s idol. I mean, he had the man embalmed and put on public display in the Red Square for God’s sake! (Against the wishes of Lenin’s wife no less.) Admittedly, Lenin didn’t do the bulk of the purges (mass murdering) but I think there is ample evidence that he was involved with some in the beginning of the Communist revolution before he died. In my opinion, Stalin was only following a pattern that had already been started by this man whose image is EVERYWHERE in Russia
Trotsky on the other hand, here was a potential good guy. He was no saint but I'm sure he opposed Stalin and his murdering ways. As Stalin and Trotsky both scrambled for power in the wake of Lenin’s death, Trotsky was the one who lost out and fled to Mexico, later to be assassinated by one of Stalin’s men. You’ll see nothing in Russia commemorating this man who, in my opinion, could have set Russia on such a different and more positive path. History really is written by the winners.
The conversation in the kitchen that night eventually turned to lighter topics. I was telling Masha that I chose a lower bunk bed because I once leapt out of my bunk in an Australian hostel in a nightmare fueled panic and nearly killed myself. The funny thing was I didn’t jump out the side of the bed. I somehow jumped out at the foot of the bed and skinned my shins before falling to the floor. Thank God I was on the lower bunk. I can still remember the Australian girl who was in the upper bunk hanging her head over the end of the bed and saying, ‘Are you OK, mate?’ I sheepishly said I was and crawled back into my bunk. I was laughing so hard while telling this story there were tears in my eyes.
The original plan for the next day was to leave my big pack at the hostel (which I did) and then make my way to Listvyanka by bus in order to enjoy the lake for the day and spend the night there
During my day at the lake I had a really good time people watching. The Russians sort of treat this place like a beach resort area. Of course it’s a lake, so there is no proper beach per se. This didn’t seem to discourage the locals, though. The ‘beach’ in Listvyanka is pretty much a bunch of rocks, and the whole area is kind of cold. The water in the lake was absolutely freezing, and I would know because I stepped into it up to my knees and asked some fellow to snap a photo of me. None of this seemed to bother the Russians, though. The rocky ‘beach’ area was filled with many Russians in bathing suits (including bikinis) trying to get some sun. And there were actually some people, not many but some, swimming in that frigid water.
I spent most of the day and afternoon just roaming up and down the ‘beach’ and it didn’t take long to realize that Listvyanka is not very big. There is a market with many trinkets and heaps of people selling omul, a fish from the lake that is quite delicious. There is also a little aquarium type building that housed some Baikal seals
Having had my fill of Lake Baikal, I found myself sitting on a bench at the pier waiting for the hydrofoil to show up. While waiting a couple of very cute Russian girls showed up and joined me on my bench. One of them said something to me in Russian but I had no clue. She then smoothly shifted to English.
‘Where are you from?’
‘America.’ I said. ‘Your English is very good.’
‘Thank you. I study English and German pedagogy.’
‘Oh! So you want to be a teacher?’ I asked.
She just smiled and kind of shrugged her shoulders
I found out soon enough that their names are Nastia and Kate. Both college students, but Kate was quick to let me know she had only studied English for one year and was therefore a bit less talkative. We chatted for a few minutes and I told them I was waiting for the hydrofoil which turned up a few minutes later.
Hopping up I told the girls it was nice to meet them and then headed toward the boat. Unfortunately, though I didn’t know it at the time, a storm was moving in and the boat service had been cancelled heading back to Irkutsk. I spent several minutes in a state of confusion trying to confirm this, but when it finally became clear the boat was cancelled I set off in search of Nastia and Kate. I knew they could speak English so I thought they might be able to help me and I was right.
As soon as I got to the rocky beach area I spotted Nastia and Kate sitting with some friends. They introduced me to Alex (aka Sasha) and his girlfriend Ann. Alex has a car and was kind enough to offer me a ride back into the city. I happily accepted. We were wandering around the town a bit and taking some photos before a phone call came from Alex’s mother warning him that a storm was coming
‘We have to go.’
The ride back into town was enjoyable despite the fact that we got stuck in traffic. Talking to a bunch of Russian college kids in Siberia is not the sort of thing I’m going to be able to do very often in my life.
‘Why are Russians always the bad guy or crazy people in American films?’ Alex asked with perfect sincerity.
Wow, I didn’t really have a good answer for that one. Awkward!
‘I think it’s because America and the Soviet Union were rivals, or enemies, for so long during the cold war. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as it used to be.’ I finished lamely.
Nastia and Alex then struggled a bit to find the words to their next question.
‘Please wait a moment.’ Alex said politely
I was listening to their discussion and I heard Nastia sound out the word ‘stereo, stereotypes.’
I said, ‘Ah, stereotypes? What do you want to know about stereotypes?’
‘Yes’, Alex said. ‘What can you tell us about Russian stereotypes?’
I felt kind of guilty because there was only one that really leapt to mind.
‘Vodka.’ I said. ‘Russians really like to drink vodka.’
I couldn’t really think of anything else and said, ‘What about Americans? Any stereotypes?’
Alex and Nastia talked for a moment and both said, ‘Fast food!’
Hard to argue with that one
Back in the city I exchanged information with my gracious young saviors and bid them farewell. Once again, I felt so lucky to run across such incredibly nice people on the road.
Ringing the bell at the Baikaler I was a bit worried they might not have a bed for me. I had originally planned to sleep out at the lake but changed my mind.
‘Hi Masha, it’s me Brett. Do you have any beds for the night?’
She hesitated a moment and then said, ‘Well, I do have one more bed for the night.’
The door was buzzed and I made my way up.
Masha led me to her office next to the kitchen and I poked my head inside. Her tiny little office had a bunk bed in it as well.
‘You can take the top bunk, that’s the last bed I’ve got in the place. ‘
I laughed and said, ‘No problem, as long as I don’t freak out in the middle the night and jump out of the damn thing.’
That night was another good one at the Baikaler. I sipped many more beers and enjoyed the company of the same French kid (who was hilarious) from the previous night and a young British couple who had been teaching English in Vietnam. Staying in hostels these days gives me the feeling of being the wise old man. These kids really marvel at the things I’ve done. And I guess one of the most enjoyable parts of it all for me is that I either have something meaningful to say about the inevitable travel questions that come up, or I have my own sincere questions about the places I haven’t been -- both equally rewarding
The next morning I woke up and stumbled out of Masha’s office rather bleary eyed and ready for a cup of coffee. Several folks in the kitchen including Ben, the British fellow from the previous night, were giving me a curious eye.
Ben slipped close and said, ‘You paying extra to be in there?’ And he elbowed me with a big smile.
‘No, no. It’s not what you think. It was the last bed.’
He didn’t seem convinced and it was too damn early in the morning to argue. Not that I would’ve minded sharing a bunk with the beautiful Masha, but the simple truth was that I slept in my upper bunk (thank God I didn’t jump out of it) and she slept in hers.
My Moscow bound train was leaving Irkutsk that night at around midnight. I had an entire day to work on my blog and that was what I did for the most part. There was some wandering around the city that included the Angara River and several of Irkutsk’s beautiful churches, but the rest was typing and uploading pictures (so many pictures!).
The train arrived on time, which seems to be the norm in Russia. Once in my compartment I met two of my compartment mates, young Sonya and her grandmother, Rimma. We eagerly sat at our compartment center table and stared out into the night. The next stop brought Yuri into our compartment, an older Russian fellow with several gold teeth.
Though none of them could really speak English, we hit if off right from the start. While researching this trip I had read a bit about the communal and friendly nature of Russians on the trains and I have to say, Sonya, Rimma and Yuri confirmed that for me. Over the next fifty some odd hours the four of us would be spending in that compartment we somehow became a weird family unit. Sonya, amazingly, was only 14 years old, but looked and behaved like an adult, maybe more than the rest of us. Rimma, the baboushka (grandmother)relied heavily on her granddaughter for help but was very outgoing and friendly
With the train leaving the station after midnight, the logical assumption would be that we all hit our bunks and went to sleep for the night. Not so. Crazy Uncle Yuri flashed a gold toothed smile and broke out a bottle of some horrifyingly vile booze. He also produced a number of omul for us to tuck into and, it must be said, the fish was quite good. We peeled off strips and ate it almost like beef jerky. I had squirreled away a couple of cans of beer and at one point was tempted to chase away the nasty taste in my mouth with a can of beer, but young Sonya would have none of it. She wagged her finger at me and was pretty much telling me not to mix whatever the hell I was drinking with beer. Yuri, mostly through pantomimes, insisted his stuff would help me sleep. It did, indeed.
In the morning I was happy to discover that the train’s dining car was right next to our carriage. Just a few steps away and there it was. After making my way through the noisy carriage separation space, which feels a bit like you’re going through an air lock, I poked my head into the dining car and saw Yuri eating some form of soup at one of the tables
Over the next couple of days, though, the four of us got along quite well in our compartment. Rimma and Yuri were in the lower bunks, Sonya and I in the upper bunks. Food was often a communal experience. When the train periodically stopped I made it a point to go and try to buy something that everyone could share. They did the same.
Sometime in the afternoon on our second day and some change, Rimma and Sonya were leaving the train. Time is kind of a wonky thing on these trains that are travelling such long distances and through so many times zones. In Russia, all trains are set to Moscow time. This reminded me a bit of my days in the Navy. If you are crossing the ocean, and God knows how many times zones, then you need a common time, which in the US Navy is called ‘Zulu Time’ or GMT time
As Sonya and Rimma were exiting the compartment I was out in the passageway charging my laptop when I suddenly heard, ‘ A-mare-i-ka!’. This was how Grandma Rimma liked to refer to me. I hurried over to the carriage steps and waved goodbye to them. It was nice to see some of their family there to greet them on the very brief stop, I snapped a quick photo, and then they were gone.
When I got back to my bunk a bit later I saw a napkin on my pillow with the following written on it:
Sonya and Rimma
There were smiley faces written after their names.
As I type this right now in the dining car, Uncle Yuri and I are still trundling west. We have two new compartment mates, one woman and one man, but I haven’t really had the time to do more than a cursory introduction. We’re about 18 hours outside of Moscow and the scenery has not really presented me with anything new or amazing. And frankly, after Siberia and Mongolia, I’m not surprised.
Moscow is next…