Irkutsk is sometimes referred to as the "Paris of Siberia", though it keeps a discreet enough distance from the original to avoid direct comparison. Its reputation comes from the fact that with the Decembrist uprising in 1825, many nobles suddenly made their homes here. They brought a dash of high culture with them, and raised the standard for life in Eastern Siberia. Irkutsk has some old mansions, and boasts an opera house and a university. There is a central, older part of town with many wooden houses, and an outer part of town with Soviet-style housing developments.
My hotel was the Intourist, a cement, hulking thing which faced the river. It was in a nice section of town, and I can't complain about it at all. It was nicer than any of the places I had stayed before, and even though it had a bizarre, Alpine interior, the copious amounts of wood were light, and it was cheerier. There was a shower, though strangely, there was no pedestal. The floor tiles sloped down in front of the shower to a drain under the sink. In any case, I was glad to clean up after 4 days on the train, and it will be one of my most memorable showers ever.
I had arranged a tour with Alexander, the fellow who picked me up at the station. He's a great tour guide, and works for a local tour company – I would definitely look him up should I ever go back to Irkutsk. At his recommendation, I had lunch in the restaurant on the 2nd floor. You don't go there for the kitchen – you go there for the kitch. The food was dismal, but the decoration was five-star, from the cement ceiling with the bulbous chandeliers, to the huge, crystal mineral thing on the wall, and the many mounted heads of various local animals, which ranged from moose to something that looked like a gopher. It was all about Irkutsk, I understood, though some artistry is too conceptual for its audience. If I were nervier I would have taken a picture. Indeed it's a tourist attraction in itself, and appears in a locally produced guidebook that I bought, though for different reasons than why I myself would have included it.
That afternoon, I took a city tour, and signed up to take a trip to Lake Baikal the next day. Irkutsk is a very small city, and the tour fit quite nicely in an afternoon. We looked at the local town hall, behind which there was an eternal flame guarded by goose-stepping schoolgirls with bayonets. I took a picture from an exceedingly safe distance. We saw some churches, and then made our way out to a monastery. Several people of note were buried at the monastery, including the man who sold Alaska to the Americans, and Yekaterina Trubetskaya, a woman who gave up her nobility and riches to join her exiled husband in Irkutsk. Again, this dated back from the Decembrist uprising, and she was held up as an example of heroic loyalty. To balance out the churches I asked to see the synagogue and the mosque. I'm sure that my tour guide thought it was a bit eccentric. It turned out that it was – the upper floors of the synagogue are being used as a business, and the mosque looks like a car repair shop. The Polish Church I had seen earlier is now a concert hall, so it seems that besides atheism, Russian Orthodoxy is the only game in town.
Later that afternoon, we saw mansions, a monument to the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway, and a museum of anthropology. The exhibits on the Buryats were fascinating, in that the some of the Buryats lived in teepees and wore beaded moccasins. There was the opera house, the University, the market, and then we started to scrape for things to look at – the Post Office and Telegraph building, the Park, cement housing, and the power station.
And so on. The tour ended just about at the right time. Actually, I probably should have photographed the power station. For one thing, Admiral Kolchak was executed right near by, which effectively ended things for the White Army. And also, it would have been interesting to show how out-in-the-open all of these industrial things are in Russia. Whereas in the US, industry is isolated, the Russians put it in plain view, since they tried to make a workers' paradise. Besides its nominal function of delivering power to Irkutsk, the power station also supplied warmth to the Angara river. It also kept the level of hydrocarbons stable, so they could be monitored by two or more senses. I realized sunset was more colorful the side where the smoke was going, and tried to capture this from my hotel window.
That evening I thought I would take myself out for dinner. There was a restaurant in the guide book, the Dragon, a Chinese restaurant which was a joint Russian-Chinese venture. I knew I wasn't going to get authentic Chinese food, but I though that it would be an interesting thing to do. I went outside and realized that it was at least 10 below. I forgot how pleasant that can be. Besides, even though it was very dark, I didn't know where I was and there were few street lights, you're in no danger in this kind of weather since in this type of cold, people are only concerned with getting from point A to point B. The one problem was that I couldn't find the restaurant, and forgot to take the directions with me. So I walked back to the hotel and set out again. The Dragon was pretty nice, though I wonder who said it was Chinese. In Russian style, you order a salad (which has pickled vegetables) and small main dishes. I was having trouble with the menu, and asked whether they had a copy of the menu in Chinese, which entertained the waitress. I did my best, had a nice dinner, and the bill came to four dollars, which I thought I could handle.
The next day was my trip to Lake Baikal, which is really stunning. The whole area is devoted to the lake and to local folklore. We visited the Museum of Wooden Architecture, which has wooden buildings from the early settlement of Irkutsk all the way up to ones you would see today. There was a fort, a farm compound, a sauna, a school, a church with wooden onion domes, and a wooden ger that the Buryats built. The wooden houses are quite nice (though maybe not to live in), and many have elaborate ornaments around the windows. I was told that all of these ornaments are unique. Outside Irkutsk there are many villages that are made entirely of wooden houses. They're all haphazard affairs, with no layout, and no streets, for that matter. They have a real, pioneer feel. We visited one such village, Lisvyanka, which is famous for its wooden church, and many couples from Irkutsk go there to get married. You can't see "the real Russia" any more real than this.
The scenery is stunning, especially the Angara River and Lake Baikal itself. Baikal has 2500 species that you don't find anywhere else, including fresh water seals, the omul fish (pretty tasty), and a fish that lives in the depths at such great pressure that it turns to a spot of oil when it reaches the surface. I saw a bunch of these things in formaldehyde at the Limnological Museum ("limnological" meaning "referring to a lake"). They also had a tank with baby seals, who put on their cuteness and played me like a grand piano.
We took a ferry out to a village called Port Baikal, a moribund-looking settlement with a few houses and a tiny, one-room general store. Port Baikal was a stop on the Trans-Baikal railroad. The Trans-Baikal used to be part of the Trans-Siberian, but now it only operates in the summer for tourists. Though Port Baikal looks like it's on its way out (young people get out of there as soon as they can, so there are only very old and very young), I liked the fact that everyone you meet yells, "Hello!" whether they know you or not. The village, and actually, the whole area, reminded me of the area in Donegal where I spent a summer learning Gaelic. Both are isolated, both are known for their folkloric significance, and both have people who greet you when they see you on the road.
I also started to realize that there was some sort of story about my father's father that probably took place around here. My father and his siblings are very American, and didn't take in a lot of details about their parents. They grew up with English spoken in the house, picked up a little Yiddish, but knew no Russian at all. Apparently, my grandfather would correct my grandmother's Russian from time to time, and she would bluff, "So, you think you're so smart? Get the dictionary! GET THE DICTIONARY!!" So he would get the dictionary, and she would back down until the next flare-up.
Apparently, there was the story about my grandfather was crossing a lake in Siberia. Crossing the lake, he met a Siberian fellow who asked him what was happening in western Russia. My grandfather mentioned that there was a revolution going on, and that he was fleeing for a multitude of reasons. And as a Jew, he was in particular demand with the taxidermists at that point in history. The guy thought this was a very funny joke, the thing about being a Jew. Grandpa didn't have horns or hooves, so he couldn't possibly be a Jew, and would he please be serious. How my grandfather finally proved it to him is none of my business, but the lake had to have been Lake Baikal, while he was traveling the Trans-Siberian on his way out of Russia.
Not only did I get to see Baikal, but I picked up a very interesting fact from dragging my poor tour guide around – he can't stand the cold. Many people in Siberia can't stand the cold. I never thought about it, but then again, I come from New York and can't stand the summers because I can't think when it's hot. I suppose that preferred temperature is a very subjective thing, and varies from person to person. I happen to like the cold since it wakes me up, but my happiness was little comfort to my poor guide. It was a great tour, but I'm sure he was delighted to be back in Irkutsk. Even though he really must have wanted to get home, he took me to the market, as promised, to help me buy food for the next leg of the trip.
The market is huge and modern, and any tales of long lines for a crust of bread are pretty old at this point. There were meats, vegetables, cheeses, eggs, fish, breads and goods of all descriptions. I'm not sure how much of this people can buy, but the variety was stunning. I bought a few things for the trip, and smoked fish, bread and caviar for dinner. I made a pig out of myself in the hotel room while I watched CNN, and then got ready to check out at noon the next day.
Irkutsk had started to win me over, but it's definitely a two-day town. This was the third day, and I was wondering what I was going to do, especially since I was giving up my hotel room. In the morning, Alexander met me and took me to a bag repair place, which was incredibly nice of him. It was so cold that the metal clip on my bag strap snapped, and he knew someone who could fix it. Rather than throwing things out as they do in the West, they repair things, with the best of Soviet jury-rigging still in practice. The fellow took the clip from another strap, and sewed it on to mine with a foot-pedaled Singer sewing machine that was built around 1900. He was very impressed with Alexander acting as my interpreter. He said that he'd taken German all through school, but the only thing that he could say was "Hände hoch!"
We also went to the Post Office, which Alexander insisted is the best place to use the Internet. Actually, it's the best place to wait behind someone using the Internet, it having the lowest price in town. We took a number and went for coffee. It struck me that because of the Internet, Irkutsk would be a great back door for Europe. A translation service in Irkutsk, which is 8 hours ahead, could get their work at close-of-business in Europe, first thing in the morning. They could do a full day's work, and as if by magic, make it appear in Europe first thing the next day. A lot of business could work like that, notably programming, which they do very successfully in India for the same reasons. Prices are low and the people are educated. I mentioned this to Alexander, who, like most Russians, is looking around to find new things to do. In fact, I think that with proper management, Siberia could be a powerhouse in the next century. With the resources that they have, they could be embarassingly wealthy. The rub, of course, is management.
When we went back to the Post Office, someone was already there. I really didn't want to check my e-mail anyway, since supposedly I was on vacation. That being said, I was left with an afternoon to kill in Irkutsk. Walking back to the hotel, I realized that dirt and smoke aside, Irkutsk is really quite nice, and much more relaxed than European Russia. Be that as it may, killing an afternoon is more difficult when it's 10 below, since you can't sit in the park and write post cards. I had checked out of my room, so the trick was to find somewhere to sit where I wouldn't be thrown out or fleeced. I thought that even though the hotel restaurants were pretty awful, I might be able to sit over coffee after having lunch. The buffet restaurant was closed, even though people were eating there, and I was referred to another restaurant downstairs. The advantage of being banished, I hoped, was appalling service that would take at least another hour.
Like the restaurant upstairs, this one had dead, gutted animals on the wall as well. Here, however, the tables were made of 4-inch thick wood, and the chair arms were built in such a way that you were never closer than 3 feet away from the table, whichever way you sat. There was also a disco ball on the ceiling. And, there was no one in the restaurant – a good sign.
A waitress gave me the menu, which didn't have a lot of promise. I ordered the Franzuski Salat ("French Salad" – which part of it was French I had no clue) and the house shashlik, or shish kebab. The house staked their reputation on it, literally "staked" because it was shish kebab, and like the décor, this meal would consist of dead animals and pieces of wood. The waitress who took my order had a heavy veneer of makeup, no doubt to protect her from the Siberian winter, and dark brown lipstick, which I imagined was to prevent anyone else from picking her cigarette out of the ashtray.
My plan was working so far. I had no illusions about the food, but it took a good half-hour to bring what amounted to a Philly cheese steak on a knitting needle. I ate slowly, finished all the bread in the bread basket, drank every bit of the bottled water, and then hunkered down for the longest cup of coffee in the history of man. I had a book, and every intention of finishing it. In a Western restaurant, especially an empty one, someone would bother to ask whether you wanted more coffee, and perhaps interest you in some dessert. At an Intourist restaurant, where stuffing your guest doesn't translate into a bigger tip, the story was different. The waitress gave me a bill, and grabbed away my carefully unfinished cup of coffee! I had been served my walking papers – doubly disconcerting since it was only 2:30 and there were 4 more hours to occupy. The one bright moment was that when I looked at the bill, I realized that the bastards had charged me 3 roubles for the bread. Ha! I ate it all.
I went upstairs for another guaranteed time-waster – to check my e-mail at exorbitant rates in the hotel business center. I located the woman in charge and we got the computer working. I was about to sit and read about nothing when by incredible coincidence, I ran into Trevor and Kim, the Antipodeans I had met on the train. Afternoon saved! They had come to change some money at the hotel, and hadn't yet seen Irkutsk because they stayed in Lisvyanka, the village near Lake Baikal. So I showed them around and gave the tour I'd had two days before. Very pleasant, and it took just the right amount of time. I got back to the hotel, un-checked my bags, and caught my lift to the train station.