Irkutsk: the first 36 hours

September 5, 2011

For those concerned, I apologize for the short hiatus from the blog, but I didn’t want to write my first posting before having visited the majestic Lake Baikal and supplying you readers with a couples of photos. Unfortunately I can’t seem to figure out this Linux system on my hosts’ computer, which at the moment is not recognizing the ones I wanted to add; they’ll be coming soon. Given the time since I last wrote, this post will be in two parts, and will be rather lengthy.


Part 1: The lead-up

Well, what can I say? So far, my time in Russia has been a blur, although I can’t exactly claim that everything got off on the right foot. After waiting for my friend Ben at Domodedovo airport’s international arrival area (where whitewashed walls and a temporary-looking ceiling are an eerie reminder of last January’s suicide bombing) for several hours with no luck, I decided to take a cab to the hotel instead of bumbling through the city’s train system with my luggage. The cab turned out to be an unofficial “gypsy” cab, which was repeatedly noted as a danger in our arrival literature. So, this one’s for Mom: I didn’t even get out of the airport before doing something stupid.

All was fine, though, aside from the traffic jams. Indeed, I got to see the outskirts of Moscow, which are a fascinating contrast to the modern center, and despite the nearly two-hour trip, I still paid less than I would for MiddTransit from Burlington.

My experiences in Moscow are more or less covered by Hillary’s latest post (I was there when she jumped the Metro gates, and was the one to explain to her the value of patience with Russian machinery). Unfortunately, I spent less than two days there: On Wednesday, after a morning of orientation lectures mostly about the absurdities we’re likely to encounter, we Irkutiany plain-train-and-automobiled our way eastward, flying from Moscow at 7:40 pm and arriving in Irkutsk around 7:40 am local time. A twelve-hour difference between boarding and exiting a domestic flight should give you a good idea about how big this place is (note: Moscow’s pretty west, but well into the interior of the country; Irkutsk is more or less in the middle, longitudinally).


Part Two: Bliny, Buffoons, Baikal

I was immediately taken to my host family, who live in an apartment complex about five minutes on foot from where I will be attending classes. Tamara Ivanovna, my host mother, is a retired physics teacher who worked mainly with foreign students during the late Soviet period in a specially designed fakultet at the university for those who are not native speakers. When I came in, the table in the kitchen was prepared, and we immediately sat down to bliny, a traditional Russian breakfast food best described as a thin pancake rolled up and eaten either with jam or sour cream. At the same time we watched an Orthodox service being held in Irktusk by the newly arrived Patriarch Kirill; as head of the Church, he is to Russians what the Pope is to Catholics.

Vladimir Nikolaevich, Tamara Ivanovna’s husband, loves to smoke and at present his job seems to be somewhat of a secret. As I unpacked my things, he would come into my room to ask a question, appear upset with himself when I stopped to answer, leave, wait a few minutes, and return to repeat the process. Needless to say, I like him, and when the coordinator came to take us to dinner, Vladimir Nikolaevich insisted on showing me to the main road himself (I later managed to get lost on this very path; more below).

After dinner at the coordinator Will’s, he took us three students and his girlfriend to his favorite hangout in Irkutsk to celebrate our first night there. The locals were absolutely fascinated by us when we spoke English (Will’s girlfriend is just starting to learn Russian, and we had yet to sign our language pledge). Perhaps too fascinated, even: the first to approach us was a group of maybe eight less-than-upright twenty-year old characters, led by Yura, who was intent on practicing his English and hearing us swear in Russian. They sat with us, bought us a round, drank it themselves, and after a few minutes calmed down in the booth behind. Almost immediately, a lone woman in front of us, about 40, blond, buck- and gap-toothed, turned around to hear us better, though was embarrassed to speak English herself.

When we got up to call a cab outside, Yura, the woman, and their cigarettes decided to accompany us, and soon they were fighting about how the other shouldn’t bother us. She was definitely in the right more than Yura—despite an unconditional respect for old women in Russian, the middle-aged tend to receive none whatsoever, and such was the case here. When Yura’s group split the two up, I thanked the woman for trying to watch out for us. After explaining once more why I shouldn’t fall in with a bad crowd here, she suddenly turned the conversation into a romantic advance, the discomfort of which was topped only by the surprise I felt by her directness and tactless economy of time. The taxi then arrived, and I had to pull her hand off the back of my coat and slam the door quickly behind me.

All this leads up to today, when Will took us all to Lake Baikal. We decided to meet in the city center, which I figured would take about twenty minutes to reach by bus. That was my first mistake. My second was thinking that there was only one road in and out of my apartment complex: I walked along the same road the taxi had taken the night before, and ended up on a dirty road near a park where a couple of guys were hanging out and drinking their lunch. Luckily Tamara Ivanovna had given me her phone number earlier, and I found my way to the marshrutka (mini-bus) stop that Vladimir Nikolaevich had showed me yesterday. After running a few extra errands, the bus got back on its designated route, and I found Will and the others a good 45 minutes later than I or they had hoped.

Another mini-bus got us to Baikal in about an hour, and it was soon clear to us all that the hot and cramped ride was well worth it. Although one-fourth the size of the Great Lakes’ combined surface area, with depths nearing 5,000 feet, Baikal could hold their entire volume. The view from the edge is stunning: mountains on all sides, clouded in the distance by the blue space between, and water so clear that at certain angles boats appear to be floating above the water rather than on it. The coast is also interesting in its own Russian way: not far from the tourist “city” of Listvyanka, we saw a mini-zoo run by some guy, in which were two full-sized bears behind rusted bars, playing with a deflated tire and chewing a soda can, and encountered a man taking in the view along the boardwalk, holding his girlfriend’s hand on his left side and a single-barrel shotgun on his right.

After eating shashlyki in Listvyanka and touring the area’s kitsch stands, we took a tour of the Baikal Museum, which, room-to-room, varied from embarrassingly quaint to surprisingly well done and informative. The worst was the initial “submersion,” a 15-minute video in a room decked out as the interior of a yellow submarine (no joke), the portholes being different televisions displaying 20-year-old footage of a trip to the bottom undergone by the museum director, who thought up the exhibition. At times, the screens were more or less synchronized to display the larger fictitious surroundings, but more often it was clear that they were simply showing the exact same footage spaced a few seconds apart from each other. This made me slightly embarrassed for the woman locked in there with us, narrating the whole thing and translating (from Russian to Russian) the garbled messages on the film from “the captain” that I doubt anyone could understand. The best was the room displaying many of the endemic species of Baikal, which contained a large mounted sturgeon and plenty of omul, the populous Baikal fish, in formaldehyde bottles at different stages of life. They also had a small aquarium, complete with omul, two Baikal white seals, and, strangely, two tanks filled with beautiful fish from Lake Tanganyika in Africa, which I guess physically looks like Baikal from a bird’s-eye view (a source of pride at the museum).

We came back as the sun set over the city, which was a beautiful sight from the bridge. I took a different marshrutka back toward the university, and followed my nose home with little problem. Of all of my experiences so far here, I think I might cherish simply getting home tonight the most. After getting lost, nothing is a better reward than seeing the door to your stairwell exactly where you thought it would be.


3 Responses to “Irkutsk: the first 36 hours”

  1. Debbie said

    Absolutely loved your entry. We will be following your blog from sunny California!!!

    Debbie (Sarah’s Mum)

  2. Wow. Sounds like you’ve already met a lot of interesting characters! It’s so interesting to hear about what sort of things are acceptable in different cultures. Can’t wait to hear more about your experiences!

  3. Charles said

    Needless to say, I expect my excursions in Oxford will not entail bears in rusty cages, men with shotguns, or menacing young men that I *actually* believe might harm me. That being said, I think they’ll be more than a few characters drinking their lunch there just as they are in Irkutsk. Fantastic blog, Nate, and I look forward to reading it during the year!

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