I am back on the train again after a two day break in Irkutsk, Siberia. This time I’m headed for Moscow, a three day, four night ride.
I’m currently sharing a compartment with three people, including a four-year-old child. He is surprisingly well-behaved, aside from the occasional “pay attention to me” yell, so the trepidation I felt when I saw him toddle into the room has subsided.
I haven’t seen nearly as many kids in Russia as I did in Korea, where they were bursting from every door, window, and wall (and not just because I worked at a school… they were EVERYWHERE). Perhaps this is because parents in Russia are used to things being much more dangerous than they are in other parts of the world.
It’s easy to forget that just twenty-five years ago, this was the USSR. Oh, and if some obnoxious know-it-all tries to tell you it was the CCCP, kindly inform them that this is just SSSR in Cyrillic, and that they should shut it.
But I have seen a few remnants of that time. There are rundown buildings and factories in many cities, every once in awhile I see old men who are missing limbs or eyes, and the utter lack of English spoken by older adults is due in part to the impracticality of teaching your children the language of a culture whose principles you thoroughly disdain.
For the most part, though, the Soviet Union lies in the distant past.
Irkutsk is an interesting town; it is one of the oldest and most populous cities in Siberia, with about as many people as Milwaukee, WI.
In the early 1800’s the Decembrists, in opposition to a newly appointed tsar (which may have been a convenient excuse), staged a rebellion in Moscow.
It was quickly defeated, and the leaders of the Decembrist Revolution (at least, the ones that weren’t killed) were exiled to Siberia, most to Irkutsk. This exile had a number of stipulations, although they are pretty tame compared to those imposed on later Siberian banishments.
For example, one prominent Decembrist was allowed to completely relocate his recently completed Moscow house to Irkutsk, and although many of the wives weren’t allowed to attend “societal events,” there was nothing stopping them from holding such events on their own estates.
This relocation led Irkutsk to become the intellectual center of Eastern Russia, with many explorers’ foundations and universities located there.
Many tourist sites in Irkutsk are centered around this era, and the tourist bureau makes it very easy to find them all with an easy-to-follow route through the city, supplemented by information posted at each site. AND it’s in English!
I spent a few hours wandering around these sites, most of which are statues or old buildings to which entry is forbidden, but there were a few churches on the list that I could check out.
Most of the older buildings in Irkutsk are wooden. Unfortunately the more recent trend is to use concrete and glass in construction, which leads to the creation of structures that are more stable but much less charming.
The hostel I stayed in is one of the older wooden buildings, a fact that – according to Igor, the owner – is a huge disappointment for visitors from Moscow or St. Petersburg. Luckily I’m not from either city and I found the place much more inviting than expected.
It took a harrowing ride in a mini-bus, half an hour of searching, and a lot of gesturing with some very helpful cell phone store workers to find it, but the difficulty was immediately worth it when I opened the door to find the most unusual hostel I’ve ever stayed in.
After a steaming dinner of belmeny (dumplings) and, of course, vodka, Igor gave me a quick tour through the three-room hostel. He’s an older man who used to teach English, Russian, and French throughout Europe, and now directs plays in Irkutsk, which is why the house feels like the set of one of his productions.
The house was filled with old playbooks and music, along with all kinds of jury-rigged stage contraptions and old props – even the spiral staircase up to the attic is vintage Igor.
There were puppets (even an entire recreation of a house, filled with puppets) all over the place and the attic workshop contained a bunch of projects-in-progress. If anyone is in need of a place to stay in Irkutsk and isn’t bothered by waking up to miniature people staring at them in the middle of the night, the Auberge Theatrale gets my hearty recommendation.
My second day in the Irkutsk area was spent exploring Listvyanka, a small town on the shore of Lake Baikal, with two German guys that were staying at the same hostel.
Getting there was easy, although I almost got heat stroke. There are a number of vans that will take passengers from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, and all of them must be driven by men training for the sauna Olympics.
This guy turned the heat up as high as it went and kept it there the entire drive… even the other Russians in the car were complaining that it was too hot (although they still couldn’t be fussed to take off their giant fur coats and hats).
I was about five minutes from stripping naked in a heat-induced frenzy when we made it to the city and escaped into the freezing street.
We hiked up a few hills around the lake, and had some lunch in a local restaurant. Lake Baikal is home to a lot of unique fish, but the most famous is the Omul. I had some for lunch, and it was fatty and delicious. The only thing better than the Omul was the view—the lake hadn’t frozen over for the winter yet, but it was cold enough for icicles to form on just about everything surrounding it.
Igor told me that I should come back in January, when the whole thing is frozen over with almost completely transparent ice. It sounds amazing, but I don’t know if I can brave the average low of minus a zillion. We’ll see.
My butt hurts from sitting and typing, so I think it’s about time for a walk around the train. I’ll leave you with a word of the day:
PECTOPAH = restaurant. If you transliterate the Cyrillic, it is actually pronounced “restoran.” I picked this one because it’s one of the only words I can type in Cyrillic without having to figure out where my computer stores the special fonts…
Dan Gerber is a solo traveler from La Crosse, Wisconsin who has traveled to India, Vietnam, and just about everywhere in between. He is currently teaching English in China. Follow his journey at www.restofthebook.blogspot.com
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1. If you find yourself in Irkutsk, Siberia, stay at the "puppet hostel," AKA Auberge Theatrale. It's a magical place that's decorated like a theatre, complete with vintage manuscripts, a handmade staircase, and a working puppet show.
2. Siberia is COLD.
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