Monday, July 04, 2005

Irkutsk is Very Nice

Somewhere between Irkutsk and Vladivostok

Irkutsk is lovely. It reminds me a bit of downtown Charleston. The buildings are a varied mix of concrete hotels and offices, plaster-over-brick shops on the main streets, and old wooden dwellings done in the distinctive Siberian style we've been seeing for the last 4000 km or so. There are rivers on two sides and the buildings give way near the banks to simple parks providing a healthy margin of green space between city and water. The central square is bordered by impressive churches, ornate civic buildings, and two modern hotels. Old-school trams rumble down tree-lined streets amid a bustle of mostly older Russian cars.

Speaking of trees - this time of year, Irkutsk suffers from something called The Summer Snow. A common local variety of tree (we never found out which) starts droppings white fluff in incredible volume. In some spots, the air is so dense with the stuff that it's hard to keep your eyes free of it. The large portion that reaches the ground collects in white drifts that look like a cross between snow and fish eggs. In the right light, it really does look like snow falling. We were also not the only ones to discover that the "snow drifts" ignite very easily and burn quickly. I saw one burn along a gutter for almost 30 seconds, covering a space of about 20 meters.

Everything in Irkutsk was easy. They spoke English at the hotel and had a ready supply of hot water. Local restaurants featured English menus and the Internet cafe was easy to find and supplied Wifi at a reasonable rate. We were able to upload some collected blog articles, photos, and videos without the need for the always clumsy inter-machine transfer.

It also proved very easy to meet people. On our first day, we were a bit stuck for what to do after a "traditional" Siberian supper. Fearless Jason attacked the problem in the best way possible - by badgering some local girls in the park until they agreed to take us to a bar. The bar turned out to be an empty, but hospitable place featuring karaoke. Mike - Jonny B Goode and Country Roads. Jason - Take On Me. Katia - some Russian ballad I don't know the name of. Nastia - didn't care to sing. I had a brief chat with some older Australians on their way west. We soon ditched the karaoke bar in favor of a drunken wander around the city. The girls showed us the local landmarks and two excellent views of the rivers. Company parted around 4 with an argument over taxis. I insisted that Katia and Nastia take a taxi home at our expense. They refused. I begged. No dice. It makes me unhappy leaving women to walk home alone in the cold in the middle of the night in Siberia.

We didn't make it to Lake Baikal the next day. Late lunch in a cafe, a trip to the central market for train supplies, a few hours in the pub, and 5 hours of sleep rounded out our visit to the "Paris of Siberia". I could have easily spent a few more days, if not just to dip my toe in the Lake. The water is meant to elongate life and bring good luck.


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