This evening we will be getting on a train and not leaving it for three days. What a stupid thing to do. I mean, you could fly the same distance in 6 hours or so. Skip the hassle, watch a film on the in-flight entertainment and enjoy those suction toilets that make my ears go pop. Instead of that we will spend the rest of the week in incredibly close proximity to strangers, eating from tins and trying not to lose our minds watching endless Serbian pines whizz pass the window. Can’t wait!
But before that, we have to see the sights of Irkutsk.
Geographically, because of the traditional importance of Irkutsk in relation to trade between the east and west of Russia, it still serves-physically as well as ideologically-as a crossroads between the two vastly different areas of the same land. It is a city deep in Siberia and its population at one point consisted of 50% exiled peoples, but a good majority of these people-and something that Irkutsk became famous for-were the young, educated intellectuals and artists who made the city their home. This is one of the reasons that Irkutsk has a welcoming and quite outgoing mood when you walk around it. The architecture is surprising and different and doesn’t represent the ‘Soviet bloc’ style of architecture to which the world was subjected. Many of the houses are wooden and beautiful, much to the surprise of I and her.
We started our day, after some eggs and b, with a stroll down Karl Marx Street to the wide and scenic Angara River and over to Moscow Gate. This gate, which looks much like a poor man’s Arc de Triumph, didn’t give my excitement button the push I was hoping. It was dull and lifeless if that makes sense. From there we walked down along the river and crossed the road to go in our first Russian Orthodox church. Now I like churches, all kinds. Church, cathedral, masjid, temple or synagogue. I’ve seen lots and find them a blast. The Russian Orthodox ones are certainly unique from the outside as well as the in. They struck me as much more sensory in style compared to other places of worship: colourful facades with flowers decorating the inside. The ambiance as well as the customs are also not like other churches. All the images of the saints and the saviour are behind glass and are covered with lip marks from constant kisses bestowed upon them. The women cover their heads and everyone bows when they leave. The artwork is unique and solemn in tone. As an atheist as well as a foreigner it personally doesn’t scream out ‘welcome’ or ‘make yourself at home’ but what do I know?
After a couple of churches were seen we headed down to the 130th district. A ‘must see’, we were told. It is one of the oldest parts of town and we were hoping for some lovely wooden houses and grannies sipping vidka from the bottle. What a dizzy disappointment. It’s the slickest part of town. Organic cafes, hipster bars and bearded barbers. You probably couldn’t even buy vodka here if it wasn’t ethically sourced from organic cereal grains. Balls to it.
After a good lunch we hopped off to the supermarket to buy enough f + d to keep us going for the next three days, including but not limited to: coffee, bread (unsliced, important to remember), butter, cookies, chocolate, fruit, beer, water, juice, sausage and gum. We decided to pass on canned horsemeat and marinated pig’s ears. There’s always next time.
We got to the train station and found our carriage. Each carriage on the train is supervised by a Russian orderly. Ours was about 4ft tall, roughly the same in width and a spitting image of ‘Judy’ of Punch & Judy fame. She was a frightening one. I meekly scrambled over to here and showed her my ticket. She looked at me with frightening rage and let out a shriek.
“Whoooo Nelly! Down girl!”
None of that true, of course. She was quite nice, actually.
We got on the train and found our cabin. It was occupied by one young Russian who was visibly shaken after finding out he had to share his quarters with us for the next three days. Shortly after we were joined by a lady and we spent the next couple of hours in an awkward staring contest with the walls. Only when YJ discovered google translator had an audio setting did things get a bit silly and fun. She then took to naming every famous Russian of the past hundred years.
This game was entertaining for far longer than it warranted but at around midnight the lady’s station had pulled up and our new mate went up to his bed to sleep.