Siberia Pt. 1: Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

baikal

 

Absent a river, canyon, or some other natural geographical boundary, crossing a border is usually an experience that raises the question, “Why did they decide to put the imaginary line there of all places?” The border between Mongolia and Russia appeared, at first, like it fit into that category.

Little wasn’t depressing about the rest stop before the border that was dripping in Soviet bleakness, called a “Business Center”. Considering the alternative places to stop, I would question an explanation of why the bus stopped there if it didn’t include sexual or financial favors to the bus owners in exchange for access to the wallets of their captive passengers.

But, as the bus lurched out of customs down the road toward Ulan-Ude, it was clear the Russians got the better end of the fake line drawing. While the Mongolian side only had dry, barren hills, the Russian side had dense pine forest. Staring into the vast Mongolian distance is simultaneously alienating and captivating, whereas the Russian pines were a bit more soothing and seemed to be like crutches in what would otherwise be a fairly intimidating landscape.

On the bus, I met another American who was married to

 

 

a Russian Buriat (ethnically asian/Mongolian) and had been living in Irkutsk for 9 years. He had originally come for some sort of Christian mission work, but currently worked as a photographer. Fluent in Russian, he helped me get to the train station from the bus stop and buy a ticket on the overnight train from Ulan-Ude west to Irkutsk, on the other side of Lake Baikal.

 

The train ride was calm, and I rather liked the 3rd class/platskart hard sleeper, since in Russia they have far more padding than in either China or Mongolia. They do like their trains warm, though.

I arrived in Irkutsk in the morning and called my Couchsurfing host, who I had originally contacted after the Scottish guy I met in China put me in contact with a girl that he dated in Irkutsk. She had moved to St. Petersburg, but said she had a friend I could crash with. I’m planning to Couchsurf as much as possible while in Siberia for two reasons: 1) There aren’t many hostels and those that do exist are expensive and 2) most importantly, Russians are known to be friendly, hospitable, and fun to hang out with, and Couchsurfing gets you an automatic in with someone from the place you visit and allows you to connect on a level that you can’t really get in a hostel. But I wasn’t quite prepared for Vasya, short for Vasiliy, when I arrived to his apartment in the drab residential area of Irkutsk.

He sported the skateboarder style like that in the United States, and he loved American Football (made sure to reiterate that his favorite player was Ray Lewis) and the United States in general. He had a lot of preconceived beliefs about the Unites States and Americans that are pretty common around the world (tons of money, partying all the time, not much working) and in his descriptions made sure to casually sprinkle “liberty”. In reality, though, the economic mobility and the gap between rich and poor in the United States were more similar to Russia than other more developed countries.

I was willing to help him with his erratic English, but he insisted he spoke well and I gently had to nudge him to accept suggests after trying to figure out what he was saying. I had to explain to him that white people aren’t really allowed to call black people the word he heard in rap music, but his affinty for the word went unabated. He knew modern and internet slang like “LOLing” and assorted curse words, but had some gaps in basic words like “return” or “boil”.

I should say that he did have a sizeable intellect and was quite bright, but hyperactivity led him from video game to Facebook to music video in quick succession, and his roommates were a little passive agressive about cleaning after him. He admitted he was a bit too dependent on his parents and had trouble with school, and was in the midst of some tough love from his parents. His father was in the oil business and his mother was a dentist, but it was clear they had cut him off from the flow of money when we went to the grocery store and he “forgot” his wallet. His roommates Ilya, Sasha, Roma, and Masha were all hardworking and cool to hang around with.

I wanted to visit the nearby tourist-draw of Lake Baikal and its largest island, Olkhon, and Vasya insisted that he go with me. After trying to prod him as to when he wanted to go and waiting for him to concentrate long enough to put his pants on, I eventually just left and told him I would be back in a few days. He was kind and helpful when he could concentrate, but I had to leave or wait for something that would probably never come.

I got on the minibus, or marshrutka, for a 5 or 6 hour ride to see the lake and Olkhon island, which we reached by driving the minibus over the frozen lake. The island was massive, and I just went to the largest village, called Khuzhir, and found the most popular guesthouse called Nikita’s. It was cozy and had nice wooden architecture but expensive, but I cut the trip short when I learned that their rates had increased from what I read online by about 40%. I hiked around a bit and walked along the frozen coastline, which was pleasant with strong sun to keep warm.

The next day I headed back to Irkutsk and spent a few days catching up on business from home and trying to see the sights of Irkutsk when Vasya actually went through on his multiple claims that he was going to be ready in a few minutes. I never got to the museums because when we arrived, we were either too late or he checked the schedule incorrectly online. Vasya’s redeeming quality was how entertaining he was around his friends when we would gather and sip on the brew from his hometown of Bratsk and gnaw on anchovies, a traditional Russian drinking snack. I was of course grateful for his and his roommates help when I was in the city, and I made them two pans of authentic baked Mac and Cheese. I am proud to say they quickly disappeared.

A few random things: it's taboo in Russia to sleep with your feet towards the door, since that is the direction that the deceased travels through door during funerals. Also I'm not sure why this is, but washing dishes at night is always avoided.

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