Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Day 11 - 20th July 2009

I awoke again around 6am. My sleep patterns had been erratic to say the least with all the time changes and jetlag, and still had to reset themselves. I watched as we gently rolled along through the countryside and observed it change from trees and green hills to numerous ‘dacha’ - Russian weekend retreats where the city dwellers escape to and tend their vegetable patches, used to supplement their diets and attempt to reduce their monthly overheads. As we drew closer to Irkutsk, the city described as the ‘Paris of Siberia’ the landscape became more concrete and factory based. You could feel the human influence creeping in. We slowed to walking speed as we entered the station area and crossed track after track.
About half a kilometre from the station we stopped abruptly. I thought perhaps we were waiting for a train to move off our section of track further up and sat looking out of the window at the people in the train beside me. They sat disinterestedly for a few minutes then slowly one by one they moved over to the windows on my side of their train to look out at the carriage behind ours. I moved over to our compartment window to see what was of interest and saw a small crowd of people being ushered away across the tracks by state police. When I looked down onto the ground I was shocked to see a dead body lying next to our train. It appeared to be the body of a man and going by the state of his clothes had possibly been homeless. His dirty bare feet pointed towards me and he lay face down but I couldn’t see his head from my viewpoint. His left foot showed some trauma as though it had been hit by a train. It was sad to see such an end for someone.
I don’t know how or why he died but if it had been our train that had hit him I think all passengers would have been interviewed. This wasn’t the case, so shortly afterwards we left this man alone, save for the investigators to trace his last movements, and slowly and solemnly we pulled into Irkutsk station.
The sun was shining but there was a heavy mist rising from the large river that ran through the city. A sombre impression on our arrival into this new place and our first major contact with Russia.
We gathered our rucksacks and were met by Dmitri, our main guide on and off over the next few days. A friendly character of former soviet military stock who seemed far too laid back for a career in that field. Instantly we were made to feel welcome and he dispelled the myth that all Russian people displayed a coldness that we in the west found standoffish. After a quick tour through the city we were taken to our accommodation. A home stay on Lenin Street. We were met by Alex, also a young former soldier but now a computer programmer. He took us into his parent’s apartment which was a mix between Soviet era style d├ęcor and the beginning of a move towards western eclectic tastes. The mother, we later found out, was at the family dacha over the summer, while Alex and his father worked during the week and supposedly went to the dacha at the weekend.
Although you could tell there were certain restrictions in lifestyle, whether money based or simply personal taste, this felt like a middle class family home. A few more luxuries than you would have expected to see. The home stays provided much needed income and I noticed that the bedrooms that we stayed in had new PVC windows fitted while the rest of the apartment was still awaiting much needed renovation. A very comfortable stay and a vast improvement on our Mongolian experience. Once settled in, and with Alex’s permission, we put our clothes in the family’s old washing machine for some much needed laundering. We made a reccy of our position in the city. We were right in the town centre on the crossroads of Karl Marx Street and Lenin Street. The buildings were colourful and ornate, and such an unexpected surprise. We found prices jumped up significantly though, compared to our previous countries, when we went for a coffee - €4 each!
Walking down by the river Angara later we stopped in a flashy hotel that we knew had internet access. While we sat outside with a coffee a bullet-proof security truck pulled up. Three burly, heavily armed guards with automatic weapons jumped out and made sure the area was clear for their clients to safely enter the hotel. We waited to see who it was - some aging politician perhaps or a fat-cat industrialist? No, just a young couple, her with handbag and him curiously with a small vacuum cleaner. They were followed by one of the armed guards with a large rectangular shaped canvas bag. The guard and young man came back out about 10 minutes later, this time with the canvas bag and a computer keyboard, but minus the woman! What did it all mean? Intriguing…. Perhaps the young man was a multimillionaire eccentric or a cleaner-upper after a major espionage incident? I like to think he was the latter.
Either way we got bored of speculating and left to enjoy other pursuits on Karl Marx Street, namely sushi. We were finding prices went up the further west we went and this bill was no exception. We could barely have had enough to fill a hole in your tooth and the bill came to exactly 1350 Roubles (about €40) which was ironic as I had been reading about Lenin during the day and the little known fact that the registered weight of his brain after death was also exactly 1350 grams.
Also ironic was the fact that we were staying on Lenin Street and that outside the apartment was a statue of the man himself. The link between Lenin, Irkutsk and raw fish has now been welded into my brain. Anytime I think of either of these subjects in the future I will always mentally relate to the others in my head involuntarily.
Sitting out in the little park below the apartment while being overlooked by Lenin’s oversized brain, we drank beers and counted Lada cars as the sun went down. An exciting night. There was at least one Lada a minute drove past Lenin’s statue. That‘s 1350 Lada’s in 22½ hours (a little known fact you can use at dinner parties - courtesy of me).

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