'Norwegian Wood' - The Beatles
After two blistering hot days, it was chillier and overcast as Eryk, Daniel and myself walked over the long bridge and into Irkutsk at a little after six in the morning. It was striking just how appalling the standard of the roads and, particularly, the pavements were and 'twas also very quiet at this time. Finding my hostel, we swapped email addresses as they set off in search of an internet cafe en route to taking a bus ride down to Lake Baikal. Inside, I was lucky that my bed for the next night was already free but my mind was buzzing too much to sleep so I checked my email, had a shower and finished my book before putting my head down for a 1-hour snooze that lasted into the middle of the afternoon.
Waking up and doing my laundry, I headed out into the nearby main street to find a bank and some food. Cafes where you can point at everything before they put it on your plate in a school dinner-style arrangement allow me to peer at everything closely to judge the chances of it containing any meat before committing. Afterwards, I walked around on my way to what might be called the main square. The roads were all very wide and the nice, big wooden buildings along many of the streets very much gave the impression of something out of the American mid-west one hundred years ago. Much of the town, the roads in particular, looked like the east end of London during the blitz yet you could usually find a nice shop or restaurant with a neon sign in the middle of it all. Unlike a similar disparity in Moscow when you got a sense of the rich taking all the luxuries while the poor suffered, the vibe here was much more of a friendly community-based city on the rise together. Even if someone's crappy home was next door to a posh establishment, I felt that they were proud to be near it and knew that they too would get their chance one day.
Down in the 'square', there were grassy and tree-lined areas where many locals had gathered to sit on the grass or benches to enjoy a hot Summer's evening. I fell asleep on one bench and was woken up by a couple of what I shall unkindly refer to as Russian chavs. Drinking their own home-made vodka-based alcopop from a big plastic bottle, the chatty guy (whose name I forget) had his front four upper teeth gold-capped. They were both 23 and very friendly however, despite the fact that we shared little language. After a while a couple of local chavettes came to join us but I left them to it in the end, too tired to really contribute, and headed back to the hotel.
Tired as I was, I had spent most of the day sleeping and Pavel had ripped apart my sleeping pattern on the train so I found I lay awake most of the night. On one nearby bed Alan, an enthusiastic older American guy, snored intermittently whilst in another a Norwegian guy had an hour's vigourous sex with the Russian girl he had picked up a couple of days earlier. All the while I was desperate to get up for a drink of water and to use the toilet, but it didn't really seem appropriate to do so until they had finished, which it felt like they might never do. I gave them ten minutes of post-coital afterglow when they were done before climbing off my bunk and heading to the kitchen.
I still needed to collect the train ticket for the next leg of my journey from a travel agent in town so the next day I set off looking for them with James, another older American. He was a retired bankruptcy attourney who now propped up his income working as a geometry teacher. His school was so tough that they had four full-time policemen and eight (EIGHT!) full-time probation officers. It was very interesting to chew over the fat and put the world to rights with him and he also told me about his wife of 37 years who had died a couple of years previously. He was able to be very funny on the subject without ever taking away from the tradgedy of it all and how hard it had been for him to deal with it all.
He did, however, despite his relaxed persona, have all the direction sense of a blindfolded pinball, so I am paraphrasing slightly when I say that 'we' eventually found our way to this office on the second floor of a building set back from the main road that required you to walk through the staff canteen to access it. Afterwards we took a different route back into the centre and walked through a very-different area that we would never have had cause to see otherwise. Although still in a central location, the roads were loose dirt, the pavements generally did not exist and the houses and general view was exactly that of a shanty town. It was hard to tell to what extent anyone was on the poverty line though or whether they were just poorer but doing OK in an less-developed suburb. There was so much to photograph but it felt like we would have been crass poverty tourists so we just took one of a single building looking back after we came back to the more modern end of town.
James then directed us to a restaurant with an English menu that several people had recommended to him. Several days later when we actually arrived at this eatery, the staff were very amused when I insisted on ordering four different types of potato from the buffet as I sought to avoid the meat. After that we registered our visas at a hotel (not wanting to get caught out like I did in Moscow) and we sat in the park basking in the sun (IE: getting burnt).
Back at the hostel, James was continuing his campaign to get Lena, a local girl who worked there, to return to the US with him in exchange for a green card. She was a funny girl who had begun a conversation with me earlier in the day by sitting down at the table and asking earnestly "Why is there so much malice in the world and not enough good?" I tried to answer it as logically as possible, citing the survival instincts of the species, but I didn't come close to giving her an answer she was satisfied with. Before dinner she took me down to the river to show me an island you can walk out to that serves as a sort of beack for the locals. A languages student at the local university, she delighted in correcting MY English (ring any bells Vicky?). But come on, I ask you all, did you know that the 't' in 'often' is silent unless in American English?
The next day, I had to visit another hostel across town. I had no recollection of the name, a vague idea of the building/apartment number but I did know the street name. This proved to be not nearly enough information and I wandered up and down the street, around the back of many buildings and asked strangers for about an hour. I asked one lady who had just set out to walk her dog. This dog, incidentally, took a vicious dislike to me, barking furiously whilst pushing its nose into my leg. She didn't really speak any English, but headed back into her house to return a few minutes later with a pair of English-Russian dictionaries. After some pointing at words etc, we eventually decided she didn't know where this place was. I then asked if she knew where there might be an internet cafe nearby (so I could try to look it up). Her dictionaries were too old for the word 'internet', but a bit of computer miming did the trick. She thought about it but couldn't think of one, so took me around the corner, up some stairs and into her house! I was led through some rooms, with the dog disapproving of all of it, sat down at a PC which she booted up, logged on and left me to search away! How likely is that to happen back home?
On Sunday morning, I found myself taking a bus across town and back. Some of the buses were what you might call 'normal', albeit a bit more delapidated than we are used to. Some were minibuses. Many others, including the two I rode in were like VW camper vans with seats in tha back. I'm afraid I forget the exact make, but it was like a precursor to the Chelsea tractor and certainly never designed with a bus in mind. So, when you found yourself sitting at the back when it was full, getting off entailed shouting "Stop!" at the driver, then half the passengers getting out and folding up temporary seats to make way for you to exit.
By the middle of the day, I hadn't had anything that could be called a night's sleep for a week so I went to bed and didn't really get up for more than a couple of hours until late the next morning. There was a German guy new in my room who had cycled all the way from Frankfurt as he headed to the Pacific ocean in China. He said afterwards that he had hardly seen me do anything but sleep and was amazed by it.
On the final day, I popped out late afternoon to eat and get some food for the train to Ulaan Baatar which was due out at 20:35 that evening. The hostel was a converted 4th-floor apartment which you accessed via the back of the building. All of us had noticed, even if we hadn't all mentioned it, that the area inside the external door to the building stank of cabbages. As I came back towards the door that night, I noticed some men in some kind of uniform standing around outside with something lying on some plastic sheeting on the ground. It looked like a seat molded to a body shape like a large child's car seat to me. I figured that they were probably delivery men. When I got closer I saw that the men were police and it was a dead body with rigor mortis holding it in a slightly-seated position! Flies were buzzing around it and it was so old that I couldn't tell if it was a black man (unlikely for this area of Russia) or whether it had simply turned that colour because it was so decomposed! I stepped over and found the basement door inside was open, so presumably they had retrieved it from there. And that, was my last event to report before setting off to exit Russia. The country got more friendly the further you got from Moscow and most travellers and Russians seemed to agree with this assessment. I didn't do half the things I meant to in Irkutsk, including visit the great Lake Baikal, but I very much enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere in the place and would like to think that I may visit again one day.