An Irkutsk joke:
“I’ve heard you have bears and wolves walking the streets in Irkutsk”
“Don’t be ridiculous, we don’t have streets in Irkutsk”
Babur, the mascot of Irkutsk, combines the worst elements of bears and wolves.
Under leaden skies, more snow, and a damp, biting wind Irkutsk definitely isn’t a contender. Not only are the sidewalks not at all free of snow or ice, but underneath they seem to be made of polished granite. Plus, the frozen grey slush seems to mask unsurfaced roads. I rebuff the usual phalanx of aggressive taxi drivers hogging the front of the station in favor of a 40 minute ride on the ancient tram at 5mph (25 cents). Not for nothing has Irkutsk been described as a ‘boom or bust’ gold town. This particular bust cycle must have been really protracted.
The Matreshka hotel, evidently built during some earlier, fleeting boom, aspires to the ‘Neo-Soviet’ pre-IKEA style of charmless interior décor. But we must look beyond décor to cleanliness (5 stars) millennials-at-the-desk (A+ particularly after one hauls my roly bag up three flights of stairs) and breakfast (over and above – a la carte homemade yogurt supplementing a lavish buffet). A piping hot shower (note for later, a real bath tub) and a change of clothes and I am willing to give Irkutsk a second chance.
The Neo-Soviet pre-IKEA dining room at the Matreshka.
Note to self: there is little point reserving a ‘queen sized bed’ for extra room if it is actually two twins shoved together, with a twin duvet.
At 2pm and courtesy of Katarina, that NYL from Moscow, I am handed off to her friend in Irkutsk. Over the next couple of days Anastasia (Masters in International Relations, Human Rights Watch alumna, social entrepreneur) will walk me off my feet in the service of upending these so facile stereotypes. Can all Russians actually be sweethearts? I’m certainly batting 100% up to now.
Anastasia is an Irkutsk and Baikal booster
In the first place, we are not in fact in a bust cycle. Indeedy not, thanks to, of all things, Bitcoin. It turns out that various international shady characters have ridden into town and taken advantage of fantastically low electricity prices to install massive numbers of Bitcoin servers in rented apartments, making unlikely Irkutsk the Bitcoin capital of the world.
In the second place, despite its resolute location in Asia, Irkutsk is more appropriately known as the Paris (rather than the Dodge City) of Siberia (more plausible when the snow stops sufficiently for the elegant pre-revolution architecture over this side of the river to reveal itself in the gloaming).
Irkutsk can strut its stuff once the snow stops
Even the Stalinist buildings aren’t bad. Unknown Warrior duty is no fun at -25°C.
In the third place, the Matreshka hotel is not simply a clean if unfortunately decorated $40 find on Booking.com, but an exceptionally dangerous place tourists, especially of my age, should avoid. It all seems related in some way to its proximity to the market and the bus-stop outside, which evidently is frequented solely by pick-pockets (if this is the case they are expertly disguised as babushkas). When I ask the millenial-at-the-desk whether I can safely make the 6 minute walk to the restaurant up the street for dinner she is not amused. “It may look dangerous but it isn’t” she says. ”In any case there’s a police car parked outside”. She’s right and it will be there tomorrow too, still empty. I cunningly disguise myself as a pickpocket babushka and make it there and back uneventfully.
The notorious Hotel Matreshka. Taken from in front of the police car.
I’ve just finished washing my malodorous train clothes in the bathtub and am settling in with the New Yorker when I get an anxious text from Anastasia wondering whether I need an armed escort.
Another upended stereotype: I’ve yet to see a Russian drink; when I ordered beer with my dinner the waitress had to run to the grocery store across the road. Everyone else was drinking herbal tea.
The fish is listed as ‘Omul’ – a Lake Baikal specialty. However Omul is protected, so this is in fact another kind (Peyul) that looks and tastes completely different. It is the same price whether listed as Omul or Peyul. Thanks to Anastasia for the insider info, but who knows what all that’s about.
Day 2, Baikal
Everything has changed. The clouds have blown out, the skies are bright blue and here in the Paris of Siberia the sun is sparkling on the sidewalks. Even the roads are now clearly asphalted. It will be a perfect day for the 12 hour trip Anastasia has organized to lake Baikal. First order of business – getting there – is itself a challenge involving a complex sequence of marshrutkas (mini-van buses): Neither where they stop nor when they go is obvious, even to a native Russian speaker who lives in town.
First off, the grandly titled ‘ethnographic museum’ which truth be told is the main reason I am in Irkutsk at all. Various ancient Siberian taiga villages and stockades relocated to a different taiga in service of a hydroelectric dam, and, as hoped, just like Old Sturbridge Village, although the live re-enactments at OSV are better (here the roles of the peasants are played by disconcertingly looming papier maché models). I insist on spending hours inspecting everything, but Anastasia is able to tell me all about it, hence a good time is had by all.
Absolute bliss: Old Sturbridge Village in Siberia
Probably not many live re-enactment volunteers given the houses mostly aren’t heated.
Ancient hunting blind: a nice cozy place to hole up while waiting for the bears and wolves.
Apparently if we ran out of water tomorrow Lake Baikal could keep the entire planet supplied for the next 40 years. It is not surprising then that it has a 2000km shoreline (of which I hope to see only a fraction, Anastasia is very energetic). Tomorrow she plans to ski across to the other side. It will take 6 hours, much out of sight of either bank, all sounding and looking like a really poor idea.
Shamanist prayer flags on the shore of Baikal. Ostensibly from the Buyan indigenous people, but more likely from cross-country skiers.
Fortunately today it is only -20°C so we can take a long (long) walk on the ice and then circle back to buy smoked fish at the village market and take it into one of the cafés to eat. The notion of bringing one’s own food to a café is somewhat counter-intuitive, and Anastasia warns me we will need to buy something, which turns out to be a couple of pitas to wrap the fish in. But we even drink our own thermos of tea, while the family beside us tucks into their own full 3 course meal.
One of these is actual Omul, the fishermen themselves are less inhibited about the prohibition.
Pita and actual Omul for lunch.
At about 4pm, having taken each other’s measure, we can finally start on politics. I am interested why Putin enjoys between 80% (Anastasia’s figure) and 90% (Katarina’s) support. He has made internal improvements (like shutting down the paper mill that was polluting Lake Baikal), but not enough and he is getting tired. People are restless but afraid of chaos when he steps down. Navalny, his only viable opponent, is a consummate politician who espouses eliminating hush-money subsidies to states (like Chechnya); this may restore equity (the money is funneled into the pockets of corrupt politicians, and even the Chechens themselves are fed up) but is a risky path. International politics are not on the radar screen, even for this International Relations expert. She is interested in whether there is a link between Trump and Putin. I offer that more than half the USA is praying for one, and that it surely involves kompromat based on shady financing of his business deals. But Putin is surely too clever to have his fingerprints on anything. She thinks his acceptance of the most recent sanctions show he’s hanging his inner circle out to dry. As he reaches the end of his career he is seeking to establish his legacy. and he wants it acknowledged that it is he who saved Russia. They need to realize the price he has paid for greasing their wheels.
The local history museum, a bridge too far.
At 6pm I decline the final museum and insist on declaring victory. Although I rarely actually feel cold, being out in it all day is exhausting. At the hotel I am so tired I settle for a bar of chocolate and a bottle of water for dinner; I can’t even make it into the corridor to get hot water for tea.