Chapter 3 Irkutsk

Tuesday, June 28

I woke up to rain this morning, and decided I was happy where I was. I don't know what time I got moving, but I'm sure I didn't leave the room before 10. First thing, I washed my hair. There may not be a shower, but there is hot water and, amazingly, a tall spigot that lets me rinse. Then it was laundry time. First order was underwear and socks. Next will be jeans and heavier things. I draped them all around the room, but drying is going slowly with the wet conditions.

I donned my red parka for protection from the rain, one of the first times I've used it for that purpose. I recalled its critical drawback after a couple of hours of use, dryness of the body is achieved by sacrifice of the feet. All of the water runs right down the cape onto my shoes and cuffs. Might as well be walking in ankle deep water. That wouldn't be too difficult in Irkutsk. Most of the streets and sidewalks are flooded to some degree or another. Many are impassable, or require careful navigation.

First I wanted to get the major headache out of the way, and get a ticket out of here. After walking about 15 minutes, I decided my passport was probably going to be a necessary thing, and went back after it. Creative navigation (being lost is a state of mind) led to exploration of some of the lesser known streets. I knew there would be traditional wooden buildings in town, but I was surprised at the extent of them.

I went by the Intourist hotel first, to see if they sell rail tickets. They don't, but I did find out the train schedule and location of the international ticket office at the train station.

I sloshed over to the train station. First glance made me think getting a ticket would be an exceptionally easy affair. I walked to an empty window in the large, library-like international ticket office upstairs. The clerk spoke English. I told her what I wanted; she make the reservation. Then it was time to pay. I didn't have enough roubles, and there was no exchange office at the station. I had to trek back to Intourist, through the rain. I was fussing at myself most of the way, I knew I should have changed money the first time I was there.

By the time I got back to the train station, it was after 1, and the office was closed for the hour. By this time, my boots had conjured up that pain in my left heel as they sometimes do.

When the ticket office reopened, there was a line of Buryats (Native Russians, indigenous people, oppressed minority, etc.). outside the door, and things were moving slowly. After waiting 40 minutes, I decided to go back tomorrow.

My wanderings were attracting some attention, either because of my good looks, or the big red thing I was wearing. Everyone else was carrying umbrellas. The attention did allow me to make eye contact with the girls, many of whom are pretty. Yes, it must be my flashing eyes and quick smile, and not that silly red cape that's getting me noticed.

Someone once told me that a tourist would starve himself out of Russia. Now I know what they were talking about. Walking around all day, the only thing I found worth eating was some popcorn, and two wieners with bread that was being sold on the street. There are no fast food places of any description. No cafes, street vendors, or even grocery stores with much worth eating.

For dinner, I went to what the book called the best restaurant in town. There wasn't a menu in English, so it's a good thing I wasn't expecting one. The staff was no help either, but a man sitting at my table translated enough to let me expect some type of beef and a salad. The salad was tomatoes and cucumbers, with some kind of oil dressing. They weren't bad, but neither were they much of a salad. The steak was something that we would stew for awhile before serving. It came unadorned, with some common type fries. The whole affair cost 40,000 R ($20) and wouldn't have passed muster for half that price at home.

I went back to the room, started "The Brother's Karamazov," and went to bed not long after. I feel like a kid during the summer. It's late, but I don't want to go to bed since it's still light out.

Wednesday, June 29

I wanted to get up early and make it over to the train station by 8, when the ticket window opened. I preferred to lay in bed, and didn't make it over till 8:30. There was already a line of Buryats. I went to the door. The guard saw me and ushered me in, ahead of everyone else. I don't know if he thought me Russian or foreign. I think what mattered is my blue eyes. I confess to not feeling guilty, I'm paying twice as much.

It's a beautiful day, though puddle hopping is still necessary. I came across a nice church near the river bridge that's undergoing restoration. It looks like the first thing they did was re-guild the cupolas and crosses, which glitter atop rundown walls. They still have a long way to go. One of the steeples is untouched, and the grounds are mostly a thicket.

After hanging out a new batch of laundry, I went looking for the Decembrist's museum. I'm almost sorry I found it. For starters, the price for Russians was 300R, foreigners 5000R. When I heard that I turned around to go. The attendant let me in for 2000. It really wasn't even worth that, nothing was labeled in English. If they're going to charge us more, they should at least make some accommodations.

The house had the feeling of aristocracy in exile. There were fine decorations and motifs, crudely executed. It was easy to imagine the princely revolutionaries trying to recreate a cultured, courtly life, in what must have been, even more than now, the middle of nowhere.

Walking back towards the market area, I found the only decent street food in town. It was beef on skewers, cooked over coals. One skewer of about 6 pieces of beef, and a rough piece of bread, cost 2000R ($1). Not cheap, but the operators, who appeared to be from one of the Moslem republics, were doing a good business.

I've picked up the habit of walking into any building where there are a lot of people coming and going. It's usually a store, and the traffic is the only indication. Sometimes there's a boring, block-lettered sign, with a name which doesn't go far in describing what might be inside.

In such a manner I ended up in the largest department store in town. It's the size of the old, downtown department stores, much larger than your typical mall variety, and it's filled with- empty space. While modern stores create pathways of merchandise to lead you past more possible purchases, the idea here appears to be to let hoards of people throng unimpeded through the store. Along the way your might come across a section selling radios, ink pens, toilet paper, and shoes. The next section could have the same brand of radio, this time mixed with shopping bags sporting girlie pictures, and off brand cola. The only rules are, that there can be no logic to the organization, and shoppers cannot touch the merchandise until they wait in a line and pay for it.

There's probably a greater variety of goods in the stalls, or kiosks, outside. Stalls really isn't the right word, they're more like half-size shipping containers with windows on one side. The windows are filled with whatever is for sale, along with price tags. They're so crowded that you can rarely see around the merchandise to the person inside. You invariably have to bend over to make eye contact. That's a handicap for me, since I have to point at whatever I want.

Interspersed among the regular kiosks, are other levels of the food/clothing chain. There are lines of standing women, holding clothes, or shoes, or whatever they have to sell. There are plenty of people with ice cream cones in cardboard boxes, and those who have sprung for a popcorn maker. Either will sell for $.25. Mars Candy has gotten into the act, and there are many portable electric freezers that house candy- bar like ice creams. All of these things sell well, but there seems to be a surplus of vendors.

I went looking for the churches of the city, but of the two I found, one was undergoing extensive restoration, and the other was a museum. Out of ideas and energy, I went to a park to sit down. My heel was giving me some problems.

Sitting on a park bench, I noticed that the woman beside me was reading The Trans-Siberian Handbook, just as I was. I pointed the fact out, and we started a conversation. I never discovered her name, but she's from Chicago, and has been teaching in Japan for three years. Somehow we got to talking about personal matters. Very personal for some unnamed person sitting on a park bench. We examined our respective love lives, and I told the woman I'd like to meet a Russian girl, she wished me luck.

After a nap and some reading, I went to a restaurant that the Chicagoian and I said we might visit. Her party wasn't there, and it looked like it would be boring to eat there alone, so I picked up some cookies on the way back to the hotel. That didn't seem like it would be enough, so I worked up the nerve to go into the hotel cafe. The only thing really, or even slightly palatable, looked to be the ever-popular two wieners and a piece of bread. Feeling only barely satisfied, I went to my room, and shortly after to bed. That would have been between 9:30 and 10:00, and the sun was shining strongly.

Thursday, June 30

A sign in the window of the exchange office yesterday confirmed the date for me. I'd been living one day out, and therefore have one more day in Irkutsk than I was calculating. No problem really, especially now that I have something to occupy my time.

It happen on an excursion to Lake Baikail, and as is too often the case, was spurred at least partly by artificial stimulants.

I'd learned from the American woman that, contrary to the information in our book, the hydrofoil only left at 10:00 am. At 8:30, I hopped on bus #16 at the point indicated on my guidebook map. It didn't say anything about direction, so I could only hope I was going the right way.

If it was a circular route I'd be OK. Linear would mean trouble. I'd almost decided I was going the wrong way, when the ship used as a landmark appeared.

Two stops after that, both the woman and the book had said to get off, so I did. I looked across the road and saw a hydrofoil. "This is easy enough," I thought, as I walked towards it. As I got closer, a little rise in the ground gave way, to reveal not a dock, but the jacks the boat was resting on. It looked to be about 6 months away from carrying passengers.

I started walking in the only direction with any civilization. Ten minutes later, another craft came into view, this one a much more likely candidate. As I reached the entrance to the ferry, the next bus #16 pulled away from a stop across the street.

At the first ticket window, I was waved away to another window about 10 meters away. The ferry schedule was posted in the first window, and it was labeled "Kacca" so I have no idea what it was for. After a bit of confusion over the destination, I had a ticket for $3, twice the price listed in the just published book. Speaking of the book, this morning I broke down and ripped out the Irkutsk section to make carrying easier, and then left it laying on the bed, along with my phrase book.

I sat at the back of the passenger compartment and surveyed the passengers as they filtered in. Most promising was a couple of girls sitting across from me. They looked to be heading off on vacation. A woman who could have been their mother saw them off at the pier. The prettier one had long blond hair, reminiscent of Shannon's (old girlfriend), and I think an attitude to match. They' had too much baggage to carry themselves, I planned to give them a hand. The only problem looked to be their youth.

Directly in front of me sat an Oriental businessman and a pretty, but over made-up Russian girl. I at first took her to be a paid escort, but as the trip worn on, I caught some English pass between the two. I listened in as best I could, and it began to sound more like she was an interpreter. Her English was much better than his.

It was a beautiful day, and the scenery along the way was worth looking at. The river is bordered by tree covered hills. Every once and awhile there was a village. I kept listening into the conversation in front of me. They were discussing relationships between languages, without either being completely correct. I wondered, and waited for when I should break in and, dazzling them with my English and a witty and insightful comment. Before that happened, we pulled into a fuel dock, and I got to listen to the woman try to explain what fuel is.

We got to Lystrianka and debarked. It was a disappointment to see the two girls staying aboard. At the dock there is what passes for a town, backed up by steep hills, limiting the choice of directions right or left. The interpreter and her charge ventured right, and that seemed as good a direction as the other.

They soon stopped to take pictures, and I continued past. Forging into the unknown, I went past several nondescript buildings of undetermined use, none being in a pristine state of repair. Then there were several picturesque cottages in a traditional style. I took a picture. Perfect day for it too, with a crisp blue sky.

The road took a left inland, and I continued straight along the coast. There were hills and cliffs overlooking the rocky beach. You could see the mountains 40 miles away on the other side of the lake. All told, I shot a whole roll of film.

I wouldn't have minded continuing, but I was hungry, and wanted to see what was in the direction too. On the way back I stopped and looked in a pit native workmen were digging for a foundation- Why is it people want to stop and look in holes? One of them was interesting in my camera, so I let him take a look. That camera attracts a lot of attention, and identifies me as a foreigner.

Back at the dock, I picked up an apple, banana, and carton of grape juice from a woman selling from the back of a truck. I spied the couple again. They were walking in the other direction, and since that was my last remaining choice, I did too.

was accosted by a 12 year old boy named Sasha. His only English was "give me please." He asked for everything from chewing gum, to my watch and camera. A most ungracious beggar. At least the kids in Indonesia had the savvy to act like they were your friend first.

I walked a couple of clicks down the road, took a couple of pics, and grabbed a couple of Z's on a wall between the beach and road. Sasha caught up with me and began his pitch again.

Back at the dock there was nothing to do except wait for the ferry. Standing around, someone asked me a question and I had the chance to say "Ya ne gavaru pa Ruska." He came back in English, and we slowly started up an conversation. Like most conversations here, it ended up in a bottle of Vodka. It turns out his name, in English, was Bob, he was with his girlfriend Alice.

Time for the ferry rolled around, and we moved outside of the bar we'd set up in. There we found the interpreter, and what was to turn out to be her Chinese charge. We passed a couple of words, and I complimented her on her English. Unfortunately, Bob and Alice wanted to sit up front, while the interpreter took the main compartment.

While Bob and Alice were out for a smoke, a character named Alek started up a basic conversation with his basic English. He may have been drunk, I know I'd had my share of vodka. He turned out to be a policeman from near Moscow, and he wants me to give him a call when I get there. That was relayed through the interpreter, who I enlisted when we went aft for a group picture. We stood there talking, Alek trying to hold center stage, and I was trying to move in on the interpreter. He was deft, and sober enough to pick up on that, and graciously bowed out.

The interpreter's name was Larissa. We started talking, and too quickly it seemed, arrived in Irkutsk. I asked her out for the evening. The strength of her acceptance startled me. It was a straightforward yes, without any doubt or hesitation.

I rode back to the hotel with Bob and Alice. We had to push start the car. He'd had too much to drink and I think about killed us on the way back. We went around a corner with tires squealing and the back end fishtailing. He stopped to pick up a friend, and Alice moved into the single back seat with me. My hand started playing with her long hair. She wasn't very pretty but she was attractive in a way, at least now that she's young. My hand wasn't content with her hair. I was soon tracing designs lightly on her back. Her limited English was good enough to produce "and what about your right hand?" I'd been caught, and played it off as well as anyone who'd been caught seducing a guy's girlfriend while he drove me in his car. Before I left the car, Bob insisted on one last toast for health. We agreed to meet at 2 tomorrow.

The exchange office was closed, and I couldn't get them to make one last transaction. Instead, I had to make and unofficial one at the hotel desk.

I met Larissa at 7, and we walked to the Fictelberg Restaurant that I had looked in on yesterday. Larissa did the ordering, and pretty much went to town. We had caviar, pineapple liqueur, and chicken.

Waiting for the food to come, we were entertained, or, more appropriately, tortured, by the floor show. It started with a pop music trio. Their only real instrument, not counting the tambourine, was a keyboard. It kept hammering out Russian imitations of Western style music. Not even anything you could recognize, just music they thought must sound Western.

The next act was a poorly choreographed set of lightly-clad female dancers. It was becoming something of a burlesque when, mercifully, we left.

The total came to 63,000R. My change came back in a stack of 1000's, 7000 short. Larissa said that should be the tip. Maybe so, but I would have liked to be the one to make that decision.

We started walking towards the river, carrying the bottle of pineapple liqueur, on the snow covered streets. Not really snow, but the cotton-like droppings of those infernal trees. I don't know what they are, but the streets must be impassable during the worst of the deluge. As it is, it can be hard to breath the congested air.

Larissa and I took a bench along the river, and watched a lovely sunset. I obliged her the ice cream she asked for, and we searched for things to talk about. The sun lingers at this time and latitude, and we walked back in the light, even though the sun was gone. Buses had stopped by then (11:00), so I put Larissa in one of the cabs that every car is. Before leaving, she said she'd had a wonderful time and gave me her number to call at work tomorrow. The situation seems convenient. We both have something the other wants. Me money; she good looks and a nice body.

Friday, July 1

A late start this morning. Other than the on-going laundry project, I didn't do anything until a bit after 11, when I paid for the room and gave Larissa a call. I asked if I could see her again, knowing what the answer would be. The natural role of the male is that of supplicant, no matter what the actuality may be. In a voice devoid of excitement, or any other emotion, she agreed for a meeting at the same place and time as last night.

The meeting with Larissa was the only thing of any significance I did today. I went to the market and got a few things for the trip(including toilet paper), ate once again at the stand selling beef skewers, and walked along the river. There I saw a girl selling ice cream who, if it doesn't work out with Larissa, I'll go back to tomorrow. She's a cute, perky looking blond with dimples. Someone I could imagine being with.

Walking around, you don't see much happiness on the streets here. People say life's hard. At first glance it wouldn't seem so; people are well enough dressed, there's food in the shops, and goods in the stores. But, talking to Larissa last night, she said her monthly income is $100. Things aren't that much cheaper. She lives with her mother and sister in an apartment that I would guess has one room, two at the most. Sources of entertainment are lacking, and the population is steady or even declining. All of this in a land that appears to have much potential. I blame it on communism. How could such a system ever gain credibility?

I was supposed to meet Bob at 2 today, but he didn't show. I wonder if Alice told him of my uncontrollable hand?

On meeting Larissa this afternoon, I told her right up front I couldn't afford the type of night we had last night. It wouldn't normally have been a problem, but a cash count today put me behind what I thought. About $100, depending on whether you count the bills that aren't likely to be accepted. It amazes me that, in a city of this size, you can't cash a traveler's check or use a credit card. Even China. . . I suppose that points to the state of the economy.

Larissa and I walked over to the park, and sat on a bench till we decided what to do. We ended up spending a couple of hours there before she had to go home. I think I was too quick to judge her a mercenary. She talks of an appreciation for beauty and a quest for harmony. She says she's quiet and thinks a lot. Maybe that accounts for the periods of silence last night that I attributed to things just not going well. Things were going better tonight, well enough for me to give her that bottle of Safari perfume I've been carrying for the past 8 months. I like the scent, and she says she did too. She told me she was telling her sister just this morning that she was going to have to buy some. I enjoyed our time together, and we decided to go tomorrow to Baikail.

We were standing in a little group of trees in the park to say good-bye. I bent forward to kiss her. I was surprised, and excited, to feel her tongue gently part my lips.

Saturday, July 2

A romantic day to be sure. It started out great. I looked out my window at 7:00 and it was perfectly clear. An hour later, it was completely overcast and looking like it would rain at any minute. There was more to come.

I was supposed to meet Larissa at the bus stop at 9:15. At 9:30 she wasn't there, so I checked the other stops around the hotel. Nothing. Walking back to the bus stop, I found her there. We kissed on meeting, she didn't say why she was late. We had missed the 10:00 ferry, but decided to go to the dock anyway, and see if there would be another since it was Saturday. She sat right up against me on the bus. It felt nice. The temperature was a bit cool, the sign on Kirov Square said 20 degrees C.

There was another ferry at 12, so we had something of a wait. Once on the boat, we were speculating on whether a certain couple was Russian. I didn't think they were, and they sat right behind us. With an unmistakable Australian accent they started talking to a couple of German guys from their hotel. We started laughing and joined in. Justin was from Sydney, had been studying in Boston for two year. We traded the usual information. Larissa started talking to the German guys. I heard them say they're staying one day longer than me, and I wondered if she had found a replacement. Then she asked me if we couldn't go along to the hotel with them, that it might be more "joyous." I think she meant with the Aussies. The Germans, besides being rivals, I found irritating. Larissa asked them how they liked Irkutsk, and in a fashion so typically German it could be in a textbook, they started complaining that there was nothing to do. They came to eastern Siberia, and fully expected to find a thriving nightlife! They wanted to go clubbing. Neither Justin or I could believe them. A most ungracious thing to say, even if it might be true. And with the way people have to live here.

Anyway, the Aussies weren't going to their hotel right away. I tried to get them to eat with us at a little cafe, but they wanted to look around first. Larissa ordered us a hearty lunch, and for the first time it occurred to me that she may eating very well at home. The thought cut me deep. I can't stand the thought of anyone, especially that poor girl, not getting everything she wants or needs to eat. Afterwards, we took the same path to the woods that I did a couple of days ago. We left the path and ventured up the mountainside a couple of hundred meters.

There was a spot where someone had dug out a little flat spot. It made a natural chair. I spread out my red pancho, and we sat down side by side, with about a foot between us.

We talked of commonplace things, enjoying the silence of the forest, interrupted only by a passing boat every now and then. After a time, I shifted to laying on my stomach with my head on her lap. I started kissing her hands, which for attractiveness, don't go with the rest of her at all. They're slightly oversized, and wrinkled far beyond her years. They look as if they've done hard work. Slowly, I shifted attention to her neck and cheek, and started gently touching her sides and arms. I kissed her on the lips. She kissed back.

We had missed our intended ferry, the 15:30. Once back, we found there was one at 17:10. Walking back we were hand in hand. On the ferry she laid her head on my shoulder and went to sleep.

I wanted to stay another day. I mentioned that to Larissa and she said she'd like me to stay another month. But we didn't make any definite plans to change the reservation, and that's not something I can easily do on my own. I asked her up to my hotel room to take a look at the ticket.

When we got in, the floor lady came and said I hadn't paid. That wasn't unintentional. The way my room card is marked, I thought maybe I could get an extra night, since I had arrived after 12 the first night. I guess not. I got back to the room after paying, and Larissa was looking through my books. I'd given her "The Secret Pilgrim," which I had finished. Then she picked my brain for American idioms that she was writing down. Her head was resting on my side.

We traded addresses, and I walked her to the bus stop through the rain.

Waiting there, she asked to see me tomorrow. I said it was a bit late for that, but I would try. She wrote the information on a piece of paper, and I said I would come to her house around 1 if I could. I told her what a special day it had been, we kissed, and she ran through the rain to catch her bus.

Next: Siberia

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