“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” - Lao Tzu
Saturday, 20 November 2010
Who kutsk? Irkutsk!
When I was planning this trip, Irkutsk was just another dot on the map. Everybody's heard of Siberia and knows it's huge, remote, and full of snow. We've heard about how inhospitable it can be and seen glimpses from storybooks and Bond movies. But can you name a city in Siberia? No? Neither could I before this trip.
Well, Irkutsk is a name worth remembering. It's been one of the unexpected highlights of my trip, and a fantastic way to greet Europe. And let's be clear here, Irkutsk might be closer to Beijing than it is to Moscow, not far from the Mongolian border, geographically still part of Asia, and home to a sizable Mongolian and Chinese population, but the moment I stepped off the train there was no doubt I had left Asia behind. This unmistakably feels like Europe, and is also unmistakably Russian.
I was surprised how dramatic the change was. As I've been traveling north from Saigon, through Vietnam, China, and Mongolia, of course I've noticed the gradual change in climate from muggy 30c daily temps down to -20c and more. For some reason I expected the cultures to change as gradually as the climate. I expected the customs and people to be a bit "blurred at the edges" of different countries. This couldn't be further from the truth. Crossing each border has been like flicking a switch when it comes to cultures.
But getting back to Irkutsk. This is a beautiful, modest, unassuming little city that feels much smaller than it actually is, and is thick with character and charm.
With each arrival in a new city for me, that first taxi ride from train station to accommodation is always crucial for developing a first impression of that city. There have only been two taxi rides so far where I've had to keep pinching myself to convince me that I'm not dreaming. Shanghai for it's sheer scale and the awesome engineering feat that is the entire city, and now Irkutsk for being a living, breathing, authentic small city that truly belongs in a story book. It doesn't beat it's chest and try to tell the world how good it is (well maybe Lake Baikal does a little bit, but not Irkutsk itself), it just gets on with life. I realize I'm not traveling during tourist season, but in the four days I spent there I didn't see anyone who didn't look like a local, or hear any language apart from Russian that wasn't associated with me in some way. This place feels undiscovered by tourists. I'm sure it gets busy during the summer months, but I actually don't understand why foreigners would come to Russia during summer anyway. If you go to Siberia, you need snow. Why else would you come? And ever since I left Beijing I've had the best weather I could hope for. Cold, with plenty of snow in Russia, but bright sunny still days that are perfect for walking around in. The only thing the weather prevented me from doing is going for a swim in Lake Baikal.
Everything I hoped to be true about Siberia really is true. Gorgeous forests, frozen lakes, ornate wooden cottages huddled together, and snow. Lots of snow.
And then there's the people. I know a few Russians back in Australia, so I figured I had a fair idea of what to expect; perhaps a bit of a cool reception when first meeting people, but once the ice is broken they tend to open up and become very friendly and warm.
Of course I shouldn't stereotype because everyone is different, but there are certainly cultural trends that change when you cross borders.
Ordering food has been fun. Sometimes I get a waiter or waitress who speaks english and is an amazing help (giving me in-depth descriptions of dishes, etc), other times I get put in the too hard basket and basically ignored. I can't say I blame them. If I'm lucky I might know the main ingredient (meat, chicken, fish) of the dish I'm ordering, but that's about it. I think the trick is finding a quiet restaurant where the staff aren't busy and more likely to be patient. This might go against the golden rule that the best restaurants are the busiest, but at least you're more likely to get something you actually want.
I did find two excellent restaurants in Irkutsk. The first one was part of the biggest classic Soviet-era hotel in town, and was going for a nice "high-class seedy" vibe (think Leisure Suit Larry) featuring nice 80's mood lighting, plush carpets, a low-slung dress on the singer accompanying the backing CD, and Sveta the waitress wearing a dress so impossibly short it would break a dozen health and safety regulations in Australia.
I ordered salmon and caviar (and beer) and received some beautiful smoked salmon crepes with sour cream and a huge serving of the most delicious caviar I've had in my life. I never understood the appeal of caviar before now, but this stuff was insane and there was enough for me to gorge myself.
I haven't even mentioned where I'm staying yet! Instead of a hotel, I'm staying in a home stay with the wonderful Sergey and Olga, and their lovely and very entertaining little grand-daughter Paulina. This makes a nice change from staying in hotels, and the advice they gave me (along with Lena from Aqua-Echo in Irkutsk) has been invaluable and really helped me make the most of my visit here.
For anyone traveling the Trans-Siberian route, Irkutsk should definitely be a place to hang around for a while. Don't expect a buzzing night life, but if you want somewhere cruisey and interesting to relax and break up the journey then you won't be disappointed.