Monday, September 27, 2010

Nicer than a gulag, much nicer in fact

Irkutsk is a beautiful city that I am starting to wish I had a vacation home in.  Maybe the TV show International House Hunters can help me out with that one.  The Russians here are just like I imagined after reading an article about Siberian pride.  The article argued that since to Soviet Government exiled its intellectuals and most threatening citizens, Siberians by nature are the best that Russia had to offer.  I found this to be a very interesting concept that really makes sense.  The Russians here seem fitter, even the old, nicer, and friendlier.  I thought I would have to put my “Don’t mess with me” face on as soon as I crossed the border, but I found that the people here generally walk with each other, telling stories and laughing.  I haven’t been yelled at once, definitely a departure from my time in St. Petersburg.  I walked into the fur store, and even though my Russian is obviously not native, they treated me with respect and attention like I was a store regular.  I found it satisfying to give them my business after I found the perfect шапка (hat). 

They just have these lying around in Siberia

James and I wandered the streets taking silly pictures and admiring the sites.  We both agreed it was the type of place I wouldn’t mind moving to for a few years.  It is small, yet modern; classic, yet extremely diverse; and historic, yet youthful.  It almost has the mix of suburbia and city that I appreciate in Austin, Texas.

Irkutsk's "Bus Station"
You really can’t visit Siberian without making a journey to Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, near the city of Listviyanka.  One-fifth of the world’s fresh water is found in this enormous lake that is 20-40 miles across and 400 miles long.  80% of its animal life is native only to the area – including the world’s only fresh water seals.  Eager to see this natural beauty, we took a cab to the bus station.  The driver, who’s cab boasted an “anti-tobacco” car freshener, insisted that the buses are no good, and that we should just pay him.  We insisted that we are not rich, and preferred to save money on the bus.  Well, he was right.  He dropped us off at a dirt parking lot filled with mini buses and made our way to the one that would take us to the lake.  We finally found an old Soviet bus that would not leave until it was packed like a sardine can.  We were proudly the only Westerners on the bus. 
Me and my favorite Russian beer, Baltika

Kissing an Omol, the fish I ate for lunch

We arrived at the lake one hour later, ate some lunch and started exploring.  We drank beers and took pictures along the water, and I even found a new rock for my rock collection (I know it’s silly to collect rocks along a backpacking trip, but my first rock was from the Finish Gulf near Peterhof outside of St. Petersburg).  That night we stayed in a traditional Siberian home and even got to enjoy a баня (Russian style sauna).  The banya was my favorite.  This is an old tradition still commonly found in Russia.  First, you sit in the sauna for as long as you can take it, I suppose.  Then someone comes in and lightly taps you with birch branches, which sounds painful but is actually very nice.  The smell of the branches reminds me of Eucalyptus leaves.  After you are through, you stand under a bucket of freezing water, brace yourself, and pull the cord.  The bucket releases its supply of frigid water onto you in a bust of exhilaration.  Russians just really like to torture themselves it seems. 

Birch Braches

Bucket of Cold Water

Isn't Siberia Beautiful?

This was the scenery near the hostel we were crashing at for the night.  It's been a long time since I have seen the leaves change colors.

Today, back in Irkutsk, I met Lenin and the heroes of the Soviet Union.  Tomorrow, I sit on a train again and relish what is left of my supply of instant noodles from China.  
Victory Pose!

What happened Lenin?

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