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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Irkutsk, Russia
TRANS SIBERIAN RAILWAY Ulan Ude Aug 6-7 Irkutsk Aug 4 Aug 5-8 Yekaterinburg Aug 8-10 Aug 11-12 Kazan Aug 13 Nizhny Novgorod Aug 14 Golden Ring Aug 15 Aug 16-17

MOSCOW Aug 17-19 Aug 20-21 Aug 22-23

Irkutsk, Russia, August 5-8, 2003


August 4. ULAN UDE to IRKUTSK We had a morning train from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk.  We ended up in a second class sleeper even though we didn't need to sleep.  Our tickets didn't have bunk assignments so the Providnitsa decided where to put us after scrutinizing our tickets like we were criminals.  When we boarded the train the passengers had all gotten off to stretch their legs.  Looking around our cabin we saw two military uniforms hanging neatly on the clothes hooks.  That didn't exactly thrill us.  The reports of Russian officials of any kind weren't generally good.  Looking out on the platform identified our probable cabin mates.  There were two guys in yellow t-shirts and flip flops standing on the platform smoking and drinking beer.  Both had their handy little black bags (purses) with them.  The looked young but had stern faces, not that that is uncommon in Russians.

When they boarded the train we just kept standing in the aisle.  The providnitsa called us in to sit down and, once again, check our tickets.  Much to our surprise the military men smiled at and reached their hands over to introduce themselves.  Only one spoke much English but they were Andrei and Alexandre, fresh from the academy in eastern Siberia.  Both were originally from the East but were being sent to Novoisbirsk and Moscow respectively for service.  We were relieved to find that they were a friendly pair.  If we still had any doubts, seeing them play with the little boy from the cabin next door reassured us.  This little blond baby with big blue eyes couldn't have been more than 18 months.  He carefully inched his way down the car as he peeked in on all of the passengers.  His mother patiently watched as he did it again and again, occasionally being taken in by a group of people to play.  He sat with us for a while and Andrei and Alexandre took him to the window to look out.  In the course of our 7 hour ride that baby face must have peeked in and passed by 20 times.  He was adorable.

The ride was nice and the scenery was pretty.  A few hours into the journey we hit the end of Lake Baikal and could see the expansive mass of water stretched out before us.  The train skirted around the end of the lake for a couple of hours. For such a large body of water is was incredibly calm and smooth.  Looking from the south it seemed to never end and the distant horizon just blended into the haze of the sky and it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began.  As we reached the little village of Slyudyanka, more shoreline came into view.  The babushkas on the platform were selling smoked fish from the lake.  I tried to buy some but unfortunately didn't have small enough change. From that point on we went through a series of tunnels and returned to the hilly forested countryside.  

We talked a bit to our cabin mates but it was limited.  Neither seemed very excited about their new posts.  Andrei told us that they didn't know how long they would have to serve in Noviobirsk and Moscow.  It could be ten years and he was concerned about finding a wife and having a family.  They couldn't have been older than their early twenties and seeing how taken they were with the baby next door I believed that they really wanted to have families.  They were nice young men from rural Russia.  I hope that life in the big cities of Russia doesn't turn them into the fearsome military men that tourists avoid for fear of being shaken down.  These two guys even bought us ice cream when they got off at one stop.  Their fate seemed like such a shame.

When we arrived in Irkutsk we took a cab to Amerikansky Dom, America House.  It came well recommended and wasn't far from the station.  When we arrived we were relieved to find that they had room, in fact they were empty.  We were given a room on the top floor that overlooked the city across the river.  The only downside was that they didn't have running hot water and the normal lady of the house was out of town.  From what we could surmise the young woman who was helping us was the daughter-in-law and she didn't speak much English.  The woman of the house, Lena, was a Russian English teacher and wife an American ex-Army soldier.  The note she left for customers to read said that the water wasn't too cold but we later realized that cold to someone who lives in Siberia is probably pretty damn cold!  We had four days of really cold showers.  

The story behind the owners of the home was quite interesting.  There were several articles up on the walls around the house and our room.  An Italian American man from Philly, after years of service in the US Army, came to Russia on a holiday.  He had a day to explore on his own and in the rain got caught up in a pastry shop.  A Russian woman from Irkutsk, traveling with her brother, asked if he needed help and they ended up spending the whole day together.  That was back in the early 80's.  It was four more visits and four years of correspondence later that they decided to get married.  She had a son in the Red Army and I would like to have asked how he explained to his comrades that his new step-father was ex-US military.  When he settled in Irkutsk they didn't have plumbing and indoor toilets but from the look at the present day sturdy brick home his military pension served them well in Russia.  He originally didn't get a long term visa and was coming on one month visas.  They eventually gave him a longer visa and the government gave him permission to join the Veterans Association.  He had argued that the US and Russia were allies in WWII so he was entitled.  It was the sort of fairytale story that usually comes from Hollywood.  He was around 60 when they married and she was 40.  From the information around the home we had the impression that maybe he had passed on but there were photos of their wedding and one of them standing together, each holding the other's country flag.  The last thing I expected to find in Eastern Siberia was a home full of American flags!

After settling in we walked back to the station to find some dinner at a Japanese-Russian cafe.  It wasn't great but it worked somehow.  Overall we were able to find pretty good food in Irkutsk and even found one cafe that had an English menu.  Without an English menu we were pretty much at the mercy of the waitress, which usually turned out okay anyway.  There was a good bliny (crepe) place in town as well where the thin Russian pancakes were served up with various goodies like jam, honey and sweetened condensed milk.