Transsiberian, Day 11: Christmas Eve in Irkutsk, Russia

Friday, January 6th, 2017

I zonked out completely on the five hour  overnight flight, but some of my fellow travelers had issues. When Calvin chose the seats yesterday, he warned JC that he may be surrounded by babies, as that particular airline marks the seats that allow babies. I awoke to one such baby screaming bloody murder during drink service, but otherwise slept through it all.

We get to the Irkutsk airport early in the morning and have time to kill before our guide arrives. We decide to look for somewhere to sit, have a snack, and charge our electronics. “There’s a bar,” suggests JC. “A bar? Not…the café?” laughs Calvin. Seeing as that it’s still morning, we go to the Castro Café and take over all of the seating that allows us access to wall outlets (eighty percent of the cafe).

My Cyrillic reading is really getting good, as I can read nearly the entire menu (again, useful Russian in the form of donuts and coffee), and all the words are the equivalent of their Italian counterparts that you see in American cafés, so there’s no translation needed. I help the others with their orders and I order a coconut cocoa, served just below the temperature of the sun’s surface. It numbs my already burnt mouth.

Nik, our local Russian guide, arrives in the café to greet us. And he brings us Russian tea in a big thermos! What a guy! He’s young, probably around 23, and super friendly. He leads us to our car for the day (we’re in Irkutsk for the blink of an eye because, well, Calvin) and drives us off to our first destination.

We drive a bit before arriving at the Angara river, where he shows us the first and only surviving ship of the original icebreakers in Russia that was built in London and brought all the way here, that is docked on the side of the river permanently and has a museum inside. It’s near the Angara dam, which was the world’s largest dam at the time it was built. He also informs us that the name Irkutsk means “whimsical.” I’ll be the judgment of that, Nik. This city has to compete with St. Petersburg.

We get in the car and the cold temperature outside ensures frost on the inside windows. Nik and others in the car are using their warm hands to rub little peep holes through the frost so they can see the scenery outside. I take out my insurance card from my wallet and begin scraping down the inside of the windows with efficiency, then pass it to the next person. Nik is impressed. “Where did you learn this?” “Chicago.”

The next stop is the outdoor Cossack Village museum which is an old village from the era of the first Russian settlers, that has now been converted into a museum so people can see how they used to live. I’d compare it to something like an American wild west town, with buildings on a large property, each serving a different purpose, and games to entertain children (and travelers in their twenties and thirties, we come to learn).

We check out a schoolhouse, a chapel, a barn, and a bunch of other buildings. They all have a beautifully intricate carved design on the bottom edge of the roof that Nik tells us is to ward off evil spirits. We notice that the doors are very short, so the people back them must have been short, right? Well no, apparently, they were just smart enough to make the door entrances short so the least amount of heat escaped upon opening.

We enter a traditional yurt, and Nik explains how the homes back then were segregated, where the woman remained on one side and the man remained on the other. The only shared things were of course the door and the bed. Bow chicka wow wow.

One of the outdoor attractions was an ice slide beside a pile of animal hides. What do you do with this? Well you grab a hide and use it as a sled, duh! We milked this for all the entertainment it could give us before seeing a stray kitty roaming the grounds which distracted us for the next five minutes because we’re all apparently toddlers. Oh, we also rode on a log swingset for a bit, too. Again, toddlers.

We check out the beautiful view of the Ankara River before I see a stand of souvenirs and local goods and indulge in some local honey. As I learned in Riga, you can never go wrong with traveling with honey. David buys it for me as I’ve exhausted all of my rubles at this point and he has loads to get rid of, so he’s basically my sugar daddy until we leave the country.

We play with some multi-person skis and learn that we would all die in an avalanche if that were our only mode of travel through a snowy landscape, since our communication was horrible. Taylan tries some wooden stilts and falls multiple times. JC and Nik battle it out on a balance beam, gladiator style, with bags of barley, trying to slap each other off the beam.

We take a break in a warming hut that has food for sale and Calvin buys the weirdest drink he can find which ends up being rose fruit juice, while Nik treats us to more tea (be sure to pick out the twigs!) and the group shares some crêpes and some sort of meat and dough thing. As we stand there and chat, Nik makes a comment that he can read people's Myers-Briggs personality simply by looking at them. He tells Calvin, for example, that I am probably the exact opposite of Nik (INFP). Calvin asks me the questions and Nik’s prediction is correct.

Just as I’m about to go to the nearby outhouses, Nik shouts out to me that there are heated bathrooms. Calvin laughs that even the locals want to save you from the outhouse horrors. I warm up my feet under the bathroom hand warmers and head out.

A couple of women dressed in Russian Christmas garb (think ‘ice princess’) round us all up and make us join them in the Russian equivalent of the hokey pokey, which is just as hilarious as it sounds. Then we do another dancing game wherein we run around in a circle and stop suddenly to the music. Finally, we play Russian Skip It, which is a boot tied to a rope, swung around by the person in the middle of the circle as everyone tries to hop over it. It was all very entertaining.

We hop back in the car to go to a lookout point for Lake Baikal. It's the deepest lake in the world, with the deepest point at 5387 feet. It’s crystal clear and not frozen over despite the temperatures. The sky is blue, the snow is the brightest white, mountains frame the background and every angle is a real-life picturesque postcard. We learn that tiny crustaceans live in the water and eat all the bacteria and impurities, leaving water that is as clean as distilled water. The creatures even eat garbage and oil, so scientists are studying them to replicate their abilities to clean up oil spills or clean other water sources. There’s a saying that if there were to be a dead body in the lake, the search team would only have three days to recover it before the crustaceans ate it completely.

We go to a Mongolian restaurant located in a roadside yurt and order food, and the owner allows us to step out until the food is ready. We go to a lower point right on the lake to taste the water and to take more pictures of the ice coating the surrounding rocks. By now it’s time for lunch. We enjoy green tea with milk (the owner only said he’d have to give it to us with milk because it tastes better that way?), and I get some veggies and a crunchy fried flatbread stuffed with meat. All of this, and the cozy warmth of the yurt, hits the spot. Nik is a vegetarian and can’t order anything on the menu, so he eats from a bag of cookies he bought nearby. He offers us cookies and we happily oblige, while LaiYuen does everything but slap our hands away, shaming us for eating this poor guide’s lunch.

During our lunch, Nik informs us that the Mongolian culture greatly respects the earth, so they eat foods that grow above ground only, so as not to destroy the soil. That is also why they wear what he calls “Aladdin” shoes, with curved up tips, so they don’t dig into the earth.

We hop in the van again and go to Eastland ski park, a small resort where the locals go, but where we go to get a gorgeous view of the lake. I ride a ski lift for the first time in my life and take lots of photos for the millionth time in my life. There’s a lookout point where a line grows to pose on a rock with the lake in the background. Calvin attempts his usual breakdance pose as he does with various sights, but he falls over, and if not for a helpful passerby, he may very well have rolled down the entire hill hitting every tree along the way. The crowd of other visitors let out a collective gasp. After his near death experience, our group just laughed at him.

We go to a museum, where an English-speaking guide tells us about the flora and fauna of the area. I attempt to read the entry sign of the park, which is written in cyrillic, and it impresses Nik. “Where’d you learn Russian?” Ha, I don’t know it, I just know the pronunciation of the characters.

On the way back to the van, I ask Nik what the word ‘gorod’ means because I’d seen it before but didn’t know from context if it meant city or street (it was prevalent on the Moscow subway exit signs) “Where did you learn to speak Russian? That is very good pronunciation.” I tell him that I learned basic greetings for my Central Asia trip last year and now I have learned a few more. I can’t understand or converse, but I can order donuts, coffee and pizza, thank people and be super polite!

We go to a local marketplace and get omul, a Lake-Baikal-only smoked fish that you can keep at room temperature for a couple days. Sounds perfect for train travel! Calvin buys five, devouring the first one upon purchase, and saving the rest for later. I look around the market for souvenirs but don’t find anything, so all of us head out once again.

We check into the Rolling Stone Hostel, which is super cozy and lodge-y and makes this whole town feel like somewhere in Colorado, which is essentially what I would compare it to, if I had to compare it to something. It’s a very outdoor town without any huge metro area, situated between mountains. The hostel has hardwood floors and wooden walls, a big chalkboard wall near the entrance and just a general cozy feel. We’re staying in the large 16 bed dorm which is a series of neatly stacked bunks recessed in the wall to form cubbies, in a way. They are all pine, and each one has a curtain for privacy and a reading light, outlet and small shelf for your bedside table. Under the beds are two huge lockers per bed, large enough for a wheel suitcase. The corner of the room has shoe warmers, a massive coat rack, an ironing board and lots of radiators for you to dry your clothes on. Clearly these people are travelers and know what they’re doing.

Today is Russian Orthodox Christmas eve, and Calvin wanted to see a few cathedrals while we were here. We asked Nik for advice, as well as the hostel staff, and off we went in a couple Ubers to explore. Our first stop was Kazan Church, the mother of all cathedrals. There were neon lights. There were ice sculptures. There were ICE CHAPELS. There was music. There were flowers. There was a towering cathedral gilded with gold on the interior. It was magnificent and ostentatious all at once. This was the recommendation we got from Nik’s mom (he had called her on the phone to ask, since he himself is not religious), and boy was she right. Everything we saw after this was so lame in comparison.

Next we went to Znamenskiy Monastyr, which had a small handful of people inside quietly praying. The mood was solemn and boring, to be quite frank. Where are THEIR neon lights? We walked along the riverfront until we spotted the Cathedral of the Epiphany, painted white with green, orange and yellow stripes. It definitely passes the “pretty on the outside” test. There are beautiful murals along the insides. We then go across the street to Spasskaya Tserkov, where we enter the upstairs worship area. A group of four women, perhaps a women and her twenty something daughters, have scarves on their heads and pray aloud, occasionally bowing. We’ve noticed that Russian Orthodox patrons make a sign of the cross before they even enter the church, and sometimes as they exit.

We come upon yet another Christmas/New Years festival out in the square, where we spot a giant ice sculpture with the numbers 2017 and ice slides coming out of igloo towers, with kids excitedly sliding down. On one side there are ponies, camels and reindeer for kids to ride, and in the center of it all is a massive Christmas tree with blue lights.

I first run to the pharmacy because I’m coming down with some kind of cold (my usual travel cold from lack of sleep), and need some Claritin. Not only do I get my Claritin in Cyrillic characters, but that, along with six packs of mini Kleenex, costs less than four dollars!

We hop over to the grocery store, as we’ll be soon getting on a very long overnight train ride and we need snacks. This place is cheap, and by cheap I mean Moldova levels of cheap. I use my Point It guide to ask a woman behind the deli counter what one of the giant expands looking things is filled with and she points to a cow. This thing is so useful. For potato chips, they have more than four brands selling crab flavored chips, but there are some ‘normal’ sour cream and onion ones, too. We get three-dollar bottles of Baikal vodka and twenty cent liters of Baikal water, cup noodles and cup dried potatoes, along with lots of cookies and sweets (I didn’t get sweets because if you don’t have them you can’t eat them…I later find out how wrong this is when traveling with a group) before heading off to a nearby Chinese restaurant.

Our group gets its own private room which feels less special and more segregated, as we can barely hear the music from the restaurant. At one point, though, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” comes on send we all sing loudly along to it as our waitress enters, much to her amusement.

We each order a dish, adding some fried rice to the order, and Calvin orders Peking duck. I order five liters of water because I’m sick of these dinky little plastic bottles we keep getting everywhere we go. We drink all the water, but regarding the food, this night becomes known as the “Irkutsk dinner incident” for the rest of the trip. We eat and eat, and then more dishes come out, and we eat and eat, and oh look there’s two whole fried rices we haven’t even touched yet. We got way too much food, and Calvin eats loads of it to prevent leftovers, all while whining that this messes with his bowel movement plans (don’t wanna get stuck on that train squat toilet). Despite his efforts, we end up taking three dishes home with us in to-go containers. “Oh but we got groceries, too!” “Oh, remember we got that smoked fish at the market, too!” Well, I guess all of us will need to reschedule our bowel movements.

We walk home and the neighborhood vaguely reminds me of New Orleans. There are some dilapidated old wooden homes and buildings, all less than two stories, that give the place a southern feel.

In case you haven’t noticed, Calvin has a thing for hookah bars. When we first arrived at the hostel this afternoon, we saw the hostel was right next door to a hookah lounge and Calvin turned to us, insisting he didn’t plan this at all. When we get back from dinner, the whole group minus myself heads to the hookah bar for a late night, while I hang back at the hostel and do some laundry while blogging.

I persuade the hostel staff to let me use the washing machine despite the late hours because PLEASE I am starting to smell. The young blonde hostel dude is friendly and easily bends to my favor. I also recharge my gel hand warmers in boiling water, much to the young hostel staff’s amusement. He thought it was food at first, but now that he sees they are hand warmers, he is so impressed and amazed at the science behind them. He just came back from smoking on the patio outside and I joke with him that those must not have been cigarettes. He insists they were and that this is all just too amazing.

Meanwhile, I talk to a drunk German guy who is sitting on the couch. I tell him I am from Chicago and he asks if I’ve heard the song “Chicago.” I ask him which one. He tells me that it’s a German song, so then I am like “no, definitely not, ha.” He then proceeds to play it, and it’s a sort of alternative rock song. He plays it quietly for himself, but as I sit there writing, he plays it three or four more times.

I shower, which I should have enjoyed more as I will soon learn it will be my last shower for a while.

The group comes back from the hookah bar and we all head off to bed around midnight.