Monday, February 27, 2012

The Paris of Siberia

Who knew it was more than a territory in the game of Risk? Well, it turns out that Irkutsk is the “Paris of Siberia” and the de-facto capital of Siberia.*   Our introduction to Irkutsk, however, was not so welcoming. After a nauseating mini-bus ride from Listvyankia and then nauseating taxi ride we dragged our luggage up the dark, concrete soviet style stairwell to our 3rd floor hostel. The check-in process was alarmingly slow. Told to wait in one spot, and then a second, and asked to wait just one more moment, our travel instincts immediately alarmed that they did not have a room for us. And since we had gotten into the hostel, it started raining. Hard. Eventually, they broke the bad (but expected) news that they did not have a room for us in their hostel, however, they had (generously?) arranged for an apartment for us at the same price. And it was only a 5-10 minute walk, in the rain, in a foreign city, with our luggage

Without many (or any?) other options we dragged our luggage back down the steps, onto the street getting us, our luggage, and our small paper map good and wet as we marched through Irkutsk’s street to our new home.
Soviet-style stairwell in our new home.
Dingy doesn't even begin to describe it.
Eventually we found it, and it turned out to be fine. It was actually pretty nice – though I think it had the smallest bed-to-bedroom size ratio we’ve had on the entire trip.  You opened the door and were standing at the bed. And the bed took up the entire room. It was kinda fun.  [JLM: Can the bed-to-bedroom ration be smaller than 1:1?  Because that is what we had.] 
Not a lot of extra space in this bedroom
Also, our apartment-mate was a young German who boasted that he hadn't showered in eight days - six days in the Gobi desert and then two days on the train.  Jesse politely suggested that maybe he wanted to get in the shower right this very second.  No, seriously.  Get in the shower.
The unshowered German in the living room/kitchen.
Jesse liked him a little more because he had a giant jar of pickles.
After dropping our bags and changing into dry clothes, we headed out to find a supermarket so that we could take advantage of the apartment kitchen.  Twenty minutes later, with no supermarket in sight and the rain still pouring down we stumbled into a random Russian restaurant.  The menu was in Russian and nobody spoke English so we walked around with the waiter pointing to authentic-looking food on other people's plates.   Despite all this, we somehow ended up being served pizza, chicken fingers and french fries.
The sauce of 1000 tears.
Over my objections, the waitress cleared the complimentary ketchup that came with our fries.
I was forced to shell out $1.50 for this sauce for the chicken fingers.
Jesse still has not heard the end of it.
But despite the rocky start we liked Irkutsk. It’s streets are lined with grand 19th century architecture, it had nice modern restaurants, including Prego, an Italian place that Jesse spotted on our taxi ride and (rightly) insisted that we return to, and gilded soviet-style waiting rooms in the train station.  And more Adidas track suits than we had ever seen.
Grand architecture

Prego, where we ate our last proper meal for the next 72 hours.
Proof that Irkutsk is part of Asia.
We still get asked by random people to pose for photos
The VIP waiting room at the Irkutsk train station.
* Not to be confused with our visits to Paris of the South (Buenos Aires), the Paris of the East (Hong-Kong), or actual Paris (in France).

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Listvyakia to Irkutsk

As I mentioned, our last morning in Listvyankia consisted of Nick and I making every effort to dive in the near-freezing waters of Lake Baikal.  Despite spending the better part of an hour walking from closed dive shop to closed dive shop, there was simply no diving to be done.  So, we did what we knew best, relaxing and internetting on the rooftop lounge at the Mayak Hotel (the fanciest hotel in Listvyanka).  
We declined their 300 ruble melon shakes ($9.98 USD) but did enjoy the view and fairly quick wi-fi for all guests, visitors, and apparently squatters.
The $5-10 tea, coffee,
and shake selection
Russian elevators are not very big.
Me, Jesse, Twinny Orange and Twinny Brown hardly fit.
All was well until a bride and groom showed up to take photos on the very nice rooftop lounge where we had spread out all of our gear.  This was also the occasion of our first experience with Russian weddings, which soon became an endless source of entertainment and fun.
The brides are undeniably striking.
The grooms - not so much.
Also, every couple gets a decked-out Mercedes as a wedding present.
Or at least one to drive around in on their wedding day.
After a quick squabble between a couple of very large Russian ladies about the seat assignments on our mini-bus, during which we sat very quietly and with no possibility of vacating our seats (despite the fact that the next bus was in 45 minutes, and only 15 minutes once they finally figured out who was sitting where) we headed to the Paris of Siberia - Irkutsk.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Shutter Island

Wow, no posts for over two months.  We're back in New York, settled in, and missing the GT very much.  Sometimes it seems like we never left, the 13 months of travel compressed in memory to 13 days, a brief vacation in the otherwise seamless flow of life.  I wish we could do it again.  Instead, we will have to relive it through the blog, tens of thousands (literally) of photos, and memories that will last a lifetime.

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Throughout our time in Siberia a favorite activity was photographing the local homes and buildings.  Rustic and rough-cut, these homes had to fight through each winter to make it to spring and summer.  But when they did, their brightly colored shutters and blooming flower gardens were a delight to see.  Here are some of our favorites:
And, my favorite Babushuka enjoying the last days of Listvyanka's summer.