Siberian Summer

Trip Start May 28, 2008
Trip End Aug 26, 2008

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Flag of Russian Federation  , Siberia,
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I played a lot of games of Risk with my brother and dad as a kid, and remember putting lots of little men into Kamchatka, Irkutsk, and Yakutsk to try and hold onto Siberia. It feels just a little surreal to actually be here, since the Soviet Union was closed to me when I was younger and was villified publicly in the U.S. back then during the Cold War.

Irkutsk is an intellectual center of sorts in Siberia. The Decembrists who attempted to overthrow the Tsars were banished here, and later the Bolsheviks banished intellectual and political dissidents here. Many of these smart people remained here in Siberia, and the city has remained a center for scientific research, university, and intellectual traditions but the city still feels rather remote and not very cosmopolitan.

We borrowed a guidebook to bring with us today, breaking our streak of 47 days running around foreign lands without having a guidebook in hand. We managed to find our way to the central market, buy supplies for a picnic, find the bus station, and get tickets for the 90 minute ride down to the shores of Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal is so massive that it contains one sixth of the world's fresh water and receives 5,000 rivers and streams. It is frozen in winter, and before the full rail routes were built the early Trans-Siberia trains used to have to cross the lake using two icebreaker ships - one for the train cars, and one of the passengers.

There are some beautiful and remote areas to see here if you have a few days for hiking and camping. We settled for a nice picnic on the shoreline beach, with a table and some shade. We all dipped our feet in the cold water, which felt very refreshing in the unrelenting summer sun. Of course, feet did get cold enough to hurt within a few minutes and only Stirling was keen on staying in for a long time. She had so much fun skipping rocks and digging up sand to throw in the air that it took quite a while to shampoo out the shores of Baikal when she returned to Irkutsk.

We were briefly entertained by an immensely drunk fellow going from sunbather to sunbather seeking more vodka and alternately falling in the lake and on the shore. He tried to trade us some grapes, but we were able to shoo him away towards easier marks who spoke his language. We thought he might be down and out when he fell headfirst into a concrete wall, but we underestimated the Russian constitution as he shrugged the blow off and went in search of more spirits.

My digital photography habit had filled up my laptop hard drive, and Irkutsk did yield a computer shop with a nice slim USB hard drive so I can keep clicking away to my heart's content. Ahhhh. 8,000 files offloaded and the freedom to start all over again :)

The sun was still up at 10pm tonight, reminding us that we are at last in a truly northern climate.

- Demian

I found Irkutsk to be an interesting town; a mixture of modern shops, farmer markets, coupled with a rough edge- that put me a little on edge. We ran into several Russians, men and women, that I would not want to run into after dark, complete with black eyes, bloodied knuckles, and days old yellow and green bruises. I spent most of our time walking about flanking Demian, keeping a watchful eye on his backpack. I think I might have deterred a few with my vigilance (or perhaps just wishful thinking on my part, they were probably laughing at me!) I kept reminding Gailen to stop speaking when we were surrounded by rough looking young men, it seemed that since we could conceivably be Russian (this was something that we never could pull off in any of the Asian countries- for the obvious reason) and therefore less likely to draw a huge amount of unwanted attention and make an easy mark out of ourselves. I had also read that it was a good practice around the Russian police as well. They have been known to stop foreign visitors, demand to see their passports, Russian visas, and registration stamps-and hold them ransom until you pay some denomination of Rubles that will satisfy some trumped up charge. We made copies of all of these documents, just in case, so that if we were stopped we could show the copies instead of handing over our official documents, we'll see how that goes!

We spent some time that evening eating chocolate, and drinking Vodka (I discovered that Baikal Vodka mixes incredibly well with cherry juice, which of course is a big no-no in Russia, if you are going to drink Vodka, don't even think about mixing it with anything else except another shot or perhaps a handful of peanuts in between the shots- so I failed Vodka etiquette 101, but I do have to say that the two are really fantastic together ) and speaking to two fellow travelers (a British girl from Basingstoke, UK and an American girl from Jacksonville Florida). The conversations were lively and fun, covering all sorts of subjects such as horses (wild and domesticated), Chinese esthetics of beauty, racism, US foreign policy, speaking Chinese, the Nadaam festival, the Mongolian IQ museum, and how beautiful Russia is. This was a lovely way to spend the evening in Siberia.

~ Laura
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