Dink Shrink Lake

Trip Start Jul 16, 2010
Trip End Dec 25, 2010

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Flag of Russia  , Siberia,
Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday: On train from UB to Irkutsk (Lake Baikal). Cross border AM. Am in fear of arrest as a banana trafficker for not declaring my breakfast fruit on the customs form... Sorry, but meuslix without a banana is just not acceptable.  Border crossing is a pain in the ass, lots of waiting, I'm still sick. The Mongolian cars have AC but no fan, and the AC cuts out at stops, so the car quickly heats up... Eat a chocolate bar for dinner. Not melted, even though the cabin hit 94 at one point. Go figure!

I brought about 2 weeks worth of meuslix from Japan - I figured food would be a hassle (and it has been), so starting the day with what I'm used to seemed a good idea. Have mostly been able to pick up bananas, yogurt and milk along the way. I've now caught a cold to boot, though scrounging through my meds I find benadryl, hallelujah. I hope my role of tissue paper sees me and my runny nose to Irkutsk. By now I am really tired and wondering what the point of traveling is. Museums and temples? The fatigue sets in quickly. I thought I would recharge on the train trip West, but in fact I'm even more exhausted now than when I left. I have visions of my P's home - my old double mattress bed (Stewart Bed Rating +4 (see picture of Ulan Baatar bed for the SBR rating system explained)), hot showers, normal food, no worry that my mom will slash my wallet or my dad will steal my passport... Being on constant guard is just mentally tiring... BTW, Russia turns out to pretty much resemble the dilapidated communist monstrosity Hollywood and books portrayed it as. How was the US ever afraid of such a shoddy system? How did they ever make MiGs and A-bombs and put men into space?

Saturday: Arrive early AM Irkutsk. Still cannot get money from the ATM, using up my emergency dough. Transfer immediately to Lake Baikal guesthouse. Nice little room, although the bed is so saggy it could qualify as a hammock (SBR +1). Rains all day. Ate guesthouse breakfast - REAL food finally: good cheese, bread and rhubarb jam to blog home about. Napped till 1:00. Wandered out and up the valley next, to a little art gallery where I bought a couple of catalogues of a guy named Sergei Aloian who seems a cross betwen Russian icon painting and Klimt. Guesthouse only provides breakfast, so I end up eating meuslix for dinner. Read Malcolm Gladwell, go to bed. Lots of sleep today.

Sunday: Beautiful day at Baikal. Ate huge breakfast (on this trip: when you can eat, gorge; when you can shower, do it twice a day - you never know when the next chance will be...). New philosophy is big breakfast and no lunch - one less hassle to figure out. Nap after breakfast, then PM hike to top of local ski hill for view over lake. Nice hike. On way back I take a swim in Baikal, which is supposed to add decades to human life (possibly by killing off the weak) - EXTREMELY cold. I had originally considered swimming out to Shaman Rock, a little rock jutting out in the lake about 400 meters from shore, but seeing as I was entering rigor mortis 15 feet from the bank, I decided to let it go.
Found a cafe in front of guesthouse where I ate Omul soup, a potato pasty, and blueberry mufin. Doesn't get dark until 11 PM. Still ruminating about the point of travel. I'm probably thinking too much, just supposed to mindlessly goggle at big builidings, but, like, is it supposed to be "Fun"? Educational? Meaningful? What balance of hassle and pleasure? Is this even my idea? Not really - perhaps the whole take-a-year-off-and-travel-the-world-staying-in-dives-and-eating-potatoes is just some scam targeting indyhippie wannabes by Lonely Planet. Fuck, I can't even communicate with the locals. An hour of Cartalk or a day snowboarding would give so much more pleasure. Guess I'm bored. I hope this doesn't end up a colossal waste of time and money.

Monday: Another beautiful day. Slept late, ate much. Did laundry in tea-colored (though very hot) sink water (it's like a differential equation from uni! When does the yellowness of the water outweigh the cleansing properties of its extremothermicity?). Took a jog through Lustvanka, took a 2nd probably unnecessary dip in Baikal on way back, and took another shower (you can never take too many showers). Caught a minibus back to Irkutsk. Memorized cyrillic during the ride, which proved a lifesaver in Moscow. My hotel in Irkutsk is a total dive; who needs 12 foot ceilings in a shoebox sized room? The floor space would have doubled if the building fell on its side.
Found out where my guide worked and asked her for directions to a private art gallery in Irkutsk, I'm intent on finding this Aloian dude's works. She knows of no art galleries in the whole city (I was about to suggest the yellow pages, but then I thought, Oh, it's Russia they probably don't have the yellow pages (the Red pages! Ha ha ha!)... WTF, of course they have phone books in Russia stup). In any event, I invited Lena to dinner after work (hey, the date with a guide thing worked in Mongolia) and she kindly acceded and we had a nice dinner. Forgot to get a picture of us - she was cute! Anyway, forget about cheap eats - more than I would have paid in Japan... Slowly though as I move West things are becoming more European and less feral. Woops, culturally insensitive statement.

Tuesday: Manage to find an internet cafe. For some reason the signposting in China and Russia sucks. I guess this is what you would expect from Communist/ex-Com countries where you would never actually WANT people to find your office becuase that would just create more WORK (but no profit). ATM still not working. Go to bazaar and in Cultural Exploration Mode try to bargain for a shirt (I didn't really need a shirt, but it was IRONED, which seemed so luxurious in a way at this point in the trip) and finally get him down to $1.50 only to have him pointing at my 500 ruble note when I handed him a 50 (-$1.50) note - magnitude of miscommunication there. Honestly though, what an idiot - thinking I could get a shirt for $1.50... walked away from a pissed bazaar dude, but like I said, I didn't really need the shirt in the first place - Chester Karrass would be proud.
Head off to puppet theatre which is closed for July (hey, I can read the program in cyrillic remember) so I saunter through the park, which has COWS in it (I don't like cows much, as I was once somewhat attacked by a herd of them, but that's a different story...), which I don't imagine would work at Kenrokuen. Head off to intersection of Marx and Lenin to read on a bench in the shade. Wish I had a bike. Or a skateboard, even though I don't know how to ride a skateboard. Anything with wheels. I hate walking. Find a buffet style place and in my usual I-am-an-ape mode point and grunt and get my food. Head back to Superdive and manage to sneak in a shower in the basement before being picked up by the taxi, which proves prescient given the 3 1/2 day train ride to Moscow sans shower (I actually didn't smell too bad on arival, it was pretty cool most of the way). Pass a huge art gallery on the way to the station; Yellow Pages, Lena, Yellow Pages!

SHORT ESSAY: Running water
There's a reason for the collocation "running". Still water (ie, in a  basin on the train) is difficult to wash anything. The train requires one hand on a spring loaded handle to keep the water running, making things tricky. A tap - what a luxury! Learning to appreciate the finer things in life. We see that people in China and Africa have mobile phones, so they can't be THAT undeveloped, but this is merely a phenomenon of technology - much easier to build a cellular network than a water system. Which would you prefer to be without - a cell phone or running water? There is a theory that Sumerians became the first highly developed civilzation because they came up with a system of canals - an eye opening theory when I first heard it, but seems obvious now. Water is nice. Clean water is wonderful.

Wednesday: All day on train. Read (Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Point), do cryptic crossword with my carriage mates George (or is it Herbert?) and his wife Glenice, listen to Cartalk (alas, but one show remains...) Gaze out window - by far the most beautiful landscape so far, like something by Monet. Rolling hills of open fields and silver birch forests and wild flowers and paths leading into forests - fairytale. Thinking that I ought not be so damned suspicious of everything, I go buy some strange nuts from a platform vendor (you'd have thought I would've learned with the Chinese Fruit of Death experience), which turn out to be pine nuts, not much different from sunflower seeds, but harder to crack open, such that I'm pretty sure the caloric math is negative, to mention nothing of getting them out of the pinecone in the first place. You'd die of starvation before you ever got enough calories from these things. Unless you were a squirrel.

Thursday: Mystery explained: the name is George Herbert, which explains why he didn't mind if I called him George or Herb (I figured 50% was good). These 2 Kiwis have been teaching English in China for 7 years - clearly the adventurous sort even in their 50s. Ozzies and Kiwis are the best travelmates - laid back, unassuming, and a good sense of humor.

Friday: Glory in excelsis culo! My guts are finally back to normal. Close inspection of schedule provided by Monkey Business (train tix shop) shows that we are on the train 3 1/2 days, not 2 1/2 as itinerary shows. Food pinch, but fortunately I manage to pick up a load of good food from platform vendors this AM - butter dill potatos, raspberries, milk and potatobread. SCORE! Also realize the victuals I tendered in Irkutsk include carbonated mineral water, which I hadn't realized (I like carbonated water). This must be good stuff: "Natural drinking structured water with the contents of silver" - the copywriter must have studied in Japan! Very smoky as we approach Moscow - I see peat fires burning outside my window at one point. Need an application of structured water, I think...
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