Trans-Siberian Railway – 3

This third blog on our trip on the Trans-Siberian railway takes us from Irkurtsk ever onwards.

Saturday 11 August

We were due to reach Irkutsk in the early hours of Sunday morning, so this was out last full day on board for a while. Respite from the journey was, I suspect, eagerly anticipated, a chance to recharge batteries after hour upon hour of rhythmic, uneventful travel. Steff perceptively called it ‘camping on wheels’, but I for one was deriving considerable satisfaction from it. Maybe it suited my temperament, this gentle, assiduous motion. ‘Doing nothing’ has always appealed to me. Tedium can be under-estimated. I read and dozed my way through the morning. Sociability over lunch was a challenge: Janet and I sat opposite a stereotypically dour Yorkshire couple, although they grew on us after an hour or so. There were several of the ‘22’ that I had not conversed with at this point.

The landscape grew richer, the grass and trees more lush, the houses more solid and adorned. There were a number of stops, at which Ken and usually Annette positively hunted novel experiences and photos. We ate our final repast at 6.30pm: salad, chicken and coffee. Eva collected $5 from each of us to say thank you to the head cook for feeding us on the Moscow-Irkutsk lap; and vodka, if not our singing, was required to celebrate the train director’s 40th birthday. The director’s assistant remarked, or so Eva translated, that we were the friendliest English group he had encountered in six years; but he was probably thinking here is Chris, who had become a regularly late-night drinking companion.

Sunday 12 August

The night was fitful. Now five time zones outside of Moscow, none of us, Annette excepted, knew quite how we stood, or were expected to stand, in relation to the now ludicrously incongruous Muscovite hours. We were due to reach Irkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’, about 5.45am Moscow time, or 10.45am Irkutsk time. In fact, we arrived late by more than two hours, the train having made good time but only between stoppages. Once in Irkutsk the transfer to Hotel Baikal went smoothly enough, a small coach ushering us through imposingly wide streets. An initial impression was of faded grandeur, of an expansive city which had known better days. At the hotel, Eva, trying to redeem herself for the hitch over the distribution of cabins, loudly insisted that lunch be provided ‘immediately’ (we had after all missed out on breakfast). In full swing she also protested that the next morning’s tour should depart from the hotel at 9am rather than 10am. This was advocacy with a vengeance but without consultation: instead of the hotel organizing us, Eva was. Her demands were greeted with expressionless Russian stoicism; but they were met. And the three-course lunch was in the event very welcome. Our room, 824, was fine, although it lacked hot water. Rather to our surprise a couple of phone calls and a trek to reception remedied this.

Ken, Nigel, Annette and I decided to explore Irkutsk with a view to finding a restaurant. It was something of an anticlimax. The city was as grand as we had suspected, but each broad highway was lined with buildings now as crumbly and rundown as they were doubtless once majestic. Moreover it seemed largely abandoned, relief in the form of shops, cafes and restaurants being rare. Was this because it was Sunday: surely not in this old atheists’ outpost? In the end we chanced upon a possible eating place, postponing a final decision until later. In the interim we sought refuge in a café: not only open but friendly, an oasis in this slightly disconcerting desert. We bought cheap beers and coffees while two young Russians, a man without gift or ear serenading his girlfriend, then a woman shyly rendering a folk song prompted by words on a screen. If ever karaoke could be endearing, it was here in Irkutsk. Again, lasting memories are fabricated out of fortuitous interludes like this.

By 8pm we were back in Hotel Baikal and again pondering the evening meal. Feet aching and a tad disenchanted with that segment of the city we had walked, we opted to eat at the hotel. It was a decent meal in an almost empty restaurant. When the others retired I found a quiet bar to read. I finished a volume celebrating Berlin’s eloquent but wishy-washy liberalism and started Stockman’s Understanding Chinese Society. Holding forth at an adjacent table was an American academic, three young Russian acolytes hanging on his words. He was, I think, a linguist. Parodying Chaucer, I suspect he sounded further up himself than he was.

Monday 13 August

Irkutsk had its genesis as a military outpost in 1952. Gradually it developed into a centre for Siberian trade, notably fur and pelts, with tea caravans from China also regularly passing though. By early in the nineteenth century it was consolidated as the administrative capital of Siberia, its governor presiding over an area twenty times the size of France. About the same time it was struck by ‘gold fever’, acting as a magnet to opportunists and gamblers. It was this growing, heterogeneous and cosmopolitan population that the exiled ‘Decembrists’ were to join. Initially, after their failed coup in St Petersburg in 1825, the disgraced assembly of aristocrats – which, incidentally, had only excluded the poet Pushkin because he was deemed by the conspirators to be overly passionate and therefore indiscrete – was dispatched to the harsh wilderness of Lake Baikal and its environs. Only later, in the 1840s, did those who had survived make it to Irkutsk. These included the so-called ‘Princess of Siberia’, Maria Volkonsky, to whom Pushkin in his youth had addressed more than one of his poems. Against the advice of Tsar Nicholas and the entreaties of her family, she had opted for exile herself to be with her husband, Sergei; and it was in Irkutsk that her spirit left its most tangible traces. Her house survives, one of the few wooden structures to escape the fire that swept through the city in 1879. Later, having read Sutherland’s The Princess of Siberia, I wish I had found it; but at least we passed by Maria’s memorial.

The rail link to Irkutsk was established in 1898. By the time of our visit in 2001 it was home to around 6409,000 people. Where had they been yesterday? At 9am on this Monday morning we gathered to head off as members of the ‘22’ to see more of it. In the event we were delayed, waiting for curly-haired, obdurate Sam, a farmer and part-time civil engineer from Wales. After a couple of nondescript stops, the coach took us to the64 kilometres south to Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest and deepest lake, 1637 metres or 5371 feet deep at its mid-point. Astonishingly, it contains in excess of 20,000 cubic kilometres of water, that is, approximately a fifth of the world’s freshwater supplies. Bryan Thomas’ excellent Trans-Siberian Handbook informed us that it could support the entire population of the globe for 40 years. It is smaller than the North American Lakes but exceeds them in volume.

The arrangements at Baikal were not free of hitches. Arriving at 1.45pm, we were obliged to wait until 3.15pm to eat. But the toilets were spotless and we were able to take time to gaze out over the lake and to do our best to capture on celluloid the dancing, glistening surface of the vast waters, hazy mountains forming the perfect backcloth. I came up with a teaching analogy. While the eye can allow us to absorb the sheer wonder of sunlight on rippling water, the camera lens cannot. Similarly, while our minds can spontaneously grasp the mundane but extraordinary dynamic complexity of the social worlds we inhabit and feel at home in, the meta-language the sociologist must deploy to theorize it is necessarily inhibiting: we cannot say, all at once as it were, what we may sense or know to be the case. The sociologist here is representational of course. The mind is the eye, and all meta-languages the camera lens.

Wisely I did not share my analogy with Chris, who was standing next to me. He was hungry and thoroughly disenchanted with Anna, Intourist’s agent in Irkutsk and our guide for the day. But we chatted. A hybrid of an ex-service vulgarity and an endearing curiosity about the world around him, he lost his wife early, aged 47, and had since resolved to travel: this was possibly his final grand excursion before he persuaded a longstanding girlfriend to tolerate him on a more permanent basis. When his plate finally arrived, he proclaimed, with a true sense of drama, ‘Too late!’ and stomped off. He thus missed sampling ollum, a fish unique to Lake Baikal, tasty without being exceptional, and, we were assured, far from threatened with extinction.

Down the road we stopped once more, at the oldest Russian settlement in Siberia, a village called Listvyanka. Annette and I sauntered through its mix of old wooden cottages and new brick dwellings to the old church, then detached ourselves from the ‘22’ to return to gaze out over the lake. We dipped our feet in the cold water. A limb submerged, Anna had told us, bestows an additional five years of life. Sam, gullible as well as obdurate and urged on by Chris and Stu (one of the few dedicated trainspotters in the group and invariably sporting a grimy American baseball cap), went for a swim. There were roadside stalls selling meats. Half a dozen cows wandered unsupervised down the road. We found holes in the ground serving as makeshift toilets.

Back at Irkutsk we acted on a recommendation by Chris and followed the River Angara round to a floating restaurant; but it proved bleak, down-market, deserted, uninviting and infested by flies. So again we headed for a hotel eatery, this time waiting 90 minutes for baked chicken and cheese. When it came it tasted of fish: ‘Yes, baked chicken, cheese and fish’. We left, still hungry. Later I retired to the bar to read. A woman I assumed to be a hotel escort sidled up and addressed me in Russian. ‘Do you speak English?’ I asked. ‘A little, do you speak Russian?’ ‘No’. ‘You will later’ she replied enigmatically. I finished a novel on the blues in America and began Roth’s Dying Animal.

 

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