The overnight from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk is our last coupé sleeper, and it is a doozy. I have been on many Russian trains over the years, but never one this violently bumpy and loud. Perhaps it is just a function of train mechanics and the fact that our car is toward the back end of the train, but it bumps and bucks, thwangs and cracks like an out of control five-ton steel bronco. If we are not careful, drinking a cup of hot tea will end in a serious burning incident.
We are now six thousand rail miles from Moscow, and the long train hauls are getting a bit monotonous. And, to think, we are barely halfway across this immense landmass. My cabin mates are a young couple and their cute five-year-old daughter (who spends the day flirting with a little boy at the other end of the car, to her mother’s dismay). They are going to Khabarovsk, which means they have a whole 24-hour stretch to go after this one we are just finishing up.
In the immortal words of Yoda: “Do. There is no try.”
So, why monotonous? Because the landscape varies far less than you might think it would over such a vast expanse. In some places the birches are in dense groves, in others small copses, in others long lines. There are fewer agricultural areas and more hills for a time, especially north toward Krasnoyarsk; this is followed by some denser pine forests, but then those give way to fields and birch, fields and birch. And more fields and birch.
Still, even with the monotony there are snapshots that pop up before the window in passing, then quickly fade away. A worker eating buterbrody right up against the track. A lone farm worker standing in a field, watching the train go by. A rider sitting atop a Ural motorcycle and sidecar, waiting at a crossing station. And of course countless little villages with their vast stores of firewood already laid in for winter, the dark, weather-worn siding of their cottages standing in contrast to light blue and white (or green and white) shutters and nalichniki.
The stops are few, mostly a few minutes at little known stations. But finally around four p.m. we have a half hour stop at Zima (“Winter”) and make the most of it to walk the platform. As usual, the folk that pour onto the platform are a colorful assemblage of half-conscious humanity, with children racing around unsafe-looking electrical towers, paunchy middle-aged men chain-smoking, tired women in tattered jeans walking the platform hawking food: “ice cream cones, bottled water…” “hot lunches, pies…” A long-bearded character out of Dostoyevsky – wearing a long coat and large black boots, and toting a state of the art hiking backpack – boards our car with his wife and young child.
Always room for three more.
* * *
Irkutsk is a city with surprises. The old part of town is very walkable and pleasant, with surprisingly interesting side streets, cafes, museums, and parklets. There is also a sweeping waterfront embankment along the Angara River that is a bit unfortunate for its rather uninteresting view of cranes and apartment towers. At the center of the city are some beautifully restored churches and a wide, Stalinist avenue, as well as a nicely landscaped public park. And about a kilometer or two away they have renovated some of the town’s old wooden homes into a thriving outdoor pedestrian mall area with restaurants and shops (including an American themed restaurant decorated with license plates from most all the US states, yet Vermont was not in their number, making the atmosphere far less cozy than it might have been).
These all make for nice diversions in our limited time off, but our destination is a quaint green and white wooden house on a busy street about five kilometers from the city center. A tram clangs down the tracks out front, and the city’s airport flight path runs directly overhead. So of course our host has insisted we sit outside for the recorded interview, which, when you consider that we all go a bit nuts if someone scrapes a chair or coughs when we are recording our video, is mildly ennervating.
Lyudmila Nikolayevna, 80, lets us in through a heavily fortified metal gate and leads us into a beautifully landscaped back garden. Her father, Nikolai Treskin, our sole Irkutsk centenarian (the second begged off due to ill health), is sitting on a bench against the side wall. He gets up slowly when we arrive and comes over to greet us.
Nikolai is a very pleasant soft-spoken man (meaning, no competition for jet airplanes) who does not tire easily and talks at length on his past and the history of Russia during his lifetime. Unlike most all our other interviewees, Nikolai does not shy from politics or history, noting at one point that “many innocent people went to prison” in the Stalin era, but also that Lenin was the best of Russia’s leaders, eclipsed only by Putin, who he likens to a genius.
“I had almost no childhood,” he remarks when we ask about his earliest memories. When he was seven, his father was senselessly murdered by a gang of bandits. So his mother sold the family’s land and home and moved to the city. There she married an Austrian who was much older, knew a lot of languages, and built them a nice home, but who was very strict. But he was forced to leave the city in 1937 – to avoid arrest – when they started rounding up foreigners and kulaks. He returned a bit later and did not leave until his death, at the age of 90.
At 22, Nikolai, who had been working as an auto mechanic, was drafted into the army and sent to Mongolia. He served there until 1943, at which point he was shipped to the Leningrad front, serving as a sapper (laying and defusing mines) in and around the blockaded city, in the Baltics, and Smolensk. It is not the sort of assignment that had a long life-expectancy,* [Popup Footnote - Indeed, the average life expectancy for a Russian infantry soldier at the start of World War II was measured in days, or weeks at best.] especially given how dangerous Nikolai says the Russian mines were, versus the German ones. But he came through it and went back to work fixing cars.
Stoic and calm throughout our conversation, Nikolai lit up and smiled warmly whenever he recalled his wives.
“We got married when I was eighteen… We lived in the same building. She was born in 1919, I was born in 1917. I lived downstairs, and she lived upstairs. We dated for more than a month. We liked each other, and so I married her... She had heart disease. Her mother had a bad heart and she had a bad heart. And so she died suddenly. She fell asleep and that was it, she did not wake up. But my second wife, I lived with her for a long time. She died at 82… that was 12 years ago… We went to the gardens, Dynamo, together. It was very beautiful there, nice alleys, lots of flowers. And there were dances there in the evenings, but during the day we just had fun together. There was a big swimming pool …”
Our final day in Irkutsk is a planned day off. We could not, after all, come all this way and not make a day trip to Lake Baikal.
We rent a car and drive the 30 kilometers upriver (yes, the Angara flows out of Lake Baikal) through long, rolling hills toward the lake. A new highway is being built near Irkutsk, yet it is still lined with kitschy storefronts and cafes.
We stop a bit short of the lake in Bolshaya Rechka, steering around dogs, cows and massive potholes to get a first glimpse of the Angara River. It is peaceful and pleasant, with the surrounding hills slowly appearing through the disippating fog. We watch a large fishing boat putter out into the central river channel.
Baikal itself turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Well, not the lake itself. It was clear and cold with pebble beaches and sheer rocky cliffs – much as expected. And very impressive.
The problem was with Listvanka, on the north side of the Angara’s mouth. It is a disaster. Clearly the town has never had a zoning or design review meeting. There is no order or taste in signage, storefronts, design, or anything really. It is just a jumble of souvenir shops, shady cafes, and people selling everything from smoked omul (a tasty fish native to the lake) to magnets, from Mongolian socks to books of their own hand, from ice cream to candy bars and hot dogs. So, sort of like any miasmic, kitschy seaside tourist anywhere in the world. Only Russian.
Baikal deserves so much better.
On our way back to Irkutsk, we stop off at Taltsy (pronounced “tahl-tsee”), an outdoor museum of Russian architecture that put down roots here in the 1980s.
Thanks to the dogged work of several archaeologists and architects over the ensuing decades, Taltsy has amassed an impressive collection of dwellings and public buildings, most all salvaged from around Irkutsk region and now beautifully maintained.
Most impressive is a multi-step mill once situated on a river such that water channeled through wooden aqueducts ran through a succession of three waterwheels. There is also a beautifully preserved schoolhouse, usadbas (estates), and churches, many with informative, well-thought-out exhibits, and guides in period dress. There is even a kabak (public house), where you can order up Ivan-Chai tea, kvas, or myedovukha (a warm honey-based drink), as well as tasty bubliki on a string.
That evening, as if to properly counterpoint the Listvanka experience, on our last night in Irkutsk – the eastern-most point in our expedition – Siberia gave us an extravagant farewell. As we strolled the embankment, the sky over the Angara River lit up with a brilliant vermilion sunset.
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