Irkutsk: Where the cats have no hair.

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Russian Orthodox Cathedral

Church of our Savior

Lukash getting ready to rumble

I only get a few hours sleep before the provodnika warns us that we will arrive in Irkutsk in an hour. I enter a weird hysteria state, thinking we should be aiming to leave our suitcases with Spike and take the hydrofoil up the lake to visit Olkhon island; which is meant to be very beautiful. Don and Lari don’t really care at this stage and we use all our energy just to get everything packed and ready to exit the train. The train begins rolling through the hills just outside town around seven in the morning. The city is nestled in a flat valley, bordered by the river Angara and series of high, green hills. The Angara is a tributary to the Yenisei River, forming the link from Lake Baikal to the greater river. Lake Baikal is the reason we’ve come to stay in this town for a couple of days. It is the largest freshwater lake in the world and with a mile to the bottom; it is the deepest lake of any kind in the world. Technically it’s a rift valley, like the famous one in Africa, but is filled with freshwater; fed by a number of rivers and drained only by the Angara past Irkutsk. Given its placement and history, it is also home to an astonishing number of unique flora and fauna. The most famous two are the Omul fish, and the Nerpa seal. The Omul is a kind of salmon that you can buy fresh, dried or smoked in every market within easy travel distance of the lake. The Nerpa is one of only three entirely freshwater seals in the world and it’s somewhat of a mystery how they came to thrive in a lake so far inland. The lake is also home to a strong shamanic religious tradition, with sacred sites dotting the shoreline, especially on Olkhon island, the largest island in the lake.

Wicked guard dog...

It’s far too early for us to be awake, especially after the session the night before. We tumble out of the station and I’m clutching Spike’s address scrawled on a piece of paper. I look up and around us to realise we’ve stepped back in time. There are trams passing right in front of the train station, but they haven’t been upgraded in at least thirty or forty years. There are people selling fresh fruit and vegetables from wooden carts placed by the side of the street. The road is mostly made of cobblestones and suffers from widely varying states of repair. I think even Boris and Yuri haven’t visited here in a couple of hundred years, or perhaps they’re stuck in the hills somewhere drinking vodka. It feels like a market town from centuries ago that has had modern technology planted in it as a weird joke of an alien civilisation. The cars largely date from twenty years previously and I see a significant proportion of Korean and Japanese cars for the first time in Russia. We look up and down the streets and decide a taxi is the answer for us this morning since we don’t have a map that shows us where our host lives.

The taxi is no problem at all for our Russian language skills now and the driver knows the place instantly. We embark on a drive up the hill from the station and we pass quietly along some truly beautiful streets. They are lined by trees with branches that meet in the middle of the road, bearing broad green leaves that create an incredibly peaceful dappled shade. The three of us relax into the view and have to be almost shaken awake five minutes later by the driver telling us we’ve arrived. He parks behind a small two storey apartment block of just six flats and suggests I go to check we’re in the right spot before he leaves. I lurch out of the car and climb a set of stairs to ring the buzzer of what I hope is the right door. It swings open a minute later to reveal a tall, young, well built Russian man standing in his underwear. He’s also wearing a dressing gown, but it is covering only his arms and back. I think there’s some young women missing out on this scene as he smiles and says,
“Dhugal?”
“Yes! Spike?”
“Yes, come in, come in”, he gestures and steps to one side, smiling.
It’s at this moment I notice the bulldog on a leash just inside the door and she isn’t nearly as happy to see a stranger as he is.
“Your friend is here already. He is a funny guy”, he adds as his smile grows broader.
I had almost forgotten Lukash made it here already.
“Oh, I just need to get my suitcase and the other two from the taxi”, I venture.
“Oh okay, see you in a minute”, he says, still smiling and wandering inside, “I’ll make some tea.”
I head downstairs wondering what we’ve landed in, but feeling his effusive smile reassures me at the same time.

Irkutsk Architecture

Irkutsk Architecture

We three Australians shift everything upstairs and encounter the bulldog, Lena, more directly. Spike has to hold her aside, stroking and reassuring her as we move everything inside. She accepts us only because he’s there, I’d hate to be a burglar in this flat. Lukash emerges bleary eyed from the kitchen and greets us with his customary huge smile.
“Oh you can drink the water from the tap here”, Spike tells us.
“It’s very good!”, Lukash confirms.
“It all comes from Baikal, so it’s fresh, cool and delicious”, adds Spike.
I try some and it is indeed a refreshingly clean taste after living on bottled water since Moscow. We sit and enjoy the tea; all ideas of jumping the hydrofoil to Olkhon Island have dispersed amidst sheer fatigue. The fatigue doesn’t prevent us from being suitably astonished by the nest of hairless sphinx cats that Spike breeds. There are at least five of them, I’m never really sure ohw many exactly, since they move around singly and in pairs all the time. They feel very strange to the touch, but incredibly warm. You can’t stroke or scratch them like a normal cat; the lack of hair changes everything. They run the house, permanently leaping onto you, the bench, into your meals and generally wherever they please. Spike tends to carelessly brush them aside or remove them if they get too insistent.
“So what do you plan to do in such a short time?” He asks us.
“Well, we need to see Lake Baikal and have to try and swim in it.”
“It’s easy to get to Listvyanka on a boat or a bus, but you should go further to Bolshie Koti. It’s another smaller town further north on the lakeside accessible only by boat.”
Lukash nods agreement and says he’s up for seeing both, we agree and I almost fall asleep in my chair. I can’t last much longer and running on autopilot I have a shower, inflate my air mattress on the floor of the bedroom and dig out the permethrin soaked sleeping bag liner to ward off bed bugs and any other annoying nocturnal blood sucking creatures. I can confirm I don’t see a single tax inspector during the night.

Sphinx Cat Mania

The youth of Irkutsk

I wake up in the early afternoon to find a sphinx cat perched on my chest with another sniffing my face. There is also a young American guy, Zach. Thankfully, he isn’t doing either of those things, he has dropped by to join us for our first day of wandering around town. He’s been in Russia for a few months already, learning to speak Russian on the fly, and has spent the last month in Irkutsk. When I enter the kitchen again I notice there’s actually another room beyond it for the first time. I also notice that’s where Don, Lari and Lukash had slept on the mattresses Spike had lain out. In my tiredness I’d completely missed all of that. I have a shower and we put together our day packs to head out into a bright, sunny afternoon; tempered only by the sheltering trees that line the street. We decide we’re hungry and Zach takes us to a shop on the next corner.
“This place sells piroghi. It’s stuff wrapped in pastry, you can get potato, mutton and cabbage versions of it and it’s really cheap”, he explains.
We enter the bakery and join the queue, checking out everything on offer. The piroghi seems the best plan and I get one of each kind to see how I go with these Russian pasties. I also get a cold lemonade that helps the remnants of my hangover and cools me on another hot day in Russia. We eat as we walk, or roll in Lukash’s case, and enjoy looking at the view of the city. We are across the river from the city centre and Zach leads us down past the train station and across the massive bridge that spans the Angara river; it must be one or two hundred metres wide at this point.

Fishing and Graffiti - together at last

The shoreline beneath the bridge is a sloped concrete embankment for over a hundred metres on both sides of it. Almost every part of that embankment is covered with an array of Russian graffiti. I try to read what I can and it ranges from a protest about the proposed nuclear reactor to be built in a nearby city to a lengthy inscription I can only understand the first part of; ‘God loves you and Jesus…”. I lose interest in reading the rest somehow. Most of the graffiti appears to be declarations of love for various women; “I love you ”. They vary in size and quality, but the message is always the same. We cross the bridge and begin a couple of hours of random meandering through the city centre, visiting the polish church, a cathedral or two and ending up by a fountain overlooking the river. We pass a man who is lying comatose on the ground next to a heavily vandalised bus stop. Nobody seems bothered by this and he’s breathing deeply and evenly, caught in a black sleep. It seems somehow out of place on such a clear, sunny day. As we get closer, someone bends down to check if he’s alright. His eyes open lazily and I begin to wonder if its heroin causing the lethargy.

Taking a rest...

There is building going on around town, but not nearly on the same scale as the other cities we’ve visited. You certainly get the feeling that the further away from Moscow you are, the less money you see invested in infrastructure. I wonder what it’s like away from the Trans-Siberian line and suspect there won’t be much funding unless it has military significance. There is something strange and unsettling about this town, I’m not sure what it is, but the feeling never leaves me. It’s like the surface is this bright, open town, but not far beneath something dark and twisted coils itself around the city’s heart. That heart does not beat freely, but nervously with some kind of apprehension. There’s nothing you can point at and attribute this feeling to. In fact the things you can see, the beautiful parks and gardens, the river and the hills, should make you feel very different. But they don’t.

River Graffiti

Zach leaves us to check back at his hostel and we make the trek back across the river, having picked up some supplies. Don and I buy some kvas to help us along the way to catching the tram back across with the bags of food. Lari and Lukash want to walk back instead to enjoy more of the scenery. We can’t decide where to get off the tram exactly, but we take a leap of faith a fair way up the hill and find our way back somehow. Spike is there already having finished his work as a language teacher and we make up a bunch of different kinds of pelmeni with different sauces and eat them with fresh tomato.

The Internationale - Russian version

We can’t quite bring ourselves to buy any cucumbers yet. Lukash and Lari make it back just in time to eat and Zach arrives soon afterwards. I’m still tired after the previous night’s exertions and just want to sleep; Don and Lari aren’t far behind me in that wish. Spike and Zach invite us out on this Tuesday night to experience some of the nightlife.
“He knows everyone and they all love him”, Zach advises us.
Spike looks at the floor a little abashed but looks up soon enough acknowledging there’s some truth in it.
“I won’t be able to stay awake more than another half hour”, I apologise.
Don and Lari do the same and Zach and Spike reluctantly leave. I’m more than a little unhappy about arriving in such a poor state and begin to wish we’d jumped the hydrofoil instead of being such average guests. I curl up and drop off listening to a pair of the bald cats wrestling on Spike’s bed.

Hot building action

Lunch break...


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