Irkutsk, the Paris of Siberia (But Not a City I Loved)

Much has transpired since my last post but in summary: work is alright (I was on a 3-week course and boy was 10-to-5 life great), I turned 23 along the way, and long-distance has been manageable, if not a little sian at times. Also I got a Victoria Beckham blunt bob cut, dyed it some kind of light brown, and got asked out on an MRT by a very nice man in cool sneakers. #gladIdon’tlooklikeanorgejustyet

I also started keeping a movie tumblr – one-scene visuals + a short para on the movies I’ve watched since I came back home. (Title of the movie is in the first hashtag if you check it out.)

More crucially, I figured I should get on with the documenting process before I completely forget everything. So without further ado, here’s a short post on Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia.

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Dark clouds overlooking the train station in Irkutsk

As it turns out, Irkutsk is a necessary stop on the Trans-Siberian if you intend to get to Lake Baikal — a popular vacation spot for Russians and one of the most magical places I have been to.

The city itself held far less charm for me, but it was once known as the “Paris of Siberia.” The exiled — many Russian intellectuals, artists and officers — settled here following the Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I (prior to this, the only Decemberists I knew of hailed from Portland).

Many of them had their wives come along for the one-way ride, who in turn brought their servants and extravagances in tow. As a result, they imported the class and couture from Moscow, transforming the quiet town into Siberia’s Paris.

Some of these exiles’ houses have been converted to museums — like the Volkonsky’s or Trubetskoy’s — and Russian history buffs can step back in time to see what sort of interior design tips the Mrs employed to make their new homes evoke the motherland.

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I imagine they all dressed like this in the past – don’t ask me what was going on, we don’t speak Russian

I jest, of course — in reality, Alan and I didn’t go into a single house as we were in Irkutsk only for a day… and we had slept most of the day away, despite spending quite a few on the train with nothing to do but talk and read and rest.

Our hostel was a unit (carved into several rooms) in a sketchy, worn-out shell of an apartment block. The stairwells were dank and the 7 seconds it took us to get from the door to fresh air felt like an eternity. Nevertheless, our host could speak English, and as I have said countless times before, that’s really all that matters in Russia.

Bonus points for wearing this Singapore shirt — my countrymen are a wanderlusty lot

Bonus points for wearing this Singapore shirt — my countrymen are a wanderlusty lot

He helped us book our shuttle tickets for Olkhon Island and off we went to soak up Irkutsk’s history.

By now we were an hour ahead of Singapore (or GMT +9), which I thought was really cool because we had crossed 5 timezones! No more White Nights for us (read my St Petersburg post) but still plenty of sunlight to go around.

We had no particular itinerary, seeing as we had more or less missed opening hours for the Decembrist museums (yeah, we slept till 5+). I wasn’t particularly thrilled about having to walk around just to cross things like “statue of Lenin” off my list, but Alan insisted we make the most of our time here.

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(One thing I am grateful to Alan for is that he has always pushed me to make the most of my opportunities, and to be more adventurous. Prior to his surprise visit to Penn in my sophomore year, I rode the SEPTA — Philadelphia’s slightly sketchy version of the MRT — once in 1.5 years. When he visited, we took the SEPTA everywhere, exploring parts of Philly I’d never been to before. In other words, his quest for adventure has more or less rewarded me in turn. This was not one of those times.)

We did goof around with a couple of status in the middle of a city square, though.

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My boyfriend is pro-literacy.

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And also a monger of scandalous secrets.

We had dinner at Prego Italy, a pretty restaurant (that unfortunately allows indoor smoking) with decent food.

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There’s no real reason why this out-of-focus photo is here apart from the fact that there’s too many of Alan in this post already

We shared fried mozzarella (nice in small doses but way too gao for two people), an okay risotto and a very decadent guilty pleasure: salmon and caviar carbonara. (Actually no wonder we felt so full – everything is so creamy -.- )

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However, our dining experience was marred by the most bewildering thing that has ever happened to me in a restaurant: getting charged for Tabasco.

Not only did we have to pay for Tabasco, we paid the equivalent of FIVE US DOLLARS.

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I mean, I could get a whole bottle of Tabasco for $5. (The waitress gave me like, what, 10ml?)

After a somewhat heated (hurhur) discussion with the waitresses (which ended in me giving up because neither party was effectively communicating their point), we walked around the city to come across some Russian cosplayers.

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Everyone looked like they stepped out of some period drama. There was quite a fair bit of singing and dancing, though some of these cosplayers (I really don’t know who they were or what they were doing) were clearly more into it than others. Most actually looked embarrassed to be there.

Things got a little weird whenever the lady in red and black (above) and a man with long, stringy hair whispered instructions to their fellow actors/dancers. Everyone would have the semblance of trying to be in character, and every so often, this couple would break the fourth wall by mouthing some new dance instruction. Very strange – this whole thing went on for quite a while, and Alan and I stuck around for a good 15-20 minutes.

After that we headed to the river bank.

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Alan got a picture with Tsar Alexander III.

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Had to Google his achievements but I found this paragraph in Wikipedia fascinating:

Although an enthusiastic amateur musician and patron of the ballet, Alexander was seen as lacking refinement and elegance. Indeed, he rather relished the idea of being of the same rough texture as some of his subjects. His straightforward, abrupt manner savoured sometimes of gruffness, while his direct, unadorned method of expressing himself harmonized well with his rough-hewn, immobile features and somewhat sluggish movements. His education was not such as to soften these peculiarities. More than six feet tall (about 1.9 m), he was also noted for his immense physical strength. A sebaceous cyst on the left side of his nose caused him to be mocked by some of his contemporaries, and he sat for photographs and portraits with the right side of his face most prominent.

What a biography!

Anyway here’s a picture of what I think is either a church or university building; in either case it was built in 1891, and more importantly, reminded me of the Fisher Arts library in Penn.

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And that ends the Irkutsk post! Finally. Coming next week is Alan’s post on Olkhon Island, the everyday Russian’s beach resort. (Actually it was a 7-hour overland journey to get there, but more on that next week.)

A & I are really excited about our upcoming South Africa trip. Can’t wait to see giraffes and penguins and sharks. Oh, and Alan, duh.

Given how long I’ve taken to read this, you might want to catch up on my Trans-Siberian adventures here:
St Petersburg Part 1 & Part 2.
How to Get Your Russian Visa & Survive It.
Moscow Part 1 & Part 2.
Life on the train.
Yekaterinburg

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