Wednesday, February 2, 2011

August 22 Irkutsk

Today was a fun day! After breakfast, we left in the mini-van for
Irkutsk with Demyan as our guide once again. It was windy and raining in
the morning, so we again had to skip the Lake Baikal overlook. We then
toured Irkutsk, the self-styled Paris of Siberia. Seems like a strange name
for a place that I have long thought of as being out of the way. In the
extreme! Irkutsk was one of the territories on the Risk gameboard. Irkutsk
is actually a strategically situated city, originally settled by Cossacks looking
for sable, and located along an old trade route with tea and silk coming from
China, and furs going back in exchange. The riverfront is rather picturesque.
The town has quite a few nineteenth century wooden dwellings still in use.
Those have no running water or piped sewage drains. There are community
wells and faucets, from which we saw large water containers being filled.
Demyan said that such structures are slowly being replaced, just as the
streets are being improved one by one. As I noted the other day, there is a
great deal of traffic and it seems disorganized at the glance. Many cars on
the streets are second-hand Japanese machines with right-hand drive. Very
interesting! But perhaps not so safe in the long run. In Peru, there are many
such Japanese cars, but the driving wheels and dashboards are changed in
Arica, Chile, immediately upon unloading the ships.
August seems to be the wedding month in Russia.  Everywhere we went, we saw scenes like this.

We saw the large bust of Yuri Gagarin in the riverfront park. Across
the street were two hand, large, old houses. One was in a St. Petersburg
style with a white and yellow front. Demyan told us that it used to be simply
white. It belonged originally to a gold merchant who suffered business
reverses, and in the end, the tsarist state got it. It became the residence of
the Governors-General of Siberia, and then of Eastern Siberia after it was
split. The other house, located across the street, was red and of brick
construction. It also had been a merchant’s house. During the Russian Civil
War, a battle took place between the Reds in the white house, and the
Whites in the red house.

The red house contains the ethnographic museum which has great
stuff. Costumes of different peoples, ranging from Turkic Siberians of the
area to nineteenth century uniforms. I especially liked the other nineteenth
century items such as a cash register, a typewriter with Cyrillic keyboard, a
harmonica (I think) made in Brattleboro, Vermont, and a phonograph from
the early twentieth century.

Streets in Irkutsk may be paved, or not.

We then went to the former site of the old Kremlin of Irkutsk. One
church still stands from the imperial period, and that one is in need of
additional restoration. A newer church across the street is currently in use
and its murals are being nicely painted. Of particular interest was the socalled
Polish Church, a neo-Gothic looking building of red brick. Many
leaders of a Polish uprising against the Tsar in the mid-nineteenth century
were imprisoned in Siberia, and then built the church after serving the hard
labor part of their sentences. They had to remain in exile for the rest of their
lives. There were six wedding parties doing photos and celebrations in the
plaza, so I guess Friday is a good day for weddings in Russia. Here ended
the tour. The driver kept the luggage in the mini-van, and we had free time
in Irkutsk.

We went to the Hotel Angaura. Penny checked her e-mail, and then
we set out to look around some more and to have a light snack. We found a
nice market where we bought some nice, freshly baked bread, and some
kim-chee, or whatever cabbage and carrots with garlic, peppers, and oil are
called here north of Mongolia. Then we had a pancake with chocolate sauce
from the stand across the street. We wandered back to the hotel lobby.
Their Internet connection crashed, and so I didn’t get to check my e-mail,
but that is the way it goes sometimes. We watched some of the Olympics in
the lobby bar, and then had pizza and salad with Alaine, Del, and Butch.
Demyan and the driver collected us and we went back to the Irkutsk railway
station to commence our last ride on the Trans-Siberian, destination Ulan

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