06 October 2009
Irkutsk - The Russia We See In Propaganda
It’s 6:30am and our Russian train attendant is banging violently on the cabin door screaming incoherently in what we presume to be Russian. We’re arriving in an hour and she is insistent on us waking up NOW. Naturally, needing just to slip on some clothes and strap on our bags, we’d rather doze for another 58 minutes. Sadly, she has a special tool that can unlock our room from the outside. Sneaky Russian.
She not only wants us up, she wants our sheets too and begins tugging at them from underneath us. “Why do you hate me,” I plead. More incoherent rambling. I get up and head to the bathroom as someone else is coming out. She nips in front of me and locks the door so I can’t use it! Mean Russian.
We pull into the station amid gloom and doom. This is the Russia we were always told exists behind the Iron Curtain. Everything is grey - the sky, the buildings, the coats, the shoes, the streets and the busses. We hop down to a smiling attendant wishing us good day - the same attendant who tried to vacuum my feet, wake me up, steal my sheets and keep me from going to the bathroom. Bi-Polar Russian.
We get to the hostel and ring and ring to no avail. I call the manager and he says someone will be there in “twenty - no thirty minutes.” Matt falls asleep in the grey stairwell and I wander aimlessly down dilapidated grey streets around dilapidated grey houses.
Post Check-in Matt is exhausted and decides to sleep. I head out to explore the city, boarding the world’s oldest grey tram car (not officially, but in both look and feel). The bike chain churns the door open and I attempt to buy a ticket (25 cents per ride) then proceed to the nearest seat. A grey-haired woman wearing grey boots and an “official vest” marches up and starts screaming at me in Russian. I have NO IDEA what she is saying. A man walks up holding two tickets. Alas, I forget to pick up my ticket. Rookie mistake in America, gulag-level error in Russia.
He hands her both and she proceeds to mark them with a red stamp (lots of official stamping seems to happen in Russia) and then punch it in this archaic little punch machine that looks like something from a scrap booking toolkit to add “flair” to a photo. This entire time she continues to mumble under her breath. She hands the ticket back to me and then proceeds to point toward the back of the bus and shout. Feeling like the Russian-planted Rosa Parks being chastised for not understanding and for being foreign, I grab the handrail and say indignantly, “niet!”
This enrages her and she launches into a tirade, pointing at signs on the wall, pointing at my face and pointing to the back of the tram. Not wanting her to go all “secret police” on me, I get up and - head hanging low - meander to the back of the tram. She plops down in the chair and I realize that it is - in fact - her official seat. Oops?
I spend the afternoon slightly frightened of most people I run into assuming they either want to beat me up or steal all my money (thank you Hollywood and Washington for indoctrinating me to believe all Russians are evil). Fortunately, as the temperature warms and the skies open up, Irkutsk begins to shine and the grey turns to a rainbow of glistening colors.
The central market is both charming and beautiful, with cans of vegetables, fresh fruit and vodka stacked impossibly high. At the clothes market I find a lovely woman who bargains with me wearing a smile. Each church I come across (and there are many many churches) is more decorative and more charming than the last. In fact, each Russian I come across (and there are many many Russians) is more decorative (impossibly high heels) and more charming than the last.
I return to the hostel with fresh cheese, meat and bread that I bought for $2 to make lunch feeling invigorated and slightly in lust with this city - called the Paris of Russia - and this country. These Russians aren’t so bad after all.