Day 55: Sadly, Irkutsk, Russia

Here’s a gallery of unpreserved historical and old buildings in Irkutsk. Both the Trubetsky and the Irkutsk Historical Museums that we visited today did not allow photos inside, so these are exterior shots only.

You can really get a sense of how bleak and gruesome it was living through a winter in Siberia. Around 1830 in St. Petersburg,  nobles tried to revolt and lead a coup against the Russian empire. They failed, were put into hard labor camps, then exiled to Siberia. Their wives and children were left to follow and look after them, at their own expense.

Known as the Decembrists for the month of the revolt, the anti-imperialists are now finally given due respect for their travails. Trubetsky was one of the survivors who was allowed to live out his life in Irkutsk. His wife had died and was buried here,  so he chose to remain where her grave was. The museum is located in the home where he lived out the remainder of his life.

Irkutsk has a short history of only 355 years. I find it surprising that American history predates the one here. We are so easily surpassed by any country in Europe. It’s not surprising that few humans would contemplate ever living here.

The state of disrepair and condition of the city were depressing. At a site we passed, old Russian artillery and tanks were on display in a neglected area overrun with weeds. Once a building was built, it never seemed to be maintained or repaired to extend its life.

The harsh weather of Siberia shows how difficult and impractical it was to make sufficient repairs in the few good months of the year. It seems that everyone needed to spend the time recovering from the previous winter and enjoy the few days of sunshine, rather than toil to gain a simple pride of place.

Relevant to this conversation, the construction of the Trans Siberian Railroad was another example of how difficult it was to build anything. Stretching nearly twice the length of the US, the railroad took 25 years to build. The area around Lake Baikal was particularly difficult. Here’s more information about the construction around Irkutsk:

Sadly, Irkutsk didn’t have the vibrancy and can-do  energy of Mongolia. It seems to be bogged down by its climate, corruption and inertia. It may be harsh judgment, and I can not speak from an impression of the city. Gee Kin travels for understanding, while I travel for enjoyment. It’s hard to do either here.

Going off the grid for three days or more. Will try to report from Vladivostok next. Apologies in advance if you are having trouble accessing the website. It’s been erratic and unpredictable. Hopefully this will be fixed by time I reach Japan. Thanks for your patience!

Day 53-54: One Degree of Engagement (Lake Baikal, Russia)

Looking back at our week in Mongolia, it has been exhilarating and life-changing. I try to think of similar experiences, and although the trip we took to Montana came to mind, it seemed to be a far cry in comparison. Imagine Montana being the size of the US with the same density of population and that would give you an impression of what Mongolia is like.

I am attaching the Wikipedia reference for those who are curious: In this quick search, I learned that Mongolia is in fact the most sparsely populated country in the world. It’s no wonder that we felt the impact (or lack thereof) of human habitation on the planet here. We wondered if this wasn’t a good place to start if you wanted to live on the moon.

The low density means that people who live in Mongolia depend on each other. Gee Kin explained some of the details in the last post. For me, it was a reassuring vote for humanity. You learn to trust and rely on those around you. Just like the herder family in the video, you do everything for each other. We had a beautiful day and authentic experience with the herder family and our guides.

I am reposting the video from yesterday for those of you were unable to view it. I inserted the punchline in the back, so hope you will enjoy this revised version.

And…just to close out a few stray thoughts on Mongolia, here is a copy of the map of the Mongol Empire, showing Genghis Khan and Family’s Conquests in a few fell swoops:

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Onward to Irkutsk, Russia

Our 18 month Russian visas from last year made it easy to take another trip into Russia this year. We hadn’t really planned on it, but coming to Mongolia made it irresistible to continue through Russia east to Vladivostok. We came north first by train from Ulaan Bataar (see spiffy Mongolian train above), then in a few days will be heading to the East Coast to on the last leg of the Trans-Siberian Express.

We heard that there were 19th Century wooden buildings in Irkutsk, so went towards an area for dinner that reminded me of Cannery Row in Monterey or Jack London Square in Oakland. It was an easy walk on a Saturday afternoon and many locals were heading in the same direction toward the mall.

We found a pretty decent restaurant with equal flair to any Bay Area restaurant:

Dinner with wine was only $40.00!

Listvaynka Village, Lake Baikal

Our main adventure the following day headed us in the direction of Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest (about a mile deep) fresh water lake in the world. After gawking at the seaside crowd, we had pilaf and smoked fish for lunch in Listvaynka Village. It was refreshingly cool and a little bit of Sausalito in Eastern Russia.

The Sunday Weekend market in Lake Baikal featured smoked fish.

The bus back to Irkutsk put is in front of the city’s Sunday Market. It was very similar to the huge market that I saw two years ago in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan produces much of the fresh vegetables and fruits for Russia, Mongolia, and other Central Asian and Asian countries.

On the way to Lake Baikal, about an hour outside Irkutsk, we met two Canadian travelers. They were a sturdy pair–active seniors who were working as educators in Doha and traveling throughout the world. In case you were wondering what’s happened to baby boomers, they are out of the woodwork and into the world again. Maybe not on the $5 a day like we did in the late 60’s, but resilient as ever.

They can do a mean Ritz Carlton on demand as easily as a backpacker’s hostel–for a few days, at least. I like to think of myself as being able to do both, but I tend to be more of a middle-of-the-roader. Our trip to Mongolia, on the other hand, was certainly a safari of sorts, but with fewer wild animals.

Our new-found friends told us a story about someone they met in Mongolia who was on a Guinness Book of Records pursuit for the most number of countries visited in the shortest amount of time. The 27-year old female traveler had already been to 130 of the 196 countries and is taking three years to complete the task. She spent most of her time obtaining visas and on the internet and had company endorsements.

I calculated that it would take about five days per country. At the minimum, all she had to do was to record the GPS point at the airport on her phone and get a visa stamp. I’m sure that she is doing more than that, but regardless, what a journey! It captured my imagination. I decided that I had met her through one degree of separation.