Soviet days were over but getting a Russian visa was just as difficult and expensive as it was during the cold war. I was lucky to avoid the greedy clutches of Intourist by purchasing, via the internet, a visa support invitation from an independent agency here in Irkutsk. Youri Nemirovsky picked us up at the station and brought us to our respective homestays. The next day I went sightseeing and visited Andrew Savchuck, a computer engineer I had met on the internet.
This building on ploshchad (square) Kirova which was previously the Communist Party Headquarters now houses the Government of the Irkutsk Oblast (administrative region)
Irkutsk was founded in 1651 as a Cossack outpost to pacify the indigenous Buriat, Evenk and Yakut tribes and to develop the fur trade with them. It soon became prosperous and attracted adventurers, missionaries and scientists. This "Church of the Saviour" was built next to ploshchad Kirova in 1709. It is now used as a museum showing stuffed animals and early traditional clothing.
Irkutsk became a very active cultural center in the 19th century, especially after the arrival of the noble decembrist exiles. Its great Annunciation Cathedral was destroyed in the 30's to build the Party Headquarters shown above. The Orthodox Church was then very powerful and the city had many churches some of which have survived to this day. The Epiphany Church shown here was built in 1723 across the street from the Saviour Church. It is now an icon museum.
Irkutsk also has a good museum, a monastery and some fine 19th century houses but I had only one day for tomorrow we are going to Lake Baikal which is the real reason why people come here. On that eve, here I am, guzzling beer in the Theater Cafe with Elizabeth Hurst, Paul van Granberg, my internet friend Andrew Savchuck, Andre Coffa, Robert Archland and Nicola Barton.
The building on the left houses the Baikal Limnological Institute (from the Greek "limne", meaning lake). It was set-up during the communist regime to study the lake's marine life and its physical environment. Several highly qualified scientists who have been working there for years are now going through hard times because state funding for the Institute has been drastically reduced. Quitting is no solution for moving away would be very complicated and good jobs are just as scarce elsewhere anyway.
The Institute's staff must hold outside part time jobs and receive paying guests in their homes to survive. Elizabeth who is a geologist and I stayed with the Obolkins. Luba Alexandrovna is a microbiologist and Vladimir Arkadjevitch has specialized in climatology. It is heartbreaking to see how the economic collapse of the soviet empire has transformed the lives of professionals like these from one of modest but secure comfort to one of precarious poverty. They are not alone in this predicament. Actually they are better off than the average worker many of which have not been paid for months.
The lake's reputation for beauty is not overdone as you can see from this peaceful view of Port Baikal across the mouth of the Angara river. It is really a mouth for the Angara is the lake's only outlet, all other rivers flow into Baikal. The water the Angara drinks from the lake powers the huge Bratsk dam 400 kms downstream before making its way to the Yenisey river a thousand km to the north west and finally flowing into the Arctic Ocean, 1600 kms further north.
I only saw Baikal in its peaceful mood but I am told that its storms can be furious. I can imagine how beautiful this vast expanse must be when it is frozen in winter. Baikal in unique in many ways, it is crystal clear down to 40 meters, it holds one fifth of the world's fresh water, more than North America's five great lakes combined and it is the world's deepest at 1637 meters. Baikal is a rift in the earth's crust like the great rift valley in Africa. It is over 20 000 years old and still spreading apart.
It's flora and fauna have evolved in isolation and 80% of the species are found nowhere else. A truly remarkable place! It was mid may when I was there and the weather was just right for two days. I thoroughly enjoyed walking along the shore and visiting the village which stretches three or four kms.
Duplex, triplex and sometimes quadruplex izbas are favoured in Siberia because they are easier to heat than smaller isolated houses. It makes a lot of sense but if your neighbour lets his side run down, you have to live with it!
This big four window single home izba faces the lake like the duplex in the last photo but its vegetable garden is in the back. All the houses I have seen have a garden and sometimes a quite large one.
What the Siberians don't grow, they buy in places like this "magazin". Most are even smaller than this one.
This pretty little Nikolaisky church is by far the best maintained building I have seen so far in Siberia. It might even be new as there has been a resurgence of the Orthodox religion all over Russia since the communist religion has fallen out of favour.
I have seen very little new construction in Siberia. Judging by the size, I thought this new building, going up on the hill overlooking the picturesque but poor Kristova suburb of Listvianka, would be a fashionable tourist hotel but I was told that it was a private datcha being built for one of the newly rich from Irkutsk. It was all very mysterious, some of the locals had seen him driving a big four by four but no one seemed to know who he was!
Wherever I go I love to visit markets. They are a good place to observe people. Everyone is so busy shopping that they don't notice they are being observed. This refined looking old gentleman looked and looked but finally walked away without buying. I wondered why... Times are hard, particularly for the retired whose pensions have not followed inflation.
There was a lot of produce on the stalls outside but I noticed that people looked and compared very carefully before buying. Their way of shopping spoke volumes. Russia's gross national product per capita is 50% higher than China's, (1996 numbers in terms of purchasing power), but as far as I could see, Chinese shoppers had a lot more choice and appeared more affluent than the Russians.
I got back to Irkutsk on Friday and Andrew invited me to spend the weekend at his family datcha in Bolshoi Luk some 50 kms east along the trans Siberian railway line. This rail car was full with people crowding in the aisle when it left Irkutsk early Saturday morning.
I was astonished that so many could afford to have a datcha. When I expressed my surprise and told Andrew that owning a second house is considered a luxury in Canada he replied that in Siberia it is not a luxury but a necessity to have a plot of land to grow food during the summer. We got off at km 51 and walked three km to his family's datcha.
His wife Olga was already there with his young son Vanya. There was a lot to do and we worked hard hoeing and planting all day.
I enjoyed immensely being useful for a change. I used expertise gained pruning the vineyard I once had, to prune the rose bushes in the foreground so as to maximize their production of flowers. I was quite pleased with myself as we all were at the end of the day. It was really a beautiful place with the Olxa river flowing by at the end of the garden, where Olga is going in this picture. After supper we chatted a while about life in Russia and went early to bed.
The Sunday dinner was a festive gathering. Neighbours Georgiy and Ludmila, Andrew's father, Olga's daughter Irina, Andrew's mother Vera with grandson Andrei, the three Savchuks and I all crowded around this small table and ate for hours. They all spoke English and had more than average education but they all worked hard for very little money.
Vera was better off than anyone else having been elected member of the Duma for the Irkutsk region. She invited me to visit her flat in town to have one for the road before taking the train for Ulan-Ude. It was nice but definitely more modest than what a member of parliament would enjoy in the West. I considered myself lucky to have met this family and wondered if I would get to meet one of the fabulous new rich to understand the new social structure of this country.
I kept the image of happy Vanya and Andrei with the wild rolling Siberian taiga in the background for the last of the Irkutsk flashes as a good omen to conjure fate so that their future would be better than that which is foreseeable presently.