September 10th, 2008 ~ Irkutsk, Siberia
The hostel is on the ninth floor of a building so newly constructed that there is not yet an elevator, so we are learning to count to nine in Russian as we climb the stairs. There are two bedrooms, each with enough plywood and 2x4 bunk bed space to sleep eight people. The hostel is the energetic hub of activity for people coming and going to trail projects in the national parks near Lake Baikal. It is also occasional home to young Americans fluent in Russian and busy with fellowships and graduate studies in languages and environmental issues.
As we walked, Julia brilliantly unfolded the story of Irkutsk and its place in Russian history. Many who were exiled to Siberia from Moscow and St. Petersburg were artists, intellectuals, and writers, and they brought to Irkutsk a cultural richness here that continues to thrive. Of the half million residents, Julia told us, 80,000 are students at the universities.
"They say that Irkutsk is the Paris of Siberia," Julia explained. I told her that I had just been to Paris, and that I could report that Paris was the Irkutsk of France. Julia laughed about that for several blocks. Her joy and energy were infectious, and as we walked we kept gathering up friends of hers we happened to meet, our entourage growing through the afternoon.
The architecture of the city is astonishing. There are still very old wooden houses from deep in the times of the Czars, the log structures built to withstand Siberian winters. Old churches are a deep mix of European and Asian influences. And there are a few stark, featureless concrete buildings constructed during the Soviet era but overwhelmed by the beauty and liveliness of the older buildings that dominate them, if not in size, then certainly as examples of the human spirit.
|Rollerblading at Epiphany Church|
We bought sodas from a vendor on the street, and Julia taught is to say "Nazdorov'a!" as a cheer to good health.
I taught her to say, "Over the lips, around the gums, look out tummy, here it comes!" She laughed so hard that soda almost came out her nose. Then she asked, "What does it mean, tummy?" and when I told her she laughed some more and kept repeating the phrase to be sure she had it right.
When we got back to the hostel, the kitchen was packed with people cooking, laughing, all speaking Russian. I'm only beginning to understand the connections here—who is an American studying ecology at the lake, who is a Russian interested in studying Americans, etc. The evening felt very much like being in a college rooming house with too many people in too small a space, but that was just fine and it all worked.
Today we're heading out to the first of the trail projects. We may be camping for a few days or we may be back here this evening. One of the pleasures that delights me on this trip is that I'm not in charge of making itinerary decisions. Someone will tell me where to go next and what to do, and I will. Look out, tummy, here it comes.