August 3, 2008: Irkutsk

We had an unusually long stop-over in rainy Irkutsk because of the train schedule--12 hours. The day ended on a high note, but as one of my fellow travelers put it, otherwise it was "pretty dismal."

We visited more cathedrals. The icons were growing on me by now--at first they just seemed strange and simple, but I became fascinated by them. In one of the churches we happened upon a service in session. There are no pews, everyone stands. A baptism was taking place off to one side, though only the family seemed to be paying attention. The baby was crying, everyone else in the cathedral was singing, bells were ringing--it was something to experience. Gave me the chills, in fact.

Outside this cathedral, David Holloway was quite taken with a new statue of an admiral from the White Army, who fought against the Bolsheviks. He explained to us that the communists did their best to wipe out all traces of Russian history. However, since 1990 there has been a huge effort made to honor all aspects of the past. Thus, many avenues are still named Lenin and Marx. They are rebuilding monuments to the Tsars, even the most rotten ones. And there are major memorials to WWII in every city. They don't seem to want to forget anything, ever again.

Irkutsk is famous for its wooden houses, but we stopped at only one due to the rain. We drove by an "icebreaker" ship and maritime museum, closed on Sundays. We then visited a local market and shopping center--not on the planned itinerary--as a way to kill time. They were actually both quite interesting.

The shopping mall was full of tiny shops. No department stores--they all just sold one item, like shoes, jewelry or cell phones. And there would be 5 or 6 stores of the same type grouped together, all selling exactly the same products. No more than 6-8 people could fit into a store. One shoe store had 8 people jammed in it and the owner had locked the door. Ten people were lined up outside. It must have been a big sale, as the exact same shoes were for sale at stores on either side! Most of the brands in the stores were familiar--adidas, nike, tommy hilfiger, nokia, sony....and the shelves were all overflowing.

It was more or less the same set up in the market, which was busy and bursting with fresh goods--meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, cheese, nuts, tea and coffee, flowers, candy and cookies too. Most things were sold behind counters with samples displayed in front. My favorite area was the butter and cheese, where the women were actually stirring it up and selling it straight out of buckets.

The day ended with a visit to the house of Maria Volkonsky. Maria was the wife of a Decembrist, a group that was sent to Siberia after staging an unsuccessful coup in 1825. She followed her exiled husband to Irkutsk, where they set up their own version of "high society." We toured their impressive home, and then were treated to a concert in the drawing room, which would have been typical of their time. I can't even tell you how well done it was! Our charming host explained the performances by a pianist and two soloists. They played and sang Mozart, Chopin and Schubert. We heard a Pushkin poem. And then a young man in a powdered wig served us all champagne. It sounds corny, but it could not have been a more uplifting way to end our "dismal day."

Photos from rainy Irkutsk:

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