14 August, 2005

One of Irkutsk's many ornate structures with a crowd of minibuses waiting in front of it.

Looks like an empty sign to Americans but over here it means "Do Not Enter." If it were in America, this sign would no doubt have been filled in with something creative to forbid.

You'll also find an awful lot of impressive looking churches here surrounded by poor people and soldiers.

Irkutsk is also known for its old wooden structures.

A standard street market.

Lake Baikal, one of the biggest, deepest lakes in the world.

The water is incredibly clear throughout the lake.

Stretching for hundreds of kilometers, this lake is predicted to one day become an ocean. Not in the near future though.

Near the lake, a mystery smokestack belches black fumes.

Villagers walk down a local street.

Ornate structures can be found down at the lake as well.

As can extremely ugly cats which one merchant was attempting to sell to tourists. Selling pictures probably would have been more profitable.

Back in Irkutsk, a tram ambles by.

And normal looking cats exist in comfort.

I saw several of these wooden slides in playgrounds. Not quite sure how they would work without inflicting considerable pain. Also didn't see any of them in use.

This basketball hoop may well predate the NBA.

Structures like this can be found around town.

A view of our hotel from the park outside.

These crazy looking devices were in everyone's hotel room. Needless to say, none of them worked.

14 August, 2005

Day 29. The weather has improved greatly. Still a bit chilly but the rain appears to have disappeared for now. We decided to take a trip down to Lake Baikal which we had heard so much about. Like the fact that it's the world's deepest lake, it contains more fresh water than all five Great Lakes combined (a fifth of the entire world's supply), and its water is incredibly clear. It's also pretty damn huge; they say one day it will become the earth's fifth ocean.

First we spent a couple of hours wandering around the city, checking out various interesting looking buildings. We went into one of the churches which happened to be having a service, it being Sunday morning and all. But it wasn't like any church service I had ever seen. Basically, it was a crowded room where a bunch of people were all standing facing forward while the sound of a woman chanting somewhere could be heard. There was nothing in the front of the room to focus your attention on and I realized that whatever action was going on was occurring in the smaller room to the left. But that was *so* crowded with people who occasionally would all do some ritualistic thing like bow or chant or do something with their hands that I was dissuaded from elbowing my way in there to see what was in the front. I'll just have to leave that to my imagination.

I don't really have a problem with organized religion as long as it doesn't get in my way. That happens a lot back home. Here, I was content to observe and respect their ways. And I've always liked churches - the buildings, that is, not often what goes on inside them. This wasn't really an exception. You had this big ornate structure, very pleasing to the eye, and it was surrounded by all kinds of really poor people who would beg for money from anyone passing by. The contrast between haves and have-nots just seemed a little stark especially when you consider that so many people give money to churches in order that they take care of these very people. Some things just never seem to change over time or distance.

Since our tour agency (the one that's been picking us up and booking us in these crazy hotels) didn't know anything about tours to the lake, we were left to our own devices. We were told that buses left from the bus station (logical) which only left us to find the bus station (not easy). We eventually accomplished this and set about finding out when the next bus would leave. At first it appeared that there was only one bus a day to the largest tourist attraction in a thousand miles but that turned out to be misinformation. There were two. (For some reason they were on completely different schedules.) And the next bus was four hours away. So we set about finding a cab to drive us all the way there (around 70 kilometers each way). I initially thought the price was a bit steep (1500 rubles as opposed to less than 100 for the bus) but that was before realizing the advantages of having our own private car. This driver was pretty amazing. Of course it was scary as hell as we swerved in and out of traffic at high speeds all the way down to the lake. Like many cars around here, the steering wheel is on the right hand side even though traffic drives on the right. This is likely due to some kind of import deal with Japan. I didn't really think about how this would make that much of a difference insofar as how someone drives. But that was before watching someone try to overtake traffic from the right hand side. The driver wasn't able to see if there was any oncoming traffic until he actually had stuck himself out almost halfway. So that was pretty hair raising. But we eventually got there in one piece and had a good look around.

The lake is pretty incredible. It's so clear that you can see 40 meters down in parts, which can cause all kinds of vertigo effects when people dive in. And its size is certainly unparalleled.

We explored the shoreline a bit and wandered down the streets of a lakeside village. It was all quite relaxed. A lot of local people were selling fish from the lake both on the side of the road and in a local market where all sorts of other touristy things could also be found.

On the way back our driver suggested we stop at an open air museum that had a bunch of old structures. I was pretty surprised that he didn't seem to be rushing us at all but I guess he had made a ton of money by going on this excursion (even though it was really only about 30 euros) so he was content to let us take our time. Plus he was obviously proud of these attractions.

Seeing a bunch of old wooden structures is historical and educational but I was getting pretty bored. And another merchant area didn't do much to help. I've just never been one to get excited over arts and crafts and I don't think I've ever bought anything in my entire life which could be described as a "trinket." So after about an hour and a half there, I was pretty happy to be heading back towards the city, even if that meant getting scared shitless by the cab ride.

We didn't really do a whole lot more except walk around town, get food, and find supplies for tomorrow morning's train ride. Since we had to be up at 5:00 am, it was a good thing that we were exhausted. What was bad was getting calls throughout the night from hookers wanting to know if I wanted a Russian girl. I don't know what goes on in the Russian hotel business but there's some kind of blatant tie-in to prostitution rings. They know what language you speak, they usually call within minutes of your checking in, and they know not to call couples. I have no moral problems with what they do except for getting the equivalent of unsolicited spam on my hotel phone. I suppose it's a fitting end to my last night in this country.