Saturday, September 02, 2006

A few things about the first few days

There are a couple of things that I forgot to mention about my first few days here in Irkutsk.
One is the babuska in charge at the dorm. She is the complete opposite of the "dorm nazi" in St. Petersburg - always smiling and making me stop to chat with her when I go out for something. Yesterday as I was leaving to go to the university, she stopped me in the hallway and asked me if I had met the American boy. "Which one?" I asked. "The tall, handsome one" was her reply. I have yet to meet this guy but the babushka is pulling out all the stops to play the matchmaker. It's really kind of funny. As I was leaving for the market this morning, she pulled me into her office and made me right down when I was going to be back at the dorm so he can visit. Oh my. I hope he's as good looking as she says he is - or at least nice. I could use some friends at the moment.
While my neighbors are nice, if I had wanted to live with a middle-aged couple I would have done homestay. And they keep all their kitchenware in their room, so it's kind of hard to share. I just went to the "mall" and bought a couple of plates and bowls and forks and stuff. Now I just need one good pot. I think I'll go to the "chinese market" (the street market, where the less materialistic locals go to buy stuff).
Irkutsk isn't quite the middle of nowhere that I imagined it to be. In fact, it's such a booming metropolis that they have a sushi restaurant. Though it looks upscale, the name is rather dubious - "SushiEd's". Hmmm. Maybe I stick with blini for now.
After I managed to screw myself over at the university, I headed home to spend the night lounging around and watching a couple of movies. I bought a copy of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," but the cover lied and it was only in Russian. It was sort of fun. All in all though, I would have rather read a good book.
I had to change my phone number. Leave it to the Russians to have SIM cards that only work in one city at a time. Anyway, the new number is +79149224298, but thanks to Chris, you can still reach me by calling 254-230-1818 - the call forwarding has been updated.
Okay, I think that's enough for now.
It's going to be difficult for me to load too many new pictures. All the internet cafes that I've found so far have a limit of 6 Mb per hour and you have to pay a lot if you transfer more than that. I'll see if I can find a way around that though.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Hello from Irkutsk

My, how time flies when you’re having fun. So much has happened in the last few days, and I’ve been dying to write about it. But being confined to a train for 3 days, 4 hours, and 36 minutes, it was a bit difficult for me not only to update the blog as usual, but to type anything at all. Power outlets are scarce on Russian trains and you have to pay for the luxury. Therefore I was limited to the battery life of my computer and what my memory and notes can recall.
Let me start from the beginning…
After a very peaceful night’s rest (in a real bed for once – the hostel was completely furnished with stuff from IKEA), I proceeded to spend pretty much the entire day roaming about the city. I left my bags at the hostel and took off for Alexander Garden (it’s outside the Kremlin and a good starting point for any walking trip around the city center). I ate some street meat (just enough to tide me over until lunch without making me throw up) and sat on a bench to people watch. Sitting on the bench by myself in Alexander Garden made me think of one of my recent reads – Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. Margarita was sitting on a bench in the very same garden when she was approached by one of the devil’s henchmen with a proposition – to help him host a great ball in return for her lost love. This got me to thinking more about the book and all the places in Moscow that Bulgakov wrote about. So I decided to visit Patriach Pond later that day as well. It was kind of cool roaming about in one of the lesser-known areas of the city (at least for tourists – there were tons of locals sitting around enjoying the nice evening). Afterwards I wandered back to Red Square. Well, tried to anyway. Apparently they’ve got a lot of security there at the moment – you have to go through a metal detector to go on the square! What the heck! Seeing as how I had been there recently, I decided to go back to Old Arbat and eat dinner. (Not before I got Frog to take a picture with one of the Lenin’s posing in front of the History Museum).
I ended up eating at the Hard Rock CafĂ© that night. I figured it was my last night to get a good old American-style burger (as expensive as it is). And it was right across the street from the hostel, so an easy choice. After eating there (where I got a free beer from the waiter for no particular reason), I went wandering down the street again – and this time one of the street musicians was playing a bunch of Eric Clapton covers. I stood there for quite awhile just listening to him – he was quite good. I wish I had been able to make it down to Moscow for Clapton’s show on Red Square – that would have been unbelievable. But we can’t have everything in life I guess.
My train was scheduled to leave Moscow at 23.25 on the dot, so I got to the train station a bit early, to make sure I had everything and could handle carrying everything. All totaled, I had 5 bags to carry. Lord knows how much they weigh altogether – I really don’t want to know. I was able to handle them though, with an occasional nice man helping to lift something here and there (for some reason the Russians don’t find it necessary to install escalators or lifts in certain key areas of the train station – like to go in and out of the luggage room (which is in the basement). I now have some bruises in very weird places (like all over my knees) from carrying it all. But I managed somehow.
I think my big backpack has made its last leg of the trip. Not only has the waist buckle broken (which I fixed with duck tape before Chris was kind enough to bring me a new buckle from REI), but the lining on the inside has ripped in several places, and now the shoulder straps are being held on literally by a few threads. It served its purpose for the time I needed it too. I had already decided that I’m going to have to buy a big suitcase before I leave anyway in order to be able to fly easily. When I get back to the States maybe I’ll go to REI and get fitted for a nice pack this time, one that will last a bit longer and for a few more excursions.
So anyway, back to the trip.
I had reserved a berth in a 4-person cabin. It ended up being just me and this couple from Paris in the cabin though, so it was nice and comfortable – we used the extra bed to store all my junk that I was dragging along for the ride. The bed was already made and turned down when I got there, so I basically didn’t do much that night except crash. After a cup of tea, of course (I ended up drinking a lot of tea on the trip – one of those sub conscience habits I’ve picked up I guess. Nothing to do? I’ll make some tea…). And going to sleep was no problem – the rhythm of the train gently rocking the car was wonderful. Even when we stopped a couple of times during the night it didn’t disturb my slumber.
It turns out that I was well prepared for the trip. All you really need is some rubles and a good book or two (or some other forms of solitary entertainment, in case the people you’re with aren’t aren’t the stereotypical Russian drinkers of vodka). I stocked up on a bunch of books before the trip, not only for the train ride but also because I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to find English-language books in Irkutsk (I did see a large bookshop this afternoon though – maybe they’ll have some). I also brought along some tea of my own, some bread and jam, some almonds to munch on, and a bunch of Swiss chocolate (thanks once again my meeting with Chris in Amsterdam). I talked a bit in the morning with the French roomies (who spoke English very well), about this and that and the weather and such. You know, just random getting-to-know-you-because-we’re-together-for-three-days sort of chit-chat. Then I settled into reading until the first daytime stop. I was about halfway through Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera when we boarded the train – just about at that point where you can’t put the damn book down and you must finish it.
I did put it down about midmorning though, as we pulled into Kirov for a 20-minute stop. At most of the stops along the line, there are tons of locals out on the platform selling everything from freshly baked piroshki to ramen noodles (“lapsha” in Russian) to cold beer and kvas. Some stops are better than others, but you can always count on being able to buy some kind of food to last you til the next stop. And it’s wonderful to get out and stretch you’re legs. I bought some cabbage piroshki and orange juice for breakfast, then walked around until it was time to reboard the train. I was overly cautious with my belongings this time. Each bag was double locked when I got off and chained together to one of the metal bed supports. They weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Even with this precaution, I doubt I would have had much trouble. Each car has two ladies in charge, who switch of duties such as cleaning and passing out laundry and guarding the entrance to the car at each stop. Still, after my stint on the night train from Prague to Budapest, I wasn’t relying on anybody to take care of my stuff for me.
The rest of the day was spent mostly reading, though I did take advantage of each long stop (there are several each day that are about 15-25 minutes) to get out and buy some snacks or something more substantial. The scenery was nice – tons of birch trees (as in most of Russia) with little village scattered about.
By the end of the day, it didn’t really feel like we had been on board for that long. I think part of this had to do with the fact that we were asleep for the first 9 hours of the ride. The 2nd class is a lot more relaxed than the 3rd class “platzcard” cars (where everyone is in one big common car – as someone put it, it’s a lot like the train ride in Some Like it Hot).
I finished my book sometime in the evening and sat down to the most un-French French dinner ever – while I at my lapsha the couple from Paris enjoyed some alphabet soup from their teacups. And we all had more piroshki of course. But alas, no wine to was it down. I’ll have to go visit my new friends in Paris some time soon, so that I can have a real French dinner.
We also stopped one more time before bed, and I found one babushka selling “blini c tvoragom” (crepes with cream cheese). Soooo good. It hit the spot and was just the thing I needed to put me to sleep again.
Right before turning out the lights, I couldn’t help but laugh at the group of mischievous seven-year-olds roaming about the corridor of the car. One of them found out how to say “I love you” in English and giggled as he said it too me. I’m pretty sure it was all in jest, the result of a dare from one of his friends, but it was cute none the less.
For some reason I woke up with a sore throat on Tuesday morning. I was afraid I was getting sick from all the moving around and living in tight quarters, but it went away by the afternoon. Vanessa (the lady in the cabin) gave me some herbal lozenge and they worked quite well.
When we stopped in Ishim I found another reason why I might have gotten the sore throat. It was so cold outside! Cold and drizzling and miserable. But in the car it was nice and warm, and once we bought some more baked goods from the ladies outside, it was just right for another lazy day of reading and chatting about nothing in particular. At one point someone said, “It’s Tuesday, right?” My reply was, “REALLY?!” I had completely lost track of time. Even so, I think that traveling by train is a better way to change time zones. You get to ease into the new schedule, go by what the sky says rather than your watch. It’s a lot better than flying across the continent, where suddenly you get off the plane and BAM! You have to force your body to adjust in a single day. The only bad part about this is that the schedule is all on Moscow-time (to avoid confusion in the railway system, I guess), so when it says you’re stopping at 9 at night, it’s actually quite late, and the pickings as far as baked goods are concerned are pretty slim.
At about this time, a bunch of ladies started walking the corridors selling lots of warm stuff – scarves, shawls, hats, all those things you need to keep warm in the Siberian winter. I decided to wait a bit longer and go shopping at the local market in Irkutsk – I think it’ll probably be a lot cheaper.
Also, when we stopped in Omsk, my phone miraculously started working again. Tele2 has weird coverage – it works in St. Petersburg and in random regions of Siberia, but not in Moscow. Oh well. That means you can call me again – just use the same 254-230-1818 as always (or call me directly at +79500035886 if you want to be really nice). I've been having issues with it lately, but it should be working again soon.
After a failed attempt to get some good snacks in Omsk, I resorted to the restaurant car, which was conveniently located just two cars down from me. I had some really good beef stroganoff with rice, though the portion was a bit small and the staff was a bit rude.
By this time I was getting into the second book I had chosen for the adventure – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It took me awhile to get into it, but by the time I finished it on Wednesday night, I was glad that I had read it. It just latched on to me and wouldn’t let me put it down all the next day. Now I want to see the movie (I know, it’s weird that I haven’t, when I’ve seen everything else), to see if they do it justice.
I finally decided that I had had enough of this dirtiness and decided to cough up the 126 rubles it costs to take a shower. While it was more like a dribble of water, it did get me to feeling clean again and it was nice and warm. And the shower was surprisingly large for a train. I was expecting something a lot more cramped, like the shower on the ferry boat to Finland that I took earlier in the summer.
Wednesday was also a day of “Faulknerian moments”, as our dear Dr. Towner would put it. There was a reference to “Barn Burning” in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which made me really want to read the story again. Unfortunately my Portable Faulkner doesn’t include that story. I’m realizing in retrospect that it would have been better to bring the Collected Stories rather than the Portable Faulkner, seeing as how it was more short stories I wanted to read after this last semester, and I’ve read most of the ones in the PF. But c’est la vie (my roomies laughed when they heard me say this, not knowing that its one of my favorite little phrases). Also, as night fell and I could no longer see anything out the window, I couldn’t help but think of the “spyglass theory.” I can’t remember which novel it’s from (Light in August?), but it goes something along the lines that it is easier to look out from darkness into the light than to look at the dark from the light. I almost which I had taken a lot more time for the rail trip, so that I could be on the train only during the day and be able to see all the changes in the landscape. But we can’t have everything, and time was running out.
Sometimes on the train I felt like I was in a time warp. There were so many seemingly anachronistic things about it. And I’m not just talking about the 80’s (and earlier) music on the radio (that’s everywhere in Russia). The employees all wore uniforms that reminded me of 60’s-era airline stewardess – skirt-suits with nylons and pumps. Except of course when we stopped at night – then they would don these outrageously huge trench coats and hold up these ancient lanterns so the we could see as we got off and the workers checking the stability of the wheels would be able to see as well. Also, everyone was smoking like chimneys everywhere (also another trans-Russia thing, I think, not just a unique quality of the train). It all struck me as very cool – I can’t think of any way I could have the same experience in America, even if I decided to take an Amtrac train all the way across the country. But anyway, I’m digressing again.
We stopped in Ilanskaya for awhile and found some of the best food of all the stops. Not only were the babushkas very well organized here, but they had a much wider range of foods. Aside from the usual piroshki and such, they also had boiled eggs, salads and sauerkraut, cooked potatoes, and (get this) crawfish (at least that’s what they resembled and how they were cooked – I’m not exactly sure what they were).
I got some snacks, but also left a bit of room for a farewell-to-the-train meal in the restaurant car. I had a beefsteak with egg and rice (mmmm, tasty) and enjoyed a couple of beers with the other single diners. Then I went back to the cabin and finished up the book. After that I was entirely too pensive, and had a lot of trouble going to sleep. But I think that’s a good sign for a book – if it doesn’t disturb you, make you cry, or at least get you to thinking, what was the point? When I finally did get to sleep, I had the thought on my mind that when I got up in the morning, we would be arriving in Irkutsk (finally).
Just like with all my other arrivals in recent months, it was raining when we pulled into Irkutsk. Svetlana met me at the car and took me by taxi to the dorm. From the outside, it looks a lot worse than the one in St. Petersburg (if that’s possible) but once we got upstairs to the room, I could see that it was a lot better. The rooms had recently been redone (and redone well, not slapped together like the “redone” rooms were in St. Pete’s). And instead of kitchenettes, there’s a full-fledged kitchen for every four rooms. Since there is only one other girl in my block at the moment, that means we have the kitchen to ourselves. Of course, now I need to go buy some plates and cutlery and such, but that shouldn’t be a problem.
After a shower and a nap, I headed to the university with Svetlana to get started on my registration. The whole process was a lot quicker and smoother than in St. Petersburg. Not only did all the ladies in the office speak English well (it IS a linguistic university, after all), but one of them even showed me around and told me where to show up in the morning for orientation and a meeting with the dean. Wow. So much better than the two hectic weeks I spent trying to sort things out in St. Petersburg. Of course, we’ll have to see if this stands the test of time. I think it will – it seems like a good place.
I have to extend my visa anyway, so I’m looking into possibly making it into a multi-entry visa. If that happens, I’m going to try to take a side trip to either Ulan Bator (Mongolia) or to visit the boys (Liam and James) in China. Maybe they could meet me halfway? I don’t know – we’ll see. It all depends on the coming weeks.
I had to sit through a bunch of meetings this morning for all the foreign students. It was nice to have an orientation, even if I didn't comprehend a lot of what the people were saying. Apparently September 1st is the first day of school for ALL students in Russia, not just at the university. So all the little girls were walking to school with bows and their hair and flowers for the teacher. It was so cute! It definitely had the Harry Potter feel to it.
I did manage to screw up royally this afternoon. After all the meetings the morning, the dean was talking to me and apparently set a time for a meeting - which I didn't understand and therefore missed. Only I could manage to piss off the dean in a day's time. I hope she'll understand - I just didn't know what she was saying. I have to go see her on Monday morning. I won't know my schedule until then. I'm so sick of not knowing what's going on.
Just one more little side note – I am now 14 hours ahead of Central Standard Time, so if you do feel inclined to contact me, do so with a little discretion as far as the time of day. I’ll wake up for you, of course, but it might be a bit hard for me to do so at 4 in the morning.
Okay, I think I have sufficiently bored you all to tears for now. If I think of anything else, you know me – I’ll post it. There’ll be new pictures on flickr in a day or two, as soon as I can find a place that will let me load them.
Ciao for now.