Just a couple of kilometers before entering Irkutsk, a huge picture of Lenin has been laid on one of the hills that the train passes. Cheery, he greets all trains coming by.
Finding a hotel in Irkutsk wasn't all that easy. All the hotels the Planet suggested where gone, yes gone. Except one, the Angara. A very communist looking hotel and expensive, filled with Chinese and Koreans. The first room they offered me was about 35 dollars and only after pressing on for quite some time did they give me one for less, some 15 dollars. It did come with complimentary slippers and a good tub. But also 3 moths, who where happily flying around the room when I entered.
The bathroom also had two complimentary toothbrushes -with- toothpaste. The toothpaste however was completely dried up and wouldn't come out of the tube. Meanwhile, I noticed a cockroach escaping from my backpack.
My primary objective here in Irkutsk was to go and see lake Baikal. Before leaving on my trip I set two goals for myself. The first would be reaching Baikal, the second to go as far as Vladivostok. Vladivostok I had already 'done', so I had only one important objective left. After visiting Baikal, I would try St. Petersburg, although originally I had decided to go there some other time and then staying much longer.
The Aeroflot office in the hotel almost immediately ended the feasibility of my plans by disclosing that it was next to impossible to fly to either St. Petersburg or Moscow and I didn't want to go by train all the way. By now, I had seen enough of trains and the whole ride would simply take too long.
Another option was to visit the Black Sea area. Also something I wanted to do, as it would give me an opportunity to visit Volgograd, what used to be Stalingrad, the city completely sacked by the German and Russian armies when Hitler tried to secure the oilfields in the Caucasus in the 'Great Patriotic War'. I had an opportunity to fly to Sochi, that novo-Russki's holiday resort of holiday resorts, and I took it.
Walking back through the lobby of the hotel, a small boy, of about 10, tried to sell pictures his father was supposed to have made. After taking a look up close, I concluded the pictures where printed with a computer printer and some seemed like they had been adjusted with the help of a tool like Repligator. I decided not to buy, although the boy, speaking perfect English, was quite intriguing.
I spent most of the day strolling around town, taking in what the city had to offer. Irkutsk is a very nice place, filled with tree-lined boulevards, an impressive river, loads of terraces and hordes of young people with especially the girls dressed as lovely as possible and somehow all looking like young Sophia Lorens.
After seeing most of the city, I ended up in the city's main square. For a change not in the middle of town, but right on one of the shores of the river, the Angara. The place was filled with young people, standing in groups, many drinking beer. In the crowd, artists were showing off, vendors were selling ice cream, soda and snacks and that all-Russian type of food, shashlik could be had at several places around the square.
I had just found a place to read through my Lonely Planet, deciding on what I still needed to see in Irkutsk, when a very tall fellow asked me (with a heavy American accent) 'are you studying your Russian?'. Roma, as he was called, introduced me to a couple of his friends and told me he had spent some time in the States, studying law (and apparently having a great time, mentioning his time there in about every third sentence) and was now working for a US company in Irkutsk.
We got off pretty well and Roma invited me and his group of friends over to his place, where we spent the rest of the evening drinking vodka and beer and munching on a collection of Russian dishes. Being indoors was very convenient since it, quite suddenly, had started to rain badly. In short, it was a very good evening. What I found remarkable was, that Roma and all his friends (well, the ones I met) spoke very good English. Anyway, I had a very good time. I did take some time to convince the remainder of the group (Roma, two other guys and two girls) to not go swimming at 1am. In the rain.
From Katya, one of Roma's friends, I learned that it is a Buryatian custom to throw a bottle of vodka on the road just before going on a long journey (by road). Ulan Ude is the capital of Buryatia and Katya actually came from there, her mother coming to Irkutsk that very day (a seven hour drive). I wander what started that tradition, very bad vodka or drunk drivers.
Dima, another of Roma's friends who was also at his place told me the one joke that Russians know, featuring the Netherlands, or more precisely Amsterdam: Three men, one Russian, one American and one British are talking to another, telling each other how great their countries actually are. 'Our air force is so big', the American says, 'that if all our plains would be off the ground, they would block the sun completely'. 'Well', the Brit replies, 'if all our ships would be in the water, all the oceans of the world would be covered'. So the Russian guy listens and then starts to say, probably knowing its difficult to meet these extraordinary claims 'I have a friend from Amsterdam, he's got a dick that's 50cm long!' The other two, taken a little back by the Russian statement conclude that they can't beat a story like that. 'Well', the American says, 'actually, if all our planes would be in the air, you would still be able to see a little bit of the sun.' Then the Brit continues 'and some sees wouldn't actually completely be covered, if all our ships would be out there'. The Russian, knowing that he has overdone it a bit, feels he has to be a little bit more truthful as well towards his two friends. 'My friend doesn't actually live in Amsterdam', he says, 'but in some small town twenty minutes from Amsterdam'.
At the end of the evening, Roma walked me back from his apartment to a main road nearby. His place was pretty far from the center and he was going to help me get a car back to town. I actually ended up with an Armenian cab driver who just couldn't stop talking. Of course, he was convinced that I was Armenian too. Not knowing what would be the best truth to tell him, I just settled for being Armenian as well. The guy was delighted. I wanted to give him a tip when at the hotel, but he wouldn't accept it, just rambling on, saying that Armenians should help each other as often as possible.
When walking towards the main road, Roma warned me of getting calls in the night from people offering me girls. If that happened I should refuse, not accepting anything they would offer me. I only half believed the story, for one I hadn't been approached yet, and I started to enquire what a reasonable price would be for ordering a girl to your room. 'Well', Roma said gravely, 'it depends, but they sometimes start as low as 100 Rubles, you know.' I decided it had to be an 'urban legend', since 100 Rubles was only 4 dollars.
At the hotel, I was happy to finally be able to take a nap. A moth was flying around in the bathroom and just after lying down, the phone rang. Something in Russian and me saying I didn't speak any. Then, 'would you like a girl?' I didn't believe my ears. 'Would you like a girl', again. 'Ehm, no thanks', I said, remembering Roma's advice. 'Okay, good night' the friendly female voice said at the other side of the line. I started wondering and fell asleep.