Old men, a супермаркет, and the worst “hotel” in Siberia.

  “Head down the rotten staircase into the poorly-lit basement. Take a right at the leopard-print couch, walk past the moldy bathroom, and the shower will be inside the next door on your right-hand-side.”

These are actual, functional directions for the “hotel” slash “apartment building” we reluctantly slept in at Irkutsk. Seriously – the most horrific, unsanitary and, to be quite frank, unsafe place I’ve laid my head in a long time. The only thing that could have fixed it? A bottle of bleach and a match.

Irkutsk 3

I can still SMELL the place when I look at this picture. Gross.

Okay. So I’m (finally!) back to chronicling our Transsiberian adventures. I’ll keep to writing about what’s happening in my life now, but I promised myself I’d complete the documentation of last year’s adventures, too. This story is taken straight from the pages of my transsiberian journal. It’s a bit late in making it into my blog, but hey – I traveled without my laptop for 6 months last year, so it’s no wonder I’m behind! :)

Last we left off – Sal and I were exploring Irkutsk and had just managed to find a lovely Russian girl who helped us discover reading material for the long train ride ahead. I bought The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, a novel woven around the premise of a visit by the Devil to the fervently atheistic Soviet Union (many critics consider the book to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, and one of the foremost Soviet satires, directed against a suffocatingly bureaucratic social order). I would recommend it to anyone (especially if you plan to visit Russia!). It was the perfect companion for our long train ride ahead.

We were about to get on a train. And we weren’t going to get off the train for five days. FIVE DAYS. Sometimes it surprises me the things I decide to put myself through.

Russian pub food.

I digress. After we left the university campus, Sal and I, totally uncharacteristically ;), got distracted by pints in an extraordinarily kitschy pub with a friendly tabby cat in downtown Irkutsk. We ordered some food (potato pancake and broccoli? I don’t know, it was weird), and made friends with the resident cat. By the time we decided we should head back to the hotel, it was 5pm. Transfer from the hotel to the train was at 6pm, and we still needed to buy groceries for our 5 day train ride across the country (which we were now an hour and a half of sober time away from missing entirely).

We thought we knew where we were going. Clearly our sense of direction was lost somewhere at the bottom of our pints of Baltika 7’s. We got distracted by a camel, bought woolen socks from a Russian street vendor, were overwhelmed by new sights and smells in a winter produce market and by the time we got serious about getting back, we were completely turned around and had no idea where we were.

Irkutsk vegetable vendorIrkutsk Camel.

Auto Imported Photos-4.jpgSo we did what any rational and reasonable idiots would do. We asked a couple of the oldest Russian men we could find for directions. Delirious as ever, they proceed to fight like a couple stray cats over our current location. Great. And not only did they clearly have no idea where we were, but I’m convinced their aged eyeballs couldn’t even see the map at all. This became an undeniable truth when, after several gruff huffs and puffs, they exhaled and, defeated, produced pairs of cracked spectacles from somewhere in the nether regions of their tweed sweater vests.

Once they’d decided which direction we should go (both pointing in opposite directions, of course), we thanked them, “spa-see-ba!” and quickly got on our way, worse off than we were before we’d stopped to ask in the first place, and even more confused than ever. This tractor (?) didn’t help.

Irkutsk 4

Really short on time now, and starting to lose hope that we’d have a chance to buy groceries at all… Nothing like getting on a train for 5 days with zero provisions whatsoever.

After 15 minutes of running around lost, and by some magical grace of glory, we finally spotted a street name that we recognized from our map. Glorious.
Irkutsk home

Hard right, running, hard right again. And there it was, the супермаркет (supermarket) across from our hotel. Great success!

I sprint into the store while Sal books it to the hotel to stall the driver who we’d organized to take us to the train station. It’s well past 6 by now, and we literally have minutes until our train leaves for Moscow. If we miss this train, we’re going to be stranded in Siberia forever. Forever. So, throwing my purse into locker #25 (because you’re not allowed to bring purses into Russian supermarkets, apparently), I proceed to run around the store like a woman gone mad. I throw as much random shit into my basket as I can. I’m not even looking at what I’m buying. I don’t care.

Had I known that the train awaiting us would have vodka hidden in every nook and cranny, maybe I wouldn’t have thrown so much booze into our basket. Perhaps I would have left room for actual food.

But such things only become clear in retrospect.

We made the train. With our backpacks and our bag of “groceries”, we stepped on for the longest train ride of our lives.