June 7, 2002
I arrived in Irkutsk, Siberia yesterday and wanted to take a moment to catch you up on things. It has been quite an experience so far, so if you’d like, feel free to take a lengthy journey below to learn what observations I have made. It might be quite long, but I want to capture my thoughts at least for those most interested and for myself as a sort of journal. Here we go:
1. Siberia at this time of year is not a frozen wasteland. On the contrary, it is a vibrant, fresh, spring green countryside. The temperature has been consistently in the mid-eighties. If any of you have traveled across South Dakota’s Black Hills, you would have a good picture of what the most eastern section of Siberia looks like… minus the Wall Drug signs of course. As you progress further, you will see vast forests of birch trees similar to areas in Colorado. When you get near Irkutsk, the landscape becomes more hilly and full of fir trees. It looks very similar to the Willamette Valley when driving down I-5 toward Salem. There are large hills on each side in the distance lined with trees with green farmland in between.
2. There are villages and towns throughout the countryside. Most consist of small wood huts and houses with wood fencing surrounding their small plots of farmland. It looks like a very large cross-section of the population relies upon subsistence farming since it appears that any industry that once may have thrived is now defunct.
3. Every city and town is crumbling to pieces. Any factory, large apartment building, etc. made of brick or stone is falling apart. Large abandoned buildings are stripped of all useful materials and left sitting alone in ruins. It’s rather grim.
4. If you are in need of large supplies of rusted scrap metal, you have reached nirvana here in Siberia. It looks like a big “Sanford and Son” episode everywhere you go.
5. The average Russian does not speak a lick of English. (Editor’s note: A “lick” is an intensely small unit of measure in this context) Out of 15 cars on the train I was on, I could only find a retired Belgian couple that spoke English. I was surprised that the young people running the restaurant car didn’t speak any English at all, however, one guy could tell me he liked Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. I guess the Cold War is officially over.
6. I have first-class train tickets, however, Russians really don’t have a clue what first-class is. Don’t get me wrong, the cabin I was in was nice, but the bathroom… oy. And oh yeah, everything you do in there winds up getting dropped onto the tracks… yes, I mean everything. There is no shower on the train, either. At one point, I had considered taking 2nd class. I believe that going first-class will prove to be my most crucial decision of the trip.
7. I enjoyed the first leg of the train trip very much. I went a couple days without being able to speak English to anyone, which was quite strange. You ought to try it some time. It can be very lonely and frustrating. On the good side, I have gotten a lot of sleep since there isn’t much to do without being able to talk to people and go anywhere. If you want to step away from the rat race and wind down, this is a great way to do it.
8. Bathing is an optional practice in Russia. You can guess which option they usually choose. When you walk by a 2nd class cabin with four people inside, you must be very careful since the B.O. shoots out the door like a laser beam. Hot water in many cities is a luxury, too, due to the lack of electricity infrastructure that is required to provide it. During the summer months, Vladivostok, a city larger than Portland, often goes without hot water. It appears to be the same case in Irkutsk since I just took an arctic-grade shower in the apartment I am staying in. I had to do it since I am getting back on a train to Moscow today and won’t be able to shower for five days.
9. It is very confusing to keep up on what time it is at any given moment. From Moscow to Vladivostok, there are approximately 7 or 8 time zones. The rail system solves this problem by running their trains on Moscow time only. I tend to peg my clock on that time, too, for consistency. It’s just very strange going to breakfast at 3:00 AM and dinner at 2:00 PM and then have it shift an hour or two the next day. They don’t post a meal schedule in the restaurant car, so you have to walk through a couple cars to get there just to find out if it’s open. The food is great, ,though, once you break through the communication barrier. They also get used to what you like for each meal.
10. I thought I was in a single guy’s paradise when I first got to Russia. It appeared that none of the attractive women were married. As it turns out, a Russian man pointed out to me that Russians wear their wedding rings on the right hand instead of the left… oh, okay, that changed things.
11. Safety is not much of a concern in Russia (and in many other countries, too). Pedestrians do NOT have the right-of-way. Buses start driving away even as old women are still trying to climb on to take a seat. When you stop at a rail station, it’s nice to get out and stretch your legs. You generally know how long the stop is, but you don’t get any warning when the train leaves. It simply starts going. Everyone starts running for the nearest door and has to leap into the train. I found it to actually be a fun thing to do, though if I were to miss the train, I think I would be really screwed.
12. I haven’t feared for my own safety at all. I’ve maintained an extra level of vigilance, but so far, I have felt unthreatened. Russian people are very nice and like Americans. I won’t let my guard down, but so far, so good.
I guess that turned out to be my “Top 12” observations. I hope it gave you a picture of what Russian Siberia is like. I have made some grim comments about it, but I have actually been surprised how much it is what I expected. I haven’t said “Wow!” a lot since it appears that my picture of Russia before I came here has proven to be quite accurate.
The bottom line is that it feels like Russia is having to start completely over. The communist state could no longer fund a progress that only capitalism can provide. They have been relying upon a false economy for too long and they are facing the repercussions now. I tend to liken their current state to the way the U.S. was maybe a hundred years ago. Back then in the U.S., there were few laws to prevent corruption and the exploitation of the workers (something that communism actually was formed to solve), there were absolutely no environmental controls, and the infrastructure was only beginning to get built up. Russia now faces those challenges of evolving into a more stable capitalist-based economy. They have a ways to go.
There are glimmers of hope. They are embracing the West more, high-technology is creeping in, and the ruble is more stable now. They just have a huge mess to clean up. Irkutsk appears to be a one of the beacons of hope. It is a well-developed city with beautiful buildings, large supermarkets, and a very nice department store in the middle of town. It is a very “Western” type city that still retains it’s old world feel and style. I would love to come back here years from now to see the difference. Vladivostok could learn a lot from Irkutsk.
Well, I think I have been quite long-winded. Thanks for taking the time to listen. I must leave now to do a couple errands, then it’s off to my next train leg back to Moscow. You won’t hear from me for about five days. Take care and hope all is well.