Asia / Europe / Russia

Irkutsk. Siberian Heart-on.

When I close my eyes, dreaming about travelling halfway across the world, all I can see is Siberian infinity. The scary wilderness somehow domesticated by white cities randomly far-flung on the endless green sea of Taiga, comforting me that it’s still the same old world I know. Siberia, Kremlin’s treasury, rich in resources, including coal, oil and metal ores. Siberian gold attracting every sort of daredevils and rabble-rousers since ages. Precious natural furs protecting the locals when the temperature drops to minus 60 degrees. The big WHITE. If in Italy, all roads lead to Rome, in Siberia they will take you to Irkutsk – the ancient crossroads of trade routes. Wooden houses collapsing under the burden of the history. Proximity of sacred lake Baikal, the Angara and the Irkut rivers determines the soul of the city and its people: calm, kind, patient and generous. Needless to say, I didn’t have to look for more inspiration to write today’s post.

Charming wooden houses will welcome you in the capital of East Siberia – Irkutsk.They speak to Russia’s history and culture.

Anton’s father.

What goes around comes around aka the “thong” song. 😉

Do you remember that post from Peru in which I was telling you the story of our CS host from Lima, who couldn’t host us, because there was a Russian family at his place at the same time? Mau turned out to be a cool block, so since then, even though he didn’t host us, we were talking on whatsup from time to time. His big dream was to go to Russia, so when he realized I was actually gonna live there for 2 months he was well jell. He got excited and decided to put me in touch with Anton. The Russian family he hosted, was from Siberia. What a coincident! At first, I was a bit reluctant – come on, that guy lives in Germany now, how could he possibly help me – I thought. Well, never say never! I started chatting with him and he basically put together my itinerary. It also turned out that his grandpa used to be a captain on one of the ships cruising regularly on Lake Baikal. How cool is that? I love to collect amazing stories I can share with you on my blog!

When I mentioned we were going to spend a night in Irkutsk Anton suggested staying at his father’s place. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? He has never see me in his life and he is offering me staying at his parents. This is so unbelievably generous. I am really tempted to say – such things… only in Russia! 🙂

Obviously we accepted that fantastic offer (what an awesome story for The Wildest Tales!) and after our glorious week at Lake Baikal we stayed at Anton’s father.

130- kvartal it’s kind of Old Town in Irkutsk. I say kind of because it fact, there are just two little streets packed with wooden houses, but if this is how the city looked in XIX century – take me back in time! It’s gorgeous! 

The taxi driver not only smokes in the car, but also rips us off, asking us to pay 500 RUB for the ride. He writes down his number, thinking we would call him again in the very near future. Over my dead body! Anton’s father lives far from the city center in a huge, sad block of flats in the middle of a real concrete jungle. This is Irkutsk. Once we get there, he explains us where to catch a bus to the Old Town, but it’s kind of far and we are tired and like nooo… so he decides to give us a lift. Thank God! Otherwise I am sure we would get lost. Navigating among those big blocks of flats doesn’t seem to me a piece of cake.

Wooden houses (wood is and was the cheapest material to build) of Irkutsk with embellished shutters, once beautiful, now quickly degrading, being destroyed by time. The are literally collapsing to the ground. Even though it’s definitely shocking that the council doesn’t really care (or so it seems) I can’t deny that those old (some even 100 years old!) crooked houses are very charming – this is how I will remember Siberia.

Tiny, quiet and purdy streets meet those much bigger and modern. A clear contrast between the dull, new buildings, growing like unwelcome weed, slowly, but persistently taking over the city. We walk with no direction simply enjoying the day. Indian Summer in Irkutsk is warm and pleasant. We stumble upon a small market, willing to spend some money, but it turns out that the traditional Russian hats, we are so crazy about, are way more expensive in Siberia than in Moscow. We walk on Gagarin Boulevard where we can admire calm waters of Angara river. On a lazy, hot, Thursday afternoon the boulevard seems so quiet, even though it is one of the major meeting points for local people.

Wandering around Irkutsk you can find many beautiful wooden houses like the one above. I took so many pictures it was difficult then to choose only a few for the blog. Blue and green are 2 favorite colors in Siberia. Blue is a symbol of hope and green is for long life and youth. White is symbolic of purification.
Beautifully embellished shutters – folk art at its best!
In Siberia, wooden houses are built in pine and cedar. Sometimes the foundation is of larch because it is firm and when put under water became as strong as iron. The upper part is constructed our of pine, because it helps to retain heat inside the house.
The fate of these buildings is a challenge for the city. Most of the oldest wooden houses are about to collapse and it seems to me that no one really cares! 🙁
Apart from wooden houses there are many beautiful churches in Irkutsk. Most of them were destroyed during the Soviet epoch; however, fortunately, far from all of the churches suffered this fate.

Oleg picks us up in the late afternoon. Time for the real WILDEST TALES! 🙂 We can’t get enough of them, can we? Let’s start with some basic facts. I do speak Russian. Maybe my Russian is not perfect, but I can communicate. Different accents though, can really destroy my self – confidence.

Oleg’s accent is one of the most difficult I’ve heard in Russia. I’m forcing my grey cells to process it, but even then I have to guess half of what he is actually saying. My best friend finds it really hilarious when Oleg says something and I nod my head with a very serious “DA” on my face. He is still waiting to get my reply so eventually I realize he was asking me about something, but I completely didn’t get it. Damn those foreign languages! 

Life is fair though and he, who laughs last, laughs best. When we first arrive at Oleg’s place we are welcomed by him and his big, fat cat. My best friend is scared of cats. She hates them, yet somehow, each time we travel, there is a cat around (have you read THIS post from our trip to Vilnius?). You can imagine what sort of horror it was for her to spend a day being followed by that furry beast. Oleg’s cat is not only big, but also curious, so much it decides to jump on my best friend. I would lie if I didn’t admit that it was a spectacular jump. I’ve never seen my friend so petrified and we know each other for more than 20 years! Oleg turns out to be very understanding and to avoid more casualties, he locks the cat (poor thing!) in a room and everything comes back to normal.

Before our arrival to Irkutsk I was emailing Oleg to confirm everything with him and he randomly asked me if we had any wishes in regards to the dinner. We generally eat everything so I was happy to go with his choice, but something typical for Siberia would be nice – I replied imagining a true fest with fresh omul (fish) and all the super healthy organic Siberian goods – Anna and I wearing Russian hats and drinking vodka. Do it like a Tsar! 😉 I’m kidding now, but it is not quite as funny, when we get to the exact dinner and the food being served by Oleg…

At first I think that he gave us some sort of calamari, oval shaped things with some weird looking bits wait a minute… is it… is it really… HEARTS!!!! Yuck. I was dead serious when I said I liked everything but you know, even I have my limits and stuff like hearts or stomachs are from the extreme menu! When Oleg is busy looking for salt and pepper I’m secretly pushing my portion onto his plate. He doesn’t notice it so I can now be proud of myself that I ate everything so fast, but suddenly he says “well I did make a lot… are you sure you don’t want more” and he is about to gave me back those hearts!!! Damn Russian hospitality. 🙂

Net, net, spasibo – I squeal. In Poland, when someone is very generous we say “have one’s heart on one’s hand”. In Russia, we found hearts on our plates. I do believe, it means the same. Russian people are simply amazing, hospitable and kind. They will give you everything, including their hearts!

POST SCRIPTUM:

When I came back to Poland I got an email from Oleg. He was asking me if we haven’t forgotten anything. I always double check before I leave so I was pretty sure we took everything.

APPARENTLY HIS WIFE FOUND A THONG IN THE BATHROOM.

IT WASN’T OURS.

LOL.

I LOVE RUSSIA!

Angara river, Irkutsk.
The old windows were similar to the windows of a palace in a Russian fairy-tale. The ornaments were not only decorative, but also symbolic. The symbols depicted different hopes, and dreams of the people of that time. For example – people believed that evil spirits could enter the dwelling through doors and windows frames.
These old houses seem at risk for rapid demolition to make way for new offices and retail space.
Wooden architecture of Irkutsk is so romantic. It is easy to imagine that inside is a warm and comfortable place from which to escape the Siberian winter, to sit near a massive, traditional Russian stove for hours over tea.
My fave pictures – Windows on Siberia. Such a shame Oleg didn’t leave in one of those houses!

This is the last post from my 2-month trip to Russia. It makes me a bit sad and nostalgic. I was going to Russia with hopes to find amazing WILDEST TALES and I was blessed to experience much, much more than that! Starting with finally discovering my faveourite European city – a month in St Petersburg was indeed an unforgettable experience, through true friends who made me fall in love with Moscow, to the greatest adventure of my life (so far) – the Trans-Siberian Journey and one week at Lake Baikal. Russia is a fascinating country. I often feel thankful for the opportunity to actually live there. I loved everything about my trip. Don’t wait for a better moment, visa free entrance or any other reason to go. Real adventure has one direction and it’s the east. Real adventure’s name is Russia. I would call a fool the one who doesn’t see its magic and beauty hidden in the hearts of people who apparently “never smile”.

  • I don’t know if it would’ve been better if the thong was yours… heheh. Great stories! Makes me want to visit Siberia for sure. (But in the summer, definitely not the winter.)

    • Anna Kapys

      ha! exactly 🙂 I would love to go in winter but you know it always sounds more romantic than it is… I am just imagining myself skating on frozen lake Baikal wearing a fluffy Russian hat 😀

      • Yep, it sounds romantic til that -60C windchill hits you!

        • Anna Kapys

          it reminds me of that woolly mammoth found frozen in Siberia in May 2015 – at least my remains will remain perfectly-preserved 🙂

  • Ruth Earley

    Love this! I’m there 🙂

    • Anna Kapys

      Hi Ruth! Is it still snowing? 🙂 If so you should tell me how did you survive as I want to go in winter next time 🙂

      • Ruth Earley

        Sorry, I meant ‘I’m there’ as in, you have convinced me – decision made…. I’m really in Greece. Definitely not snowing!!! Sorry if I confused you. But I definitely will be in Irkutsk sometime soon after reading this 🙂

        • Anna Kapys

          Oh! I get you now 😊 if you decide to hop on trans siberian train any time in the future just give me a shout im more than happy to help with the logistics. Let’s break the spell – Russia is a really great (and safe) country to travel! In the meantime enjoy the Sun and moussaka yum x