Day 13: Irkutsk , Around Irkutsk

A paved path marks the boundary of a pedestrian square filled with enigmatic art, in Irkutsk.
Sculpture central.

I awake to a grey sort of a day, and take my time to sort myself out.

There’s a map on the wall, which shows icons of the wildlife living around Lake Baikal. Deer, moose, squirrels, pigs, wolves and … bears. I’m sure I could deal with a squirrel or two, but it’s somewhat unnerving to see so many large bear icons. They’re only cartoon bears, but I expect that the real ones will be much more animated.

Feeling somewhat unprepared for my impending wild-camping bearathon, I enlist Polina’s help to tick off a few things from my TODO list. She obliges with written translations of dietary items, and I combine her knowledge of gear shops with some excellent touring info found on Mark and Julie’s Russia page (opens new window).

First, I want to sort out my bike lights, but, despite the big flashy interior, the X-Master store only appears to sell general purpose sporting equipment. A young lady smiles at me but then looks very anxious when I start speaking in English. Luckily her male equivalent is up for the challenge, and I leave with several spontaneous purchases, of socks and a t-shirt.

The second store, FanSport, is the real deal, and sells serious camping equipment. With my weight-restricted long-haul flight behind me, I am free to purchase whatever I can carry. I buy a tall, weighty thermos for cold nights, a large, collapsible water container for the desert, some kerosene for my Primus OmniFuel stove, and a heavy collapsible pick and spade for snow camping. The shop owner is helpful, but sighs a lot. In return, I apologise a lot.

All up, I spend 8300 roubles on gear. It sounds like a lot of money, but it’s not quite 200 NZ dollars. Still, the prices of consumer goods are much higher here than I expected, and I’m glad that I have a healthy bank balance to dip in to.

I don’t do travel guidebooks.

I don’t like the idea of a city being boiled down to a few pages of droll statistics and recommendations. Where people experience a skewed idea of a place, rather than the place itself, inevitably meeting an unhealthy number of other tourists along the way.

I prefer to randomly find my own gems. But the downside, is that I have pretty much no idea what it all means.

Take these bronze monkeys for example. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Yup, I know this one, but why are these bronze plated primates sitting in this mysterious square, and why is one wearing the same velcro Bata Bullets that I wore to primary school? And what about that chilled bronze ox/cow? Are these well-meaning creatures good omens to superstitious locals, or simply something cooked up by the local art population?

Out on the streets, the city almost feels Italian.

Old paint colours coat tired buildings with small balconies, and trolley bus wires hang like Christmas lights, near churches.

The streets are wide. Intersections bustle with traffic – trolley buses, mini-buses, cars and trams. Most people seemed to be jammed into the mini-buses. Perhaps they are workers heading home to the suburbs.

My belly is rumbling, so I head to a local diner.

The interior is super quirky, a mixed-media extravaganza of old-school and weird-school. Tartan booths, abstract art, twisted radiator pipes and false walls with fake holes.

The food is, somewhat disappointingly, from a buffet, which is controlled by an oily waitress. She doesn’t look enthusiastic about helping me to construct my perfect meal and I get the impression that this place is not known for its service or its cuisine. At NZD 8 for my meal, it’s not winning any prizes for price, either.

I end up with unidentified fish, rice, potatoes, steamed vegetables and a splash of Day-Glo sauce. The sauce is spicy, the highlight of the meal, and I wash it all down with apple juice from a plastic cup.

Satiated if not satisfied, I head to a supermarket to buy supplies for the journey ahead. The store sound system is playing video game dance music and guitar solos. NZD 45 buys a motley assortment of oats, honey, noodles, bananas, scroggin, Nutella, Japanese coffee, crackers and caramel chocolates.

On the way home, I see homeless dogs sprawled in public spaces.

They look like they haven’t eaten in days and are near to the end. Beautiful but unloved, people walk quickly past them, oblivious to their suffering.

Whether they are forgotten pets, guard or farm dogs too old to work, I can’t tell. I just want to give them big hugs and tell them that they’re my best friends. But instead I tell them that, next time, I’ll bring lunch.