Day 26: Irkutsk , Around Irkutsk, Part 2

A spray painted cosmonaut shares a wall with promotional flyers.
Selling space.

At a loose end, I wander the streets in search of inspiration.

On a concrete wall, a painted cosmonaut appears to floats in zero gravity. Tethered to an unseen spacecraft, he seems both free to roam and a prisoner to his oxygenated lifeline, on the clock.

A few blocks away, an immortalised backpacker gazes skywards. His dumbfounded expression suggests an insurmountable peak, or perhaps he’s just spotted the cosmonaut.

Elsewhere, the art varies between loud statements, intricate aerial cityscapes, and a lady in a bikini. I feel cold just looking at her.

A movie poster with backwards typography signals a nearby cinema.

The actor in the background is a dead ringer for one of my old flatmates. And is that Kurt Russell in the foreground, surely he’s older now.. and.. does it even matter?

I buy an ice-cream. I loved eating ice-cream back home in New Zealand, but there is something disappointing about sitting here, eating one now. Perhaps it’s the background din of capitalism, the low-rise, grey-sky view, or perhaps living in nature just ruins your appetite for civilised pleasures.

And what am I doing in this mall anyway?

Turning my attention to the skyline, I eventually find inspiration in the form of blue skies and the architecturally perfect walls of the Irkutsk Tourist Information Office.

Located in the gorgeous Shastin ‘lace’ house, the building is a lovely thing to behold, as is the lovely lass behind the counter. She is busy on the phone, but eventually comes to my aid, offering me tea and biscuits and pointing me in the direction of the maps and brochures.

There, I meet a fellow traveller, who has recently finished walking the Great Baikal Trail, or GBT.

During my trip planning, I’d salivated over photos of the GBT. They showed train tracks running next to an impossibly blue, sparkling lake. I’d hoped that I could ride along its banks, but everything that I’d read suggested that it was a walking track, built with volunteer labour and probably not suitable, or appropriate, for touring bikes. And so I’d contacted the local bike touring group, asked for advice, and settled on my route of the last few weeks, instead.

But now, with a second opportunity in front of me, I have to reconsider my plans. On the one hand, I’ve just ridden through a geographically similar area, seen the lake a number of times, in a number of moods, and am painfully aware that sunshine and warm sparkly vibes are in short supply at this time of year. On the other hand, I only have a one month visa, and I know that it will take some time to get to the Mongolian border at my current pace.

I know the reality of the situation, but I still want to believe that those pictures are real, and that I too can bathe in that picture-perfection, if I go there.

The man is encouraging, but is on his own mission, so I thank him, and enquire after track and lodging information from the assistant. She hands me these, bus information, and the contact number for the information centre, should I need it. Then I’m on my way.

Feeling good and full of purpose, I hope to make the most of Irkutsk before I have to leave again.

I’d love to have a hot soak, but I’m unsure how to spot a banya, and whether I’m brave enough to actually go in. Before I know it I’m back at the hostel, banya-less.

Telling the owners of my travel plans, they tell me that they can give me a lift down to the trailhead at Listvyanka, as they’re about to depart on a short holiday of their own.

To celebrate my imminent departure, I go out for a beer with the man from the hostel.

It’s a nice gesture and I learn a little about how came to be here and his relationship with the owner. Plus he gives me some advice about a place to stay when I get to Ulaanbaatar.

But it’s strange to find myself in a university bar, of all places, and even stranger to hear western rock music and see Futurama playing on the flatscreen TV. Or perhaps it’s only strange because my university and Futurama days are well behind me.

I people-watch the younger people around me, and imagine that they are the academic elite, engaged in deep discussions about the political future of Russia. That would be pretty much the opposite of what I discussed in pubs back in my Uni days, but it adds the exotic element that seems to be missing from this very Kiwi situation.