Saturday, 3rd October, 2015
- Day 32/298
Back in the relatively big smoke of Irkutsk, I reward myself with a day and night of cutting loose.
The common room at Hostel Baikal Story is a good space for meeting people.
Last night, while eating some revolting swamp plant, which looked better on the can, I met two vibrant young women. The complete opposite of my dinner, they were both Dutch but had completely different appearances. They were travelling to Indonesia and Australia, respectively, but the one headed to Oz was planning to work.
Today, at breakfast, I meet an architect. He is travelling around Russia, Mongolia, then south of Moscow, before heading back to Belgrade, Serbia. Despite running a company there with six other architects, he’s concerned about his job security in the future. We talk at length, and seem to share a middle aged anxiety – stay in a job that may not go anywhere, or quit your job and go and live your life? Or somewhere in the middle. Is there even a middle?
He likes the idea of bicycle touring and is impressed by the Troll, saying that it doesn’t look new or expensive. This is reassuring, though I’m surprised at his comment given that it’s only just over a month old. Maybe it’s the mud? He warns me to be careful in the winter temperatures.
In spite of his concerns, it’s great to finally have some English speaking travellers to share life with.
After fixing the brakes on the Troll, I decide to cut loose with a mapless hoon around Irkurtsk.
This takes me north, over the River Ushakovka and past a large roundabout, to the Znamenskiy Zhenskiy Monastery.
Poking my nose inside, I find that there’s a service of sorts in progress. Feeling uncomfortably like a camera toting tourist, I decide to beat a hasty retreat, but not before I’ve captured some stealth audio recordings from the foyer.
From what I can tell from my quick glimpse, it is a high Catholic Church rather than a monastery. When I think of monasteries, I think of chanting Buddhist monks, but I suppose that they could equally be singing Catholic monks.
It’s windy and overcast so after a quick lap around the grounds, I head back into town. However the roads aren’t set up for cyclists at all, and my mapless route seems to take me over a disproportionate number of bridges, which I’m forced to cycle over with the rest of the traffic.
Getting back into town in one piece, I feel almost invincible.
And then off a small park, I find a diamond in the rough – fire trucks!
And not just a couple of appliances, languishing away in the old fire station, but a whole line-up of them, spanning the ages. Because fire’s quite old, isn’t it?
Lined up in the carpark over the fence, their shiny red liveries positively radiate heat. Their large grills and keen eyes tell me that they might be retired, but they’re ready to pounce into action, at the merest whiff of smoke.
Full of attitude, they remind of the post apocalyptic battle trucks in the Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a child. White walled tyres, massive bosomy fenders, star jump wing mirror mounts and contrasting details. Style plus!
Who doesn’t like fire engines? Not me! I love them all!
It’s Saturday, so I decide that it’s high time to check out the local nightlife.
I wander into town and search for a restaurant or bar where one wouldn’t look too out of place in camping clothes.
On the streets I pass a shiny green Lada and recall its muddy counterpart, driven by the friendly farmer in rainy Oloy. This one is pimped out in white mags and low profile tyres and couldn’t be cleaner.
The KwakInn Belgian Beer Bar ticks all the boxes, and I take a seat at the bar. A man named Sasha is on bar tender duties. He seems like a natural, but is not the owner. That honour goes to another man, dressed in the official shop shirt, who is far more reserved.
I’m not sure about my timing though. Shortly after taking a seat at the bar, two people from the local radio station, Fresh FM, start their routine over the loud PA system. They interview pub goers, and select couples to compete in silly competitions. These include skulling a litre of beer, eating a spicy pizza, or reading poetry with a mouthful of toast. I’m surprised that vodka doesn’t feature in the challenges.
As the odd one out, I can’t avoid a few questions from Fresh FM, but they are merciful and I’m excused from further embarrassment. It’s all quite entertaining, although I don’t really have a clue what’s going on.
The range of beers here is fantastic and I enjoy bottles of Piraat, Bruegel, Gulden Draak 9000 Quad, Abdij Averbode, Floris Framboise, and La Trappe Quadrupel. Paired with a small cone of Belgian Frites and some deliciously fatty Flemish sausages, the total comes to NZD 61.50, certainly more than the usual budget but much less costly than gorging myself like this at home.
Most people in the bar are seated in wooden booths and engaged in the competitions, or are intent on hanging with their mates. I feel a bit lonely at the bar, and mostly focus on repeated consumption and intermittent chit chat with Sasha.
However I do meet the regional representative of MTC Russia. Aged 31, he tells me about the (five?) different mobile providers in Russia and his love of travel, both to Germany and also to Australia. I’m surprised, both that he is so well off, and that he likes to travel to my corner of the globe. He gives me his number in case I need anything, a friendly gesture, though I am only here for a few more days anyway.
My belly full, I go in search of a night club to dance it off.
Unfortunately I can’t find anything that looks sufficiently underground, but I do have fun wandering the dark parks and streets, and meeting various people, including a man requiring a lighter.
Refilling my wallet from a local ATM is not as risky as I’d imagined. The machine sits in its own brightly lit lobby rather than being set into a ‘hole in the wall’ as I’m used to.
Heading down, underground, I pass under a large barrel to enter Traktir Bochka (the barrel tavern).
In a nod to the university pub, The Prodigy are playing over the sound system, Smack my bitch up. The music doesn’t seem to intimidate the girls here. They’re pretty, but it could be the beer, and I’m too underdressed to impress anyway.
But it’s after midnight, and people seem more social now. I’m befriended by a younger man named Vlad, his girlfriend and bearded mate. Over the background din of music and loud chatter, they ask me where I’m from and I respond by trying, often in vain, to load various photos and maps on my phone.
Various others come and go. People ask if Vlad is bothering me, but I’m glad of the company. I just wish that communication wasn’t so difficult and I knew how to ‘Russianise’ words to get my point across. But alas, most of what I say is met by a melancholy I no understand.
Not put off by this, the three of them shout me beer and delicious toast fingers. I’m worried that they’re over spending on this relatively wealthy tourist. When I insist on returning the favour, Vlad sends his girlfriend home.
Continuing on without her, I’m nervous about the ensuing vodka-and-testosterone-fuelled debauchery.
But our male misbehaving is capped at commandeering a bronze steer for selfies, and before long we end up at a disappointingly empty and tacky cocktail bar. Its saving grace is the deep R&B jams, over which we can all hear each other a little better. They order whiskey and colas but again they insist on paying. But, as we leave, they admit to being broke. I pick up the ~800 rouble bill and again feel bad about their boundless hospitality.
Vlad pulls out his smartphone and shows me pictures of cars he likes, and videos of him doing burn outs, adding a different perspective to my first night in Irkutsk. Wishing me well, he asks his bearded friend to drive me back to the hostel in his boy racer car.
Departing with a loud blast of the horn, I stumble up the steep staircase, passing under the disapproving stare of the Think of Others! Be Quiet! poster. It’s going on 4 am.