Irkutsk is a bustling city with great history and engaging architecture. But dare venture outside the centre and you will get lost in a maze of identical, randomly numbered blocks.
With Sammi and Phil off enjoying the delights of Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal, I decided to have a few days solo in the city. I fancied a bit of culture and after all the camping my ripeness was starting to bother me; I needed a shower. They dropped me off and having made numerous plans on where and how to meet two days later, Sammi and Phil headed off as I tried to work out what to do regarding accommodation. Our couchsurfing contact was not replying to messages (which I later found out was because I’d drunkenly written his phone number down wrong) so I checked into a hostel for the night.
I spent the next two days wandering around the town, checking out some old churches. I took a look at the Decembrist museum, and found out that just like in the smaller city of Chita, many dissidents of the Tsar regime ended up in Irkutsk after being sent into exile in Siberia for their part in the revolt back the 19th century.
I had dinner with an American guy from the hostel and his Russian mate Dimitri at Rassolnik, a Soviet era restaurant in the 130 district. Potato pancakes, borsch, blini and beer in a slightly kitsch environment. Dinner was followed by more beer and a long walk next to the Reka Arenga River. Even with a few beers in the belly, navigating through the city center is easy, but as I attempted to explore more suburban parts of town, things got slightly puzzling.
The following day I finally got hold of Alex, the couchsurfing host, and headed off to his place. This was to be the first of many trials in locating places. The Russians don’t seem to have a particular system when it comes to numbering their buildings, so the address will read a street name or an area name and then the building number and then the flat number. Sounds easy? Not so. Often there are several of the same number building. There might be a 26a, 26b and 26d and in many cases building number 26 is not located next to either building 27 or 28. So I jumped in a cab and headed to Alex’s place. The taxi driver was a young tattooed football fanatic. When I gave him the address he looked surprised and asked ” Why are you going there? There is nothing for tourists there!” The journey was spent with me explaining couchsurfing and he his love of football in particular “Chelsea”. He had somewhat unsurprisingly never heard of Coventry City FC but didn’t seem to mind my lecturing him on the terrible state of my favorite club.
He dropped me off at what I thought was the right address and I went to ring the door bell- no answer. I stood there for about 10 minutes wondering where I could have gone wrong. The taxi driver drove back, opened his window and loudly asked: “Are you OK?” I insisted that I was and began to wander off. I realised I was in the middle of an area I didn’t know, looking for one tower block amongst hundreds of identical, randomly numbered blocks. Fortunately the driver came back a second time about 10 minutes later. ” Are you sure you’re OK?” This time I confessed that I was hopelessly lost. Luckily he had with him a little book showing all the blocks and their locations. He kindly took me to the correct block for no extra cost. I finally arrived at Alex’s place about an hour late. He welcomed me in and gave me a much needed cup of tea before he headed out to work for a few hours.
I sent Phil and Sammi the address. They soon replied and said they were in town, 30 minutes away. I went out and got the coldest beers I could find from the shop around the corner, and went back to wait. Over an hour passed, I had drunk the beers and was beginning to wonder if they had been stopped by the police. Time to head out and get more beers.
Just outside of Alex’s flat, I spotted Betty in the distance driving in the wrong direction! I waved my arms in the air, shouted and gave chase unsuccessfully, until she turned the corner. It would be another hour until I would spot Betty again and we would be reunited. Phil and Sammi had spent about two hours searching the neighbourhood for the flat.
That night we hung out with Alex at his place, ate a delicious vegetable curry, chatted and listened to music. Alex is a really friendly guy who works and studies at an English school in Irkutsk. He is very dedicated to his school and his flat is littered with “Easy school” merchandise. Him and some of his classmates made this video as an assignment.
He was also the first vegetarian teetotaler we had met in Russia. Fortunately he didn’t mind us drinking.
SHOOTING GUNS BEFORE CLUBBING
In the evening, we got ready to go into town to meet up with some of Alex’s friends to go to a club.
Tommy, another Easy Schooler, arrived. ” Before we go into town we will go to the forest!”, he said. And so off we headed to the forest for what turned out to be the most unlikely evening activity; shooting guns. Not exactly a pre-clubbing favorite in most parts of the world, but when in Russia… After hitting a few targets in the forest we went into Irkutsk to the 130 district.
The 130 district is a bustling new development of bars, restaurants, shops and clubs. We stopped by Harats, an English pub for over-priced beer and table football. We soon headed to another swank bar to meet up with some more of Alex’s work friends who were all young, spoke good English and incidentally happened to all be teetotal vegetarians. The club we later ended up at was called El Paso, an underground alternative DJ bar for drinks and dancing. The music was a mix of hip hop, electro and drum and bass and the place was fairly decent; the drinks were almost in budget and the vibe casual and unpretentious. After a boogie and a few too many drinks we headed off for a late night bite at Lapsa New York ramen shop. The ramen wasn’t bad, the tonkatsu pretty good, although not very authentic, but the miso soup is definitely one to avoid due to excessive saltiness. But perhaps as a long term Japan resident I have grown picky.
The next morning after a Talka vodka re-stock, it was back on the road and to wilderness camping. But going out of town turned out to be as tough as finding Alex’s place. Irkutsk is the turning point with regard to traffic and bad drivers. East of Irkutsk the traffic is relatively sparse, the roads poorer quality but the drivers, perhaps due to there being fewer of them, a bit less reckless. West of Irkutsk the traffic picks up and while the roads are a bit better the number of drivers trying to overtake four cars and the truck that is slowing everyone down on a blind corner increases significantly. Three days later, after a random drunken camping night with a Swiss couple traveling the world in their van, we made it alive to Novosibirsk, the last Russian town before Kazakhstan.