Irkutsk or Bust!



1. The act or quality of being inclined to act on sudden impulses.

2. The act of buying a one-way ticket to Irkutsk at 11:30 on Thursday night to leave the next evening, not knowing what you will do in Irkutsk or where you will stay.

This weekend, I went on a spontaneous trip to Irkutsk with my friends. The weekend gave new life to the expression “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” and it was also a lesson in spontaneity and trust—I learned to trust in spontaneity.

Five friends and I caught an overnight train to Irkutsk. I was still very drained and sleep-deprived from Thanksgiving Week, but with all the excitement of being on a real choo-choo train, and the icy air radiating from my window and into my bones, and the irrational worry that I’d sleep through our stop and end up in Moscow, I hardly got any sleep. I was in good company there, though. After waiting in line for an hour to buy our return tickets for Sunday night, our first stop was a café for some coffee. Loaded up on coffee and feeling like the Energizer Bunny on speed, I was set loose on Irkutsk. Full speed ahead!

First, we wanted to see the “Nerpanarium” (Baikal Seal Aquarium), but it wasn’t open yet, and the looks of the outside indicating heartbreaking conditions inside. So we went to visit my friend’s friend’s friend’s apartment (yes, that many degrees of separation still promises warm and welcome). Then we went to the Decembrist Museum. It was the house where the Decembrist rebels lived in exile. Really, for being basically terrorists under an authoritarian regime, these people lived really well. If you have to live under house arrest, that’s the place to do it.

After lunch, we wandered around the city doing some sightseeing. Irkutsk is a very pretty city. I was of course spoiled by the splendor of St. Petersburg, but my friends were very taken by its beauty. Compared to Ulan-Ude, it definitely has more beautiful architecture in the classical style. It seems like a much more typical Siberian city—and much more “Russian,” if you know what I mean.

Meanwhile, at 5:00 the plans we had made that morning on a place to stay completely fell through, and it was looking like we were about to spend a homeless night in a strange city. But in a flurry of phone calls, our new Irkutsk friends managed to find us a hostel—and got us a discount. Score! See, even if you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going, there’s always someone there to take care of you, and it all works out in the end.

After chilling for a while at the hostile (which was actually both the nicest and cheapest hostile I’ve ever stayed at), it was time for our second (or third… or fifth…) wind. I’m not really a clubber, and I kind of just wanted to fall asleep. But with a twist of the arm, I was convinced to go out for at least a little while—assured that at least one other person would be leaving early with me. And that’s how I ended up at the Dikaya Loshad.

Actually, once every three or four blue moons, even I can have fun at a night club. I did enjoy myself. But, come 2AM, even my heartiest partying couldn’t keep up with the Russians and Europeans, and I was ready to call it quits. Unfortunately, my friends showed no signs of stopping… and I didn’t know the address of the hostel or have my phone to call a taxi, so I thought I was stuck. Then, a friend of my friend’s friend’s friend asked if I wanted a ride back to the hostile (turned out he was the group’s designated driver). I thought it was my lucky day. Normally, I wouldn’t advise accepting a ride from some random guy you met at a nightclub. But to survive in a country where social capital means everything, you have to be able to trust and rely on your friends and even your friends’ friends’ friends’ friends.

So we went out to the parking lot. Two guys I knew (a friend of a friend and his friend) were already in the car. Drunk as skunks and still drinking. It was around 2:30AM. We did not leave the parking lot. Rather, we proceeded to have one of the stranger conversations I’ve had in my life (three Russians practicing their English, interrupting each other, simultaneously professing their love for each other and telling each other to shut up, bilingually swearing up a storm, translating an Ozzy Osborn song, contemplating the price of Pringles in America, and each trying to hold a separate conversation with me simultaneously). By 3:00, I had accepted that I was not getting back early. This is Russia: что делать?

At 5:00AM, we were still shooting the breeze in the parking lot. By that point, my friends were done partying (they were certainly surprised to find me still there!). Somehow, amidst all the drunken back-seat drivers and sitting on laps, we managed to squeeze 7 people in an itty-bitty Camry and find our way back to the hostile in one piece. There were still many shenanigans to follow, so it was well after seven when I finally got to sleep.

We spent our second day in Irkutsk doing some shopping and wandering around the city, seeing the sights and taking pictures.

This living stereotype in a random alley is probably the reason I love Russia so much.

Something tells me Lenin would scorn this establishment…

Then we caught a 9:00 train back to Irkutsk. Another nearly sleepless night put us back in my beloved Ulan-Ude at a frigidly cold 5AM. They always advise you to steer clear of airport and train station taxi drivers because they rip you off, but my friend was too exhausted to care, and I was too exhausted to protest. We clambered into the first taxi we saw. Dropping off my friends at our first stop, the driver said, “1000 rubles,” and my tired friend forked it over.

Let me give you a reference point: a taxi usually costs somewhere between 100 and 200 rubles. So this guy’s price was completely outrageous. I was anxious as to what he would charge me when we arrived at my apartment. But when we arrived, he said, “150 rubles.”

At first I was perplexed as to why he would give me such a reasonable price after totally ripping off my friends in front of my very eyes just a few minutes earlier. Why the unsolicited 85% discount, I wondered? But then I realized that the driver didn’t know I was a foreigner, that this was just one of the perks of looking and sounding Russian. Essentially, I saved over $30 just by not having an accent.

So, dear friends, now I’m back in Buryatia trying to pay back my debt to Mr. Sandman. Ulan-Ude may not be as big or beautiful as Irkutsk, but the culture here is interesting and completely one of a kind, and I love it. If home is where your heart is, then your heart is where your home is– and my heart is in Ulan-Ude.


About Arielle

I am a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ulan-Ude at the Buryat State Agricultural Academy.
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One Response to Irkutsk or Bust!

  1. Christine Boitos says:

    All we can say is W O W ! ! ! What a life you are living! Things are going to seem very boring when you return to the US. Love you lots! Grandma and Papa Boitos

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