Irkutsk: The Paris of Siberia
We stayed in Irkutsk for a few days, putting together the stories from Lake Baikal and taking occasional walks around the city. Irkutsk has been called the "Paris of Siberia" -- which sounds pretty comical at first, but actually makes some sense when you stroll around a bit. The tree-lined city center boasts eclectic architecture and beautifully renovated pre-Revolutionary mansions, interspersed with chic stores like Benetton and Yves Rocher.
Even the couple we're staying with here, Igor and Oksana, are more stylish than your average Siberian. Igor works at the Trubetskoy House, a museum of the 19th century Decembrist revolutionaries, and prefers dry red wine to the usual Russian rocket fuel. Oksana, a theater costume designer, is one of those beautiful women who can make herself look fashion-shoot ready simply by wrapping a scarf around her head.
I asked Igor and Oksana what had changed in Irkutsk over the last 10 years. Igor said, "The city has changed as much as capitalism has arisen. Now there are more businesses, ads, stores, and restaurants that weren't here before. And fast food places. Service in general is also better than it was."
Did that mean things were better now than 10 years ago? Oksana didn't hesitate. "They're better for me," she said. But Igor was more circumspect. "Well," he said, "we were better then, so it's hard to say." I asked what he meant. "We were younger then, everything was ahead of us. We were better."
He went on to say that for budzhetnikis, or those who work on fixed government salaries, life wasn't really better now. "Because of the new stores everywhere, people want more things. For young people, they all look around and want a car, a mobile phone, nice clothes. I don't know how people afford to buy things in Benetton. Maybe people save up all year to go in and buy one special thing."
After a couple of days spent working on the Baikal stories, it was time to move on. I caught a minibus down to the train station, and bought us tickets to Novosibirsk for the next afternoon. I was about to catch a minibus back when I suddenly decided to withdraw some cash from an ATM inside the station. (There's another big change since 1995 -- ATM's are all over the place, even in smaller cities like Birobidzhan.)
I walked back into the station, and whaddaya know -- there was Alyosha from Ulan Ude! This was the second time I'd run into him in Irkutsk, and by now it seemed a bit ridiculous. "Well, either you're a spy, or I am," I told him. We had one of his colleagues snap a picture with my camera, and I'm happy to now be able to show Alyosha's face, as the other picture of him on the site is of his back. If we run into him again somewhere further west, we'll have to do a whole photo gallery.
Next stop: Novosibirsk.
By Lisa Dickey |
October 10, 2005; 11:59 AM ET
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