Irkutsk: The Wacky Hotel in the 'Middle of Nowhere'
As we approached Malomorskoye Fishing Station, often referred to as MRS, where Gary and I had been stranded in 1995, everyone on the Titov research ship whipped out their phones. This was the first hint that life here had changed: the tiny village now sported a cell phone tower.
Ten years ago, only two buses per week ran from MRS to Irkutsk. Gary and I had just missed one when our ship docked, so we were stuck in the village, which had no hotel and only one tiny store. The leader of the 1995 Lake Baikal expedition, Tatyana Sitnikova, arranged for us to sleep on the floor of an uninhabited, unheated house. Fortunately, a few hours later, we found a ride with a private car going to Irkutsk.
This time around, as David and I walked from the dock into town, we saw a sign for the "Hotel Edelweiss." Built two years ago, the hotel has five rooms, all of which, as the owners proudly advertise, "contain a shower with a lavatory" -- no small achievement in a village where most homes still have outhouses.
With its new Hotel Edelweiss and two nearby tourbazy, or tourist areas, MRS has definitely grown -- as one resident told me with a laugh, "We're like New York now! We have five stores!" Still most of MRS looks the same. Pigs continue to wander the dusty roads, and the small wooden cottages, with their brightly painted shutters, stand unchanged. On the day we were there, all was quiet except for the occasional mooing cow, barking dog and sputtering motorbike.
I'd have liked to spend the night at the Hotel Edelweiss, but we had one more day on the ship, after which Dima planned to drop us off at a village on Olkhon Island that had bus service to Irkutsk.
The next afternoon, again aboard the the Titov, after the team had finished digging numerous tiny creatures out of pounds of dirt from the lake bottom, the Titov docked at the village of Khuzhir. As the sun began to set, Dima led us into the village, but the first hotel had no pre-heated rooms. "You should have called ahead!" the proprietor said. So, reluctantly, Dima walked us to the other hotel. "It's a little noisy," he said. "I'm not sure if you'll like it."
When we arrived at "Nikita's Homestead on Olkhon," the first thing we saw was cheery mural of smiling Baikal seals, painted with the words "Welcome Hello" in English. We walked in through a wooden gate, and found ourselves in the most un-Russian "hotel" I'd ever seen.
It was like a backpacker's hostel had been picked up from Bangkok or New Delhi and dropped into this small Siberian village. Whimsical folk art, including old samovars, decorated farm tools and a sunken "ship" with a riot of wildflowers, dotted the grounds. Posters advertised ping-pong lessons, horseback rides and a "Buryat folk show." As I stood gaping at the sprawling compound, three Irish guys strolled by, and I also heard a couple speaking French.
It probably shouldn't have surprised me that Baikal is becoming an international tourist destination, but I never expected to find a backpacker's hostel -- with its own website -- in this remote village of 1200 people. When Gary and I were stuck in MRS 10 years ago, I remember thinking we were really in the middle of nowhere. Now I'm starting to realize that, at least in Russia, there might not be a "middle of nowhere" anymore.
By Lisa Dickey |
October 7, 2005; 8:00 AM ET
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