Saturday, January 31, 2009

Never Trust a Girl Who Drinks Champagne From A Straw

Hello Everybody,

Those are good words to live by in general but I will explain them towards the end of this narrative. I hope everyone is doing well in their respective countries (to date I think this includes the United States, England, Oman and Russia). So now I really can't specify time zones. At any rate I have to review what has happened in the last two days to Edward and I - intrepid travelers extraordinaire...etc etc.

Yesterday saw our departure from the strikingly beautiful Lake Baikal. After breakfast Naudia and Vladamir picked us up from Baikalskie Terema and drove us to the 155-acre Museum of Wooden Architecture, which contains models of wooden buildings constructed in Siberia over the past 400 years. We saw a Cossack fort, a turn of the century school house, a yert made of - can you guess? - wood. (Which to be fair is actually strange since yerts are usually made of hide.) There were several other different types of houses, settlements and even an original banya that we got to visit. The place was very interesting but it was also -12 degrees (-24 celcius) outside in the sun; inside the buildings it was even colder as they essentially act as refrigerators. I think it got so cold in the fort we visited that my soul actually went numb. But what's Siberia without some cold, right? I have to admit I actually have totally changed my definition of that little four letter word. Today was -16 celcius which is about 5 or 6 degrees and I decided that wasn't cold enough for anything more than a standard pair of long underwear, or cold enough for glove liners, or even cold enough to zip my jacket up all the way. So when I get home to Seattle I'll be walking around in shorts and a T-shirt. Well...probably not.

Our tour continued from the MWA to Irkutsk itself where we had a Russian "business lunch". Can you guess how that's said in Russian? Trick question - "business lunch". Ed and I gave our guide a hard time about how all of their words seem to come from English. Such as dancing, okay, business lunch, running, gym, fitness, pasta, salad, soup (ok, so those aren't technically from English) but you get the point. After this lunch we headed on the city tour which led us from monument to monument, church to church, statue to statue and museum to museum. Long day. The highlights were the Decembrist's museum which is set up in the exile-home of a Russian noble who, after spending 8 years in hard labour - moved to Irkutsk in an attempt to salvage his life. His loving wife joined him and they did their best to mimick their lifestyle which they had enjoyed in Moscow. The man in question was the direct inspiration for Leo Tolstoy's main character in War and Peace, Andrei Bolkonsky. The other great part of Irkutsk was climbing to the top of a belltower for the "chorus of the bells". For those of us use to life in a European inspired vein the ringing of bells sounds very similar to a long, drawn out ddddiiiinnnnngggg dddddooooonnnnngggg, this isn't the case in Russia. In Europe the bell itself is swung, thus allowing for one sound to be produced, in Russia however, the clapper is swung, allowing for a series of different sounds and cadances to be formed. The master bell-sounder who we wititnessed had been doing this same job twice a day (as a hobby) in this same church for 16 years. He is, in essence, a rock star. He did a ten minute serenade which began with a fairly mundane rhythm and ended with a stunning beat which sounded vaguely similar to the Rolling Stones. I have some cool film of it which I will try and post soon. (Still on the search for successful technology here).

There was a lot more to the day than just that but those were the most note-worthy things. We arrived at our hotel, the recently constructed Victory Hotel to discover quite possibly the smallest room either of us has ever stayed in, in our lives. As in, my bedroom is noticeably larger than this place. Quite possibly so too was my crib when I was 3 months old. There literally isn't room for the two of us, our two bags, our two coats and our two carry-ons. There are mere inches on either side of our respective twin beds to the walls. This, we found, very amusing at first. Then clausterphobia set in.

This is a good segway for a brief rant on Russia (sorry Russians). Since Moscow Ed and I have yet to encounter a bathroom in a hotel that is fully functional. Not a single shower head stays up, they all sink down until your knees are the only part of you receiving water, sinks often won't produce the advertised temperature and toilet seats have developed this nasty habit of not staying put. This bathroom summed everything up however by including each of the individual mistakes of previous hotels. Which in truth is really just funny. Oh and the little shelf attached to the mirror is perfectly placed so that when one is washing their face, the only thing that can happen is for that person to smack their forehead against it. So no people of Russia, I have not developed a deep-seeded pimple in the center of my forehad, I just tried to wash my face...that's all.

The one thing Russians do seem to do well is boiling hot water. In terms of cooking it means that tea, coffee and soup has to be scalding hot. If a restaurant's borsch does not scathe the tongue then the chef is subject to a summary execution. The samovars keep water about 100 degrees above the boiling point, and inevitably one will spill on the walk back to the cabin in the train. Yes, I have a burn on my right hand. Also on my left foot. To quote the great English comedian, Eddie Izzard, "in a shower, the difference between fantastically hot and fuckin' freezin' is a one milimeter turn of the handle." In Russia, as with the rest of the world, this is true. However, unlike the rest of the world, in Russia the difference between fantastically hot and third-degree burns followed by a necessary and life-saving skin graft is one nanometer. To give credit where credit is due, the first sentence of this paragraph came from Ed who made this announcement moments after a surprised scream in the shower as his water went from pleasant to really freaking hot.

Ok, back to our day.

So we decided to try out Irkutsk's # 1 recommended nightclub, Stratosphere. Which....sucked. However, in the process we did meet some people who recommended another place that we all headed to. There were a lot more people at this second club and it was here that Edward and I were able to finalize our opinion of Russian women and the culture surrounding them. Ok, here goes: the women in Russia are beautiful, and many are really striking. The men...not so much. And both genders are very, very aware of this discrepency and general inequality. As a result the Russian males will hurl themselves against the rocks of rejecection to appease these women. All a girl in a Russian club has to do is sit and look slightly bored and maybe...maybe...flash a smile or two and every drink she could ever want will be delivered to her on a silver platter. Ed and I had watched this in Omsk with some amusement. A guy would approach a woman and offer to buy her a drink. She would accept. Then she would send him off to retrieve said drink and talk with her friends or other guys in the meantime. Upon the first male's return she would talk with him for a minute or two to be polite before dismissing him. The men seemed resigned to this fate. To some extent.

The group we had run into at Stratosphere seemed to think Edward and I followed the general ground rules of Russian males...which as Americans...we don't. Sure we had to pay for the cab ride, ok, that's not a surprise. Yes we had to pay for the initial round, and this is where we should have noticed the warning signs. The ladies at our table ordered a bottle of champagne (champainsky) for 300 roubles. Which equates to...$9.50. Ed leaned into me and said, "How much do you want to bet this will be the worst champagne we've ever tasted?" The Russian bastardization of a French masterpiece arrived and to our mutual horror, the girls began to slurp it up with...straws. We simply had to ask them, "Are you seriously drinking champagne through a straw?" (only one of them spoke English). "Yes, of course!" Was her reply. Ed and I cracked up at that, and then passed on the straws for ourselves. The ringleader of the group was a brunette who clearly thought herself quite clever, and from the smug look on her face it was very apparent she was quite pleased with her ability to totally scam us.

Now...a scam usually implies a lot of money being given to a person or company under false pretences. Here they sort of piled up drink orders and then turned to Ed and I and said, "Pay." Not a request, a command. It was also clear from this lady's look that she thought she really had scammed us for a lot. But in a country where 34.4 units of their currency equals one of ours, I guess the big numbers seem impressive. In truth I think it was about $25 in total of drink buying before Ed and I decided they were entirely too boring and not worth playing the Russian male game. So right as they came back from dancing and asked me (Ed had gone to the bathroom) to provide them with two more bottles of champagne and 6 vodka-Red Bulls that Edward and I decided it was time to wish them a pleasant evening and offer as our parting gift a "das-vi-danya". There were far too many interesting people in this place to sit and only have ourselves to talk with. We did talk to/dance with a few people of more substance than the initial group but eventually went home with the craziest cabbie I've been with since my first time in Italy. This guy just drove in the tiny median as if it were totally normal and sped really much too fast for his ancient beater of a vehicle.

This brings us to my second (or rather third) rant on Russia. The economy. Every business we utilize - be it restaurants, hotels, taxis or bars - seem to be totally at a loss when we try and pay for something with a 1000 rouble note. More than once I've received one of those low-rising whistles that conveys being impressed with wealth. A 1000 rouble note is roughly equivalent to a $30 bill. Now since we don't have those I will have to compare them to a 20. If you took a cab ride that cost $10 and handed the driver a 20, there's no doubt they'd be able to give you change. At a bar, if you puchased a drink for $5 and handed them a 20, again, no problem. Here it's as if you've asked them to move heaven and earth without stopping for a lunch break. Hence, when the brunette of the aforementioned group looked smuggly at me as if I was some huge sucker for volunteering to buy the first round I was a little confused, given that for 8 people we had bought a bottle of champagne and a few mixed drinks for 600 roubles or about $18. Now, if she had got us to buy her a $300 bottle of champagne, that would have been smug-worthy, but not the Russian equivalent of Cooks...But aside from that, it really is fascinating how amazed merchants here can get when you hand them an equivalent of our 20 dollar bill...also considering that 1000 rouble notes are the only amount ATM's give out here.

At any rate, the night ended with Ed and I have a good long talk about crazy, self-absorbed people, crazy rowing coaches, crazy books and our bodies' uncertainty as to what time it is. Today itself (it's now about 6:30 here) was very slow paced and enjoyable (as seems to be our trend - long day of touring followed by relaxation). We wandered around an open air market, ate lunch, walked the majority of the city and sent a few post cards. The amusing part about the whole post-card-sending-thing was that we were following Lonely Planet's guide to Irkutsk which showed 2 easily accessible post offices. We went into one, headed up to a window and Ed thrust forth his collection of cards and letters asking in Russian for Air Mail. The lady began to scold him (I think) shook her head and thrust the notes back to him. Ed paused and tried again. Then it dawned on him,as it did me. We were in a bank. The tellers had a good laugh at us and we felt like idiots. We'd try again elsewhere. Turns out all of the post offices in Lonely Planet (3 in total) were all banks...

So now here we are, about to go and find dinner before catching a train at around 9:30 for Ulan Ude, which is the next time I will write to you all.

In the meantime: Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Evening and Good Night.

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