It is rather fitting that the last piece of real sightseeing that we will complete in Russia is to go see the trans-Siberian Builder’s monument. There was a pleasant surprise on our return to the Downtown Hostel. Anthony had returned early from his tramping around Baikal. The weather forecast had not been good to want to be out of doors. Certainly the conditions this last day in Irkutsk was encouragement to head south.
The monument itself is about as inspiring as the day. Originally comissioned in 1900 and featuring the Tsar and other assorted imperial imagery on a plinth of red Finnish marble, it went through the obligatory rearranging during the communist years. Something I never quite understand about this type of thing is that so often the replacement items are incredibly uninspiring. In this instance a grey marble obelisk. Especially when at the same time they were creating truly awesome monuments such as the soaring Cosmonaut one in Moscow. Anyway, things were righted in 2004 so today we were looking at Alexander again as he looks north towards the great railway he founded in 1886.
Alexander restored and a final hug for Lenin.
Bringing home the fact that tomorrow we leave Russia was the opportunity for one last photo with a statue of Lenin. As well as staying on a street named after the revolutionary leader in nearly every town that we have stayed in there are now enough photos of us in front of statues of him to fill a whole album.
Mitigating the sadness somewhat was a pleasurable glow of relatively painless sorting out of tickets. The Mongolian visas were ready and waiting as promised. Satisfied fist pumps walking out the gate, but discreet in the eye of security camera and guard. For the first time we used the ticket counter for foreigners as it was an international ticket we required. Maybe we should have been using these all the way across as it was located in a huge and very plush room upstairs in the train station.
At NZ$166 this one journey cost a full third of the cost to get across from Helsinki. It was a bit of a shock being told that there was no third class option on this train. I was intrigued to see what difference kupe might bring. I think we were quite lucky to get on. Now all that was left to do was gather together some supplies for the thirty plus hour journey.
Literal translation fail!
Just as in the Sennaya markets the song of choice for all the bootleg CD sellers was Katy Perry still unconvincingly going on about kissing girls. The central market of Irkutsk is a slightly dizzying place of three stories of shops chocca with stuff you do not want. Across the road at the food section however is amazing. Not stereotypical Soviet or late nineties lines for food here. Actually it is quite enviable the array and freshness of what was available. From vegetables to meat and fish and all sorts of cheeses and so on.
I stayed well away from the Omul.
Arnika was tired and went back to a very nice cafe where we had spent a morning prior to the Olkhon excursion. Rdoc and I wanted to go and find the houses of the Decemberists and also find some souvenirs. Both of us had resisted buying anything at the huge market in Moscow, where Arny had bought a fur hat, not wanting to weigh our packs down and thinking that there would be many more opportunites as the journey progressed. Since that market though there had been almost nothing of that type around. A shame as both of us really wanted to find some cool Soviet era memorabilia. Maybe there is something about wishing to glorify this period in their history but as it is something that it seems most people traveling to Russia want it could be an area of opportunity for an enterprising someone.
The Decemberists are one of those little incidents in Russian history that explains much of the nature of not only the nature of the Empire, the development of Siberia, but also humanity. In December 1825, a secret society of young officers staged an uprising in Saint Petersburg. Many had chased Napoleon right back to Paris after the crushing defeat of the largest army the world had ever seen. Many returned to Russia imbued with the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
The uprising, ill-conceived and badly led, was a disaster. Over 3,000 of the soldiers were promptly arrested. Of these, five were hanged. As if to sum up the officers’ frustration with backward Russia, one remarked, upon only breaking his legs on the scaffold, “they can’t even hang a man properly in Russia.” Over 120 of the conspirators were exiled. They became known as the “Dekabristi”, the Decembrists.
Among them numbered eight prominent members of the aristocracy. In a show of loyalty to their husbands, nearly all the wives followed the men into exile. The most famous of these are Ekaterina Trubitskaya and Maria Volkonskaya. Their houses still stand in the north of central Irkutsk and are now museums. Unfortunately both were closed.
A house of love.
The beautiful Maria Volkonskaya had only been married two years. Forced to renounce all her possessions and titles, she even had to leave her infant son behind. “My place is with my husband,” she told her appalled family. She followed her husband to the salt, silver and lead mines where the workers toiled from six in the morning until 11 at night, in chains. Pushkin, a friend of many of the Decembrists, wrote a poem about them in 1827. He too was inspired by their tales of unconditional love. The female protagonist of “Eugene Onegin” is based on one of the wives.
The Decembrists had a huge impact on the life of Irkutsk. Along with a group of Polish officers exiled in the 1850s, they offset the Wild West feel of the city with their balls, concerts, plays and recitals lending the town a sophistication and municipal munificence unknown in the rest of Siberia. A feel that still exists today. The merchants’ mansions, rebuilt in stone following a devastating fire in 1879, dominate the wide arteries of the city’s heart with their ornately-framed windows, imposing columns and handsome pediments. It might not be Paris, as the monkier of ‘the Paris of…’ is applied to so many places Irkutsk is of Siberia, but it still comes as a shock after the badlands of Siberia.
In one last attempt to find a fur hat the two of us called by the slightly less reputable market. Housed in more of a shed than the building of the Central market. Walking through the stalls was like forcing your way through dense undergrowth. If that undergrowth was made up of jeans, leather jackets, and black leather shoes. Instead of mostquitoes we were hounded by persistent salesmen. Not having machetes to deal with either the undergrowth or wildlife we made a hasty escape, followed down the street by one guy who just would not take the hint that Rdoc was not interested in anything that he had for sale.
Later tonight we board the train that will take us out of Russia.
Tags: Irkutsk, landmark, literature, market, monument/memorial, Russia, Siberia, Trans-Siberia, Travel