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Love Letter to a Train Station Employee

To the young lady behind the counter at the Irkutsk train station, the lady who helped us, who spoke English to us, who sold us our train tickets even though she was on her break: We hate you, you horrible, horrible woman.

Rob and I left Novosibirsk a few nights ago, spending our last night watching a Siberian Elvis impersonator and our last day being caught in a huge blizzard, despite the fact that it had been 25 degrees only two days previous. Why did nobody tell us that it could be cold in Siberia?

Ahh, Summer in Siberia.

The train ride was oddly uneventful, dropping us into the pleasant town of Irkutsk on Thursday morning. Irkutsk is a city of around 600,000 located at the bank of the Angara River and only a few kilometres from beautiful Lake Baikal. The city is busy but still somehow quaint, giving off the impression that it was largely untouched in the Soviet era. Buildings in the downtown area are not the hulking grey monstrosities that dominate other Russian cities but rather are almost all single story wood cottages with delicate laced handiwork resting against the frames and troughs. The Rising of the Cross Church, located in the downtown core, was one of the few chuches that remained open to worshippers during Soviet days.

Despite the cool weather following us from Novosibirsk, Rob and I spent a very pleasant day walking around Irkutsk. We went bowling, I got my haircut at a Women Only salon, and I ate a dish translated as "Nephrite Pork in Eager Sauce", which was, of course, why I ordered it. Things were good. Then we went to the train station.

With our visas running out we had hoped to quickly get a train down to Lake Baikal and take a connecting train called the Cirkumbaikal, the latter ride itself supposedly being a highlight of the area. We waited 45 arduous minutes in line for a ticket before having the cashier tell us we were in the wrong queue and then instantly helping the person behind us.

A typical house in Irkutsk.

We finally found the correct lineup and asked the girl, that sweet girl, our lovely girl, if we could catch the Cirkumbaikal on Friday, the following day. She told us we could not, but Saturday it was running so we could go then. She sold us the ticket down to the town of Slyudyanka, where we could then buy the ticket for the Circumbaikal train. Rob and I were disappointed not to be able to get to the lake a day earlier, but luckily Irkutsk was a nice enough place to while away another day.

We woke up at 5:30 am on Saturday to catch the train to Slyudyanka and slept for most of the 2-hour ride. We arrived in a tiny village, the weather biting cold and neither a place to eat nor to buy food anywhere in sight. We asked the woman at the ticket office if we could buy tickets from her for the Circumbaikal train and she was pleasant enough to inform us that the train did not, in fact, run on Saturday at all, but rather on Sunday. As well as on Friday, the day we had wanted to travel in the first place.

So not only did the lady behind the counter in Irkutsk waste a couple of our last few days, she left us for a night in a village that had one restaurant, not a single hotel and its temperature hovering around zero. When we finally found a place to stay - there was one hotel, about 6km outside of town - the store next to us was using an abacus.

A definite challenge to our language skills but one of the fun parts of traveling is trying to get yourself out of situtations like that. In truth, I had a great time and everything worked out well. In another, much deeper truth, I would still like the woman from the train station to be swallowed by a bear.

The Cirkumbaikal train ride is stunning, however, as for nearly 100 km the tracks take you right beside Baikal, the world's largest lake. (This is based on volume - Lake Baikal holds 1/5 of the world's fresh water and more water than all five Great Lakes combined) The ride glides through 39 tunnels and over 200 bridges as you coast along the waterfront, while on the other side of the carriage we were treated to the blazing hues of Autumn. Trees with leaves of dark amber and burnt crimson mingled with yellows, whites and too many greens to count as the train slowly loped over its 94 km track. Gorgeous stuff.

After a night down by the lake, we now are back in Irkutsk and three hours away from taking the train out of Russia. It has been a pretty amazing month and I am sad to be leaving as there is so much more to see and do, though, as always, I would likely feel the same way if I had been here for years.

The Perils of Crossing the Street in Russia.

So a few other quirks I have noticed about Russia, on top of the fact that we have not seen a single bald Russian since we have been here. (Perhaps it went out of vogue after Lenin?)

1. MANY RED-HEADED RUSSIAN WOMEN. I am not talking about the terrible Carrot Top-esque ginger red hair, but rather women's hair being dyed a deep crimson colour. It is a style far more frequent here than bleach blonde. In Russian, the word for red, "Krasny", also used to mean beautiful, until it the word beautiful slowly became bastardized into "Krasiviiy". Whether the dyed red hair is due to a national prediliction towards the colour or is some kind of Soviet nostalgia, I have not yet figured out.

2. THE PILLOWS ARE MADE OF LEAD. I know not why, but all pillows so far have had the approximate weight of a herd of obese hippopotami.

3. THE HAND-SIGN FOR DRINKING VODKA IS TAPPING YOUR NECK. When indicating taking a shot of vodka, a Russian will tap his or her neck on the side of the jugular, approximately where one of Frankenstein's bolts would be. Legend has it that a former tsar, when rewarding a faithful minion, would tattoo them on the side of the neck. Then anyone with that tattoo could walk into any bar, show the tattoo to the barkeep and would be given a drink, free of charge. Personally the signal looks to me like a nail being driven into your throat which, coincidentally, drinking straight vodka also feels like.

And now it is on to Mongolia, a country with not one bank machine. This spells trouble as I have neither cash nor traveller's cheques on me. The banks in Ulan Bataar will give people cash advances on their credit cards, which is useful. It would be even more useful if I knew the PIN numbers for my credit cards. Mum, I hope you are familiar with your local Western Union office...