Wednesday, June 08, 2005

No More Squatting

The train to Siberia was luxurious compared to the ones in China. And, don't get me wrong, the ones in China were fine. It's just that the Russian trains have toilets, unlike the squat holes that are common in all places in China and to which I owe considerable gratitude for my ever-stronger quads. And, to illustrate just how low my standards have gone, I was so thrilled to find that the bathrooms on the Russian trains have toilet paper AND paper towels -- this is my new standard of luxury. No more carrying around a roll everywhere I go and using my jacket as a towel after washing my hands.

I feel so civilized now, which by the way is the running joke between Rob and I. It is his duty as an Englishman to instruct me, the lowly American, on how to be civilized. Raising the pinkie finger while drinking tea and, boy, have I been drinking plenty of tea. Our group has morning and afternoon tea. See - I am already becoming more civilized.

The days of the week are falling into black holes. I have no idea what day or date it is. Tuesday (I think it was Tuesday) was our full day of training to Siberia. It's actually not very far from Mongolia to Irkutsk in Siberia, but the border crossing takes FORever!!! We sat on the train for the better part of the day (playing Scrabble) but going nowhere. The provenistas were kind enough to let us off the train for a couple hours though, which was a God-send considering the toilets were locked for the better part of the day.

Nowshki is the border town in Russia. It's not entirely clear whether it has much purpose independent of the railway, but it was charming. The park is the gateway into what appeared to be the center of town -- I only assume this because it was the part with paved roads. Log cabins with tin roofs line the roads and make you wonder how it is possible to sleep when the rain crashes down. We found the local version of a restaurant, a non-descript shed with a woman serving local specialties through a window. For 25 Rubles each ($1=28R), we had a meatball with mashed potatoes and it was surprisingly tasty! Before heading back to the train, we wandered through the local market, which had a few stalls of knock-offs from China and some fruits that have seen better days. In two hours, we took in all Nowshki had to offer. Back on the train.

We arrived in Irkutsk at 8:00 a.m. Wednesday morning and were ushered off to our homestays an hour away. Listvyanka, with a population of 2,500, is on the west bank of Lake Baikal -- the deepest lake in the world (it holds more water than all of the Great Lakes combined) and the 6th largest in the world. The weather stayed nice long enough to get some cool photos, but the rain (which has followed me since day one of this trip) reared its ugly head by evening. No worries though, since it gave me an excuse to stay in and work on my Russian. I can say the basic phrases and can read about half the alphabet. My lofty goal is to be able to read it all by the time I leave. Olga and Nastasia made us a great dinner and I retired to my book.

Today started with a trip to the open-air museum of wooden architecture. It is amazing to me how well constructed the log cabins are and how well they actually keep people here warm in the winter. Especially since winters here get down to -40. Brrrrrr. We are in southern Siberia, which apparently is the nice, green lush part of Siberia that is quite pleasant in summer. Our marveling about the beauty of Siberia and how it is nothing like we imagined is usually met with the response that the prisons are in the northeast of the region. Andrea calls northern Siberia perma-frost to make the point.

We'll be in Irkutsk all day today in a hotel that has the bounciest mattress yet - the Chinese and Mongolian mattresses were hard as a rock. The train to Moscow leaves tomorrow afternoon. It takes three days and we cross five time zones. Crazy!!!! We are going to have a civilized party of champagne and caviar for the first night to ease ourselves into the cabin fever.

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