just like Canvey Island
“1043 arrival at Irkutsk. Transfer with English-speaking guide to Listvyanka. U Ozera Hotel. Four-hour walking tour of Lake Baikal.”
This is all very well but I don’t want to leave the train. Its rhythm and rolling stock have hypnotised me, the views have led to visions. I haven’t felt so safe and loved since I had measles and my Mother made me Ready Brek for every meal. It was here on this train that I found I had a pearl in my heart and it shone at me from the sidings amongst the birch and pine and onion domes, the larch trees and Lara’s house. I don’t want to leave the snugness of my cabin, the vastness of my view, the samovar, the dining car. I shall miss my friends, the drunken German, the retired English couple, the gentle Norwegians, and the all-knowing, all-seeing provodnitsa. Plus I don’t know what day it is, what time zone I’m in or what I think about President Putin and the Skripals.
I am taken to Listvyanka.
It’s just like Canvey Island.
There was a beach, day-trippers, food-stalls, kebab grills, cheap hotels, Chinese restaurants and touts. Unlike Canvey Island the signs were in Chinese as well as Cyrillic and the coaches were disgorging Chinese tourists.
“They think Baikal belongs to them,” said my guide.
Yuri was a young man who had the charming habit of constantly pushing his glasses up to the ridge of his nose and the rather annoying habit of constantly snuffling and wiping his noise with a handkerchief he kept in his pocket. He was like a five-year-old boy in a 25-year-old’s body, so really everything he did was charming. Even more charming, I’m not sure he knew it.
He was also very well-informed. I commented on the number of building sites and brand new hotels defacing the lakefront.
“All these hotels are illegal,” he said. “Chinese property developers pay Russians to purchase building permits in their name. They then tear down the traditional buildings and construct hotels and car parks so that they can come here every summer.”
Apparently Russian newspapers were having a fieldday running headlines about a Chinese “invasion”, “conquest” and even China’s “yoke” — a reference to the Mongol stranglehold over Russia. Headlines like this were inflaming nationalist fervour and fears about Russia’s more prosperous and populous neighbour.
It had initially been Yuri’s idea to learn Chinese at university. “Because of the sanctions from your country and the US we need China to help our economy.” But he switched to learning Japanese instead.
Meanwhile, China made a priority of investing in Russia as part of its Belt and Road strategy of building infrastructure across the region.
No mention is made of course of the Buryats, the original inhabitants of Listvyanka. At the base of their holy place, Shaman’s rock, I was transported in a cable car that played tinny Chinese pop music on loudspeakers up the cliffside to the summit. A viewing platform packed with tourists attempts to give a view of the long range of snow-capped mountains which border the southeastern horizon of the lake. I was peering at the Buryat Republic in between formidably well-dressed tourists and their selfie-sticks. I became almost giddy when I turned my eyes away from the crowded view and toward the abyss travelled by the cable car. I could barely make out the town. The sheer drop down to the lakeside is overgrown with firs and small shrubs and unfamiliar flowers that make me realise once and for all that I am in Asia.
The Chinese want Baikal back. I could see why. Like the Galapagos, Baikal is a closed ecosystem, since all of the lake’s water comes from surrounding mountains. One hundred and eighty three streams plunge into the lake to be precise. The water is so clear and fresh that it is like drinking the purest and sweetest spring water. Just as the cliffs rise up several hundred fathoms from the edge of the lake, so also do they go as steeply down into the depth of the lake. The land around it is already providing China, “the factory of the world,” with much of its raw materials, especially oil, gas and timber. Increasingly, Chinese-owned factories in Siberia churn out finished goods, as if the region already were a part of the Middle Kingdom’s economy.
In a million years or so, Lake Baikal will be a sea. It is vast, and other-worldly and so is the sky that watches over it. I sat at the end of a rotting wooden jetty away from the crowds while the sun set. After my four-hour walk through Listvyanka and around Shaman’s Rock, I dipped my feet in the icy water and Lake Baikal kissed the soreness away. I watched the sun set in a sky that sat so close to me I could touch it. Like a titan’s kaleidoscope it was rotating from brilliant blue to ochre red and the crystalline water was a diaphanous black. The sun slid through a figure-of-eight cloudbank shaped like a pair of specs. I could have sworn two red eyes peered back at me.
At nightfall on the threshold of the fish market I found a brand new stiff and shiny American dollar note, which I found amusing although I couldn’t work out why. Chinese tourists and Russian day-trippers were busy eating smoked omul, a fish indigenous to Baikal. I found a flavoursome and gritty rice stew with indeterminate ingredients which I ate on the beach. I watched the crowds go home. On my way back to my hotel, I passed a fence with signs in English advertising an art gallery. The sign said to ring the bell hanging in the porch. I did. A man in motley clothes and Eurasian appearance answered my call. He invited me into his shed. The walls were lined with portraits made solely from mushrooms.
“Mushrooms are the source of life,” he told me.
I think it's Day 11 of my trip.
Strange and beautiful
“Transfer to Irkutsk. Boutique Marussia Hotel, 130 Kvartal project.”
I am in a hotel built from fresh timber in what was once an old frontier town. This part of Irkutsk was built on a river bank that tumbles down to the fast flowing waters of the Angara. The Angara river is the only river to flow out of Lake Baikal, sending forth Baikal’s waters to the Yenisei River and thus onwards to the Arctic Sea. My hotel is in a new neighbourhood built in the olde-cabin style. It’s like a theme park of the Wild East except it has no reference to history. Instead there are themed restaurants, boutique hotels, bars, cafes and a shopping mall. As with all the large structures I have entered in Russia this mall is weirdly empty of products and people.
Irkutsk proper is like everywhere in Russia: strangely beautiful. At some points it seems new and unfinished with its wide grid-like, pock-marked streets and Soviet concrete. Otherwise I feel I am on a meticulously researched film set. The houses are mainly of wood and in various stages of romantic decay. Some houses have sunk so far into the permafrost that the bottoms of the windows are practically touching the tarmacadam. Everywhere the window sills are crowded with plants, usually geraniums, and set in to the threshold of each front door is an iron horseshoe, to bring luck.
In the lobby of my hotel in the trendy new district, I was desperately trying to shake off Yuri. But he was determined to finish his spiel. He told me that the Angara never freezes till Christmas and freezes then in one night to the bottom. The great, blue current is halted on Christmas Eve and on Christmas morning stands motionless. On its resurrection around Easter time, when the sun splinters the ice, it springs back to life again.
This earnest student of Japanese had just finished his degree and was filling in the summer hols before he moved to Moscow to work as an interpreter in a Japanese bank. There was only one problem. He had now decided he didn’t want to work with the Japanese. He wanted to open a coffee shop in Kaliningrad, a city so far west it’s practically not in Russia. Yuri was worryingly unfocussed I decided. He had started his university career with the determination to work in Irkutsk translating for Japanese businessmen. Since Irkutsk is so far east it’s practically not in Russia this was the perfect setting for his plan. Now he had completed his studies he had abandoned the Japanese plan in favour of the coffee plan, and I could see there was no reasoning with him. I just had to stroll along beside him and nod sagely.
His story was sad. No father, and his mother in a one-room flat in St Petersburg where she managed a call centre. I felt the flatness of life and sympathised with the shifting landscape of his dream world. Irkutsk, as I said, was strange and beautiful. The main streets were so wide, they have a more or less desolate appearance. His tour of Irkutsk took me to districts at one moment melancholic, at another sinister. The domes, cupolas, and copper green roofs of the churches did not fit with the bland concrete of the government buildings and Khruschevs. Neither did the spires of the churches and the dun-colour houses make for a happy co-existence. The two did not seem to have any connection with each other.
At the hotel I found a guide book to Irkutsk from the 1890s. A prison once occuped the corner of the street in which my hotel had been built. The iron-grated window was where prisoners clamoured for alms night and day. The Russians are very charitable and old ladies, especially, would respond to their calls.
Irkutsk had once been adorned with many fine shops where every European luxury was obtainable. Tailors and milliners wrote their signs in French. Bakers, many of them German, created a fashion for French loaves. The tobacconists were renowned for their papiros, paper cigars made with Turkish tobacco. The Art Nouveau shop fronts made Irkutsk the Paris of Siberia. These wide streets that now rang so hollow were once buzzing with activity.
What did most to elevate culture in Irkutsk, was the presence of the Decembrists. On Boxing Day, 1825, the day of the accession of Tsar Nicholas I, a conspiracy against him was rooted out. The army was involved, and many of the officers of the Imperial Guard were deeply committed. The result was capital punishment for a few – these were members of an elite aristocracy after all – and exile to Siberia for the rest. Their wives, the princesses, and duchesses, came too. The result was an elegant society housed in elegant wooden houses two of which still exist in Irkutsk.
I didn’t go to see them. Yuri was so conscientious in his guiding that I had to sit in Kirov square and draw breath. Opposite me was the colossal facade of the Angara Hotel.
Hotel Angara is named after the river. It is impressive and inviting. The kind of place I could get lost in. I had to go inside.
Any good tourist knows that our experience of a city or a beach or a ski slope is often bound up with where we happen to be in life. Travelling is as much about discovering ourselves as about discovering a foreign country. In Irkutsk I was reminded of my father. The paradox was that Hotel Angara, a temple to Soviet architecture, was bringing to mind the louche capitalist environment of a Seventies pleasure dome. It was the interior that transported me to the world of my father. Black marble, chrome lifts and black leather sofas. Built into recesses were gift shops and an international array of restaurants. What most took my interest was the receding figure of a woman in a red kimono. She was framed for a moment by the pagoda of a Chinese restaurant. A moustachio’d man lolled on the sofa nearest the Orient Star Restaurant and smoked with the nonchalance of someone expecting an imminent payday. He summoned up the ghost of the Playboy Casino in Knightsbridge, my father’s last workplace in London.
I thought of his flared trousers, nylon socks, the dollar notes he hid in his socks, the bunny girls bearing sugary cocktails, the petrol-guzzling car, the sweet scent of corruption. Our tiny South London flat. Hotel Angara, despite its Socialist origins, was heady with Capitalism. The two ideologies met here, at the junction where you make illicit money. My father relished that blurry spot. So do I.