13 August, 2005

Stubborn to the end, Lenin faces the neon in Irkutsk.

ulitsa Lenina.

ulitsa Karla Marxa.

Downtown Irkutsk, Saturday night.

13 August, 2005

Day 28. Well, today can only be described as a real roller coaster ride. It all started calmly enough. The next "Off The Wall" was finished and ready for an upload that hopefully would come somewhere in Irkutsk in the next couple of days. I worked on a bunch of issue-related stuff during the overnight as the train chugged on through Siberia. I guess I always knew the day would come when I'd be editing articles in Siberia. Somehow I always figured it would be in the winter though.

Anyway, we arrived in Irkutsk on a rainy and chilly day and were immediately met on the train platform by a couple of representatives from Hanneke's travel agency who somehow knew to walk all the way to the back of the train. I've never had a setup like this before where people actually meet you in strange cities to take you to the various places you're staying and then pick you up again when it's time to go. I must say I'm impressed by the whole setup. Now hopefully the next place they took us would actually have some hot water.

Luckily for us it did and we spent a good part of the day washing and catching up on sleep. I watched a bit of Russian television and found a Euronews feed in Russian that gave me a couple of hints as to what was going on in the world. I noticed that they advertised a product that looked exactly like Mr. Clean except that in Russia it's called Mr. Proper. No kidding. (No idea why they didn't use the cyrillic alphabet though.) And another really annoying feature that hopefully won't catch on in the States: many programs have a continuous scroll of classified ads on the bottom of the screen except of course for when there's a full screen advertisement. And it was a real challenge trying to watch some old American films that had been spoken over in Russian ("dubbed" just isn't the right phrase when you can still hear the original audio) but it was the kind of challenge that woke me up a bit.

By the time late afternoon rolled around, I was ready to try an Internet cafe which had claimed to actually have wireless connectivity. It was, get this, on the corner of Marx and Lenin. Out here they weren't as quick to shed the socialist imagery as they were back west. On the subject of "out here," we have indeed come a very long way. We're now 13 hours ahead of New York time which makes it pretty near impossible to communicate in real time with people back home. When we're waking up out here, it's time to go to sleep back home. Our location is to the north of both the middle of Mongolia and China. It's incredible the distance you can cover when you're on a train that moves night and day.

So we walked through the streets of Irkutsk which were really quite interesting. They're filled with buildings of grandiose architecture left behind by a group of people known as the Decembrists. These guys were a bunch of aristocratic rebels from the 1800s who tried unsuccessfully to take over the government. After serving some time in Siberia, some of them wound up settling here where they basically rebuilt the town, erecting all sorts of ornate buildings, opening hospitals and schools, starting newspapers, and all sorts of other things nobody had thought to do until then. The Soviets managed not to screw it up too badly and much of the Decembrist influence remains intact. Irkutsk also has a very different atmosphere than Moscow. It's quite a bit more laid back but it's obvious the people enjoy a good bit of fun judging by the plethora of discos and gatherings taking place.

That brings me to another aspect of Russian life I find really odd. That's the entertainment thing. You can be sitting in a really small cafe minding your own business when someone takes a stage not more than three feet in front of you, turns on some music, and starts bellowing away at a volume that can be heard a block in all directions. (Except that it can't really be heard owing to the numerous other establishments on the block doing the exact same thing.) The first time this happened I was with some people and I had my back to the stage (which I didn't even know existed) and I wondered out loud if someone might ask if the jukebox could be turned down. I was shocked as hell to turn around and see a trio of live singers. There's rarely an actual band however.

So we eventually made it to the fabled Internet cafe which was indeed right on the Marx/Lenin intersection. Although you would have never known it if you didn't already have information that the place was there. Their sign seemed designed not to stand out in any way. Even with the info, it took a while to find the staircase leading down. Once we got there, we discovered that their wireless network was about as useful as their sign. Sure, there was a signal but it didn't appear to be connected to the net. It wasn't really difficult to see this. Unfortunately for me, the guy running the place was determined to get to the bottom of it even though it was painfully clear that his efforts were in vain. First he assigned a specific IP on my machine and made a bunch of other setting changes (without asking too which I always find very annoying and inconsiderate). This resulted in his no longer being able to see the signal at all. For the next 40 minutes he plodded back and forth from where I was to his desk apparently guessing at which IP would be the one that worked. I finally put an end to this and just did what I could do without using my laptop. I should have known it would go this way.

I joined Hanneke and Sasja at the pizza place next door. You would think *that* at least would have been relaxing. No such luck. If you can muscle your way through all of the people with leather jackets who cut in front of you in line whenever they want, you then have to figure out which line you're supposed to be on, the payment line or the food line. OK, that was my fault for not knowing the language. But eventually I got it. You go to the cash register first, the exact opposite of back home, where you place your order and pay. Then you get a slip of paper with your order on it. Now this is where it gets absurd. You would think that the next step would be to wait for your order and pick it up when it's called. Again, no such luck. They don't even begin to make your food until you walk over to the next line and hand over that piece of paper to the person who's standing right next to the one who gave it to you in the first place! It makes no sense at all. Yet everyone accepts this as the system because that's how it's always been.

But these frustrations were a taste of heaven compared to what was to come. When we checked in early that morning, the hotel took our passports as is the custom in this part of the world. Technically we shouldn't have even gone outside without them but we forgot that they hadn't given them back after waking up. So when we came back from the Internet cafe and food place, we went to the front desk to ask for them. Hanneke and Sasja got theirs pretty quickly but it became apparent that there was a problem with mine. They kept looking all over the place, apparently getting nowhere. Beautiful. After about ten minutes of this, we tried to help the process along a little. First, we kept having to correct them as they were insisting I was Dutch. Of course that would mean they would be looking for an EU passport and not an American one and since they were completely different colors, that was something we needed to pound into their heads. The whole thing was really starting to piss me off. And as it became more and more obvious that they weren't getting anywhere, I honestly started to get worried. Without a passport, I couldn't even leave the building, let alone get on a train on Monday morning. How were these idiots going to replace it? Or were they even going to be held accountable in any way? The concepts of American consumer justice simply don't work over here. When you get fucked over, you pretty much stay fucked over. This completely messed up so many things I couldn't even begin to grasp it all. Mongolia, China, Japan, the freighter across the Pacific, the whole concept of the trip. And all because of yet another stupid antiquated system that made no sense. When I think of all the care I had gone to in order to ensure I didn't lose anything important and that everything was where I could easily find it and then it's all for naught because the bureaucrat I'm forced to deal with can't be trusted to do their own job. I would somehow have to get all the way back to Moscow to get a replacement and there would be no way to recover the lost time. What a fucked up way to end things. And I didn't even know how I would be able to make it home.

Things had gotten pretty bleak. They told us to check back in the morning but I wanted to know what would happen *then* if they still hadn't tracked it down. After all, I had been handed the wrong passport by hotel front desks on several instances and I had always corrected their mistake. But what if someone else hadn't? After wallowing in self pity for about a half hour, Hanneke suggested we go back downstairs and get a drink to try and get it out of our minds. We tried the "London Pub" attached to the hotel but naturally they were closed on a Saturday night. Or maybe they simply observed the London pub closing time of 11:00 pm. Whatever. It was par for the course in this place. I suggested we hang out in the hotel bar in direct sight of the passport losers so they could feel our wrath. They had obviously stopped looking at this point. But as soon as they saw us, they started moving again. Amazing what you have to do to get things done around here. I figured I needed a good stiff drink so I got some Russian Standard vodka in keeping with the Russian standard mood that was all around. And it was literally the moment I lifted the glass off the table that I saw the people at the front desk wave my passport in the air triumphantly. Now I intend to see if Russian Standard is able to solve any more such problems in the future.

Tomorrow we hopefully get to see some nature. I'll be keeping my passport close at all times and keeping a really close eye on anyone who takes it.