Tuesday, November 29, 2005

some heroes from our Soviet-era textbook and the lessons of their lives

F. Mansurov
Musician, director of the Bolshoi Theatre.

Composed a daily schedule and stuck to it. On top of his day job, learned foreign languages, played sports, wrote stories. Liked to kick off the day with a spot of gymnastics.

"Never say you will do something tomorrow. The best day is today."

N.M. Amosov
World War Two surgeon. Scholar and writer.

Studied at two universities concurrently. A beacon of organisation. Worked 10-12 hours each day, more if called upon.

"One must love work, keep a daily regime, and especially, participate in sport. For the heart to be healthy it must work."

I.P. Inatovy
Doctor of Physics and Mathematics at the Soviet Academy of Science.

Went to all his lectures, revised them at home. Attended lectures in other faculties. Couldn't stand all the wasted thinking time during morning exercises, so seized the opportunity to practice foreign languages. Rehearsed vocab while waiting for the tram. While gazing out the window solved mathematical problems.

"I have no secret: simply make the most of every hour in the day."

M.L. Popovich
Wife of the cosmonaut P.R. Popovich. Pilot, athlete, engineer, scholar, author and film producer.

Loved a daily regimen, which she imposed not just on herself but on her husband and children. Up at 7, housework and breakfast, then morning exercises without fail. Beloved throughout the land.

"Plan your day and there's plenty of time for rest. But rest must be active. I don't understand how people can lie on the couch and do nothing."

Friday, November 25, 2005

updates, pixel heads

There are a bunch of old but endearingly dainty China pics here, here , here, here and here; pictures of our bathroom, the football, my scarred consumptive lungs; bits of Irkutsk (and also here).
There are trips to Olkhon, not two but three pages of them, Listvyanka (and again) and Ust Orda, plus the ones from this month. Enjoy! Tell your friends!

the best museum in Russia and other pics of record

Thursday, November 24, 2005

update your guidebooks

This afternoon we paid a visit to the Irkutsk State Tech Mineralogical Museum. Our Chinese neighbour Shun claims this is the best museum in Russia.
"Have you been to the Hermitage?" I asked Shun afterwards.
"Not yet," said Shun.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

an evening with the Troll

For reasons I'd struggle to explain, I've been wanting for weeks to hear the words 'hello, Irkutsk!' - preferably bellowed from a stage. Last night, snow on our boots and our eyes glistening with hope, K and I went to the Megapolis nightclub to see Moomy Troll.
The Megapolis is a couple of stops from our hostel by trolleybus, tucked away in the apartment belt behind a supermarket and a bowling alley. Inside it's a double-storey nightclub with faux Soviet decor - hammers, sickles, stars and speeches - that you would think would work a treat but oddly doesn't.
I didn't know much about the band beforehand, except that I thought they were from Moscow and have seen them after Linkin Park and Metallica in the music kiosks.
Our Scandinavian neighbours, who came along, said in Finland Moomy Troll was a children's cartoon character. He was white, they said, out of shape and confusing at times.
As it happens the Troll's lead singer was all of these things.
"Hello, Irkutsk!" he said, bounding on with what was already a slightly unsteady gait.
"Hello, Troll!" we said, applauding and waving our blue complimentary 'Moomy Troll' flags. It felt good. The woman beside me began shrieking like a smoke alarm.
In looks the Troll singer was Jon Bon Jovi, perhaps a couple of years before Jon Bon started wearing black and being photographed out of the light. In stage manner he was the reverend in Deadwood, all rolling eyes and convulsions. In mental health he was, sadly, Shane McGowan.
We suspected this first when he turned the microphone around just two or three songs in and asked the crowd to carry things along. Shortly afterwards we noticed the music stand, which every now and then he reached to and turned a page.
My favourite moment came during a song about driving, when he took his tambourine (very rock) and held it out in front of him for a steering wheel mime.
A little later he lurched to the front of the stage.
"Hello Irkutsk!" he said again. I began to suspect this was his last surviving sentence, the way the computer in Space Odyssey devolves to singing 'Daisy'. Somebody threw roses. They played 'hello, goodbye' - much tougher in Russian as there are double the syllables. The shrieking went on beside me. It took none of the magic away.

Monday, November 21, 2005

surly (greetings to the new brunette)

In St Petersburg last year we stayed in a youth hostel (the SP International Youth Hostel, if you're heading that way. Perfect if you like a curfew, gender segregation and time limits on your breakfast). The general feeling among foreigners in residence was that Russia was difficult and the people who lived in it were worse. Russians, the backpacking types said, were not just rude but nasty. As one Australian lad put it: "Have a good day. Oh wait, you can't - you're in Russia."
These sociologists say all this grump is a facade, a necessary form of self-defence.
Now for starters, I'm not really buying this. How to explain the cashiers in train stations? Or the shopkeepers who turn their backs on you? Or hotel receptionists? Or the militsia, or immigration officials for whom, I swear, there is a tenth circle of hell set specially aside (it's one cavernous waiting room, a stack of forms, pens that don't work and a sign on the door that says 'lunch').
But I'm also not buying the starting premise: that out of doors, Russians just aren't all that nice.

It's certainly true that folk here are friendlier indoors than out. I think this is true of anybody, just as it's true that no one nation should bang on about its own tradition of hospitality as much as almost every nation does. In Laos earlier this year we kept hearing their tourism slogan, 'Land of a million smiles.' How nice, we thought. If only they were on the people.
It's true that to an extent here, you grow to expect a kind of coolness. On the minibuses, people don't smile, and when they do, they have silver teeth, which scares you. Folk won't hold the door open. There's rarely a kind word if you, say, fall on your arse in the snow.
But to judge by our experiences so far in Irkutsk, Russians aren't nearly as surly as they're made out to be. We always get help with directions. In chemists babushkas form lines to advise us on home cures (1. lemon; 2. vodka with red pepper in it). It's a rare late-night bus ride without a slightly tipsy Russian man sharing the comedic gold that is his mate's text message. We can't buy our frozen cabbages without being waylaid for a chat.
I'm not saying we're living in Toyland here. But all this talk of grump seems a shame.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

did the Khan have a head? and other stories

I'm reading Mongolian folktales. Here are some of my favourites (abridged):

the seven mice
Once there lived seven brother mice. They lived on a piece of land the size of your palm. One day some snow fell, and while the mice were clearing the snow they found a knob of butter. They gave the butter to the youngest mouse to look after, but he ate it. So the other mice beat him to death.
In great remorse, the mice went to see a Buddhist lama.
"There are seven of us," said the mice.
"You have a big family," said the lama.
"We live on land no bigger than your palm," said the mice.
"It is a fine estate," said the lama.
"It snowed," said the mice.
"A great tragedy," said the lama.
"We found some butter," said the mice.
"You became rich," said the lama.
"Our younger brother ate it," said the mice.
"He is a good storekeeper," said the lama.
"We killed him," said the mice.
"That wasn't nice," said the lama.
Then the mice knew the lama was a fool. And they knew they had done the wrong thing by killing their brother, and they were sorry.

Moral: lamas are stupid.

the wolf, the fox and the hedgehog
Once there lived a wolf, a fox and a hedgehog. One day they found a plum.
"Who among us should be the one to eat it?" they asked.
The wolf was quick to reply.
"The one who gets drunk most easily should have the plum," he said. "I myself taste only a drop before I am drunk."
"I am drunk as soon as I smell a drink," said the fox.
Then the hedeghog said, "As soon as I hear the word 'drink' I am drunk." And he swayed and fell over.
The wolf and the fox agreed that the hedgehog was the winner, and the hedgehog ate the plum.

Moral: hedgehogs are wily.

did the Khan have a head?
Long ago there lived a Khan. He was famed for his strictness. The people trembled before him and feared to look him in the face.
One day the Khan went hunting. He tired and said to his servants, "Bend for me that lotus tree so I may sit and rest on its branches."
The servants did as the Khan commanded, but as they stepped away, their eyes to the ground, the tree sprang up and the Khan fell to the ground. When the servants ran to his aid, they noticed the Khan had died. Also, they saw he had no head.
"Did the tree tear the Khan's head from his shoulders?" the servants asked. "Or could it be that, as we were never permitted to look at his face, the Khan never had a head at all?"
"Let's ask the Khan's chief counsellor," a servant suggested. So off they galloped.
"I don't know, servants," the counsellor said. "I was afraid to raise my eyes to my master. I do know that he had a hat. It had a round ruby on top. But I never saw whether the Khan had a head."
The servants did not know what to do. How could they find out if the Khan had a head?
"I know," said one. "Let us ride and ask the Khan's wife. Surely she would know whether her husband had a head."
"Alas," said the Khan's wife. "I knew my husband very well, but I cannot tell you whether he had a head. I do know that he had a moustache. It pricked me when we kissed. However, because of my husband's greatness I always screwed up my eyes, and so I cannot tell you whether the Khan had a head."
At this the servants gave up. They returned to their homes and the question was never answered. So what do you think? Did the Khan have a head?

Moral: physiology? Not so big on the steppe.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

a problem solved

valuable advice from the internet, courtesy of K's dad, Ron:
"If the snow is light or fresh, I dig my cane through it, and with the
combination of sound and touch I can tell what is there."

Now to get me a cane...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Ever wondered how they cured cataracts in Soviet times? We did. That's why we took ourselves off for the weekend to Arshan. It's four hours west up the Tunka valley, which runs under the Sayan mountains and has the Irkut river, which goes east into the Angara.
Arshan means 'spring', as in water (rather than season or what our mattresses here are missing - we're sleeping on boards, an experience which one day I intend to describe at length to the grandkids). It's a spa town at the foot of the mountains, home to two giant sanitoria of the kind party officials used to frequent to take the air, dozens of convalescing babushkas and tepid, eggy water that, wisdom has it, does wonders for your diseases of the eye.
We stayed in a little pensionnat off the main road. It featured a scorpion-shaped stain on the ceiling and electricity that came and went in atmospheric pulses, but was otherwise the best place we've stayed in Siberia.
On the Saturday night we fell in with three other couples from Irkutsk. They were into Moby and yachting, which in normal circumstamces you'd think would put you off. They had a cauldron full of hot red wine ("from Moldova!" they said. "Hooray!" we said) with spices and fruit, and, as it's a Russian tradition of drinking everything until no one can stand and I'm singing the Neighbours theme, they needed help.
Wonderfully, in Russian the word yachting is written exactly as in English but pronounced phonetically. "Oh, yes," they said, "we love to yakht." The men - Maxim and Zhenya and Alexei - yakht quite regularly. Earlier in the year they yakhted back and forth across Baikal in what they said was a freshwater Guinness record but sounds to me like cheating.
In winter they can't yakht so they drive from Olkhon island east across the ice to a promontory on the opposite shore. Once you're 4-5km out, they said, the ice gets clear and you can see a good 20 metres below the surface. It was so much fun chatting we missed Ostrov Iskushenye.
On the Sunday Alexei and Anya took us to some hot springs a further hour into the Tunka. The springs, they were hot. The surroundings - the bleak snowy fields you can see in some of the photos below - not so much. The changing shacks, they were outdoor. Sadly, we didn't have our thermometer, so I can't tell you exactly the margin between towelling yourself, dressing and losing extremities. I can tell you that for an hour Alexei left his car running so the engine wouldn't freeze.

Miss Smilla's feeling for pain

Since the snow came, then melted, then froze again, it's been a job getting around. Ah, I'm playing things down. It's worse than that.
I can walk uphill, with more than the usual difficulty but well enough. On the flats I totter, skid a bit. When it's downhill I'm not man so much as penguin. There's a waddle, there's a look that says 'I got nothing but flippers'. Twice now there's been a slide. Dignified? Imagine the footage you see of penguins shooting off ice floes. Then imagine a lone penguin, in a parka, clutching a plastic bag and emitting little penguiny gasps as he slides feet first away from the bread shop.
I'm not kidding here. I really have no idea how to walk on ice. This morning I woke up with stiff quadriceps because I spent half of Tuesday evening on a downslope.
I've tried the following theories:

  • lean forwards
  • walk slow
  • walk fast
  • toes first (this almost cost me a vertebrae)
  • heels first
  • feet flat

What keeps me trying rather than, say, pitching tent at the bread shop, is that there's definitely a way. Russians can do it, I've seen them. And they wear silly shoes. I've asked for tips. Nobody can explain. Other people must have had to deal with this. Somebody must have some ideas. Are there books?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

nice, heavy, GSOH

A young Korean lass has moved in downstairs. Yesterday she said what she thought of us. Of Kathy she said, cute. And who would disagree? "I like Matt, too," she said. "He's nice. And heavy." "Heavy?" I said. "Yes", she said. "Heavy."


arshan II

Monday, November 14, 2005

we get around town

It's been almost three months since we arrived in Irkutsk. Time - sometimes I feel it's some winged thing, with a beak. Still, I feel we're getting to know the place a little better. For instance, the other day I learned there is not one Lenin in town but three. There's also a Gorky, a Gagarin (killed in a plane crash, which I never knew. Apparently there were two of them and they never found the bodies. The Russian word for what may have happened is 'inaplanetarny'), an Alexander III, who built the railway, and a huge Mig fighter plane in tasteful concrete. Oddly, there's not one of the girls from Tatu. I expect this is some kind of oversight.
Kathy and I choose to take our tea at the Niva, hangout for cops and, in a pleasing twist, lowlifes. The Niva has fresh bread, doughnuts, shopgirls in frilly aprons of such an unlikely yellow they look as though they've been shot in black and white and coloured in later, and pastries. We're not cops so you can join the dots as to where we fit in.
We shop at the outdoor food market, which until a fortnight ago was a place you could get all your fresh vegetables: peppers, eggplant and so forth. Now it is where you can buy frozen cabbages. For our woolly socks and superglue and whatnot we head to the Chinese market. Don't be taken in by the name. That's what they want you to think. Here we chat to vendors about their native Tajikistan (except the vendors from Vietnam, with whom we have short but invigorating conversations about Tajikistan), and we watch people fall over where the ground has frozen into impossible icy domes.
Not far from the market there's a synagogue which is boarded over and shut. It's off Dzherzhinsky street, still named after the rather charming character who founded the KGB and oversaw the murders of, at most, a few dozen million Russians. Could this be why walking tours never took off here?
What else? The main factory in town makes tea. The war memorial is where you go with your wedding party for flower laying and happy snaps. Near the bandstand where the kiddies like to drink a building has fallen into the river. Near the shopping complex You can ride a camel. It's quite a big camel. Sometimes in the morning you see its owner riding it through the streets. It gets up quite a clip.

twelve below

as of the weekend, first thing in the morning. I know, because we've bought a thermometer. It's handy because, just like in England, everybody here loves to talk about the weather. It would all be quite homely if it wasn't for the broken glass and fur. Apparently -12 is mild for the time of year. Also, Irkutsk is windier than it used to be. We still haven't seen the goats. I'm worried about the goats.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

ostrov iskusheniye

Here's what's happening on Russian temptation island (ostrov iskusheniye), taped in the Seychelles and currently screening on Saturday nights, just before the porn that kicks in at midnight on RenTV.

Dennis is upset because his girlfriend may or may not have slept with a man who wears G-strings and a peroxide fauxhawk.
Andrei has found a message in stones outside his apartment: 'Good morning, my favourite'. Who might have written it? What has happened to their stationery?
Have you tried Medoff? It's a kind of liqueur that doesn't seem to be available here in the provinces. The producers think you ought to give it a whirl.
Three of the four girl temptees are upset because one has had her bottom pinched during a house party fueled mostly by Medoff. The fourth, Natasha, is preoccupied with pinching other people's bottoms. Several of these bottoms appear to belong to members of the production crew.
None of this bothers Natasha's partner, Misha.
It's time for a feast. Here's our host, a sagely type 15 years too old for his clothes. He has a traditional Russian picnic. Everyone's surprised and delighted. There's caviar. There's sausage. There's vodka. There's Medoff. Have you tried Medoff? It tastes like the wind.
Natasha, who passed the previous evening grinding against waiters, is upset because Misha has been taped speaking with another girl.
Andrei and his temptress are off for a snorkel. As my friend Joe has pointed out, from the stiff breeze and the goosebumps you can tell this was taped long after the tourist season. A tortoise is having its neck massaged. Medoff - have you heard?
Our host would like to remind you that while all this is fun, we're playing with lives and the decisions we make here on the Seychelles are important. Natasha is snogging a barman.
Want to know more?

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Our window overlooks a path that leads onto ulitsa Igoshina. Now that the snows are here you can watch Ladas spinning around the corner. At the corner there's a shortcut that leads up an embankment.
Yesterday a man was walking up this. He was walking sideways, like a man wearing skis. After a few steps he fell over and slid with his manbag down the slope. When he picked himself up and set off again, crablike, I noticed his problem. His shoes were too pointy to go uphill.
This seems to me a serious setback for Irkutsk's pointy shoe craze. When your toes are in six inches of superfluous shiny leather, women may want you and men want to be you. But is this practical? And will it last through the winter? These are the questions I have.

six below

It snowed all of Wednesday. Thursday was sunny. The snow melted on the paths just in time for sunset. Overnight it froze into a film of ice that I have no idea how to walk on. K neither. We spent a lot of yesterday wobbling about making little circles with our arms. Then it snowed again. Everything is muffled and in the evening there's a strange blue glow. Today is supposed to be -6. I haven't seen the goats.