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August 8th, 2003

Irkutsk, Russia

In any given day on the railway, the train would pull into a dozen different towns, stopping anywhere from two to twenty minutes. During these stops everyone would get out, wander around (though not too far), smoke cigarettes, buy snacks from the vendors, and generally mingle. By this point I could recognize everyone in my carriage, and was certain that I was the only non-Russian aboard. In fact, during our brief stops I had not come across an English speaker from any other carriage-- although I can't say that I searched very hard. I felt neither isolated nor frustrated at not being able to speak English -- rather the sense that I was among normal, everyday Russians living their normal, everyday lives only contributed to my enjoyment of the journey. For all the discomfort, for all the hours of having nothing to do, I felt like I was on the trip of a lifetime.

I woke before the others, and headed into the hallway for my morning dose of Siberian scenery. Surprisingly the flatness had disappeared. We were winding through some heavily forested, low-lying mountains, and soon emerged into a valley ringed by a mountain range. Our first stop of the day was at the small town of Nizhneudinsk, where a chill hung in the air even in spite of the sun being unobscured by clouds.

The card games continued, and I discovered that the name of the game we had been playing for three days was "Drakma". One of the biggest surprises to me was that none of the three had ever seen a deck of cards being properly shuffled before. They stared at me with awe-struck faces, as if I were a circus performer turning a trick, and subsequently would burst into laughter at the sight and sound of the cards being rapidly merged.

During one of the games, and for no other reason than that Grandma's card-playing arrogance was starting to annoy me, I made a throw that, while perhaps not helping my prospects for the game, would assuredly dim hers. She responded with a string of untranslatable epithets, to Ma's and Ramon's lively bemusement. Alas, Grandma recovered and bested me, and looked at me for the rest of the day as if I had committed a grave and unpardonable sin against her.

As I packed my bags to prepare for departure, I could only wonder what this small subset of Russians thought of me. They were amazed by my card shuffling, baffled by my handheld computer, and befuddled by my zipoff pants. I must have come across like a space alien. Ma pantomimed tears as I prepared to depart, and expressed a hope that she might someday be able to visit America. I said my farewells, and was met immediately thereafter by Marina, the girl from Irkutsk's one and only hostel. It was a bit odd to hear spoken English again. On the ride to the hostel, we drove through the center of Irkutsk, past an abundance of surprisingly attractive wooden houses. And for the first time I was in the midst of a truly Asian-looking people: the native Buryats descend from Genghis Khan's Mongols, and constitute the largest non-Russian ethnicity in this part of Siberia.

The hostel was on the seventh floor of a particularly ugly apartment building. Fortunately the interior -- three separate bedrooms -- was clean and comfortable. A few other travellers were milling about, but after a glorious shower and some laundry washing, I retired.


Photos:
Nizhneudinsk train station
Stocking up for the next leg
Siberian countryside, from the train
Little green house, from the train
Siberian village, from the train
Typical treescape, from the train
Grassy plain, from the train
Another Siberian village, from the train
Village along a river, from the train


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