August 17, 2009 - 8/17 – Touring Irkutsk

After 2 nights on a plane, I went to sleep at 8am in a bed at the Victory Hotel in Irkutsk.  Set the alarm for 10.  Alexsey picked me up at 10:30 and we headed off to a bike shop to get my bike reassembled.

Alesey will by my driver and ‘guide’ for the next 8 day.  His English is emerging, fortunately.  He is 44.  A hydrologist form Irkutsk who has not been able to find work in his chosen field for years, he has a wife and son.  He now earns his living guiding tourists and, of all things, running a small bike shop that is, of all things, well stocked with SRAM components!  Here’s the, shop, the SRAM goods, and us working on the Trek 520 – same one that went across South America with me.

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Then we went off to tour Irkutsk.  It was a dreary day.  The regional museum was closed on Monday, so we headed to the V. P. Sukachev Art Museum – “one of the largest museums in Russia, and the most important of all those in the trans-Ural region” – according to a sign posted in museum. 

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Mr. Sukachev (1849-1920) devoted a good part of his life to building a collection that spans centuries (1400-1900) and cultures (Russian/Buryat/Mongol/Chinese).  I paid 200 rubles for entry, and another 100 so I could take pictures.  You’ll probably never make it to this museum, so take a look…

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They were unique with their symbolic/early art (16-17th centuries), and good with their 18-19th century portraits and landscapes.  Their attempts at Impressionism seem lifeless (to me) though… no pix of those.

Irktusk will be 350 years old in 2011.  It has been a Cossack fort to control the natives; a trading post of both furs and minerals from the region and between China and Russia, and for centuries, a place to banish your enemies if you’re in charge of Russia. The czar’s Trans-Siberian Railway boosted Irkutsk’s fortunes immeasurably.  It became the industrial and educational/scientific center that it is today under the Soviets. 

• it is “vaguely seedy”  (Rough Guide)

• contains a mix of Russians (say 70%, 20% Mongols/Bayats, and 10% Chinese.

• many cars including ours are ‘Japanese’ with the steering wheel on the left.  I suspect eastern Russia is an outlet for used Japanese cars.

• big dam here on the Angara river, which flows out of Baikal (many others flow in) provides low cost, low polluting energy. 

• but of course they put up a big aluminum plant next to it, maybe a couple of miles from downtown Irkutsk, which spews out black smoke from three stacks, even as I type.

Irkutsk has the strangest/most fascinating mix of architecture of anywhere I’ve been.  Modern buildings right next to 150 year old wood buildings.  Modern homes next to dirt road hovels.

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That’s it for now.  Baikal Tomorrow, Ride Thurs.
Here’s a shot of my hotel and room, fyi.

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