So there we were in Russia, and of course we had no place to stay. DH wandered out of the train station with a phrase book and the best of of intentions. He returned with a couple about our age and a story of friendly locals. In the end, we had an excellent dorm-style room in a new hotel and the couple’s 18 year old son as a guide for the evening. DH had met the couple, who spoke some English and were very friendly, outside the station. Together they three of them had checked out several places to stay, including a hostel where their son Andre worked. We didn’t stay there but Andre likes to practice English and wanted to show us around so off we went.
We took a tram, a steel-plated formidable tank of a streetcar with a stern-looking attendant, to the 130th district where there was a busy pedestrian walk and a mall. A statue there depicted a babr- a mythological tiger with beaver tail and paws, once believed to be real- with a fox in its teeth. It is the representation of the strength of the local people and was on their shields when they would fight long ago. Also, we drank kvas, a non-alcoholic mead-like drink very popular in this area. It is so popular that it is difficult to buy less than a liter at a time! I liked it but we couldn’t finish the whole bottle of kvas. Andre pointed out several performance theaters and statues as we walked around. We had plenty of time since the sun doesn’t set here until well after 10pm in mid-June. He was such a nice guy, a little nervous since he is taking his big end-of-school tests. If he doesn’t do well enough, he has to join the military, which he does not want to do. We wished him the best and we hope he can visit us someday.
We went to Lake Baikal the next day, then returned to Irkutsk for a few more days. On our second visit, a young woman approached me and the kids one afternoon while we were walking around town. Her English was excellent. She said she was studying photography and wondered if she could take photos of the kids. We had a short conversation (we were looking for an English language bookstore) and soon we were planning to spend the next day with Marguerite. She offered the kids some Harry Potter books in return for her taking their photos, they loved the idea.
DH wanted to see an ice breaker ship that had been made into a museum and was docked nearby. Marguerite happened to have volunteered on this ship and so we all went aboard the Angara, a ship that was built in 1900 to break ice in lake Baikal and later moved products and passengers until the 1960’s.
Afterwards, we went to a bookstore to stock up for the next leg of the train trip to Moscow which would be over 100 hours long. We had lunch at one of these cafeteria style diners we had been to around town. They are fairly cheap (around $15 for all six of us), and it is easy to point to what you want if you don’t speak Russian. It was great that Marguerite could tell us what the food was before choosing it- I had had an interesting experience a couple days earlier when the delicious yogurt and berry dish I chose turned out to be sour cream, beets, and some sort of fish instead!
Anyway, the last place we went to with Marguerite turned out to be phenomenal. It was an historic wooden house like those we had seen since entering Russia, beautiful wood with painted shutters, built around the turn of the century. This one, though, built in 1907 had been made into an art space with stonework, stained glass, sculpture, and performances. The resident artists were quite friendly and showed us around. There were indoor and outdoor performance areas, a screen for films, workshops, and some antiques to wear and look at just for fun. Also there were two dogs, always a draw for us. The place had such a great vibe and the woman who showed us around had an interest in old buildings like I do (we were mutually interested in each others houses when she learned our house was built in 1896) and there was so much to see it was just great. We thanked Marguerite and also invited her to visit us. We really lucked out meeting these friendly, bilingual locals on the street at such a great time.