What’s a Putinska?: 05 July 2006 (Wednesday)

There is something about trekking, climbing and travelling which leaves an inch or two of grime on you. If you don’t bathe regularly it just continues to build up – almost like a shield against the elements. On this trip, bathing with soap has becoming quite the luxury. This may be more information than you want to know about me and this trip, but up to last night, the last time I had bathed was in Moscow, more than a week ago! Okay, I’ve jumped into a warm pond and tried swimming in the frigid Lake Baikal, so I’m not completely disgusting but nevertheless, let me assure you that it was simply heavenly to use soap and shampoo last night in Irkutsk. Now, how come I was back in Irkutsk? The trek was to last till Thursday.

When we woke up on top of the cliff the weather was deteriorating and Anton advised me that the landscape would not be changing much more going further north up the lake. He suggested therefore that we do the day’s activities that he had planned and go south back to Irkutsk and explore the south of the lake for the rest of my trip. The vision of spending a night in a hostel with soap almost drove me into a swoon. Corey and Donna (bless their souls) would probably laugh at this considering the state of my apartment sometimes. Truly I was salivating at the thought of a shower.

First though, we had more trekking to do. We descended into a dark hole in the ground to find a bat cave. We also dropped into a really interesting valley – The Vallery of the Stone Spirits and trekked up Mt. Tan Hun overlooking Olkhon Island. According to local legend, two shamans went to war in the area. The war dragged on for so long that eventually the higher spirits decided to put an end to it. The higher spirits turned the two leading shamans into mountains overlooking Lake Baikal (one of them being Mt. Tan Hun) and the warriors into stones littering the area between the two mountains.

Usually the view from this area is apparently spectacular, but this day it was over 30 degrees, humid, cloudy and ready to rain. Post mountain trek saw us driving madly back to Irkutsk. It’s amazing, we’ve travelled well over 300 km from Irkutsk and only gone half-way up one side of this amazing lake. The drive back, however, was impressive in its boring-ness.

Once back in stinky, indusrial and crowded Irkutsk (you can really feel the difference from the unspoiled cleanliness of Baikal) we hurried through town to find me a hostel. At the first hostel we had no luck. Inside were bunks filled with people who I’m sure I resembled – unshaven, dirty, suffering from the humidity and generally “well-travelled”. There was no room left there. The next place we tried was also full. I was getting desperate. That soap was getting more elusive – damnation! Then a stroke of luck, Anton was able to find me a homestay in an apartment of 250 year-old house.

Twenty minutes later I was watching the grime extend away from me in cleansing rivulets. The son of the apartment’s owner, Kirill, knew exceeding good English. The home stay was incredibly clean and everyone hospitable. Kirill’s mother left as I arrived, leaving me in the care of her son. I learned later that she was off to a “Dacha” — basically a summer log-cabin where city dwellers spend their summer gardening and farming. Probably feeling some sympathy for me, Kirill asked if I would like to be shown a bit of Irkutsk and perhaps meet some of his friends, to which I readily agreed.

As we were walking down the promenade of the Angara River looking for Kirill’s friends, I mentioned to Kirill (a former teacher) that I was glad I was in Irkutsk where people don’t take photos of me like they had in the Caucasus. Just as I had said this, a young girl ran up with her camera phone, curtsied, smiled, took my photo and ran away into the crowd. There went that particular theory.

Soon after we met up with Kirill’s friends – who were many and all quite accommodating. A few stuck in my memory. Sasha/Alexander, for instance, who knew BioWare and our games. He tried to convince me that I should always say “Priviet” with my hands in the air (funny guy – Priviet means hello). He also asked whether I knew what a “Putinska” was. Apparently Putin had had a publicity photo taken recently of him kissing the belly of a young sick boy. As such the term “Putinska” had been adopted by the group for the act of kissing the bellies of young boys.

Another of Kirrill’s friends was Yura who spent much of his drunken time trying to speak with me. There was Dasha, a charming girl dressed in green whose dream was to someday go to the alps. Much vodka was drunk, I taught them to say “Slainte” as a toast and generally a good time was had by all. As we were sat there next to the river, the glooming thunderstorm made its appearance with a flurry of thunderous activity. At some point Kirill and I dashed of back to the dryness and safety of the house and, while watching some television, chatted about former soviet times and life in Irkutsk. Finally I collapsed into bed, thoroughly exhausted but fantastically clean!


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