Anton collected me the next morning from Kirill’s place and took me around his home town of Irkutsk spending some time taking in the markets and getting a feel for the city. I can see why, at the turn of the century, it had been called the Paris of Siberia . There were many 100-200 year-old buildings, each one with stately facades and ornamental stonework. Some were finally being restored, others were torn down and still others were decaying into a Siberian oblivion. Amongst these giant building were wooden houses with nice lattice work on the eves and wooden windows which evoked an almost Portuguese or Spanish feeling. Many of these wooden houses were decaying, the woodwork simply falling onto the streets. Restored they (and the city) would look amazing. According to Anton, many people did not have the money to fix these old houses. Those that were offered money to sell for new developments chose to do so before “mysterious” fires would destroy the houses of those that refused.
I managed to get my fill of “civilization” with markets and Internet and then we drove south out of the city. Now in case I haven’t mentioned, Anton’s van is a Toyota 4WD van which has stalwartly taken us down forest roads that I would think many SUVs would dare not tread. However, lately a keen beeping had started from the instrument panel. Anton was of the opinion that one of the engine belts had stopped working. For such a problem, the wonderful engineers at Toyota had attached a note of indescribable pain to make sure that the owner of the vehicle would fix it. Despite the fact that the beeping was going off every five minutes by then, I was not all that annoyed. This was thanks to the eight people I work with at BioWare who all have the rare “arsehole” gene and regularly ply with me such annoyances (a flying squash ball to the head is not a rarity). However, I think the beeping was driving Anton nuts.
Regardless, our aim today was to go deep into Russia’s taiga – an almost impenetrable, somewhat tropical forest – and go rock climbing on some natural walls. We were to spend the night in a log cabin. Supposedly at the turn of the century when they were building the Trans-Siberian railroad, the engineers found this forest so impenetrable that they preferred to change the course of rivers than cut through the forest. The road to the climbing walls (named Pharaoh and Cleopatra) was worse than the forest roads in the Steppe. I really thought the van had had it at some points. When the van stopped inside the taiga, I immediately knew this was going to be an unpleasant afternoon and evening.
A horde of flies and mosquitoes descended upon us… well actually, descended upon me. You see, on this little Baikal trek, Anton had assured me at the beginning that there were almost no mosquitoes. What he really meant (and take heed) was that few mosquitoes ever bit him, or for that matter, any Irkutsk native. However, these pestilent insects were quite attracted to exotic, foreign meat – me. No matter the amount of DEET, I have been beset upon by these biting fellows. Even more depressing: I had just run out of DEET.
The climbing walls were truly a sport climbers dream. Unfortunately I suck at technical climbing and these were surely beyond me. Anton made several top-roped climbs that I belayed and we spent some time doing some video taping as he practiced for his mountain climb later in the year. All in all, quite fun!
We decided (thankfully) that a cabin in the woods would simply lead to my death… By then I was like the little boy in Peanuts with a cloud of flies and mosquitoes covering my head and following my every move. Instead we drove down to the Irkut River to camp by its banks. This river might be one of the fastest flowing rivers I have ever stood in. As I write, the sun is setting and the mosquitoes have again descended upon me but somehow I will survive. Anton and I had had a sobering discussion of Russia and its problems with intellectual property laws and piracy and are now preparing to build a fire.