Mortar Sandwiches

The train pulled into Irkutsk station five minutes late. Not bad considering it had just been on the go for eighty hours. We descended from the train and looked around the masses of people on the platform. A tall, gangly man, early thirties maybe with thick moustache was standing to our right waiting, looking apprehensive- clearly our 'contact'. Following that uncomfortable moment of eye contact that talks the unspoken language of 'are you? Aren't you?' we move to one another. 'Marc?' 'Konstantin!' And so we were met at Irkutsk station.

Konstantin and LindseyWe climbed into the Russia made jeep that was driven by Konstantin's father (who is the spitting image of Dennis Hopper). Large cracks and stone chips in the windscreen. The vehicle was a workhorse that was far from being fresh out of the dealer's showroom. Hmmm, there's a thought. Did they have 'dealer's showrooms' in soviet times? Would be improper for me to ask now, I've only just met them. Keep such conversation for later.

They live in a block of flats near the centre of Irkutsk. A block among many. None of them appearing particularly well built. Some with plaster facades, others, like the one we were entering were of brickwork. Oh the brickwork. Like a student with the late night munchies, filling a sandwich with jam, spreading it unevenly, thick in parts, thin in others, oozing out at the sides, the mortar between the bricks spoke of a rushed job with no effort to finish it. No delicate slicing of the crusts. No pointing of the brickwork; what you see is what you get!.

We are met my Constantin's mother. Her wide-eyed grin revealing significant gold denture work. A kind face with large, brown thick-rimmed glasses. And a very motherly demeanor. She took instantly to Lindsey. She jabbered away in Russian with the odd phrase of clear English thrown in, 'you are welcome'. We were made to feel very much at home in these strangers home.

Showered, (the mother made sure that Lindsey used her hair drier- and suggested using her curling tongs for good measure), we left the flat, jumped back into the jeep and headed out to Lake Baikal.

First stop, a museum of historical buildings from the area. A reconstructed village made of wooden huts, lived in by the Cossacks... and tee-pees (or is it wig-wams, both onomatopoeias don't you think?) that would have been inhabited by the indigenous Burayt people. Life would have been hard in Siberia in such accommodation...


And then the shores of Lake Baikal, a small village called Listvyanka. Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world, holding one fifth of all its fresh water. It is kept remarkably clean by the plethora of life that filters the water, so clean they say that you can drink it. They also say that you can extend your life by one year by dipping your hand in the life enhancing water. And twenty-five years, if you submerge your whole body. But that would more likely kill you from hypothermia than by any elixir.

We went walking around the hills by the side of the lake. Konstantin knew this area, as a student, so was happy to take us off the beaten track. Off the beaten track to no track, with a steep, rocky slope to the crashing waves below. And I'm a little concerned. It is slippery where we walk, and one mistake and a slide to a nasty end down below seems inevitable. Lindsey is quite happy though, scrabbling between the pine trees, across the hardy grasses and rocky obstacles. Me, I'm taking my time. It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so windy, but this wind could blow us clean off the slope. Tis not the gentle caress of a fresh sea breeze, (but it is not a full scale gale either) let us sit on the proverbial fence, and at the risk of getting splinters in the arse, say that the wind speed sits in the middle of the Beaufort scale. From one to ten it is a five.

But enough of the weather (I am English after all), the walk is a good one; the environs are beautiful (and would probably have been more so if we could have seen the snow capped peaks that apparently lined the opposite banks of the lake). Hunger is setting in. To the centre of the village please driver!

Three little fishes

As guests we are kindly treated to food. All the cafes in town are full, so we buy some smoked omul fish from the countless smoked fish vendors on the quay by the lake, some Cornish pasty-like potato-filled fried dough balls and some apple juice to drink. Lindsey eats her fish, I eat mine. 'Please! Have another'. Lindsey declines, but I eagerly wolf down another one of these smoked kippers. Tasty it was too. Mind you my hands are getting a bit smelly, and oooops, shouldn't've done that, wiped my fingers on my jumper (I honk of fish for a good few days after). And there is one more fish in the bag. Its smoked skin glistening gold. Inviting. I'm stuffed. But I'm also the guest, and Lindsey has declined, so fish number three disappears down my gullet. And don't be thinking these were sardines, no; they were a good size that an angler would be proud of in his keep net. The sort he would weigh rather than just tossing back into the lake, cursing his luck for just catching small fry...

Shut eye is forbidden

And after food, via a brief sojourn in the museum on the natural history of the lake we drive back to town. Lack of sleep the previous night, and all that fish sitting heavily in my guts try to force a slumber. But Konstantin's father keeps looking at me in his mirror and I'm sure he is making sure that my eyes stay open to admire the view because when I briefly close them I am sure I can here him growl...

Catching the Zees

Back at the ranch with the crusty brickwork, in the flat and the front room is going to be our bedroom. Only it is still a bit early. It is only five o-clock.

Fatigue seems to be a recurring theme on this trip. Back at the ranch fatigue crept up on me and gave me an almighty slap. Punched me into a daze. Leaving the conscious, awakened mind, physical body and verbal reasoning faculty scattered in the ether. I was misunderstood. I misunderstood myself. At 5.30 in the afternoon the sofa bed was set out, sheets dressed it and we were left to ourselves. Ummmm. For the night? It wasn't supposed to be like this. I tried to strike up a conversation about the USSR but the ball was already rolling. You are going to sleep mate! And it was of my own doing. I'd passed on all the get out of jail cards that were offered by Konstantin's mother, I declined the offer of food and drink. There would be no toasting tonight. I was already asleep. On the armchair. Snoring. Apparently- Lindsey kept on waking me up - 'you are snoring'. 'No'. 'I am just having a little rest'. Snoring indeed!.

Eight o-clock and I am rested, as has Lindsey and we are wondering what to do next. We are convinced that the curtain has already come down on this evening. But then Konstantin knocks on the door, well the doorframe actually, there is no door, they have put sheets up as curtains to separate the room for privacy. And he leads us to the kitchen where we are fed a simple, but nourishing meal of fried potato and sausages (with pig fat, a specialty in the Ukraine apparently). Pork scratchings without the scratch. Soft, thick chunks of lard. An instant regret the moment I popped it into my mouth...)

Who's ya guru baby?

We talk and talk and talk. Konstantin is interested in eastern philosophy and we discuss Buddhism, Hinduism and Indian gurus at length. He seems to have a particular interest in Sri Aurobindo, whilst his mother enters the kitchen hugging a book by Osho, formerly Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the guru who promoted free love to the western spiritual searchers of the seventies. They wanted a message and he gave it to them. They sought the Truth without the hardships of the spiritual journey He was switched on to the materialistic west alright, with an infamously large collection of Rolls Royces. And Konstantin's mother is pointing at his picture on the front of the book - (his image is worn by all his sanyasins, big egos require multiple facsimiles to remind them (and their followers) of their greatness?) She is pointing at the picture and cooing like a Furby "eye lurrrve Osho!" But she is smiling and clearly winding up her son who has no time for the man from Poona.

We talk about the east until Konstantin has had enough. What a great excuse for finishing a conversation, "that is too much English for one night." And he is right, he has been talking with us all day and it must be hard to suddenly switch the mind into a language you have not used for a good few months previously.

I had enjoyed our conversation, but I could not help but feel that his interest was as much academic as spiritual. He is after all a man of academia. Action barely featured. And I wonder if he is much like me in that respect, mentally masturbating over the ideas, but doing little in the way of actual practice.

Dog of the Baskervilles

Breakfast the following morning and Konstantin was excited about what he was cooking for us. "I believe you eat this for breakfast in England? I have read it so in the dog of the Baskervilles by Conan Doyle". "Arrr, you mean Hound" I corrected him. And with the delight he said it, it was obviously a line that had stuck with him, because imagining he was Dr. Watson (I presume. Never having read much Sherlock Holmes), and with a fork and a flourish he produced a steaming plate and announced "Porridge Sir!"

Cosmic beat box

Later in the day Konstantin talked more about what he is doing. Conducting post doctoral research at Irkutsk University into some definitely esoteric stuff outside the mainstream of science. He is looking into Bio-rhythms. Specifically he is currently investigating the effects of external phenomena on populations of fruit fly. (What is it about the poor fruit fly that scientists spend so much time studying them? What's wrong with the blue bottle for example?) Such things as lunar and solar activity, sunspots and the like. Cycles. Like the way the moon affects tidal flows. The moon can have a direct impact on the size of waves. And hey, aren't we ninety five percent water. And look at the cycles. It is no coincidence that the female menstrual cycle is the same as the lunar cycle. And apparently (I didn't know this one) the rate of growth of male facial hair, the beard is also governed by lunar cycles. Things get more interesting with solar cycles. Sun spot activity follows an eleven-year cycle. That corresponds with major historical events. External factors effecting a subtle, but definite statistical force on our population, our planet. Hmmm. Mental note. Do some more digging into this. How, for example does one quantify or qualify a 'major historical event?' Interesting guy this Konstsantin.

What makes you happy?

We spend the day doing the sites of Irkutsk and our last stop is the house of one of the Decembrists, now a museum. A young bloke who knows Konstantin from 'The English club' guides us round the museum. As we are going round the museum, he makes a comment along the lines that the tsar exiled the Decembrist, but didn't kill them. Unlike Stalin. Great. I'd not found a suitable window of opportunity to discuss the break up of the Soviet Union with Konstantin. Here in this museum we commenced on a full debate, and our new friend was speaking the lingo for real, outside the language club.

He thought that the Germans gave Russia Lenin. I grasped that this was because Europe was ripe for revolution at the turn of the century. Any country but Russia. But the Krauts had to throw a spanner in the works and start the Great War, and there is nothing like a war to get patriotism going and revive the popularity of flagging leaders (hey Maggie?!) But the Russians missed out on that particular helping from the historical stew pot, leaving the path clear for Lenin and the Bolshies.

Russia, he thought was an enigma, which I whole-heartedly agreed with. He commented that Russia, historically has only ever had two allies, its army and its Navy.

Both he and Konstantin were very patriotic. They also seemed glad that the old communist regime was over. Many bad features of it. Their main gripe was aimed at the break up of the Soviet states. So a company producing aircraft in Irkutsk used to get its parts from the Ukraine, another part of the USSR. But now the Ukraine is another country and the parts no longer come. Cleary the free market isn't working for that factory. But nor is it in many parts of Russia that we ignorantly observed from afar. We discussed capitalism, and he asked 'what makes you happy?' "A rhetorical question, no?" said Konstantin.

We talked of leaders, past and present. They liked Putin, especially the fact that he was a spy - must know what is going on then, - and he speaks German.... I questioned them about Gorby. In the west he appears to be seen as the instigator of the collapse of the USSR. They felt he was just a peasant, a nickname Uncle "…", I didn't get the name. And that he had done it all the wrong way round. They had little time for him.

All this conversation was coming to end. Silences were getting longer and a final question that should have been brief but turned out to be the most lengthy of them all was posed. "What is your specialism?" Clearly our friend's was the piano. He had in his early life tinkled the ivories on an ancient organ, giving a virtuoso performance of a number of organ classics. My specialism?

And so I spent the next ten minutes explaining the meaning of the expression "jack of all trades but master of none." Some sayings just fall out of the jaw with little thought of the translatory consequences. Ho hum.

Last supper

Our final meal just before catching the train out of Irkutsk was a fine affair of what appears to be a form of ravioli in a clear soup. Something like Tibetan momos. I really enjoy it, and am filled and satisfied. And give my thanks to Konstantins mother for cooking such a wonderful meal and I am quite full. "Sashure?" she says to me, and I assume it means 'thank you' or something alike. "sashure.You say it" And I do. And I repeat it and we are rapping "sashure" between each other and she is giving me the gold toothed smile of happiness and goes to fill up my dish again. Cheeky! "Sashure" is not thank you. It means 'more please'!

The end of the page

So please, excuse me. As the big hand joins the little hand in pointing up to the heavens. I think I shall bring tonight's record of events to a close. We have now rolled out of Russia into Mongolia, and oh so much to tell about there. So goodbye Konstantin and your family; thank you very much for allowing us to stay and gaining a small insight into your lives. We are eternally grateful. Thank you Russia for your Babushkas and your Beer, Baltika number three, the one with the blue label. Sweet. And thank you for the word that I shall use now that seems ubiquitous, meaning please, but also 'excuse me' and 'here you are' or 'there you go' when you are handed your goods or change (because you still buy things from over the counter here. No self-service). But I digress on a tangent. Please excuse me. Parzholsta.