What comes to mind when you picture Siberia? Lots of snow? Dogsleds? Big furry hats? As part of my journey along the Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian Railway, I spent some time in Irkutsk, Siberia, Russia.
Back in its heyday, Irkutsk was a major trading city and the regional capital. Although it has waned in importance, it’s still a popular destination, in a large part due to its location along the Railway. Although I suppose you wouldn’t know it from the main pedestrian shopping street….
Don’t let the image fool you. It was so cold that the air hurt my face. In Mother Russia, the cold protects against YOU.
The mascot of Irkutsk is a weird steppe tiger holding a sable in its mouth. Apparently the people are very proud of it and will happily tell you that it’s on their coat-of-arms. Here is it’s statue in front of another pedestrian/tourist shopping walkway:
Irkutsk is famous for (among other things) still having historic wooden buildings. These were apparently a big deal back in the day, and most of them have been demolished now. But a number are still scattered around the city, in varying states of preservation. Although they’re nice to look at, I can’t imagine that they are cheap to keep heated.
I also saw the beautiful Kazan Church. The name comes from a religious icon that has been reproduced and worshiped and inspired churches across the country. (It has nothing to do with Kazakhstan, which I first thought due to the resemblance of names.)
Inside the church…
(A middle-aged Russian lady angrily whisper-shouted at me for accidentally stepping on their Most Holy Carpet to take the above picture.)
There’s also the magnificent Prince Vladimir Church. Who he was, I have no idea, but they explicitly prohibited taking pictures inside the church:
Irkutsk was my third Russian city to visit. I’ve also been to St. Petersburg once and Moscow three times. I love Moscow immensely. If nothing else, the architecture is stunning:
In Moscow, buildings under renovation have an outer covering that depicts the final outcome!
I love the metro stations of Moscow. Riding the subway is like stepping back in time. The stations themselves are ornately decorated with Soviet art, and the cars are from another era.
I do think Russia wins the Prettiest Churches Contest:
These are at a monastery just outside of Moscow, from May 2018:
The incomparable St. Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square….
In Mother Russia, lights decorate with YOU.
The reason I love Moscow so much is probably rooted in my experience there during my first visit in 2011. I had booked a last-minute cheap AF flight over spring break, needing an escape from my graduate program. I arrived on a snowy winter afternoon which coincided with my 29th birthday. I had been in a rush to get to the airport and forgot my jacket in my friend’s car in the USA, so I was wearing only a light woolen sweater. I walked lost for maybe 90 minutes trying to find trying to find my hostel, carrying my luggage. My phone battery was dead, so I couldn’t call and ask the hostel for directions. In a dark alley behind a nearby church, I saw two men talking; the sun was starting to set by now, so I took a gamble and approached them, seeking help. I showed them my hostel’s address and asked if they could show me where it was. I spoke no Russian, and they spoke no English, but they looked at me and tugged at my sweater, motioning to the sky with falling snow and chattering at me in Russian, then beckoned me to follow them, saying “Chai, chai” (“tea, tea”). With no other choice, I followed them inside their home, where another man who spoke English took my bags and told me they would find my hostel for me online, and in the meantime I should sit and eat and have tea and warm myself up. He wrapped me in a big camel-colored trench coat, sat me down at a long table spread with an elaborate buffet of food, the rest of the family already seated, and brought me a dinner plate, utensils, and cup of tea. The family and I had some small conversation in broken English and Russian. I told them I’m from the USA, and the father eagerly began introducing me to his young, unmarried daughter. I told them it was my birthday, and someone else went to another room then returned with a box of chocolates for me as a birthday gift. Eventually, they found my hostel location online and drove me there, carrying my bags upstairs for me. At the end, the English-speaking man gave me his phone number and told me to call him if I ever needed any help in Moscow. I thanked him and moved to remove the trench coat I was still wearing, but he stopped me and I should keep the it because I needed it in winter.
To this day, it’s my absolute favorite coat in the world, and I will never part with it. The overwhelming generosity and kindness of strangers in Russia made an indelible mark on me, and I will forever hold Moscow in a special place in my heart.
(Below is me and my new coat in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the largest Orthodox church in the world, March 2011:)
That’s all from Mother Russia. Coming soon: Ukraine!