Ulan-Ude, May 30th—I book third class to Irkutsk on the assumption I can tolerate 453 kilometers over eight hours. Days are long this far north, so night will append neither trip’s start nor end. Not needing to be horizontal, I have all the circumstance I need for frugality.
Third-class is just a railroad car with thin cushioned, aqua bench seats bolted to the floor. The car has six people and a samovar at the far end. A samovar is an overlarge kettle, like an urn. In Russian samovar means self-brewer, and in homes or palaces they are either decorative or ornate. Here, the likeness is nearer the piston and valve machinery that charges our movement. One female attendant keeps the water hot with coal. A family prepares their meal with it, filling pouches of instant mashed potatoes and noodles with hot water. When finished, they’re disappointed to see I’ve annexed the car’s lone table. I motion that they can join. The son, who is young and wild, looks eager, but his father turns him from me and they take seats elsewhere.
A wire fan with metal blades nods back and forth above a transom, and a land born fly catches a ride via the open window at Ulan-Ude and hitches for a few hours until it zips out at Babushkin with Lake Baikal in sight.
We slice the divide between lake and land, flat blue on the one, groves of ancient, slanted beech in lemon and cherry on the other.
Russia has countersued civilization for these parts. Power line catenaries zip alongside us. A single paved path follows ours and then beyond that, roads of dirt. There is an odd factory here or there, either for gravel or timber. When I see spouts of industry they are more often than not abandoned.
Death accumulates faster than life does here and is more concentrated. Towns are few, homes and graveyards are many. Homesteads are incisions into forest. Trees that were cleared now the walls, roofs, and rafters. And no home is without its garden plot. Women with arms like ham-hocks and wearing kerchiefs bow-tied over their rugose faces bend over wood-handles and turn soil over aside rows of sprouts. Just once I see a broad, heavy man with silver hair shining on his shoulders tilling his yard. He is as naked as stone, and his bare ass as tan and wrinkled as the rest of him.
Somewhere east of Vydrino—a few hours left to Irkutsk—I am leaning on a seat and looking at Baikal. Baikal is fresh water. A league in depth, it is the world’s deepest, with a volume greater than all of America’s Great Lakes. Yet its corridor edges are nevertheless visible in a single glance. Its end tip eels northward, the lake never wider than fifty miles.
On the south side, mountains are still in winter. Even slopes exposed to full sun are alabaster with snow.
A man in a black polo and gold watch who I assume to not be a tourist begins speaking to me as he points at the mountains.
“I’m sorry, neit russkiy.” I say to him.
“I am sorry,” he says. Again pointing to the mountains, he gives me their Russian names and says, “Ski,” he says.
“It is a resort?”
“Resort? I do not understand. Ski.”
In good time, and with some struggles through Google’s translator app, I understand he grew up near here, that he lives in Ulan-Ude, and that he is part owner of a restaurant in Irkutsk, which he is going to visit.
Near Irkutsk, barn homes have metal roofs, industry chemicals are as common as Kansas silage, dairy cows munch in pastures near mercury topped flats. The man returns with his phone indicating that he’s written me a message.
I’m not sure the words in his message are intended. “My business is hamburger. I want American attitude. Will you come taste?”
Fearing what innuendo the Russian language is capable of packing into hamburger and taste in combination, I clarify. “You want me to taste food at your restaurant?”
“Yes,” he says vocally, “I buy you to taste.”
Asking me for my number he says, “At station you find me, we leave together and I take you to your hotel.”
At the Irkutsk station, he demonstrated both value and character. Wanting to save future me from the errand of obtaining tickets to Moscow, I inform him I wish to get them now. He enlists himself as quartermaster, struggling through the ticket machine and then moving on to complete the task with an agent. Instructing me on deliverables (“Passport” “Reservation”), he passes each to the agent and in return receives an envelope. “Yours,” he says. I confirm: ticket to Moscow in three days time with m passport and name printed accurately.
Had he not completed this favor, I would have been wearier to follow him into a black Mercedes whose young driver appears to have no intention of reeling in a fare.
He instructs the driver to take me to my hostel. When we arrive, his concern is that I will renege on my promise.
“You message me when you leave?” He asks, worried.
“Yes, of course.”
“And you will leave soon?”
“I will check-in and shower.”
“And then you message me?”
I try not to make light of his teenage girl concern at my canceling the date.
“Yes, of course, I promise. I keep my word.”
I trust nothing more than my feet to take me the two miles to this joint. Irkutsk has tram cars, which are narrow with single bulbs on the front like flattened noses. Janky and jostling, they are Melbourne’s Soviet counterparts. A tic-tac-toe of electric wires webs the air overhead five to six-way intersections. At the corners stand splendid old Siberian buildings or no more than three stories, which are painted powder blue and creme Anglaise.
The place is next to a noisy and more popular neighbor. Inside is like an empty surgeon’s studio. The smell is not burger, or like food is made here. Four teenagers with acne afflictions of differing severity stand behind two registers chatting. Behind, a massive, opulently lit board of menu choices, a compilation of America’s Greatest Hits, volumes 1, 2, and 3. The hot dog is a Chicago Dog, though the picture shows it lacks the characteristic neon relish. The hamburger (“American”) is a Big Mac. Chicken nuggets, french fries, corn dogs, milkshakes, a burger with bacon and cheese. There is a frier, but it is off. I hear nothing sizzling. Heating lamps are not providing their incubator warmth. No customers are inside. One table has a tray with wrappers.
I explain why I’m here, and they do not understand. I show my phone and the conversation I had with their (supposed) owner. As I learn he did not inform them, he enters.
His entry stiffens the children.
“What would you like?” He asks me.
“I’ll just get a burger.”
“That is all?”
“And a shake.”
“And hot dog?”
“Yes of course.”
“And a chicken sandwich? And another burger? Two burgers.”
The kitchen doldrum ceases. The frier goes bubbling. There is haste.
The owner takes me to a booth and on his way buses the one dirty table. He admonishes the employees for leaving it.
When the food comes and asks my impressions, I say nothing untrue but also nothing unkind. The food was fine, nothing below the lowest denominator of fast food in the states, thought the burger clearly originated as frozen and was not 100% beef by my reckoning. I told him so, and he admitted to it. “Fresh beef is expensive in Siberia,” he writes in the translating app, “Russians know no different.”
“Americans,” I say, swirling the thawed and thin ice cream and milk in my cup, “Like thick milkshakes.” He does not understand, so I demonstrate the hydraulic, aneurysm inducing tactic of sucking at a straw until flattened to suck up a cement thick shake.
I hold up the trio-bun burger. “This is a Big Mac.” I crack the top of the bun, “But it has BBQ sauce.”
“Yes, BBQ is good.”
“I’m saying this as an America: BBQ sauce is unexpected in a burger. Do Russians like BBQ sauce on a burger?”
“Russians do not know. BBQ sauce and burgers are American, so we put together. What is it in America.”
“Why must it be secret?” He asks.
“It isn’t, but it’s known as that. It is mayo and ketchup and relish.” I stop, remember its true name, and chuckle. “Actually it’s called something different.”
“What is it?”
“You’re going to laugh…it’s called ‘Russian dressing.’” He doesn’t understand and I appease him with saying, “I will write everything for you, so that you have it, okay?”
“Yes, please. I do not understand everything,” he says via Google, “It will be good to have so I can read later.”
I return to my hostel and do as promised. The result is one of the better text threads I’ve had in my life: