Irkutsk, May 30.—The commotion begins when I enter the hostel’s foyer. From outside, I see a girl sitting on a bench next to reception. Our connected gaze starts through the glass, and we do not so soon relinquish it. Her allure is more abstract than attraction: a foreign fiction that has become real. She is too much like a mannikin in her appearance though, and far too young. She has a color wheel of makeup on her face, her eyes are italicized with mascara and liner. She’s with a friend whose face is also a manufactory of make-up. The friend is as tall as me with large and ample features. Thick lips, spheroid eyes. We all stare too long and they giggle.
The girl at reception is Arya; she shows clear jealously. I take her reaction towards me to be overt infatuation, and it’s a bit embarrassing. She does not let me pass the desk to my room until I promise to return to have tea with her and her friends. I promise, but a quick stop in the kitchen draws out when three Russian guys drinking in the room’s alcove take an intense interest in me. They’re consuming decadent rounds of boar pate on crackers and have two bottles of vodka. The ring leader and the only skinny one says I should have a drink. A drink means a shot. I obligate with one and they cheer for two. Two and they implore for three. Three and they give me snacks. I am a distillation of Russian obedience after four.
Arya captures me from the group when she comes into the kitchen to prepare tea.
Arya is Buryat, a Mongolian subgroup that is indigenous to Siberia. As with other Buryats, her hair is ink black and her features are Asiatic. She is likable and distracted. Attention is drawn every which way, her head is magnetized towards stimuli.
Five of us sit upstairs on a wood platform underneath sky windows. Alina is the mannikin girl from reception. Olga is her tall friend. Arya and me. Felix is the fifth and the sole male, lost of all luck for the evening the moment I arrived. Yet he is the English speaker. None of the girls do save Alina, but her English is limited and she is too timid to try it. Olga and Arya speak nearly none.
Felix lived in Los Angeles. He acquired language and some social polish there but not style; he is at the point of youth where style is still a discovery and photos might be extortion. He has imposed a Quaker style beard on his face, and it is perhaps too red for his pale skin and too poorly grown in. He tells me he works for the KGB. “But I cannot tell you what I do each day. I am not a spy.”
He has an apparent crush on Alina. Noticing she watches me, he enters my physical space like I’m some conduit to her. He steers the conversation to romance. “I love to pamper,” he says, then translates this for the girls. Flowers, perfumes, other indulgences. He opens Instagram to show photos of his ex-girlfriend. She’d be a model in America and is proof that God is a Russian, for Russian women look like this and the men look as they do.
Irkutsk, May 31.— Knowing what I know of Siberian winters, summer is winter’s camouflage. The apparel of that camouflage is in light: the sun radiates; inland streets are hot; it is cool at the Angara River. The river, which is as wide as any of the greats, appears shallow and to be running over stones just under its surface. When the sun is on it, this has the effect of looking like a flowing spangle of smelted gold. Dwellers are unsure what this test of warmth is. They wear overcoats anyways.
At night, in the kitchen, the Russian men are repeating the previous night’s performance. Two of three wear forest green camo. Taking social cues from his pants, one of them does not speak. The loudest continues to be the skinny leader. Informing me they are here for work, he does not say what they do, but each evening they drink like this, “The Russian way.”
A girl I met in New Zealand but who lives in America messages me when she sees I’m in Irkutsk. She grew up here but left for America. “To find a husband,” she says, “I’d never find a husband if I stayed.” I tell her about the drinking boys. “Give your phone to them,” she directs. I do, and they laugh at her message.
“What did she say?”
“‘Give him more vodka,’ she writes.”
Irkutsk, June 1.—Visiting Lake Baikal is today’s itinerary. Arya arranged it. Felix will pick me up from the hostel (the KGB, I take it, does not work weekdays). The trip is my shout, $20 dollars for fuel, so other people are being opportunistic and joining. Ekaterina, a kindergarten teacher, amateur dramatist, friend of Arya, and future mother extraordinaire, gathers me at the front desk. Arya had asked her to do so. She does not know Felix, so we search for him together outside. Somehow, I’d come to believe that this was a single social circle pulling me into its radius. Now I’m realizing that Arya is the nucleus around which multiple social circles turn.
Felix stands outside smoking. His car is ancient, like a Soviet DeLorean. “KGB issue,” he says, which is either or lie or the KGB has no budget.
The trip cadre will be Felix, Ekaterina, me, and soon Felix’s friend Robert and then Arya. The sequence of getting to Robert’s and then Arya’s pick-up spots teaches me that Irkutsk is a sprawl of neighborhoods, all loosely aligned, all equally busy.
Though I’ve been eighteen months on the road, sometimes I’ll be gobsmacked with awareness and laugh at the absurdity of my situation. I used to play Risk, the world conquest board game. Irkutsk is a territory a player can conquer and control. I have memories of pulverizing Brad Vettraino’s armies with a series of three die sixes in fast succession. Now I am here in the back of a Crazy Vaclav car that gets 300 hectares on a single tank of kerosene, driving me is a supposed KGB officer, and in the back seat with me is a girl whose name is Ekaterina. Irkutsk might have stayed a board game. It could have been a description in a book I read, a part of a medium that would leave no memory. Now I am here, aware of the distance that puts me further from the person for whom Irkutsk would have been of no significance. Choice brought me here. Now it is mine.
Robert is Felix’s friend and a pastry chef. Flour is peppered on his collar when we pick him up from work. Twenty-three but aged too soon, he looks forty. Not tall, but vigorous in build, he has wide ankles and a broad body. His accelerated age is no doubt from the copious cigarettes he smokes, alcohol he drinks, and from stress. His ear is studded, his neck chained with a necklace, and his body is heavily tattooed. He takes the front seat. The first question he asks is how I, as a solo traveler, determine who to trust.
“Intuition, generally. With first impressions, I can make a fast determination to separate the crazy from the normal. Cultures aside, people are frankly just people.”
He says, “And me? What makes you think we will not kill you?” He leans to the glove compartment and pulls from it a knife the size of a trout fish and wields it up.
Ekaterina gasps, rolls her eyes, and yells, “Oh my god do not be stupid that way, put it away.”
I say, “Americans, you know we prefer guns over knives?”
“Americans are crazy! But not as crazy as Russians!” He says. This becomes his favorite phrase. Goading me to do anything—wading into gelid water, drinking vodka, nearing a bear in a cage—Robert yells, “Be crazy like Russian!”
I turn out to like Robert more than any person on this trip. Why I like him is the world has tamed him yet not taken his cheer. As a teenager, without prospects in Irkutsk, he moved to Paris to learn how to make pastry. Living there for four years, he was not accepted. “They do not like Russians.” He moved to resorts in Turkey and Crimea. He speaks four languages. Robert has fantastic bravado—he raps, he played a track and called himself a Russian Eminem—but it is clear his time abroad led him to accept humbleness without losing himself. Returning home must have been a triumph for him.
To pick up Arya, we park within the confines of a ghetto. The same ghetto where Robert and Felix grew up and still live. Four slab buildings molt concrete. One hundred apartment windows laminate each building’s side. Felix points to his own window. Underneath is his grandmother’s. Robert grew up a few stories down.
We wait. Felix leans against his car and crosses his ankles. He smokes, and the way he smokes is like a poor imitation of a movie star. He pinches the cigarette between the tips of two fingers. Puckering his lips like making a poor kiss, he inhales. Robert joins him.
Ekaterina is a vocal person with a lilting voice. She is in a dress and keeps her purse strapped across her body. Her cell phone buzzes. She informs us Arya will be late.
Robert invites me to a grocery store on a building corner to buy gum. The store has a paucity everything but vodka and fish. The transaction is calculated on a finger punch calculator. Currency must be cash.
Felix is wealthy for these parts, Robert tells me. His father is a businessman. Wealth has a different connotation in this setting, as does the word businessman. It’s imbued with nefariousness. I’d be uneasy here but for Robert and Felix. “Before Putin, lots of crime here,” Robert says. “We could not stand outside like this. People come and just beat you up, no reason.”
“Putin changed all that?”
“Yes. I love Putin,” Robert says. “No petty crime. Tough crack down on criminals. I can go outside and not be afraid.”
Yet there is still that nefariousness. It is so subtle as to be imagined. As Robert and Felix narrate what they see, a pristine Audi parks next to us. A man in an Adidas tracksuit gets out, nods to Felix but says nothing, then ducks into a bright red, 1970s Mercedes nearby and rives off. The Audi keys are left in the ignition.
“Businessman,” Robert says.
Ekaterina says, “Arya says we should pick her up at class.”
Arya is part of the crew now and nuzzles next to me in the back seat, clearly thrilled at the proximity. She wants to take a selfie. She rests her hand on my chest as if I was her beau in a prom photo. Something like this becomes her favorite pose with me.
Felix’s car shakes above forty miles an hour. I excavate the seat belt buckle from the upholstery. The belt is so underused that it leaves a lash of black residue—leftover smoke filtered over who knows how long—on my shirt. No one else is safety first though Felix is an atrocious driver. I implore Ekaterina to tell him to slow down. She does multiple times. She is an astute and able disciplinarian and treats Felix like a charge. He responds dutifully, reducing his speed each time she requests it, but he speeds up each time only to be scolded again.
Ekaterina looks at me and says, “I do not know why Russian men have to be stupid.”
“Crazy like Russian!” Robert yells.
The region is ancient. Our two-lane road is a crater scape like Verdun. The forest is conifer, the pines are high and spaced apart. The forest in between is clean, the floor tan from shed and dry needles.
Nearing Lake Baikal, a summer spot, lodges and small-home B&Bs appear. Broad wood billboards advertise items I cannot understand. Goliath plastic figurines vie for attention. A road follows the lake’s contours. We park. The shoreline of smooth stones is lapped by a lanyard of small waves. Boats carrying a few passengers buried in parkas parallel park on a long pier. There is an island in the heart of Baikal that takes a day to get to. There are no cars, and people live as they did in the 1800s. These boats go there.
We are in t-shirts and cold. Far away, the dual planes of water and juniper meet in a flat line and a slight breeze comes from that direction. The air is a solution of dew and smoke. The expectation is for people: wood sheds with fixed tables and benches line the shoreline. These are rented by the half-hour. We combine our rubles to buy beers. Then we walk a street where families sit behind wood stoves whose grills are shingled with the spit and splayed bodies of fish. We buy multiple and have them wrapped in newspaper. At a shed, we drink our beers and flake our fish till nothing but the bones remains.
“When I was a kid, I could lift the entire skeleton right off,” Felix says.
The day has become overcast. Dusk swallows the temperature. Going home, so few words are exchanged that it draws a remark from Robert. Arya naps on my shoulder.
Irkutsk, June 2.—Leaving today, I take the morning to visit a festival on the riverfront. It is the conventional image of Russia. An organization of competitive airsoft gun players—indistinguishable from Army Rangers, down to the combat boots and combat camo face paint—recruit boys down to eight. Going past the table, one boy cocks an AR-15 replica that is the size of him.
I see a man wearing a San Diego’s Padres hat. Seeking camaraderie I say, “Hey! I’m from San Diego!” He looks puzzled. I point to the hat, “San Diego.” He starts to dart away; I follow. “Are you from San Diego?” Nearly tripping to get away from me, he begins to trot. I take the message.
A strong man competition has been set up, as has a stage for dancing. On the children’s side of things, two girls dressed like Russian Iggy Azaleas stand on a stage in front of parents and children and rap, swinging their bodies and arms back and forth in beat.
My train is in the afternoon, and Ekaterina and Arya insist on walking me. My final companions in Irkutsk, they take me aboard the train and find my cabin. Walking into it, Ekaterina says, “It smells like something died in here.”