Sunday, June 11, 2006

Rue St. Denis, the Paris of Monmartre

It seems like every city likes to describe itself as the Paris of someplace, Havana is the Paris of the Caribbean. Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America. Shanghai is the Paris of Asia. Now I find myself in Irkutsk, the so-called Paris of Siberia. That may sound like exaggerating, or damning with faint praise, or both, but in fact, there’s something to that. Irkutsk is sort of like the city that Socialism forgot. It has a minimum of depressing Soviet-era cinderblock apartment towers. What it does have is a lot of European style stone buildings. It really does look a little like Paris, or at least a European city in general.

Irkutsk also has a lot of cute wooden cabins. These are a throwback to the city’s early days as the wild east of Russia, when it was a place exiled political prisoners got to live after they were done with their sentences of forced labor in the mines, Wood was the one thing Siberia had a lot of (well, that and mosquitoes, but they’re not a cost-effective building material), so most residences were made of wood. Some of the old ones are pretty dilapidated by now, but it does give the city a sort of pioneer feeling. One minute you think you’re in an administrative arrondissement of Paris, and the next you think you’re in Juneau, Alaska.

(My Lonely Planet guidebook, by the way, says that Alaska used to be known as “The American district of Irkutsk,” so it’s not a coincidence that they resemble each other.)

Truth be told, there isn’t a lot to seen in Irkutsk besides the architecture, but I’ve seen a few sights today. There is a nice church, dating from the 1700s, with those great Russian onion domes and everything. And there are museums devoted to two prominent political exile families, all rich St, Petersburg socialites who led a failed plot to overturn the czar and had to live in Siberia for (in some cases) the rest of their lives. This is such a pleasant looking city that it’s hard to imagine that being such a terrible fate, but the museum shows what it was like to go from living among social x-rays to rubbing elbows with country bumpkins, It was a little like The Beverly Hillbillies in reverse. Or maybe something like The Simple Life for Russian aristocracy,

In other news: It stopped raining. Thanks for asking!

This will be my last post for a bit, I think. Tomorrow John and I get on the train and go all the way to Moscow, which takes three nights and most of the next day. See you in a few days!

Irkutsk photos

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