When in Siberia...

When last we met, David and I were in the airport in Irkutsk, Siberia waiting to go through passport control on our way to a hostel on Olkhon Island in Siberia.


(Here he sits reading peacefully while I try to figure out how to fill out the arrivals form, which is entirely in Cyrillic. I do not know Cyrillic.)

The arrival hall of the airport was initially packed, but the crowd gradually cleared until the only people left in it were me and David. The agents had waved everyone else through in turn but put up the universal hand-sign for "STOP!" every time I looked hopefully in their direction. This gave me lots of time to

  1. Use my Classics-major Greek on the signs posted on the walls - turns out I could consistently identify the words for "DO NOT" (which I was pretty proud of despite the fact that I couldn't then read the descriptions of any of the things we were not supposed to do),
  1. Worry that they were not actually going to let us into the country, and
  1. Wonder how we were going to get back to Beijing in that case, given that there had only been one flight per week heading to Irkutsk and also that one of their planes was still smoldering from its recent crash onto the tarmac outside.

After everyone else had gone through to joyfully reunite with their incredible amounts of luggage in customs, all four gate agents clustered around me and David. After sharing our passports and visas around, they pooled their limited English to ask questions like:

"Do you...speak...Russian?" (to which I had to answer, apologetically, "Nyet!")

"Do you...know someone...in Russia?" (again, sheepishly, "Nyet!")

Rather than worrying them in any way, my responses seemed to delight them to no end. By the time they got to:


all four of them were hanging on my every word. When I gestured helplessly at my hiking boots and backpack (and 8 year-old child) and just said, "Baikal?" they totally lost it. They slapped each other's backs, laughing so hard they could barely talk. "Baikal!" one would say to the others as soon as he could breathe, and they'd all double over again.

(I've had a lot of time since then to think this situation over, and I've decided the rough equivalent would be for two non-English-speaking Russians to land at Jackson Hole, Wyoming and explain they were there for "Tetons?" In which case, I can only hope that they would have as good a time as David and I did on Baikal.)

Eventually the agents lost interest in us and sent us through. As we were waiting in the line at customs, though, the most put-together woman I've ever seen suddenly materialized at my elbow. "Welcome to Russia!" she said in perfect English. "May I inquire as to the purpose of your visit?" I explained where we were coming from and what we were doing, and after looking through every single one of our documents and assessing us as no threat to the country (or, perhaps, ourselves?), she wished us a pleasant day and sent us on our way.

One major hurdle down! Only...well, let's just say I decided not to waste my time counting hurdles and to concentrate on ticking off items on my list one by one instead.

First item: get to the train station and buy our tickets for next week's TransSiberian Railroad to Ulaanbaatar. We quickly found a taxi, countered the driver's demand for "200 American dollars!" with a $20, and were soon dropped off at what remains the most lovely train station I've ever seen.


We got ourselves to the international ticket window, which was in a gigantic room on the second floor of the building in this picture:


And there we waited.

And waited.

And waited.


(David had long since given up trying to hold it together at this point.)

It might not have actually been as long as it seemed, since the only thing keeping us going was adrenaline and the two hours sleep we'd gotten in the ominously-named "Oriental Exchange Training Facility" the night before, but it was probably an hour before someone finally wandered into view on the other side of the glass and let us buy our tickets. (This is perhaps the moment at which my obsessive pre-trip research proved the most valuable, because the agent - despite being at the international ticket window - spoke no English, and so the scrap of paper I'd written the train name, date, and time down on in Cyrillic proved invaluable.)

Second item: Train tickets in hand, it was time to find a place to spend the night. We'd long since missed the bus we were meant to take to the hostel I'd booked on Olkhon Island, so I figured we'd spend the night in Irkutsk and head out the next day. My obsessive pre-trip planning had produced a list of 'tourist friendly' hotels near the train station, and so we wandered a little bit until we saw one: the Hotel Rus. After poking our heads in various places we probably shouldn't have been in (the reception area was, naturally, completely empty), we located someone who agreed to let us have "the very last room!" for the night.


(A luxury suite it was not, but David and I were so tired at this point that the mere existence of a bed - even one that small for the both of us - seemed like a small miracle.)

Until now, this has been your standard issue "Single mom and only child land in a country of which they don't speak the language" post. Here's where the story gets good.

Third item: After a short nap, David and I decided it was time to find some food. I'd stocked up on non-perishable snacks in the Beijing airport on our way to the gate, but a hot meal sounded extremely appealing. That said, our adventurousness had taken a serious hit in the past 24 hours, so we decided to stick with the hotel restaurant as the safest bet.

Finding the hotel restaurant turned out to be a bit of a challenge - this time, not because we didn't speak Russian but because they were doing hotel renovations (or something) and the fork-and-knife-on-a-plate signs all pointed in conflicting directions. Finally, we took the plunge - literally - down some stairs and found ourselves in a basement lair/bar/restaurant.

The guy working the bar gave us the same look almost everyone else had given us since we landed: a weird twitch of facial muscles paired with unblinking stare that I had decided was the Russian version of an American open-jawed "WTF?!" "If my country did not prize phlegmatic reactions to life and its varying fortunes so highly," it seemed to say, "I would be visibly reacting to this extremely unusual and rather amusing sight." The only other person in the lair/bar/restaurant was a woman with wavy grey shoulder-length hair who looked at us and made a face of visible surprise. (I immediately pegged her as "not-Russian" and was therefore very pleased when I turned out to be correct on that score.)

The menu was entirely in Cyrillic - the bar-dude handed it to us with a wordless shrug that clearly meant, "You gets what you gets" and stood there laconically while David and I looked it over. Again, I drew deep on my college-level Greek classes and figured out that one category was "Milkshakes" and another category was "Egg"-something. CLOSE ENOUGH! I ordered two different sorts of milkshakes (YOLO, ammirite?) and two different kinds of egg-somethings.

While we were waiting for our food to arrive, the woman from the bar cautiously approached us - exactly the way one might approach a giant panda who was sitting on a stool in one's local brewery - and asked in extremely polite sounding (because British-accented) English, "Pardon me, but can I ask what you're doing here?" We explained that we were heading to Olkhon Island to spend a week at a hostel there, and she (clearly thinking we were off our rockers but visibly trying to be polite) said that that sounded like quite the adventure.

Then I asked what she was doing in Irkutsk, and she told us that she was a private investigator based in Moscow, where she'd lived for the last 20 years, and that she was in Irkutsk trying to track down a young girl named - wait for it - ANASTASIA. Now it was my turn respond politely with, "Oh! That sounds like quite interesting work," while thinking to myself, "There is no way that this woman is actually a private investigator looking for someone named Anastasia, because that is JUST TOO MUCH even for this trip." She told me she was staying at the hotel, and to let her know if we needed any help, and then she left just as our food arrived. (The mysterious milkshakes and egg-somethings were delicious.)

After dinner, David and I went for a stroll around the beautiful historic part of Irkutsk. It was mid-July, so the sun was still up at 9pm, the sky was blue-as-blue-could-be, the buildings were brighly colored, and the air was SO CLEAN after Beijing that we felt like we'd entered one of the weirder fairy lands.

Everything looked like this:

or this:


There was only one item left on my list for the day, but it was a big one.

Item five: figure out how to get to the hostel on Olkhon Island. I'd already tried calling the numbers listed on the confirmation and reservations I'd printed out, but had gotten either no answer or an answering service. I'd left two messages, but had no way of receiving a return call. Worst came to worst, I was going to show up at the same time and place the next morning that I'd been scheduled for that morning, but I was not at all confident that would work.

I was just wondering - ok, worrying - about what to do, as David and I were walking down the hallway to our room, when I saw light coming out of an open door ahead. Peeking in, I saw our ex-pat P.I. smoking and reading a novel in Russian.

"Excuse me?" I said, ever-so-respectfully. "Is there any chance you might do us a bit of a favor??" Although visibly tired, the woman took pity on us (or at least on David, who after all had not asked for a mother who was going to drag him around Siberia even if it WAS summer), welcomed us into her room, and called all three numbers I had listed for the hostel. On the third number, she struck gold - the Irkutsk contact answered her phone. They chatted away for several minutes while the P.I. took notes. (She was clearly highly efficient, and I was increasingly willing to believe that she was a private investigator. I just assumed she was pulling my leg about being in Irkutsk to look for someone named Anastasia.) After they hung up, she handed me a piece of paper with the name of the hotel to wait in front of the next morning, and the time our bus would leave. "You need to have the exact bus fare ready," she said, telling us that our hostel contact would pick up the fare before the bus left.

I was so relieved I wanted to hug her, but I wasn't sure how that would go over. Just as we were standing up and saying our good-byes, and I was trying to figure out whether to go in for a hearty thank-you-for-saving-us-from-me embrace, IT HAPPENED.

A bearded man ran into the room, chattering excitedly about how he'd found her - he'd found ANA-FREAKING-STASIA.

The man was apparently our P.I.'s business partner. As soon as he entered the room, she basically shooed us out, talking all the while with the man about where he'd gone and where he thought Anastasia was right then. And so we went back to our room, set our alarm clock for 8am the next morning, and went to sleep secure in the knowledge that

  1. our bus to Olkhon Island left at 9:45am the next morning (more on that journey next week!), and
  1. there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in even my philosophy.
Author image

Christina Van Dyke

scholar, mother, and proud owner of the largest couch in creation
  • here and there
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