21 Sep 2012 Trans-Siberian Express – Part 4
What is it about college towns all over the world that makes them so unusual? I find that college towns often seem to have an air of refinement that isn’t present in other cities and towns. Maybe it’s just the lack of industry. Anyhow, Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia definitely had that feeling. And it was a nice contrast to the industrial feel of Ekaterinburg.
Irkutsk is home to Irkutsk State University, Irkutsk State Medical University, and a multitude of other universities and research facilities. Once again, Kay and I had chosen to stay in a homestay. Like Elena in Ekaterinburg, our host Irina was a teacher at one of the local universities, but instead of being a language teacher, Irina was a physical education teacher. She was married with two children, one boy and one girl.
Kay and I never saw the husband or the son. We found out that the policy for homestays is that since Kay and I are female, then the males of the house leave for the duration of the time that we are there. Irina and her family had a 3-room apartment – so 2 bedrooms, a living/dining room, and then the usual kitchen and bathroom. Kay and I were given one of the bedrooms while Irina and her teenage daughter slept in the other bedroom. So we didn’t have to magically change the furniture from its daytime use as sofas and chairs into bedding for night as we did in Ekaterinburg.
You might be asking yourself what happened to Irina’s husband and teenage son. Where were they exiled to during the days Kay and I stayed there? In Russia, it’s very easy when part of the family needs to leave the apartment for one or more days because most families have a dacha in addition to their apartment. If you’ve read any Russian novels, then you’ve probably come across this word dacha.
Dacha means country home or cottage. When I was a teenager and first read Russian novels, I remember thinking how lucky people in Russia were to have country homes. I had some friends who had summer cottages in the countryside near a lake outside of Chicago where I grew up, and I loved going with them for a week end at the cottage to play in the lake and to have picnics.
But dachas cannot be compared to my early experience. Some dachas are large and beautiful – I’m sure that Putin has a very nice one. But the average Russian workers’ dachas are usually quite small – very often a small wooden house that until recently probably didn’t even have a phone or running water.
Having a dacha was originally a privilege reserved for the aristocracy in days long past, but in the 1960’s, ordinary citizens were given small plots of land where they could plant some vegetables or berries and build a small wooden structure. People who had never owned any private property were finally able to have their own piece of earth. They still didn’t own the land, but they were able to escape from their apartments to the countryside for a few days each week during nice weather. And since cell phones were still far in the future, people at their dachas were able to have a real taste of freedom. In fact, “I was at the dacha” became an excuse for just about anything.
So that’s where Irina’s husband and son went during the time that Kay and I stayed at their home. And I’m sure they were happy not to have to worry about us. As at our previous homestay, the host provided breakfast and dinner, and Kay and I wandered around on our own during the day.
Buildings in Irkutsk, and probably in most of Siberia, were traditionally built of wood. After all, they had more trees than they knew what to do with, so wood was the cheapest building material. Notice the photos of buildings I’ve included in this post. Many of the buildings seem like grand old buildings whose glory days are over. And you’ve probably already noticed that the window shutters are very decorative and often painted bright colors while the rest of the building may or may not be colorful. I found this very picturesque style throughout Siberia.
Having two homestay experiences is very limited, but it did give me the opportunity to develop a bit of a picture of what middle class life in Siberia was like. In many ways, these two homestays were very different, but there was an undercurrent of similarity that I found very interesting.
In my next post in this series, I will describe those differences and similarities – a small look into middle class Siberian lifestyle. See you in the next post of this series.
About the author:
Kate is a seasoned traveler and tour director who has lived on the island of Java for the past 30 years. Java became her home when she took a 3-month work assignment to train Indonesians on word processing equipment in Jakarta, and she fell in love with the adventurous lifestyle that she found there. Although she continues working as a tour director in many countries of the world, she now spends most of her time writing in her home/office in Yogyakarta, Central Java, which she shares with her three Dalmatians. You can visit her at KateBenzin, at her blog Traveling Forever, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.