"Shall I make some tea?" I asked."Sure!" – Beena’s face lit up with a broad smile. Well, who can say no to a cup of tea on board a Russian train?So I picked up the fancy railway glass, in its fancier glass holder, filled it up with hot water from the boiler (In an earlier time they used to have samovars on these trains), dipped the Lipton tea bags in it. Then we sat down by our window - that opens up to a marvelous world outside. The semi frozen lake was passing by, ever so slowly, to the west. There were snow-capped mountains on the other side and pine trees all around us. A man was ice-fishing on the lake, sitting on his unfolded chair. A couple of kids were running after each other in front of a log hut. It was April 28, 2016, and we have been on the move for almost two weeks now.
Irkutsk seemed to be frozen in the USSR era. Every street was named either after Lenin or Marx or Stalin. There was a large statue of Lenin in the central square. It also boasts of great wooden architecture. Streets are filled with Soviet era rickety trams. We took one of those to get to the bus station. We saw more Japanese and Korean cars than European ones. Funnily, most cars were right hand driven here, as they are imported as second hand cars from Japan and not intended for Russian roads. No one seemed to care. The market surrounding the bus station seemed very Asian in nature. Flowers and spices were being sold along with Chinese jackets and hats.However, Irkutsk is distinctively European in looks. Even being 5300 km from Moscow, the place was European in almost every aspect. Although the western aspects were fewer than Moscow. We saw more Ladas than Volkswagen for example. We saw more Soviet trams and Trolley buses in the City of Irkutsk than we saw in Moscow.The history of the city goes back to the seventeenth century. Back in those days, it was a centre for fur trading. By the mid-eighteenth century, it was a bustling city. A major stop between the Russian and Chinese empires, it was strategically located to be a trading hub. Gold, diamonds, fur and timber came from Russia. Silk and tea came from China. A vibrant economy existed here. And it still does.
After two days and two nights on the train, we reached Irkutsk, a very charming city of more than a half million. Irkutsk is home to the Irkutsk State University, Irkutsk State Medical University, and a multitude of other universities and research facilities. Again, we chose to live in a Home stay with an amazing woman called Irina. 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. 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.