May 10, 2013. Irkutsk, Eastern Siberia — After three grey, cold, windy days, the sun finally came out and stayed out long enough to showcase the personality and warmth of the Russian people.
May 9 was Victory Day, the annual celebration of Russia’s defeat of the Nazi’s on the Eastern front in WWII. It was a holiday and the weather was sunny and warm. Our train arrived in Krasnoyarsk, one of the most attractive cities in Siberia. Set on a wide river and surrounded by hills, Krasnoyarsk offered a great setting for the celebration.
As we walked along the wide promenade lining the river toward the main plaza, people smiled at us and practiced their English greetings (“Hello, where are you from?”). Children played and shyly posed for pictures. I hadn’t seen this many smiles since the Eagles last won an NFL championship (if you guess the year and are not from Philly I’ll buy you a soft pretzel). Katherine and joined the thousands in the main plaza to watch the entertainment on the raised stage at the edge of the plaza. The dancers were great and the singers were enthusiastic, though none of the ones we heard would have made it past the first round of American Idol (“Russian Idol”? – hmmm, sounds like an idea for a TV show).
After 45 minutes of watching, mingling and snacking on large baked buns filled with something unidentifiable but tasty, we filed onto a boat for a short cruise up and down the river. On the tables on deck were snacks and bottles of berry brandy and the best vodka I have ever had — Baikal vodka with cedar seeds, as Lara our guide called them (I think that they were pine nuts). The vodka is made from the waters of the legendary Lake Baikal (we visit Baikal today)which supposedly makes the vodka very smooth. It was smooth. I don’t know if it was because of the waters of Lake Baikal, but I loved it and drank enough to add a slight wobble to my step and bombast to my voice as we exited the boat.
The vodka drinking continued later that evening on the train with a vodka tasting before dinner accompanied by caviar, blinis, herring, and pickles (I figure that the tasting was the fourth meal in a five meal day). All of the vodkas were great, but again my favorite was Baikal (“white Baikal” this time, without the pine nuts). Look for it in your local liquor store (Note — I have not received any compensation for this plug, but I am thinking of asking them for a bottle or two to take home).
Katherine summed up the tasting by noting, “when I drink a lot of vodka, I achieve a level of clarity that does not correspond to reality,” before weaving her way back to our compartment for a nap before dinner.
(For more info on trans Siberian travel check out www.transsiberian-travel.com. For more information about our trip see http://www.lernidee.de/en/transsiberian/trans-siberian-railway.html)