A part of me can't believe I'm here. Irkutsk. A silly-sounding place from the game of RISK I played ever so often growing up, Irkutsk is a frigid city nestled in the Russian hinterland. With a summer average of +18c and a winter average of -18c, Irkutsk has to struggle just to break even. And yet here I am wandering it's grey, brisk, and busy streets. I wonder, if I had never played RISK would I have still chosen to stop here on our Trans-Siberian Adventure? Ir-kut-sk? Ear Cootsk? Probably.
After some brief exploring and a digital catch-up at a cozy cafe we are heading back to the train station to continue our 9000km expedition. We say farewell to Irkutsk as we wait at a bus stop, our eyes setting themselves upon our next destination, Ulan-Ude, and it's ginormous statue of Lenin's head. Classy. Now, whatever Irkutsk lacks in massive Lenin-head monuments (though it does have other Lenin statues, of course) it makes up for with it's odd name and its sublime uneventfulness, which more often than not is an abundantly enjoyable treasure in and of itself.
We eventually find ourselves the bus we want and climb aboard. By "bus", of course, I mean an aged, rusted 12-seat van. And by "climb aboard" I mean uneasily clamber in, our giant packs crammed against the seats before us, the unfamiliar process working only to emphasize our foreignness here in Siberia. We pass our money forward, unsure of just how many bills or coins we need and so we simply open our fists and let the locals pick and choose just how much is needed. Fistfuls of money are passed over us to the driver as we settle into our little commute. Sitting near the front, I have no idea who else is stuffed into this oxygen-starved Russian clowncar, save a woman in my peripheral and a man beside me. A man with a chainsaw between his legs.
Thankfully/Unfortunately that isn't a euphemism. Like our backpacks before us, he has a fully-functional chainsaw resting at his feet, wafting the fresh scent of gasoline throughout the van as we bump along a pockmarked road. The icing on the cake, however, is not his coordinated wardrobe – a stereotypical striped sweatsuit and complimentary gold chain – but the overwhelming stench of vodka emanating from his every exhalation. No, belay that. Emanating from his very being. The gas/vodka combination is more than enough to bring me to chuckle, shrugging off the worry with a let's-see-where-this-goes sense of curiosity. More often that not, that feeling paves the way for a good story...or, at least a good story in hindsight.
As we roll along, stopping every now and then to allow folks to hop on or crawl off, the chainsaw bounces around. I lean away from its haphazard swipes, politely tilting my head to avoid it's begrimed chain as it cuts the air. Its owner pays no heed to the sturdiness of his grasp, preferring to distract the driver with some unnecessarily loud conversation. Sooner rather than later, that drunken conversation makes it's way to me. Between the accent, the slur, and mutual lack of lingual parity I don't catch most of what he says. I do the classic smile and nod, hoping he will give up and go back to talk-yelling at the driver. He doesn't, alas, and throws another incoherent question my way.
I glance over my shoulder to the crowd, hoping someone can potentially translate his newest enquiry. Smiling, though a tad reluctant, the woman behind me clarifies. He wants to know where I am from. Of course.
“I'M F R O M C A N A D A.” Extra loud, extra slow, to compensate for the language barrier, the roaring bus engine, and his blatant, reeking drunkenness.
He rambles off incoherently again and this time my translator doesn't feel like deciphering his response. He tries to coax her into facilitating our conversation further but to no avail. With a gesture, and possibly a heavily-accented word, he makes clear his next topic of conversation: hockey. I cross my fingers that he isn't intending to rehash the Summit Series with the help of a poorly-oiled Russian chainsaw, and gesture that I understand. He gets disproportionately excited, and shoots off half a paragraph of nonsense before my stupefied look reminds him of my ignorance. And so he pauses. He grabs the chainsaw with both hands and sits motionless for just a moment too long, lingering wherever his mind has drifted off to. He is searching for a word, it turns out – an important one, at that. All of a sudden he snaps back to our mini-bus reality, his hands now stained from holding the grimy chain. He looks up, smiling wide, and gives me a solid thumbs up and says but a word:
I return the universal gesture with a nod and a smile, and yes, respect.