Tuesday, 7 October 2008

news from Irkutsk

I wept through the first act of Coppelia - not a ballet usually eliciting tears, just a confection of froth. I weep at the strangeness of it all, and the music touches the heart. Half the old city was rased in 1930 to make space for the largest opera house in all Russia, and a gigantic Lenin Square. Classical ballet, descended from the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, survived and even flourished through the ghastly Stalin years, and here we were in a vast auditorium, ringed by classical statuary(I saw at least two armless Venus de Milos) and surrounded by balletomane children, and their doting mums.The music speaks across the cultural divides. The main waltz tune is one I often whistle unconsciously, and drive people mad, and can even play on my accordeon.
As soon as the final curtain is down we sprint across Lenin Square to pick up our bags and bundle into a taxi bound for the station. However, as soon as we have loaded all our bags into the boot, the taxi spontaneously self-locks! The driver seems as surprised as we do. Murderous thoughts fly up unbidden, and we jam his skinny arm through a tiny crack in the window till bruisedly he can reach the keys.
We travel through the night to Krasnoyarsk in the company of a banker with Societe Nationale, on his way home to Chita. In this city we have our own little appartment in the centre. We spend a pleasant day roaming in a National Park, Stolby, full of volcanic peaks and charming nuthatches and tits that eat calmly out of our hands. Our guide is a rather fearful Natalia, who speaks excellent English, but is rather scared of bears and has brought her athletic younger brother along for protection. (We saw on the previous night's news that a bear has been seen on the outskirts, and attacked a pensioner.)
We travel on to Irkutsk where we arrive at 6a.m. and wait in a daze for a taxi to turn up. Miraculously it does and transports us to our homestay with a family and their pets,a dog, a cooing dove and white rabbit.
Rested, we venture out into beautiful sunshine and charming streets. We stroll along Lenin and have lunch on Karl Marx. We search out a synagogue mentioned in our guide, long-since closed it says and transformed into a furniture store. We turn a corner and there it stands, but spanking new paintwork, and signs of building. We go in and there are JEWS in debate! We are warmly welcomed and Rita, an elderly lady with excellent english and many gold teeth, shows us around proudly. She is originally from Baku at Azerbaijan, but things got tricky there in the 90's and she emigrated here with her husband and daughter. I shed more tears.
In the evening we go to a Russian circus in purpose built arena, and see more animals than at a zoo - bears, pelicans, horses, racoons, camels, doves, monkeys, ten breeds of dogs inter al. I watch it all through an asthmatic haze, wheezing and sneezing. Is it the animals, or an ancient fear of being dragged up on the stage by a sinister clown, which dogged my chilhood in circus and pantomime?
Tomorrow we leave for Lake Baikal.