It's mid-February, and I find myself in the middle of Siberia - Irkutsk to be more accurate. I mean, obviously I didn't just wake up there, after a particularly heavy night on the ale. Although, I've woken up in some strange places before now, after a night on the aforementioned social lubricant. A frozen railway platform in Wroclaw, Poland, and enveloped in the arms of a Finnish Viking in a bunk bed in Helsinki, are 2 that immediately spring to mind.
The lead up to my arrival in this frozen wasteland has been an adventure in itself, but I'll reserve that for another story. Let's just say that it involved a long train journey, which began in St Petersburg, and delivered me to Irkutsk some 5 days later, although admittedly 2 of those days were spent in a very snowy Moscow. It was only on my second day in Moscow that I realised that I didn't know a single word of Russian, and I had until that point not met anybody that spoke any English. I'd spent the entire time until this revelation, getting by on a smile. I was to find out on my penultimate day in Russia, that Russians see smiling as the sign of a simpleton. A quick Facebook status, asking my FB friends what the word for thank you was in Russian, was to increase my vocabulary by 100 percent. And from that moment on, I was able to smile and say"spasibo" to anybody, and everybody that came within a 5 meter radius of me. How's that for proving that I'm not mentally challenged!
Anyway, I digress, as I was saying, it's mid-February, and I find myself in one of Siberia's largest cities. My arrival here is met by a flurry of snow, and by flurry, I mean a fucking blizzard of epic proportions. As I exit the train, in my fake Russian hat, from a British high street fashion store - (which I picked up in a bargain bucket for £5.99), I am quite literally pulled out of the door, by the wind, and deposited on my arse on the platform, much to the amusement of the Russian bystanders - who are too afraid to smile, for fear of been branded idiots. After a short wrestle with my rucksack, which had rather inconveniently landed on top of me, and numerous plastic bags, whose handles had become entwined around my ankles, shedding their contents of 2 minute noodles all over the platform, I pick myself up, and give a big smile to those that are stepping over me (as though I don't exist).
Although the icy Siberian temperatures freeze my face, and make my eyes contort like a 13 year old boy, thrashing one out to his favourite porn clip, I can still see that I'm going to like this place. The tsunami of snow that's falling from the sky, gives it an other worldly feel. As far as I'm concerned, I'm in Narnia, surrounded by ice queens, lions, and witches. What's more I feel practically invisible, as the non-interested Russians go about their business, too involved in their lives, to notice a simpleton in a fake hat. This suits me fine, until I need to find my hostel, and I require assistance.
Eventually, I flag down a taxi and manage to get the driver to look at a hand written slip of paper containing the name of the hostel I've booked. A hostel name that I'm never going to forget, Hostel Auberge Theatrale (more on that to come). I observe with great pleasure that the taxi is a banged up old Lada, that emits so many pollutants, that it's single handedly causing global warming. The windows appear to be held together with duct tape, and the noise that this car creates, as the driver crunches through the gears, would cause most citizens of the world to dive for cover. In Irkutsk however, nobody even turns to see what's going on. It's all too perfect, I sit back and smile to myself, as the driver frantically searches for my place of residence.
As we splutter our way around this small city, I take note that most of the houses are made of wood, and many of them seem to be balanced at precarious angles, as if they could fall down at any moment. I nod to myself, satisfied that I've found a place that seems far removed from the clutches of capitalism. Now, if only we could find my hostel.
After much reversing up one way streets, numerous u turns, and lots of horn honking from other vehicles, the driver turns to me and shrugs his shoulders. This prompts me to delve into my printed notes, in search of a telephone number. I find the number and point it out to him. Fortunately he understands what I require, and to be quite frank, he is probably keen to get this smiling simpleton out of the back of his taxi. He pulls out a cell phone that's so large, it looks as though it would need an external battery supply, and taps away at the key pad. I breathe a sigh of relief when somebody answers, and an even bigger sigh of relief when the driver's face ignites with a semblance of recognition. He puts his put to the floor, and we accelerate off.
Approximately 5 minutes later we pull down a small side street, and I am faced by an extremely large wooden house, that is not too dissimilar to the Psycho house, except there seems to be a large tunnel leading to the front door. Let me take a moment here to explain how I came to choose this accommodation. The hostel was basically described as a hostel that doubled up as a theatre. The main level of the house was used as a hostel, whilst the attic was a theatre, which gave public performances. Being a person that actively seeks out the bizarre, this seemed like the most logical option for me.
I exit the taxi and crunch my way to the tunnel that leads to the front door of Auberge Theatrale. A more curious entrance to a building I've never encountered. It begins halfway down the garden, and then leads up the steps to the front door. To my left the taxi driver forces his car into gear, and disappears off into the snow storm. It's coming down so hard now that there is no trace of the car by the time he's driven for 15 meters; although I can still hear it 5 blocks away.
I pluck up my courage, and am about to start my ascent up the foreboding tunnel entrance to Auberge Theatrale, when out of the blizzard, to my rear, appears a figure. As he approaches, I estimate both that he is around 60 years old, and that he is of friendly disposition. The big smile upon his countenance makes this an easy observation. He wears a hat, not unlike my own, although I assume that his is a real ushanka, made from muskrat fur, not a synthetic affair like mine, from River Island. He introduces himself as Igor (of course he does), and although he makes no announcement of the fact, I understand him to be the proprietor of the hostel. I judge from his lack of breath, that he has rushed from afar to come and greet me. We go through the tunnel, and ascend the steps to the front door.
We enter Auberge Theatrale via the kitchen, where Igor kindly offers me a cup of tea, which I willingly accept. As the icicles thaw from my beard, and Igor's breath returns to a normal pace, he informs me that he must have messed up his bookings because he wasn't aware that anyone was arriving that day. His confusion soon subsides however when he starts to tell me about his hostel/ theatre. His enthusiasm is infectious, although I never need too much encouragement to get excited, I must admit. It turns out that Igor is a puppet maker and master, whose creations fill the walls, shelves and all surfaces of the hostel. As we move from room to room, I am both impressed and disturbed by his craftsmanship, the product of which seem to be staring at me with evil smiles upon their faces. Then there's the attic, which is reached by ascending a steep ladder. Of course, he reserves this for last. I mean, this is the epicentre of his whole existence, years of hard work, by the hands of a master craftsman, with a wild imagination.
As my head pops through the entrance to the attic I'm immediately faced by a puppet that is so evil that it makes Chucky from the film Child's Play look like a cuddly toy. The creation's eyes bear down on me as though they are burrowing into my very soul. Quickly I turn away, only to be faced by another, equally devilish beast, then another, and another....... I turn to Igor, whose face is beaming with pride, and for want of something to say, I ask him how often his performances are. He informs me that winter is a quiet period, and he won't be doing any shows now till May. After a quick walk around the attic, which is home to a grand stage, complete with velvet curtains, we make our descent back down the ladder. Igor then retires to the kitchen, where he informs me that he is to give a French lesson in 15 minutes. I go to my hostel dormitory, which Igor has pointed out to me.
Upon entry to the dorm I notice that although there are 8 beds in the room, I appear to be the only guest. A quick walk around the hostel, confirms to me that I'm am definitely the only guest. Not entirely comfortable with this situation, I elect to go for a walk around Irkutsk. As I leave the property I see that Igor is in full swing with his French lesson, tutoring a girl in her early twenties. Ooo laaa la!
The rest of the day is spent perusing the fine streets of this small city, with it's wooden houses, grand buildings, and statues of great communist leaders. By this time the sun is shining, and reflecting upon the pristine snow. I feel fully content, and excited by life - a feeling that only travel can instil upon me. The pangs of excitement I feel, soon give way to pangs of hunger, prompting me to search for somewhere to grab a bite to eat, and a pint of Russia's finest beer. To my amazement, and total glee, I find a pub called Liverpool - the name of the city that I've lived in since 2001. Once inside, I find out that this pub is not only named Liverpool, but is a shrine to this great city. The walls are adorned with photos of Liverpool, The Beatles, and Liverpool FC. It's quite incredible! Here I am in the middle of Siberia, in a city that is knee deep in snow, and not another English speaking person within a large radius (not that I've found anyway), and it feels as though I'm back in Liverpool. Oh, the joys of travel!
As I often do when I'm travelling, I sit with a group of young people, who seem only too eager to chat to me, about Liverpool and Irkutsk. They tell me of the Decemberists revolution of 1825, where an army of people opposed to serfdom (and who wouldn't be), marched to St Petersburg, intent on getting the senate to sign a manifesto that would relieve them of it. This backfired miserably, and 5 of the leaders of this revolution were executed. The rest were banned from living in St Petersburg, or Moscow, and were exiled to Irkutsk. I'm fascinated by their interest in this subject, largely due to the fact that most young British people, couldn't give a flying fuck about their historical roots. I leave the Liverpool pub feeling informed, and totally inebriated.
Before heading back to the hostel, I head to a department store to buy an alarm clock, for tomorrow I will be heading to Lake Baikal, at an hour that requires such a device. The purchasing of the alarm clock proves more difficult than I hoped it would be, and involves me playing a game of charades with the store assistant. For the first time during my stay in Russia I see a person burst into fits of laughter, as I pretend to be asleep, and then wake up to a beeping noise, that I eject from my lips. She brings me a small clock, that would not be out of place in a museum, and which I pay 10 times more than I would do for a similar item back in Liverpool (well in 1972 anyway).
I slowly make my way back to the hostel, a little afraid of what I may find there, but excited for the following day. Once again I walk through the tunnel entrance, and tentatively make my way into the kitchen, which is filled with silence. As I wander to my room it soon becomes apparent that the whole house is filled with silence, and that's because I'm alone. Alone, only with my thoughts, and a shit ton of terrifying puppets for company. My only solace is the fact that I'm plastered, and that Igor has kindly left all the lights on for me. Without brushing my teeth I head to the security of my bed, where I set the alarm, and hide under the covers, too scared to move a muscle.
After a fitful sleep, I'm awoken not by the alarm clock, but by the intense heat in my room. With a mouth as dry as prohibition America, I run to the bathroom, and stick my head under the flowing tap. I have little concern as to whether I should be drinking from the water supply here, for 2 reasons, 1. I'm so desperate for fluid that I would have drunk from a cesspit, and 2. Irkutsk is located less than 60 miles from Lake Baikal, which just happens to be the biggest fresh water lake in the world; although after the amount of water that flows from the tap into my mouth I would be surprised if it could still lay claim to this record. Suitably re hydrated I head out to find a bus to the village of Listvyanka, which lies on the shores of Lake Baikal.
After many games of charades with the locals I find the right bus, and I'm on my way. The excitement of the day ahead frees my mind from my new found fear of puppets. As our bus chugs along, through snow filled villages, I take great delight in watching the world go by. People going about their daily routines, unaware that I'm on an adventure of a lifetime. Ninety minutes later, and the bus pulls in to the bus stop. I let the bus empty before attempting to get off, to make sure that this is the final stop, as much as an other reason.
As I step off the bus I'm hit by an intense drop in temperature, which cuts through my River Island hat like a hot knife through butter. Every item of clothing that I'm wearing, from my threadbare jeans, to my worn out, £25, 10 year old hiking boots, are ill equipped for these insanely low temperatures. By the time I reach Lake Baikal, I'm not altogether sure if I am possession of all my toes. But what it lacks in the way of temperature, Listvyanka makes up for in fresh air. Whilst the rest of my body is revolting by shutting down, my lungs are rejoicing at their new lease of life.
For fear of death, I rush around the village at a rapid rate of knots, trying in vain to keep my body temperature at a reasonable level. Fortunately there are enough things going on, to keep me interested, and help take my mind of my foolish choice of clothing. Everything about the place makes me feel as though I'm an alien visiting another planet. The sights, smells, and especially the sounds, are so unfamiliar to me, that my senses should be getting paid overtime. I't's all quite overwhelming, and I feel honoured to be experiencing it.
From my elevated position I look down on Lake Baikal, which currently resembles a giant ice rink. On the edge of my periphery I see something spinning around on the ice, and upon realising that it is in fact an old Lada doing handbrake turns, my body temperature returns to normal, with the excitement this creates. I'm toying with the idea of walking across the ice to try and see if I can get in on the act, when I spot a pack of Siberian Malamute dogs rushing towards me. By the time I've realised that they are there, they are gone. The speed at which they move is quite incredible, and leaves me eager to go dog sledding. This new thought, spurs me on, accelerating my pace to that of the Malamutes. Such is my determination to go dog sledding that there is no question in my mind that I won't find somewhere to do it. An hour of rushing around like a headless chicken passes, but my determination wins the day. I see a sign "Dog sledding 100 meters".
Ten minutes later, and I'm standing on a sled, being propelled through a Siberian forest by a pack of Malamutes. If it weren't for the sound of the wind whistling through my ears, I would be surrounded by perfect silence, and it feels wonderful. By the time my ride is over some 30 minutes later, I'm itching for more, and not for the first time in my life I'm annoyed that I elected for the cheap option. I muse over the prospects of going out again, but with daylight a very finite resource at this time of year, I decide to head back to Irkutsk. Thoughts of entering Auberge Theatrale in complete darkness are not an enticing thought.
As my bus makes its way to the city, my head is full of questions; will anybody be in the hostel? Will the heating still be on? Will the puppets come alive at night and murder me? By the time my bus pulls up in Irkutsk I'm a neurotic mess, convinced that I'm in for a night of terror.
Thirty minutes later, and 2 of my questions have been answered. No, there is nobody else in the hostel, yes, the heating has been left on (I'm soaked in sweat within minutes), but only time will tell, if I'm going to get murdered by puppets. Silence permeates the whole house! To add to the eeriness of the situation, a large grandfather clock (with a puppet perched on top) incessantly ticks. Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock (I could on with this for pages, but I'm sure you get my drift). A profound feeling of unease starts to build inside me, with every tick and every tock. It's only early, but beyond the light of Auberge Theatrale, darkness has enshrouded the city.
I lie on my bed with a book in my hand, although any attempt to read is futile. In the back of my mind I can only think about one thing. Actually, that's a lie, I can think about many things, and they are all made of wood, with evil faces painted upon them. They know, oh they know alright! They can smell my fear! They can taste my discomfort! They can feel my sphincter twitching! They lie in wait, just waiting for me to sleep, so that they can disembowel me, and disseminate my flesh into the Siberian tundra. But I can defeat them! I'll drink strong coffee, I'll talk to people on Facebook to keep my mind occupied (luckily there's a computer connected to the net), I'll.... I'll...... I'll... go upstairs into the theatre, and scare myself even more shitless. And for whatever macabre reason my twisted mind decides to do so, that's exactly what I do.
A few minutes later, I've ascended the ladder, and I'm tip toeing around Igor's theatre of nightmares. In my head I repeat a mantra -puppets, puppets everywhere, and a grandfather clock that ticks (to the rhyme of the ancient mariner). I know right! Why would I do such a thing? I've no answer to this, other that my curiosity is far greater than any logic I may possess. Maybe I'm driven by fear, a perverted gene that I've inherited from a wayward soul. By the time 10 minutes inside the attic theatre have elapsed, I'm wishing 2 things 1. I wasn't so goddam fucking curious, and 2. I'd booked into a conventional hostel (like normal people).
I could go on, telling you about how I didn't sleep a wink that night, telling you about how I begged my wife to be, to stay online and chat to me. Or to tell you how for 12 hours I was convinced that there were hidden cameras all over the hostel. And that Igor was sat somewhere, maybe even in a hidden room within the theatre, watching me on many screens. Laughing at my fear, his penis stiffening, as he watched me pacing up and down the hostel, trying to locate cameras. Needless to say, by the time 5 am came, and it was time for me to go to the train station, to continue my journey upon the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok , I was more than eager to leave.
Leaving Igor the correct money for the room on the kitchen table, I left Auberge Theatrale, locking the door behind me, and hiding the key under the outside bin. I'd already left Igor an email to tell him where I intended to put it. Descending the steps, I passed through the tunnel of gloom, before turning to get one last glimpse. I half expected to see Igor peeping at me from one of the upstairs windows, a manic stare upon his countenance. As I made my way across the city, a new fear entered my mind. Maybe, I'd got the departure date wrong, I mean, this was not an irrational thought, because the Trans-Siberian train is forever on Moscow time. You're never going to believe this, but after waiting for 2 hours for the train to arrive, I was informed that I was indeed a day early. Seriously, I was left with no other option, than to return to the house from hell, and spend another entire day and night there - for in Russia, all accommodation has to be booked before entering the country.
Another night of very little sleep ensued, so by the time I finally boarded the train, I fell into a deep slumber, upon my bunk. This, I was to learn later, was an unfortunate mistake. For days, upon days, preceding my stay in Irkutsk, I'd sat and stared through the train window, only to be greeted by a white frozen landscape that rarely changed. For the 13 hrs I slept however, the train trundled along the side of Lake Baikal, and was a spectacle to behold.
And just when you though that this tale could not be any more incredulous..... 3 weeks after my return from my trip, I got an automated message from Hostel World to tell me to get ready for my trip to Auberge Theatrale. That's right! I'd only gone and booked it for the wrong month. No wonder poor Igor had not been prepared for my arrival, and I was left alone in his theatre of nightmares.