Take a wander down Karl Marx Street and see what you can find. Melvyn Dresner contiunes his tale as he ambles along the highways and byways of the city of Irkutsk, Eastern Siberia's capital, providing us with his very personal view of city life.
Walking down Karl Marx Street, you can look at the puddles, the pigeons, and the traffic and you feel you could be anywhere. The mix of traffic is biased towards Russian-built cars though western models are evident everywhere. Japanese vans dart around the city, a reminder that Tokyo (just 3,000 kilometres away!) is nearer than Moscow. Mongolia and China are even closer, the latter, like Japan, hungry for Siberian oil. Irkutsk seems like it is about to burst into life, or is just spring in the air. The mature trees all about provide a welcome shade from the summer sun as I stroll along.
Here, like every big city on earth, the pigeons walk around with their imperious urban strut. Are these birds taking over the world? Unlike in my home city, London, the pigeons don't have it all their own way in Karl Marx Street. The agitated sparrows are fighting back and can be seen darting in small raiding parties briefly holding part of the pavement for a few seconds from the strutting grey birds. Pigeon power has its limits, I'm glad to see.
Suddenly the street opens up. A massive hole appears in the road without warning, straight down the middle. It must be more than 2 metres deep and twenty or more metres long. At the bottom is an exposed pipe, I guess a water main. New piping sits next door, waiting to be fixed. The building to the left is covered in scaffolding and carefully camouflaged in netting. There is nothing to stop me falling into the abyss. No warning signs or official explanation nearby.
This is not a minor street in a small town; this is the major thoroughfare in a major Siberian city. Overburden with shopping, a playful child or a drunk could easily fall in the hole with fatal consequences. Hundreds or maybe thousands pass this way. This closure means that you can walk down the centre of a traffic-free street. You have to! Workmen are working on the footway. They are digging up the old paving slabs and replacing them with a plain mosaic of curved paviours. Nothing stops you walking through the carefully smoothed sand sub-base but you don't, no one does, except the dazed and confused like me.
I reach a bench on the widened pavement and sip my fizzy mineral water (it's Georgian, in case you wondered) and watch the city go by and hope they can't see me. I try to be a passive observer. What I notice is the air is filled with fluffy pollen; it accumulates on the ground not just a few specks but builds up like a summer snow, piling up to ankle height. This delicate decoration and the poplar trees themselves soften the city's harsher edges. Irkutsk has that feeling, a place just out of focus.
A man with carefully groomed white hair and heavy and lined features comes into view. He is smartly dressed and accompanied by his elderly wife, who is leading him to a bench nearby. His suit is covered in medals, obviously an old soldier. Nothing unusual, memories of the war are deep in Russia. He is bleeding from the middle of the forehead, which I wonder about. Did he slip on a misplaced paving slab? His wife with her neat bun of dark grey hair looks anxious about him but has greater urge to sit down than worry about her husband.
I watch them with increasing alarm as he stumbles towards the bench, where she has just sat. She seems exhausted and closes her eyes briefly and fans herself. He doesn't make it, he misses the bench. He doesn't go face down (he must have done this earlier) but he ends up crouching on his knees, a short distance from his target. She rises to assist, with that look that says "You old fool, what are you playing at?" His wife and I lift him to his feet and then onto the bench. He is quite heavy. Like an old prize fighter hanging on for the bell he finds his legs long enough to get to the bench. I return to my seat. His wife tenderly mops his brow restoring him back to his dignified self as if nothing has happened.
|Copyright ╘ 2003 by Melvyn Dresner|
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