Three days on the train were definitely exhausting and Irkutsk, although not the most charming city I’ve ever been to, definitely felt welcoming. I stayed at the wonderful Baikaler Hostel right in the middle of town and met other travellers making similar journeys as mine across Asia. Friday night I joined them going to a club that was exactly how I imagined a club in Russia to be – too much security, too much vodka and too much make-up. It was all I had hoped for.
This past Sunday was Easter Sunday and I couldn’t think of not going to a Russian Orthodox midnight mass late Saturday night. I went to a church on the Ulitsa Lenina right near my hostel. I arrived just as the midnight procession was starting. Men with long beards were followed out of the church by acolytes carrying massive icons and crosses and an amazing choir singing the most haunting music I’ve ever heard. The congregation circled the church and re-entered through a door decorated with evergreens. Once inside, the real service began with all of the glory the Orthodox church could muster. The main service doesn’t have quite the beginning-middle-end that the Western church has, and the people came and went – including an impressive number of Russian officers in full military dress and babushkas who could walked right out of a 19th century Russian novel. The tone was definitely solemn but it didn’t stop people from chatting with each other during the service and what the priests were doing wasn’t necessarily the only focal point in the church.
There were three priests. The oldest wore a big spherical hat that was very ornate, the middle priest wore a sort of red fez and the youngest one wore no hat. They took turns doing the same ritual. They would walk behind a screen that the congregation could only partially see through and they would chant prayers and wave their crosses. Occasionally they would come out from behind the screen and in Old Slavonic say “Christ has risen!” and the congregation would bow and repeat “It is true he has risen!”
I stayed for about an hour in all and made my way back to the hostel. It was nice and peaceful on the dark streets of Irkutsk. The classical-style buildings with their peeling sky-blue paint and white trim reminded of Easter eggs and the streets of the city were with the usual nocturnal background noise of modern Russia – drunks and young people out and about.