The fourth stop on our Trans Siberian Railway adventure
IRKUTSK, EASTERN SIBERIA
(WRITTEN ON THE 57 HOUR TRAIN JOURNEY FROM IRKUTSK TO EKATERINBERG)
The journey from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk marked our first journey on the Trans Siberian Railway and I was so excited to finally be on the train. We were travelling coupe (the second class option), which has four beds in each narrow compartment. Nobody showed up to take this fourth place on this journey, however, so we had the compartment to ourselves. The cabins are certainly cosy, but space is provided under the bottom bunks to put your rucksacks away.
The journey takes around eight hours between the two destinations, which is comparatively short compared to some of the routes along the Trans Siberian line. The line to Irkutsk is particularly scenic since it skirts alongside Lake Baikal, which is the oldest and deepest lake in the world and this is where we saw our first glimpses of it (we were doing a three-day excursion of the lake later in the week).
When we arrived early in the evening, we dropped off our bags at Baikaler Hostel where we staying (very easy to find – just cross the bridge by the train station and follow the tram lines to Lenin Street – yes, more Lenin!). Our next priority was to find some food. We had read about a vegetarian restaurant called ‘Govinda’ in Lonely Planet on our way up, so we used the map to make our way over to Furye Street. The food in this small restaurant was delicious and based around Indian flavours, including soya sausages, basmati rice, mild curries and a range of cakes for dessert. After dinner, we went to explore Irkutsk by following the green line that is marked on the pavement around the city and highlights key spots. We walked through the main square, with its bright flowers and WW2 memorial flame, and down to the river where the sun was setting. The city had a friendly feel to it but we were unable to fully appreciate our surroundings because of the insane amount of flies that were swarming around us. In the end, we decided to head back to safety in the hostel – but first made a pit-stop at the supermarket for the all-important Russian vodka.
We had 24 hours of freedom before our three-day excursion began, so decided to take it slow and make the most of our surroundings the next morning. We followed the rest of the green line to the outskirts of the city and even hopped on the tram to get to Kazansky Church (and then had to immediately hop off again as we realised we were going in the wrong direction – use tram 4 for future reference). Kazanksy Church is a huge, grand example of Russian Orthodoxy architecture and we sat inside and admired the magnificent interiors for a while. On our way back into town, we stopped at the Trubetskoy House Museum; renovated in 2012, this mini-mansion was home to the daughter of the Decembrist figure, Sergei Trubetskoy. The museum tells the Decembrist story, from failed coup to arrival in Irkutsk. Our final cultural stop of the day was the Sukachev Regional Art Museum, which houses a collection of art ranging from Mongolian thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist religious paintings) to Russian Impressionist canvases. We spent the rest of our afternoon lying in the sun in a pretty little piazza near to the hostel – which strangely had a bench sculpture of the three monkey emojis (I later found out these represented ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’…)
That evening, we went to dinner at Rassolnik, a restaurant that had been recommended by a friend of Patrick’s. It was to be our first taste of Russian food and it certainly didn’t disappoint. We feasted on amazing food, drunk white wine and listened to two very jolly accordion players. Some of the dishes we tried included: kholodets, potato pancakes, basturma, fried vegetables, pozharsky rissoles, vereniky with cheese and onion, and pelmeny with game meat. The waiter also brought out some free aubergine amuse bouche to dip our bread into, along with oil and balsamic vinegar.
The next morning, we were picked up early by the minibus ready for our Lake Baikal trip. Our tour guide was called Leonard, and he introduced us to another English guy called James and an Italian couple who we would be spending the next three days with. James, who is originally from Cambridge, had been teaching English in Korea for the last four years and was making the overland train journey back home before going to live in Cambodia with a new teaching job.
We first went to visit an ethnographic museum of Siberia, which demonstrated the history of the Siberian people and their culture, preserved in a mini-village. We then continued in the minibus, skirting around the edge of Lake Baikal to the fish market, where the stalls sell freshly smoked omur on skewer sticks, the salmon-like fish from the lake. After trying a few flavours from the market, we continued our journey to the Lake Baikal museum. Although i wouldn’t particularly recommend this museum, we did pick up a few interesting facts about the lake – that it is an incredible 30 million years old, has a 2000km shoreline and holds 20% of all the Earth’s freshwater. We drove a little further into the mountains and took a chair lift up to the Cherssky viewing platform, from which we could see across the western shore of Port Baikal. From here, it was also possible to see the Angara River and ‘Shamana Rock’, (which legend believes that the water spirit left as a barricade to prevent his daughter reaching her lover. Now Russian men are encouraged to leave their future wives on the rock overnight and if they are still there in the morning, they are fit for marriage). That evening, we were dropped back off at the hostel, and went out to an Italian restaurant called Prego – which was terrible and that’s all that needs to be said.
Our second day of the trip was dedicated to a seven hour ride on the old Circum Baikal steam train, the historical railway of the Irkutsk region which runs a spectacular route from the Port Baikal settlement along the northern shore of the southern extremity of the lake to the town of Slyudyanka. Construction began in 1899 and, until the middle of the 20th century, was a part of the Trans Siberian main line. Now, the line just represents a duplicate section for picturesque tours, representing a unique achievement in engineering – yet it still suffers from frequent landslides and mud flows.
We took the ferry across the Angara River to Port Baikal to pick up the train. The water was completely still and clear; there was a light mist in the distance that made it impossible to see where water and sky finished and began. Once we’d settled into our seats, James brought out a DIY pack of Top Trumps which were made up of people he knew – this occupied us for the best part of fifteen minutes but we quickly learned more about his group of friends!
The train stopped at regular intervals, so we’d get off and explore along the tracks or climb down the ledge to the pebbly beaches and crystal-clear water below. Along the way, there were cold, abandoned tunnels where the previous traintrack had run through but had now become too dangerous to use; they reminded me of my favourite walk of home along a disused railway line which passes under old, forgotten brick bridges. And back onboard, as we chugged along, the steam train blew his horn for all the miles around to hear and passing cars would return the call, and people sunbathing would stand up and wave and there was a kid who stopped his bike on a dirt track to stare and two teenagers threw stones across the water at us.
Leonard was not with us on the train but had left a message that we should get off one station earlier than the final destination. However, we soon discovered that this station was closed for renovation so we decided, as a group, that we would get off at the last stop and see if Leonard was waiting for us there. Well he wasn’t! Luckily we had a phone number for the agency but it didn’t work – of course. In the end, we decided to hold fire and kick back to see if he would show up, otherwise we had been well and truly duped. James went into the station shop and bought us all Russian beers but five minutes later, some officials showed up and gestured to us that public drinking was not permitted. In the end, Leonard appeared with our driver (although this was not the end of the suspicious activity with our tour guides, which also included lots of phone calls and a strange exchange of a folded up newspaper…). We drove immediately past a wooden church, despite Leonard telling us the day before that we had seen the only one remaining in Siberia – in the end, it was all very funny and we drunk the remaining beers in the van on our way to a roadside cafe where I ate noodles and the boys ate pozy (Buryat dumplings filled with beef and pork).
That night, we were all staying in the same hotel – a small and simple hotel but one which had an actual, real-life bar right outside (amazing). We went with James and ordered two bottles of vodka and some apple juice mixer for practically pennies. Once inside, we realised what a strange place we had entered – there was an extremely questionable film showing on the television across the bar and an empty disco with colourful lights through a curtain in the adjoining room. Throughout the night, all kinds of people came and went, and we were eventually asked to leave when it closed at midnight. Upon returning to the hotel, we found that the gates had been locked, so we slid under (or climbed over, depending on our bravery at the time) and then had been to rescued by a Russian man smoking a cigarette on the balcony above.
The next day, we were leaving our hotel with a hangover, ready to embark on a hike through the Arshan Mountains. It was a lovely walk which finished up at a waterfall, but as we were walking, Leonard told us about the many people who go missing each year in the mountains and, indeed, as were walking, we saw a couple trying to get down an extremely steep rockface after taking a wrong turn. Leonard went on to tell us about how he had climbed a nearby Sayan Mountain on the spur of a moment with a group of people he was hanging out with, so they left without water or a torch, reached the summit and had to climb back down in the dark at 2am – 22 hours after leaving base camp. We shook our heads in amazement as he laughed merrily at the good memory. As we walked, we passed lots of Shamanist sites, which were marked by colourful ribbons tied to the trees and bushes. Leonard explained that you make a wish on a ribbon, tie it to a branch, and each time the wind spirits blow on your ribbon, your wish will be amplified for all of time. I wanted to make a wish, so was pleased to find an old shoelace on the path, which I tied to a branch in the most beautiful spot on the walk, right in front of the big waterfall where the breeze was strongest.
Leonard then walked us to the natural hot springs, where people queued with their bottles to drink the mineral-rich water. We all tried it and, although we knew how good for our health it may be, it tasted foul. Because the water is so iron rich, the taste can be compared to drinking blood, or perhaps licking a rusty nail. Great if you’re a vampire. There was another, more preferable, way to enjoy the hot springs – to swim in the warm water. We did this next, driving to the town of Xhenchug which had been formed in 2002, when miners digging for oil had actually discovered the hot springs which went an impressive 1062m into the earth. The pool that stands there now has a waterfall which shoots out 55 degrees C water – literally water being funnelled from the hot core of the Earth. By the time the pool has filled, the water has cooled and it is just like standing in a lovely warm bath – but if you choose to stand with your back to the waterfall, it is like being pelted with hot rocks (quite a nice sensation actually!).
With our three day tour finished, we returned to Irkutsk and took James to Rassolnik for dinner. He was catching the 1am long train to Yekaterinburg, so he insisted on ordering lots of red wine so that he might pass out on the train. This time, we ordered similar dishes to before but also tried omul sagudaj, rassolnik with bacon and beef stroganoff.
We were catching the same long train to Yekaterinburg the next evening, so had an early night and spent our last day in the city relaxing in the sun and buying ample supplies for the long, long train journey ahead.