Distance travelled: 6038 miles
Date: 8th-9th July
After another day or so on the train (which I will write about soon, promise), I arrived in Irkutsk. This was my first proper stop since Moscow, so I headed straight for my hostel and, more importantly, a proper shower. Funny how quickly your sense of luxury can change into “not having to wash in a tiny sink while the whole room shakes back and forth”.
The hostel was named ‘Nerpa Backpackers’, after the freshwater seal found in Baikal. For an interesting article on the seals, and how they got to the lake in the first place, check out this article at Tet Zoo.
After getting clean, I wandered out into the city of Irkutsk. It’s fairly small, so it didn’t take too long to see the sights. Nevertheless, it was my favourite stop since Moscow. The best bit of Irkutsk is not the museums and churches, although there are plenty of those. Nor is it the Decemberist history (although more on that later). No, my favorite aspect of the city is the ancient and crumbling wooden buildings that make up the older parts of town. Unfortunately, there seems not to be any maintenance or protection for them, and they are overlooked by the now overly familiar Soviet tower blocks. They have intricate carvings all over them, and remind me a little of alpine chalets.
Later in the day, I went to the Europe House museum, which contains within its grounds a number of new examples of the traditional architectural style. When I was there, the city was celebrating its 350th year, so it’s not really surprising that the majority of the old buildings are in various states of decay, but judging from the modern recreations, Irkutsk would have been truly beautiful.
Of course, it likely wouldn’t have seemed so to its early inhabitants, as many were exiles from St Petersburg and Moscow. Living out in Siberia would have been very trying. Especially in winter. The most notable of these exiles were the Decemberists. They were a group of gentlemen-rebels – army officers and aristocrats, who occupied the main square in Saint Petersburg in an ill-conceived coup against Tzar Nicholas I in December 1825. They were poorly organised, and vastly outnumbered, but the Tzar had only just started his reign, and didn’t want it to begin with a bloody massacre. After a standoff, canister shots were fired at the mutineers, and the rebellion crumbled. Five of the ring leaders were executed, and 121 other members were sentenced to hard labour and exile, where they became romantic heroes. A large number of the wives and families of these men followed into Siberia, setting up small communities with in Irkutsk and Chita (900km east). They were all granted amnesty in 1855, when the Tzar died. From what I have heard of Russian punishments, this was pretty lenient treatment.
It is perhaps strange then, that a city whose history is tied up with rebellion and vanquished opponents of the imperial regime would be so opposed to the Bolsheviks. The east of the country was the last to fall to the revolution, and there remains a controversial statue of Tzar Alexander III.
It is a popular Russian wedding tradition that the bride and groom go to a local landmark or monument and have their wedding photos taken there. Walking around the touristy areas within Russia, you see them everywhere. It is due to this tradition that I found my visit to the museum of Irkutsk history accompanied by a wedding party, all dressed up, and some rather “overwrought, as a newt” to quote Sir Humphrey. The museum itself consisted of three main rooms, telling the story of the three-and-a-bit centuries of the city. To be honest, it wasn’t that interesting, and the fact that there was no English didn’t help. There were some cool Paleolithic tools though, and an extra room was unlocked for me, where there were some paintings that had been donated to the museum.
After my wanderings, I returned to the hostel where I was given not one, but two dinners as people made too much, and then sat around with the others drinking a few beers. At one point, one of the other guests there brought in a bottle, saying: “Hey, do you guys want any vodka? Help yourselves”. He then left, so we did.
It seems a bit strange to call Baikal a lake; it’s closer to an inland sea. The world’s oldest and deepest lake, it’s 395 by 49 miles, and it’s obscenely deep, at close to a mile (1642 meters). This means that it holds fully one fifth of the world’s freshwater – more than the combined volume of America’s Great Lakes.
It is surrounded by Siberian forests, and flanked by huge cliffs. When clear, it’s a spectacular view, with crystal clear water and wide open vistas.
Unfortunately, when I was there it was miserable, grey and raining.
At least in the morning, it cleared up towards mid-day. I had taken a minibus from Irkutsk to Listvyanka at half eight with a Taiwanese guy named Star (embarrassingly, I didn’t actually learn his name until we swapped email addresses that evening). Listvyanka is the closest settlement on Lake Baikal to Irkutsk, but it still took around an hour and a half.
Having arrived, we decided to go and get some breakfast. The specialty of the area is smoked Omul, a relation of the salmon that is only found in Baikal, so, obviously, we had to get that. We bought one hot smoked fish, some cold pre-prepared fish and some bread to go with it, and hid from the inclement weather in a handy café.
The beauty of Baikal lies in, well, its natural beauty, so I’ll leave this post here, and put up some photos. While a lot of them probably look quite civilized, and not that far from the wilderness we have here, a couple of Germans that I met in the Hostel in Irkutsk had been trekking and kayaking for a couple of weeks up in the north of the lake, and apparently it’s truly wild there. They saw only a few outdoorsmen in their cabins, and their campsite was investigated by a bear. While they were there. Fortunately the bears in this part of the world are neither as aggressive as Grizzlys, nor as accustomed to getting food from people as those in North America, so they just scared it off with loud noises.
After walking around a section of the lake, we decided to get the bus the 5ish miles back to Listvyanka, where we bought some dinner. Shashlick (kebabs), dumplings and plov (stewed rice with lamb and veg). It was delicious and filling, and we decided to end the afternoon with a beer on the lakeside.
Returning to Irkutsk, I had just enough time to grab my stuff before heading down to the train. Next stop – Ulaanbaator, and the home of the Mongols.