Sunday, 6 May 2012


29th Apr - 3rd May 2012
Rather a full carriage on the train going from UB up to Irkutsk, and initially there was only the one carriage going there for the two night journey. I was the fourth in our compartment along with Tim, Louise and Jake. Not big compartments either. There was no dining car ( we had been warned ) and so rations were duly taken on board. The train set off at 2110hrs and arrived at the border town of Suche Baator early morning. It spent a long time static even though the Mongolian customs were formally efficient and didn’t take too long, and we could get off to use the station ‘facilities’ at 150 Tugrik ( 10 cents ) a go; for those fortunate enough to have kept some Tugriks that is. I think other carriages were being connected/disconnected here as many Mongolians appeared to be getting on carrying large bags of ‘stuff’. We set off again at about 1100hrs (L). Times from here onwards become a little confused as all the train times are as per Moscow time which is 5 hours behind local (L) time in Irkutsk, but Irkutsk is 1 hour ahead of Ulaan Baator, so we had much discussion as to what time it was where. We arrived at the nondescript Russian rail ‘entry’ village, Naushki, half-an-hour later where the characteristically brusque customs and immigration officials gave our compartment a good going over, including a search by a dog which didn’t even look interested in our rations bags. The unsmiling lady checking our passports made us stand up individually, like naughty schoolboys, answer our name with n’er a please or thank you, told us to sit down again and glowered as she tried to find discrepancies. Talking of which, nearly all the officials checking passports from Vietnam onwards have been female. Should I read anything into this? Anyway, they weren’t too bad. I suspect they were much more interested in the Mongolians who were obviously bringing ‘stuff’ into Russia to sell. It was noticed that bags of clothes were being much moved around and hidden. Our rather large ( read zeppelinesque ) Russian lady carriage attendant appeared to be under serious interrogation at one point. Maybe she was thin and concealing the contents of a duty-free shop under her uniform. We moved on about five hours later and I’m not sure who or what, if anything, had been offloaded, locked up, shot or disposed of. Another day and night followed on the train. The terrain was flat and cold with poor looking villages consisting of wooden huts for the most part, and a couple of smoke belching factories.

Left: An example of such a village on the shore of a large frozen lake somewhere south of Irkutsk. We couldn’t work out what it was called. There were increasing numbers of impoverished looking wooden steep roofed rabbit-hutch homes grouped together into communes by wooden fences around the perimeter. There were several houses which had obviously burned down, or at least the roofs had caught fire. I suspect the combination of cold weather, boredom, no pubs, inflammable buildings and plenty of cheap vodka kept the local Fire Brigade busy, if there was one, which I doubt. 

Right: This is a typical example of countryside Siberian architecture. Most of the roofs were this shape and made from corrugated iron.
We arrived at Irkutsk station at 0730hrs (L). It was rather an impressive station building, indeed one of the best looking in Russia I was told. Before the ‘revolution’ Irkutsk was home to many successful businesses and prosperous merchants and was a very wealthy city. The Bolsheviks soon put paid to that! Unfortunately I forgot to photograph it because we were busy getting rubles out of an ATM machine and then herded onto a minibus by our delightful guide, Katya. 
Onwards straight away to the village of Listvyanka, 70km distant on the south-west corner of Lake Baikal. This is a popular spot for tourists, both local and foreign, and sometimes referred to as the Baikal Riviera ( rather stretching a point there I feel ). In the winter there is skiing, snow-mobiling, dog-sledding, ice-fishing, ice-sculpting and it is possible to drive on and across the frozen lake. In the summer it is warm and offers swimming, sailing, scuba diving, hiking, boat cruises, jet-skiing, horse trekking and lounging on beaches. We were arriving just as the ice was starting to break up, but well before it got warm, so recreational facilities were a bit limited. Scuba diving under the ice was an option which I had no difficulty in resisting. 

It was over the May Day holiday and some Russian tourists, and locals, were taking advantage of the sunny weather ( if not much above freezing ) to have picnics on the pebble and ice-fringed beach ( left ). These involved warm clothing, a bonfire and copious supplies of vodka.
We were accommodated in a ‘local home-stay’, a guest house, for two nights which was comfortable and provided breakfast and supper all cooked by the lady who lived there, or in an annex next door to be precise, and the food was very good. She insisted on giving a substantial breakfast. We provided our own wine from the village shop.

Katya took us on a tour of the village which included looking at a weird collection of old scrap vehicles, the owner of which was an ‘artist’ who made sculptures from the recovered car parts ( right ). He named it a ‘Retro Park’. It brought back memories of my Amish looking companion, Mike, on the train from Hanoi who was dedicated to restoring such ancient vehicles. I don’t think he would have approved.

Left: We visited the local church, that of St. Nicholas. These places are of the Greek Orthodox variety; you know, the ones whose vicars wear tall black hats and long grey curly beards. On the down side, they have no seats inside. Difficult to nod off during the sermon. On the plus side, unlike so many British village churches, they tend to be well heated. I suppose that explains the no seats rule.
The area around here is ‘Buryat’ country. The Buryats have there own language but I gather it is slowly dying out as local schools stop teaching in it.  These people were also fiercely independent and were eventually brought kicking and screaming under control of Tsarist Russia by Cossacks who were sent to the area. Actually both the Russians and Buryats benefitted eventually; the Russians from learning how to live, hunt and profit from the local resources and the Buryats from the technology and knowhow which was brought in. The area was, and still is to a certain extent, famous for it’s wild mink and sable hunting. The fur trade back in the old days was highly profitable and the Cossack garrison in Urkutsk was employed in collecting taxes from the fur traders. 

There are also, supposedly, bears in the vicinity although a long standing local guide said the nearest he had come to seeing one was finding, on two occasions, some old bear shit in the woods. He wasn't looking hard enough.
We walked to the ‘Limnological Museum’. There is bugger all public transport around this village which, although not having many houses, hotels and other buildings, stretches for 3 miles along the lake shore. We walked an invigorating 2 miles to the museum. Limnology, as I am sure you know, is the study of lakes. Katya is a bit of an expert on the subject and gave us a detailed and interesting explanation of the exhibits. Lake Baikal is an important lake and has many impressive features. For a start it is the biggest freshwater lake in the world. It holds enough water to fill all the Canadian Great Lakes and still have plenty of water left over. Indeed it holds 20% of the world’s fresh water. It is also the deepest at 1637m ( 5369ft ). It is 636km long and between 20 - 74km wide. 

Left: This diagram, if you click on and enlarge, will give the salient information; if you’re interested that is.
The water is extremely pure ( like distilled water we were told ) except for a bit at the Irkutsk end which suffers from the effluent from a wood pulping factory. It can’t be closed down due to ‘economic’ reasons. A fella’s gotta earn a livin’ Guv.

Right: Amongst all the thousands of fish and life-forms living in the lake are these strange looking ‘Nerpa’ seals. They look like they have been got at by someone with a car-tyre pump! Excuse the bad photo but there were two of them in an aquarium at the museum and they were dashing madly around and wouldn’t stop to have their picture taken. Lively little blighters.

Left: There are also sturgeon. They are protected, as are the Nerpa seals. It’s the ones in Caspian Sea that the caviar comes from.

The Dendrology Park ( trees ) is next door but I didn’t visit that, and there is also a big fish and tourist tat market at the other end of the village with the only hotel/building with WiFi (free). One or two good, if expensive, restaurants along the lakeside.
The next day I decided to take up the offer of some quad-biking. Tim and his crew decided to go on what was termed a ‘soft walk’. The quad-biking was fun and it took an hour to travel along some quite challenging ( for me ) tracks around the forest. 

Right: A stop to take a photo. Many deep muddy pools, rutted tracks, slippery slopes and even a stream bed to be negotiated. I was the only other ‘biker’ and just followed my guide in blind and trusting faith that we wouldn’t get stuck or, worse, tip over. I was provided with helmet, waterproof trousers, jacket and welly boots which, before we set off, I thought was a bit OTT. They proved necessary. Well, not the helmet thankfully.

Off up the hill behind to find what was a chair-lift for a winter ski run. It was quite a hike to the lift which, out of the skiing season, takes passengers to an observation point at the top. Left: Looking south-west over the lake with the outlet ( unfrozen bit ) to the Angara river which flows through Irkutsk. There are over 300 rivers and streams flowing into Lake Baikal and only this one flowing out. It eventually exits somewhere up in the Arctic sea.
There is a bar/cafe up here which is the domain of a particularly surly and unhelpful bar ‘maid’. I eventually convinced the miserable bag to sell me, at exhorbitant price, a bottle of beer. She must have been sent there as a form of exile after being kicked out of a salt mine for being grumpy.
Back at our house to meet Tim and Co. who said they had had a great hike. 4 hours of healthy walking up and down near-verticle snow covered hillside and sometimes even on paths. This was the so-called ‘soft walk’. They said any ‘harder walk’ would be difficult to contemplate short of mountaineering. 

Right: This is one of the ostentatious houses along the lakeside road. I believe that several wealthy Siberians have built holiday homes here. Probably the sort of minor oligarcs ( salt mine owners ) a scale or two down from the owners of prestigious British football clubs with properties in London, New York, Gstaad and Monte Carlo.
The next day Tim and co. set off early to catch a train to Tomsk. I was taken back to Irkutsk later to meet up again with the lovely Katya for a walking tour of ( part of ) the city. I was to stay at the Angara Hotel; not a bad place and paid for as part of my trip with Monkey Business. Nothing is cheap, I have found, in Russia. To leave a bag in their luggage room costs $4 equivalent; free most other places I’ve been....apart from Youth Hostels in Australia.

Left: This is the London Pub, the bar and dining room of the hotel. Pleasant place but pricey.

Katya is a most entertaining and knowledgeable guide. Her grasp of local and indeed Russian history is impressive. She and I set off around the town and saw most of the highlights remaining from the Cossack occupation in 1661,  the buildings erected by the wealthy merchants, the worthy civilising efforts of the ‘Decembrists’ after their exile here following the abortive 1825 Moscow uprising, the great fire in 1879 which destroyed 80% of the wooden built city, the sites of happenings during and post-‘revolution’ ( Irkutsk held out against the Bolsheviks until 1920 ), and subsequent renovation and rebuilding post Soviet time ( since 1990 ). Irkutsk, population 650,000, is a big University city with 27 Universities of all kinds. It therefore has a bit of a lively social scene with myriad bars and cafes. Quite a jolly place really and nothing like I had imagined. It is the unofficial capital city of Eastern Siberia.
Right: There are several memorials to military heroes, both Tsarist and Soviet, and a large WW2 ‘eternal flame’ in a garden which is guarded during the day by squads of student ‘soldiers’ who do a goose-stepping drill routine to change the guard every 15 minutes, with an hour’s break for lunch. I think this might be done just over the present week or so which is the period of some important military remembrance functions and parades. There were lots of student types handing out black and orange lengths of 'victory' medal ribbon which you were supposed to tie onto yourself somewhere.
Left: A recently re-erected monument to a Cossack leader ( name forgotten ) who was credited with successfully occupying the district in 1661. What a large rifle he’s got! Many monuments here have been recast and rebuilt since their destruction by Bolsheviks following the ‘revolution’. One such, at a monastery on the outskirts of the city, is to the White Army commander, Admiral Kolchak, who resisted the Red Army onslaught for a long time. He was executed at this monastery after the Reds eventually captured the place in 1920.

Right: Another ( sorry to bore you ) monument, again re-made and re-erected since 1990, is to Tsar Alexandre 111. He was considered a jolly good chap during whose reign there were no wars and he was credited with getting the trans-Siberian railway built. Some describe him here as holdng an invisible balloon in his right hand.

Left: And of course we musn’t forget the obligatory statue of Vladimir Illyich Lenin ( aka Mr Ulyanov ) who features in characteristic pose on Ul. Karla Marxsa.

Right: And while we’re at it, the statue dedicated to all the tourists of which there are increasing numbers.

Left: Many churches of several denominations feature throughout the city. The most popular being the Russian Orthodox with their Disney Baroque style. This is one such ( can’t remember which ) but not, by far, the most elaborate. 

Right: The main square, and gardens are the place to hang out, especially during the summer when the flowers bloom and music events, parades and other entertainment takes place. The large, indeed impressive, orange building at the far end is the headquarters of the Siberian coal industry. Lots of mines in Siberia although I forgot to ask where the notorious ‘salt mines’ are in which particularly naughty exiles were condemned to work. Maybe they still are.

Left: This building is now a school. It is an example of many of the elaborate buildings constructed in Victorian times by wealthy Irkutskians. 

Right: Another buiding of significance is this cream coloured job down by the river. It was, at the time of the revolution, the house of the Governor or Mayor. It featured in a Grand Shoot-Out in 1920 when occupied by White Army soldiers who battled it out with Red Army soldiers occupying the red brick building 100yds beyond. 170 dead. The red brick building had belonged to the Siberian Geographical Society ( a Club for Victorian-style Gentlemen Explorers of the day ). It is now the Regional Museum.

Left: A couple of original examples of the wooden houses that almost entirely made up Irkutsk before the Great Fire in 1879. These two are still lived in. Following the fire buidings were, wisely, rebuilt in stone. There is ongoing construction of many new old-style wooden buildings, hopefully with better fire protection, in a prestigious city centre area to recreate the old-town feel to cater for tourists and include expensive up-market shops and restaurants.

Right: The Oxford Street of Urkutsk. There are some reasonable shops; lots of prestigious clothes shops.

Left: As with many towns in Russia ( I’m told ), Irkutsk has a permanent brick built site for the circus. Circuses are still very popular and feature many different acts along with all the animal ones. This one puts on performances at the weekends. Outside lots of miniature cars were lined up for children’s rides, I suppose.

Right: As well as some Shetland pony equivalents. 

Left: Among many pubs and bars was this one, Liverpool, into which we went for a quick snifter. It is dedicated to the Beatles, and Liverpool FC. Inside, down in the cellar bar, are hundreds of Beatles era photos and memorabilia with old records stuck to the ceiling. Live bands perform ( Beatles songs and the like ) at weekends. There must be an enthusiastic following in Irkutsk.

Right: My knowledgeable guide, Katya. She works for a tour company ( used by Monkey Business ) called Aqua Eco. They were most efficient. Thanks Katya.
Next off to catch the trans-Siberian #1 ( expresish ) train to Moscow. It is a 72 hour journey involving three nights on board.

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