Arriving at Irkutsk in time for breakfast, we said our farewells to our room mate and American drinking buddies before heading off with our tour guide for a buffet breakfast at the hotel we would be staying in the following night.
After having a slightly underwhelming diet on the train, a huge buffet breakfast was probably a little too much for my eyes to take and, about 30 minutes later, my stomach was in full agreement with them! However, even breakfast could not pass without a hiccup as we both dolloped out what looked like slightly lumpy mash potato, labeled as scrambled eggs and turned out to be very solid porridge! Nevertheless it was with full tummies that we headed out on our whirlwind tour of Irkutsk.
Our first stop was at the eternal flame to remember the fallen soldiers of WWII before our first look inside a Russian Orthodox Church. It was slightly bizarre to be looking at churches again after such a long time looking in temples and pagodas around Asia. This was made even odder for a number of reasons, not limited to, the round shape of the Church, the lack of any pews (as you
have to stand for the service), the very intricate murals and paintings on the ceilings and the excessive amount of crossing, kowtowing and kissing of religious images that went on during the service. However, in my opinion, what stood out the most was the intricate Iconostasis that covered the area in front of the altar, preventing the congregation from seeing it. I'm not entirely certain of the religious reasoning behind this, as I thought it was done away with in the new testament, but it was certainly highly detailed.
After hearing about a few other churches we were promptly driven down Karl Marx street, and shown all of the old merchants houses in Irkutsk which were very grand but many had been uglyified during the Soviet era. We then had a stop at the monument of Tsar Alexander III restored to grace after the Soviet era and founder of the Trans Siberian railroad.
Throughout our tour of Irkutsk our guide was surprisingly frank about not only the Communist and Soviet era, but also the current regime in Russia. Pointing out the numerous works going on in Irkutsk he told us that they were all being built as part
of the celebration of the 350th year since the founding of Irkutsk by the Cossacks out conquering the land for the Russians. He then stated, quite emphatically, that none of them would be ready in time for the anniversary, a few months away, and that most of the investors would lose interest afterwards and not bother completing them. As we bounced through the occasional pot hole he pointed out that the cash could have been better spent in other ways.
After our whirlwind tour we were driven out to Listvyanka, a small town on the shore of Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water in the world and over a mile deep in parts. The drive out there was remarkable for no other reason than the fact that we drove on the highway for an hour and never seemed to exit the woodland until the very last minute. I don't think I have ever seen so many trees in my entire life.
When we arrived in Listvyanka we were checked into our chalet and told that he would meet us again tomorrow, leaving us with an afternoon to explore the village. The first thing to point out with this
statement is that chalet sounds a lot more salubrious then it actually is. The room looked like it had been decorated by a blind person using fashions from the 1940's. It also had a lack of any real working lights in the room. It was no better when you shut the curtains, as they did little but turn the room a slight shade of red.
The next problem with the statement is that there is not actually much to explore in Listvyanka. That said we spent our main time getting lost as we tried in vain to climb up the path to the summit of the
hill to look out over the lake. This was much harder said then done due solely to the directions that we were given in our guide book as to where the trail actually went and it not being obvious as you walked it. As a result we ended up in the cafe terrace of a hotel part way up the mountain having a look out over the quite spectacular views of Lake Baikal.
With the exception of this our afternoon was largely spent fighting off the large number of flies that
Steph Paddling in Lake Baikal
It's supposed to be very good for you, but at 4 degrees it didn't feel it!
seem to inhabit the area and attacked us at every opportunity. In their persistence, and our lack of it, they managed to force us off the the quasi-trail we had found and, later, off the incredibly rocky beach on which we sat. Having said all that it was a beautiful area and it was lovely to get out and wander about in the fresh air.
After much time wasting we went back to the chalet for probably the highlight of the day, our exclusive use of the chalet's sauna and plunge pool. Whilst I'm not normally a fan of saunas, after having been pestered by flies all day it was nice if for no other reason than the flies could not reach me! The day ended on a low, watching what I think was Russia's Got Talent. Based on the show they do not!
The next day started with some lovely food that in any other country you would pass off as lunch but in Russia, the buckwheat rice and tomato sauce is breakfast. After this we headed out for what would be the star attraction of our Lake Baikal tour, a train ride round part of the
lake Now, many people might wonder why we wanted to spend a day on a train, having just spent 36 hours on one and having another 3 day train ride to come. The honest answer is that I have no idea why I thought we would do this, but anyway, we were.
The trip on the Circum Baikal had a dubous start as, after going pretty much nowhere, we stopped in the middle of the track to walk up a slight hill. However, we were soon looking around in the ruins of an old water tower from where the Trans Siberian used to stop when it used the line. What followed was a surprisingly good day looking at and walking down, old galleries and tunnels. We were a little dubious about some of the galleries we went through, which had stopped being used by the main train as it was too dangerous but seemed fine for us,
It soon wasn't long before we were sitting on the train heading to our final destination, a community with a group of Life Ethic believers. Life Ethicism, if that's even a word, is seemingly a bizarre mixture of all different faiths
to form what is meant to be a way of life, and certainly not a religion. Surprisingly we had actually seen something like this before in Vietnam, however, the main reason for stopping here was to admire some of the artwork by the founder of the belief based on when he had been traveling in the mountains around Tibet. As we both wanted to go to Tibet, it was good to see some of what we had missed out on.
The day ended, rather bizarrely, the same way we arrived in Irkutsk, back on the main Trans Siberian line into the train station. It had been a really good day as, whenever we weren't off the train exploring the old tracks we had the backdrop of Lake Baikal, which seemed to somehow get more impressive as we went round.
Our final day in Irkutsk was spent mainly looking around one of the premier attractions in the area, the wooden architecture museum. An outdoor museum set in a woodland and on the shore of a river, this looks at the different type of wooden buildings that existed in Siberia around the time that it was first settled by the
Russians and later by some Mongolians. All of the buildings in the museum had been taken from around Siberia so they weren't just replicas but the actual houses, admittedly restored, that
people had used for years.
It was quite interesting and there was a surprising amount of detail that had gone into the wooden carvings around the frames and shutters of the house. It was also interesting to learn a little about the way of life of the people including the not so popular idea of building an annex room to the main house and all living together when you are married. We also got to try some of the village entertainment including stilt walking, we were both rubbish, and using a two person swing, which is annoyingly difficult to get started but good once you get going.
After a good look around the museum we went back to the hotel to freshen up a bit before our final leg of the Trans Siberian. We had stocked up on food earlier in the day so all that remained was to have a shower, as we wouldn't see one again for three days, before we boarded the train
and headed off to Moscow.
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