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Published: March 10th 2019
R: To recap; we were in Irkutsk for a single day. It was raining. We were on a tram into the centre of town. It was pretty drab. Most of the roads appeared partially destroyed, and if not, flooded. Richard and I looked at each other, both wanting to maintain a positivity while each wondering what we would do to spend the day here. We made a bee-line for the bus terminal where Marshrutkas collect. We had decided we wanted to see Lake Baikal - the largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world, and is the rift lake where Russia will one day divide. We got to the bus station about 5 minutes before the departure of the next Marshrutka and we quickly found tickets then made it out to the mass of similar looking minivans on the station forecourt. We found the right one and jumped on board. Inside the walls were covered in colourful fabric and tassels and there loud Russian Pop music pumping out. We made an additional stop in town before heading to Listvyanka, a small town on the side of the lake shore. The minibus went at break neck speed and I think we were
lucky to be facing backwards on this trip. The bus dropped us off amongst an area of small huts with metal roofs. There was sort of a dock area near the bus station so we headed towards that through a sort of tat-market.
Feeling hungry, we entered a port-a-cabin type set-up which was selling blinis, or pancakes. Unable to really communicate what we wanted, we ordered blinis by numbers (something we had managed to learn in Russian) but there was no menu, and was really just a collection of tables and a serving bar. The blinis were cooked fresh to order so we sat out and waited. The lady who owned the shop was extremely friendly and tried to point out things to do in town. The pancakes were delicious and came with jam and coffee in a glass mug. From here we headed to tourist information to get a map - which was a shame as they didn't have any. We asked for some help and they were reticent to give us that either. We did however manage to book on a boat tour of the lake, providing enough people showed up, which looking around the town, was
going to be unlikely.
We filled the time by having a stroll around some of the palatial sized lake houses set amongst tumble down houses, all of it painted in bright colours and with huge gardens. We also managed to find an active convent. There was the possibility of a seal show if we wanted in what looked like an upside down metal bucket - but we decided they probably wouldnt be the best cared for so we moved on. Then it was time for the obligatory paddle in Lake Baikal - which by the way, was freezing! It had only been unfrozen for a few weeks we heard, and you could tell. I regained the feeling in my feet then we had lunch of Omul Shasklik - a fish that is only found in Lake Baikal that tasted a bit like trout. The whole menu was centred around Omul - there was Omul steak, Omul kebab, Omul pasta. We chose the restaurant based on its position overlooking the whole lake. The food and beer was good and then we headed over for our boat tour - which had been cancelled due to there only being two bookings! We
did manage to get onto a glass bottom boat tour instead, which was on a noisy smelly boat that scared all the fish away. But we did get great views of the sponges, tyres and cables that were under the water by the coast line. The guide was relatively unhappy to be made to speak English and didn't really attempt to hide this but did still insist on a tip. They also dunked a bucket into the water and pulled some up, inviting us to drink it. This didn't seem to be optional so we did so reluctantly and tried not to think about what the boat had put back into the lake today. The lake is stunning and was well worth the trip - we would be going around the other side of the lake later by train, but it would be dark, so we were really happy we had bothered to come down.
We took the reverse journey back to Irkutsk, Richard having a doze along the way which was probably for the best as it was quite frankly terrifying and we were facing forward this time. The sun was out now, which seemed to transform the
town. It turns out to be a very sweet central area, with lots of wooden painted buildings, churches, cathedrals and attractive gardens. We made a bit of a walking tour including to Bogoyavlenski Cathedral and Moscow Arch before pausing for a while in a central park, now bathed in sunshine and filled with people out enjoying themselves. It really was a nice place to visit and totally different to what we had seen that morning.
We had coffee at a little place on Lenin Street (I have to admit, as we wanted to use the WiFi having been off-grid for about 4 days now). I managed to throw my mug in the bin then struggled to fish it out and Richard fell over and landed on the floor. Overall, we embarrassed ourselves fully in this relatively "hipster" type coffee bar and retreated. I had researched something special for dinner - so we meandered there, passing through a locals art market on the way and some of it was quite good! (Others were not!)
Where I had selected for dinner was a place called Rasolnik - a retro place that was set in the Soviet era. There were old
TVs on the wall showing Soviet soaps, crystal glassware that would look in place in my Grandmother's house. The food was soviet inspired - though only loosely - I had lamb meatballs and fried cabbage and we had a bottle of wine. We savoured the food and wine as it was better than anything we would get on the train, and was served with more smiles than our friendly vampire companion.
Talking of the train; It was time to leave. All day there had been trams running up and down the main street which went to the station so we had left next to no time to get back to the station, having chosen to stroll along the Angara river front, packed with people on roller blades, skateboards and bikes out enjoying sunset. This made the next bit uncomfortable. There were no trams, with no explanation whatsoever and apparently no taxis either. We had to start to jog not wanting to get trapped in Russia overnight. (Russian visas are dated and if you overstay the date you have provided, this can cause problems when leaving the country). It was 2km to the station which was quite an effort at
this temperature. We decided to separate as I was slightly quicker than Richard - I took the key to left luggage and went to collect our bags from the station, arranging to meet Richard on the platform. As I ran I contemplated what we would actually do if this didn't work. I got to the station about 7 minutes before the train's departure. Thankfully there wasn't a large queue at the baggage window so then ran through the station to the platform carrying all the bags, all the time looking over my shoulder for Richard.
We managed to climb aboard the train, sweaty and hot - which looked exactly the same as the last one and just as hot as the last one - with about 2 minutes to spare. Thankfully, or perhaps unthankfully, this carriage was filled with extremely elderly French tourists who weren't physically able to climb the steep steps up onto the train which had slowed it down. They would provide entertainment for the next day or so as we headed for the border with Mongolia.
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