Water, water everywhere and most of it to drink!

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August 18th 2019
Published: August 18th 2019
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Lake Baikal - Water, water everywhere and most of it to drink!

Day 21 to 23 of 80

Irkutsk is a fairly compact city. Thursday and Friday we were able to walk from sight to sight without stretching ourselves too much at all.

After our self orientation on Thursday we had booked, for Friday, a free walking tour. We use these quite a lot, and most are very good, but we do get the occasional bummer. Friday's was not one of the best.

Our tour guide, Maria, a primary school teacher of special needs children, was doing this - her first season - during the summer break. Her English was OK. .. whilst it was on script. I know, we can't speak Russian, but nor are we getting paid for our Russian language skills.

Add to that, she told us almost nothing about several of the key places we visited and even less about Irkutsk's history.

Irkutsk is very well geared for tourists. The Tourist Office we visited was excellent with some great books and leaflets. There are display boards at dozens of locations and around 30 of the most important locations are routed by a green line painted, for around 7 km, on the pavement. We point this out because, effectively, we would have been as well off, probably better, just doing that route for a couple of hours.

But back to Maria's tour. Some titbits we did pick up:
- Fidel Castro visited the city in 1963, which would not have been long after the Cuban missile crisis. He was given a young brown bear as a gift, which he took back to Cuba with him .... in a cage, presumably, not as a fellow cabin passenger.

- Eisenhower was due to visit in 1960, so a major public square, Kirov Square, was given a complete makeover; the tarmac was ripped up and new flower beds, mature trees and a stonking fountain were installed (and today it looks very nice too, full of pattern-planted summer bedding that would do an english Civic Parks gardener proud). However, turned out he didn't visit after all. Interestingly, though, as part of the same narrative, Maria talked of a rumoured Eisenhower scandal involving a local Russian lady and an, eventual, daughter. But how? if he didn't come, so to speak?

- The wooden buildings that populate Irkutsk streets have no internal water, or toilets. Water is obtained from hand-pumped standpipes outside blocks of houses.

Maria's tour over we visited the Museum of City Life, coupled with the Tea Museum. The former had little English on its displays, the Tea Museum even less. The former was full of turn of the century, as in 19th going into 20th, furniture for prosperous pre-revolution city socialites. The Tea Museum, despite its no English was more interesting with displays of tea wrappers with wonderful graphics, and over the top samovars.

Outside, a flag decked area celebrates places around the world that Irkutsk is twinned with including Vilnius and Ulaanbaatar. We also walked around, outside, The Lace House, a highly decorated example of Irkutsk wooden architecture, with richly decorated and carved shutters and roof/eaves fitments.

Just a quick aside - we have seen several examples of the downside of wooden hut living. We must have passed a good handful of huts that have clearly been subject to a habital ending fire. Not helped by having no water on the premises.

We ate at a 'Siberian' restaurant that evening. Nothing special. Pip had borscht for the 3rd time. And was disappointed for the 3rd time. If we were making it at home it would be a distinctively beetroot soup, beetroot as the main ingredient. So far each of her's have been more of a potato and onion soup coloured lightly pink.

The restaurant is in an area known as 130th District, an area to which, allegedly, they have relocated a number of wooden houses into a concentrated area of bars, restaurants and shops. It's reality is somewhat different. Most of the buildings are actually new build stone and brick along the upper side. The lower road has some wood construction but on brick bases. All VERY touristy.

At its entrance is a statue of a mythical beast, a Babr, a tiger-like animal, carrying a sable in its mouth. This is the symbol of Irkutsk and we have seen it in many places, including man-hole covers.

One of our main reasons we chose to stop at Irkutsk was its proximity to Lake Baikal. We say 'proximity' - it's still 70km away - so on Saturday we set off on one of those local minibuses - 140 rubles each way, about £1.80, for 70km! - to Listvyanka on the lake shore.

Lake Baikal, at 395 miles long, max width 49 miles, is the largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. It contains 23% of the world's fresh surface water. Its formation has a lot to do with this in that it is essentially a flooded rift valley. Its average depth is 2442 feet, greatest depth 5387 feet, putting the lake bottom nearly 4000 feet below sea level. But below this is 4.3 miles of sediment, so the actual bottom of the rift is nearly 7 miles below sea level, the deepest continental rift on earth. The rift is still active, pulling apart at 2cm per year. There are also hot springs, not that they make any difference to the lake's temperature which barely gets above 10°C.

It contains more water than the North American Great Lakes combined. And although over 300 rivers, streams and other sources flow into the Lake there is only one river flowing out, the Angara River which flows north, through Irkutsk and onwards to enter ocean on Russia's northern shore. This does, however, mean that Irkutsk, by means of an hydroelectric dam on its southern edge, gets its electricity cheap.

The water is also very pure and clean, visibility in the winter up to 100 metres or so. Mind you, you would have to battle through a metre of ice to see it. The lake freezes over January to May, though the 'season' is getting shorter. They even prepare an ice road, good up to 10 tons, across to the island in the lake. Unlike many lakes the water is not stratified into layers according to depth. The geological activity, with slight bottom warming - oh, matron - means the water gets turned over, bottom to top, keeping oxygen levels high throughout.

They have been able to keep it pollution free. There is/was a paper mill on its shores, discharging waste, but it has failed to be profitable, twice, and closed some years ago.

At 25 to 30 million years old it is also considered the oldest lake in the world.

So that's the interesting and sciencey part, what about the visit.

We should temper our comments by saying that it was a miserable weather day. Raining when we left Irkutsk but with a weather forecast saying 'No rain' at Listvyanka on the shore. But weather report lies. It was raining there too.

It gave Listvyanka all the charm of Skeggy on a wet Monday, but with none of the brash charms of the North Sea coastal favourite. This was not helped by lack of footpath in areas, enormous puddles and fast cars.

We walked around a couple of markets, stuffed to the gills with the local delicacy, smoked fish, which smelt really delicious if looking somewhat fine-boney. Mostly grayling and nelma but also Baikal Omul, a trout like fish native to the lake and subject to restricted catch laws.

We also visited the Nerpinary to see Baikal Seals, the world's only freshwater seal species. Now, we have lived in Norfolk and now in Devon both of which have/close to renowned seal sanctuaries and I guess we expected something of the same. We should have done more research because it was actually a pair of seals performing tricks to music to a vaguely pirate's treasure theme. Yes, very well trained but trained, captive animals nevertheless.

Beyond the far end of Listvyanka there is apparently the Baikal Trail, a 50km hiking coastal path through the National Park that is supposed
Yuri Gagarin Yuri Gagarin Yuri Gagarin

Though he has no link at all to Irkutsk
to be very nice ... but in nice weather, not the continuing rain we had. Now, there is a member of our family that would probably say 'So what, bugger the weather' and carry on to the trail regardless. But that family member is neither of the two that are actually here 😊. So we ducked out early and returned to Irkutsk by mid afternoon.

This gave us the opportunity to bring into Saturday something that we had planned for Sunday ... a visit to one of the Decembrists museums.

The Decembrists were members of the Russian nobility who organised an uprising against the Tsar in December 1825. They failed. Many were executed, others sent into hard Siberian labour before exile to Irkutsk.

The museum we visited was the home of Prince Volkonsky. The wives/families followed their husbands and this museum showcases family life. Now, ok, they were exiled, 5000+km from home, limited in who and how they could contact old friends, etc, but if this house is anything to go by it was still a pretty good living, judging by the fine furnishings, musical instruments, clothing and general accoutrements of this house, surrounded by 2.5 acres of land.

Our last day in Irkutsk, Sunday, was packed with visiting those places we hadn't seen yet. So that was 3 churches, 1 Monastery, several statues, a tank and a rocket launcher - all tied together by the little matter of 15 km of walking.

First up, the tank, the Irkutsky Komsomolets Tank, dating from WWII, or The Great Patriotic War as Russia's involvement from 1941 to 1945 is called in these parts. Given pride of place on a concrete slab at some random road intersection around 2km from the town centre.

Then on to the Kazan Church - via a photo-opportunity stop at the 'Statue in Honour of the Decembrists Wives'. The Kazan Church is a photo dream. Built in 1892 it is a vision in terracotta and blue, cake-shaped and quite exotic gardens around (except for the exceptionally smelly, small animal cages around the back holding birds, a pygmy goat and a white stoat).

Closed in 1936, during the Soviet era, it was restored in the 1980/90s and is now one of the most beautiful churches in the city. Surrounded by suburban and industrial drek, it is stunning both inside and out, though this was a little difficult to see as our visit coincided with both main Sunday service and three coachloads of Chinese tourists.

A not terribly pleasant walk along an industrial and car repair road bought us to Our Lady of the Sign (Znamensky) Monastery, one of the oldest monastic complexes in Siberia, built in Siberian Baroque style in 1689. Like many religious buildings this was also repurposed in the 1920s, in this case into a hydroplane base. The gardens contain graves of some eminent people, including 3 Decembrists, and Rasputin - no, not that one, he died in St Petersburg, remember! This was Valentin Rasputin, a noted 20th C Russian writer. But, in reality, in the scheme of things it was not the nicest church/complex we have visited here and we would have probably saved ourselves 5km and half a dozen mozzie bites each. It was very fly ridden close to the river.

Nearby was a monument to Alexander Kolchak, a Russian admiral and polar explorer who served in the Imperial Russian Navy. During the Russian Civil War, ie the Revolution, he set up an anti-communist government in Siberia and was seen as the leader of the White
Pine resin Gum anyone?Pine resin Gum anyone?Pine resin Gum anyone?

Maria gave us this. It was not pleasant
Movement ie the anti-Reds. For nearly 2 years, Kolchak was Russia's internationally-recognised head of state (1918-1920), but his refusal to co-operate with the non-Bolshevik leftists only helped bolster the Red's morale and he was labelled a "Western Puppet". As his White forces fell apart he was betrayed and captured, imprisoned, then executed Feb 1920 on the banks of the river.

A stroll along the bank of the River Angara, past Russian families and young army soldiers looking as if on a leave day, took us back into town for another coffee, another church and a late afternoon rest up before our final Russia meal this evening.

Tomorrow morning we board our new train for the 24 hour/overnight journey to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Some time today, Pip "Sky looks a bit grey over there or...", taking off her glasses and holding them up to the sky "is it my glasses that need cleaning?"

Paul "Or maybe it's just your reaction lenses!"

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