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Published: December 26th 2007
Cathedral of the Epiphany
The train from Ulan Bator to Irkutsk was tattier than the one in which I'd arrived in Mongolia, and the unexpected bonus of toilet roll in the loos and a towel in the linen package was offset by the surliness of the provodniks/provodnitsas (carriage attendants). There weren't many passengers in my carriage and in fact only 1 in my compartment - Tatiana, a Russian professor whose teaching time was split between Ulan Ude in Russia and Ulan Bator. She thrust cups of tea and cheese slices on me, but declined my offer of chocolate biscuits, saying that only children ate such things. Note to self - bring caviar for the next train and hide the instant noodles.
With a luggage limit for the entry into Russia, and a good proportion of the other passengers seemingly traders, there was a constant stream of visitors wanting to stow assorted pieces of merchandise in our compartment. Tatiana rebuffed all such requests with a firm "Nyet", explaining to me that pretending to be the owner of someone else's goods could cause trouble at the border.
Mongolian immigration passed without a hitch, with the exit stamp being plonked on the visa itself, thus preserving
Fur and heels
Standard Irkutsk female wear
increasingly scarce real estate in my passport. As we left Mongolia, a group of soldiers smartly saluted the train. The Russian side caused me a few palpitations. Recent changes to the regulations had meant you could now only apply for a tourist visa in your country of citizenship, though any embassy/consulate could use its discretion to ignore this (which had happened with me in Shanghai - I think it's such a cash cow that there was no way they would stop issuing visas there.) There was a discussion in Russian between two of the officials then I was asked where my visa had been issued. Fortunately that was the end of the matter.
The following morning, the train skirted the south end of Lake Baikal for about 200km, affording great views over its dark waters. Pub quiz addicts will know that Baikal is the world's deepest lake at just over a mile, and contains a fifth of the planet's non-frozen fresh water. Numerous sponges have spent millions of years keeping the water safe to drink, a process that various factories around the lake and on its feeder rivers are trying hard to reverse in just a couple of centuries.
Baikal is also a unique ecosystem containing thousands of species found nowhere else in the world.
Fierce breakers were rolling in to hit the lake shore, and the water's surface extended to the horizon. It's little wonder that ships' captains have to be qualified to sail the open seas in order to skipper on Baikal. With a snow covering up to the water's edge and trees standing leafless and spindly under a glum sky, the occasional pockets of wooden houses looked uninviting from the warmth of the train.
After Tatiana had disembarked at Ulan Ude, a Kazakh couple from the next compartment adopted me. Our initial contact occurred when they appeared at the door with a problem - despite only knowing the English for a few makes of car, they'd inexplicably purchased a video camera with English menus, English buttons, and an English manual. I set up the menus to be in Russian, which earned me 2 cold omul, a tasty fish from Lake Baikal. A chap from Tajikistan, who I also had no common language with, popped by to share the food. The Kazakhs then invited me in to their compartment for more omul and some chunks
Cathedral of the Epiphany
of what was described appetisingly on the packet as horse flesh. It's amazing what you can do with sign language and leaps of logic - by the end of our conversation, I'd been offered $10,000 to drive a Land Rover from the UK to Kazakhstan (where apparently they're prohibitively expensive), plus the husband had indicated that Kazakhstan was well worth a visit, being full of jaw-dropping scenery and curvaceous women constantly on the lookout for sexual favours (his gestures to convey this were unambiguous).
My arrival in Irkutsk immediately told me that I'd crossed the most significant ethnic boundary this year since flying in to Bangkok in January. Though there were still Asian faces, in particular a good number of Buryats (one of the indigenous Russian tribes of Mongolian descent), the blue eyes, blonde hair, and sharp features of a large proportion of the population spoke of Europe. People were on average taller than I've been used to for a while, the popular uniform of knee-length stiletto-heeled boots, short skirts, fur coats, and large fur hats making the women appear positively Amazonian. I was surprised by just how much fur, fake or otherwise, was being worn - whether it
be from a fashion or a warmth point of view, it would appear that a fleece and a North Face just won't do. Hats also seemed to be a must-wear.
My own features were sufficiently non-foreign to enable me to pass off as a local, though this was not necessarily an advantage as it led to a number of disappointed Russians who had approached me with some query but had been met with an apologetic shake of the head and a "No Russki". My first foray into a restaurant resulted in me being handed a menu in Cyrillic. I figured it would be an interesting exercise to try to read it but then assumed my transliteration must have been off beam as it appeared that the first 3 pages were all salads. I owned up to my non-Russianness and was handed an English menu. Whose first 3 pages were all salads.
Irkutsk itself was a great introduction to Russian cities. The combination of Western European stone architecture and Siberian wooden buildings, offset by some drab Soviet era blocks, was a pleasing one. With the snow gently falling through the glow of the streetlights and finding a temporary home
on the heads and shoulders of striding fur-clad figures, breath steaming in the sub-zero temperatures, the scene was exactly how I'd imagined a Siberian town in winter. The contrast with much of the last 10 months was enormous. And with the last few weeks having felt something like a bit of a slog at times, this was a welcome rejuvenation. On my first excursion from the hostel, the sight of a woman taking her (live) mink for a walk seemed a good omen.
Russia has a reputation for being expensive which turned out to be entirely justified. The hostel, like the other 3 in Irkutsk, was actually an apartment, with 2 private rooms, a 6 bed dorm, shared bathroom, and shared kitchen. One private room was occupied by a couple of long-termers, a Russian brother and sister who were studying in Irkutsk. Though I'd booked the other via the web, an administrative screw-up (difficult to imagine with so few beds to keep track of) meant it had been given to another traveller. I was left with the dorm, though was assured it would be mine alone and was given a small discount from the original $40 price (the most
My cabin in carriage 7
Train 5 Ulan Bator<->Moscow
I've ever paid in a hostel was $25 for an ensuite room). The kitchen doubled as the common room and the bathroom was bright, clean, and seemingly in possession of all the steamingly hot water that was missing from Ulan Bator. Like the train, and (as I was to discover) like most buildings here, the indoor temperature was bizarrely high, meaning you could happily wander around in a T-shirt and shorts before having to don 5 other layers in order to face the elements outside.
Internet access was also a wallet-emptier. The time component of the cost, at just over $2 per hour, was expensive but bearable however the bandwidth component could quadruple this or more. You didn't need to be uploading anything in order to incur this - simply browsing photo-heavy sites (such as Travelblog) was enough.
Food and drink continued the theme, being at London prices. I soon realised why the 2 Russians in the hostel had been unable to give me any good tips for where to eat out or which bars to drink in - they never did either activity as it was simply too expensive. I noticed that menus contained the weights of
As seen from the train
the ingredients of a dish, and the bill always came with a stick of chewing gum. I gave much of my custom to a cafe serving Brussels sprouts as their only non-potato vegetable, as such a policy should be encouraged. Visiting the central market, I was confronted by berries of all descriptions, potatoes by the million, pickled weirdness, and even pineapples looking totally out of place.
Gritting/salting/sanding seem to be unpopular here, meaning negotiating the pavements and roads called for caution. I shuffled around as though I was infirm yet still had numerous close calls to go with my one ungainly sprawl. I couldn't understand how the stiletto-heeled boots brigade was able to stride around with such confidence. One cold weather-related tip - always make sure your hair is dry before venturing outside.
Russians have a reputation for being miserable and fond of a drink, two characteristics not entirely unconnected with my own personality, however the stereotype seemed to have forgotten to mention that they are also helpful, even if assistance won't necessarily come with a smile. Somewhere between China and Western Europe, spitting becomes unacceptable however frequent evidence indicated that I hadn't yet reached that point. And
to my disappointment, but no great surprise, there is a smoking continuum stretching from the North Atlantic to the China Sea. The local cats were as wary as any I'd met in Asia but here they had evolved perfectly for the conditions, with shaggy coats and enough bulk to make a Siberian tiger think twice.
There are several reasons why people come to Irkutsk. The main one is to use it as a base from which to see Lake Baikal. Having seen something of the lake from the train, then hearing another traveller's description of his recent visit as being nothing special, then listening to the hostel manager waxing about how brilliant it is - in June - I decided to give it a miss. Secondly, there are pleasant churches and residential buildings around the city that explain why Irkutsk used to be called the Paris of the East.
And thirdly Irkutsk has historical significance due to its role in the exile system. In the 17th century in Russia, criminals would be punished for their misdemeanours (which, like in many countries of the time, could be of the most trivial nature) before being banished. Siberia was an appropriate
As seen from the train
place for this banishment because it was so remote from Moscow - this remoteness was the main reason for it being chosen, not the extreme weather conditions and terrain. With the discovery of mineral riches in Siberia and a shortage of labour to exploit those resources, exile itself became a punishment for certain crimes and the miscreants were force-marched to the mines with little concern for their health and safety either en route or once they'd reached their destination. Thousands died.
It should be noted that this brutal system of hard labour, though abolished in 1900, was resurrected by Stalin just 3 decades later and became the basis of the largest genocide in human history.
Political dissidents were also exiled but their treatment was generally better than for other prisoners. Many came from aristocratic families and their lives continued in Siberia in much the same way as back in Moscow or St Petersburg. As Siberia's administrative capital, Irkutsk was the destination of many of these dissidents, the most famous of whom were the Decembrists who were behind a failed coup in 1825. Two of their houses have been turned into museums however both were undergoing renovation when I
Fishy gift from my Kazakh carriage-mates
attempted to visit.
One of Russia's top trains is reputedly the Baikal service running from Irkutsk to Moscow (and passing through my next intended destination Krasnoyarsk), however even in supposedly the low season and with several days' notice I was unable to get a berth on it. Thus I was forced to take a train that did not have the luxuries of a twice-daily hoovering or a (possibly apocryphal) shower. The crumb count would therefore have to be kept to a minimum.
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