Domestic Bliss in East Siberia
We arrived at Irkutsk train station at 4.30 in the morning. Not only were we slightly alarmed to find out that there is more than one 4 o’clock in a day, it was also rather bracing -15 outside. Although it didn’t feel amazingly cold initially due to the lack of wind, in terms of numbers, this is the coldest temperature either of us have experienced. We were soon to find out that to the Siberians, this is practically shorts and t-shirt weather.
After around a ten minute walk we found our hostel – only to be stood there for 20 minutes ringing the bell with no reply. 24 hour reception my arse. Just as hypothermia was about to set in, we made the executive decision to go back to the train station waiting room and wait there for a few hours. Frank and Lia were still their due to their hostel not allowing them to to check in, or even dump their bags or wait in the common room, till midday. All four of us had had our first taste of the famous Siberian hospitality.
We tried our hostel again at about 8.30. After about 10 minutes of ringing the bell, we were about to give up, when we eventually got buzzed in by our bleary eyed host. Turn’s out they were in all the time – just heavy sleepers apparently. The hostel was basically a nice 3 bedroom flat (1 dorm and 2 privates) that belonged to our hosts Dasha and Anton. We later found that during peak season, they just employed a couple of girls to run the hostel and lived elsewhere, but off season, they closed down the dorm and moved in themselves, just renting out one private room. Dasha was the one who sleepily and apologetically greeted us, sitting us down and feeding us a nutritious breakfast of various home made birthday cakes. It was their little girls birthday the day before, and the whole hose was strewn with balloons and cake. I would hazard a guess that the reason for our difficult entry was that Anton and Dasha had overdone the “birthday cake” at the party.
Our hosts were really affable, and made us feel instantly comfortable in what was essentially, their home. They gave the impression that you could totally keep yourself to yourself, or sit with them bending their ear all day, and they wouldn’t mind either way. Although they were very nice to us, we did detect some very fraught underlying tensions in the relationship It turns out Anton runs his own adventure tour company Baikal adventures (http://baikal-adventure.com/). He was born and bread in the region and you could tell that he was bound inseparably to his work and the great outdoors in which he thrived. Anytime we ate or passed through the living area, he would show us some of his promotional videos, laughing to himself as he watched and always pre-empting what was about to happen, by telling us, what was about to happen. In these situations, the couple would constantly bicker in Russian, smiling falsely hoping in vain that we may think they were just convivially discussing the weather or something. We’re pretty sure the bickering was around the fact that Anton spends half the year away taking tourists on adventures, only to spend the rest of his time at home, watching videos of said adventures. Anton we guessed was responding with something about being the breadwinner, or putting food on the table… They may of just been arguing about who’s turn it was to put the bins out, but is was a good game to play nonetheless, and I’d put a few quid on our assumptions being correct anyway. Anton and Dasha also had a lovely but rather weird dog that like to slowly and submissively crawl up to you for a stroke and a tickle. (Note – Anton’s videos on the web and youtube are worth a look, he does everything from Ice climbing to kayaking – pretty amazing work if you can get it. Tours are expensive but would be great to do one day)
Irkutsk itself was an experience. And at times, not a particularly pleasant one. As we walked into the city centre from our hostel – we were initially greeted by what looks like a thriving, modern, 21st century city – situated on the big, healthy looking Angara river. What we soon found as we got under the surface was quite a large rich – poor divide, and what appeared to be a serious general alcohol problem. There’s a University in Irkutsk, and at times the place had a fairly buzzing student vibe, but then just round the corner there would be groups of haggered drunk looking guys, and dodgy looking folk trying to sell various dodgy items on street corners. At one time we were sat down checking the map when a drunk guy came up to us, shouted something grumpily in Russian, and then proceeded to have a massive wee all over the floor right next to us.
You’d think they would see a fair few tourists in Irkutsk, especially as tourism at lake Baikal grows every year, however you’d of thought we were walking around naked with the amount of stares and whispers we got mooching around town, even without all our rucksacks. It was strange, as we couldn’t think what looked so strange about us, as we are white and western looking like most of the population (apart from the Buryats and Mongolians) and our clothes didn’t seem particularly outlandish or different. We obviously stuck out like sore thumbs though.
The modern developments in the city were all pretty ugly, whilst there were some impressive Soviet era government buildings (The two main streets in the city are Karl Marx street and Lenin street). The stars of the show were the traditional Siberian wooden buildings. It’s a shame the most of them seemed to be falling apart, but the wide dusty streets and wooden buildings gave the place a bizarre wild west feel. The mix of streets lined with disheveled once masterly crafted, wooden buildings, bookended with concrete hotels and restaurants was a very strange sight to behold. We wanted to visit the Taltsy outdoor museum of Traditional Siberian wooden architecture, but couldn’t find it and ran out of time. The rest of Irkutsk’s tourist trade seems to be solely based the cities claim to the title of ‘tea capital of Russia’. Up until the mid 20th century, nearly all tea imported into Russia from China along the tea roads, came through Irkusk, where it was distributed around the country. Surprisingly (to me at least) we have found during our time there, that the Russians are as big, if not bigger, on tea than the English. They love a brew, although they are prone to doing weird things like plopping jam in it.
Irkutsk was an interesting place to visit, but I can’t say we were too sad get on our minibus to Listvyanka and lake Baikal. Little 20-30 year old Korean minivans seem to be on of the primary methods of public transport around (and out of) the city. There are certain points n the city where they hang out, with a little sign in the window denoting destination. They wait till all 8-10 seats are filled then shoot off recklessly onto the apparently lawless roads and highways.
Other things we have learned about Irkutsk:
Sardines. Sardines in a can to be precise No matter what time of day, the various minibuses, buses, and trams that hurtle around the city always seem to be packed to bursting with all ages, grumpily bashing into one another. The trams are particularly bone shaking.
Goodbye cruel world. I don’t think the locals are that fond of Irkutsk, as one of them indicated quite strongly by hurling himself off the bridge into the Icy Angara. We saw the emergency services zooming towards some kids playing under the bridge. We thought this seemed like an extreme response to kids having fun, until we saw them putting a very damp and cold guy in an ambulance. We then saw witnesses showing the police where he flung himself off the bridge.
Rush hour 5. The level of danger and carnage on the streets at rush hour make the perils encounters by Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, in the ludicrous 90’s blockbusters of the same name, seem comparatively pedestrian.
Irkutsk, Siberia, Russian Federation
23/03/2013 – 25/03/2015
See previous post for the first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey