Transsiberian Part 8 - Irkutsk, Listvyanka and Baikal
We pull into Irkutsk at around 9pm local time. The provodnitsa asks if we are just friends or family, pointing to her finger, miming ring. This small exchange was handled very well by Katie but it does sort of show how traditional Russia still is. It's dark and we manage to work out our provodnitsa is asking where we be going to next. We tell her and she seems pretty excited on our behalf. Most of the train staff, like many of the Russians we've met, are fairly serious in that cliched sense but occasionally they drop their guard.
Our taxi driver is already waiting. It seemed like the right idea to just get to the hostel quickly when it's dark and we are knackered. Like the first hostel we stayed at, this one is well hidden, on the third floor of a nondescript concrete block. The entrance is around the back, behind a steel door with only one small sign to announce it's presence. This, coupled the taxi (which has a massive crack in the middle of the windscreen) gives me a little bit of the fear. However, once inside, everything is quite lovely. The internet is pretty much borked, but we set to work doing all our washing!
It's about half-way through the trip and we have run out of clean clothes. Pretty much the first thing we do is to figure out the washing machine and immediately run two massive stacks of clothes through it, hanging them up wherever we can find. We aren't staying in Irkutsk for long, though we'll be returning in two days. With all that done, it's shower time and bed. Yet again, it seems the only other tourists we've met are French couples. Another pair are staying at the hostel. Being typically British I'm very polite and don't say too much!
In the morning we leave a bag of clothes with the hostel, taking with us all the ones the need to dry. We are on our way out of town, towards Listvyanka; about 65km or so, on the shores of Lake Baikal. To get there we opt for a Marshrutka - a sort of minibus crossed with a shared taxi - and head out the market carpark where they can be found. The market itself reminds me of Longsight Market in Manchester; I.e a little rough and with the occasional character around. I'll come back to this comparison later I think.
I've never heard of a Marshrutka before but apparently they are popular forms of transport in various parts of the world. What you do is take a mini-van or something a bit larger, then fit it out with seats and windows, then sit in a carpark and wait till it fills up with people going to where you are heading, then you drive off, occasionally stopping along the way to drop off or pickup. It cheap and efficient but a little nerve-wracking as I don't speak Russian, there are no advertised fares and the drivers drive too damn fast. They also seem to be unconcerned with large windscreen cracks and speed-bumps. Nevertheless you see a little bit more of Russian life by the kinds of people who get on. We actually meet our first British tourist since St Petersburg. Again, we exchange only a few words and site quietly on the bus.
Listvyanka is a small settlement just at the mouth of the Angara River that runs past Irkutsk into Lake Baikal. As we emerge from the trees and snow, we see a huge expanse of gleaming white ice, surrounded by misty mountains reaching up to a perfectly clear, azure sky. Through-out this trip we've had the bluest of blue skies, not to mention unseasonable warmth. However, thankfully, the lake is still frozen over. For the next two days we are staying in a small log cabin; part of a small compound of log buildings built by a lovely Russian chap and his friends and family.
It becomes clear that this really is the off-season for Listvyanka. Some things are closed whereas others are completely boarded up. The restaurants are all pretty empty and the roads are quiet. There is really only one road proper. The rest are dirt tracks that lead up into 3 or more small valleys in between the hills, which are still covered with snow, despite evidence that the melt is happening. We have a quick chat with a Polish couple who are just leaving to figure out where the best places are around town, then we head out onto the ice.
My first steps on the ice almost give me vertigo. The ice is clear but quickly looks black as you can see right into the depths. Lake Baikal is extremely clear and when it thaws, people do report vertigo when they go swimming. This passes quickly however and I'm amazed at all the shards and blocks of ice that are popping up everywhere. We have to pause halfway across the ice due to the passing of a hovercraft. Not only that but quad bikes and snow mobiles. Some people are out on ice skates but most are doing as we do, shuffling along gingerly. I'll let the photos speak for themselves; it's a unique experience!
Leaving the ice behind we wander around the town to find the famous Omul fish! Only found in Lake Baikal (I believe), this fish tastes quite like salmon when smoked and is delicious. By the end of the day, I've eaten Omul three times! We wander the town some more, taking in the sights and eating more Omul. Since it's clear, I attempt my first astro-photography shoot. About half the gear I've brought with me is for photography. I've 3 lenses, my D90 with remotes, batteries, charger and intervalometer, a point-and-shoot with batteries and charger, one portable tripod, one suction cup mount, two filters, one polarscope and my Vixen Polarie. Seems excessive I grant but there are a few things I want to try out that you can't really do in London.
We head out to the nearby church which I'm pleased to say, is all covered in snow. We setup the gear in the graveyard next door. The Vixen is basically a very accurate and weighty motor that allows you to track the stars. By lining it up with the polarscope, you can take deep field shots of interesting objects or landscapes without star trails. Lining up the scope with the celestial north pole is really quite tricky however and after a lot of faff, we manage to get it somewhat aligned. Using my laptop as a remote, I can pull off the images for a quick review. I manage to get a few nice shots of Cassiopeia and a refine the technique a little more. Hopefully, when we reach Ulan Bataar I'll have another chance to take some proper shots.
The following day we go dog-sledding! There is just enough snow left, further up the valley for this to work. It's a wonderful experience! We are told the dogs can only go for a short run, as they are pretty tired. Seems legit, given there are large patches of slush and ice that need to be contented with. Nevertheless, we get to tick off one more mark on our transport bingo sheet! So far we've had plane, train, trolley-bus, mini-van-thing and taxi. We've got tram, bicycle and boat yet to come (and possibly funicular railway)! Nearby is something called Retro-park; a collection of sculptures made from old engine parts.
The Baikal Museum lies further up the road back into Irkutsk, overlooking Port Baikal, where the Transsiberian used to enter a ferry to cross the lake rather than go around as it does now. The museum talks about the formation of the lake and includes both a submarine simulator and a small aquarium that includes the rather cute Nerpa Seal; the only freshwater seal in the world. It's clear from this museum and from Wikipedia, that Baikal is a uniquely impressive place, both aesthetically and scientifically.
We return to our lodgings and decide to do something rather Russian; take some booze into a Banya and natter for three or more hours! A Banya is basically a sauna. Key differences include birch twigs to scrub down with - kind of like using a loofah - and a set of felt hats to protect your head. Our host is more than happy to fire it up for us. It takes a while to stoke up as it's wood fired but it's totally worth the wait. After all the traveling, having a good deep, relaxing clean is just tht thing. Of course, there are massive buckets of cold water to throw on yourself in-between!
We leave Listvyanka the following day. On our way back to Irkutsk, we stop via the Taltsy museum. The driver almost misses the stop as he thought we said taxi not taltsi! This museum is outdoors; a collection of old wooden buildings from various parts of Siberia. They have been brought together and restored. Some function as a cafe or police station but most are there to house exhibits. Some of the buildings date back as far as the 17th century. The park includes a couple of churches (of course!) and half a fort. It's quite impressive and nice to see such things looked after.
Wooden buildings are indeed the thing in Irkutsk too, though in the city its a different affair. They do tell quite a story in themselves. Some show similar stylings to Chinese and Asian houses with the gables, fences and roofs. Others are in quite a state of disrepair whereas others have been restored. Most date from a similar time due to much of Irktusk burning down around 1870. The buildings give a wild wild east feel to the place, similar to Yekaterinburg only much more so.
I said that Irktusk market reminded me of Manchester. If I said Yekaterinburg was like a northern UK town, Irkutsk is 10 times that at least! In parts, the place is quite grim and run down, yet in others there are brand new shopping streets. Katie mentions the magic word: regeneration! Like many norther towns, Irkutsk is going through significant change but only in places. Looking across the river you see a broken down factory, a logging yard and little else, yet where we stand is all nicely paved and tidy. Walking through the town, you see a lot of graffitti, both good and bad. You see a lot of the youth on bikes, skate boards and even a few traceurs practicing butterfly kicks in the park! Perhaps it's simply the scale of the place compared to the mega-cities of Moscow and St Petersburg but I feel like there is a lot more going on under the grimy surface here.
Returning to our hostel we meet an American friend of the hostel staff. Being typically American, we are drawn into a conversation. We learn that this is the mildest winter in 20 years or so. When we did our research we were expecting temperatures of less than minus 10 degrees or more, and so packed accordingly with snow boots, thermals and all the rest. Rarely, has the temperature dropped below zero. All over the melt is beginning. Only when I was out late taking astro-photography shots did I feel the need for the boots. That said, all could change when we get to Ulan Bataar!