Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Hot and Sunny in Siberia - Irkutsk

The geezer who founded
Irkutsk 350 years ago
Once again, we had an interesting journey from Ekateringburg to Irkutsk, our longest trip so far of over 48 hours.  Once again, this journey warrants an entry of its own and I think is best written, with the benefit of a little perspective.

The first thing that struck us when we arrived in Irkutsk was that the weather was amazing.  It was hot and sunny and we were in the middle of Siberia! 

When you’re on the train you’re in a bit of a sealed bubble – on the newer trains the temperature is displayed in each carriage showing at 20-21.  No more, no less – the provodnista (the carriage attendant - usually female, always formidable- in charge of bedding, keeper of the samovar, and your mum for the duration of your journey, whatever your age) would not allow any variance from this.

Our driver, Daniel met us on the platform at Irkutsk station and basically led us to his car through the station at a million miles an hour, through hordes of people either waiting to catch a train, meet passengers, or provide taxi services.  We had been quite rested after our journey but Daniel managed to exhaust us in 10 minutes flat.  He packed us and our rucksacks into his car and shot off to the hotel.  He “helped” me on with my rucksack once we reached the hotel and clearly I wasn’t trying hard enough and he nearly yanked my arm out of its socket to put my rucksack on. 

Dog on the roof
Once we were checked into the hotel and Daniel had sped off again, we went up to our room to catch our breath.  We had a couple of hours before our walking tour of the city so had a shower and chilled for a bit.
Paul, whilst hanging out of the window having a sneaky fag, noticed that one of the apartments across from the hotel had various pets that seemed to live on the roof.  There were two dogs and three cats, with varying degrees of freedom, depending on species.  The dogs were confined to the (quite spacious) roof, whereas the cats (being cats) could climb up and down as they felt like it.  They all seemed happy enough, although it did make my heart skip a beat when one of the dogs ventured a little too close to the edge. 
A church - I apologise I cannot
for the life of me remember it's name
Micha was our guide for Irkutsk.  Once again, he spoke excellent English as a result of spending 8 years living outside Russia in England and New Zealand respectively.  He said he returned mainly because he was homesick, and after spending a few days in Irkutsk and nearby Lake Baikal, we can understand why.

Once again, Irkutsk does not seem to have much recent history, and the city itself is only 350 years old.  There are many squares and they have also started to develop around the riverbank, and the view across the river is amazing.  As I mentioned it was hot and sunny and there were lots of people enjoying the great weather on a Saturday afternoon.

Irkutsk also has many churches and a few cathedrals.  Most are rebuilt or restored.  They were either destroyed during the Soviet era, or closed as places of worship and used for a variety of purposes including (if my memory serves me right) a bakery and a blacksmiths.  Most have been rebuilt, or restored to their former glory (or where the damage was too great and too expensive to put right, restored as far as possible). 

The view across the river
through Irkutsk
There does seem to be a bottomless pit of money for rebuilding and restoring churches in Russia, and not much for restoring or replacing the closed factories which line the railway route.  Make your own mind up on that one. 

However, we were growing very weary of churches, it is clear they are ten a penny throughout Russia and in addition to those which survived the Soviet era, more are being built or rebuilt or restored (at huge expense and we question the morality of this in a country which is struggling economically).  By this stage and it was hard to muster up the required enthusiasm for even the most beautiful onion domed construction.

A trip on a trolley bus was the highlight of this city tour, even if we did miss our stop which resulted in us having to walk twice as far to the city museum than if we hadn’t bothered with the bus in the first place but it was a lovely day for a long walk.   Trolley buses, although ancient, are considered to be the safest mode of transport in Russia generally.  They have a limited speed and can’t venture far from their path so presumably any damage caused by them is contained.  They are also environmentally friendly, despite the fact that they look and feel like they should be in a museum (or on in a scrapyard). 

A traditional Russian wooden house
Trolley bus drivers on the other hand are a law unto themselves and unless you are ready to hop off during the 3 seconds that he stops his trolley, then you are stuck until he decides to stop again (as we discovered).  Still, we were able to take in the sights of the traditional wooden street that is almost complete, and is one of the newest attractions in Irkutsk.
The museum itself was very interesting.  Russia so far, has seemed to have a very short history.  St Petersburg is only a little over 300 years old and Moscow doesn’t seem to talk about any history before the Middle Ages.  Irkutsk does at least refer to a prehistoric era as there is much evidence that our human ancestors made their home in the area in and around Irkutsk. 

Beautiful morning sky over Irkutsk
Irkutsk museum although only very small, does provide Russian history in a bit of a nutshell.  However, without Micha to explain the exhibits, it would have taken a lot of guesswork on our part to follow everything as there was no information in English.

We returned to Irkutsk after our 3 days/2 nights at Lake Baikal (separate entry required), only really to take advantage of the best supermarket so far in Russia, with the friendliest shop assistant ever.  These things begin to count for a lot when venturing out to buy your cheese, bread and beer turns into an unpleasant ordeal.  We stocked up and had an early night before catching the train the next day to Ulan Ude.

When we got up at the unearthly hour of 5.30am to catch our train, this was the view from our hotel window.  The view itself wasn't much by the sky was incredible.  Another hot day in Siberia then! 



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