We checked into our hotel in Irkutsk early on Sunday morning (17th Oct) and enjoyed a blissful, long overdue shower! I'd convinced Charlie that we needed to treat ourselves after the long train ride, but a more expensive hotel means more expensive laundry fees, so it was pants and socks into the washbasin with the travel detergent... Don't let anyone say that i'm not doing this backpacking lark properly!
Despite being formerly known as the "Paris of Siberia", Irkutsk is a far cry from the elegant French capital. It's also a long way from wealthy Moscow (and not just in kilometres). Although the people seem a lot more laid back, Irkutsk is in need of some serious renovation. It is currently an awkward combination of the old - beautiful, wooden houses in the traditional Siberian style (which are sadly becoming derelict and failing to be preserved by the local administration) and the new(ish) - ugly concrete buildings in true communist style. There's one main drag in Irkutsk centre, Karl Marx street, which tries to resemble Moscow with its high fashion shops and high fashion girls (in the mandatory high, high heels), but it doesn't quite manage to pull it off and the rest of the city is distinctly provincial. Apparently, there used to be a beautiful cathedral in Irkutsk, but in one of his moods Stalin decided to knock it down and replace it with a dull grey regional administration building.
Not far from our hotel, there was a huge outdoor market with hundreds of traders all selling the same cheap goods (jeans, boots, bags, hats etc.) from their near identical stalls. Ten years ago, i'm sure it was all indigenous traditional fare but now its the same, cheap sweat shop fashions - although again, surprisingly, with no hard sell. The newest entrants to the market were running their stalls out of rows of shipping containers and half the guys were off huddled in a corner, gambling away their takings.
Neither of us were particularly enamoured with the city, so on Monday we decided to head to Lake Baikal (largest freshwater lake in the world) and to spend a few days on remote Olkhon island. During the winter, the lake freezes over and the island can actually be reached on foot, but (luckily for me) we were going in tropical autumn weather and temperatures were only just hitting freezing...
We opted for a minibus on this occasion and, as expected, it was an education. We were crammed in like sardines for the 6-hour journey with various locals visiting relatives on the island or transporting goods over for sale. Every so often we would pick up another passenger in the middle of nowhere and then drop them off again in an equally desolate spot. The minibuses seem to be the only means of transport between remote villages in this area. At one point, we picked up a young Buryat guy (indigenous population) with a nasty black eye and wondered what to expect next. In fact, he was extremely respectful and spoke animatedly in Russian to another woman on the bus until he got off ten minutes later. Apparently, he was one of the local people who could build the wooden houses that we saw dotted across the landscape and she had offered to put some business his way. They had been strangers up to this moment - it was fascinating.
On another occasion, we stopped for a short break at a roadside cafe (rickety old hut with nothing else for miles). After delicious pancakes and a much needed cuppa, we were back on the bus waiting to leave but apparently missing a woman and her three kids. On investigation, the driver returned to the bus saying that they wouldn't be joining us after all - she lived there but had forgotten to tell us...
Aside from the in-bus entertainment, the journey was a perfect way get a glimpse of some of the Siberian countryside. We've been really lucky with the weather so far and this was no exception - it was a stunning autumn day with bright blue skies and a crisp (freezing) cold. From the warmth of the minibus, the scenery looked like wild west Arizona - huge tracts of sun bleached, dry brown grasslands with herds of cows wandering unrestricted and unattended. However, all thoughts of the hot desert quickly disappeared as soon as we opened the door for another passenger and Siberian winter popped it's head around the corner...
Tarmac roads turned into dirt tracks the nearer we got to Olkhon and it was surprising that the minibus had any suspension left after it's daily trips back and forth. Meanwhile, i was glad i'd worn the travel bands! After a short ferry crossing we finally made it over to the Island, which is about 70km long and with around 1500 population. I spoke to a women on our bus during the crossing and it seems they've only had electricity for the last five years, but still no running water...She pointed to the general lack of financial resources for this region of Siberia and seemed quite critical of the fact that everything was being invested in Moscow and nothing was being allocated to the cities outside.
We spent three very relaxing days on the Island, which has amazing views of the lake and a great sense of calm and tranquility (not something I'm generally known for).
We stayed in a great place - Nikita's Homestead - which has single handedly created a tourism industry for the main town, Khuzir. It is run by Nikita, a Russian table tennis champion from the 1980s (Charlie says: think Desmond Douglas running a boutique climbing lodge in Snowdonia). It is basically an eco-camp with wooden cabins (for up to 100 people in the summer), a dining hall, bar, banya (Russian sauna/bath) and, of course, table tennis! As there is no running water on the site, we were showering with buckets of hot water and even sluicing out our own toilet with a bucket (please bear in mind this is coming from someone who's never been camping before...!)
The best day was our trip up to the north of island which involved another crazy minibus ride, numerous photo stops and an outdoor picnic lunch (yes, in Siberian winter...) One of the stops was at the ruins of a gulag prison-camp/fish processing plant. Both of us had just finished reading "A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich", so the harsh (and freezing) misery of the daily prisoner's routine was still front of mind. Standing amongst the ruined huts, it was hard to imagine how any of the thousands of inmates had survived these conditions.
At the most northern point, we also spent time taking in the views from Cape Khoboy as well as trying to absorb some of the positive shamanic energy (Olkhon Island is considered to be one of 5 global poles). There is a tradition in shamanism which is said to bring luck by tearing a piece of material and tying it to a tree or pole (the Island is covered in strips of brightly coloured cloth fluttering in the wind). Charlie found a tiny swatch of our wedding material in his wallet, so we added it to the others and had our marriage officially blessed by the Lake Baikal spirits. Note: the French chap on the trip cut a strip off his pants and tied that on, so heaven knows which bits of him they are now blessing!
Charlie and I have made a note to look more into Shamanism as we go as it seems to have quite a strong presence in this part of the world.
Last but not least, how can I forget Charlie's dip into Lake Baikal....My crazy husband believed the suggestion that taking a swim in the lake extends your life by ten years and decided to get his kit off. I have video evidence...
So, after a fabulous few days in the great outdoors we made the hairy minibus trip back to Irkutsk (this time carrying fresh fish from the lake as well as other random packages from across the island) and spent the night at the friendly Baikaler hostel.
Today (23rd Oct) we had to be up at 4am to catch our onward train to Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia. We arrive on the 24th and will be staying there for a few days before carrying on to Beijing.
So, as we settle into our new train cabin and prepare for a quick game of Backgammon over breakfast, we say "dah svee dan yah" to Russia and look forward to our next destination. Sadly, we haven't quite managed to learn Mongolian yet...
Love to all,