Irkutsk was a funny place! In hindsight, I think we were a tad cautious there at first, a little niggle from having read that the only muggings reported outside of St Petersburg and Moscow were in Irkutsk, but it only ever really takes a day to feel familiar with a place, and once that happens the inhibitions one has about wandering aimlessly, finding shortcuts down backstreets and exploring busy local markets quickly disappear. Anyway, like I said, we were immediately entertained (that said, I'm sure Irkutsk is typical of many Russian, Siberian cities, but simply happened to be our first taste) by how incredibly hotch-potch and half-finished everything there is. Bits of pavement here and there, roads running into earth mounds and back into roads again, crumbling (and sinking, in some cases!) wooden shacks next to glass-fronted shops, and the people were a good reflection of the city-scape as well, with teenage girls stumbling along the half-finished pavements in new, four-inch heels, designer clothes and sunglasses, passing by the older generations, wearing the same, drab-coloured shirts and trousers or long dresses that they probably were twenty years previously.
However, Irkutsk was a stopping point for us, not for the city itself, but its proximity to Lake Baikal, 70km away and just over an hour in the marchutka (mini-bus) of a death-defying lunatic with no qualms about leaving mere millimetres to spare when conducting overtaking manoeuvres. So, after our first day relaxing and familiarising in Irkutsk, we headed for the lake. Right, some facts to astound you about Lake Baikal. A fifth, yes, that's twenty whole percent, of the world's fresh water! 636km long and 1637m deep. Also, not a place to swim for sufferers of vertigo, with a visible depth in places of about 40m (actually, not a place to swim for non-idiots in general, as it's bloody freezing). And home to over 1500 endemic species, including the nerpa, the world's only freshwater seal. We stayed based in Irkutsk and went there twice, the first day to amble around the local town, sample the local speciality, smoked omul fish (one of the aforementioned endemic species), and generally marvel at the views across the water, and the second day to trek up the coast and back for a few hours. I was surprised at how poorly marked, and at times precarious, the cliff edge paths of the "Great Baikal Trail" were, and was therefore not surprised when I found out a few days later that we hadn't actually been on the Great Baikal Trail! But it was fantastic. The fresh air and remoteness were hugely refreshing after two of Europe's largest cities and then four days in a packed train carriage, and the scenery was incredible. There's just something about a back-drop of snow-capped mountains to crystal blue waters (which reminded me very much of Lake Titicacca in Peru, the views across of the Bolivian side) and on the side we walking were narrow pebble beaches from which steep hills rose up, covered by the same spectacularly coloured autumn trees we'd been gazing at through the window of the train a couple of days earlier. If I ever catch up with the photos section of this blog, take a look at the pictures!
Hostel dorm-mates review, IF (International Friendship (how gay)) Hostel, Irkutsk: a quirky little hostel run by a friendly young guy called Max, who had basically converted his apartment into a hostel by sticking two matresses in one room, three (of the hardest and most uncomfortable) bunk beds into another, plus a further set of bunk beds in the living room, and then ingeniously giving it a "Communist apartment theme" which entailed putting a few posters of Stalin up in the kitchen and not modernising any of the facilities. Unfortunately, it also had a "male student cleanliness theme". The kitchen floor provided a feast for small creatures, and on one occasion I had to remove a cucumber from the fridge when I realised it was dripping (yes, that's right, a cucumber, that hard, crispy vegetable) onto our food on the shelf below. However, I digress, back to dorm-mates. Who were amongst our favourites to date, actually! A couple of Canadians, Robin the Swede, three Israeli country boys (Israel, tick), Lorrence from Switzerland (female) and a Slovenian guy (Slovenia, tick!). All really friendly people, not a single rotten apple in the barrel.
From Irkutsk, our (successfully deployed) plan was a day train (7 hours) to Ulan Ude, and then a further day there to sort out a bus for the following day to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital, the bus being far quicker than the train at the Russia-Mongolia border, one to two hours as opposed to between six and eleven! The Irkutsk to Ulan Ude train illustrated how lucky we'd been on our Moscow to Irkutsk leg, to have had such varied and pleasant travelling companions. A few too many overly tetchy, unfriendly or drunken (in a bad way) people trying to squeeze into too small a space, and we were very glad to see this leg of the trip completed!
Ulan Ude was a relatively brief experience, but interesting nonetheless. The ever-increasing proportion of Asian faces as we moved west to east across Russia peaked at about a third, Ulan Ude being the capital of the Buryatiya Republic, home to the 400,000 strong indigenous Buryat people, and the city seemed more to bridge the gap between Russia and Mongolia than be wholly Russian itself. It was a fairly laid back place, mirrored by the way we spent our time there, as we did little more than buy some food, check out the biggest statue of Lenin's head in Russia (and therefore probably the world), amble down the main street and get our bus tickets. Hostel dorm-mates review, GBT Hostel, Ulan Ude: a very nice German couple, Stephanie and Ronnie, who were on their last couple of days before flying home, and four older Polish people (two couples) shared what was basically a small house down a dirt track on the fringe of the town. One of the Polish blokes spoke some English, and if Harry Enfield or Paul Whitehouse ever created a Polish character it would be based on this man! Hugely confident of his actually fairly bad and very literally translated English, he repeatedly bellowed out the same sentences (including "good appetite" as we embarked on our meals, which took me a while to work out), not taking on board a word of our responses, and completely mixing up his tenses so that we had no idea whether he was telling us what they'd done yesterday or were planning on doing tomorrow. In the end, comedy won out over irritation and bewilderment, and I'm very glad we met him!