Sleepless in Siberia

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Russia  , Siberia,
Wednesday, September 19, 2012

We arrived in Irkutsk expecting a sleepy little town in the wild grasslands of Siberia, but what we got was a dank grey city full of traffic and offices. Oh!

We made our way to our hostel and having had a sleepless night worrying about whether we were on the right time zone or whether we would wake up we were delighted to make it to our hostel and to be given our room immediately.  We crashed out and got some much needed sleep before setting off to explore the town in the hope that our first impressions were wrong.  We woke up and realised that we had seemingly misread the advert when we booked the 'Transiberian Hostel', and we were actually staying in the ‘Transiberian Hovel’!  This hostel was a vast change from the lovely Ivan Hostel in Moscow and the luxury of our first class train carriage.  The hostel was actually just someone’s flat and they were letting out their bedrooms and calling it a hostel.  The place was filthy and they had the cheek to make us take our shoes off at the door.  The real horror was the bedding, one scabby flat pillow, a flat sheet that was smaller than the mattress, a duvet cover with no duvet and a scratchy blanket that has never seen a washing machine.  Just to add insult to injury the towel we were given for the shower was basically a flannel, we won’t be walking through the hostel wearing that then!  Needless to say we were not going to have the most comfortable 5 nights here, but as all we had to do was sleep there we were sure it would be ok.

We set off to explore Irkutsk and the staff at the hostel didn’t have a map and gave us the wrong tram number so we ended up walking into the town trying to find the tourist information, we knew that there were only 2 things we wanted to do here so luckily we had time to bimble round and find our feet.  We wanted to find out how to get to the local town of Listvanyanka which lies on Lake Baikal and we also wanted to book a train journey which travels on an old disused train track along the lake.  How hard could this be?  After 5 hours of walking in circles and finding not even a hint of a tourist information office we gave up and found some dinner.  Even this turned out to be disappointing as Tim’s pizza came on a filo pastry base, interesting!  So having spent a day exploring and achieved nothing we headed back to the hovel, I mean hostel. 

Our evenings at the hostel over the next 5 nights were just a blur of unpleasantness, from swarms of mosquitos attacking us and biting our hands and faces all night to the owners of the hostel spending hours in the tiny dirty kitchen cooking their foul smelling dinner so we can’t get in, to the great unwashed trekkers stopping by for the night and taking over the kitchen and dining table drinking vodka all night so we had to take our boiled egg and toast dinner to our room and eat off our laps like naughty school kids, oh how we wish we had just stayed on the train to Vladivostok!

The next day we managed to get some useful information out of our hostel so that we could find the bus to Listvynyanka and the office to book our train journey so off we set again and this time we even managed to get the right tram.  After a couple of false starts we eventually located the bus stop for Listvynyanka and successfully bought tickets for our all Russian train tour of the lake.  Finally, a successful day in Irkutsk.  Irkutsk is a very odd place, it still has numerous small charming wooden houses, but sadly they are all falling into a state of disrepair and some seem to be sinking below the pavements, as they vanish large offices and tower blocks appear to be replacing them.  The market square was something of a sight, they were selling the usual fruit, veg and useless trinkets but they also had a row of stalls selling kittens, puppies, and bunnies.  I wanted to take them all.  They all looked in very good condition, but it was so sad to see them.  Despite being the number one stop for travellers on the Transiberian Express we didn’t feel too comfortable taking pictures so sadly we didn’t get any photos here.  Just a 5 minute walk from the market and you hit the high street and the diversity of the town is clear again with Benetton, Adidas, Mango and Quicksilver shops lining the street.  The weather was being particularly kind to us in Irkutsk so we were once again in t-shirts and sunglasses and made our way down to the banks of the Angara River to relax watching the little fisher boats and the world go by.

The next day we finally decided to brave the outside world and set off on the local mini bus to Listvynyanka, keen to make a day of it and get away from the hostel as early as possible we were on the bus at 10 and on our way.  The journey was an hour and was quite a ride with Russian drivers loving to overtake on the brow of hills and seemingly just drive two a breast in one lane.  Once safely in Listvynyanka we made our way to the tourist information office and armed with a map set off.  5 minutes later we had seen the whole place.  Ha ha, no jokes it was really small.  Partially because it is really a summer resort so half of the bars and cafes were closed, but also because it is tiny.  We had a coffee and checked out our guidebook and decided that the only thing to do here other than look at the lake was to visit the Seal Show and the Retro Park.  The first thing we stumbled upon was the Seal Show.  Lake Baikal is one of the biggest fresh water lakes in the world and it has one of the only populations of fresh water seals, it is something of a mystery how they got there as usually they arrive by sea!  The seals were on the verge of extinction but are now protected as the local Buryat population used to have a fondness for seal fur coats.  So as much as I know Mum will be tutting that I should not be going to such cruel things as seal shows, this was the only way to see a lake Baikal seal so I think it was appropriate.  The seal show was brilliant, sadly there were no cameras allowed but they were just the cutest most well trained animals ever and they had a big pool and looked to be in very good condition.  They danced, they counted, they painted, they played football and basketball, they even played the trumpet and the saxophone.  Needless to say we had a great time.  They are much bigger than I expected with lush grey fur (I can see why the Buryats like them for coats) and had the most stunning big glassy black eyes and white whiskers.  I would quite like a pet seal from Lake Baikal.

Next was Retro Park, this was sold in the guidebook as a sculpture park with different works of art made from old Soviet cars.  This was pretty well hidden in one of the valleys along the lake, blink and you might just miss it assuming it was just a scrap yard, but when you look more closely there are all sorts of sculptures, from firemen to dogs and knights on horses; is was pretty cool and with an honest box to pay 30roubles (60p) it was definitely worth a trip.

On our way back from Retro park we stumbled upon a coffee shop, we were drawn in by the big wooden horse and donkey outside (we never like to miss a photo opportunity), but the coffee was the best we had found in weeks.  However Tim made the error of accidentally ordering another meat donut, did he learn nothing in Helsinki?!

Back along the lake front and we really got to see just how vast Lake Baikal is.  If I didn’t know that I was in the middle of Russia nowhere near the coast I would have assumed I was looking at the sea.  According to my trusty guide book I have a series of useful factoids for you - Lake Baikal (pronounced Back-eye) is the deepest lake in the world and also the oldest having been formed 50 million years ago.  It is 1637meters deep, 400 miles long and between 20 and 40 miles wide.  It is known as the ‘Blue eye of Siberia’ contains 20,000 cubic kilometres of water (roughly 20%25 of the world’s freshwater supplies) and if all the rest of the world’s drinking water ran out tomorrow, Lake Baikal could supply the entire population of the planet for the next 40 years!  Also the lake freezes to depths of between 3 and 4 meters from December to April, brrrrr.

The sad thing about Listvynyanka is that it has become a popular holiday hot spot for the locals and the beaches along the lake are covered in smashed glass and litter.  It was awesome to see the lake and to put the factoids into perspective and it would be interesting to see what Listvynyanka looks like in 10 years; I have images of a Russian Benidorm.

The bus journey back to Irkutsk was quite a terrifying trip, the mini bus was circa 1970 and the suspension had not seemingly been serviced since purchase so we bounced our way along the roads at high speed with our seat belts fastened and our knuckles white.  The journey was made even more unpleasant as about 10 minutes outside or Irkutsk we saw a police car parked at the side of the road and a body covered by a tarp outside a bus stop.  Fairly horrific stuff, but not surprising given the speed of traffic and the kamikaze pedestrians in Russia.  Parents don’t be panicking, we have been sticking very much to zebra crossings and green men!

Next was our trip on the Circum-Baikal Railway, which is a tourist train which runs twice a week and goes along a now disused part of the railway that was carved around the lake in 1904. The railway was created as movement around the lake by boat was just not possible during the winter as ice breaker boats could not get through and freak summer storms occasionally lashed the coast with 2 meter high waves.  The tour started at 8am and we set off to the train station and were back in the madness that is the Moscow time zone at the station.  It is quite odd that every clock in the station is on Moscow time, so our train was actually 3am!  We made our way to the platform and quickly boarded, we were roughing this journey in second in class but the first impressions were good we had a pair of seats on the left of the train.  We had been warned that the train was a tourist train so would have commentary but it would all be in Russian so we just relied on our trusty leaflet to work out what was going on.  There were 5 excursion stops from the train, at each one we just followed the crowds, stayed near the train and hoped for the best.  We had also been warned that we needed to take food with us to last from 8am until 10pm as there were no shops along the route so we had stocked up on bread, cheese, crisps, yoghurts, chocolate and tea and coffee and felt quite proud of our picnic until everyone around us started unpacking and eating their supplies (10 minutes into the journey at 8.10am).  Vodka, wine, roast chickens, boiled potatoes (still in their pan), cheeses, meats, salads, you name it they had it.  Yes we were jealous, although even by our standards vodka and wine would be wrong at 8am.

Unbelievably we were lucky enough to be on the right side of the train to have a view of the entire journey around the lake.  As we were out of season (story of our life on this journey so far) we were not able to take the retro train which chugs along but this was fine as even the diesel train took 10 hours to cover the 100km route.  The stops were brilliant, there were tunnels, old bridges which used to be used but were replaced during the life of the railway and simply stunning views.  You will all be pleased to hear that I don’t have any factoids as the entire commentary which ran for 10 hours was in Russian.  When the commentary was not going strong there were videos playing about the lake, these were all totally incomprehensible except for one.  Seemingly a story about a family who rescued a seal and kept it as a pet, the video showed the seal snuggled up giving cuddles on the sofa, sharing fish with the pet cat (and goat??!!) and having a bath with their son.  This only reinforced by desire to have a pet seal.  The video reached a whole new level of hilarity when they zoomed in on the seal in the bath and as they zoomed out the pet cat was in a bowl asleep floating in the bath with the seal, the cat did not seem too amused by the seal peeking over the bowl, just too funny!

The end of the railway brought us to Port Baikal and we needed to get on a boat to Listvynyanka, this was a bit like survival of the fittest as everyone wanted to get on the first boat to save standing around in the cold for 40 minutes waiting for it to get back.  We were really far too polite and the Russians are experts at elbowing through so needless to say we stood on the pier for 45 minutes waiting for the next boat, even that was a crush to get on but we made it.  Sadly the weather had started to turn wintery and the sky was full of clouds so we were not treated to a special sunset over the lake.  As we got back to Irkutsk by minibus it seemed that winter had really arrived, it was pouring with rain and there was quite a thunder storm.  Thank goodness we had explored when we did as Irkutsk became a new danker shade of grey in the rain.

Our last day we headed into Irkutsk town for some supplies.  This sounds all very easy but in Russia you don’t have the joy of going to boots of to the supermarket and perusing the shelves, the shops have everything behind the counter or in glass shelves to a lot of pointing and sign language is needed to get what you need.  Amazingly we succeeded in buying corn plasters, lemsips, shampoo, shower gel, moisturiser and all important woolly hats for the fast cooling Gobi Desert.  As a treat for such a successful we day we splashed out (well 22) on an Italian dinner, I actually found salad on the menu, oh joy!

Our train to Mongolia was scheduled to leave Irkutsk at 4:50am so we opted to stay awake and avoid another night of broken sleep in the hovel, it was amazing how quickly the time went watching spooks and listening to the rain on the window.  At 4am left the hostel and could not have been happier to have seen our taxi waiting for us, we really didn’t fancy an early morning (or late night) sprint to the train station.

It is goodbye Russia, next stop Mongolia, that is if our visas get us across the border, finger crossed everyone. 

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