I had planned for four days in Irkutsk, hoping to spend some time on the famed Lake Baikal. As it turned out, early April is not a great time to go – the Circumbaikal train wasn’t running till the end of the month. I’m guessing early April means flooding on parts of the track as things thaw.
Oh well, my oasis was simply going to be even more restful. I spent the first day in full tourist mode, exploring the city, and was enchanted. The historic center looks much wealthier than that of Ulan Ude – the sidewalks were in decent repair and many 19th century buildings had gotten a recent coat of paint in the style of St Petersburg (classic facades in pastel colors).
I walked to the center square where the main government buildings are located, alongside a Polish neo-Gothic cathedral and a couple of lovely Russian Orthodox churches. Looking for an overpass over the road to the Angara River, I stumbled across the WWII monument and eternal flame, guarded by a bunch of young women (cadets of some kind?) in uniforms which included hair things that resembled nothing so much as white pom poms. As I watched, another group came high stepping around to replace the first. I managed to snap an unobtrusive pic.
After that minor diversion, I headed to the Angara. I found signs placed by the Irkutsk tourist office (the first such office I had encountered in Russia) suggesting a walking route around the city, which I more or less followed. This let me see a number of the wooden houses of the type I had seen in Ulan Ude, in rather worse repair (and sinking in parts) than the other buildings I had seen in the city. I exited this neighborhood onto the big, ritzy shopping street. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that this capitalist mecca is called Karl Marx Street?
I passed Bennetton and Columbia and continued on to find the Trubetskoy House Museum. The Trubetskoys were part of the Decembrist Revolution and as such, condemned to hard labor and then exile in Siberia. The house was much grander than I imagined, till I went through the museum and it put it in perspective: this house was built for one of their daughters during exile, after their miserable period of penal servitude. So it made sense that they would live aristocratically 20 years after arriving in Siberia.
The following day, I set out for the touristy little town of Listvyanka, on Lake Baikal. I took a mashrutka (minibus) to the bus station. Well, actually, to the stop after the bus station. The problem with minibuses is that you have to request stops, which presupposes 1. that you know where you’re going and 2. that you speak Russian. There were no buses pulled into the station so I missed my stop, luckily getting off not too far away when the next passenger got off.
I took a minibus to Listvyanka, about an hour ride through birch tree forest and up and down steep hills. It was lovely, and I got to see parts of town that I never would have seen on foot as we drove out of Irkutsk. There was a nice middle-class looking neighborhood by the airport with new apartment buildings but also areas of old decrepit wood houses that looked like shanty towns.
We arrived at the cold, windy, deserted Listvyanka. It was so quiet! I saw blocks of ice pushed up at the edge of the lake, some colored a clear pale blue. I saw some men carrying buckets of water from the lake, which is supposed to have pristine water away from specific areas of pollution (like the mouths of the rivers that flow past cities with polluting industry like in Ulan Ude).
I wandered a little into the village, but it was cold and deserted so I decided to get some food (pozhi – Buryat dumplings finally!) and then walk to the Baikal Museum. Turns out the Baikal Museum is about three or four kilometers away from where the minibus dropped me off. What is it with my remedial map reading skills on this trip? I swear, normally I don’t have problems reading maps!
Unfortunately the Baikal Museum signs are all in Russian, and the tour group that the museum lady wanted me to join was German (I guess all foreigners are the same?), so I didn’t get as much out of it as I would have wished. I did get to see the freshwater seals in the aquarium, however. They were such cute cylinders!
I do know that I would love to go back to Lake Baikal to actually go hiking at a better time of year.
I had two more days to fill, so I took it easy, buying knitting needles and supplies for the train, and drinking pots of tea. I bought the knitting needles in what I thought was a department store called TK, but which turned out to be almost an indoor market with many tiny stores. Luckily one of the ladies at the hotel knits, so she was able to tell me where to go.
Everything was lovely and relaxing till the very end, when I had an embarrassing trip to the post offfice and later a traumatic minibus ride back to the station.
I wanted to mail some items home so I wouldn’t have to carry them, so I went to the post office on Karl Marx street. The first person told me I needed to go around the corner to the other part of the office, so I did. There I got yelled at by the post office lady (who had an assistant sitting there doing nothing in timeless bureaucratic tradition) that I needed to go to the international post branch. (Word to the wise: just because I don’t speak Russian doesn’t mean I’m deaf or stupid, and shouting will not make me understand better. Writing out the address of where I should go might. Luckily the lady behind me in line translated for me.)
As for the minibus, it took a turn to the right instead of the left as I expected, I tried to ask for the train station, and the driver grunted in incomprehension and then ignored me. Almost in tears, I tried to ask other passengers if they spoke English, but nobody did and nobody was willing to try to help figure out what I wanted to say or where I wanted to go. Fortunately, we were just making a large loop and I got to the train station in one piece, but visions of being lost and trying to get an overpriced taxi in Russian had been dancing in my head. What is it with Russians not wanting to help with directions? Most Russians I’ve had personal interactions with (barring post office employees in Irkutsk) have been nice.