Exploring Irkutsk

It was beautiful waking up near Irkutsk Russia, the landscape covered in snow. It was like a scene from Dr Zivago. We followed our journey with the TransSiberian handbook which told us of towns and features. We even played “Where’s Wally”, actually it was “Where’s Lenin”, as we tried in vain to spot the face of a benevolent Lenin carved into the hill overlooking Lake Baikal.

The train followed around the edge of the lake and the view was stunning looking across the frozen lake ice and snow as far as the eye could see. The train travelled through forests of cedars with snow white trunks, and pine trees with branches laden with snow. All through the forests the ground was covered with thick white snow. We passed through some small settlements with dark wooden houses, some weatherboard others log cabins, their windows all painted bright colours of blue and green.

Arriving in Irkutsk we noticed the old bloke and his offsider who’d been giving us the shits (see yesterday’s post on the cloth’s smugglers) getting off the train with a few trolley bags packed to the seams, however the other smugglers were heading onwards.

A local couch-surfer called Anna was going to be our host in Irkutsk and was meeting us, we soon spotted the motorbike helmet and knew that it must be her. We told her about the smugglers and she wasn’t at all shocked (I suppose people get used to it after a while).

She shepherded us towards the local bus and soon we were on our way. The buses cost 12 roubles no matter what the destination so that’s easy to work out and quite cheap at 36 cents. She lived out in the suburbs in a block of flats much like the one we stayed at in Mongolia with a big steel door at the entrance. Most of the block of flats looked the same, with four storeys a few with small balconies. All the flats in her apartment block had big thick steel doors, a left over from the old Soviet days maybe, strong enough to keep the KGB from kicking down the door. Anna’s flat even had an airlock. Two doors with an airspace between them for insulation.

Around Irkutsk in winter it gets down to -35 C and in summer +35 C so every bit of insulation helps. Double glazing also helps to keep the cold out. The heater pipes run throughout the building heating room radiators, towel rails, we even saw one building with a heated boot rack for drying out the boots in the winter. A lot of places even have underfloor pipes heating the floor.

Anna lived in a one bedroom apartment with her two kids, Mr Two and Miss 11. Miss 11 had given up her bed for us to sleep in and was bunking down with mum in the living room. They also had two cats Fluffy (a white Siberian) and Buffy (a ginger short hair). Fluffy decided to adopt us and we spent many hours fighting unsuccessfully over bed space. One of Anna’s hobbies was making homemade alcohol and her speciality was a concoction made from vodka and cedar nuts but this batch had dried plums added as well. It was a deep burgundy sort of colour and once you got past the vodka taste it had a smooth taste, sort of like cough medicine. Lol

Anna was involved in a motorcycle bar which hosted all sorts of enthusiasts. Saturday night was a four year anniversary of their website so a big party was planned. They were finishing some painting so Anna left us to it and headed off to see how much paint she could spill on herself.

We headed to the local supermarket to buy some ingredients to cook tea. We decided that Spaghetti Bolognese would be easy so looked for the ingredients. Everything was written in Cyrillic so trying to sort of decipher what things were was pretty challenging and we’re only talking about 4 ingredients Pasta, Pasta Sauce, Minced Meat and Parmesan Cheese. Pasta was easy, look at it yep that’s what we want. Minced meat, well there was only one sort of mince and it was pork (we think). Then to explain we only wanted 500 grams. OK, with a little bit of head shaking and using the phone to dial 500 yep, done. Pasta sauce, easy just read the contents on the side of the bottle. We sort of recognised it contained tomato….so that’s ok. Parmesan?…. Squeezed all the cheeses and they were all soft. There was nothing that resembled Parmesan in smell or texture. We headed to the counter and paid watching the total on the screen. The young girl at the till giggled every time I said “spaseeba” so I threw in an extra one for good luck. Lol

Michele knocked up the Spaghetti Bol and we enjoyed our first real Aussie meal since leaving home. We played with the kids a bit before calling it a night.

Exploring Irkutsk

Catching the bus was quite easy. The 80 bus took us straight into the city and we jumped off at the Central Markets. After walking backwards and forwards trying to work out which way to head first we headed down the street which said Lenin Street. (Actually it was to Lenin Street as we discovered) we walked for a while until I finally worked out on the map where we were, YN TNMNPR3EBA in English Timinyazeva street.(Cyrillic is quite hard to decipher first thing in the morning). Soon we were outside the Raising of the Cross church painted white with golden domes it was beautiful. It was built in 1758 and was one of the only churches that remained open to worshippers during the soviet era. It’s on a small hill so it really stands out on the skyline.

We headed down Lenin Street unable to find a coffee shop until we stumbled across Double Coffee. The waiter didn’t speak English and the menus were in Cyrillic so I went eenie meanie minee mo and put my finger on something. He looked puzzled (with that “are you sure you want to order that?” kinda face) and then Michele pulled out google translate typing in can you suggest something. He looked pleased and pointed to two other things. We ordered coffee (which I can do) and soon we were enjoying an omelette, eggs and bacon.

There was a Michael Jackson special on the screen and it was interesting watching some of his old video clips, man could he dance. It was also amusing having English speaking music blasting out in Russia. The service at Double Coffee was excellent and we’ll probably go back at some stage.

We walked around a bit, checked out the Lenin statue and walked through the park in front of the Palace of the Soviets which had music playing from speakers which was quite nice. The Palace of the Soviets now the Central Government Headquarters (described pretty accurately as an ugly bulk in our guide) was a large square impressive building that had been the flagship of the Soviet Empire hereabouts. Unfortunately it was delayed due to shoddy workmanship and had to have new architects sort the problem out, eventually after about six years it was finished.

At the back of the building we discovered the World War 2 memorial, with an eternal flame and lots of wreaths surrounding it. We were just in time for the changing of the guard. Five young people dressed in army uniforms, men in trousers, women in skirts slowly goose stepping across the monument. (It was like a throw back in time to the glory days of the Soviet Empire)The women had pigtails tied with huge white ribbons. The guard was checked and changed quite often whilst we were there, as the weather was quite chilly and none of them were wearing gloves. Their marching drill was quite outstanding and it was great seeing the respect shown for those who’d lost their lives all those years ago.

Not far from the eternal flame was a small Orthodox Church, the Church of Our Saviour, built in 1706. The church had some beautiful frescos of Buryats being baptised, Christ being baptised and the local bishop Innokent being canonised.

Across the road a Polish Catholic Church built with brown bricks in gothic style in 1883 by Polish exiles, looks a bit out of place with the domed churches surrounding it.

On the corner was the larger Orthodox Cathedral of the Epiphany.The interior was interesting with high domed ceilings painted with murals of Christian Saints, and Russian holy men with big beards and head coverings. There were lots of locals filtering through to pray, and it was interesting watching the way they went about prayer. At the entry was a box of communal headscarfs for ladies to cover their heads as is their custom. They bowed three times whilst crossing themselves and bowed and crossed themselves at the entry of the church. It was also interesting noticing how simple the interiors of the churches and cathedrals were, no pews or huge alters.

The one thing about travelling to new places is finding the layout of places. Places to eat, public transport, toilets etc can be a bit hard at times but it helps when you have a local who can point you in the right direction. We were looking for a cafe from the Lonely Planet for an urgent toilet stop but try as we might the cafe wasn’t to be found but we found a restaurant nearby. When we entered we asked to use the toilet, a lovely English speaking waitress came over and told me that the food was expensive. Good heads up maybe we are starting to look like backpackers. As it was lunch time we decided on a local fish and vegetable soup, creamy mushroom soup and we finished off with a Cherry Pie and Pear pie. They were excellent meals and we paid Perth prices but it was a beautifully laid out restaurant with excellent service.

Now that we had our bearings we headed for the river walking along it enjoying a day which was now bathed in warm glorious sunshine. The parks speakers were playing music, couples were out walking arm in arm, kids were playing it was a nice day out. A monument with Tsar Alexander III on top caught our eye. It was the TransSiberian Builders Monument, Alexander had commissioned the railway then travelled all the way across Russia to shovel a bucket of ballast to open the line. Then quickly trained it back west as fast as he could go.

Across the road from the monument is the Irkutsk Museum. It’s in a lovely old two storey building and charges a 250 rouble entry. Michele dropped the coats in the cloak room and we had a look around. They had displays of Stone Age people around Siberia, exploration by Russians into this side of the country, and a bit on their former colony of Alaska. The most interesting thing was some of the artefacts or the local indigenous people who lived in the area. They were so many similarities with indigenous people in North America including clothing, and tepees. There were amazing shaman robes made from deer skin with ribs of blackened steel sewn in and pieces of blackened steel hanging from leather thongs. It must have made a racket when they walked. Shamanism was big amongst the indigenous people to the west of Irkutsk but with the coming of settlers and the change from nomadic lifestyle its popularity waned, but supposedly it’s making a revival.

There was an interesting clock which not only told the time, planet phases, moon and sun phases. I took a photo and instantly one of the museum warders came lumbering over to me, telling me in Russian that photography was not allowed (well it probably was but at an extra price) She must’ve thought I understood Russian because she kept speaking to me at a machine gun pace. I swear this lady put the Gul in Gulag. After that all the museum attendants were following me, ensuring I wasn’t filming secretly. The top floor had some interesting displays of toys and household goods through the 20th century which wouldn’t have looked out of place in an Australian museum.

The museum had an extensive gift shop selling all sorts of gemstones, paintings, trinkets and babooshka dolls. There was even babooshkas with Russian leaders Putin, Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin (however he wasn’t dancing). The Putin doll looked a little sinister and we wonder whether a Pussy Riot sympathiser has been painting the faces.
Down the street a local park was home to a group of young people who reminded us of the young people of Perth just hanging with friends. People were coming and going and as people arrived they’d shake hands or hug. One girl reminded is of one of our own, with a slim build, white skin and the half hugs she gave people. There was one guy slowly practicing on his guitar, whilst another sang and played loudly whilst admiring girls and guys looked on. He had stripped down to just a singlet (because playing guitar is such hot work plus guitars gets the girls) and had the long hair happening and some rock star sunnies. He played some great tunes despite not being able to understand a word. They were upbeat folky songs and he filled the songs with a bit of raw emotion. A lot of the kids sang along and we wondered whether they were songs of rebellion or just teenage angst. We would’ve liked to have found out more about the songs but we didn’t want to spoil the moment.

As we were walking away we passed a young girl with a T-shirt from Pulp Fiction which read “We speak English Motherf@cker” and we burst out laughing. The university was just down the street and we wondered whether the T-shirt a political statement which would be lost on most people (as they don’t speak English let alone read it) or just a simple fashion statement. We caught the 90 bus back. It’s amazing that all the buses are run by private contractors, so there’s buses of different sizes from minivans to coaches but all cost just 12 roubles no matter how far you travel in the city. There’s all sorts of transport trams, trolley buses, buses, minivans taxis. The buses aren’t on timed stops like in Perth so they’ll wait to pick up as many people as possible.

Russian pancakes for dinner consisting of thin crepes with butter and sour cream. There were some also with condensed milk. Traditionally Russian crepes also have red caviar with the sour cream but we gave the fish the night off. Michele also made some American pancakes with chocolate and bananas but maybe shouldn’t have combined the three as the chocolate was a bit overpowering.

Tomorrow we take a closer look at Lake Baikal.

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