Right then. It’s Sunday March 4th, 2012 and I am in Irkutsk, Russia.
Tonight at 6pm I board the train for Moscow, which will be an 86 hour voyage across Russia. Fingers crossed I get another compartment to myself like the first leg of my trip, but I’m nevertheless preparing mentally preparing myself to spend 4 days with 4 drunken boisterous Russians.
Let me fill you in on the second half of the Trans-Mongolian train and my experiences in Irkutsk.
The second half of the train ride (I think my description of it left off in the Gobi desert the morning after we crossed into Mongolia) was fairly uneventful. The desert slowly became whiter and whiter throughout the morning, though the snow never became particularly deep (just a dusting, like repeated morning frosts building on each other). I saw lots of cows, sheep and yaks out the train window and occasional Mongolian villages. Some of the villages were made of wooden houses with western architecture others were a mixture of wood cabins and yurts (fabric houses that are circle shaped, somewhat like a native american tipi) and other villages (the most interesting ones) were comprised entirely of yurts with fences containing livestock and dogs running about.
As we approached Ulaan Bataar the villages became closer together and we started seeing paved roads with sedans cruising along beside us. Ulaan Bataar itself was a biggish looking city with concrete apartment buildings, gas stations and everything else you would expect to see in a city of its size.
After Ulaan Bataar the scenery returned to desert, though as we went further and further north we began to see more trees and hills. That night we reached the Russian border and after a thorough inspection by the Mongolian authorities (my compartment got the drug sniffing dog and everything!) we crossed into Russia. Again, the border crossing happened at night and took hours as they came on board, checked our passports, took them off for two hours or so before finally returning them. By the time we crossed into Russia I was getting thoroughly annoyed with the border crossings, as they were stressful interruptions in the otherwise peaceful, relaxing journey. Furthermore, they took place at night, and once my passport left my hands I could not even consider sleep until it was returned to me (which means every border crossing I ended up staying awake till nearly 1am).
I awoke the next morning to see a beautiful winter landscape and a small village with wooden cabins (complete with smoke rising from the chimneys) nestled amongst birch trees at the base of some high mountains. I got some good video that will describe it better. My final day on the train was spent taking in the sights and reading my book. Around 10am we hit Lake Baikal, which is one of the largest lakes in the world. For about 5 hours we skirted the edge of the lake (it is about 700km long) before finally turning away from it to follow a river that led to Irkutsk.
Let me briefly talk about my first impression of Siberia. I want to make a note that everything I see in Russia is seen through the lens of someone who has lived in Asia for over a year. So it is hard for me to tell what my impressions of Irkutsk would be if I hadn’t just been living in Asia. For instance, walking around the streets of the city I notice that the women are all tall and absolutely gorgeous. Is this because Russian women are all tall and beautiful? Or is it because I haven’t seen this many western looking women in one place for over a year (bear in mind that these Russian women might only seem tall, compared to the Korean girls I am used to)? I also can’t help but feel like Irkutsk is very similar to my hometown, Peterborough. The buildings are all 2 or 3 stories tall, the sidewalks are spacious and uncrowded and the streets are filled with sedans and SUVs. Again, I ask you: Is Irkutsk really similar to Peterborough? Or is it just that this is the first time I have been anywhere that even remotely resembles a western city? The fact that the streets are totally devoid of scooters, or that the people I pass on the sidewalks give me more space instead of purposely doing their best to bump into me, or that the buildings aren’t covered in neon signs might not indicate Irkutsk is similar to home, but that it is merely different from Asia.
Yesterday I took a guided tour to Lake Baikal, which lies about 60km away from Irkutsk. I had already seen the lake from the train, but it was just as impressive up close. On the way to the lake we stopped at Russia’s equivalent of Lang Pioneer Village (a living museum in Canada that depicts life in the days of the pioneers). We toured an open air museum and saw some old style Russian houses and schools. It was interesting.
Afterwards we visited an old Church in Listvyanka, a small village on the shore of Baikal. Then we headed into the village itself (we saw some dogsleds, but unfortunately I didn’t get to go). The village makes a living by catching and selling fish from the Lake. The lake, by the way, is one of the deepest lakes in the world. You can drink from it all year round without filtering the water. Furthermore, the lake has an unusually high concentration of oxygen, making it home to thousands of unique species of fish and algae. The lake contains 80% of Russia’s fresh water supply and 20% of the worlds. I really can’t get across the scale of this lake to you properly – it stretched out to the horizon and looked more like the ocean than a lake. The craziest part is it is frozen solid – the ice that covers it is around 3 meters thick. You could walk out and get lost on the ice, being unable to see land in any direction. Absolutely amazing.
Today I spent the day touristing at Kirov Square in Irkutsk – there are lots of museums and hundred year old churches in this area, as well as statues and monuments to famous Russians. I saw a group of Russian soldiers, about 12 of them, marching in that old style you see in videos, with one leg shooting way up to hip height. Meanwhile, another group of soldiers saluted around a torch/fire in the center of a monument, which was a little reminscent of the eternal flame at Canada’s Parliament. I wanted to take some video for you guys, but chickened out because; A) taking video of soldiers is always a little dodgy and B) I have read that it is very rude in Russia to take pictures of anyone without asking their permission. After the square I hit up a grocery store and stocked up on food and supplies for my 4 day journey on the Trans-Siberian.
Speaking of the Trans-Siberian, wish me luck and I’ll update you again when I arrive in Moscow.
That’s all for now.