Day 14: Irkutsk, Russia (part one)

by - June 24, 2011

The remains of four burgers
The train from Yekaterinburg arrived at Irkutsk at 09.40.  The station is on the opposite bank of the Irkut River, so we had to walk into town to find the hostel.  We were extremely hungry and thirsty by this stage, so our top priority was somewhere for food.  It shames me slightly to say that we stopped at the closest restaurant that we could find - the amusingly named McFoods, which was an awful lot like an American chain with a similar name.  Our immense hunger meant that we consumed not just one, but two ‘twin’ burgers (essentially four burgers) and had two drinks of coke. And a coffee.  This fat-fest cost us about 8 pounds.  By this stage we felt pretty recovered, though in desparate need of a shower, and therefore headed off to our hostel - the Baikaler Hostel.  The Yale professor that we had met in Moscow advised us that the owner of the hostel, Jack Shemerdoff (who is standing right next to me as I type), is something of a legend in these parts as an adventurer who designs and runs tours in the Baikal region (which I will describe when I get there).  We are going to start one of these tours tomorrow - I don’t want to give anything away today!

Karl Marx Street, Irkutsk
After showering and making ourselves feel like human beings again, we headed out to explore Irkutsk.  The city is perhaps the most popular on the Trans-Siberian trail.  This is partly down to it being an attractive city in itself, with the nickname 'Paris of Siberia’, but is also due to its vicinity to the world’s oldest and deepest lake - Lake Baikal.  We had arranged to have four nights in the area - split with two in Irkutsk and two at Baikal.  Our first afternoon in the city would be our only real chance to explore it, but it seemed to be pretty small and compact.  We started by walking along the main street - Karl Marx Street, towards the north.  This took us past a remarkable number of expensive clothing and jewellery shops, which was a long way from the 'outpost’ feel that I expected for a city right in the middle of Siberia.  Equally unexpected was the temperature, which stayed at a fairly steady 32 degrees celsius throughout the afternoon - the hottest it had been all trip and around the kind of temperature I had been experiencing in South East Asia a month ago.  And you thought Siberia would be cold.

Playa Kirova, Irkutsk
At the top of Karl Marx Street we turned past a series of public fountains, where kids were running about getting drenched and headed towards the central market. There was a huge variety of food on offer and it all seemed really fresh so we set ourselves a mental bookmark to come back and sort out stuff for our dinner.  Our walk took us back through the centre of the city, past the central square and around the various churches that dot the city’s skyline.  It was definitely the most pleasant Russian city I had been in since St Petersburg.  There seemed to be some kind of student petition going on and when we explained that we didn’t understand what they were petitioning for, they welcomed us to the city in broken english - a far friendlier welcome than we had recieved anywhere else.  After looking around the outside of the churches and at the grand buildings in the city centre, we headed back to the supermarket and market to get some food.  We decided to split up - with me doing the supermarket run and Alex doing the market run.

River Irkut, Irkutsk
It turned out that I made the right call here, as it took me 5 minutes to grab the bits I needed before heading back to the hostel.  Alex, on the other hand, had further to walk and within a few minutes of my arrival at the hostel, the weather completely turned and there was a huge thunderstorm.  After waiting for an hour I assumed that he had found shelter, or was lost - its difficult to navigate Russian cities unless you can read cyrillic, so I headed out to find him.  And I therefore got drenched as well and couldn’t find him.  Fearing he had been kidnapped, I headed back to the hostel to think up contingency plans and just as I was about to phone in the SAS, he arrived at the door absolutely drenched.  He had been both taking shelter and being lost.  He had however bought some cool food back and he made a wonderful spaghetti bolognese that was a fantastic relief from train food.  It was still light after dinner, so we wandered down Karl Marx Street, getting an ice cream on our way, to the River Irkut to watch the sun setting.  Tomorrow we head to Lake Baikal, where we will stay with a Russian couple - Olya and Kolya, in the middle of the Siberian countryside.  Electricity only arrived 5 years ago and the toilet is in a shed.  Should be quite an experience.

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