Day 7: Irkutsk

Irkutsk Travel Blog

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our homestay in Irkutsk

And so, after three days and four nights on the train, we arrived in the city of Irkutsk, one of the biggest cities in Siberia. I have very mixed feelings about Irkutsk. You could say it was love at first sight when we arrived with the glorious weather and a bright morning sun beautifully illuminating the many traditional wooden Siberian housings in the city.
However as often with love at first sight, you quickly find that beyond the first attraction there can be many things really, really wrong, with an unexpected twisted personality rearing its ugly head when you least expect it.

The architecture of the city is nice. There are quite a lot of traditional Siberian style wooden houses in the city - many of these had been built upon frozen ground, which had later subsided when the ground thawed, so they now look as if they have been built from the second floor up.

the streets of Irkutsk
Then you have the obvious ugly Soviet style housing blocks, and the even more obvious majestic Important Buildings, which were most likely governmental buildings at one point during communist rule. Perfectly in style with communist sense of sobriety these buildings have an impressive facade facing the street, but behind it they are basically just ugly concrete boxes - viewing such building from the side is definitely not recommended!
The people are also different in this city when you compare them to Moscow. Well, obviously they are different, since we are 5000 kilometres from Moscow, but while distinctively Russian, they look, well, different. Latest fashion for women seems to be a dead straight fringe and fish net stockings, while men are usually sporting a mullet and wearing track suit.
the old tram system in Irkutsk

We had booked a homestay in this city, and after registering our passports at the local tourist office (as I said before, the Russian government wants to know exactly where you are and when) we were brought to our homestay. The lady we would be staying with lives fairly central, in a typical Soviet style house situated in an ugly building on the top floor with no elevator. Ugly as the exterior of Soviet housing blocks may be, the interior of such houses is really nice and cosy. Actually, though we were staying on someone's home, it was not overly different from some of the hostels I have stayed in in countries in South America, or you could even compare it to a very small English B&B (on the top floor though!)

After checking in we were brought the awful news that there was no cold water available, so we couldn't shower.

the streets of Irkutsk
Yes, you read that right, no *cold* shower. As can be expected the entire city has district heating and I think they were doing something with the system - perhaps cleaning the piping or something, so until 17:00 there would only be steaming hot water, which was not suitable for showering.

So after a quick change of clothes we went out -unwashed- to find ourselves some breakfast. The city was just lovely in that early morning sun. A clear blue sky and the bright light caused me to happily snap zillions of pictures during our walk to the Russkaya Chaynaya restaurant. The 19th century Tsarist style interior feels like you're sitting in a museum, but this is one where you are actually allowed to photograph and even touch the chairs and curtains - even the staff was walking around in turn of the century dress.

the beautiful interior of Russkaya Chaynaya
The food was also really good. There was a slight disappointment that we couldn't get any coffee (the water problem), but they had fresh green tea, which was also good. Breakfast consisted of a great salad and Bliny's with jam made of local berries which were just delicious. After the frankly disappointing grub we had in Moscow this was quite a relieve really - so they do know how to cook in this country.

During our breakfast we heard some gunfire and the sound of cannons outside. It turned out to come from the river bank where a military exercise, or show was taking place for some Chinese looking executives who were visiting the city.

We met up with Maciek again and together we set out to book a tour to lake Baikal for tomorrow. This is where things turned a bit sour.

Russians know how to make people feel welcome
It turns out our Lonely Planet (Trans-Siberian Railway) is absolutely useless. Of course things can change in the time between researching and writing a guidebook and you actually reading it, and I have had it before that things described in the guidebook didn't exist anymore, but in this case, with the exception of the recommended Russkaya Chaynaya restaurant, not a single piece of information on Irkutsk or Lake Baikal is correct!

We took the tram to the SibExpo area. The tram was actually quite a nice experience. The trams have been running for 40 odd years, and by the looks of it, still with the original carriages! SibExpo wasn't such a nice experience though. The SibExpo area is the harbour area past the hydo-electrical dam, from which (apparently) boats depart for Lake Baikal and tours can be booked.

the old steamer that used to ferry Trans-Siberian train passengers across the lake
This turned out to be a real dump of an area - a couple of soviet era ' business' hotels, surrounded by decrepit housing blocks.
With a little effort we managed to find the address of the travel agency, only to find out that the travel agency didn't exist anymore, and was likely to have moved to the city center.

We wandered around the area for a while longer, had a look at the dam and a defunct steamer which used to be part of the Trans-Siberia railway, crossing the lake Baikal, before the railway around the lake had been completed, and we drank a nice lukewarm beer on a sunny terrace.

Back in Irkutsk we searched for the travel agency on the place where the people at SibExpo had marked it on our map. Naturally, it didn't exist anymore (later we tried their website, and it is only in Russian, giving the impression they only cater for locals).

the streets of Irkutsk

But, no worries, there were more agencies listed in the Lonely Planet. These were operated through guest houses, and although these did still exist, at neither guesthouse were we able to even get a remote understanding of our wishes across to the staff. (A tour? No, that is our sister company that does that, and no, I have no idea how you can book it...). By this time I was getting rather pissed off with the whole Russian attitude towards foreign tourists (or rather, lack thereof, as we were most of the times completely ignored) and as the day was getting late, with no sign of the possibility of booking a tour, we decided to simply go to the lake by public transport and see what we could find instead.

By this time I was getting rather tired of the Russians. And we'd only been here for a week.

the streets of Irkutsk
It is not that Russians are not nice or anything, but they simply cannot be bothered to talk to people who don't speak Russian. As a foreigner you are almost always completely ignored by the locals. If you try to ask something, like asking for directions, or you want to do something really funny, like spending money at their business, the moment they find out you don't speak Russian they simply shrug and walk away...
However, the flip side of the coin is that Russia is one of the few countries in the world where you can walk the streets as a tourist without being hassled, and that has its charm as well.

However, on this day we couldn't see the charm. We tried finding an Internet cafe in Irkutsk, and it shouldn't come to anyone as a surprise that all three listed in the Lonely Planet did not exist anymore. However, one of them had actually moved across the street, yet no-one, not a single sole we asked in the area (shop owners, a guard, pedestrians in the street) could be bothered to tell us. All just simply shrugged and walked away.

Fortunately we ended the day on a high note. We went for dinner in a restaurant which was recommended in the useless Lonely Planet, which was as good as the guidebook says, only the menu was only in Russian and there was no English speaking staff. Using the Russian phrasebook we had we managed to translate parts of the menu and order some pretty nice food.


 

nadezhda says:
I am sorry for the Russians you've met)) they were wrong Russians or they didn't speak English))
Posted on: Dec 13, 2013
travelingforlife says:
sounds like this city was abandoned man .. lol
Posted on: Dec 30, 2011
naj81 says:
Hey Biedjee...your blog is damn interesting & very informative...thanks for sharing it
Posted on: Jan 31, 2010
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our homestay in Irkutsk
our homestay in Irkutsk
the streets of Irkutsk
the streets of Irkutsk
the old tram system in Irkutsk
the old tram system in Irkutsk
the streets of Irkutsk
the streets of Irkutsk
the beautiful interior of Russkaya…
the beautiful interior of Russkay…
Russians know how to make people f…
Russians know how to make people …
the old steamer that used to ferry…
the old steamer that used to ferr…
the streets of Irkutsk
the streets of Irkutsk
the streets of Irkutsk
the streets of Irkutsk
Irkutsk Restaurants, Cafes & Food review
Beautiful turn of the century style restaurant
Possibly the best food in the whole of Russia and definitely the highlight of Irkutsks for me is the little Russkaya Chaynaya tea house. The inter… read entire review
Irkutsk
photo by: nidge76