Day 7: Irkutsk
Irkutsk Travel Blog› entry 8 of 34 › view all entries
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.