Trans-Mongolian Train Trip – Lake Baikal to IrkutskTuesday, 23 July 2013
We departed our Lake Baikal barbecue late in the evening and foolishly joined some other party goers for a last drink in one of the restaurant cars. The night went on rather too long before Maureen and I lurched back to our compartment. Since the train had reversed direction at our end-of-the-line stop at Port Baikal we were now at front of the train rather than the back.
Clearly we’d reversed direction again at Slyudyanka, because we were once again at the back of the train when we woke up the next morning. Trans-Siberian locomotives never travel outside their ‘region’ of around 800km track length, so there are a steady sequence of engine changes as you traverse Russia.
▲ We arrived in Irkutsk in the morning and head straight to Volkonsky House, a noted locale of the Decembrists story. This aristocratic revolt against the tsar in 1825 was unsuccessful and the revolutionaries were exiled to Siberia, including Irkutsk, for their troubles. It was nearly a century later before the tsar was toppled and that time the revolution was led by the proletariat rather than the aristocrats. Siberian exile certainly did not end at that time.
Then it’s on to the Saviour’s Church and across the road the Bogoyavalensky Cathedral with a guide who talked rather too much. We have to virtually drag her inside to stop her talking and let us look at the place. It’s fabulous in that over the top colourful, comicbook Orthodox style.
◄ There are lots of weddings going on and from the nearby riverside embankment I spot this nicely staged wedding photograph taking place. The bride sets off to sprint along the riverside – in her wedding dress and high heels – pursued by the best man and other young men.
We’ve abandoned the train to spend a night in a hotel and in the afternoon I set out on foot to have a look around the town. The first thing I encounter is a big motorcycle group passing by, many of them with scantily clad women on the back.
Then I take a long walk down Karl Marx St, the main shopping street. Irkutsk has much less traffic than I’d have expected for a Russian town of this size and it’s also rather shoddy and unkempt looking, but I do discover this statue of a skinny backpacker visitor. A change from all those Lenin statues. ►
It’s further than I expected to the Znamensky Monastery, with its typically rich Orthodox décor. There’s a rather melodic service going on, accompanied by the priest swinging the incense container around. Outside the tomb/memorial to the discoverer (or acquirer?) of Alaska is covered up under reconstruction.
At the monastery entrance is a recent statue to local hero Admiral Kolchak who was executed near this spot by the Bolsheviks. The statue is on a high plinth to protect it from Communist diehards who might not like it.
By this time it’s getting too late to continue to the other side of town to see the Angara Dam and the old Angara, built in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. So I dodge the heavy traffic, clearly it’s all over this side of town, I was just thinking how it was so light. There’s absolutely no consideration for pedestrians so I have to race across the busy road and roundabout to walk back to the hotel.
That night we go out for dinner at a ‘typical’ city apartment, the dinner put on by a female dentist and her grandson. She has travelled quite a lot including to Japan and Egypt. After our very Russian dinner we ask the usual sort of dull questions although we’d really like to ask questions which probably she can’t answer with our guides around. Or the son couldn’t answer with his grandmother around. What do they think of Putin? Or his vendetta against Pussy Riot, the girl band he imprisoned? Did they get sent to Siberia?