14 hours in Irkutsk, Siberia, in the winter. What to do? Plenty—if you have the good luck to find two very kind and generous people.
When I mentioned I was taking trains across Siberia in December my friend Tom said, “Oh, you have to stop in Irkutsk and meet my friend Lucy!”
So, here we are in Irkutsk, right on schedule getting off the train exactly at 7:28 on a cold and very dark Siberian morning. As we walked up the stairs from the underground passage connecting the various tracks to the main station, I see my name on a sheet of paper held by a tall, smiling, blond woman. “Hello,” I say. “I’m Gary, this is Chris, and your friend Tom sends his greetings.”
We put our bags in her SUV, climb in and head into work-day traffic as Lucy (Liudmila is her Russian name) pointed out the more significant sites. Lucy has a travel agency and loads of connections it seems. She’s reserved a hotel so we have a place to freshen up—a good idea after four nights on a train with only a small sink at the end of each car.
We check into the Hotel Europe and find a very comfortable room. Lucy will be back in two hours, so have enough time to shower, change clothes, and go downstairs for the buffet breakfast which is included in out reasonably priced room. It feels a little strange to eat without moving as we’ve been on the train for four nights, three days since Moscow, a distance of about 3200 miles to the west of us, rolling down the tracks except for the occasional 20 minute stop at a station to let off and add on passengers. Now, after non-stop travel, we have fourteen hours and twenty minutes in Irkutsk, Siberia.
After breakfast we join Lucy and meet her husband, Nick (Nicholas). They’ve proposed a drive to Lake Baikal, so we work our way out of Irkutsk and head south. Irkutsk is growing rapidly, but has managed to avoid many of the problems rapid growth brings to some areas. I think part of that lies in the fact that Irkutsk is a long-established city. It boasts a number of universities, museums, historic sites, broad parks and an established local government which understands the need for zoning and urban planning. When compared to Ulan Bator, where we arrived two days later, the difference is striking. I spoke with a man in Ulan Bator who pointed to a new tall office building. “That building,” he said, “was built without permits, inspections, anything. By the time the city came around to thinking about it, it was already built. What are you going to do then?” With the exception of some apartment buildings constructed with cheaper materials and built near much nicer single family residences, that sort of thing hasn’t happened in Irkutsk.
It was about an hour’s drive to the lake along good highways lined, on both sides, by birch, fir and larch, the same we’ve seen out of our train window for the last 3000 miles of this boreal forest often unbroken and undisturbed. The white-barked birch stand straight and tall, reaching skyward. The fir, evergreen, provide a dark background, and the larch, a conifer which sheds its needles in autumn, stand with branches sloping down as if in embarrassment or despair over their losses. A layer of still-white snow binds this scene together. I daydream and wonder what still lies out there, deeper in the forest. Wolves, for one, still roam in the solitude.
One doesn’t see Lake Baikal in a few hours. It’s truly Russian in scale. Remember, we started in Moscow and after four nights, and 3 days, 5 hours, 5 minutes according to the time table on a train and 5153 kilometers (3201 miles) of travel, we were not much past the center of the country and in our fifth time zone. That sort of scale applies to Baikal too. It holds more water and is larger than the combined size of the American Great Lakes. Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Ontario and Erie together are smaller than this lake. It holds one fifth of all the fresh water on earth, has multiple ecosystems, is remarkably deep, and is home to the world’s only fresh water inland seal, the Nerpa, which can swim to depths of 300 meters (about 930 feet). In the deep of winter it freezes over and trucks take shortcuts across it to save time. 27 rivers flow into it and a single river, the Angara, flows out, and joins the Yenisei River coursing north to the Arctic Ocean.
On the way, we stopped at a small museum with interesting displays which we could understand in large part, even though all signage was in Russian. A series of aquariums hold samples of the lake’s aquatic life and the interactive panels give a better understanding of the lake. After the museum we drove to a small village at the edge of the lake to do three quintessential Russian things. First, we washed our hands and faces in the fresh Baikal water which is said to have restorative power and will bring good luck. Second, we visited an open market where dried, smoked, and steamed fish were for sale. On our train stops we often saw Russian women selling dried fish alongside the train and the waitress in our dining car even brought us some as a gift when I ordered the herring. Russians, it seems, love their smoked fish. During our fish-shopping, two young Russians just had to have a selfie with Chris. At Lake Baikal, the most common and popular is the Omul. Nick purchased them in a way I had not seen before—smoked, but steamed and served up warm. Each was slipped into an individual plastic bag and then the bags were put into a paper sack to keep them warm. Then we did the third quintessential Russian thing: we found vodka. There was a nice little log cabin by the market which served food and vodka. As long as we were ordering their vodka, they had no problem with us spreading out napkins and plastic forks (which they provided). The fish was delicious, and the toasts numerous.
Lucy skipped the vodka, so we were back in the car and heading towards Irkutsk when she pulled into an open air museum where old and historically significant Siberian buildings had been brought, restored, and put on display. I’d been admiring the architecture and design of these buildings for a thousand miles, but taking photos out of a moving train has its limits. Here was a chance to actually walk in, look around, and see things up close. Each building had at least two docents who spoke no English but made up for it with enthusiasm about the culture and history. A portion of the signs and explanations were in English, which also helped.
We’d noticed a large number of similar buildings in Irkutsk—almost all built from logs—with many still inhabited and a striking number gradually settling into the earth, some at a tilt. It was as if the earth was swallowing them, but I suspect it was the very slow product of the frozen tundra thawing and refreezing while the weight of the buildings continued to push down. Irkutsk was home not just to fur trappers and lumbermen, but to exiled aristocrats involved in any number of plots to modernize politics and social classes or overthrow the czar. Often too well connected and intermarried to execute, they were sent well past the Urals to live out their days far from the court and possible plots. We didn’t have time to see some of their homes, but a few still stand in Irkutsk.
Walking from building to building in the open air museum late in a winter’s day you have to respect the toughness of the people who lived in this environment before modern heating. For those who could afford it, the Russian stoves, great in size, could take up quite a portion of a home but deliver heat. These monsters, brick and rock faced with heavy tiles, had a fire chamber deep inside. I imagine they took days to heat up, but with their heavy mass, would keep a steady warmth through the long cold months with periodic reloading of wood into the chamber. We saw one which had two narrow beds on top—the perfect place to spend a long winter night in Siberia.
We rolled back into Irkutsk and drove to a high point across the river where we could see this city of 600,000 stretched out for a surprising distance, the Angara River running through it, turning the turbines of the hydroelectric plant and supplying electricity. Lucy suggested that since we had only a light lunch (a whole fish each!) that we should have dinner before our train.
Near the center of downtown in a basement is a restaurant designed to look as restaurants might in the old Soviet era. No, there weren’t large photos of Brezhnev or patriotic Pioneer children doing wholesome things. It was based on old telephones, old cassette players, rounded screen televisions and print wallpaper from a bygone era. Part spoof, part loving fun, it was a charming restaurant with a menu crammed full of tempting choices.
We all agreed to share and ordered Russian fare: Cossack dill pickles, pickled cucumbers and cabbage, red caviar, eggplant caviar, dark bread, soups, more smoked fish, herring in oil, beet salad, salo (a raw bacon), and kasha. That was the beginning. We then went to rolled stuffed cabbage with beef, Beef Stroganoff on a bed of mashed potatoes, hare in sour cream, soup of Kazakh noodles with lamb, chicken and more. And, of course, vodka. It seems one can’t make a compliment or mention someone without a toast being offered. We made lots of compliments. The meal and conversation was delightful.
There was enough time for a brief stroll before fetching our bags and going to the train station. We passed several old log house, settling into earth, but we also walked by sleek, modern coffee shops, specialty shops, nicely done restaurants with lots of windows and light. A new mall, partially above street level, partially below could have been just about anywhere—France, Germany, the United States. The store brands were often familiar, the kids toted skateboards, the young families pushed baby strollers, and it was interesting for me to see, out here in Siberia, the changes made since my visit to a much darker, more dour Russia 21 years before.
Nick took his own car to check on their two children, Lucy swung by the hotel and waited while we picked up our bags, and we were off to catch our train to Mongolia at 9:35 PM on Christmas Eve.
Thanks Lucy, thank you Nick, and Tom, thank you too. Thanks for the memories, wonderful memories, of 14 hours in Irkutsk.
If you need a travel agent to help you with Siberia—or anywhere, really—Lucy is an excellent contact, speaks very fluent English, and is quite knowledgeable. Here’s her contact information:
Liberty Travel Agency
Phone +7 914 907 66 11
Lucy arranged for us to use the Europa Hotel as a base while in Irkutsk. It was quite nice and reasonably priced.
phone +7 3952 29 15 15