From Siberia to Tibet: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal

As the rest of our group lived in Helsinki, their starting point was set, but for me, setting off from Sydney, this would have added a week or two to an already ambitiously long itinerary.  The eventual solution was that I would skip the initial leg of the trip and fly down to meet them at Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, “only” 15 hours flight time from Sydney.

I landed at sunset into pelting rain at the cavernous and chaotic Beijing Capital Airport, where I waited for an hour for the sole officer to stamp boarding passes at the transit desk and caught a few hours of shut-eye at the stupidly expensive transit hotel.  Shortly after 5 AM, I boarded a lime green S7 (f.k.a Siberia Airlines) Airbus A320 for the two-hour hop to Irkutsk, flying over the same route we would spend the next week crossing by land.  Alas, Mongolia was covered in cloud and I caught only a fleeting glimpse of Lake Baikal as we approached Irkutsk.

Thanks to some optimal bus jockeying, I was literally the first person in line at Russian immigration, where my visa and passport were carefully scrutinized.   Much typing ensured, but a few minutes later they were stamped and handed back, without a single word said during the entire transaction.  Ёлки зелёные, I was in Siberia!

My Russian colleagues had been uniformly horrified at the idea of voluntarily visiting a provincial Siberian town like Irkutsk, which last made headlines in 2016 when 76 people died from drinking methanol-laced bath lotion.  My initial impressions did not do much to dispel this: the dark and gloomy Soviet-era airport lurking inside the baby blue building perched just off Ulitsa Sovetskaya, hailing a Yandex ride in a beat-up car driven by a chain-smoker missing most of his teeth, the early morning drive through deserted roads of rotting wooden houses, Vladimir Ilyich saluting his eponymous street…  it all reminded me too much of the gnarlier bits of Tallinn immediately after liberation in the early 1990s.

Fortunately, we had chosen our digs well in the positively posh 130 Kvartala Disneyland-esque wonderland of new timber buildings kitted out with boutiques, restaurants and hotels including our base Marussia, which managed to pull off the unlikely feat of being a pleasant, modern boutique hotel built in what’s essentially a log cabin.

First order of business was to cleanse ourselves of the dusts of Europe and Oceania by performing a triple rite of purification at Polyana:

  1. Searing steam in the banya (Russian sauna), heated by a wood-fired stove behind a brick wall.
  2. Ritual flagellation with a well-soaked venik, or oak broom — the sign prohibits entry into the banya without one!
  3. Baptism in the waters of the Angara River, glacial even in midsummer.

Over the coming days a more rounded picture of Irkutsk fell in to place.  Some parts were booming, some parts were falling apart, some parts were modern, some were straight from 1970, and like everywhere most people were just muddling through.  Some people spoke English, most didn’t but were friendly anyway, and while knowing rudimentary Russian was helpful, particularly for reading Cyrillic, I don’t think we would ever have been in real trouble even without it.   All in all, though, it seemed a city on the mend after some pretty rough years, profiting off the China trade and increasingly popular with Asian tourists.   Well worth a visit.

Food in Irkutsk was a highlight, and Sval in Listvyanka was among the best meals of the whole trip: the famed Baikal omul tasted like an oversized herring to me, but muksun grilled over charcoal was amazing.   In addition to the obligatory Russian rassolnik and pelmeny washed down with vodka, we feasted on Buryat pozy and khuushuur dumplings (a foretaste of both Mongolia and Tibet), shashlik kebabs and lavosh flatbread from the Caucasus, unpronouncable Georgian walnut-paste salads and red wines, and even the odd attempt at modern fusion like a rather delicious concoction of creamy Russian ice cream, berries and cedar nuts (orekhi).  The last of these were ubiquitous and sold by street vendors in packs of up to a kilo.

The Taltsy open-air museum, 50 km from Irkutsk, was a worthwhile excursion, with displays ranging from the rather miserable huts and sky coffins of the native Evenki to the mighty ostrog fortresses of Siberia.  It was surprisingly lively too, with shops and costumed performers, and not too many tour buses even on a weekend.

But true to my words to the doubtful Russian visa officer, the main reason I and most other Trans-Siberian travellers came to Irkutsk is to see Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, located a leisurely hydrofoil cruise or hair-raising minibus ride away.   While Irkutsk in July basked in temperatures pushing 30°C, on our first visit the pebbly lakeshore 70 km away was barely 15°C and shrouded in chilly mist, to the point that even Siberian sunbathers hesitated to take their togs off.   It was hard to imagine what it’s like here in the depths of winter, and on our return we got a faint taste of Baikal’s famously fearsome storms (waves 4.5m high are apparently not uncommon) when a sudden squall blew through Irkutsk and left us stranded at the bus station, with trams stalled (“energia nyet”) and half a meter of muddy water sloshing through the streets.

Unsurprisingly, very few people actually live on the shores of the lake.  Port Baikal, the terminus of the Circum-Baikal spur line, is an unattractive rusty boat graveyard, while Listvyanka at the end of the road is a strip of hotels, rental cottages and souvenir shops.  Our second day trip took us by hydrofoil to Bolshiye Koty, where visitors are greeted by and entertainment consisted of watching the village lunatic speed up and down the dirt road on a clapped-out motorbike while drinking instant coffee out of plastic cups.

Yet the amazing thing was that, five minutes from the pier, you were alone in a pine forest with no sound except the incessant chirping of crickets.   Lake Baikal was before us, silent, clear with shades of blue rarely seen outside the tropics, unfathomably deep and majestic.  We walked some distance along the trail, had a picnic of cabbage pie, pickled carrot and warm beer, and remembered what it felt like to be somewhere where there are no obligatory attractions to see or things to do.

Anorak bonus album: Trams in Irkutsk

Next morning, we continued towards Mongolia.

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