Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Trans-Siberian Part Four: Irkutsk and Baikal

A Trans-Siberian-Mongolian Journey

A long, long Railway Journey

Part Four: Irkutsk and Baikal

Gyan C. A. Fernando

We have arrived in Irkutsk after four nights on the train. It is 0700hrs exactly and five hours ahead of Moscow time. 
We are met by the lovely Gala our local guide.
Irkutsk Railway Station is rather ornate and impressive.

Irkutsk Station (Dmitry Afonin, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license)
Irkutsk Station (Dmitry Afonin, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license)

Irkutsk Ирку́тск
 Irkutsk lies on the Angara River, a tributary of the Yenisei River. The Angara is the outflow of Lake Baikal.
The Irkut River, from which the city takes its name, is a smaller river that joins the Angara directly opposite the city.
Irkutsk, together with Lake Baikal, is the ideal stopping place before taking the Trans-Mongolian, although the line only branches off further down the line at Ulan Ude. 

 We go to Nicolai's house at Listvyanka, a small town on the shores of Lake Baikal.It is a very pleasant "sea side" town. A chair lift goes up to a viewpoint with a superb view of Baikal.
Lake Baikal from viewpoint near Listvyanka
Lake Baikal from viewpoint near Listvyanka

Dried Amul fish, Listvyanka
Dried Omul fish, Listvyanka
Nicolai's freshly smoked Amul fish
Nicolai's freshly smoked Omul fish
The local specialty is Omul fish, both fresh and dried. 

A typical meal at Nicolai's consisted of Smoked Omul fish, mashed potatoes, Salmon caviar on buttered French toast, salad, vodka, vodka and more vodka! 
After four days on the train, a proper sit-down dinner is most welcome. 

Alyona at Bolshiye Koty
Alyona at Bolshiye Koty
We have now lost the train dizziness and the train lag.

Alyona's liquor shop, Bolshiye Koty
Alyona's liquor shop, Bolshiye Koty
It is now the 12th of August.

 Lake Baikal
After breakfast, we set off by boat across Baikal to the isolated village of Bolshiye Koty and to the home of Elena and Slava Maximov and their lovely young daughter Alyona.
Gala Isaeva
Gala Isaeva

Gala and I
Gala and I
Alyona, who is probably under age, runs the local liquor shop which is just a small trailer caravan. Because it is a hot day she is wearing a bikini. The local lads are all hanging around, not surprisingly!
Bolshiye Koty is a lovely place.  
Catherine, Gala and myself go for a walk along the shores.
It is an isolated community and predictably, there are are plenty of liquor outlets. We see a drunken young woman fall face down in the mud, repeatedly. This is in broad daylight!

Today is the birthday of one of our fellow travelers, Austen. We give him joke presents of smoked Omul fish and a bottle of Chilli Vodka!
Later that day I drink a lot of vodka with Gala but am careful to creep in silently into the room that I am sharing with two others. The floors are wooden and they creak, so I remove my heavy boots.

The next morning I get up early and drink endless cups of coffee. Gala, who lost a necklace last night on the beach, finds it.

 The Circum-Baikal Railway
 After breakfast we go across the lake to visit the Circum-Baikal Railway. Built on difficult terrain, this once was a part of the Trans-Siberian. 
Circum-Baikal Railway
Circum-Baikal Railway
Nicolai and wife
Nicolai and wife

In later years, this section of the Trans-Siberian was by-passed.

After our visit to see the tunnel and other railway works, we return to our boat for a picnic catered for by Nicolai. The weather has turned cold and rainy and that is why we are having a picnic on the boat.

Apparently, Nicolai is a bit disappointed with this arrangement and when we eventually return to his place we find loads of freshly cooked food. It is best described as a banquet with stews, salads, potatoes and meat on skewers of the length of swords!

The next morning is the 14th of August.

Gala and I 
 We are taking the Trans-Mongolian tonight but before that we have plenty of sights to visit in Irkutsk and Gala is intense about that. That's her job, to show us her home town.
I suppose there was a lot of historical and other interesting stuff to see but as far as I was concerned, I was now more interested in Gala!
Gala Isaeva
Gala Isaeva

After more sight seeing, eventually Gala and myself get some time for ourselves to sneak off to town, on our own, whilst the others are busy getting ready for our next train journey. It is now late afternoon and our time in Irkutsk is running out.

Gala and myself walk hand in hand in the bright sunshine and go to a coffee shop. We spend some time talking about life in general. I sort of like her in my usual crazy manner and at that stage in my life I could have fallen in love with anyone! Sheer desperation and loneliness!
 We then we go out onto the streets of Irkutsk and I buy some chocolates for her.
We have to get back to join the others, she commands, in her authoritative Russian manner.  
Rather reluctantly, I return with her to join my fellow travelers in the hotel bar.
Before that, she tells me, or rather orders me, that I must first buy the usual provisions for the journey ahead: Vodka, rye bread, salami and cheese.
 Back in the hotel bar, the others are in good form!
 Big Graham buys me a large Vodka as I walk in and Christine offers me a pink Sobranie. This brings me back to reality of sorts.
My mind is still in turmoil though. 

Then the raw vodka sinks in! 
I make an effort to indulge in small talk with my fellow travelers but my mind is still elsewhere! I am not sure where I want to go. I am still smoking the pink Sobranie.
I decide to buy some pastel coloured Sobranies for myself. Anything to keep my brain going. Away from thoughts of Gala!
We are then told that we have to go to the railway station. Catherine the leader, warns us of the risks of getting too drunk before getting on the train. It was probably directed at me!

For one mad moment I thought of getting totally drunk and incapable, so that I would get stranded in Irkutsk. I wished I could stay in Irkutsk with the lovely Gala.  
Catherine reminded me that my Russian visa expires tomorrow and if I don't get on the train I will end up in a Gulag.
A sobering thought!

After a sad farewell to Gala I get on the Trans-Mongolian.
Russian Dolls in Irkutsk
Russian Dolls in Irkutsk


Copyright: Gyan C. A. Fernando, 2012
To Gala: Thanks for being a good guide...and a friend..


Except where indicated otherwise, the photographs all belong to the author and are copyright. 

More pictures available here: Picasa 

Further Reading:

  1. The Trans-Siberian Railway (Wikipedia):
  2. The Practicalities (Wikitravel):
  3. The Trans-Siberian Route: 
  4. Irkutsk (Wikipedia): 
  5. Circum-Baikal Railway (Wikipedia):

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