That's correct: Two minutes is all the time you have to get yourself on the train before they move on with or without you. The train station there also doesn't have the best information, so a big source of stress was figuring out which track we needed to be at when the scheduled time was approaching. Thankfully for us, everything went according to schedule and eventually we figured out which track it was with a little help from the locals.
|We had plenty of time to look around.|
|The #2: The Rossiya pulls in to Taiga at 4am|
For most visitors, Irkutsk is a launching point for further explorations of the area, either up to the famed Olkhon Island or out often too easily dismissed Listvyanka both of which are right on the lake. The city itself is walkable and relatively compact, which makes viewing the sights easy enough and overall the sights are overshadowed by what the lake offers just an hour or so away. Pulling in, we arrive at the main station, two stops away from our Hostel.
If we stayed on the Rossiya, we would continue east towards Vladivostok, but for our journey this is were we had to say goodbye. A quick tram car to the city (some of which are exactly the same type as we same in Tomsk) and we could start to take a look around. There are some great examples of wood lace architecture here and some very nice churches, both of which is thanks to the exile of the Decemberists to Irkutsk. Many of these aristocratic families invested in their new (forced) home and endeavored to establish a more "refined" culture in the Siberian outpost. Many of the nicest buildings, churches, and museums today are thanks to their efforts (and money). One example is the house below...
The waterfront by the river is another place which is wonderful on the long summer nights. This area has already been built up, but the city is also investing in another stretch of river front closer to the government building. It's under construction now, but the plans and images I saw (like this one) looked good. Hopefully this is the type of planning that Irkutsk will see more of as they move forward.
Lake Baikal is where the action is though. Generally, people come for the lake and most hostels offer some package to get there. We opted to figure it out ourselves and to head to Listvankya, which is the Russian resort town on the lake and the most accessible part of the lake from Irkutsk. Buses run constantly, are inexpensive, and easy to figure out: You get in one with the sign "Листвянка" and end up at the lake.
At the hostels, sometimes there will be people who talk trash about Listvankya because it's too "touristy" and that the "real" place to go is up to Olkhon Island. While I'm sure Olkhon is a great place, the fact is that Listvankya is fun, easy, and yes, touristy. Russian touristy. This is where real Russians go to relax and it's built for them, not the backpacker talking about how much more "real" Olkhon Island is. It's also a lot closer and you can do everything you want within a day.
When you arrive, you'll be at the main bus stop. I highly recommend you buy tickets here for your return bus in advance as soon as you arrive (reserved seat!). Everything else can be arranged from here, including boat excursions and a place to stay if you need it. From here, you can either head back towards where you came or continue further down the road to the food market and knick-knack stands. We started off with lunch which was a rather tasty pilaf and shashlik before walking along the coast. You can also buy freshly smoked omul here, which is the local fish of the lake and there will be plenty of shop keepers telling you about charoite, which is "Lake Baikal Stone!"
Once you're at Listvankya, there's not all the much to do, beyond gawk at the lake. There's a viewpoint you can climb to (and a ski lift that will take you up the final, steepest part if you want to cheat), a small church, some various art galleries, places to eat, drink, and be merry, but then there's this:
we head to Ulan-Ude and then start the trek to Mongolia.