Monday, September 12, 2011

Irkutsk and Lake Baikal (Across Russia, Part 7)

After Tomsk, we headed off to Irkutsk by way of the world famous Rossiya (Train #2). To catch it from Tomsk, we had to take a smaller train to Taiga and then wait there until it showed up at 4am. This wouldn't be all that bad, except for the fact that the train stops for two minutes before moving on.

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
From here, we had 26 hours to go until our next stop in the city of Irkutsk and our visit to Lake Baikal. After the break, we'll take a look around town, visit the freezing cold water of the world's oldest and deepest lake, and the vintage car collection of Retropark out by the lake.

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...

 ...which of course is directly across the street from this:

Of course, the city itself is not all a battle between the romantic historical buildings and the remains of the old era. The city is alive and there are signs that the local government is trying to produce a more livable city. We happened across this water park in Irkutsk, which had taken a park from discarded waste to an active meeting place in less than two years (the park was built sometime between fall 2009 and fall 2010). A water play area is a fairly cheap and effective way to create a space that brings people out and together.

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've had your fill, it's time for the lake. And there's a lot of it.

Lake Baikal really is refreshing. More so if you actually go in, but you won't last long. It is cold. The Russians don't seem to notice, but I sure did!

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:

Retropark. It's near the St. Nicholas church that's listed in all the guide books, but this is a gem. For $2 you can take a close look at some truly retro cars, from the US and from Russia. They might be in poor condition, but there are some really rare ones here.

 There's also a Model T there, but for some reason, I forgot to snap a picture of it. In addition to his collection of cars, the retropark also features the guy's outsider art which are all welded miscellaneous parts. Here we also see the "register" for the park entrance.

All in all, this was a great time. The hike was good, the lake is relaxing, and everyone is having a good time on a day like this was. Next week, we head to Ulan-Ude and then start the trek to Mongolia.

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