I removed the glove of my right hand exposing it to the -20c night temperature of Irkutsk so I could punch the security code into the mechanical lock of the door to the block in which my hostel resided. I hit the numbers and heard a clunck as the lock released the door and I entered the building and I climbed one flight of stairs and knocked on the door that had a helpful sign requesting me to knock. The door opened and a young Russian man greeted me with a handshake and introduced himself as Dimitri. As I walked further into the apartment, the bathroom door, which was now behind me, opened and a someone proclaimed "I recognise that voice". It was Christian who I had met in Yekaterinburg. He said he had arrived just a few hours before me.
The hostel, called International Friendly Hostel is a small apartment which was decorated quite drably, to be honest, I don't think it had been decorated since the fall of the USSR. In a strange way it was charming and felt very homely. After Dimitri orientated me and showed me maps of Irkutsk, I headed out to get a few beers and some food from the nearest 24 hour shop which turned out to be quite a long and very cold walk. I left the hostel and since being there it had begun to snow and the roads had been covered in a fine white layer. Irkutsk is known as the Paris of Siberia and I could see why. It is an absolutely beautiful city and walking through the deserted streets and making my mark in the unbroken snow, I felt a sense that this was a completely different city to Petir, Moscow and Yekaterinburg. It was extremely calm and quiet.
I found the shop and it was one of those where you had to ask the lady to fetch what you wanted so with broken Russian I got a few bits and pieces, but the problem came when I wanted beer. There's such a wide selection, I didn't want what I got but it was the only brand I knew how to pronounce. I soon got back to the hostel and cracked open the beers. Christian had also opened up a rather potent bottle of vodka that stripped your mouth of all you taste buds and burnt as it made it's way into your stomach. Absolutely disgusting!
The following day Christian and I took the bus to Listvyanka, a small town on the shore of Lake Baikal. Unfortunately after the bus journey there it was so cold and there wasn't anything happening. Apparently this is the dead time of year when it's cold but the lake isn't frozen over yet. When the lake is frozen they have ice skating and plenty of other things happening on the ice and of course in the summer people flock there to swim and dive. Lake Baikal is the the oldest, deepest and largest (by volume) fresh water lake in the world. I would love to take time and explore the area surrounding the lake but unfortunately I believe that should be a persuit for the summer, not the winter as it can reach -40c during the winter months. We went into the tourist information centre to ask for some advice on what we could do there and were pointed the direction we needed. As we walked down the promenade it soon became clear that nothing was open, but we continued to walk until we reached a yard with an open gate. We looked around, couldn't see anyone but a old boat that someone was working on, so we tentatively walked in hoping that we wouldn't be shot at. The yard was full of delapidated buildings which seemed to have housed quite a successful industry in the past. Around one corner we noticed a plume of smoke escaping from a shed and realised that they were smoking fish. Omul is a unique fish to Lake Baikal and they prepare it by smoking it. Christian really wanted to see some being smoked but we weren't able to.
After exploring the now empty buildings we came to the shore again where we found the most amazing icical hanging over the lake. Following a few photos being taken we took the opportunity to smash something and started to destroy the icicals. It was satisfying snapping of these huge shards of frozen water and throwing them to smash others. We spent quite a while doing this until the ice got it's own back and Christian managed to slip and fall into the lake. At this moment we thought we ought to stop and move away from the ice.
Having walked out of the yard we wondered around town for a while and then decided that there was nothing more that we could do there so we headed back to the bus stop to buy a ticket back to Irkutsk. Having bought our tickets we had around half an hour to wait so we decided to go into the little cafe and have a couple of coffees before the bus arrived.
The road back to Irkutsk was breathtaking, hugging the lake and winding its way up and down hills and through thick pockets of forrest. The surface of the road was incredibly icy and I put all my faith into the expert skills of the driver. I felt quite safe until he was trying to overtake a slow moving truck whilst another vehicle was approaching in the opposite direction. The driver braked, swerved back onto the right side of the road and you could feel the back end of the minibus loose its grip for a moment. This didn't worry the driver and he continued to overtake the truck. As I was write this Great Britain is currently under a snow and has ground to a halt as usual. I believe all drivers should come out to Siberia during the winter and learn how they continue to drive on ice with normal tyres and no accidents. It might be the bottle of vodka they drink before they get in the car that gives them such fearless skills.
Back in Irkutsk I took a walk around and it does surprise me that they still have Karla Marx Street, Lenina Street and still have a statue of Alexander III. It's bizzare how the Communistic leaders have their streets leading to a statue of a Tsar whom they wanted out of power. It's the case all over Russia, both the communist leaders and imperial family are celebrated. They say that it's all part of their history and that it cannot be simply removed from the books. However, they jumped at the chance to build the church in Yekaterinburg to mark the spot where Tsar Nicholas II was executed just 20 years after Boris Yeltsin ordered the destruction of the house that it happened in. Does this mean they didn't like the Russia of 1918-1990 and they would have rathered be under the rule of the Imperial Family? This cannot be the case as you've got Lenin embalmed in his mausoleum in Moscow that attracts hundreds of Russians that want to pay their respects every week and still countless number of statues devoted to the Tsars, Marx and Lenin. don't have an answer for this but it is worth considering when in Russia.
During my last evening in Irkutsk, Christian and I decided to find a restaurant that served good local food. After a while of walking in and out of deserted restaurants we found one that had some people in it. We went in, checked in our coats and were shown to a table. I chose the Omul and it was definitely worth it as it was delicious. As we finished our meal a couple lads in their early twenties approached us and asked where we were from. They had come from a group of people sitting in the corner celebrating one of their birthdays. We got talking and were soon asked if we wanted to join them for a drink. Of course it is rude to decline such an offer in Russia and we went over and were introduced to the rest of the group. The group of students were all students studying engineering at the local university. They soon ordered a bottle of vodka and some things to eat between toasts including some roar Omul. After sharing two bottles of vodka and some beer a war of arm wrestling broke out and of course the Russian might overpowered both German and English.
You could sense that the waitresses were anxious for us to pay our bill and leave as it was getting quite late. We paid our bill and tried to give the Russians some money for the drinks but they absolutely refused and continued to say that we were their guests. The country seriously does get better and better and my preconceptions of Russia have just about faded completely away. We then asked whether they wanted to find another bar to have a drink in but they weren't so keen on that idea and we ended up in a shop buying bottles of beer, Kalimari and dried Omul. The guys then took us to the park opposite next to the opera house and cracked open the bottles and began to drink in the freezing whether of Irkutsk, After a while they said that we should go back to our hostel and Christian and I were convinced they wanted to come inside and continue the party, someting I'm sure would have upset Dimitri who was sleeping in the front room. When we got there though they it became clear that they just wanted to make sure we got back alright and said a quite long goodbye with plenty of handshaking.
By this point we were both quite drunk, Christian more than I as he had another bottle of beer, but he insisted that we go and find another bar. So we embarked on a mission to locate a decent bar with Russian ladies inside but we failed miserably and within 20 minutes we were back inside our hostel.
What an absolutely brilliant night though and another example of the fun you can have in Russia.
Christian was so drunk when he got into bed he asked me extremely politely whether I could get him some water, which I did. However, within a few minutes he climbed down from his top bunk but managed to tip the whole bed over. Luckily nobody was in the bottom of it!
The next day was our last day in Irkutsk and was a write off due to a hangover from the beer and vodka. We both caught the same train that evening however, I was heading to Ulan Ude and Christian was heading straight to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. I was going to go straight to Ulan Bator too but Dimitri convinced me that I should get the train to Ulan Ude, stay a day and night there and then catch a bus to Ulan Bator.
My last Russian train journey started off brilliantly, I got into my compartment and found myself to be the only person. I thought that it was excellent and that I would be able to get a good nights rest to recover from the one before. During the journey though three men joined me in the middle of the night and all stunk of cigarettes. The smell made me nauseous and I struggled to go back to sleep.
Beep Beep! My alarm went off and soon after the Provodnitsa entered the carriage to say we were approaching Ulan Ude. I collected my sheets and returned them to the Provodnitsa got my bags together and the train soon pulled into the station at 6.13am on the dot. Welcome to my last destination in Russia, Ulan Ude.
More on that in my next blog!