Published On: Sun, Aug 26th, 2018

The Great Train Journey – part two

At the Gagarin monument in Irkutsk - 20180818 HH

By Hilbert Haar

On a Thursday at 3 o’clock in the morning our train rolls into the main station in Irkutsk, with around 600,000 inhabitants one of the largest cities in Siberia. Finally we are out of the digital wilderness – we’ve had no internet since our trip began on Sunday.

A few coffee places in the station are still (or already) open and we hang out there for a while with a Spanish couple, until we figure out that it is possible to check into our hostel – The Eight Floor – at this ungodly hour.

The cab drivers in front of the station are sharks – they demand 1,000 roubles for a trip – about five times the regular rate. We laugh them off – earning a profound fuck you from one of these guys – and start looking for alternatives. Two girls who worked on the train come to our rescue; they call us a cab that sets us back just 200 roubles.

Irkutsk shows us a bit more of the real Russia. Moscow seemed to us to be a little bit too neat, a little bit too clean, to be real. And indeed, in Irkutsk the sidewalks are not as wide and not as well kept as they are in the capital. The buildings are not as grand; many houses look like they are way past their life cycle.

The hostel looks neat and we have the whole day ahead of us. No sleep for weary world travelers; we’ve got work to do: getting our visa for Mongolia and our tickets to travel to its capital Ulanbataar the next week.

Getting the visa is a blast. The consulate is at walking distance from our hostel and the staff at the visa center is friendly and speaks excellent English. We submit the visa-request-form (already downloaded back in Europe), show our passports and are told to come back at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. No hassle with requests for proof of insurance, or the state of our bank account. For $70 a pop, we have the beautiful Mongolian visa in our passports that afternoon.

We spend the following day exploring Irkutsk – on foot. Some days I walk as much as thirteen kilometers; that was the case in Moscow, and it’s the same here. I find a couple of interesting landmarks – a statue of Lenin, a monument for cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin  – the first human to travel into outer space on April 12, 1961 – and of course Karl Marx Street.

Interior Holy Cross Church, Irkutsk - 20180818 HH

One of Irkutsk’s jewels is no doubt the Holy Cross Church, located at the intersection of Kommunarov and Sedova. I hadn’t been in a church like forever, but the interior of this one impressed me. The gardens around the church are well-kept – so unlike the public green just outside the perimeter of the church grounds.

On Saturday we travel with a luxurious hydrofoil boat from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, a small town on the banks of the Baikal Lake. The single fare is just 450 roubles (roughly $6.75) per person – for a trip of an hour on the Angara river. I can’t help thinking about the $12 you have to pay to get from French Cul-de-Sac to Pinel island – a mini trip of at most ten minutes.

The Angara river is impressive – almost 1,700 kilometers long and at many places more than a kilometer wide, but that pales compared to the numbers the Baikal lake has to offer. It’s 600 kilometers long, takes up as much space as the country of Belgium, is almost 1,650 meters deep at its deepest point and contains almost a quarter of the world’s fresh surface water.

Bikini-girl on Baikal Lake pebble beach - 20180818 HH

When we arrive around midday, the sun is out but the wind is still fresh. For us, that’s cold and I almost fall over backwards when I see bikini-clad girls lying down on the small pebble beach overlooking the vast expanse of water. Later in the afternoon it warms up a bit and out of the wind the sun hits me pretty badly – as I find out that evening when I look in the mirror.

There is a big fish market in Lystvyanka; not for us vegetarians but Myriam binks a smoked fish claiming a need for proteins – two days after someone told her never to eat fish in Russia because it is usually full of worms. Apparently, this one wasn’t because she does not experience any adverse effects.

We return to Irkutsk by bus, ending at a bus station at walking distance from our hostel. One more day – of mostly rest and writing – and then we are heading for Mongolia on Monday morning.

Funniest road sign in Russia - don't drive into Baikal Lake - 20180818 HH

Top photo caption: The guy in the background is the most important: cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. This monument is located in Irkutsk. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Next photo caption: The beautiful interior of the Holy Cross Church in Irkutsk. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: Defying the cold wind, a girl lies topless at the pebble beach along Baikal Lake in Lystvyanka. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Last photo caption: This road sign prohibits Russians from driving straight into Baikal Lake. That’s the funniest road sign I’ve seen so far. Photo Hilbert Haar.

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Related stories:
The great train journey – part one
Homeless by choice