Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
Enjoying the 3 nights on the train, once the visa issues were resolved, we fell into a nice routine which consisted of eating, sleeping, watching Corner Gas, as well as enjoying the beautiful scenery of Russia.
We arrived into Irkutsk mid-afternoon to be greeted by a driver to take us to the hotel, except he/she didn’t show up. We patiently waited about 40 minutes, before checking our itinerary to verify we were to be picked up. As we waited, we were approached multiple times by multiple people offering to take us to a hotel. One guy in particular, wouldn’t let it go, so finally we agreed on a price to take us to Lake Baikal. At first, he wanted more, and another Russian gave him, what we thought was an earful, and finally he advised us not to pay more than 2500 Rubles. It was an hour’s drive more or less, as it’s approximately 75Kms from Irkutsk.
We drove to our hotel in Lake Baikal, bid our driver adieu, and checked into the hotel, except they didn’t have our reservations. As we do not have a data plan, we used the hotel to look up our itinerary again. They had us coming in the following night. The hotel did offer us a discount for that night, if we wanted to wait and be checked in after 10pm.
Lo and behold we had the wrong itinerary, as we had changed it earlier, and thought I had the latest. They called the Marriott in Irkutsk to ensure we did have a reservation that night, and then called a taxi to take us back. We vacillated whether to just stay and pay one night in Lake Baikal or head back. We chose the latter as we had a walking tour of Irkutsk, and from what we could see it looked to be a cute city.
Back to Irkutsk, after checking in, we took a short stroll around the area, and were looking for a restaurant, however, it was June 12 which is a holiday in Russia and everything appeared closed. Back to the hotel for dinner and called it a night.
The next day, we were met by Natalya, who was our guide for the next few days. First, a walking tour of the historical part of Irkutsk. We went to Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Irkutsk where they discovered a hidden mural dating back to the 1600’s. This cathedral was part of the fortress, the rest of which was destroyed during the soviet era.
Continuing on, we learned about the Cossacks, stopped by a couple more churches one the Kazan Church of Irkutsk, which is a similar to the one in Moscow. We learned the Russian Orthodox churches have strict rules, one being women need to have their head covered, no chairs, as one needs to stand during the 90-minute service and should go daily. The Russian Orthodox churches are stunning, and extremely decorative both inside and outside.
We also ran into fellow train mates while meandering through Irkutsk, a Chinese couple who had their cabin next to ours during the train ride. Said our hellos, chatted a bit and learned they were going to Yekaterinburg as well. Perhaps we will see them again on the train
Lunch was had at a Mongolian restaurant, and then more touring of Irkutsk. We headed to a monastery where there is a memorial to the women of the Decembrists. Interesting story about Kolchak, a general who fought in WW1, a great scientist, and who lead the white army during Russia’s civil war. Kolchak was a great admiral but was betrayed by the Czechoslovak's who in return received great riches for capturing him.
The Czech's first waited until all the riches were received before turning him in to the Bolshevik’s who then had him killed. There is a petition that was submitted and is awaiting a court decision to see if they remove the statue since he originally for the losing side.
After touring, we finally headed to Lake Baikal where the same ladies we met the previous night greeted us again with a bit of a chuckle. Our room was one with a balcony, so we had a great view of the small village of Lake Baikal, as well as the lake itself.
At 5pm we had a Russian sauna confirmed for us. Not exactly sure of the difference between a normal sauna and a Russian one, we were intrigued to find out the difference. Aside from the branches which apparently one uses to smack against their skin to cleanse out toxins, and funny felt hats, pretty much the same as what we have back home.
Feeling all clean, we went to dinner, and enjoyed our meal with a nice bottle of wine.
The following day we were taken to the Museum and aquarium of Lake Baikal, explaining the age, depth, and the types of fishes found in this lake. It is the oldest, deepest fresh water lake in the world.
Afterwards we went to a ski hill where one can view Lake Baikal, and then to the local market where one can buy fresh produce, pine nuts (which are very popular here,) as well as souvenirs. There is a stone which is only found in Lake Baikal area, and nowhere else in the world, called Charoite. The found this back in the 1970’s and started mining it, so much so, the mine is almost empty. Once gone, the stone will no longer be available.
After lunch, stopped to see a wooden church dedicated to St. Nicholas. Legend has it (there are many legends in Russia) a ship sunk and the sailors prayed for their lives. St. Nick appeared, and saved all the sailors when they should have been dead and so the church was built in honor of St. Nicholas. During the Soviet years, they just locked the church up, and once Russia opened up, they reopened the church.
We also stopped at a wine/liquor store to pick up specialty vodka from Lake Baikal and a bottle of sparkling wine, which was recommended by some Russians we met at dinner the previous night.
The rest of the day was free for us, so we took the opportunity to explore the village. It was great to wander on our own and have time to soak in the village. We took photos, stopped at local stores, and drank at a local pub.
The next day our guide took us to Taltsy Village, which is a village representing buildings of Lake Baikal back in the day. Some of the buildings still exist throughout this area. There is a lot of history in this country, and we were just getting our first glimpse of it here in Lake Baikal.
The village had four different styles each representing the major people of Siberia. The Buryat are more like Mongolians with the yurts. Interesting fact, if they had daughters, they would go to the new husbands’ house, and would be considered guests when visiting their parents. The youngest son gets everything, as when the elder children are growing up, the parents are still young and can help out, but with the youngest, they would be too old, so he gets everything, and looks after parents with his new wife, and they are considered family. If the daughters have children, when they return home, the kids too are considered guests, and parents/grandparents cannot scold them, or ask them to help clean dishes.
After a traditional lunch, we were taken to the train, but first we stopped to pick up some nibbles for our next 2-day trip on the train.
The scenery is amazing, but I will say if someone dropped us off in this area without telling us where we were, I would say that I was in northern Ontario or B.C.