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Irkutsk - Russia at Last!!
Pros: a beautiful little village
Cons: none

Irkutsk, Russia

Monday, Jun 27, 2005 08:30

We have at last made it into Russia!! It was a huge trip on the train from Ulaan Baatar, escaping out of Mongolia, not because of the distance, but the extremely long stops at boring platforms for the tedious customs inspections.

After the overnight trip out of the city, we neared Mongolia's border with Russia. At the border town, about 4 Mongolian traders entered our carriage, who along with 10 helpers, proceeded to fill the spare bunks with a huge amount of goods. Boxes and cartons everwhere. All sorts of wrapped, and loose garments/utensils/fridges/generators/towels were loaded into the cabins. Once all was stuffed on board, we trundled a few kms to the mongolian exit. After a few cursory checks (except for the poms next door who for some poor reason failed to gain an entry stamp entering the country) we set on our way to the Russian border control.

In this 15min gap the mongolian women trotted up and down the cabin throwing childrens clothes into our rooms, hanging towels up in cabins, and generally trying to disguise the amount of crap they had with them on the train. We were subject to a 35 kg weight limit, but there seemed to be no problems for these women.

Once at the border control, the Russians seemed to be more interested in who might be hiding in the ceiling-under the bed-behind the curtains-inside the hot water heater than the huge amount of trading products the 4 women had bought with them. After an hour or two, they were carting all the stuff off, after covering only 15km. Made us worry less about what might be in our bags however!

We arrived in Irkutsk at 8am, about 45 mins ahead of schedule. We had been informed about the beautiful views of lake Baikal as we skirted the base of the lake, and awaking at 5.30am I kept on looking out the window (it was light already) to see these views of the huge lake. It was all forest, so Debbie and I remained in bed, sure that the lake would arrive in view any moment. It was not until we had a thump on our cabin door that we had 10 mins before arriving in Irkutsk that we realised that the lake must have passed in the dark.

Irkutsk is set on the shores of some enormous river draining Lake Baikal, 75km from the lake. It is a beautiful little village (of 800 000 people) and is a welcome change to the predominantly Asian cities we have been living in till now.

We walked towards our Homestay (hostels are yet to be invented in this part of the world) and found the apartment with the help of some immobile Khazakstan builders. They gestured towards a window at the 3rd floor, they had obviously seen plenty of lost tourists. We climbed the typically seedy, smelly dank stairs to find a locked door and no answer.

Back down with the builders, we established that the landlord, who was not a babushka (old grandma) was out somewhere. We locked our packs up at the top of the stairwell, hopefully in the care of the Kazak builders (they did have a shifty look about them however) and went walkabout around town. It was a lot of discovery for us, although at first glance all the white faces tricked us into thinking we were in any old western city, but looking round, things were so different!!

Cyrillic alphabet everywhere, Lada police cars, and young women dressed as if they are off to a school ball. We wandered about soaking up the sights, until we felt enough time had passed to allow our landlord to return. Return they had, and we were also relieved to see our packs were safe and sound.

We have been hanging out with our Argentinian mates we met out at the Ger camp, and also had a cabin on the train next door to us. We make an odd looking bunch who have no chance of pretending to be Russian. Unlike earlier in the day when a horse leading a camel went galloping through the pedestrian mall, with a foal and a donkey in tow. (the only pedestrian mall in siberia, a proud russian mentioned) Debbie, using her special horse powers tracked the smelly group of animals down, and while she was posing for a photo with Mr camel, I was approached by a Russian family who gabbled frantically in russian while pushing their children at me. I understood a few words, such that they wanted me to take a photo of their kids as the thought I was an official photographer with the animals. I had to decline, however the thought of making some extra roubles on the side was appealing! It is the first time for a long time I have been mistaken for a local!

Tomorrow we plan to head down to the Lake Baikal, to an ex-quaint little village at the river mouth. Apparently a little bit of construction is now taking place, but I am sure it will not be China style. We hope to find a tramping track that heads 18km down the lake, and return by boat. If all goes well we will be back in time to catch the last bus for the 75km trip back into Irkutsk.

Till later
Stewart and Debbie