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Lake Baikal
Pros: lovely city, the deepest and very fresh Lake Baikal
Cons: none

Irkutsk, Russia

Sunday, Aug 07, 2005 05:45

Well, I'm officially in Siberia! Irkutsk is a lovely little city (600,000 bods) sitting at the gateway to Lake Baikal (the deepest lake in the world and contains 1/5 of the worlds fresh water).

The trip from Ulaan Baatar (Mongolia) to Irkutsk was largely uneventful; the boarder crossing was long, tedious and beurocratic, but not a problem as such. The highlight of my trip from Ulaan Baatar was meeting Julia, a Russia tour guide working for Sundowners (Australian company). Julia could speak better English than myself and this was to be her 6th trip on the Trans-Siberian this year. During the course of the journey Julia filled me with all sorts of local knowledge (Irkutsk is her home city) and taught me how to say all of the critical Russian phrases and explained a whole heap about Russian custom and culture. Julia also assured me that during her 3 years of continuous travel across Siberia that she'd never once had any issues with robberies or known of anyone that had been robbed. In addition to this I was apparently the first person she had seen have their belongings comprehensively checked (I had to unpack my entire backpack) during her 3 years of traversing Siberia. Thanks to Julia, by the time I arrived in Irkutsk I felt well prepared, relaxed and even excited about the up and coming Russian experience. Unfortunately, up until meeting Julia I had quietly grown quiet apprehensive about going to Russia alone. Reports from other travellers (particularly about Irkutsk) and various publications hadn't painted travel alone in Russia in a very bright light, something that had been silently eating my confidence.

On the journey to Irkutsk, inbetween learning useless facts about the Russian population, I chattered to our other cabin buddie - a smelly footed Israeli guy who seemed to play the guitar very well. Traditionally I'm abit naughty and don't make much of an effort with the Israeli's, but apart from his feet this guy was reasonably personable and interesting so I made the most of it. Consequently I managed to forge out of him all sorts of interesting info about the Gazza strip, West bank and life in the military (all Israeli citizens do 3 years) - I learnt alot. It was all too good to be true though, I knew there had to be a catch and he spoilt his supposed perfectly rational personality with a dramatic scene at the boarder when he wouldn't give the custom's official his passport, or pay the fine because he'd lost his customs declaration for that he'd been provided on entry.... he was Israeli afterall!

Some useless information.... apparently the Russian population is 'top heavy' with women (like 60%+), slim pickings for the women - men are in hot demand! Based on casual observation there are some fairly good looking men around here, so it's a bummer that the population isn't top heavy with men.... but then again maybe I've spent too much time in Asia! The women all look like they should be swim suit models though, ridiculously beautiful and all very well presented, so apart from my attractive passport I don't think I will have any means of luring any lovely Russian men anyway!

Anyway, back to travel! I have spent the last 2 days at Listvyanka, a small fishing village on the shores of Lake Baikal. It's a great little place to kick back and do nothing as it's spread over 4km with fissures of population into the valleys. Smoked fish and bread are plentiful from the many street stalls where the fish is being smoked there and then, consequently my clothes stink of smoke. I dropped my feet into Lake Baikal, but didn't swim in it. Despite the popularity as a swimming hole with the locals I think it would be warmer swimming in Dunedin during winter!

Accommodation in Russia is not unlike what it was in Cuba - either hotels or with families, the hostel type culture hasn't really hit main stream here yet. In Listvyanka I stayed with a family, a young Russian couple (early 20's) from Irkutsk were also staying with the family for the weekend. The couple were really lovely and inbetween drinking wine we made frustrating attempts to converse with my phrase book. Unfortunately my phrase book contains only travel phrases (for 12 Eastern European countries) so it wasn't much help for basic conversation. Charades and drawing were far more effective... these seemed to get far more elaborate as we drank more! It was great to hang out with some Russian nationals, a good point about the accommodation situation here.

It's early days yet, but in the short time I have been here I haven't found Russia to be a problem or difficult and I haven't felt at risk. Irkutsk is very lovely, not unlike some of the Cuban cities we visited with old buildings that require restoration and Lada cars. It's clearly an extremely beurocratic country, far more so than I have experienced anywhere else in the world, but it hasn't been a problem to just abide by the requirements and keep out of trouble. It's nice to see some white faces (where you blend in alittle better) and eat some good quality food.

The people here do drink alot though, it's not unusual to see people on the busses in the early morning getting in a quick beer on the way to wherever. By the late afternoon there's quiet afew drunk people around and come after hours the streets are littered with people sitting around drinking. I haven't experienced any aggressiveness yet with regard to the drunkardness, it just seems to be what you do around here.....

I'm off to Moscow tomorrow, a three day journey. Despite being in Siberia, the time here is only 3 hours behind NZ. Reaching Moscow will add another 5 hours to that, I still can't get my head around how big this country is!