Paris in Siberia?
Vail, CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories about local resident Luc Pols’ trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
We board our train at about 11 p.m. for two nights and a total of 33 hours on the train to Irkutsk. Luckily the train stops every five or six hours during the day, when we can stretch our legs, get some fresh air and buy supplies at the station. Vendors offer fish, meat, breads and sweets and, of course, vodka and (warm) beer. The compartment is quite comfortable and the time passes rather quickly with looking out of the window, visiting the restaurant car for (cold) beer, playing chess and reading. You definitely get a feeling of the vastness of this country. We do not pass too many towns, just some smaller settlements and the rest is forests ” hundreds of miles of mainly birch trees, but also some evergreens. It is easy to understand, that most, if not all of the older houses in Siberia are constructed of wood and this shows when we arrive in Irkutsk.
We arrive at the railway station and notice that this one, like many other stations around Russia, is a building of splendid architecture, most of which date back to the communist era. Irkutsk was once known as the “Paris of Siberia,” a somewhat dubious label, but the city is indeed quite nice.
In the old section we see numerous log cabins and houses constructed of wood with integrate woodwork, which are beautiful. We also notice that the shutters and other adornments of the houses are painted in a blue color, which, we are told, is typical Siberian. We do not take a river cruise on the Angara River, but instead stroll through the town and along this river. This is definitely a thriving community and not the Siberia one expects from stories about Gulags. They too, had their Gold Rush in the early 19th century when mansions were put up, but they also had “A Great Fire” in 1876, which destroyed 75 percent of all houses in the city ” not surprising considering most of the structures were made of wood.
We had an interesting, if somewhat different, experience with the hotel. We had booked the hotel the day before from Novosibirsk, and when we arrive, both Peter and I freshen up before heading out. We are not particularly satisfied with the hotel and when we pass a nice hotel, we inquire as to the room rates. They are slightly cheaper than the place we already had showered in, so we go back, pack our things and leave. They almost charge us!
The next day we charter a taxi cab to drive us to Lake Baikal, about an hour away. This is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world and has more fresh water than all of our Great Lakes combined, about 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supplies. It is also the world’s deepest lake with a depth of 5,371 feet. The taxi drives us to Listvyanka and here we spend a couple of delightful hours. We taste the freshly smoked fish from vendors at a small market along the lake and haggle with souvenir vendors. Since we were schooled in Asia, I think we did OK. The lake is still frozen and we see boats in the ice, which definitely have been there since the water started freezing last year September/October.
The taxi takes us back to Irkutsk and the Railway Station, where we get our supply of Ramen noodles and other goodies for our next ride. This one, another two nighter on the train, will take us to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, in a little more than 34 hours, where we will meet my friends Rob and Sandi, who will join us for the next 10 days on this adventure.