Irkutsk – October 22-25 2011
“Some crazy Irish guys have just arrived in a Volvo”
Not what I was expecting to hear from a fellow backpacker as I bundled through the main door of the hostel after the trip to Lake Baikal!
Sure enough, parked up outside was an old Volvo 940, complete with Irish registration plates, an Irish flag sticker and a load of sleeping bags and belongings inside.
Its owners are married couple Cameron and Julie, an Australian and an Irish girl. Incredibly, they’ve driven all the way to the far side of Russia from Dublin, having left the Emerald Isle in August. Along the way they’ve stopped off at Stockport to see friends, before making their way to Harwich for a sailing across to Holland, and then driven across Europe, through the Russian border, and after a few weeks battling the crazy way of driving here, managed to reach Irkutsk.
I’m amazed – having thought my trip was a bit of an adventure and ‘off the beaten track’, driving the entire 8,000km in a 1991 Volvo pretty much trumps everyone’s traveller story, and we sit around for a few hours digesting their tales of how the engine erupted into flames at a petrol station, yet somehow still manages to work. Of how they had so much trouble bringing the car through the border. How they’ve been asked for photographs by members of the public with their number plate. And all along, we’re drinking shots of Russian vodka which had been given to them by a well-wishing trucker at their last truck stop, full of praise and admiration for their intrepid adventure.
Their story makes me smile, as one of my first ideas when I was starting to think of my trip was to buy an old van and drive it to Moscow, to help save on transport and accommodation costs. I’d have kitted it out with a mattress in the back, much to the amusement of my friends Matt and Siobhan back home.
They had visions of me being arrested in lay-bys somewhere in Eastern Europe. It wasn’t that thought which put me off however – it was the problems with bringing a car into Russia and potentially having to leave it there while the journey continues around the world. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare to say the least- and the Russian authorities are very much against any western cars being left on their soil!
Cameron and Julie seem to have a plan, although I won’t go into it here in public for obvious reasons – but their blog is at www. wanderwithus.tumblr.com if you fancy seeing how they get on (after you’ve finished here of course!)
I had an important reason for being in Irkutsk – the small matter of a visa for Mongolia. It was something I desperately wanted to get before leaving the UK, and had planned to make a visa dash to London on one of my days off before leaving, but my Chinese visa application took a lot longer than it should have done – more on that in a future scribbling!
Anyway, it turned out that the Mongolian consulate was only around the corner, but when we arrived I was told they could only do a ‘next day’ service. That somewhat scuppered my plans to get a train that night to Ulan Bator, but these things happen. It meant an extra day in Irkutsk, so more time to look around.
I went back to the hostel and searched for the trains to Ulan Bator the following day. I was quite alarmed to see there was no availability – especially as my Russian visa expires in a few days, so I needed to get out of the country. With a two-day journey to Mongolia, things were getting a bit close for comfort if I had to leave in two days time. By my rough reckoning, the Wednesday train would see me clear the Russian border by a matter of hours, delays not included in the equation.
I decided to head to the railway station in Irkutsk to try my luck there. I went with another backpacker, Hannah, who’s originally from New Zealand but lives and works in the financial district in London. With my handwritten Cyrillic ticket request (I think its harder to write with their alphabet than it is to read it) we braved firm ‘nyets’ from a number of stern female Russian ticket sellers on at least four different windows before eventually finding the international ticket window (again, no signs or help anywhere, you’re just expected to know where to go!)
Thankfully, the website was wrong, and a second class lower berth was mine on tomorrow night’s service from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator for 4,600 Roubles, or about £90. I was relieved- it gives me a day to play with on my Russian visa, and I wont have to face the wrath of any angry border guards!
Hannah and I went in search of some lunch, which is easier said than done here. Its so hard to spot cafes and restaurants, as there’s very few of them. The Russian view on eating, I’ve concluded, is completely different to that in the West, where its seen as a sociable way to enjoy time, with nice food and good company. In Russia, judging by some of the pre-prepared buffet-style food I have managed to find, its simply a means to an end; a way of staying alive!
I’m used to fast food usually being available everywhere you look. So far, I’ve seen just one Mcdonalds sign in Russia, which is probably good for my addiction to the place, while there’s nothing in the way of KFC, Burger King or Pizza Huts, the usual venues for a quick but unhealthy fill.
Instead, there are hundreds of little stalls all over the place, selling cakes and biscuits and various breads through a little hatch. My musings have already prompted concern from my parents and on Twitter that I’m not eating properly. The problem is, fresh fruit and veg is hard to buy, and proper cafes or restaurants are few and far between. Even when you find them, it’s a game of Russian Roulette – or lucky dip as the travellers call it – running your finger down a menu and hoping for the best. There’s absolutely no way of working out what on Earth you’re ordering!
We gave it a good go trying to find something authentic. We looked for a café that was recommended, and it seemed far too pricey. We looked for another in the guidebook, and it had changed into a United Colours of Benetton (still the height of fashion here!) and eventually found somewhere that sells Russian pancakes. We settled for that, hoping for a savoury filling. That was a no-no, as only sweet fillings were left we were told! We decided to have two each, with apricot jam on the side, and laughed about having to have dessert first.
The main course was a Subway that we managed to find on the way back to the city centre. Well, we did at least try to be authentic!
The rest of the day was spent seeing some of the sights, including Trubetskoy house, once home to Sergey and Yekaterina Trubetskoy, who caused a whole load of trouble back in 1825 when they tried to mount a coup, which failed, and so lived here in exile. By far the best thing about it however was the sign on the gate. All I’ll say is I was there on a Monday…I didn’t want to take the risk the next day!
That night a few of us went ten-pin bowling at a nearby complex, which was a lot of fun.
The first game was full of male competitiveness between Cameron and I, for the highest score, although his flukey Turkey blew my hopes to bits. The second game was much more fun – we’d seen the system showed your bowling speed, so invented a new game of taking the heaviest ball and seeing who could bowl, or should I say throw, it fastest!
Of course, the 15 ball had really big finger holes, and I dropped a clanger by trying to put all my energy into it, just as it slipped off my fingers and into the air behind me. As we were the only ones in there, the noise surely alerted the staff to our shenanigans.
If it didn’t, the next calamity certainly did. Matieu, a French guy, bowled it as fast as he could, except the machine was still in the process of clearing pins away. We all gasped. We knew what was coming. Time did that weird slowing down thing as we hid behind our hands and cringed, almost wanting to look away, but actually really wanting to see what would happen. BANG. Pin clearing machine was broken!
Thankfully, the camouflage-wearing (!) security guards weren’t alerted, the machine was repaired for us, and we finished the game. I won the game, but Cameron won the real game. With a speed in excess of 35km/hr!
The rest of my time in Irkutsk was spent picking up my Mongolian visa, which set me back $100, and wandering around through the streets of the city. Its called the Paris of Siberia, and with its river, pretty streets, churches and cathedrals, it was easy to see why.
The city centre had a display of historic photos, including some of its original cathedral that had to be pulled down after being damaged in the civil war, and others of its recently restored, and rather colourful, Cathedral of the Epiphany. An amazing restoration judging by the photos of its damage
I opted for a strange bit of Russian cuisine for lunch from one of the little stalls near the city stadium.
The best way I can describe it is as a deep-fryed Cornish pasty containing yet more mystery meat. I ate it sat on the banks of the River Angara, near to the Trans-Siberian railway memorial, dedicated to the work of those who built the line I’m travelling on.
After stopping at a shop to buy some supplies for the train journey – some bread rolls, cheese, tea and apple juice, it was back to the hostel to pack. There’s a two-night journey ahead, and another country to discover.