Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and Ulan Ude


Rather grim train ride, managd to be sat opposite an old babushka who constantly smacked her lips and snored like a truck, horrendous. Perhaps riding in platzkart isn't the way to get that stereotypical vodka fueled train ride everyone dreams of having, let alone expects. Second class coupe carriages await when crossing international borders so we'll see, but I won't hold my breath.

Tomsk to Irkutsk is roughly around 1541 km, and again, even with all that time to do nothing but lounge around, read, eat and chill, I was still tired. Proving to be a re-occuring trend with these long train rides. Arriving early morning I just got in a taxi and managed to get to the hostel hassle free, having no problems with taxi drivers, police or any other potential Russians intent on a bribe, touch wood.

The hostel was clean with plenty English speakers which always makes a pleasant start to proceedings and with the weather picking up I was hopeful of some summer looking snaps of Lake Baikal. However, this is Siberia we're talking about and the following day it was grey and snowing, not the weather I wanted for my minibus trip down to Listvyanka, a little village 70 km away and one of the best places to go to see the lake.

With the seasons changing, it's no longer winter and not quite summer which unfortunately leaves options for activites at a minumum. As it was still cold enough though, I was able to walk around on the ice of the worlds deepest freshwater lake and get some cold looking photos. Parts of the ice had melted but it was still at least a foot deep in some parts.

Out on the ice, Lake Baikal

Iced over Lake Baikal

Regardless of the time of year, you can always get your hands on some of the local fish though, the most popular one been smoked omul. It looked a bit sketchy, but tasted delicious. After taking my obligatory photos I went in search of my eco-hostel. What was so eco-friendly about it I'll never know but I had the whole place to myself all day, so I literally read and did nothing. Perfect escape from everything.

Mmm, delicious

Eco-hostel, Listvyanka

Back in Irkutsk, there were plenty of small cafes and canteens and I basically wandered around eating for a couple days. The canteens are great because I don't need to even try and speak Russian, all I have to do is point. As well as cheap eats, there were plenty of bars along the way too. Meeting two French guys who spoke Russian was incredibly useful and we went on to have a cracking night out which included, you guessed it, far too much vodka and outrageously loud Russian dance music in some random club down by the river.

Ulan Ude

The train ride down to Ulan Ude was harmless enough, only 455 km, nothing these days. Again, having great luck with taxis and got to my hostel super cheap and easily. The hostel is bang in the middle of town, a stones throw away from Lenin Square, home to the largest statue of Lenin's head. 

Lenin Street itself is a nice enough pedestrianised area but by the time you have walked all the way down to Odigitria Cathedral, the whole area is a little seedy. Still, this is where I found the best puuzy in town. Basically, dumplings filled with pork and onion with serious juices flowing out, amazing.

Odigitria Cathedral, Ulan Ude

The biggest Lenin head in the world, Ulan Ude

Just a short ride away is the Buddhist monastery complex, Ivolginsky Datsan, the most important one in the area for the Buryat people. Back when Stalin was in power, he was constantly destroying temples in an attempt to suppress Buddhism, but eventually he allowed the Buryat people to build one. They settled on a remote area about 40km away from Ulan Ude and the site has since grown with plenty lamas and even the local university to study Buddhism.

Dennis, the owner of the guesthouse I stayed at, was kind enough to drive and he basically gave an insightful tour of the place, something that made the trip that much more enjoyable. The main attraction here, however, is the body of a lama who died in the lotus position while meditating back in the twenties. He was exhumed about twenty years ago and was in remarkably good condition, so much so that he went on display for people to touch, it was said he gave you good luck. Obviously a corpse can only take so much so now you can only touch him eleven days in a year, the rest of the time he is locked up.

The original temple of the complex, Ivolginsky Datsan

Another temple, Ivolginsky Datsan

Etigel Khambin Temple, Ivolginsky Datsan

I've had a great time in Russia, met some good people, seen loads of cool stuff and eaten some surprisingly tasty food, but now it's time to be moving on.

Next stop, Mongolia, on the Trans Mongolian part of the journey. Looking forward to riding horses, drinking fermented milk, eating dumplings and sleeping in a ger, just need to get past the apparent horror show of a border crossing first.

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