28 Feb 2013

Irkutsk: & the Decembrists

After 17 hours in a 3rd class cabin (which translates as 54 bunks, 2 toilets and a host of aromas), we were relieved to arrive at 9.30am in Irkutsk.  Having barely stepped onto the platform, we were confronted with the crooked toothed miner throwing his arms in the air and bellowing “Welcome to Russia!” before he laughed and staggered back onto the train.

Day No.
Day
Date
Country
City
Transport
Kms travelled
KM Running total
Hours travelled
Night accommodation
15
Wed
27/02/2013
Russia
Irkutsk
-
0
8793
0
Irkutsk Hostel
16
Thur
28/02/2013
Russia
Irkutsk
-
0
8793
0
Irkutsk Hostel

We decided to walk the 4km from the train station to our hostel, pausing on the bridge over the Angara River to watch the mist rising like smoke from the water.  The river flows at such a pace that it rarely freezes, but the temperature difference between the air and water creates a billowing dry ice effect.  At -20˚C, the air crackled in our nostrils, but this is almost spring for Irkutsk!



We arrived at the hostel too early to check in, so we dropped off our bags and decided to head out for a “treat” breakfast.  Finding what was supposed to be the best café in town, *Snezhinka*, we ordered crepes with honey – or so we thought.  The “honey” turned out to be thickly spread orange caviar, which ruined what would otherwise have been great crepes!  Defeated by the strong fishy taste, we cut our losses and went back to check in to the excellent, but unimaginatively named *Irkutsk Hostel*. 

Irkutsk is a beautiful town, with a real Siberian heritage, and a surprisingly affluent air.  It is the first city we have visited which continues to maintain the traditional wooden houses.  We use maintain in the loosest sense of the word as most houses were suffering from extreme subsidence and needed a lick of paint.  However, it still gave an idea of how Siberia would have looked in the late 1800’s.  

  

It was in Irkutsk that some of the “Decembrist” revolutionaries were sent having been exiled to Siberia following their failed attempt to overthrow the Tsar in 1825.  Comprising mainly of businessmen and intellectuals, they and their wives that followed them into exile, initiated a real cultural revival in Siberia, and after 25 years in exile, had built a strong community and some fine houses, which survive today as museums.  One of the best of these is the Volkonsky House Museum.  With its extensive collection of furniture, personal effects, photos and stories of life in exile, as well as comprehensive English translation – it was one of our favourite museums in Russia.  It is a fitting monument to the determination and resilience of just a few hundred exiles and their wives, who were instrumental in shaping the face of modern day Siberia.


During the soviet era, many churches and other places of religious worship were demolished and many monasteries abandoned.  However, in Irkutsk a few remained - the Church of Our Saviour and the Polish Catholic Church (which had been built entirely by exiled Poles in 1883.) We also paid a visit to the Znamesky Monastery which had some very impressive frescos, although running the gauntlet of 6 lanes of traffic to get to it must be enough to put off all but the most devout attendees!


   

  

One of the most enjoyable dinners we have had so far, was chanced upon behind a seemingly locked door to a basement.  It was the sign of the pot-bellied porcine-featured policeman holding a beer that drew John in.  Once inside, we were in a small vaulted restaurant thick with smoke, but compensated for by that rarest of things in Russia – a smiling waitress.  We tried the house specialities of Frozen Omul (served on a block of ice) – a trout like fish found only in Lake Baikal, and Pelmeni soup (pork dumplings). The impromptu singing DJ added to the atmosphere and everyone around us seemed to love it – so we went along with it!

  

However, our real reason for visiting Irkutsk is that it is the main transport hub to Lake Baikal.  And so, after 2 days, we found ourselves on the local bus to Listvyanka, a village on the south west shore of Lake Baikal


J&J


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