The Siberian city of Irkutsk was our introduction to Russia, and we adjusted to this new country immediately. We stepped off the train, jumped straight into a taxi and headed directly to our hotel.
We stayed at the Courtyard Irkutsk City Centre, a Marriott hotel. Despite the name it wasn’t quite in the city centre – it was probably a 15 minute walk from anything of interest. We picked it for two reasons. The reviews said it had English speaking staff, and Western chain hotels were incredibly cheap in Russia’s regional cities. It was great.
All we did before bed was go for a short walk to Kirov Square, and then ate dinner at our hotel.
The first thing we did the next morning was buy SIM cards for our phones. We wanted maximum data as cheaply as possible. We ended up with something like 10 gig for about $20 from a company called Beeline from a shop we found on Karl Marx Street (all Russian towns have a Karl Marx St and a Lenin St). This is one of the main shopping streets in Irkutsk.
As with a lot of Russian cities, Irkutsk has a “green” walking trail painted on the streets for tourists to follow. It’s actually a pretty easy way to get around. One of the first things we saw was a display of tanks. A great introduction to Russia.
Much of Irkutsk’s tourism industry is centered around the Decembrists, a group of rebels who were exiled to Siberia in the 19th century. They brought their wives with them, and because they were all intellectuals they helped establish schools, theatres and hospitals in the area. Some of their former homes have been turned into museums, which we visited. Read Princess Of Siberia if you’d like an easy introduction to their history.
There were a few things about the museums of Irkutsk that were completely different to back home. As with Mongolia, you had to pay extra to take photos, although the total cost of tickets and photos only ever came to a few dollars. You had to put your coat in a cloakroom. And a tour guide had to accompany you everywhere – except they spoke no English and we spoke no Russian. You would think this would be a problem, but it never was. At the Irkutsk Regional Historical and Memorial Museum of Decembrists there were translations on most of the signage, so our guide didn’t have to do much (I think she was relieved). This museum did a good job of telling the story of the Decembrists. Next we went to the Volkonsky House museum, where the guide tried really hard to tell us things but unfortunately we couldn’t understand. Luckily they had laminated sheets of paper with translations of what each room was about in English, German and French. These were hidden in the corners of the rooms of the house, so our guide either handed these to use or pointed out portraits of the various Decembrists (she’d worked out that we at least knew some of their names). She was very nice despite the language barrier.
We also took photo of wooden houses, which you have to do in Irkutsk. Literally any list of things to do in Irkutsk will mention something about wooden houses.
It was actually freezing cold, so we decided to head to the local mall which we’d seen referenced in Lonely Planet. It was lunchtime, and we hadn’t actually walk past any cafes or restaurants. We weren’t sure how to navigate the local buses, so we just walked. It was a pretty cold walk. When we arrived the mall was incredibly crowded and it felt like we could have been anywhere in the world. Obviously we loved it and went straight to H&M. Eventually we found somewhere to eat in this weird fake “old town” area that is basically a recreation of Irkutsk’s wooden houses but brand new. When we said we spoke English at our chosen restaurant our waiter disappeared and was immediately replaced with their only English speaking waiter – an experience we would have several times over the next few weeks.
We were so tired from all our walking around that we just ate snacks in our rooms for dinner and watched TV. Life couldn’t get any better really!
On our second full day in Irkutsk we hired a guide to take us out to Lake Baikal. We’d thought about staying at the lake, because every guide to the area says to do that. Well after our visit to Listvyanka we were very happy that we based ourselves in Irkutsk. If you are into hiking and boats (plus you’re there in summer), maybe it’s a nice place to stay. We were happy with a day trip.
It’s about an hour from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, and we stopped at the Taltsy Museum of Architecture on the way. This strange open air museum is basically just a whole lot of recreations of different wooden houses.
We then had lunch at a random empty restaurant on the outskirts of Listvyanka where we ate omsk, the local fish. It was actually pretty good. If you like fish you’ll enjoy it. You’ll see people selling whole smoked fish all over Listvyanka – we had it in a salad instead.
It was a freezing cold day, and we ticked off most of Listvyanka’s sights pretty fast. It’s not a particularly charming town, but I took plenty of photos.
Church Of St Nicholas
Lake Baikal is of course massive. It’s the deepest freshwater lake, and it is a popular tourist destination. There were a few other tourists around, but most of the time we had everything to ourselves.
We headed back to Irkutsk in the afternoon and had dinner in the hotel – there are restaurants around but they are all a bit of a hike!
Our third day was dedicated to walking around, looking at museums and buying food for our upcoming 48 hour train journey. We definitely felt as though we’d been in Irkutsk for a long time at this point!
We took some photos of the river, and then went to the City History Museum of Irkutsk. First we had to cover our shoes in special socks, and then a lady took us around to the various exhibitions. She only spoke Russian – or so we thought. She actually also spoke French, and my mum speaks a bit of French, and I speak the tiniest bit of French. So we managed to understand each other. Sort of.
Eventually we finished in the museum, and decided to go for a coffee. After walking for a long time we ended up at Double Coffee, a place which surprisingly had a huge English menu. We ended up going there for dinner as well.
Our final task for the day was stocking up on food for the train journey. There is a supermarket around the corner from the hotel where we bought days and days worth of food.
And then it was on to Yekaterinburg!