So we got to Irktutsk, which has been called the "Paris of Siberia," which is not only a gross exaggeration, but downright wrong. The only thing Parisian about it is a small Eiffel Tower structure on the main shopping strip.
The city is such an architectural mix with beautiful wooden buildings like this...
with plenty of buildings in disrepair like this...and beautiful brick buildings that are Brooklyn brownstone-ish / New Orleans French Quarter like this... and of course mixed in with Soviet block style apartment buildings like this...Now we all know Parisians like to shop, but this is no Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
This is the main shopping drag that houses the Eiffel Tower and megaphone announcements. The other thing I've learned here in Russia, is they love their megaphones. In Saint Petersburg and Moscow, it was all about announcing tours via megaphones, and in Irkutsk, we found that shopkeepers like to stand storefront with their megaphone announcements. Suddenly, the very quiet country of Finland is sounding nice about now.Below are some other iphone shots taken around town. The local buses here look as if they are about to break down and are usually packed with people. Irkutsk is on the Angara River and one night as we strolled down the river, we came across an "amusement" park or should we say, a vaguely amusing park. Nothing like a dirty jump house under some telephone wires. So let's just say that Irkutsk leaves something to be desired, but serves as a great gateway to Lake Baikal.
There was however one thing that really caught my eye in Irkutsk. Find out what in the next post!
We decided to split our course to Mongolia into 2 parts. Moscow to Irkutsk (see map above), then Irkutsk to Ulaanbaator. This route would have us taking 2 different trains. The train to Irkutsk actually continues east to Vladivostok. For more information about the Trans-Siberian Railway system, this is a good resource.
We booked tickets for 2nd class with a 4 person cabin, so we were eager to see who our roommates might be. We both already knew we were assigned top bunk beds and we had no idea what to expect. Here goes nothing!
We board the train and find our roommates are already getting situated. A Russian mother and son who are very quiet, polite, and don't speak any English. They are with us the entire ride. We meet a German couple on our car and we both indulge in the difficulties we've both encountered in Russia. Their roommates are drunk a few hours in, stumbling around and we feel lucky to be sharing our space with the mother and son. So let's talk facilities...
Rick was worried early on that he would fall out of the bunk. When we arrive, we see that his railing is broken. Luckily, I brought rope and tape and he rigs a system to keep that railing intact! See our bunks and his lovely rope work below... (PS- the beds were actually quite comfortable. Probably better than our last 2 hostels. You get suited with clean sheets, a blanket, a pillow, and a face towel.)
Each train has two bathrooms and on the other end is a samovar for all your boiling water needs. Most people are constantly drinking tea and we brought instant oatmeal and noodles for the ride. As you can see, there is a digital display with the temperature and time. Let's talk about the time. As we were passing through time zones, we were wondering when the time would adjust. The next morning, it still had not adjusted. We found a schedule on the train that listed all the stops along the way and we also found out that all train times in Russia are in Moscow time. So here we thought we'd get into Irkutsk at 4pm as our tickets said, but apparently, that was in Moscow time, which meant we were actually getting into Irkutsk at the local time of 9pm.
And here are our roommates who basically never left this position.
We aren't even sure if they ever ate a meal because they remained at window side with only a bag of candy.And now for the dining car! We always romanticized the dining car... sitting endlessly, sipping coffee, overlooking the landscape. Well... besides getting ripped off on two cups of coffee and inhaling the smoke of the old women who work the car, it was a nice experience. One night for dessert we had blini's with caviar and butter. Rick topped it off with the worst beer he said he's ever had, meanwhile one of the dining car ladies rocked a card game on her computer. So let's talk train stops and stations. While we discovered the timetable for all the stops the train makes (in Moscow time) it also lists how many minutes you stop at each station. Some stops were only 2 minutes, while others were over twenty. This was important to know so if you got off the train, you made sure you boarded with good time.
I had read all these accounts on the internet of people selling local food on the platforms to which we found bogus! There were kiosks to buy small things like water, ice cream, snacks, etc. but these local vendors were all but a dream. The other interesting thing, or non interesting thing depending on how you look at it, was all the stations pretty much looked alike. All the images below were from various stations. Also, each station had an ominous voice (usually a harsh sounding Russian woman) over loud speaker which had the ability to make you feel as if you were doing something wrong without understanding a word they were saying. So what did we do for 3 nights besides not shower?
We drank a lot of tea and gazed out the window.
We passed by many villages, all of similar decay. We were amazed that these structures and the people living in them could survive the brutal winters. There were also derelict buildings a dime a dozen along with other buildings of Soviet times. Who lives in these towns? (Please note these were all shot from a moving train!) The landscape did not change all that much until maybe the end when the land really opened up from the dense forest to give way to some really beautiful flowers.
So we survived the first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey!
Monday we leave Irkutsk for a 2 night train trip to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Gobi here we come!