We stumbled off of the train gasping for fresh air sans body odor of unshowered military boys and found ourselves in our first big city in Russia: Irkutsk. I hadn’t expected such a sprawling city in the middle of Siberia, and we were excited to see what it had to offer. We had booked a room at the slightly pricier Angara Hotel for the first night so we could unwind a bit. This ended up being a mistake, because besides paying $150 for the room, the amenities were scarce, our appliances were broken and the staff was totally and utterly useless. I mean, they couldn’t give a shit at all about anything (apparently this is the Russian way, confirmed by quite a few Russians), including helping us. But we were able to get some rest, do some laundry (we have laundry bar soap and my trusty rope from Korea’s eMart that we use as a clothesline) and we were recharged for the next few days in the city.
The next day, we walked through town to the Irkutsk train station, where we walked from the end of one line to another at the ticket sales area because the concept of lining up in an orderly fashion is a foreign concept here and if you give the slightest indication of hesitation, the Russians will cut in front of you. Our godsend was a friendly police officer who spent a good 15 minutes with us, trying to help us buy our tickets on a machine.
This didn’t work so she escorted us like the VIPs that we are to the VIP office on the second floor of the train station, flashed us a warm smile (a smile from a Russian!) and left us in the hands of a woman who hated having to help us just as much as she probably hates her job. Eventually, after some sighing and blank-staring in response to our questions, she mustered up enough energy to sell us our tickets. First-class tickets on the Rossiya train to Moscow. Spasiba, lady!
We rattled across the bridge in one of the old school trams and got off to walk along the river. There’s something about a large river running through a city that makes me feel relaxed. Looking out on the river in Irkutsk, I was reminded of the Kamo River that runs vertically through Kyoto, a city I’ve recently fallen in love with.
Like that river, the one in Irkutsk is a popular hangout for its residents, and we were surrounded by families with kids, business people on lunch breaks and young couples spending the afternoon together.
We bought ice cream at one of many ice cream shacks lined up along the river. God, Russian ice cream is good! After our stroll, we moved from the overpriced Angara to the more budget-friendly Dobriy Cot Hotel.
This quiet summer day led up to the highlight of our day: hanging with Dima in his stomping ground. We had met this awesome guy at the train station in Ulan-Ude a couple of days before; seeing us struggling to find the right ticket counter, he approached us and helped us buy the platzkart tickets. We had made plans to hang out once we were in Irkutsk. We met up in Kirov Square by the fountain with his lovely friend Irina and after getting Chinese takeout, walked to the river and ate by the water.
We talked about how both of them wanted to get out of Russia and eventually immigrate to the U.S. I thought N’s application process to get a Russian visa as an American was a little over-the-top — with its extensive form with very specific questions about your life history – but Russians have the shit end of the stick when it comes to traveling to the U.S. as tourists. Not only do they have to pay a couple of hundred dollars to apply for a visa, but they also have to somehow get to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (the only American embassy in Russia) for an interview. Apparently, Irina had once spent close to $1K just applying for a tourist visa, only to be denied at the end.
Throughout our travels in Russia, we met many Russians who voiced frustration with the difficult American visa process, which prevented these travel-loving people from being able to visit the U.S. I feel for Dima and Irina, who are smart, hard-working and good kids, who love the U.S. so much from their previous travels there, but have a much more difficult path than I do to immigrate because of the relationship between their country and the U.S.
The next day, N and I set off to Listvyanka, the closest town to Lake Baikal. Dima and Irina had warned us that it wasn’t a pretty town, but we really wanted to see the world’s most voluminous, deepest and oldest freshwater lake with our own eyes. And so that’s how we ended up on yet another marshrutka. I honestly didn’t think we would survive the white-knuckle ride there, during which the driver drove like he was being chased by the devil through narrow roads. But as with all of our previous marhrutka rides, we came out of it alive and with a deeper appreciation for our lives.
Listvyanka was definitely an ugly resort town full of hotels and tourist traps. Oh, but the lake! It made up for the unappealing town with its vastness and beauty. The water so was clear we could see straight down to the bottom. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Lake Baikal “is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, two thirds of which can be found nowhere else in the world.” Crazy!
The specialty food here is smoked omul, which is a fish native to this lake. We made our way to an outdoor market where vendors sold smoked omul among other things. I don’t know how they make money because everyone sells the exact same thing. Anyway, we bought a larger omul, a Baikal oil fish (a fatty fish that dwells in the deep, with fat making up over 1/3 of their body weight) and a flatbread for lunch.
We did as the Russians and sat by the water and ate the fish with our fingers. The omul was perfectly smoked and delicious, and was surprisingly flavorful, and reminded us a bit of Japanese Horse Mackerel. We didn’t care much for the smoked oil fish, which tasted exactly like we were eating fat with a smoky flavor.
Wanting to find out more about these fish, animals and plants, we took a marshrutka and were deposited outside the Baikal Museum, right smack in the middle of groups of police and military officers standing around the museum area. They did not want us anywhere near the vicinity of this tiny museum and waved us away. Another small group of officers further on shouted at us (with hand gestures) to move away from the area, so we hurried away so we wouldn’t be arrested or shot. To this day, I have no idea what was going on, but judging from the heavy, tense security presence just in that area and the luxury cars parked outside of the museum, Putin was probably visiting or something. We walked the long walk back to the tourist information area with the lake on our right. It was a hot day and we were exhausted by the time we got there, but the lake was beautiful and I wished we were on a small boat fishing for omul.
Once back in Irkutsk, we went food shopping at a food market we ran into for fruits and vegetables for the longest leg of our Trans-Siberian to Moscow.
After getting back to the hotel and going food shopping (yet again) at a supermarket for the rest of our food, we got to talking with a sweet couple (more on them later) who was at the tail end of their round-the-world trip. Well, at least N was chatting with them. I was blessed with the second round of the cold I had in Vladivostok, and was resting in our room. We made plans to meet up in Moscow – where they were also headed in a few days’ time – and went to bed early to wake up at 5:30 for our 6:30 train to Moscow.