Irkutsk, Russia

Irkutsk is one of the most popular stops for tourists travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway. It’s a city with an interesting history and the proximity to Lake Baikal means a few days here is essential.

I arrived in Irkutsk after the long journey from Novosibirsk. There was an impressive lightning storm to the south of the train as we raced along through the outskirts of Irkutsk. Proper forked lightning brightening up the sky temporarily as the evening came. The train station is across the river from the city and I wandered out of the station, along a quiet road towards the road bridge, still with the lightning out towards the horizon and no rain in sight.

Accommodation was a decent walk from the station, maybe 30 minutes away. But just halfway across the bridge, with the lightning storm much closer, the rain started. In my time in Russia I never saw light rain. When it started, it poured. I was already soaked through when I took shelter in a small bus stop across the river.

The night didn’t improve a great deal as I couldn’t bring myself to eat the foul pasta meal I bought at the only shop I saw still open at that time of night, conveniently below the Airbnb. The wifi in the flat didn’t work and there were mosquitoes buzzing around as I tried to sleep (a rolled up magazine saw them “offed” in a satisfying way). Not the best start.

Irkutsk felt quite familiar. The city grew due to the exiled Decembrists making it their home in Siberia and many of the exiles came from St Petersburg. This influenced the style of Irkutsk, albeit on a smaller scale to St Petersburg, and gives a city more European in style than typically Russian. Irkutsk has a look that is familiar from many parts of Scandinavia and Northern Europe.

The fact that Irkutsk is more used to tourism also showed in the more outwardly friendliness. The couple of times I parked myself at a bar, I was chatting away to people for hours. In a fairly new pub named after the exiles who founded the city, it was easy to pass the time working through the tap list with the bar staff, a couple of customers and the owner. Coincidentally it turned out the owner is a business partner of someone whose bottle shop I visited in Heidelberg a few weeks earlier.

Another pub, the Library Bar, on a quiet weeknight gave a bit of a stereotype moment. Ordering a drink using a mixture of terrible Russian and quiet English, it drew attention from someone sitting next to me. “Cheers!” she said, as we clinked glasses. And a few minutes later we’re in a big crowed all doing vodka shots. Fantastic!

A trip to Lake Baikal from Irkutsk is a must and Listvyanka is only 50 miles away – an easy trip in a bus, or even a cheap taxi, I’m told. I took a day trip and, fancying a good walk around the lake, decided to hire a local guide who knew the area. It was billed as an easy trek around the lake, organised through a UK company. We met up near the shore, drove five minutes out of Listvyanka to the starting point and headed off.

He was an enthusiastic guy and initially full of chat.

“Are there any bears around here?” I asked.

“Yes, quite a few. They watch you. They hide and watch you. But as long as you don’t eat their berries, it’s okay. They’ll leave you alone. Don’t eat their berries.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not how bears work?!” I thought to myself…

The terrain fairly quickly because pretty steep, working along the side of a hill with slippy ground thanks to the rain earlier that morning. The scenery around about is fantastic, hills towering over the lake shore looking more dramatic with the fog hanging over them.

When I was in Toronto and visited the CN Tower, there was an odd moment as I walked towards the glass floor looking down to the ground. In my head I knew it was absolutely fine, and could hold several times my weight per square inch. But as I walked towards it my legs started to ignore my head and it was a bizarre struggle to walk across the glass floor in the first few seconds. I’m not scared of heights – I don’t necessarily like them but it’s not a fear – and that feeling of my legs ignoring my head has only happened one other time: at Lake Baikal.

We reached a point where the muddy, slippy path, a few inches wide at most, hugged the edge of a cliff with a 100ft sheer drop to the right-hand side. It was a slight uphill, maybe 15ft in distance, and on the left-hand side was nothing to hang on to other than a small tree with branches swarming in ants each around half an inch long.

The guide powered on ahead as I stopped. I could have continued, at least one way, but was certain I’d struggle to get back down this path, and I say that as someone who does a reasonable amount of hiking around Scotland. I reasoned with myself for a moment, thinking that any slip almost certainly meant my final few moments had arrived, and I froze.

“I’m not going any further.”

The guide, bizarrely, wouldn’t listen, and I argued the point for 15 minutes. The alternative path he “found” was actually worse, and another argument ensued.

Over the next couple of weeks I had an email conversation back and forward with the UK company this was booked through, showing them photos, explaining what happened and where we ended up. This “easy trek” didn’t live up to its name and eventually they refunded me. Only after admitting that their local team didn’t recognise the area from the photos, haven’t seen that path before and didn’t recognise the spots I said I had been taken to. They ignored my questions regarding whether they knew who the guide was. It spoiled a trip to one of the great sights in Russia but it’s perhaps lucky I didn’t make it any further on that route.

Back in Irkutsk I had a relaxing few days. The city has a familiar, welcoming feeling to it with plenty to see and a lot of bars, restaurants and cafes to stop off at. Yekaterinburg was the place in Russia I was most looking forward to but Irkutsk was by far my favourite and I’ll certainly be back. Although next time I’ll pass on the “easy trek”.

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