We’d both read and been told that the section of the Trans-Siberian railway between Ulan Ude and Irkutsk was the most scenic part, and that we should do what we could to take a day train so as not to miss out. And so it was that one of the first things we did in Ulan Ude was walk back to the train station – armed with a little bit of paper on which I’d written the names in Cyrillic, the date we wanted and the train number – to buy train tickets.
We decided to go kupe [second class] so that we’d have a bit more space and comfort to enjoy the views and ended up sharing our cabin with an older German couple. They were quite excited to tell us about how they’d been to Australia almost ten years ago for their 25th wedding anniversary. They’d actually taken the day train from Irkutsk two days earlier, but their carriage had been on the ‘wrong’ side – their windows didn’t face the nice views. Fortunately this time it did!
They informed us that the nicest section was still a good few hours away and so we headed to the restaurant carriage for what proved to be the slowest lunch imaginable. It took almost an hour and a half for our food to arrive and when it did it was cold. I’m really not sure how they managed that, but it was annoying. And of course overpriced, but then we’d expected that.
The nicest section of the journey is when the train chugs along the southern part of Lake Baikal. We hadn’t anticipated how close to the water the train tracks would be! At parts we were little more than two metres from the water, and it was amazing. Although to be fair, after a while looking at nothing but blue water does become old. Fortunately it was interspersed with sections of beautiful birch forest and, occasionally, some boats. Unfortunately the windows of our cabin were so unbelievably filthy that it was simply impossible to get any photos that weren’t primarily brown smudges. Still, our eyes were able to see past that if a camera lens couldn’t!
We arrived in Irkutsk [Иркутск] just after 6pm and it was only a short walk to our hostel to check in. We dumped our backpacks and walked into the centre of the city to find some food. Crossing the bridge over the railway station and river we were treated to a great view of the trains and tracks.
Coming back, we took the scenic route as while I’d told John we were going to walk to the tram lines and get on a tram he forgot to mention it when we went past the tracks – although he admitted seeing them. I’d been distracted talking and missed them. This is the problem with me always having to be the one responsible for getting us everywhere – I can’t stop paying attention for a minute! And so we walked all the way to the river and up to the bridge, through a park where teenagers kissed on the riverbanks and women pushed prams while little old men walked their little scruffy dogs. The sun had just set when we crossed the river, which made for a lovely view.
The next day was spent exploring the town. Irkutsk isn’t too big, although it felt it after Ulan Ude. We took a tram to the bus station to buy bus tickets to Listvyanka for the next day. It was already becoming clear that I was the one responsible for buying tickets and pretty much anything where Russian was needed, as I’d managed to learn enough Russian to buy bus and train tickets.
We created ourselves an extended walking tour around the city, checking out beautiful old wooden houses and churches, and finding nice little cafes that had excellent cakes for me and coffee for John.
We took Irkutsk very slowly and skipped the museums, preferring to just walk and relax. We found a park that seemed rather nice, and very popular. Students sat under trees and mums pushed prams. John particularly liked this park as he quickly discovered that it had free WIFI. That’s pretty much the first thing John looks for if we stop anywhere for a minute – be it cafe, museum, park, bus station and so on.
There was a statue of a cat. I had to have a photo with it!
We also found this cool piece of street art by a staircase.
We bought a couple of bottles of vodka as it’s SO DAMN CHEAP in Russia, and headed back to the hostel. I’d decided I’d Skype home and catch up with my family, as it had been about a month since I’d spoken to anyone. However, I had to wait for four hours for Mum to be available and in the meantime called my sister. John, at the same time, was plying me with vodka. So by the time I got onto my mother both John and I were well and truly intoxicated. Enough said.
The next morning I could have killed John as he was so damn slow walking to the bus station due to feeling somewhat seedy from the night before. I was convinced we were going to miss the bus we’d already paid for. However, we did just make it onto the bus and, fortunately, made it to Listvyanka without any unscheduled stops.