Fat blokes in underpants, mouths like sandpaper and a distinct lack of ventilation greet us good morning as the train rattles through countless Siberian villages where wooden houses lean at gravity defying angles, clinging to the last hope of standing erect to enjoy the short lived summer sun. A creepy old man spends the entire day staring at Sarah, even when she ‘politely’ points out that he should probably look somewhere else and after almost a day and a half on the train we finally arrive at our destination. As opposed to Novosibirsk, Irkutsk has a more traditional feel to it. Wooden houses still dominate in the centre, a riverfront esplanade with impressive sculptures and structures and arguably the most gorgeous of all Russian churches can all be found here.
Sheets of rain passed over and over (and over and over) the streets as we disembarked from the train station. Jumping on the next local tram to pass by in order to avoid getting drenched we inevitably end up taking the ‘scenic’ one around the city to our hostel. We rattle through the streets of a pretty old town full of wooden houses and an old school bohemian vibe, courtesy of Nicholas I’s massive exile of many artists, nobles ad officers for their part in the Decemberist revolt in the early 19th century, who eventually found there way here.
The town is easily navigable on foot and by using the local trams and with our hostel being at the northern end of town the most logical route starts by heading out to the water’s edge. You’ll pass crumbling wooden houses backed by crumbling Soviet architecture, walking along wide streets with dodgy footpaths to the polished riverside walkway dotted with art works and the odd monument that leads down to a group of buildings. Standing triumphantly at the end of the street are the Moscow Gates. Built upon foundations first laid in 1813 to mark the 10 year anniversary of Alexander the 1st accession to the throne, it was restored in 2009 as part of a beautification program. This heralds the start of our southwards walk along the Angara River embankment.
Yet again we come to an eternal flame which understandably stands in most of the major Russian cities as reminders of the horrors and loss of war, lest we forget. We can never help ourselves from taking a moment at these sites, especially given our trip to Volgograd back in January and the huge loss of life suffered by the Soviets during both World Wars (over 26 million alone in WWII). Grouped here are also several churches of differing styles though they are not much to look at inside. Personally we never tire of the picture perfect Russian church exteriors and wonder with such artistic expression what happened to make the totalitarian style of Soviet architecture prevail. Though mind you even some of the concrete monstrosities are a marvel to gaze upon.
Perhaps the prettiest church in all of Russia can be found here in Irkutsk. Out in an obscure location in the northern reaches of town the Kazan Church, which houses the famous and sacred Our Lady of Kazan painting, is plucked straight out of a fairy tale. To us the use of colour and form here surpasses that of St. Basil’s in Moscow’s Red Square.
The Bogoyavlensky (Epiphany) Cathedral has a remarkably resilient history. Surviving earthquakes, a massive fire, the Soviet regimes destruction of many churches and was even once converted into a Soviet pastry factory! It’s been a church again for at least 18 years and it’s beauty still stands…although quite different from the old days apparently.
Here’s a couple of photos of other buildings of note around town.
Another area of town worth visiting is the 130th district. A modern built cultural area which opened in 2011 it occupies an old Military and brownfield area. Here you’ll find many restaurants, bars and shops. Make sure you get a photo of the Siberian tiger holding a fish its mouth which forms part of the Irkutsk coat of arms. Good luck waiting for the kids to piss off.
Need a drink? Be sure to visit some of the craft beer bars around town. First we visited Cheshskaya Pivovarnaya (a little way out of the centre on Krasnogvardeyskaya 29) where we only stayed for one of their unfiltered brews in the cozy stone interior complete with copper beer vat.
From here we took a walk in the rain through downtown in search of our next destination and came across some pretty cool sights along the way.
Secondly we visited, and stayed at, Bier Haus where the bar girls were super friendly in their Tyrolean attire and our Polish mate who we’d met back in Kyrgyzstan gained an instant admirer (with his Russian vastly improving the more beer he drank). The food was good and the beer selection had variety – the weizen, pilsner and the dark were all good and very reasonably priced. Lastly when in Russia you must try the smoked fish (trout, salmon or sturgeon, they’re all good!) Sarah tolerates it, Matt loves it. Just expect your fingers to smell like it for a day or two afterwards and don’t put it in your handbag!
Whilst it’s not in the heart of downtown the Marco Polo hostel is in a convenient location next to the bus station and you only have to cross the road to find the minivans departing for Olkhon Island if the buses are sold out (which they were). It’s easily reached by tram from the train station and the place is clean, spacious and has a great kitchen. If cooking’s not your thing there’s a cheap Soviet canteen right across the road! Though beware, you may end up in a dorm room full of Russian seasonal workers who thing it’s acceptable in a 12-bed dorm to wake up at 7am and have their breakfast and a great big chat in the room. When Sarah and another girl pointed out that there’s a large kitchen and social area in which they could be eating they simply shrugged and went on conversing as loud as possible. Commence dormitory feud. Things never did calm down after that with one fat old babushka deciding the kitchen belonged to her and Matt wasn’t allowed to cook until she was finished, throwing in a few choice words which our Polish mate wouldn’t translate but assured us were not of the polite variety. Sarah also wasn’t allowed to wash the dishes when old mama needed to clean her tea cup, so rather than wait patiently like a normal person she simply threw her leftover tea at Sarah and walked out.
Irkutsk is the main jumping off point along the Trans-Siberian railway for those wanting to visit Lake Baikal and it’s definitely worth a day or two to chill out. Just don’t upset the babushkas!!
For more great photos of Irkutsk and our time in Russia click here for our Flickr page.
Click here for information about applying for a 10 day Russian transit visa in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Our Russian Train Tips
- Try and book all your tickets as early as possible for the greatest amount of options. The RZD English site is now very easy to use but be very careful of the times…if you’re doing to same route as us you’ll cross several time zones and all train times are given in Moscow time. Time to put your mathematics skills to good use.
- In the summer you can (usually) open the windows in plaztkart (third class, our preferred and the cheapest option) though this seems to be selfishly controlled by those on the top bunks. Opt for these beds if you need climate control.
- The corridor beds in plaztcart seem narrower, if you’re a bigger boy opt for one in the compartment.
- There is always hot water available, therefore the go to option for meals is instant noodles.
- At most major station stops you’ll see people getting off to smoke. Many are also getting off to buy food from kiosks dotted along the platform. We didn’t realise this for some time and when we did we ALWAYS tried to be first off the carriage as the queues get big. You can buy limited fresh vegetables, milk, water, chocolate and yep, noodles (if you’re lucky enough you can sometimes even get dumplings).