Irkutsk me, have we been exiled to Siberia?

A guest blog by Holly Melton (with heavy contributions from Mark)

Mark has been quite happy – he has been able to download the Wall Street Journal quite easily on his iPad – almost daily when Wi-Fi is available. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago on an intensive hospitality training program being given to the airline attendants of Aeroflot and a general effort by service businesses to train Russian workers to be a little less, well Russian. Smile, say Thank you, and other niceties of human interaction.

Having stopped for a day in Vladivostok with Princess Cruises, this is our second time in Russia for this trip and well be in Russia about three weeks. Starting in Siberia and riding the Trans-Siberian railroad to Moscow and then on to St. Petersburg.

Our least favorite train ride so far.

To get to the city of Irkutsk, Russia, where we would pick up the Trans-Siberian railroad, we took a local train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk which left about 9 p.m. on Sunday night and arrived in Irkutsk about 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday. So it was 2 nights and one full day on the train. IT WAS ROUGH! . Let’s just say that the hospitality training being given to the Aeroflot attendants has not trickled down to attendants on local trains!

When we arrived at the Ulaanbaatar train station our Mongolian guide Damidaa and our driver Mr. Bald, both helped us get our luggage on the train and settled into our compartment. It felt a little like having an entourage and if we didnt stand out from the other passengers enough already, now we really did. Fortunately we had gotten cold feet after a couple of local trains in China and had changed our reservation to purchase all 4 tickets in our compartment so that we had the sleeper car to ourselves. We had a couple of questions, like: is there a dining car? Is food available?” When do we get to the border?” What is the border process?, so Damidaa went to ask the Russian lady who was the attendant for our car these questions. He returned to report that the very angry Russian lady told him that she spoke English and would deal with us directly. Well apparently her idea of dealing with Americans was to scowl at us much as possible. Marks initial attempts at conversation with the attendant were met with an icy glare in return. We were sufficient intimidated now, that we knew better than to ask further questions or expect any assistance.

The first night on the train at about 10:30 p.m. or so we arrived at the Mongolian border immigration/inspection station. This was about 3 hours of diddling around with passports, searching compartments, drug sniffing dogs, etc. The train finally moved on at about 1:30 a.m. So needless to say we were tired by this point.

You might think that border crossings would happen at the border. Youd expect first the Mongolians would do their work and then the train would move 100 meters across border and the Russians would come on and perform their inspections. You would be wrong.

Early the next morning after very little sleep, with still no idea of when we would go through Russian customs, our attendant throws open our compartment door and explains to us to: get out. That is 100% of the conversation. Mark and I are thinking, this must be the Russian customs inspection, so in our sleep deprived state we jump out our bunks, dress, and think we need to get off the train to show passports, have our baggage searched, perhaps even full-body cavity searches. Again, no one is speaking to us so we are completely in the dark. We summon up the courage to ask our attendant: Do we need to take our luggage off the train?
No!”  she helpfully explained. Honestly, no further conversation.

We get off the train with our passports at this little train station but notice that virtually nobody else is getting off. We walk to the bathroom in the train station, and at this point we discover we are still in Mongolia, because the attendant wants some amount of Mongolia Tugriks (Mongolian currency) to use the restroom being in a state of shock, we dont remember the requested amount. We had used all of our Mongolian money so I offered her a 100 Russian Ruble bill a little over $3.00 U.S. and she happily accepted that. We had earlier looked up the exchange rate for dollars to rubles, but at this point we could not remember for the life of us what it was, so we didnt know if wed just spent thirty dollars or thirty cents to use the restroom. Fortunately the restroom attendant was at least reasonably honest because in our state of confusion mixed with sleep deprivation we would have given her virtually anything she had asked.

(The modern Mongolian language is written in the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet, so looking at the signs with their Cyrillic text doesnt help us know whether we are reading Mongolian or Russian.)

After our bathroom break, we looked around the platform and decided that there was no place for us to go but back on the train, so we re-boarded and returned to our compartment. Eventually, the train moved on and we passed an electrified fence that our guide book told us was the border. Remember, still no one is speaking to us, so we are trying our best to figure out whats going on. Shortly thereafter the train stop at the station where the Russian border agents, mostly female and very smartly dressed in their uniforms and fur hats boarded the train. The usual review of passports and visas, and then we had our luggage searched.

This was our first, of what we hoped would be many, encounters with friendly Russians. The plump and pleasant woman dressed in her smart uniform spoke to us in English and actually smiled. She told us she would like to look in one of our bags you choose. OK, so I reached over to my smaller backpack that we keep our food and a few other things, zipped it open and started to take out items like tea, cookies, peanut butter. After about 5 seconds, the border official had seen enough Thats good, thank you. That was it. No thorough search of the luggage, no cavity search, it was a little disappointing. I guess this isnt the Soviet Union, I visited 35 years ago as a college student, after all.

After we cleared Russian customs, our attendants attitude suddenly changed, she came to our cabin, smiled and actually spoke with us in the best English she could manage. She had come to sell us souvenirs. We bought a package of postcards, hoping that would buy a little better treatment from our attendant, and it seemed to work to a degree.

We were arriving at Irkutsk about 7:30 a.m., so we set the alarm on Marks iPhone for 6:30 a.m. thinking that would give us plenty of time to prepare to leave the train, as all our luggage was packed. The door to our compartment flew open at 6:00 a.m. with the announcement Coming to station get up!”  Wow, we thought, may be the train is running early. Its a good thing we followed orders and got up right away because one of our neighbors made the mistake of ignoring the attendant and continued to sleep. This brought an angry response from the attendant who pounded on their door, then flung the door open and turned on the overhead florescent lights. Our attendant then came around and collected our sheets and towels while Mark was in the restroom surprising him that his towel had already been collected. We then sat for over an hour for the train to arrive at the station. The attendant had gotten us all up early, we were convinced, for her convenience.

We have been very grateful for the drivers that are picking us up at the train stations and getting us to our hotels. We particularly appreciated Yuri picking us up at the gorgeous train station in Irkutsk (was even more elaborate than the one in Vladivostok).

We did however continue our inauspicious introduction to Russia, by needing to change hotel rooms. We had checked into the Imperial Hotel and immediately collapsed into our bed for a few hours to recuperate from our stressful, not sleep friendly, train trip from Mongolia. When we awoke we noted three issues with the room that made us feel that a change was in order. Now, Ive never in my life asked to change hotel rooms, but you be the judge:

1. The toilet didnt work properly and had to be turned on and off by the valve next to the wall;

2. The hot water came out of the faucet a nice rusty-red color; and

3. And the issue we couldnt live with, soapy water from the laundry room next door was running under the wall making the carpet in our room really wet and soapy.

At this point we thought, Are we going to hate Russia?

Fortunately, things began to turn around. We were promptly moved to a new room with only one of the three problems rusty water. OK, I can handle that.

Irkutsk City Tour

Our driver in Irkutsk, Yuri, and our tour guide, Anastasia, (dont you love the names exactly what I think of when I think of Russian names!) shared the city of Irkutsk with us for the afternoon, followed by a day outside of the city visiting Lake Baikal and the village of Listvyanka.

Irkutsk is the capital of Siberia and really grew from a muddy little village into a city with the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the 1880s. Irkutsk, because of its size and history is filled with memorials/statues and church buildings. The memorials/statues are from a mix of eras and are still being erected today seemingly part of the Russian culture, and reflecting the significant social & political changes this country has seen.

Heres a memorial to Admiral Kolchak arctic explorer & WWI war hero. Killed in Irkutsk as a White Army (Monarchist) Soldier opposing the Red Bolshevik Soldiers. Erected around 2004. This statue is a little controversial due to Kolchaks choice to back the monarchy rather than the revolutionaries. (Those are birds on his shoulders and head every statue had birds.)

Memorial to Tsar Alexander III – During Soviet times, the statue of Alexander was replaced with an obelisk, but the base remained and the revised monument was called the Trans-Siberian Builders Monument. A few years ago the obelisk was replaced with a new statue of Alexander (who initiated the building of the Trans-Siberian Railroad). Yes, thats a bird on his head.

Memorial to Vladimir Lenin Anastasia pointed it out while we drove by, I dont know why that hasnt been taken down yet. Mark and I had to go back later to take this photo. The memorial and park were built on the site of a former Lutheran church, which was destroyed to build the park. (No bird perhaps the birds dont appreciate Lenin anymore either.)

On a lighter note, a famous film maker from the Soviet period was raised in Irkutsk and is a home town favorite. Here is a statue of Mark and I with 3 of his recurring characters … like the Marx Brothers or Laurel & Hardy. We ate dinner that night at a restaurant that has a “retro” soviet motif and saw parts of a movie with these characters as the stars. For those old enough, besides soviet kitsch, there were 2 large frames filled with cassette tapes on the walls and a wall hanging with box cameras and old camera paraphernalia. Thanks to a sweet spirited waiter we had a lovely meal he worked so hard to communicate with us in English. At that point we decided to make up with Russia that we could enjoy it after all.

As for the church buildings and churches. I use the word church buildings because the majority are not active churches, reflecting forced closures and destruction during the Soviet era. One church, the oldest building in Irkutsk is a museum, one currently an organ hall (former Polish Roman Catholic church built by the Poles exiled to Siberian for participation in the Decembrist revolt, and the 3rd, an active Russian Orthodox Church.

There had been a much larger (and very ornate) Orthodox Church on the site below that had been demolished with dynamite and replaced by this soviet administration building. The remains of the church building was used to raise the ground level of the square so that the soviet building and square are higher than another remaining church building. A decisive choice to demonstrate the disdain for all the church represents.

Lake Baikal & Listvyanka

In the village of Listvyanka, we enjoyed visiting a local church. Anastasia was baptized in this church as a young child. Her father is agnostic and her mother has Russian Orthodox beliefs. Anastasia and her mother attend services on important holidays. Anastasia was clearly respectful (crossing herself and bowing when we visited any religious building), yet made disparaging comments when describing the service to me (the priests conduct the service in old Russian, so no one understands what is being said).

The simple exterior gives no clue to the beautiful icons and decoration inside (no photo’s allowed). Inside is white, light blue, gilding, and many, many icons covering every wall. Below Anastasia and I dressed to enter the church. A basket of kerchiefs and “scarf shirts” are provided in the foyer, as women must cover their heads and may not wear pants.

On the drive out to Listvyanka and Lake Baikal we stopped several times for various sites at an outdoor park with original and recreated wooden buildings reflecting various periods in Russian history. Heres an example of a Russian frontier fort.

This is an example of a small village chapel.

An example of a larger church building.

After the historic village, we went up a ski lift to get views of Lake Baikal (not enough snow yet for skiing),

Then we went to a small museum/aquarium with Lake Baikal history. Lake Baikal is home to the world’s only fresh water seal. Smaller than the seals off the coast of California, it has the sweetest face and moves with the grace of a mermaid. This photo doesnt do justice to the Baikal Seal .the darn thing wouldnt stop swimming to pose for our photo. 75% of the living organisms in the lake are found only in Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal is the largest and deepest (1 mile) fresh water lake in the world. The statistics about this lake are astonishing. It contains 20% of the world’s fresh water. If all the other fresh water in the world were gone, the water in Lake Baikal could provide sufficient water for the current worlds population for 40 years (though distribution of the water might be a bit of a problem). Lake Baikal is surrounded by scenic mountains the source of the lakes water.

Here’s some Lake Baikal Fun Facts and a couple of photos.

Lakes length: 395 miles – Width: 50 miles – Shoreline: 1,243 miles.

Lake Baikal holds as much water as all of the Great Lakes combined.

Lake Baikal is also famous for the Omul a fish that all visitors to Lake Baikal are required by law to sample. To fulfill our legal requirement (and our own curiosity) Anastasia took us to a market where ladies were selling various preparations of Omul; smoked, dried, (I presumed fresh), etc. She took us to particular stall and strongly suggested we wanted our Omul cold smoked. Always good at following orders, we bought 2 cold smoked Omul which were taken out of a Styrofoam cooler and put into a plastic bag. We then walked about 20 feet into a small café, bought drinks, potato dumplings, a cucumber/tomato salad and some bread and ate these along with the fish we had just purchased outside five minutes before. It was a lovely lunch and the cold smoked Omul WAS very good (and despite the name actually warm). Anastasia didnt join us because she told us that shes on a diet. (Who in this group do you think least needs to be on a diet?)

Heres a photo from the window of our hotel room, of a portion of the village of Listvyanka taken at dawn the next morning. We couldnt decide if it had snowed during the day – it was just a lot of heavy frost. Later in the day when we returned to Irkutsk, it did snow pretty heavy for a time. It was a wet snow and it didnt stick on the ground.

In our so-far limited experience, we found Listvyanka to be typical of other Russian villages though perhaps this village is a bit better maintained than others.

One last story about Omul: There were signs in our hotel room warning us not to store Omul in our rooms or the mini-fridge. If we had Omul to store, they had a special centralized Omul storage in the hotel. If you broke the rules and stored your fish in the mini-fridge, you would be charged for all the items in the mini-fridge. Presumably because they would be rendered unsaleable by the stink from the fish.

Mark and I are glad we made this stop on the Tran-Siberian Route. Readers of this blog may think that we find everything we see, everywhere we go, to be amazing and wonderful. Our take on Irkutsk was that its OK, not really special. Lake Baikal would probably be a nice summer resort destination with boating, hiking, ATV rides, etc. We were here late Fall/Early Winter, when its cold, but not yet really cold, so probably not the best season of the year for a visit. Our verdict, we probably wouldnt recommend a special trip, just to come here, but if you are in the neighborhood its worth a few days visit, especially the lake during the summer.

A small tragedy has occurred after 4 or 5 years, my Kindle has died a sudden death. A much used gift from my older sister, it contained all my reading materials. Amazon doesnt deliver from the US to Yekaterinburg in 2 days with Amazon Prime, does it?

4 replies

  1. Hi Aunt Holly,
    Actually, although unfortunately not via Prime, you could go to and order a Kindle and have it shipped to several European countries including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, etc. SO…if you are desperate, you could check on-line and see how long it would take to ship to one of your upcoming hotels (expidited shipping to France in 9-16 or 1-2 days for example):-). And, of course, all of your materials are still on Amazon Cloud. The real question is whether you can download or not. Might be worth asking customer service. Never let it be said that Amazon would leave a customer hanging:-).

    Love Cambria

  2. Holly – Really enjoying your trip, but you guys about wear me out just reading about it. Sorry about your Kindle, but in case you don’t already know, you can download the Kindle App from iTunes (its a freebie) and access your Kindle library with your IPAD – of course you have to wrestle it away from Mark in order to get your reading time in.

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