Irkutsk – Exploring a Siberian city

Made the first stop of my Trans-Siberian adventure at the Siberian city of Irkutsk, an unexpectedly interesting city with lots of stories to tell. Wouldn’t have thought a Siberian city would look like that …

Irkutsk, one of the larger cities in Siberia, where nobles and intellectuals were exiled after the Decembrist revolt. For a while culture flourished, then blood poured as the Bolshevik Revolution broke out. Today, Irkutsk isn’t exactly beautiful or stunning, but has its own quiet charm with a hint of its colourful past.

Day 1: First taste of Russia, in Siberia

After more than 2 days on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing, I was ready to get off for some leg stretching, to explore my first city in Russia, and to go for a nice hike in the Siberian ‘wilderness’. I got off the train at Irkutsk and made my way to Baikaler, a hostel with a friendly owner, which I had booked via email prior to the trip. It was late in the afternoon then, but the longer daylight hours in summer meant that there was some exploration I could squeeze out of the day.

After checking in, went out for a walk around the area. Seemed very much like some European cities I had been to, except that Irkutsk is so much nearer to Asia than Europe.

Stolovaya!

For my first proper meal in Russia (not counting the instant noodles I had on the train), dinner at a place recommended by hostel staff for affordable and good food. Was kinda Ikea style where you’d pick what you want along a line and pay at the end. Lots of different stuff to pick from. I don’t think I went one round through, even after returning over the next few days. I later learned that this style of restaurants (stolovaya) was popular throughout Russia. A little tricky because I could not speak Russian so I wasn’t too sure what I was getting. Makes for a great adventure every meal.

Wasn’t enough so I went for seconds. I had missed freshly cooked food after 2 days on instant noodles and preserved food. Travelling on the train needn’t be that tough, but I happen to almost always make things tougher for myself. Not on purpose. Ordering food got easier as time went by. Having a big appetite helped too. Total for 2 rounds was ₽269 or about S$5.10 based on today’s exchange rate and ruble prices on that day. The ruble seems to have fallen significantly since my trip, was probably about S$6.60 last year.

Recurring themes in Russian cities: Karl Marx Streets (Ulitsa Karla Marksa), and Lenin Avenues (Prospekt/ Ulitsa Lenina).

Karl Marx Street.
Karl Marx Street.

Day 2: Irkutsk city tour, without a tour

The next morning, I set out to complete a self guided tour round the city. It’s really easy as the route is painted onto pavements (green line), and at each point of interest there are clear signboards in Russian and English explaining its significance. Most buildings in Irkutsk were built after 1880 due to a huge fire in 1879 which destroyed three quarters of the city. Here a selection of the points of interest along the way. And some random shots.

Kirov Square

One of the traces of the Soviet Union in Irkutsk, the monolithic House of the Soviets.

If you ever erect a statue/ sculpture and want a specific part kept shiny, add a description mentioning that touching it brings good luck.

Along Angara

The Moscow Triumphal Arch. Built in 1813, dismantled in 1925, reconstructed in 2011. Situated on the right bank of the Angara River. The Moscow Highway (I suppose a highway from Moscow) reached the left bank, and after a boat bridge (no longer present), people would be able to enter Irkutsk via the arch. From 1813 till the end of the 19th century, almost all visitors to Irkutsk had to pass through inspection and registration at the arch.

Further from the city center, things got a little quieter, and buildings a little more quaint.

I stopped for lunch at Mamochka, which served food in similar style to the stolovaya I had dinner the day before, but a little pricier. Looks like they’ve got a following.

Back exploring the city, with my stomach satisfied. Though Irkutsk city is small, there were quite a few intriguing and fascinating buildings and churches around, of many different styles.

1st Arsernalskaya Street (Ulitsa Uritskogo). One of Irkutsk’s oldest business streets, and a nice place for people watching.

I tried Kvass (₽11 rubles a cup). It seemed popular, with little vats like that around the city. It’s a fermented beverage with low alcoholic content (<1.2%). Classified non-alcoholic by Russian standards (by law), so I guess it’s appropriate for kids. quirky taste, a little sweet, a little funky.

Never too late for ice breakers

I took a short bus ride out of the city center to visit the ice-breaker Angara. One of the oldest steam ice-breakers in the world, built in 1900. After tonnes of ‘ice-breakers’ that nearly drove me crazy in school, finally a REAL ice-breaker.

There was sorta a beach around the area, with people sunbathing and rowing around in the middle of summer. Definitely still not warmer than Singapore at any point of the year.

There’s a some admission fees involved but it looked quite run down inside, so I gave it a pass.

Went back to the same stolovaya for dinner as the previous day, Appetite.

Dinner at a stolovaya in Irkutsk. Siberia, Russia.
Same spot for dinner as the previous day (₽170 rubles).

Day 3, 4, 5: Listvyanka and Bolshie Koty, Lake Baikal

On my third day in Irkutsk, I headed out to Lake Baikal, visiting Listvyanka and making a hike to the the remote village Bolshie Koty, before returning to continue exploring Irkutsk 3 days later. It was about an hour away by minibus from Irkutsk.

Day 5: Back from Baikal, back to civillisation

Returned to Irkutsk after an amazing hike from Listvyanka to Bolshie Koty, along the mighty Lake Baikal. Probably one of the most unforgettable hikes ever. Then again, I haven’t done many. But for now, back from the semi-wilderness to the city.

Day 6: Last bits of Irkutsk, last bits of Siberia

It had been a great week in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, but before my train was due to leave that evening, I had to do a little more exploring.

The Monument to Decembrist’ Wives. Russian women who accompanied their exiled husbands to Siberia. Some settled permanently in Irkutsk. The area near the monument was where the Decembrists lived while on exile.

It’s possible to book accommodation/ packages for nearby destinations at the hostel I stayed in (Baikaler). For example, side trips to Listvyanka, Olkhon Island, or Ulan Ude.

It was time to go, to continue my overland quest from Singapore to Moscow. Next up, on board the Trans-Siberian Railway to Yekaterinburg, where Asia meets Europe.

Irkutsk in numbers

Actual travel dates: 12 June 2015 – 14 June 2015, 16 June 2015 – 17 June 2015 (approx 3 days Irkutsk, 3 days Lake Baikal)
Accommodation: ₽1200 (3 nights)
Food: ₽1600
Transport (within Irkutsk): ₽24 (to the Icebreaker Angara and back)
Visa registration: ₽400 (hostel helped with the procedures, just need to pay)
Total Irkutsk expenses: ₽3224 (~S$80/ US$62 at June 2015 rate)

3G SIM card: ₽200 for 3GB (~S$5/ US$4 at June 2015 rate, not sure about validity, but was still usable till the end of my trip in Russia 2 weeks later)

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