Irkutsk, Baikal and train to Mongolia C 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

July 9th

We got woken up by the attendant at 12:05 - one hour prior to our planned arrival in Irkutsk. This sucked because I could not fall asleep for a long time - not tired plus various fidgetting of our compartment mates. Ondrej is also smelling really bad. I figured I had at most 3 hours of sleep. But the reason she woke us up so early was to give us a chance to use the bathroom. I've noticed that restrooms get locked before all long stops. I guess this is done to prevent bums from hiding in them. It was light out in Irkutsk. Ilyana came out and said bye to us. She also got us a DVD about the rail. Turns out the conductor in the next car has been riding this line for some 15 years. He has put together a DVD of his adventrues. This was a nice gift but I don't know if I'll be able to watch it as many DVDs are encoded for specific region (I wasn't). I'll miss her, even though I wasn't able to understand much of what she had been saying. I took a video of the train leaving. That was our last sight of Rossia No. 2

We are staying in the Admiral hostel. Finding it was easy. The bridge across the massive Angara River is about the half way point. After a bit of confusion we crossed onto our street. The hostel is in an apartment building but is very well marked. The problem was that the door was locked and nobody answered our bell. We kept trying and after about 30 minutes another guest showed up. He was Russian but attended high school in Houston for a year so his english was very good. He spoke with the neighbor and she confirmed that this indeed is the hostel. She suggested that we bang on the windows but that produced no results. Finally, after more ringing, a half asleep shirtless tall dude with curly hair opened the door and went back to sleep without saying a word. The dude woke up in a bit - he and his g/f are Australian and are traveling from Dublin to Australia on bicycles! Except that they took the train here from St. Petersburg. He said that people running the place come by few times a day. At around 9 a guy came in - maybe 40 - chubby - and took money from us for laundry. R200 for a load, but we fit both my and Leslie's clothes in. He said his wife will be by later for the room fee. I guess she is in control of the main purse. They keep a bicycle lock on the washer to make sure people don't use it without paying. Otherwise this hostel is very nice. It's clean - a welcome change after Moscow - the kitchen is fully equipped with a fridge, stove and a water boiler for tea. There are 3 rooms - 2 doubles and one dorm with 3 bunks. We were supposed to be in a double but we let the Australians spend another night there so they wouldn't have to move all their gear and bicycles. They took us to town to show us an Internet cafe. I guess the only bad thing about this hostel - besides the lack of reception - is that there is no computer. However, they do provide wireless. We first went to Hotel Angara but their Internet was down. There we were directed to an Internet cafe nearby. We were all walking down the street, looking for it, when all of a sudden Leslie spotted it. She figured out how to read Cyrillic!

The sight inside the internet cafe reminded of a scene in some Hollywood thriller. The smoky basement was full of young Russian kids playing games and probably hacking into American defense systems. The Australians paid for us. We followed railroad tracks back home. Soon after we got back the lady showed up with her son Nikita. We gave her 1000 rubles and went out to eat. We had lunch at Kafe Karlsson by the statue of Lenin. It was really cheap - R150 for a "business lunch" consisting of borsch, herb salad, mashed potatos, beef medalion and tea. The price was good but the food tasted like a high school cafeteria. However, their ice cream sundaes were yummy. At one point a couple with a child walked in from the outside and tried to get money from customers for their sick kid. They never came by our table. We then walked along the Karl Marx street to the bus station to check out the transportation to Baikal. It started raining and it was the first time we had an umbrella when we needed one. The we took a nap.

During our stroll we stumbled upon a restaurant called U Švejka. This name, which means At Švejk's, comes from the name of the main character in a fictional story about a Czechoslovak World War 1 soldier who liked getting drunk as much as he did defending his nation. It is a very popular tavern name in the Czech Republic. What is it doing here, all the way in Irkutsk? Turns out that this house is where Jaroslav Hašek, the author of the Švejk books, lived and also came up with the idea for the story. What is even more amazing is that, as I found out later, my great-grandmother was Hašek's secretary and has met her husband in Russia - very possibly in this same house! We had solyanka and a pork roll filled with vegetables and black currant sauce and fried potatos with mushrooms and a ton of oil. And 2 Pilsners each. Leslie was really happy that night. We shared one bed but it was hard to sleep because her Cheburashka bear took up too much room and she also kept laughing for a while. Then, suddenly in the middle of the night the other guy in our room got up screaming "Auw, Auw, Auw!"

The Irkutsk train station - and we are off to the hostel

Angara, a tributary of the Mongolian Yenisei river

The street leading to Admiral hostel

Our room and Nikita

Sights in Irkutsk

Twist-off flower sphere

Sights in downtown Irkutsk

Water fountain

Another shot

Neat old buildings - and some newer ones that look much more used

Statue of Lenin and the guy with flyers



War musem

War musem

Some of my favorite shots - Karl Marx street and a random city scene

Few more city scenes

I am wearing a T-shirt I picked up in my hometown in Slovakia

The photo on the right shows one of the most curious things about Irkutsk - houses that are almost submerged below the street. I suppose these houses have been standing here before the road was put in.

Restaurant U Švejka where we hat a delicious (but greasy) pork roll.

July 10th

Today we are heading to Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, by volume. We got up to my 8am alarm but missed the 9:30 bus - it took me too long to shower, pack, shave. Instead we hopped on a marshutska - a fixed route van taxi. It was R100 to Listvyanka, the village nearest to Lake Baikal. The LP had it listed as 60 but even the bus went up - 60 from the published value of 30. The drive was wild! Bunch of swerving, pot holes, almost rear ending a car which decided to make a sudden U-turn in the middle of a street. These van can go really fast, especially on the steep downhills! We first went through bunch of chaos in Irkutsk, including a police chase or something similar requiring 5 cops racing with their lights on and stopped traffic. Later we went through rolling hills with birch lining the road. We stopped about 5 times to pick up random passengers on the side of the road. The lake is amazing. We ate at a market and had rice from a giant wok. Later I tried the smoked fish against total disgust of Leslie's. But she still tried a piece and liked it. It was good, very much like Slovak údenak. I also had some kiosk lady yell at me because she didn't have money for change - I thought I was giving her a 100 for 2 cokes but I was instead holding a 1000 ruble bank note.

We took another Marshrut back. It was sunny all day until we got back to the hostel when it started raining. We also found out that the Irish couple from Comrade is on the same train with us - even in the same car! Laundry takes 2.5 hours here, without drying. Some observations about Irkutsk: I really like this town, people are much friendlier than in Moscow. There are also many more cafes and pubs. The city is full of contrasts. It's a total clash of the 1st & 3rd worlds. There are modern apartment and business buildings rising over wooden log cabins. Many of these older houses are slanted in strange ways. Many were built before the road was put in and the sidewalk comes up to their windows. The roads are full of potholes, yet there is a tram and trolley bus service. Th tram tracks look like they are about to pop off in few spots from how twisted the pavement is. Most cars have the steering wheel on the right, even though the cars drive on the right side of the road - perhaps Japanese imports? You have old Russian ladies going about their business and people dressed in yellow exclamation suites handing out flyers - and dropping them and then trying to pick them up in a very comical way. We left for the train station at 6:30pm. On the way we witnessed some pick pocket getting busted either by some by-walker or an undercover cop. The arresting person was holding something that looked like a taser. He was with two other females - and other lady and a younger girl. They first had the guy pushed against a wall with the dude holding the black thing against the guy's back. Then they walked him away, holding him by his belt and shirt saying "oh you are a good lier". I suppose they were taking him to the police station. Or maybe they were some mobsters who were getting their guy.

The train station was packed so we sat outside witnessing the charade of various characters. An old Mongolian guy came out the station with various war medals pinned to his jacket. I suspect he wears them because he thinks other people will respect his accomplishments. Perhaps this is how it is in his home country. But I am afraid that here in Irkutsk most people though he was just an old man who lost his senses. That was at least the impression I got by watching the reaction of others. Anyway, we boarded the train, car 10, along with a large German tour group. For some reason we were moved to compartment 2, seats 7,8 instead the 3,4 that were on our tickets. We are in the compartment right by the Irish couple. They share theirs with two backpacker/world-traveler type Irish/Australian fellas who haven't shaved in over a month. In our compartment we have an older Danish couple - late 50s to early 60s. They are just starting a year long journey around the world - or at least to Australia since they want to take it easy. As far as I can tell, there is not a single Russian/Mongolian person in the car. It kind of makes me miss the talkative Russian lady and the smelly guy on Rossiya. This car looks much more modern - there is a TV and the door has an electronic lock. But it's definitely more poorly designed. The place to put books is behind the head rest. It's tiny, and especially awkward to get to in the upstairs bunk. Then, there are some weird bars by the window and the door making it very uncomfortable to sit on the bench sideways (facing the window). Also the bottom seat is skinny and hard to lay on - the bed part is actually the backrest. But worst of all is this green light indicating whether audio is switched to TV or AUX. It's a bright LED located at each end of the bench and shining right into my eye! It really pissed me off and I eventually had to cover it with several layers of band-aid. Few more annoyances about the train. The windows in the hallway have blue curtains. They are right in my face and there is no simple way to push them aside. And the Germans keep going and going to the samovar. They must drink a gallon of tea per person. Leslie thinks they are lesbian bikers. Makes sense. They are mostly over 60, mostly women, have short hair and many have tattoos.

Spectacular Lake Baikal

Another shot at Baikal

Market and a guy cooking rice in a giant wok

Smoked omul

The flag of Irkutsk, depicting a tiger with a sable in its mouth.