From Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk
20.05.2017 - 24.05.2017 27 °C
After three nights at the shores of Lake Baikal, we took a minibus to Irkutsk. The name of the town sounded very familiar to us – after all both Sam and I had played the strategy board game ‘Risk’ since our childhood which features an area called ‘Irkutsk’. For many other people, it is probably better known as one of the centers of Siberian exile. By the end of the 19th century, almost every third inhabitant of Irkutsk was in exile and not allowed to ever leave Siberia again.
We were not forced to stay in Irkutsk – rather the opposite: we intentionally wanted to spend some time in town to experience Eastern Siberian city life and to see some of its cultural heritage. After briefly stopping at our hostel to check in and to leave our belongings, we headed into town. The tram got us right to the Quarter 130, a lively pedestrian zone attracting tourists and locals alike. It was a tough choice of restaurants and we eventually settled on the terrace of a nice brewery for lunch.
It was great weather and we could see the crowds passing by. Some of them were headed to the music festival at the southern end of the quarter. Others headed north towards the book festival. We enjoyed the music festival and listened for quite a while. The book festival turned out to be rather disappointing – after all we are very slow in reading Cyrillic letters and simply don’t understand enough Russian to make much sense of the books on display.
We passed the statue of Lenin and crossed Karl Marx Street to reach the main park. From there it was just a five minutes’ walk to the main attractions. We passed the Polish Church, the Church of the Savior (which seems to be the oldest stone building in Eastern Siberia) and visited the Cathedral of the Epiphany across the road. As in all Orthodox churches, women were provided with scarves to cover their hair before entering the church. We were lucky to get there during a service. The choir was singing beautifully.
Just below the church were the banks of the Angara river. This morning we had already passed it’s starting point at the outlet of Lake Baikal. It was a nice area for having a walk and we joined the locals before deciding that we had seen enough for today. We headed back to our hostel, made dinner in the nice kitchen and had a great night’s sleep.
The next morning, we spent a bit of time at a nearby park before shouldering our backpacks and heading to the train station. We had booked train number 1 the ‘Rossiya’. We wanted to spend at least one of our segments on the Trans-Siberian-Railway enjoying the classic experience on this Vladivostok – Moscow service which runs every other day and takes 6 days and 4 hours for the 9289 km.
The train seemed to be a bit newer than the last one we had been on. To Max’ big delight, here was even a TV in every compartment. This time, we were not alone, but shared the compartment with Maksim, a 32-year-old engineer from Khabarovsk. Fortunately, he spoke English, so we were able to easily communicate with him.
But he was not our only acquaintance on the train: in the compartment, next to us we met Kat and Ed - a Welsh couple who spent the last couple of months biking from the Southern tip of India all the way to Kathmandu in Nepal. As always it proved to be a lot of fun to compare experiences. They had been blogging as well (their blog is doctorswithoutmotors.blogspot.uk.co in case you’re interested to learn more about their travels). Contrary to us, they were using couchsurfing throughout their travels. The way they explained the great hospitality they experienced along the way, they inspired us to try that one day as well as a means to getting even more contact to locals. But we were able to inspire them a bit as well, as they had not thought that traveling with a kid can be both easy and rewarding.
Back in our compartment, it did not take long for Sam and Maksim, to take out their respective bottles of vodka. Sam’s Baikal vodka did not stand a chance against Maksim’ Sand Crab vodka from Kamchatka.
At the first longer stop in the station of Zima, we used the opportunity to get out and to stock up our beer supplies. We only realized after our purchase that Maksim’s beer recommendation was rice beer from China. On our own, we would probably never have tried it. We soon realized that despite our prejudices, it tasted very well. After an extensive dinner, lots of dried fish (which are eaten together with beer in Russia like we would eat chips) significant amounts of beer and vodka, we had a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, we had a quick breakfast on the train and then had to pack our stuff. At 8:07 we reached Krasnoyarsk, today’s destination. We waved good-bye to Maksim who was staying on the train until Novosibirsk and to Kat and Ed who will only get off far-away Moscow. Thanks to the clock at the railway station we realized that in Moscow it was still 4:07 in the morning and that consequently we had already crossed our first time zone on the train.
Contrary to the majority of tourists along the trans-sib route, we had chosen to break our journey in Krasnoyarsk. The town itself is just a regular Siberian town, but its location certainly is special. It is located on the banks of the mighty Yenissei River. Its tributaries include the Angara River (the outlet of Lake Baikal) and reach all the way into Northern Mongolia. Together with them, it is forming Russia’s longest river system.
But that’s not what we came for: we stopped in Krasnoyarsk, as it offers not just the flat tundra that most of Siberia is known for. We wanted to spend a day in the Stolby Nature Reserve which offers great hikes in the hills and granite rocks.
It was only a short walk from the train station to our hostel. We had a bit of trouble finding it until we realized that its entrance was in the back of one of those ubiquitous apartment blocks. And once we got there, we came to realize that the lady in the hotel spoke only Russian and not a single bit of English. Even with pointing on the map and using some Russian words she was unable to tell us which buses or trams would get us where we wanted to go.
So we headed out on our own and tried our luck by just taking one of the trams passing by our hostel. We were not lucky, as it turned the wrong direction already after the first stop. We got out and reluctantly decided to do our city tour by foot. From the massive statue of Lenin that seems to adorn every single Russian town, Gorkii Park was just across the street. Presumably, this is the favorite weekend outing for all locals with kids. But on a Monday afternoon, not too much was going on.
We crossed the park to get to the banks of the Yenissei. It turned out to be a great decision, as we got to witness the step dance practice of a young ambitious ballet dancer. On the planks of the wooden deck, his steps were amplified like if he was playing a big instrument.
Just before it started raining, we made our way into a local Russian version of Starbucks called ‘Traveller’s Coffee’. The cakes were just perfect, the drinks as well and the atmosphere was very nice – a perfect end for the day.
And then there was one of those unexpected random acts of kindness: at the supermarket I had a full shopping cart and was about to pay a sizeable amount. Out of the blue, the lady next to me asked the cashier to swipe her customer card, which resulted in a 10% of my bill. What a nice surprise! Those are the instances when I wish to fluently speak a language instead of only being able to repeat Спасибо (Spasibo / Thank You) over and over.
The next day we were picked up at 9 am by our guide Anatoliy and headed to the nearby Stolby nature reserve. Already on our drive, he provided us with lots of information about the town, the river and the surroundings. Especially the stories around the closed town of Zheleznogorsk (which was formerly known as Krasnoyarsk-26) were fascinating. We had been aware that many towns in the former Soviet Union had been closed to foreigners. We only realized that such closed towns continue to exist even now.
Anatoliy showed us a hidden path up towards Takmak Rock – without his help we would definitively not have found it. It was a pleasant hike through a light larch and birch forest. Max was alternating between extremes: either he raced ahead or he dragged behind such that eventually Sam and Anatoliy resorted to carrying him part of the way. Once we had reached the top, we stopped for a break to eat our sandwiches and to enjoy the view.
Following the break, we headed to another viewpoint before heading steep down and then up again. As we walked along, we not only got to see many more rock formations and many spring flowers, but also some insights into Russian leisure activities. We hiked along some ski slopes, saw the start of a steep mountain bike track and passed a couple of cabanas that can be rented for private festivities. And when Max started watching some men working, we learned a very true Russian saying that there are three things you can watch endlessly: running water, fire and other people working. How true!
On our way down, we took the chairlift and then had a surprisingly good and cheap lunch at the buffet of the ski restaurant. A great finish for a perfect outing! Next time around, we’d definitively come back and do a tour with Anatoliy again – maybe during the Siberian winter at temperatures of below -30 °C. I’m sure it would be very different, but as much fun.
After our busy day, we took it easy and did not do too much. Still, the atmosphere in our hostel was not too tempting and we rather went outside to have dinner vs. spending time in the communal kitchen with the guys there. The hostel seemed to be exclusively used by Russian working class men. In their uniform training outfits they just did not appeal to us as potential conversation partners. Who knows – potentially we would have had a great time with them. We’ll never know as we preferred the comfy atmosphere of a nice café in town.
The next morning, I packed our stuff while Sam and Max went shopping. They had an ‘interesting’ experience when a 60-year old lady approached them and asked them if Sam would be willing to come up to her flat to help her fix an electrical appliance. Sam was not willing to and used our upcoming train as an excuse. That turned out to be a big mistake, as the lady (which spoke excellent German, as she used to be a German teacher) then imposed herself to get the shopping done more quickly such that Sam would not miss the train. I had a good laugh when hearing his account how he wanted to buy certain products. She then dismissed them as ‘too expensive’ and suggested alternatives at a lower price (and lower quality). Eventually Sam got quite frustrated – after all he wanted to shop for a hostess gift which was supposed to be high quality.