I guess I am just so happy getting off of the Trans Siberian Railway for a few days. Though Irkutsk is often described as a dusty town, it is one of the most popular stops since it is close to Lake Baikal. It is often called the “Paris of Siberia”. And people seem to be friendlier and more relaxed than people in European Russia. Lake Baikal is 64 Km away.
Irkutsk remains one of the largest suppliers of furs to the world markets. Yet more than four million people in the region live in poverty. The city itself has about 600,000 people. Oil and aluminum have brought new jobs to the region since 2010.
Though my hotel looks a little weather-beaten, it is nonetheless the best looking place around. It is only two blocks to the big central market, where the locals shop for food. I saw everything for sale, including beef, chicken, eggs, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, honey, cheese, milk, fresh-cut flowers, bare root tree stock, and toys. I was tempted, but I have no grill or cooking utensils.
I am planning to hit a sushi bar tonight, as Irkutsk is known for their sushi. However, it seems a long way from any ocean, as far as I can tell. And what kind of Japan trained sushi chef would live here in Siberia? Perhaps one who has been ex-seafoodicated from the great ocean of life.
The few people I have talked to seem friendly. A man in one of the food booths thought I was from Japan! Surprise, surprise! I explained I was from the US, from California specifically, and he finally believed me.
The railway station here is on the west bank of the Angara River, a tributary of the Yenisei River, about 45 miles from its outflow from Lake Baikal. The city center and most tourist hotels are on the east side. In May, the high temperature averages around 65 F, and the low around 38 F.
I notice that women here love black nylon stockings, either with skirts, dresses or Bermuda shorts. I am not sure if it is a fashion statement, or a practical move with the cooler weather. The women dress far better than the men, at every level.
But most curiously, the Irkutsk coat of arms depicts a Siberian tiger with a sable in its mouth! Perhaps the coat of arms was meant to symbolize the coats made from the valuable sable. Siberia was the main source of sable through the Middle Ages.
The nearest sister city to California is Eugene, Oregon. I could not think of any two cities as polar opposite as these two. When I return from Lake Baikal, I will spend one night here, at the Victory Hotel. Mostly since I have the early morning train to catch for points west.
And there is a church called the Epiphany Cathedral. I have heard it is a beautiful church that withstood the Soviet purge. A fire here back in 1870 was so intense that it melted one of the 12 ton bells! Now, that was an epiphany if there ever was one!
This place might also be my best shot at trying a Russian spa. But everything I see about it is written in Russian Cyrillic. I certainly don’t want to walk into a Russian brothel! I may have to settle for sushi and champagne, always a great alternative. See you early tomorrow (about 6am) on the Trans Siberian Railway, Part 2.