27 July 2011

Asia in Russia!

This is my entry for the Selective Asia “An Asian Experience to remember” competition.

There are a lot of facts and statistics thrown around about Lake Baikal. Something about it being the oldest (30 million years), deepest (1,600m) and one of the most clear lakes in the world! It contains 20% of the world's unfrozen fresh water, about the same as all five of the North American Great Lakes... combined! But forget all that, numbers are boring. Baikal is simply one of the most beautiful places in the world.

I arrived in Irkutsk bright and early, slightly hungover, but ready to get out and explore. Irkutsk is one of the largest cities in Siberia, as well as being a mere one hour drive from Baikal. Therefore an obvious choice for a stop on my journey across Siberia.

A few interesting things about Irkutsk: This area of Siberia is well known for its old wooden houses, relics left by previous generations. They are everywhere! The problem is that the town council (or whoever it is makes the decisions around here) cannot afford to maintain or renovate them. To pull them down would be pulling down a piece of their history. So many of them sit, dilapidated and abandoned. Those that have been restored are often beautiful works of art, some with extravagant exteriors and intricate carvings.

Like most other Russian cities, Irkutsk is full of churches and cathedrals. There are a couple of very cool ones worth mention - Raising of the Cross Church with its intricate and colourful exterior decoration. And Kazansky Church - a Russian style church with large, colourful domes. Bogoyavlensky Church is also worth a visit.

Other than Churches and wooden houses - the city is just a nice place to walk around. Large, open squares, trees, gardens, fountains, beautiful building, locals out enjoying the sun...

After a full on day exploring, I met up with my Couch Surfing host, Tatiana. She is an adventurous, interesting and very friendly Russian girl. We spent one day at a small lake not far from Irkutsk which was really great. We just relaxed in the sun and swam. Stupidly, I didn't put on any sunscreen, so my back and shoulders got really burnt. Carrying my backpack was not pleasant for the few days following.

And on to Baikal... Apparently the most beautiful spot on the lake is in the north; Ol'kohn Island. It is a 6 or 7 hour bus ride from Irkutst, therefore you need a few days to make it worth your while. Unfortunately I only had two. But I did visit Listvyanka, a small town on the shore of Baikal. It really was a beautiful spot. I arrived at about 9am and the morning mist had not yet burned off; the hills and lake covered in a fine, white layer. It was hard to tell where the lake ended and the sky began. The sky was also full of smoke; fishermen who have returned from a morning on the water smoking their catch. I spent most of the morning in Listvyanka - to be honest there is not a lot to do there other than walk, admire the view or grab a coffee.


Half way back to Irkutsk is the Taltsy Museum of Wooden Architecture. It is an open-air museum of Siberian traditional architecture. It is kinda cool, but I'm not sure how they justify the 150 Ruble entry fee. Maybe I am just bitter because I somehow managed to loose my (very expensive) sunglasses there. Most would agree I have not had a lot of luck on this trip - about once a month something bad (read: expensive) happens. While the others were not really my fault, I can't really blame loosing my glasses on someone else. The worst thing was that I didn't realise I had lost them until I was on the bus, already almost back in Irkutsk. I quickly jumped off the bus, crossed the road, and waited for a bus going in the opposite direction. Nothing. After about 30 minutes I decided to try and hitch-hike. I was picked up by a young guy and his girlfriend in an old Lada. Being a passenger in that thing was a real Russian experience. Back at the museum I wandered around but couldn't find any trace of my glasses. I left my name and number, but did not hold out a lot of hope. Back to the bus stop I thought I would stick my thumb out, and just take whatever came first - a bus or a ride. After 15 minutes I got a ride with a nice Russian woman, whose English was very basic, but good enough to communicate where I was from and what I was doing out in the middle of nowhere in Russia. She dropped me on the outskirts of Irkutsk. Problem: I had no idea where I was and could not speak or read the language. I spent the next two or three hours trying to get back to Tatiana's place. A beautiful morning followed by a frustrating afternoon.

From Irkutsk I took a train to around the south side of Like Bikal to Ulan-Ude. The journey was... "interesting". I had an 'unreserved seat' ticket, meaning I could sit anywhere. As soon as I got on the train an old woman took me to her cabin and started feeding me meat and bread. I shared my coffee and we had a nice English/Russian conversation, neither of us being able to speak the others language but somehow managing to communicate. She was a little strange, though. She kept telling me what time the train arrived... over and over. "Ulan Ude... 2pm!". She would also randomly burst into laughter, for no apparent reason. Anyway, she was nice enough and kept me entertained for a few hours. And when she went to sleep, the most amazing and beautiful scenery took over. The mountains, forests, rivers and lake are truly spectacular.

I could not find a host in Ulan Ude - probably because there are only about 7 of them and the city is quite a popular travel destination. But I found a hostel in town - Travellers Hostel owned by a guy names Denis. Apart from the guy I was sharing the room with snoring extremely loudly, it was everything you could ask for in a hostel. Denis was great with recommendations, advice and help getting around. If you are in Ulan Ude, check him out.

Ulan Ude is a relatively small city on the Eastern side of Lake Baikal. It contains the largest 'Lenin head' in the world - literally a huge statue of Lenins head. I couldn't help but laugh every time I saw it, it is just funny! ...You have to ask; why?


Although I have officially been in Asia for a few thousand kilometres, Ulan Ude was the first city that really felt 'Asian'. The people and the culture are much more oriental than anywhere else I have visited in Russia. A large number of the people that live here are Buryats, and trace their roots to Mongolia. Buryats share many customs with Mongolians, including nomadic herding and erecting yurts for shelter. After Buryatia was incorporated into Russia, it was exposed to two traditions — Buddhist and Christian. Buryats west of Lake Baikal and Olkhon (Irkut Buryats), are more "russified", and they soon abandoned nomadism for agriculture, whereas the eastern (Transbaikal) Buryats are closer to the Khalkha Mongols, may live in yurts and are mostly Buddhists. In 1741, the Tibetan branch of Buddhism was recognized as one of the official religions in Russia, and the first Buryat datsan (Buddhist monastery) was built. (thanks Wikipedia).

I had planned to take a day trip to Baikal from Ulan Ude (I only had one day to spare!), but as it turns out, it is a lot more difficult, and takes a lot longer, than from Irkutsk. It was at least a five hour round trip, so it is much better to stay at least one night at the lake. So instead I just hung out in Ulan Ude and took a quiet day; chilled out, wrote my blog, organised my photos etc... You kinda need them every once in a while. I did get out and visit Rinpoche Datsan, a Buddhist Temple in the outskirts of Ulan Ude, which was very cool. I was also recommended to visit Ivolginsky Datsan, which I am quite disappointed I didn't make it out to. It is the center of Buddhism in all of Russia. It also contains the body of Saint Lama Itegilov, who died in 1927. Before he died he told his monk brothers to dig him up in 30 years. He then began chanting the death mantra and died. 30 years later they did dig him up, to find his body had not decayed at all. Even today the body is in excellent condition, which continues to baffle scientists. So if in Ulan Ude, don't be lazy like I was - go check it out.

So that wraps up Russia. From here I head South to Mongolia. It has been an interesting experience spending a month in the home of the Soviet Union, Lenin, Stalin... One that has been at times frustrating, but on the whole I have really enjoyed myself. The number of amazing people I met along the way might have something to do with it. If I could do it again, I would probably try to spend a few more days around Lake Baikal, maybe a week. It is really beautiful part of the world.

And finally - some advice. People have this idea in their mind that the Trans-Siberian is this special train, or that is has to be extremely expensive. It is neither. The Trans-Siberian is just the route. You do not need a special tour group to do it, or to book special tickets months in advance through an expensive travel agent. I bought the tickets for all of my trains while in Russia, from the Russian Rail Website, about one week (or less) in advance. To be honest, it was a little late, and my schedule was mainly dictated by what trains were available. But it is the middle of summer; peak season. It cost me a total of approximately 10,000 Ruble (€250 / £220 / US$360 / AU$330 / NZ$410). Cheap! And while it may be a little more tricky, it is all part of the adventure.


  1. Hello! Excuse me, but where did you see us living in yurts! What a nonsense! There is a big difference between us and Mongolians! You should've had to live here longer to see how it really is!

    1. Hi, I didn't see any Buryats living in yurts. That was a quote from wikipedia =)

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