For many travellers taking the Trans-Mongolian rail route to China Irkutsk is usually the last Russian town they stop at before heading to Mongolia. It is the perfect place to pause for a few days and check out the natural wonder that is Lake Baikal.
This compact Siberian city has a fine mixture of colourful, old wooden houses and severe Soviet architecture. We spent a day exploring before we set off to Lake Baikal, there was a bit of a tourist trail around the city taking in statues, monuments, parks and buildings. Under clear blue skies we stretched our legs after the long train journey and saw some of the sights along with our new train friend Tori.
In the centre of Irkutsk is the old town, a curious blend of overly restored old wooden buildings and carbon copy modern ones, remodelled as bars, shops and restaurants, all with a resort feel. At the entrance stands the city emblem, a Siberian tiger with a sable in its jaws, seen on the Irkutsk coat of arms. A shiny new mall can be found at the far end, with a cinema and food court.
We walked to the north of the city to find the Saviours Church and the Bogoyavlensky Cathedral. The former a white, neat looking church with very old, worn but still readable murals painted onto the facade. Across the road from it is the far more fantastic looking Bogoyavlensky Cathedral with its multicoloured onion domes, pink walls and painted frescoes. The whole area smelled deliciously like doughnuts but we never discovered where the scent came from, despite trying to follow our noses!
From our cultural wanderings we found the Chinese Market, a cornucopia of cheap food shopping, from baked goods and fancy cakes to train-friendly noodles and dried foods. The fruit and veg were piled high, the tiny grocery stalls hid their vendor under reams of soup packets and coffee sachets. Govindas, a canteen style vegetarian restaurant filled our bellies for the night, we had an early start the following day, a minibus ride up to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal…..
By Rachel Davis