And so begins our Trans-Siberian experience. A number of itineraries had been devised, discarded and replanned over the past year for this trip — Russia’s railway system had a habit of cancelling and rescheduling their train schedules to the point our itinerary kept evolving every 3-4 weeks at the whim of Soviet-era bureaucracy.
What was once 3 days Moscow — 4 days train — 1 day Irkutsk & Lake Baikal — 1 day Ulaanbaatar — Beijing turned into 3 days Saint Petersburg — 3 days in Moscow — 6 days train — Beijing after a rescheduling. Then after another cancellation, it turned into 3 days Moscow — 4 days train — 1 day Ulaanbaatar — Beijing. Then another train got rescheduled, leading to our final itinerary: 3 days Saint Petersburg — 3 days Moscow — 1 day Irkutsk & Lake Baikal — 1 day train — 2 days Ulaanbaatar — Beijing.
So as fate would have it, we would still get to do all the major sights on the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Railway while still being on the actual train. The only catch is shaving off 2 days on the train for a flight, with which we can still get to fully experience if we ever return for a Trans-Siberian experience from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok (which we will!).
Getting on a 9:30pm flight from Moscow to Irkutsk, we landed at 8am in the morning after a 5 hour flight (keep in mind the time zone difference).
Freshening up at Castro Café inside the airport, we waited for our pre-arranged guide from Baikal Explorer, Nikolai, to pick us up.
The airport is located in the middle of the city, literally: Across the street is a 24/7 karaoke bar.
Our first stop on the way to Listvyanka — the village on the northern side of the southwestern corner of Lake Baikal — was the Icebreak Angara, the first and only surviving ship of the original icebreakers in Russia.
Next we stopped by an open-air museum of a traditional Cossack village to represent the first Russian settlers in the Lake Baikal region:
You can get a great view of Angara River here:
Along exhibits of what daily life was back then, there are also a ton of winter-related activities you can do here, such as an ice slide on cowskin:
Afterwards we got to learn about Lake Baikal at the local science museum before seeing the main act itself:
Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest freshwater lake in the world, with a surface area of 12,248 sq miles and a depth of 5,387 ft and hosting thousands of unique species that exist nowhere else in the world. It is over 25 million years old and smack dab in the middle is an island that is home to 2,000 people, mostly Buryat tribes and shamans believed to be the ancestors of the Native Americans that migrated across the Bering Strait.
The weather this season has been oddly warmer than usual, with today’s temperatures around -11ºC, or 12-15ºF. This meant the lake was not going to be frozen over to cross by foot or car. Thanks, global warming.
For lunch we had a Mongolian inspired meal in an actual ger:
Then we took a ski lift/chair lift up to the summit for 300 rubles roundtrip. For an extra cost, you can rent skis and snowboards; this is an actual skiing destination!
Views from the top:
Hike down to the actual observation point for a better and clearer view of the lake:
We then headed back down to catch the sunset over the lake:
At this time of year, the sun begins to set at 4:30pm:
If you’re getting hungry, try to find the market stalls along the lake to eat omul, the local salmon-like salmonoid fish native to and unique only to Lake Baikal. They come in 100, 150, and 200-ruble sizes.
How did it taste?
noms noms noms.
Then at 6pm we drove back to Irkutsk where we checked in at Rolling Stones Hostel and said goodbye to Nikolai:
After an hour freshening up, we headed back out to explore Irkutsk.
If you didn’t bother clicking the link above and were confused why we were wishing everyone a Merry Christmas Eve today, we discovered during our travels that the Russians celebrate their Christmas on January 7th. This bode well for us as tonight would be the only time where all its churches would be open late instead of closing at the usual 7pm. So even though we arrived back into Irkutsk at 7pm, the whole city was still bristling with the Christmas sprit and we had all of it to ourselves with nary another tourist in sight.
Our first stop was an 8 minute drive to Kazan Church on the northeastern part of the city. Surrounded by actual house-sized ice sculptures in exquisite detail, this was the most impressive house of worship in Irkutsk:
Afterwards we drove 8 min over to Znamenskiy monastyr’, a more subdued place compared to Kazan:
Then we finished our 490 ruble car drive at the Moskovskie Vorota (Triumphal Arch Moscow):
From there we walked along the Angara River…
and cut in to swing by the Monument to the Founders of Irkutsk:
Then we crossed over to visit the Cathedral of the Epiphany:
Across the street in the park is Spasskaya Tserkov’:
We then finished our Christmas Eve tour of Irkutsk at Kirov Square, which was alive with ice activities:
…ridiculous ice sculptures…
…a sad camel…
…and a reindeer, an actual freakin reindeer:
Afterwards we went grocery shopping across the street for our 28 hour train ride to Mongolia beginning the next morning…
…before finishing with a 12 course (as per Russian tradition on Christmas Eve) dinner at the next door Peking Duck House:
Tomorrow we hop on an 8am, 28-hour Train 0043 from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar!
– At time of posting in Irkutsk, Russia, it was 12.2 °F – Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear