17.10.2008 - 21.10.2008 4 °C
There's something addictive, almost meditative, about moving from city to city by train, new town, new place to sleep, followed by a days worth of train travel, before looping back to the beginning again. But i'd other plans for the next stop. Time to stick around in one spot for a while.
It was after my longest single leg so far on the Trans Siberian - 30 hours from the Siberian 'capital' of Novosibirsk - that I turned up in Irkutsk.
At a few minutes past 6am, on a frosty Friday morning, I strolled out of the station to begin the search for my hostel. I've got this stubborn thing about not getting taxis unless forced to, and so I marched on past the handful of touts probably not expecting any foreigners at that early hour. Up the road, over the bridge, and into Irkutsk proper.
Combining a bit of luck, and remembering that almost every hostel in this town had it's entrance 'round the back', it didn't take much more than 40 minutes to locate the Baikaler, my base for the next five days. Whereas I had not met a single non-Russian since leaving Moscow over a week before, Irktusk was tagged as a 'travellers town', the most popular stop on the Trans Siberian.
And what do travellers make, Brucie? Randomness, that's what. Total and utter random, blind luck, fateful meetings with people from who knows where.
One minute I'm chatting to a Chilean guy in the kitchen of the hostel, when the next minute in walks a German, two Spaniards and two Koreans. A few hours later, the 7 of us are enjoying good food, beer and a vodka (or eight, maybe more... who can remember) at a local watering hole. We must have built up quite a momentum, because on leaving the pub (leaving behind my hat and gloves, doh!) we managed to collect a number of Russians along the way. So it was that we found ourselves enjoying more vodka, and more Russian food, a few metres down the street.
It all goes a bit blurry after that, but I can be sure that there are now not many in Irkutsk who do not know that Fernando Torres is Liverpool's No.9. And they can thank one rather merry LFC nut, and one more than tipsy Atletico Madrid fan, for telling them.
Irkutsk's popularity has tons to do with the fact it sits near the absolute monster mass of water that is Lake Baikal. As every guide book will tell you, there's a lot of the wet stuff held in Baikal. So much so, that should the planet's current supply of drinking water run out tomorrow, Lake Baikal alone would be able to provide everyone on Earth with enough life liquid to last for the next 40 years.
The lake also has a grand future ahead of it. Baikal will one day form the world's next (sixth?) ocean. It's all true.
And fish. This huge, super deep basin of water has a bloody lot of them. Some that are only found here. And don't the market traders in Listvyanka know it. Omul, smoked, fresh or, er, on a stick, is just about the only thing you can buy in the market by the lake, that's if you discount the usual tourist tat.
But Baikal is much better when seen from the lake itself, and if you can't actually get out and onto the water the next best thing is to set up shop on Olkhon, an island half way up the west coast. So the route was plotted, a plan was forged, and I was to bus it up to Olkhon on Sunday morning.
That just left me with enough time Saturday evening to tram it to Irkustk station with a cracking couple i'd met in Listvyanka - a Slovenian girl and an Essex lad. And i'll get something of my chest here (as I'm safely typing this from outside the Russian Federation)... we may or may not have paid for all of our tram tickets. Honest mistake, we're just innocent foreigner types, guv. Swear it.
Much more on Olkhon next post.