Crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway: Chapter 4

[media-credit id=154 align=”aligncenter” width=”600″]Irkutsk train station[/media-credit]

Irkutsk Train Station

Day 6

Arrived in IRKUTSK, km 5185, MT + 5 -after 3 nights on the train, almost sorry it was already over.

People had got off and on, and sometimes in the morning or after a nap I would wake up with someone different sleeping next to me. I had told my story several times, I had looked at maps with people and I was starting to feel totally at home, as if I had done this my whole life. No, I didn’t wash, but I did brush my teeth morning and evening and I had wet tissues to keep clean and you don’t really get that dirty on a train anyway (I take this moment to share with you my theory: I am sure that in 50 years people will talk about our days saying that at the time people used to actually wash with water every day).

Does it smell on the train? At times, but mostly of smoked fish and cabbage, which I found easily bearable. Do people snore? Yes.

In Irkutsk I took a bus for the 70 km to the lakeside town of LISTVYANSKA. Eisenhower was scheduled to visit here in 1960 but never came because of the Gary Powers scandal. For those like I who didn’t know who G. Powers was, he’s the guy who jumped with a parachute when his airplane got shot down flying (spying) over Siberia, he didn’t take his cyanide pill as he should have, was thrown in prison and though the US government denied he had been spying and said he had just got lost, the Russians were mighty proud at catching the Americans with their pants down.
[media-credit id=154 align=”alignleft” width=”249″]Lystvianska -on lake Baïkal[/media-credit]

Lystvianska -on lake Baïkal

Anyway, Listvyanska is a small town right on the lake front, and I gasped in the bus when I saw the frozen lake appear behind the trees, covered in steam from the frost. I had been reading about this lake for months and there it was lying before me. It’s always a strange feeling to discover what you’ve been picturing in your imagination, of course it’s like an entirely new place. In my mind all these places sort of floated around in limbo and here there were real houses and roads and busses and things. I scrambled up the steep, icy, slippery hill to the hotel, actually wondering if I was going to make it to the top and if when I arrived I was not going to roll all the way down again with my heavy knapsack right onto the main road and get run over by a truck.

I made it up the hill, and here I was, in my little cabin, freezing cold, with an electric heater that had only just been turned on. It was so cold in there I wondered if I would manage to stay, but the place was so cute and the view incredible so I put all my clothes on and went to bed for a nap. I woke up at about 9 PM and went to fill my thermos with tea in the main house where the guy from the hotel was finishing dinner with some friends. One of them was playing the guitar and singing Russian folk songs, and there was a girl who was very, very drunk. I sat with them for a while, the Russians seem to be very good singers, all the street singers I saw in Moscow were excellent and this guy sang beautifully as well. Again, they asked me if I wanted a drink but didn’t insist at all when I stuck to the tea in my thermos.
[media-credit id=154 align=”alignright” width=”249″]My log cabin in Lystvyanska[/media-credit]

My log cabin in Lystvyanska

The small log cabin hotel I was in had a shower and sauna which I was pleased to use the next day, even if there was only a trickle of water to fill the small metal basin it was nice to wash my hair. I walked quite a distance to the large hotel up the hill where I was able to get my “registration” filled in, as where I was staying the guy doesn’t have the facility to do it. Wherever you go in Russia you must register, and when you leave the country they can ask to see your registrations and give you a hard time if you can’t prove where you stayed. There is sort of a grey area concerning the train, as a ticket is not considered like a registration, so I needed to get this done every time I was off the train so that I could have as many little yellow registration forms as possible.

I walked along the banks of the lake where fishermen make holes in the ice with electric drills. There is a fish unique to the Baikal lake, called Omul, and they eat it everywhere. It’s said to be delicious, but what you taste is mainly that it’s smoked. They sell it hot on the side of the road and I ate one or two with my fingers at the fish stand, feeling very local indeed.
[media-credit id=154 align=”alignleft” width=”249″]Omul at the fish market[/media-credit]

Omul at the fish market

Not much to do in town except visit the regional museum, where there is more Omul, this time live, and more again dead, in formaldehyde. They also have a few poor Baikal seals swimming around in a tank, another animal unique to the lake.

Walking back I spotted some men in bathing suits with woollen caps on their heads diving into a hole in the ice. I watched them in disbelief and they called me over, they were in fact renting a small room that opens on to the lake with a sauna in the back, and they go from sauna to pool and back again, their bodies steaming as they exit the water. A whole family and friends were there, with 3 children. There was a huge meal on the table, and they were drinking and wanted me to share their messy looking lunch, but were very understanding when I said no.

I don’t know why people go on so much about the fact that you can’t refuse people’s hospitality in most foreign countries, it’s as if they were brainless, insensitive savages. When it’s said nicely people all over the world understand such a simple things as not being hungry or thirsty, or not wanting to sit down. I think the only person I ever met who was that stubborn was my own grandmother! Everywhere I went they had cranberry juice and I drank that instead of vodka and it was fine.
[media-credit id=154 align=”alignright” width=”249″]Pool at lake Baikal[/media-credit]

Pool at lake Baikal

These people were extremely nice, the kids tried their school English on me and loved it, I gave them postcards of Paris, one of the guys, a Chechen, wanted to move to Paris and I explained (or tried to) how difficult it was for foreigners to get papers and how they live for months in horrible conditions in camps and then get sent back to their countries. They seemed extremely surprised to hear that and rather disbelieving.

Be reassured, I didn’t jump into the pool, and they didn’t try to get me to. They were sweet, respectful, pleased to meet a foreigner, smart, and extremely pleasant.



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  • Loving this series. 🙂 Great writing and photos.

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  • Great stuff, have just read all four chapters. Thanks for writing this and detailing the places you went and the characters you met. I would love to go just to see that frozen lake, doubt I would refuse the vodka thought. Look forward to reading the rest.

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  • Never before heard of a steam shower enclosure until finally I came across this site, so thrilled I did so truly want one now and funds letting will probably be buying one soon

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