Binge drinking in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

Irkutsk is one of the main hubs for tourists in Siberia. There’s enough infrastructure to stock up on food and head either east (Vladivostok), south (Mongolia) or west (Moscow). When I arrived there, a number of administrative tasks were on my mind: Getting the visa for Mongolia, see a barber shop, post some postcards and mail a DVD containing about 4GB of pictures as backup from the camera’s memory stick to Switzerland. Eventually – among all these tasks – I would have some time to visit the city and also stock up some cup noodles for the onward journey.

Old Siberian house in Irkutsk

However, things went not as planned. The Mongolian embassy was closed on arrival day (April 30th). They would process my visa only on May 1st for pickup on May 2nd. Moreover, I neglected the fact that on May 1st, most Russian government services (such as the post office) would be closed. Actually, these institutions were also closed on May 2nd. The Internet cafe, however, would be open on these dates, but be closed on May 3rd and 4th. To complicate matters, you do need to show the original passport at the railway station when buying a ticket – but I wasn’t ready to buy the onward ticket on April 30th, since I did not yet know when I would leave (given the fact that there are so many excursion possibilities in Irkutsk).

To make the above complicated story short: After all the train rides and rushes through other cities, I purposely went unprepared to Irkutsk to rest a couple of days. But I learned that being unprepared will haunt you, because there’s always a public holiday which messes up some plans. Therefore, even if you just want to rest at some place, it still requires some basic planning.

Downtown Irkutsk

Anyhow, I did what I best could: Meet people and have a few drinks. There were numerous people at “my” hostel which kept me busy and entertained. Eventually there was a group of five Estonians – one guy travelling with four girls – who were still in a vodka competition after their train ride. Needless to say that we had a lot of fun (Thomas B. from B. would probably have loved to be among that crowd).

There, I also met Peter, a dutch guy who was eager to do the “Circumbaikal Train Route” (a historic train ride on the original Siberian railway line along Lake Baikal). This was also on my shortlist and although I was about to leave on a tour alone to Sludvyanka, it made perfect sense to travel both of us and organize the trip directly instead of having to pay the markup for tour agents.

We were heading to the beautiful town of Listvyanka (about 2 hours south of Irkutsk), which by itself is worth an excursion. Many Russians head to this lakeside village in spring to walk on the breaking ice shelf. Obviously the men would do this with a bottle of vodka in their hand and the women would join them in high heels. Its a manly game of “who’s afraid of falling into the icy water”. Sun was shining and it was fun watching the crowd.

Peter and I took an overnight home stay with some local people there. We were experiencing life without running water and basic facilities. Therefore, without a shower we left the second day quite early Listvyanka to catch the ferry boat to Port Baikal from where we would take that historic train. Everything was working out fine, we even managed to catch a bus (unknowingly to us there was one at that time running) – sparing us to walk 4km with our backpacks to the ferry landing.

Sunset over Lake Baikal

However, once we had arrived in Port Baikal, the train station agent wouldn’t sell us tickets for the train scheduled to leave around 10am. Although its schedule clearly outlined there would be a train leaving at that time, there wasn’t one. This is the kind of stuff which happens quite often in Russia – so it didn’t really matter to me or even bother me. Peter was a bit more uptight about this – understandably – since this was supposed to be the highlight of his four week trip from Moscow to Beijing.

But there was nothing we could do as the village of Port Baikal isn’t connected to any other transport network (road, train). Moreover, it doesn’t feature any restaurant where we would find shelter from the constant strong and cold wind. Although there are two small shops, they would refuse to sell us some warm water with their tea bags or instant coffee. But it was a sunny day and I had GSM coverage. What else would I need to make me happy? So I kept myself busy by checking emails and browsing the latest news from websites until we would be able to leave back to Listvyanka using the next ferry at 4pm.

Two stranded backpackers in such a village must have looked pretty funny to the locals and we met quite a few people throughout our waiting time. The best chat we had actually with three young locals who were clearly binge drinking. But they were the only ones to try at least to speak English with us – and they were keen to translate most of their Russian into English using my little Oxford dictionary. To my surprise, the waiting time of about six hours passed pretty quick. In the evening Peter and I were back in Irkutsk to catch our trains. Peter went to Ulan Ude and I continued to Ulan-Bator.

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