Irkutsk is in parts a faded, battered kind of town with a feeling of the Wild West about it. You could almost picture tumbleweed rolling past the peeling shutters on the quiet side streets. But the forlorn old streets are counteracted by a vibrant modern main strip, and a rather grandiose riverfront resplendent with the Cathedral of the Epiphany on the Angara River, and its neighbour the Savior Church.
The history of Irkutsk is woven with one of the most significant moments of Russian history, the failed Decembrist uprising of 1825. The gentility gathered in St Petersburg to demand freedom from slavery for all Russia’s citizens. Most were executed or exiled, many to this frontier town where gamblers and gold seekers were in the midst of their descent into misery. The exiles set about transforming it – introducing education, culture and transforming it into the ‘Paris’ of Siberia it is described as today. There’s a huge amount more I could say about this but the problem with writing about this country in a blog, and the fascination of visiting it, is that wherever you go (from a famous cathedral to a shabby townhouse) there seems to be a rich, convoluted history to unpack. I am starting to fully comprehend what people mean when they tell us there is no ‘Russian people’ – in a place as vast as this, with so much of the wealth concentrated in the West, people are unified by nothing other than that they call themselves Russian. Thus century upon century of internal struggle.
Hipsters and herons
Our walking route in the city leads us from the bus station to the main tourist office, which houses its own tea museum and offers free luggage storage. We stop for a quite excellent coffee at Engineeria Coffe on Dekabrskikh Sobytiy St where we’re served by smiling, bespectacled, metrosexual types I’d normally expect to find in Shoreditch. Their tea selection for purchase is impressive and I regret not having a bottomless bag to fill with it.
From here we start our walk, heading to Ulitsa Karl Marx, down past the Savior Church to the river. Despite the evident beauty of the cathedrals, our heads are turned more by the wedding vehicles lined up outside, complete with caged doves. Clearly weddings are a big deal here. As we stroll the riverfront we encounter one of the wedding parties, bride’s face the cherry on top of a gigantic white tulle skirt; tall, spindly-legged, coral-clad bridesmaids in towering heels picking their way along the pavement like hesitant herons.
Confessions of a bun-wielder
It’s a short, sweet visit, and before we know it we’re back on board the train, peering down the aisle of our first third class carriage. Here’s a very different layout than we’re accustomed to – one long narrow corridor lined with bunks, walking along which you find yourself dodging people’s fingers and toes which seem to squirm disconcertingly at eye level. We locate our bunks which are thankfully at ground level and facing each other. And then our top bunk companions arrive, one of whom is an elderly Russian man. I feel terrible at the thought of him having to scramble onto the bunk above and try to persuade him to take my bunk but he won’t have it. He is however happy to sit with us at ground level, producing a picnic of cucumbers and tomatoes and little buns which he repeatedly begs us to eat.
We pass about three hours trying to communicate despite us speaking no Russian and him no English. At one point he reaches for Matt’s mobile phone and starts, rather alarmingly, swiping through all the photos. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster, one minute he’s cooing at a lovely scenery shot, the next frowning at our bearded male friend in a wig and lipstick at his stag do. In the end he decides it’s hilarious and does a big belly laugh.
I wake up in the night with a rumbling tummy having not eaten the night before. The man’s buns are on the table and I decide to sneakily eat one, trying not to rustle the bag and watching his face for a suddenly open eye. When I bite into it it’s filled with a sticky brown goo which I can’t identify the taste of and I end up throwing it out of the window. I’m quite ashamed of doing that but I panicked. I can’t help picturing some innocent passing owl in the night, taking the bun full to the face.
Disembarking at Krasnoyarsk I can sense something in the air. It’s the feeling of… Middlesbrough. It’s raining quite heavily and the potholed, uneven road is flooded. There’s a large street in front of the station lined with unattractive, mainly abandoned concrete buildings. I know instinctively that Matt will love this place. He can’t resist an underdog. As we move closer into town the architecture improves, buildings are painted and taller with balconies. Open fronted cafes spill out onto the pavement.
Our accommodation at the Weekend Mini Hotel is basically a room in someone’s apartment. Coming through the rather grim looking entrance round the back of the housing block we’re not feeling too positive, but in actual fact the place is spotlessly clean and the room is huge with a balcony and large comfy bed. It’s cheap too and a great bet for anyone stopping here for a few days.
Our earnest wish is to visit the Putin Café whilst here, but after lengthy research, it seems to be in the middle of a distant housing estate and virtually impossible to reach.
Instead that afternoon we head to the Central Park Gorky to see what’s going down. It feels quite a lot like we’ve been sucked into Great Yarmouth in the 90’s (again). The kind of charming old school kicks people used to get before they wasted their entire lives pulling duckface for Snapchat and scrolling through Facebook feeds (not passing judgement here being guilty of both at times). There are donkeys with ribbons in their hair waiting listlessly to be mounted. There are giant bouncy castles ejecting unlucky occupants unceremoniously onto the jagged concrete below. There are children with sticky fingers guzzling pink candy floss.
There is this inexplicable thing.
And this inexplicable thing.
From the park we head to the riverside walk, which is pretty pleasant actually. On the far side of the river are green hills and bushy trees. Birds of prey stalk the length of the river, ducks plop and gabble obliviously beneath. Couples stroll hand in hand.
Passing back through Central Park in the early evening we find the parking spaces filled with souped up vehicles. Their chain-smoking teenage occupants cease their flirting momentarily to watch us pass. I feel another pang for 90’s Norfolk youthhood, even though I never smoked, was too scared to talk to boys, and was certainly never cool enough to hang out in the car park.
I’m sure we’ve barely scratched the surface of Krasnoyarsk, but before we know it we’re back on board the train, squeezing into two top deck third class beds. Herein lies the rub of third class travel on the Trans-Siberian. Yup, it’s cheap alright. And if you, or someone you’re with, is on the bottom bunk, you’re in for a reasonably comfy time. You have somewhere to sit up straight and gaze out the window. You have access to the little table to splatter tomato seeds onto. You can get up and go to the toilet without having to dangle your moth eaten socks in some poor person’s face to get down. But if you’re on the bunk above, and the person on the bottom bunk is doing 24 hour sleeping (which is the case on this particular journey) you’ll find yourself restricted to a coffin-like state for the duration of the journey, your bunk height being approximately 40 centimetres.
Thus pass the next 36 hours. The main events are watching an entire series of Narcos whilst doing my best Tutankhamun impression, and just as I’m nodding off, a fat drunk Russian man appearing at the end of my bunk in a vest and pants, totally lost, eyes glazed and swaying. I screw my own eyes shut in anticipation of him confusing the bottom bunk for a water closet, but the provodnitsa appears and makes light work of him, hustling him back to his bed with sharp hissing noises like a cat she’s found shitting in her garden.
In the morning we’re approaching a large station, there’s movement and the buzz of reaching somewhere good.
‘Where’s this?’ I ask Matt. ‘Seems popular.’
‘I think it’s Novosibirsk.’ He replies. ‘It’s Russia’s third biggest city. It’s supposed to be pretty cool actually – quite a lot of bars and restaurants and a bit of a scene.’
But we stopped in Krasnoyarsk? I think to myself in bafflement. Then I remember who planned the route.
The man who loves the underdog.
Our arrival in Yekaterinburg shows more promise. At the station we jump on a trolley bus with our packs and are whisked past a large pretty park. We traverse a wide road lined with grand old buildings to get to the oddly named DoBeDo hostel. Our room is another big, clean, light one.
I’d definitely recommend a stop at this city to anyone train-ing it across Russia. There are some beautiful cathedrals, most notably the Church on the Blood. The name gives away that this site is woven into Russia’s violent revolutionary history – Tsar Nicholas along with his wife and two daughters were brutally executed here by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Today the golden orb of the roof blazes back the sunlight at the sheer blue sky. So recently it was a scene of such horror and power struggle. It’s hard to know how to react to such a place.
We take a walk along the Iset river down to Dendrariy Park, and through the literary quarter. Its faded beauty is reignited by the late afternoon sun.
Here’s a little quirk of Russia – for groceries you can’t just walk into a shop, pick something up, take it to the counter and hand over the money. Most of them have all the goods behind a counter, with an (often formidable) shopkeepress at the front presiding over her shelf empire. For non-Russian speakers like me and Matt, it means that most visits to the shop incorporate an intricate mime act. The sight of Matt seems to inspire instant dislike in most shopkeepresses, and his mimes are generally met with a ten second glare, followed by suspicious, reluctant retrieval of the object. In Yekaterinburg I rip a nail so far past the quick, an immediate quest for nail scissors is necessary. I approach a booth empress nervously, and pull my best scissor mime out of the bag. To my surprise, her face lights up in recognition, she smiles, mimes the scissors back at me and fetches them immediately, looking like she’s thoroughly enjoyed the whole exchange. Matt looks crestfallen.
In the evening we head to the top of the Visotsky Business Centre tower to take in the views of the city, which are pretty stunning given its proximity to the Urals, and the vast wetlands sitting in the midst of the urban sprawl.
We gaze into the distance, knowing our next destination is so far it’s not even close to the horizon. Moscow awaits.