Trans-Siberian Railway: Three Days in Irkutsk and Ekaterinburg
The most Siberian part of a Trans-Siberian journey (or at least what we did which is actually “Trans-Mongolian” as it concludes in Mongolia and China rather than Vladivostok) are the twin cities of Irkutsk and Ekaterinburg. They're thousands of miles apart, the first right outside of deep lake Baikal in the East and the second at the foot of the Ural mountains closer to the West, with two days long train ride in between.
We hit up Irkutsk first. The energy in the city seemed young, despite its long history. That may have been because of the influence of our guide, Ulyiana, a twenty-something newlywed who brought us along to the casual cafés and food spots she spends her time in, as well as the historical sites. Large but isolated, Irkutsk feels far away from real life; though plenty of modern architecture is popping up, there are still a lot beautiful Siberian-style wooden houses around, particularly in the old central neighborhoods of the city. The sense was enhanced by Ulyiana pandering to our sense of drama as tourists, letting us know that our lives were in constantly in danger during our stay in the city as it was only a series of dams that prevented the entire basin from being filled with a deluge of Baikalian ice water. You never know, she said, those dams could go any time. Regardless of how likely this even actually is, it makes the adventure of the city even more palpable.
Ekaterinburg felt much larger. Well, it is larger — nearly twice so. The Iset river winds through the much more imposing skyline, and even the famously old buildings are grander and take up a whole lot more space with their stately columns and arches. The differences between the two cities come with distance — geographical and historical, and both make for intriguing stops for the train-traveling culture nerd.
Though it’s often seen as an easily-skipped transit stop to get to lake Baikal, Irkutsk is one of the of the biggest cities in Siberia and has been so for centuries, with a rich history as a center of commerce. I could go into plenty of detail about that, but for me (and most others I would suspect), the most interesting part of the city’s past is its place as home to the exiled Decembrist revolutionaries during the early-to-mid 1800s. They were nobility banished from Moscow after revolting against Serfdom and the Tzar. The men went over first to perform hard labor in prisons built specifically for them. And though not legally compelled to, many of their wives followed, abandoning society, family, and sometimes even their own children. Together they used their frustrated high-class customs help create a more modern and complex society. After 40 years they were all pardoned and allowed to return from exile to Moscow, but their houses and histories still stand, attracting tourists like ants to a delicious blini. Or tourists to a delicious blini, for that matter.
➊ First we made a brief visit to the the Icebreaker Angara Museum. Though we didn’t have time to go inside, the ship was interesting enough. The small vessel spent the first five years of its life, born in 1900, ferrying building materials across Baikal for the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway.
Ten years later it became a passenger ship, working for 50 years before retiring to the life of a floating museum.
➋ The Gargarin Embankment runs along the edge of the Angara river, sudded with statues of very rugged Russian explorers, the sharp golden-edged Epiphany Cathedral, and a series of love-locks chained by new sweethearts along any fence along the river (here and in every other city we visited in Europe, as we would discover.)
➌ The Decemberists Museum is in the house of Maria Volkonsky, a rich and beautiful noble who apparently even the revered Pushkin fell couldn't resist. The house is huge and filled with all sorts of historical artifacts. It's laid out in a very structured way, with attendants watching your every move to make sure you don’t misbehave or take the wrong route through the rooms.
➍ Old Town Irkutsk is a nice place to walk among the delicious eateries (Pectopah!), cafés, statues, and Siberian-style wooden-lace houses.
➎ The downtown is a newer area to which you’re welcome with a famous and very tall statue of the Babr, the city’s coat of arms depicting some sort of very special extinct tiger with a sable in its mouth.
➏ Before heading for the overnight train, we had the chance to watch a ringing of the bells at the Raising of the Cross Church. And despite taking extensive notes detailing the names of
each of our guides along with their professions and all of the historical names they mentioned, I failed to write down the name and exact story of the master bell-ringer, even though he was one of the most interesting people we met. In any case, what I definitely remember was that he was very much into classic rock and would try and sneak tunes into his bell ringing, which he has done twice a day for something like ten or twenty years (and yes, I know that’s a big time difference, but suffice it to say he has been doing this for a very long time.) I definitely recall Led Zeppelin being involved.
Ekaterinburg is a strange city, bright and sprawling with a crazy 1980s architectural vibe, buildings built in the Soviet style. But it’s a prosperous city with a long history, so there are also huge renovated mansions of pioneering gold and emerald merchants, lots of statues and monuments in squares to wander amongst people cheerful to be outside for the very very short summer, when it takes ages to get dark outside. As a perk, a great part this stop was our hotel room, which had seriously, the most 1980s-a-licious vibe in the land — lots of space and smooth furniture and statues of vaguely art-deco style cats.
In the center of the city there’s the large Plotinka Dam, where all sorts of happy people hang about around food stands and restaurants and museums, brides and grooms getting their wedding photos taken on and next to horses and clad in bright fuchsia and cerulean ribbons. There are old fisherman using the polluted water that flows from the dam through the square (with fountains, of course) to fish recreationally. To cross the dam there’s a big underpass graffitied with exclusively rock-n-roll related art, expressing the city youth’s apparent obsession with the music genre.
On the other side of the tunnel is a huge lake that sports paddle-boats in the summer.
We walked through the nearby literary quarter, filled with restored wooden houses and stages for live performances, towards the Church of the Blood. What a pleasantly title for the church on the hill where formerly stood the house that the Romanovs summered and subsequently were all murdered in. Now the family, canonized as martyrs, is displayed over almost every surface of the church. The iconography is beautiful and golden and classically Russian, so shiny and over-the-top so that God can spot the church from heaven.
Finally, a short drive outside of the city is the border between the Asian and European Continents. It’s a strange spot in the forest, where couples go on their wedding day to tie ribbons around trees and sip champagne together for good luck. They can also pose as russian royalty, sticking their heads through the face-holes of those life-size cutouts strategically stuck among the trees.
We had a day on our own to walk around the city, which pretty much constituted a second visit of multiple sites from the day before.
A killer tip for people traveling without knowing a lot of Cyrillic (except for the word pectopah - which means restaurant) is to eat at the commonly-found lunch cafeterias. All you have to do is wait in a little line and point to whichever sort of hearty Russian comfort food you would like, and then play the game of trying to guess what it is. And regardless of what ingredients it contains — it's delicious and can be a lot easier than than trying to order off an unintelligible menu, as there’s less English around than you might think.
One delightfully strange new stop on this day was the aquarium in the center of town, by the imposing Black Tulip Memorial. I knew we had to stop in when we passed by it on the search for dinner at 5:00 (P.S. we wouldn’t find an English menu until about 8:00). My sister is obsessed with aquariums and we clearly had some time to burn. There are plenty of fish, but there are two other things that actually make this place worth the visit: the huge crazy sculpted sea animals on the walls and in the tanks, like a huge shark, the gaping mouth-hole of a kraken, and a skeleton lying in a tank full of piranhas. And secondly, the equally amazeballs interactive rabbit exhibit, where you can pet their pet bunnies in a little pen stuck in a corner for no logical reason.