All women must cover their heads as they enter a Russian Orthodox church, so I throw my scarf over mine as we went inside Znamensky Monastery in Irkusk. The air was thick with incense and candle light, which reflected off the golden images of Christ which hung on every wall. We then noticed a crowd off people to our left, around a priest and a small number of nuns dressed in black. As their a-capella, harmonising song floated through the air, I realised they were praying over a dead body lying in state. I was torn between an urge to get closer to see the body up close and a childish fear at the prospect. As the service reached its climax the singing got louder, until all the congregation blessed themselves and departed. Considering this was our first full day in Russia and none of us had ever seen a dead body before, the country was getting off to a memorable start.
Irkusk is probably the most popular stop for travellers traversing the trans-siberian railway. Its old centre and proximity to Lake Baikal make it an attractive option to break up the long train journeys. As you may have gathered there are also (like a lot of Russian cities) a fair number of churches, which for us made a change from the months of Buddhist temples. Now we were looking at a golden Jesus rather than a golden buddha! The centre has a huge number of old wooden mansions, dating back to the nineteenth century, in varying states of repair. Some are lived in, some burnt down, others falling down: it was interesting to see as in the UK they would probably all be heritage listed and incredibly expensive to rent or buy. Just to hammer home the point of difference, while taking a photo of one mansion a semi naked guy came to the window and smiled creepily…he obviously knew he had a great deal!
In one of the most well-preserved is a museum to Volkonsky, a prominent member of the Decemberists (not the band), a group of the educated and artistic Russian elite who led a coup of the Tsarist government in the early nineteenth century. It was not successful and the majority were exiled to Siberia, but this enriched the local area once their sentence was served and many stayed on in towns such as Irkusk. It was an interesting museum, though the large section devoted to people who were related to the family was slightly bewildering…
We had decided to make the journey to Olkon island on Lake Baikal and spend a few days checking it out. Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world and one day will become the fifth sea, it is one of the most famous spots in Russia and with good reason. After a bumpy five-hour journey to the southern point of the lake we were surprised to find it was still partially frozen but no longer strong enough at this point to drive across…. The solution? a dodgy looking hovercraft! After the dramatic arrival it was another drive in a bumpy van to the small town of Khuzhir where our accommodation was.
After settling in we went and did the first thing everyone would do when they get to a frozen lake that was rapidly defrosting, go for a walk on it. The locals assured us that this part of the lake was still frozen solid, so it was with bated breath that we walked further and further away from the safety of the shore, terrified at every moment it would crack and we would fall through. The noises of the ice groaning under our weight and the warmth of the sun was strange and scary, almost like the frozen surface was crying out in pain.
It took around half an hour for us to stop almost having a heart attack every time we heard a crack, but when we finally relaxed we got to really appreciate the beauty of the frozen landscape. The patterns in the ice were spectacular. crisscrossing lines of cracks mixed with suspended air bubbles made the surface almost look like a painting. Even the waves on the shore had frozen in place as if the whole mass of water was frozen in time. When our wits could take the constant cracking any more we headed for the Shaman rocks. A sacred part of the island for the native Buryat people of the area, who tie colourful ribbons to nearby trees for good luck and blessings. We ended the day by listening to a rather eccentric old man playing Russian folk songs on accordion… just another day on the island I guess.
The next day we took a tour, which to our horror drove us out on the lake in a van full of people. We thought walking on the lake was scary enough, but this took us to a whole new level, however, the initial fear was worth it. The driver took us to hidden caves full of icicles, and vertical shards of ice sticking out of the lake looking like a modern art installation, it was spectacular, but I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the van bumped up onto the solid ground. We drove on up to the most northern point of the island, where we could see the lake extending on to the horizon with no end in sight. After a tasty fish soup (made from lake fish called omul), and door-wedges of fresh bread, we had just enough time to spot some fresh water seals frolicking on the ice (they are the only freshwater seals in the world) before heading back to the hostel!
The fresh cold wind of Lake Baikal had given us a taste of Russian beauty and we were excited to see more. Next would be our first leg of the trans-siberian railway proper, with an overnight train to Krasnoyarsk.
Til next time