An example of poor weather karma is excellent conditions while traveling on the rails but consistently wet conditions while on stopovers. Such is the case in Irkutsk, 70km from the shores of Baikal. I caught an early morning glimpse of the lake as the train raced by on the 25th and it is simply massive although it similar lakes of similar size (Lake Superior, for example) probably exert similar effects on people. What makes the view of Baikal different is that the while the eastern and southern shore of the lake is approached from lake level, the rail system will elevate above the waters into a small mountain range just before entering Irkutsk which provides interesting high level views of the lake. The preceding three days have seen nothing but rain.
I wasn’t planning on spending this much time in Irkutsk given that visa complications have resulted in about 15 days being skimmed off my visa and I need to by out of Russia by the 7th of August. However, travel and tourism seem to be a big deal in this area and the high season has created a severe backlog of seats on buses and packages out to Olkhon Island (the premier Baikal viewing destination) and I couldn’t get into a group until the 29th. It’s a 3 day option to the island which means I’ll be back in Irkutsk on the 31st and hopefully leaving that day on a Moscow bound train – arriving sometime on the 3rd or 4th. I’m probably going to have to cut out St. Petersburg and take a train directly to Estonia or Latvia from Moscow. If I could have gotten into a group on the 26th then enough time would have been available for St. Pete but Olkhon Island was getting good reviews from folks in my guesthouse and I made the decision to extend the visit. Currently, the weather is not agreeing with my decision making.
Proximity to Baikal enables Irkutsk to offer more in the way of traveling atmosphere than Vladivostok and so-far it seems that those involved in the Russian tourism industry run a very tight operation. It is impressive and especially considering most of it is done without any government support or official tourism policy.
Irkutsk follows a similar pattern to Vladivostok in terms of design and aesthetics. Industrial activity directly within the city offer remnants of the socialist production city. Drab communist apartment blocks are common but so are pre-revolution buildings which dominate the main downtown core of Irkutsk. Like Vladivostok, many are in the process of being restored. There are also considerable wood and log buildings – most in disrepair and apparently slated for demolition although the suburbs I saw while entering the city are very quaint and well kept and make a good job of incorporating surrounding timber into the layout. Road systems are poor and so is drainage (huge lakes have formed everywhere from the rainstorms) although there does seem to be a lot of road construction and renewal occurring.
One item I’m finding remarkable about Russia is the seemingly absence of foreign companies within the tertiary industries relative to other developing countries I’ve been too. Foreign brands are easy to find but don’t expect any 7-11’s, McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, banks etc outside of Moscow. That is not necessarily a bad thing – just surprising given that per-capita income in Russia is approaching almost 10,000USD. Countries like Thailand and China, which much lower per-capita incomes, display much higher numbers of foreign operations. Culturally there could be less of an affinity towards foreign service and food outlets…Russian cuisine is similar enough to western fare to minimize the exotic factor of western food and beverage outlets.
Irkutsk is a BIG university town with a student population of almost 100,000 (or so I’m told) and the population and culture is easily younger, more positive and educated relative to rather rough working class features of Vladivostok. I’m continually impressed by the young Russian generation and the similarities they share with their western counterparts. That is a cliché statement but I find it interesting that despite these similarities (which are far greater and deeper than say, Western and Asian societies) a large amount of distrust, animosity and hostilities between Russia and the West.
I tagged along with Thomas and his Russian train friends, visited their university (the similarities to Chinese university conditions and characteristics are uncanny) and had a good (although expensive) night drinking vodka at a local night club. This club (Strata, I think was its name) had to offer the strangest ratio of males and females I’ve ever seen in place. By ratio I don’t mean numbers of guys to girls but number of seriously hot women to the number of seriously weird guys. I’ve never seen that many 10’s in a club before. To give you an example of the guys though…there was actually a pair who could have easily passed as Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell from A Night at the Roxbury. (No joke) Sunglasses seem to be standard attire for a night out in Irkutsk and the fact that I didn’t have any was probably why I didn’t meet any ladies :-P