We have been in the Siberian city of Irkutsk for a day and two nights now. It’s time to take stock of our travel distance.
The total distance from Vladivostok to Moscow is 9288 kms. Add on another 900 kms to St Petersburg and we’ll travel by train for around 10,100 kms. Our flight from Sydney to Osaka in Japan was 7,200 kms and the length of the Indian Pacific railway across Australia is 4,300 kms. We have spent 72 hours on the train and have so far travelled 4106 kms. We are still over 6,000 kms from St Petersburg!
Irkutsk is the city to where people who were banished to Siberia were originally sent. The dissidents who opposed the Tsar and the Soviets were sent to the prisons in this area because it was far enough away from Moscow (the centre of administration for Russia) for them to be out of sight and away from further attention.
Irkutsk was founded as a military fort over 200 years before the settlement of Australia. It is located 70 kms down the Angura River which is the only outlet from Lake Baikal. The river here is 100 metres in width with a very fast flow. There is a great rush of water, forming eddies and waves as rushes swiftly past. Almost 80% of the ciy was destroyed by fire in 1879.
Lake Baikal is important as it contains a little over 20% of the world’s fresh water. In places, it is over 1,600 metres deep. It is one of the two places (along with St Petersburg) that all Russians aspire to see.
I expected this city to be a simple grid of boring Soviet style buldings – rectangular and uninteresting block-houses. The Soviets closed all the churches in Russia and I think that they must have killled off all the architects as well. Instead iIrkutsk is a charming city of interesting and beautiful buildings. There are ornate Russian wooden houses (even through they are looking shabby and in need of much repair), office buildings that look like palaces and tree lined boulevardes. Like other Russian cities that I have seen, it is in need of a lot of repair, but it is still charming.
Our hotel is one of those old Soviet style buildings – nine stories high and on the road that fronts the river. It was origiinally built for the hierarchy of the communist party and has recently been renovated. It is now operated by a private business organisation.
Provincial cites like this one have been slow to remove all the vestiges of the last regime – mainly due to the cost of doing so. The two main streets in the business district are still named after Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin and there are large monuments to them in town. We saw a bust of Stalin still on display in one of the parks. To balance this, a large monument to Tsar Alexander III has been reconstructed near the river to commemorate his foresight in building the railway. As a point of interest and national pride, we also came across a bust of Yuri Gargarin, the world’s first cosmonaut.
Yesterday, we spent the first two hours of the day taking a walk around town and to the market place. There was a great trade taking palce in summer berries, mushrooms and other assorted vegetables. We came back to our hotel on an old rickety tram which is part of the city transortation ststem. It looked as though it was bought second hand in the 1950’s. Although Russia has some military strength and sophistication, mauch of the rest of the country is poor and resembles a typical third world country.
We spent a good part of the day with a local guide who took us to the city museum and the site of the original fort. The museum had some intersting displays of the original inhabitants of this area (tribes people of Mongol descent) and the early military days. Near the old fort were two of the original churches. These had been closed down in the Soviet days. One still operates as a museum and the other is back to functioning again as a Russian Orthodox Church. A lot of the interior was filled with scaffolding and a number of artists were doing a Michaelangelo style job of painting the entire ceiling with a mural. It will be quite something when it is finished.
Near the churches is the main war memorial for WWII, or the Great Patriotic War as the Russians call it. While Irkutsk was never directly involved, every person in Russia made a contribution in some way to the war effort. A number of munitions factories, for example, were moved to Siberia for security. Russia suffered the loss of 28 million people in WWII. Astonishing!
The memorial is built on the original site of a great byzantine style cathedral that the Soviets ordered destroyed in the 1940’s. It was able to hold 2000 people, but was not old enough to be considered of historical significance to retain. The war memorial and the adjoining governement building are constructed on the foundations of the original cathedral.
Following dinner last night we had a leisurley beer at a café on the river and then back to the hotel to pack and to get ready to move on to Lake Baikal today.
Davis is posting some photos today of our recent travels, so look at his siberian website at www.siberia.djw.id.au For them.