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The Pearl of Siberia

Day 15 Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

sunny 15 °C

From my teenage years of watching Hogan's Heroes and war movies, Siberia was always the place to send convicts, political dissidents, and any other trouble makers, so I had an impression that Siberia was going to be a harsh desolate place. Knowing it was summer, and unlikely to be quite as hostile as a full Russian Winter, I was looking forward to my first excursion into Russia. Jen had already been to Russia back in 2010 and had very strong memories. Irkustk is known as the Pearl of Siberia.

Having trundled through the night, our train arrived at Irkutsk . During the drive to our hotel, Irkutsk quickly revealed itself as a beautiful city bounded by the beautiful Irkutsk river, full of classic old buildings, restaurants, modern facilities as well as traditional and rustic architecture. Irkutsk is Russia's favoured summer break location, with many Russian's enjoying holiday homes here. Originally Irkutsk was a place of banishment for aristocrats who'd fallen from grace, political agitators and others banished from Moscow and St Petersburg. As a result, a antipodean culture developed, with French being the language of the time, giving the region a refinement and romance.

We quickly dumped our stuff, cleaned up and met our ambassador, Ksenia and our driver she arranged for the day to take us to Lake Baikal. Again RHS driving but with cars having a variety LHS and RHS steering wheels and as normal no seat belts. The absence of suspension in the car embellished the experience.

The lake is 1637m deep, making it one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. It holds 20% of the world’s fresh water and if the world ran out of water then the lake could supply the world's fresh water needs for 60 days. The seals inhabiting the lake, which are elusive and not easily seen, are also the only fresh water seals in the world.

The lake is also famous for caviar as the local fish supply a large majority of the world’s caviar market. Caviar still sells for up to $600 for a small 350g can. We spent the first 1 ½ hours at the information centre and museum and got a great appreciation of the lake and its beauty. In winter the whole lake freezes over and you can drive your car on it although this gets a little scary when the ice melts and cracks appear. There are also snow mobile tours that go across the lake and ski resorts scattered in the surrounding mountains.
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Next stop a ride up the chair lift to a lookout and the beauty of Lake Baikal was revealed - snow covered mountains which looked like a giant painted backdrop to vastness of the lake.
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Ksenia did tell us of “crazy Aussies” she showed around whose sole purpose of their day tour was to go the main beach area, strip down and swim in 8 deg C lake water - which they proceeded to do - against her advice. We assured her we would not be doing anything so foolish!

Next a local lunch of pelmeni (Russian Dumplings) in broth and local cherry pastry delicacies.
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We were then able to walk through the local village of traditional houses decorated with fancy shutters.
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It was lovely walking through the beautiful lakeside town.
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We visited a local blacksmith workshop and an antique car yard. The blacksmiths have been making armour in the traditional way based on artefacts discovered locally from archaeological digs. We also think one of the blacksmiths was sweet on our lovely tour guide - hence a reason for our visit! Jen spied a small horse shoe iron pendant that is worn with the ends pointing down, opposite to our custom of it being in a “U” shape. The Russian legend tells of a mythical hero's horse losing its horseshoe, which fell from heaven, landing as a rainbow on earth, bringing good luck and surrounding the bearer with fortune and good health.
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The blacksmith workshop was part of a rural setting which included local produce and dog sledding. Our arrival was heralded by a cacophony of excited dogs. During summer months they train with skids.
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The vintage car yard featured old cars, motorbikes, cameras, and other antiquites.
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We then walked into the main town, and saw a seal show with the seals doing tricks in this 10m by 4 m tank including dancing, wearing Russian hats, shooting at targets, counting tricks, playing musical instruments and splashing the audience. The kids loved it but it’s just something we don’t see any more in Australia.
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Whilst our day was drawing to a close, we had time to visit the local market and, on Ksenia's recommendation, buy the choice Lake Baikal delicacy of hot smoked Omul fish. Her favourite thing to do is to eat it by the Lake. We can see why. The fish was delicious! Salty (although a freshwater fish) and subtle fishy flavour - a real treat.
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It is also supposed to be good luck and bring eternal life (or at least long life) for visitors to take a dip in the pure waters of the Lake. At below 10 degrees, we only managed to dunk our feet!
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The majestic lake and the friendly sunny atmosphere was the perfect way to end our day to Lake Baikal.
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We then headed back home and we can now claim the most hair raising drive of our holidays to date. The Russians over take at any time, pull in and out at will, overtake 20 cars at a time, on the wrong side of the road, while heading towards a bend or crest, cross double lines and probably talking on the mobile phone. There are even police cars watching this all happen who do nothing about it. Ksenia and the lady driver were quite oblivious to all this and throughout the drive they just laughed at Jen and I in the back as we kept on gasping and shaking our heads in amazement as we saw near miss after near miss. We got back to our hotel with an all-round thumb up sign and secretly for us a sign of relief.
Big day and thoroughly exhausted but overwhelmed in what we did today. We decided hotel room picnic of bread, cheese and salami with local beer was in order. Tomorrow it’s a walk around the town of Irkutsk and then off to Mockba.

Posted by tszeitli 11:33 Archived in Russia Tagged traffic views lake local_culture baikal irkutsk omul Comments (1)

Revisiting Beijing

Day 7

sunny 28 °C

Time to visit some familiar sights.

Time to leave Xi An and head to Beijing. This will be interesting to see 20 years on and what has changed. All went well at the airport although we did have a few queues to go through. Jen spent most of the flight sleeping (and some snoring) where I was able to catch up on the "blog".

Travel tip: Get "Maps me" (thanks for the tip Irek) and you load the country maps down and therefore you don't need Internet and it has Chinese and English writing. Take a screen photo of your hotel location of the map and then show it to the taxi driver. He can read the map in Chinese.

Our hotel is in a great location, only 1.5 km from Tian'anmen and next to the subway. First impressions is the city has 6 ring roads and all have been fixed up, a lot less bikes, lots of electric motor bikes, less construction and less rubbish on the streets.

You still can't get away from mundane chores even while travelling so we did an afternoon of washing , emails, got our train tickets, blog and some research for the next phase. This is Jen's first time to Beijing and the Great Wall so for something different we have booked a 9km hike on the Wall so we get to see the country side as well unrestored sections of the wall.

Dinner was one of the best meals and food on the trip has been a highlight. Over the past few months our trainer (Troy Symons of Fitness Enhancement) has got us controlling our portion size of food. In China this is hard to do so, sorry Troy, the food is so good but we are doing stretching.

Big day tomorrow, Tian'anmen Square, Olympic Stadium and the Temple of Heaven.

Posted by tszeitli 06:54 Archived in China Tagged traffic food taxi airport china Comments (1)

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