Irkutsk is just over 450 km from Ulan-Ude. So, it was not necessary to get away very early from Ulan-Ude. I had enough time in the morning to weigh the options of breaking journey midway between Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk or doing the 1000 plus km in one go. I could not find a place where I could book a hotel. And without knowing the local lingo it is not possible to look for a place to stay after reaching a town. I learnt that from the Mogocha experience. So in the end, it was decided that I would go through to Krasnoyarsk from Irkutsk. The condition of the road – P255 - would naturally be the most critical factor.
As I was driving out of Ulan-Ude at 7 am the rush of cars towards the city center was peaking. Later I learnt that Ulan-Ude is one of the largest industrial centers of Eastern Siberia. It is home to a thriving aviation factory, shipbuilding industry, the largest locomotive and carriage repairing workshops. The city is also tops in production of wool cloth, confectionary and canned meat. That explained the early morning rush hour. Perhaps, the most defining part of life in Ulan-Ude is racial and religious harmony. Over 50 per cent of the inhabitants are of Chinese and Monghol descent in this city.
The road condition from Ulan-Ude was poor. The first two hours was a struggle. Beyond the first 100 km conditions eased a bit, but was still very bumpy. All that I forgot once I started sighting Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world in terms of volume, which is fed by almost 330 in-flowing rivers with the Selenga being the biggest contributor. It is also the deepest lake in the world with the bottom of the lake at 3900 feet below sea level. Lake Baikal is a rift lake in the sense that the Earth’s crust is slowly pulling apart in this area. In fact, it is estimated that the rift widens almost 2 cms per year! The lake is surrounded by mountains, some of them are fringed by snow even at this time of the year. The temperature was around 5o C in the morning. The Lake is also estimated to be about 30 million years old, making it one of the most ancient lakes in the world too.
The drive was a most romantic one; tantalizing roads with the Champion hugging the contours passionately, snow kissed mountains, mist that rolled off the mountains and settled like a cozy quilt on the roads, rains just enough to keep the windows rolled up, powerful locomotives hauling supernormal trailing loads on the trans-Siberian railway with consummate ease and the vast expanse of the lake that tempted one take more risks than called for to etch the memories digitally. The more than 200 km of P258 that skirted the Lake was an experience I am not likely to forget any time soon. I only felt that when the roads were made certain vantage positions should have been identified as viewpoints and developed for tourism.
In drizzling rain I drove into the premises of the Matreshka Hotel. Originally I had been booked to stay at the Europa Hotel. The date change was not accommodated by the Hotel and hence, I found Matreshka through Booking.Com. It is a lovely property with good locational advantage and in decent proximity to the sights of the city. The city trams and trolley buses are within easy distance of the hotel. The room is large and I was given a ground floor room without having to trudge up stairs as I had done the previous two days. However, what I was most comfortable with was that the young ones at the reception spoke good English. The girl who checked me in also gave me a map with the important sights marked on them so that I could take a round later in the evening. That Irkutsk is definitely on the tourist map was suggested by the people staying in the hotel as well as the girls proficient in the English language.
Once the bags were unpacked and the log sheet attested at the reception I went out of the hotel looking for some place to eat. Just around the corner on the right was a Muslim restaurant. I ordered a piece of chicken and bread with honey and lime to drink. The portion was huge and I felt that the dish was not fresh. I did waste quite a bit of the order and returned to the room for a short snooze, hoping that the weather will clear up later in the evening.
That was not to be. It was still pitter patter and windy when I stepped out to visit the five must visit sights of Irkutsk. The first visit was to the Moscow Truimphal Arch, which was believed to have been constructed in 1813 to commemorate the decade of accession to the throne by Alexander I. The Arch had fallen to ruin in the early 20th century and was restored to its present form as part of the beautification of the embankment of the Angara River. A short walk from there is the monument to the founders of Irkutsk. It was unveiled in September 2011 to celebrate the 350 years of the founding of the city by the Cossacks, the pioneers of Siberia. The Cathedral of the Epiphany stands tall and proud facing the Angara River. It is a true adornment of the city; it is colorful and ornate. The original church was burnt down in the great fire of 1716 that destroyed over 4000 houses and most important buildings. The present stone structure also has the largest belfry in the city, which weighs around 12 tons. Down the church road are the Churches of Our Savour, another one dedicated to Our Lady and the Irish Roman Catholic Church. The Chapel of Our Saviour church has a crypt with the supposed remains of the initial inhabitants of Irkutsk.
The monument to Emperor Alexander III is at the head of the most important street of Irkutsk, the Karl Marx street. The monument was put up in 1903-08 to commemorate the Trans-Siberian railway link. The niches of the pedestal of the statue also has bronze bas reliefs of historical persons who contributed to the development of Siberia. The final stop was the gigantic Our Lady of Kazan Church with salmon-pink walls and fluoro-turquoise domes, atop which are gold plated crosses. An amazing sight from anywhere on the road. It transfixed me just as the Kazan church in St Petersburg had a couple of years back. As I entered the church a service was nearing its end. I spent some time in worship and some more gaping around the ornate the interior with rich icons in sheer disbelief. I had to pull myself away after a while since I had to return and rest for the long ride tomorrow.
Before getting back to the room I had dinner at a small restaurant just in front of the Kazan Church. I went inside more because of the menu in English posted outside the door. Had a lumpy cutlet with boiled potato with a peach drink. That brought to an end the short stay in Irkutsk. I am in readiness for the marathon drive tomorrow.