When traveling on the Trans-Mongolian train from Beijing to Moscow, many people book it non-stop, and forfeit the opportunity to make stops along the way.
If you decide to spend time in both Mongolia and Lake Baikal, you will need to piece together a railway segment from Ulanbaatar, Mongolia to Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, before re-boarding train #9, the non-stop to Moscow (all arranged through Trans-Mongolian train).
Unfortunately, the train from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Irkutsk, Siberia (#263) is old, slow, and generally uncomfortable – stopping at every little village along the way.
Leaving the Mongolian border into the Soviet Union, we wasted five hours waiting for custom officials and an engine car. For a while we were allowed off the train to wander around and stretch our legs, but once customs collect your passports for processing, you can’t leave the train. And, while the train is stopped at a station, all bathrooms are locked.
Even worse were the Soviet customs officials just over the border. Another five hours were spent with unfriendly Soviet police and other officials (including a German Shepard dog) swarming through the train, inspecting baggage, double checking your documentation, and generally being about as unwelcoming to tourists as they could.
Prior to arriving at the Soviet border, the Mongolian cabin attendants had passed out plastic bags containing sleeping attire – slippers and pajamas – which, of course, the friendly Russians confiscated when they boarded the train. Contraband, no less. Thanks guys, I’m sure they’ll make nice Christmas presents to the relatives.
If the Soviet Union truly wants to encourage tourism, they need to send these people to charm school. First off, stop ordering people around in Russian, we’re a Westerner-only car, so send someone on board that speaks English and can tell us what’s going on. Secondly, your teeth won’t fall out if you crack a smile – try it sometime. Thirdly, we’re not trying to sneak contraband into your country, so ease up on the searches and the sniffing dogs. Fourthly, lose the paranoia about us spying on you, you have nothing we want to steal. Finally, the Cold War is over folks, so let’s simplify the complicated visa requirements and just grant thirty-day visas like all the other developed countries in the world.
If not for Lake Baikal, Irkutsk would be just another dreary Soviet destination. Fortunately, it is the gateway to the world-famous lake and has the trappings of a Western-style tourist destination. A pleasant pedestrian street lined with cafeterias and activity, historic old buildings, walks along the river, brand-name stores, and happy, healthy people – many who speak English – are a welcome addition to this rather isolated location.
There is a store in the center of town, stuffed full of fresh fruit and vegetables, along with chips, peanuts, and other items culled from the local area. Not to mention a hundred varieties of vodka. I was really surprised to find a Reebok store downtown. The imitation Nike shoes purchased in China – I really should have known better – came apart at the seams after one week. The pretty young gal who sold me the shoes spoke perfect English.
Situated on the banks of the Angara River, Irkutsk has long been a trading post, when settlers in the 17th century came here for gold and fur. Furthering its development was a road to Moscow built in the 1750’s. Intellectuals – exiled to Siberia by the government – also tended to gravitate here, which, over the years, influenced a certain cultural and educational veneer to the locale.
This town – despite a population of over 500,000 – feels small. It is a couple hours away from Lake Baikal. From here, you can hop on a boat down the Angara River, eventually arriving at Lake Baikal, where you cruise around for the day. Climatically, Irkutsk is considered subartic, with July being the balmiest month (when temperatures peak in the 70’s).
After one night in this surprising town, we were off to see the world’s oldest and deepest lake, having opted to spend a few days in the little village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe, right on the lake.
After such a pleasant stay, being sent to Siberia didn’t seem to be such a terrible proposition.