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Siberia: Adventures in the Cold

Irkutsk, Siberia in December, we assumed it would be cold. But how cold is minus 25 degrees centigrade? And can you enjoy a trip to Lake Baikal in that temperature?

Bridge over the Angara river in Irkutsk

In Irkutsk, we agreed with our touroperator Jack to meet us at the railway station. We found him on the Internet and he will arrange cheap hotel accomodation for us. We don't see him at the platform so we walk to the central hall of the station. And there we meet a very friendly person, who appears to be very different from our guise in Moscow, Uncle Pasha. This guy has a more luxurious car, with the steer on the right hand side. He tells us its a second hand one from Japan, those cars arrive for little money in Vladiwostok. And indeed, we see a lot more of those cars with the steer at the right hand side.

Attractions of Siberia

To most people Siberia does not sound like an attractive holiday destination. When you think of Siberia, you think of the harsh climate and the labour camps where Joseph Stalin sent his enemies to. But, it does have its attractions, especially for adventure travellers.

First, there's the Trans Siberian Express. Apart from the train ride itself, every city along the route has its attractions. And then, there's Lake Baikal and its surroundings. A beautiful city, Irkutsk, and a lake with unique wildlife. The region also has an open air museum and tours to shamans.

And for those who want even more adventure, there's always the possibility to move further inland, in search for instance for the white siberian tiger.

After dropping our fellow traveller Florian in the city, we arrive at and appartment complex. We think we arrive at a guest house, but to our suprise Jack leads us into a livingroom to introduce us to his wife and little son. He offers us a home stay in his own house. As we settle in the bedroom we hear Jack on the phone with Florian, and he also gets an offer to stay in Jacks house. It appears that Jack will sleep in his office and his wife and son sleep in the lingroom while we occupy his bedroom. We wonder whether this is a token of hospitality or commercial thinking. In any case, we feel very welcome.

Exploring Irkutsk by Mini-vans

After settling, Jack brings us to the city, and explains how to get home with the mini-vans, the public transport system in Irkutsk. We wander around a little and decide to search for the local market. But as we walk in the wrong direction, dusk already sets in and it gets even colder. Stupid enough, we forgot to put on extra long underwear and at minus 20 degrees centigrade, that's a bad idea!!

We decide to head for the mini-vans immediately. We see a lot of them, but the question is where the one with the right number stops. We ask around, and are sent from one place to another. In the end, a woman tells us to stay with her since she needs to take the same mini-van. As the right number stops, we are not the only one waiting for this number. Over 30 people run to it and start pushing their way in. An attempt to get in would be useless so we wait a little longer, while the cold feels as if knives are stabbed in our legs. Luckily, a little later the woman pulls us to the other side of the road, where another mini-van stops at exactly the right spot, and we get pushed in.

In the mini-van, it appears impossible to look outside, because of the frozen windows. Once in a while, the driver yells something, and the passengers answer if they want to get out. When the woman gets out, we do too. We recognise the neigborhood and finally find Jack's appartment to get out of the cold.

Frozen nose hair

The next day, we head off to the city again. This time, a but more prepared with good long thermic underwear. But it is even colder than the previuous day, minus 25 degrees centigrade. We notice since our nose hair starts to freeze at every breath, a very strange feeling. We keep twingling our nose and protect it with a shawl.

This time, we take a trolley-bus into the city. Again, it is almost impossible to look outside, and so we decide to get out where most people do, that must me the centre. First, we visit a big shopping mall to warm up and to look at a map of irkutsk, to see where to go. Then we walk along the big stadium towards the Angara river. This is the only river draining Lake Baikal, while more than 300 rivers of Siberia run into this massive lake. Needless to say, the Angara river is a big river and a power plant is built into the river to provide Irkutsk with electricity.

More Adventure travel tales in Russia:
St Petersburg
Rural Russia
Trans Siberian Express
East European Tales:
Vilnius, Lithuania
Budapest, Hungary
Sighisoara, Romania
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Prague, Czech Republic
Cappadocia, Turkey

Wooden houses in the Siberia open air Museum

We pass the river via a small bridge. Despite of the cold, the river is not frozen because of the strong current behind the power plant. Instead, a lot of mist comes from the water, because of the difference in temperature between the air and the water. We walk along the river until we arrive at a huge obelisk, raized in 1910 at the 10th birthday of the Trans Siberian Railroad. From this obelisk, one of the main roads leads us into the center of Irkutsk.

Wooden houses

Irkutsk used to be a city of wooden houses. But during a fire in 1879 75% of them was destroyed. Once in a while, we pass some beautiful wooden houses with nice woodwork. But the brick houses are not so bad either in this city, that does not appear to be as crowded as other cities, although half a million people live here. We pass Lenin before we stop at a café because our toes are freezing.

After a cup of tea we walk on, but it turns out we want to escape the cold every 10 minutes. After two of those escapes we arrive at the market. In the narrow alleys, especially warm clothes are sold, and it is no wonder that they are very popular. So again, we escape, this time to the mall, where we spend the rest of the day, nice and warm. After that, we find our way home with the right mini-van.

History of the people in Siberia

People of Siberia

Siberia was originally occupied by different groups of nomads such as the Yenets, the Nenets, the Huns, and the Uyghurs. The area was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century, leaving a large group of Buryats in the area. in the 16th century, groups of traders and Cossacks began to enter the area. And finally, many former exiles and their descendents still live in the area.

The open air museum near Irkutsk gives an idea how people in Siberia used to live and deal with the harsh climate.

The next day we have booked a tour with Jack to Lake Baikal and an open air museum. Before we head off he tells us that it had been minus 35 degrees centigrade during the night, and that it wouldn't be warmer than minus 25 today. He gets us some extra clothes to be prepared.

Half way between Irkutsk and the Lake is the open air museum. Here, the wooden houses from the valley of the Angara river are moved to when the second power plant was built, flooding the valley. Nice, an open air museum at minus 25 degrees centigrade. But because we want to test our double sock protection we head off without the boots Jack had brought for us...

Inside a Cossack house in the Siberia open air museum We see an old Siberian Cossack village with wooden houses, sheds and grounds. Inside, the clothing from old days are displayed. The doors are low and the beds are high, as a protection against the cold. Outside is a stool, where people would lay some food for rovers, so they wouldn't be disturbed by them.

A little further is a Cossack Fort, with two towers, one of which with a gateway. Between the towers is a wooden fence, but that is built for the museum and currently being replaced. Nice to see how men are sharpening trunks, and using primitive tools to put them in the right position. Almost as if it was done in the old days, apart from the chainsaw they use.

In the meanwhile, our toes are almost frozen but we have to visit a small chuch. Each building in the museum is guarded by a woman, who gets offended when you skip theirs. But after this church we can go inside a gift shop, where it's warm. The gift shop is also a work shops, and here we buy our first souvenir of our world journey: a clay wistle in the shape of a nerpa, the fresh water baikal seal.

After the warm up, we follow two girls to the next houses in the museum. But halfway there, they stop and indicate to us to pick a cowskin and climb on a small tower. It appears a huge slide and under loud laughter one by one we glide down.

The next houses are round, like a tent. In fact these were the successors of the yurts or gers as they are still used in Mongolia. The Buryats, a people related to Mongols, saw the woodwork of the Kozaks and decided from then on to build their yurts with wood. After visiting the wooden tent of the shaman, we are at the end of the museum. After warming up in the cantina, we go back to the car.

Lake Baikal

The snowy shore of Lake Baikal

We arrive at the point where the Angara river wells up from Lake Baikal. The water here and for the first 20 kilometers never freezes. Not only is the current too strong, but the water streaming into the river arrives from great depths because of circulation.

Lake Baikal

No less than 20% of the complete fresh water supply in the world is captured in a single lake, Lake Baikal in Siberia. However, it is not the largest lake in the world. Instead, it is the deepest. Because of its enormous depth, it takes a very long time to freeze over, even in Siberia.
The lake contains some unique species of animals and plants. The most precious of those might be the nerpa, a fresh water seal unique to lake baikal.
Lake Baikal can be reached from the Siberian town of Irkutsk, from where several tour organisations offer their services

The temperature of this water is always 3 degrees centigrade. In the middle of the river is a rock, telling the legend of Baikals daughter Angara running off to her fiancé the river Enisei. Father Baikal threw a huge rock to her and that still lies there between Baikal and Angara. But there is to much mist to see the rock. Besides, there is a strong wind making it even colder and so we quickly move on.

We drive up to the Luxuriuous Baikal hotel, put here in the 1960 for a visit of president Eisenhower, who never showed. In that event, also the 65 km road to Irkutsk was built, still a huge asset for the region and for Siberia. From this point, we would have a great view over Lake Baikal, albeit that the mist destroys that view. But it still is a nice point of interest, if alone for the luxurious pee we could take here...


Then we drive down to the little fishing village of Listvyanka. Many people are selling smoked fish here we think it is unbelievable that there are a number of souvenir stalls, while we appear to be the only tourists here. Who are leaving soon because of the cold.

A little further on the road is a small, unfinished hotel. Here it's less windy and so we can make a small walk along Lake Baikal. The Lake is not frozen, which surprises us at minus 25 degrees centigrade. Because of its depth, the lake freezes over very slowly, starting in the north. Here, in the south, it will take untill late Januari for the lake to freeze over. But then it stays frozen until late April, beginning of May. Right now, in December, the only water that freezes is the water splashing onto the shore, leaving a very icy and slippery shoreline. The view over the lake from here is great.

Our last stop is the museum of flora and fauna in Listvyanka. After finding the right entrance we get a complete presentation about Lake Baikal and life in and around it. Very informative but because of the cold room we are merely shaking. But it is very nice to have seen the nerpa fresh water seal and other unique animals, albeit stuffed

Moving on

The next day, we decide to move on. Siberia weather in December is too cold for more sightseeing unless you're clothed like an eskimo. Also, we hear it's even colder and windier in Mongolia, so we decide to move directly to Beijing, China. But at the train station (found by mini-van) we hear the train to Beijing is only going twice a week and is full for tomorrow. But we should come back in the evening to ask again. It is still morning so we have the rest of the day to consider alternatives.

Snowy park in IrkutskWe walk from the trainstation over the bridge to the city center. This time, we are well-clothed with boots, thermal underwear and covered with several layers. This makes walking on frozen streets a bit awkward, and so we slip and slide over the streets. Once in the center we spend the day in an Internet café and searching for an ATM. We eat in a nice place and get decent meals while we have no clue what we ordered. Funny, however, that the beer garden here is closed... We decide to walk back via the boulevard, which is more or less a park. Beautiful pictures in a Siberian winter landscape is the result.

Back at the train station the clerk needs little words ("Beijing?") to start working with our passports, and it appears there is room available in tomorrows train after all. That is, if we have enough money. The ticket to Beijing is much more expensive than the ticket from Moscow to Irkutsk. But it's still reletavily cheap and we have enough money so the tickets are ours.

The mini-van brings us back to our home stay. We get another decent meal and the next morning Jack brings us to the train station where we say goodbye to a great host and the cold but nice city of Irkutsk. At least we learned what the temperature in Siberia in winter time feels like.

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