It was weird arriving in Irkutsk. After almost 100 hours on the train, I’d become way too used to the interior. The bright winter sun made me scrunch up my forehead. Lara & I were headed to the same hostel (there aren’t that many in Siberia!) and had decided to walk – to actually walk after spending the most of a week laid out on a bunk. This didn’t last; we bundled our packs into a taxi on account of being beyond desperate to take a shower. We were staying at Baikaler Hostel and were greeted by Marsha – oh thank you Marsha for being so helpful! A 20-something Irkutsk local, who spoke word perfect English. Turns out she was in the process of applying for an Australian Visa to be with her Aussie boyfriend and had no qualms about telling us how incredibly hard it was (for a Russian national) to get a Visitor Visa. I had one night in Irkutsk and from here I would arrange onwards travel to Lake Baikal, a World Heritage site known as the jewel of Siberia.
After the most amazing capsule shower, in walks 2 Americans and an Irishman. Siblings Conor & Kelly from Sacramento, California and Dennis from Galway in the Emerald Isle. Turns out this troop had been on the same train as us but we’d never crossed paths. Refreshed, we took a walk through Irkutsk to see the Decemberist Houses and stopped at some decommissioned tanks and the Angara River.
Crossing back from the Angara, we picked up a thick whiff of freshly baked bread and sugary cakes. Unanimously, we hankered after coffee and cake and decided to find this no doubt fabulous Patisserie that was pumping out yummy goodness over the air. And so, with no idea of its location, we literally followed our noses as if we were in some A. A. Milne classic. And what did we find? A decadent, Tsarist cafe literally brimming with goodies, flecked with gold-leaf. No we didn’t, we found an industrial bakery behind a wire fence.
But then we found this guy – or he found us. A student, he accosted us in the street and was keen to practice his English. We made small talk and wrote in his diary – it turns out foreign email addresses are traded like currency. Not wanting to waste his local knowledge we asked him to give us directions to a coffee house, to which he understood ‘accompany us’. And so we ended up having very bad coffee in plastic cups with this lad – who actually turns out to be quite funny. It was all going so well until a very drunk man started yelling at me because he thought I’d stolen his hat, which was in fact under his table where he left it.
That evening the 5 of us went for Mexican, as you do. Be warned, cocktails in a Mexican restaurant in Siberia are served hot. How else?! As a way of getting to know one another, Lara (sensibly) asked if anyone had any medical conditions that we should all know about – just in case. We went around the table and listed various minor ailments; until we got to Kelly. I have rage black outs. The table paused awkwardly. I think I just about opened my mouth to ask about the implications of such a condition when Kelly admitted she was taking the piss; we laughed over our Russian burritos. It was probably at the moment I decided I really liked this random bunch.