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SENT TO SIBERIA
June 17-18, 2015
When I thought of Siberia (we are in the City of Irkutsk, Eastern Siberia, on the shore of the only river flowing out of Lake Baikal), I envisioned sleighs being chased by wolves or a gulag where political prisoners were sent to freeze to death.
Au contraire, Irkutsk is a large city situated on both sides of a broad river with a population of 700,000 people. It is in an area rich in natural resources. In look and feel it is an industrial city, but with clean air.
The tour guides spend considerable time recounting the events of the Russian Revolution. The downtown area is full of statutes to military heroes — the monuments look like they were all fashioned by the same person: they're heavy and black.
When we landed we had several hours to kill before the room was ready at the Marriott (yes, Marriott — the best the City has to offer). We drove around looking at a few sites. We no long were going to temples and taking off our shoes but instead looking at churches bright with onion domes so typical of Russian Orthodox churches.
Irkutsk is known for its wooden houses, ornately decorated in what is reminiscent of our Victorian style. The predominance of these wooden structures goes a long way to explaining why in the early 1900's a disastrous fire burned most of the city to the ground. A combination of poor maintenance and long, harsh winters is obvious as you drive by these structures.
There is also a downtown center with the standard Plaza, government buildings and mansions of the well-to-do merchants.
In the evening we drove to the "IN" streets of the city. Lots of restaurants and young people strolling. We had dinner there and returned to the hotel.
Lake Baikal is said to contain 20% of all non-frozen (at least non-frozen during the summer) fresh water on earth. Although some people dispute that percentage, no one disputes the fact that it's the world's largest lake.
To get to Lake Baikal itself, we had to take an hour bus ride from Irkutsk. The trip on the lake (we cruised for an hour), was preceded by a visit to a museum that described the uniqueness of the lake. I normally hate museums but this one was first rate. It mixed all sorts of technology and design features while keeping the information fun to learn.
The back-end of the museum had an aquarium with typical Lake Baikal fish plus two fresh-water seals also from the lake. They're the only fresh-water seals in the world and these two, as seals always seem to do, put on a show.
After lunch — they sure feed us — we went to the Museum of Wooden Architecture. The museum was similar to outdoor re-creations of buildings that were moved or constructed to depict how life was lived hundreds of years ago (think Bodie or Sturbridge Village). The interesting thing about this re-creation was that everything was made from wood. I believe that the same thing could be said of almost any of the pioneer cities around the Western World, especially in the western U.S.
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