My first impressions of Irkutsk were unfortunately not that great. The neighbourhood around my hostel seemed run down, and the buildings appeared old, worn out, and on their last legs. I walked down to the bus station amidst dirty, litter strewn streets and construction work, and got a mini van to the nearest town on Lake Baikal.
It was easy to see how Lake Baikal would be very pretty on a sunny day, and an enjoyable trip for the family. However for me it was grey, bleak, windy, and desolate. No wonder people come here during summer, it must be spectacular then. I was relieved to leave the place and go back to my hostel in the run down neighbourhood.
This is when things began to turn around.
The hostel owner turned up on duty, and he turned out to be a very engaging, experienced world traveller, and a font of knowledge about Irkutsk, the surrounding area and Russia in general. It turns out the old, decrepit buildings that I had deemed on their last legs, we’re actually protected buildings because they were some of the oldest in Irkutsk, 200 years old. Bit more sturdy than I thought eh?
He showed me a map of Lake Baikal and the town where I’d been earlier. Turned out I’d completely missed loads of good stuff because it was set a bit further back from the beach than I had walked, and I was there during the 14 week off season!
Then all the hostel guests decided to go out for a bite to eat. Since that was only two of us (yep two people in the entire hostel, because it’s  the off season), the owner dropped us off in old town and pointed out some good places to go. Well here was a whole part of Irkutsk that I hadn’t discovered yet that was utterly charming! Intricate carved wooden fronts housing a splendid variety of restaurants, cafes, bars, even a hands on science museum, and of course the ubiquitous Irish bar. No wonder the Irish have got a reputation for being both friendly and huge drinkers, I have yet to visit a country that doesn’t have Irish pubs. Every city in America, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and now Irkutsk in bloody SIBERIA. Also Thailand but they have everything there.
The following day, determined to keep on this roll, I went out and did the city walking routes that is marked by a green line painted on the streets with around 30 stops on it where you’ll find information about whatever building or monument is at that stop. Fabulous stuff!
Something I didn’t realise is that Irkutsk is a couple of centuries old and had a history as a thriving cultural and commercial centre long before communist rule and the advent of Siberian work camps. Some of the bigger buildings were torn down a and replaced with less architecturally stimulating government buildings, including a huge church which sadly wasn’t deemed important enough to save.
My walk took me past theatres, cathedrals, the Philharmonic orchestra, playgrounds, parks and fountains –turned off during the freezing temperatures- lots of shops, and some very witty statues. My favourite sight in the whole of Irkutsk, simply because it made me laugh until tears came out of my eyes, was the backpacker statue. It is exactly that, a statue of a backpacker. Skinny in a soft, little pot bellied way; with baggy cargo pants and hiking boots; wearing a baggy jumper with the sleeves rolled up; a floppy hat on top of his head which has a gormless face staring upwards in wonder; all of it topped off with a huge back pack adorned with a roll mat and sleeping bag. The statue is the dark brownish grey of bronze statues except for the tip of the right boot, which shines bright gold having been rubbed so often for luck by travellers miles from home. I don’t like touching things on the floor though, so I rubbed his hat instead. If you go to Irkutsk and see the back packer, rub his toe and his hat, so he can have two shiny bits. Better still, give him a hug.


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