Bare-Minimum Beijing

When planning our trip we had decided to dedicate only 48 hours to the metropolis of Beijing because we expected it to be crowded, stiflingly hot, humid and smoggy. To mitigate these effects we chose a sanctuary of cool tranquility in which to stay; a beautiful courtyard hotel in a quiet, tree-lined hutong. It was way out of our normal budget for this trip but it was our gift to ourselves and, as it turned out, worth every penny as the city lived up to its intense reputation.


The vibrant hutong are, literally, the narrow streets of old Beijing, barely wide enough for a car, the traditional heart of the city. We spent many hours walking these alleys with their hidden courtyards and cool shaded squares. It is here that the senior members of the community gather in the afternoon to play mah jong, cards and one or two other games we did not recognize. Other areas of hutong have become trendy, pedestrianised shopping areas and another had a craft brewery with great beer. However, for us the aim of walking the hutong was to find the hidden gems of a bygone China.


Located in one of the hutong and not far from our hotel was Prince Kung’s mansion. This museum is a beautifully preserved 18th Century palace with exhibition halls, buildings, pagodas and shaded gardens. Kung himself was a favourite younger brother of Emperor Xianfeng who gifted the mansion to him in the mid 1800’s.
This seems to be a popular stop on the tour circuit and even at 8.30am the gardens were busy with tour groups. However, we managed to find a few spots to enjoy the shaded flowerbeds, rockeries and fountains. The exhibitions in the buildings were all in Mandarin so we breezed through those before heading back out to the hutong.


The Lama Temple is the only Tibetan Buddhist temple in the city and is a busy place of worship as well as a tourist destination. It is an incredibly photogenic place, set in a series of courtyards and it is hard to believe it is right beside one of the city’s main ring roads. Once inside, the temple boasts traditional painted curved roofs, intricate embroidered drapes, strings of colourful prayer flags, stone architectural arches, copper-coloured prayer wheels and two of the largest temple lions you are ever likely to see. The whole temple is constantly enveloped in a cloud of incense lit by the praying faithful, making it an authentically atmospheric place.
The highlight is an 18m carved effigy of Buddha standing tall and proud, reputed to be made from a single piece of White Sandalwood (and impossible to photograph!).


No trip to Beijing would be complete without visiting the infamous Tian’anmen Square. It is the world’s largest public square and is a remarkable space, vast, imposing and incredibly busy. Despite the square being bordered by imposing buildings on all sides, the best known of which is the mausoleum of Chairman Mao, the gardens were colourful. We decided not to visit the great man having had our fill of pickled leaders in Red Square some weeks before! We took a few pictures of our own and then watched, fascinated by the Chinese mass tourism machine in action. Efficient and professional photographers stood stationary and rotated members of the tour groups around them north, south, east and west so that everyone had the same four shots.


From here we headed into the Palace Museum, otherwise known as the Forbidden City. It is so called because it was off-limits to normal people for over 500 years but, ironically, it now is the most popular museum in the world, with an incredible 16 million visitors in 2017.
It is, without doubt, an amazing place. Two dynasties of Chinese Emperors ruled from within the famed walls and everything about the structure speaks of Power and Wealth. Approaching supplicants could see the golden throne from several hundred meters away. No doubt palace courtiers and guards would have lined the route and it must have been a very intimidating and grand place filled with riches. But to be honest we didn’t really like it. Perhaps it was the fact that it was very hot and we felt the oppressive weight of the city’s famed smog for the first time. Perhaps it was because we felt like we were on a conveyor belt of people passing through. Or perhaps we were burnt out and tired after several long days of hiking and sightseeing. The only respite from the heat and crowds were some of the outlying buildings such as the opera house that offered a chance to enjoy the architecture from a shaded spot with only a hundred or so other people around us.  We couldn’t wait to get out!


The final stop on our bare-minimum tour were the Drum and Bell Towers. These lie directly north of the Forbidden City on the south-north axis line of Beijing and were the timepieces of the ancient city. The sound of the drums and the bell would resonate throughout the hutong and down to the palace. Nowadays, the bell is silent but there are still impressive performances on the huge drums and there is an excellent exhibition of the ingenious timekeeping practices of the ancient Chinese.

Later that night we gratefully shut the door on our Deluxe Soft Sleeper compartment on the Beijing to Xi’an train, pleased to be leaving the capital behind. Even our bare minimum tour had been taxing.

Boarding the sleeper to Xi'an-1
Boarding the Z19 sleeper to Xi’an
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The Great Wall

We disembarked the Trans-Mongolian train and entered a hot, crowded and crazy Friday afternoon in Beijing. It is always a shock to see just how many people you can get into one space in China. Fortunately we had planned to leave the city directly so navigated our way across Beijing on the excellent Metro system. We soon found ourselves at one of the city’s major transit hubs with literally hundreds of people, all waiting for the no.980 bus to Miyun! We were convinced we would never get out but, with usual Chinese efficiency in dealing with huge numbers of people, the 980 buses came immediately one after another and we boarded the sixth only 20 minutes later.

Our objective was to travel about 130km north east of Beijing to a small town called Gubeikou, located at the base of the Great Wall.  When planning our time here we were concerned that we were visiting one of the biggest tourist attractions in China on a weekend. Therefore, we had deliberately chosen the least developed section of wall furthest from the city. We hoped that we wouldn’t be drowned in domestic tourists, and this seemed to work.

Wohu Mountain-1
Wohushan towers above the railway station

We stayed at the Happy Pang Song guesthouse at foot of Wohushan. The Wall behind the village here is known as the Crouching Tigers, although we could not see any claimed resemblance to two big cats.  Ina, the owner of the guesthouse, assured us that there would be no-one else on this route because it was in its ‘original’ condition. With instructions in hand we walked through the village and crossed the railway line. Looking up we could see the wall perched on the steep ridge of the mountain towering above us and the real reason no-one else would be up there was suddenly clear! With a synchronised deep breath we headed up the path, determined to make it to the Wall.

Crouching Tigers Route

As it turned out it didn’t look too bad when you were actually up there and less than an hour later we were on the Wall itself. As promised, we were the only two and the views were breathtaking. We followed the wall up hill for four towers until the views were just a little too breathtaking for one of us and the other pushed on for just one more tower alone. The view from the top of this tower, over miles of mountainous countryside was stunning, but enough, so we headed back down. As we descended we encountered two Chinese lads also on the way down, one of who coincidently was Ina’s husband, named J.C.

After a brief rest and fuel stop at the guesthouse we asked Ina to book us a taxi. We wanted to hike another section of Wall called the Coiled Dragon. This was a more touristy area, Ina warned us, but we were okay with that. Honestly, it wasn’t that far to walk to the head of the trail, maybe 40 minutes, but having conquered the Crouching Tigers we felt we deserved a ride to the head of the Coiled Dragon (or was it the tail?) and a car was soon standing by.

Coiled Dragon Route
Map of the Coiled Dragon at Gubeikou

The shorter hike from the far end of the Coiled Dragon in to the town took us around two hours. We saw quite a few more tourists, domestic and foreign, but only at the start and it was very manageable. It seems that the domestic tourists are not inclined to actually go anywhere when they walk on the wall. They just want to make it to a nice tower, take some photos (quite a lot of photos, mostly of themselves) and then walk back. Therefore, we soon were on our own and only passed a group of American youngsters with backpacks who looked like they had been on the trail for days. Impressed, we asked the red faced and panting stragglers how many days they had been hiking to which they replied “just over an hour”!

Whilst soaking our feet back at the hotel we reflected that the day’s walking was really enjoyable, very worthwhile and highly recommended.

 

The Trans-Mongolian Railway

After our Siberian adventure we boarded the train for the trip down to Ulaan Bataar, the capital of Mongolia. From there we would later continue on to Beijing and we were excited to be on the move again. The actual mileage was quite small but the journeys included long stops at both border crossings.

Train with Andrina-1
Ready to board the Trans-Mongolian Railway

The journey south and east took us on a beautiful lakeside tour. This was our final chance to say goodbye to the remarkable Lake Baikal as we hugged the shore of its southernmost point before turning away to the final, Russian city stop in Ulan Ude.

Lake Baikal from the train
The ice breaking up on Lake Baikal

We had decided that we would live a little and booked a second-class compartment for the trip down to Mongolia; after all what is travelling if you isolate yourself from people and experiences in a private compartment.

As it turned out our roommate didn’t actually board until we reached Ulan Ude and then she turned out to be a lass from Ireland, via Scotland. After four days alone in that remote Siberian city she was pleased to find English speakers to finally talk to!

Trans-Sib-train4-4-berth
Photo by Tony Willis via http://www.seat61.com

It was good to compare other experiences of the trip from Moscow as we continued down to the border. Our new travel companion told us about Ulan Ude and, frankly, we were relieved to not have stopped there ourselves. Along the way the male conductor (Provodnik) came around with his souvenir sales, we waved him off with a smile and he moved along the carriage. Some two hours later one of the ladies also working the carriage had clearly decided that he hadn’t done a good enough job and she came back with the hard sell. We are now the proud owners of a deck of 36 Lake Baikal playing cards.

Baikal Playing Cards
Lake Baikal Souvenir

We arrived at the Russia-Mongolia border in the early evening and discovered the joys of a land border crossing by train. Not for us the miles of marching down airport corridors and standing in lines at Immigration and Customs. Oh no! The officials all came to us in the comfort of our compartment. A glamorous young Immigration agent checked us out of Russia. Her pink gel nails flicked through our passports and we were somewhat disappointed to note comfortable flat shoes. A tall burly customs agent in army fatigues then asked us to vacate the compartment whilst he searched for contraband and we were relieved that our roommate was no smuggler. We could then take our seats again whilst sniffer dogs passed up and down the corridor and mysterious bangs and clanks could be heard from below the carriage.

No photos, we didn’t want to get arrested!

Finally we moved off and stopped again at the Mongolian border post where the process was repeated. This time our Customs agent was a short plump young lady who had trouble clambering to the top bunk to search the spaces above and we were warmly welcomed to Mongolia by a smiling Immigration agent in a big hat.

Mongolia Flag
Mongolian Flag in Chinggis Square

Finally we could get some sleep and the next thing we knew our Provodnitsa was waking us early the next morning for arrival in to Ulaan Bataar.

UB Station-1
Ulaan Bataar Station

At the same place 10 days later we boarded our second Trans-Mongolian train for the conclusion of the journey. Our compartment was first class and we were amused by the plush red velvet finish. Smiles turned to laughs when we saw that it even included an armchair and an ensuite bathroom with shower!

 

The day was taken up with a long, slow, meandering journey south through the now-familiar landscape of the Gobi Desert, a much nicer way to do the journey than by car. Camels and other livestock munched on the sparse vegetation, barely sparing us a glance as we chugged by and railway workers waved as we interrupted their work.

Gobi view from the train-1

Because karma is a bitch we paid for our previous border smugness when crossing in to China. The Chinese use a different rail gauge to the rest of the world so it was necessary to change the “bogies” of the carriages and this we had expected. However, we had understood that we could remain on board whilst this process happened. Oh no! We had to take all our bags off and through a full immigration and customs check in their fancy new terminal. We then had to sit there for a further three hours until our train arrived with shiny new wheels at 1am. It was as if they had built this large waiting area and they were determined that it should be used!

 

Next morning it was as if we had transported to another world. Gone was the Gobi desert and we woke to green trees, rivers, gorges, mountains and even some urban flooding! We chugged past pastoral villages, donkeys in fields and sheaves of straw leaning against mud and clay walls.

Some hours later we disembarked on a hot, crowded, crazy Friday afternoon in Beijing and so begins the next chapter. We were in China and we were ready to explore!

Beijing Station-1
Beijing Main Station

 

Gobi

The Gobi Desert is a vast area spanning both sides of the Mongolia-China border. It is the coldest desert in the world with an annual temperature variation of over 80°C, reaching +/- 40°C or more. The endless desert steppe, or plain, is at an average of 1500m above sea level and this pushes up in into rugged, rocky, peaks of over 2000m in some areas. With an annual rainfall of only 50mm this is a harsh and inhospitable environment for those living here, but its stunning scenery and unique features make it a big draw for visitors to Mongolia.

The first day we expected the desert views and even the cool temperatures, but the first time we got out of the car we were surprised by the wind. From the comfort of our Toyota Landcruiser there are no clues that it is blowing incessantly from the northwest. There are no trees to bend under the force of the gusts and no leaves or other debris flying around, therefore when we stepped from the vehicle to stretch our legs we were taken aback by the sandblasting we received, then continued to receive for the next four days! The wind is a big factor of life here, it is dry and desiccating, seeming to suck the moisture from the skin and dust devils and small sand storms were common. We were pleased to not get caught in a bigger storm.

We travelled a couple weeks before the season started. The advantage was that we were almost the only tourists around. On the other hand we had to drive the 700km to and from the south of the country instead of using a scheduled domestic flight, meaning two full days in the car. Until only four years ago the road trip to the Gobi was a two-day affair involving dusty dirt roads and an overnight stop. But now we drove along an endless tarmac road, passing the construction site of the new International Airport and on down in to barren nothingness.

Spring was in the air so our guide, Serjee, and driver, Khurlee, sang us a medley of traditional Mongolian songs to bring us good luck with the weather. Singing is a big thing in Mongolian culture and guests are also expected to sing. Being English it took us until the next day to break the reserve and belt out the traditional sing-along tune Hotel California, it was the only one we managed to remember whereas the Mongolians seemed to have an endless supply of beautiful songs about nomadic way of life. We have written more about the Mongolian nomadic life in our blog on Kharkhorum.

The first rains had fallen the week before and there was a surprising amount of green. There were grasses and a chive-like plant that the goats seemed to particularly enjoy. So much so that a passing goatherd often brought a strong smell of onion with it, we hoped from their breath!  The livestock were all producing young; kids, lambs, calves, foals and even baby camels! We came across an unlucky herdsman in charge of a bad-tempered camel and a handful of goat-kids lollygagging behind the rest of the herd. He looked like he needed a hand.

As part of the circle of life we also noted a large number of carcasses of every livestock species littering the roadside. Serjee explained it had been a poor year for rain in 2017 and then a hard winter with over 700,000 head of livestock lost. Many of the animals were still weak, in the Gobi the weak die and the scavengers such as Vultures and Wolves feast.

We were pleased to reach our ger camp by sunset and were ready to go exploring the next day.

Over the next couple of days we experienced many facets of the area.

Bayangzag, commonly known as The Flaming Cliffs,were made famous by the American adventurer and naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews. During an expedition in the 1920’s he discovered a huge cache of dinosaur fossils here. These included complete skeletons of new and endemic species and even clutches of eggs, some containing embryos. A number of his finds, including some eggs, have recently been returned to the Mongolian state and are on display in Ulaan Bataar. We hiked across the valley and climbed the cliffs. The landscape itself looked prehistoric and we had visions of encountering a 70 million-year-old toothy lizard as we rounded the rocky outcrops.

The Gobi is not your stereotypical Lawrence of Arabia desert but there are a few places where you can see sand dunes. They appear as though a giant dump truck has just unloaded a pile of perfect, yellow sand in the middle of nowhere and with the constant wind direction the sand doesn’t shift at all. The sun was shining so off came the boots and socks and we all played like kids for a while!

The Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park is located south of the Flaming Cliffs in the eastern foothills of the Altai Mountains. It is known for a gorge, Yolyn Am Canyon, where the winter snow is packed to blue ice like a mini glacier. This ice takes a long time to melt after the rest of the snow has receded and it is sometimes even July before the last of it disappears. We took the opportunity to hike down this gorge between the sheer cliffs, often slipping and sliding on the ice and even occasionally stepping through sections in to the melt water below.

We enjoyed our packed lunch in a grassy alpine-like valley, shared with a small herd of cows, beside a melt-water stream. Then we hiked back, eyes always on the craggy cliffs watching for the shy but nimble Ibex and shaggy Yaks that live here.

A stop for fuel in a small town offered the chance to visit a local school where we were warmly welcomed by both teachers and children. Such opportunities offer an insight into the local community and we were impressed with the level of work displayed on the walls. We met the gym class and sang the alphabet song with year 1 before saying our goodbyes.

When Roy Chapman Andrews came to Mongolia he was investigating a hypothesis that this might have been an Asian cradle of human civilization. He was never able to prove this but fortunately for him found dinosaurs instead! However, humanoids have lived here for millennia and some have left their mark.

Our last stop on our Gobi tour was to see some Petroglyphs carved by some early civilization and dated at 3,000 B.C.E. We have been lucky enough to see examples of Neolithic art in several places around the world, but never such drawings including Camels and Ibex as featured here.

We hit the road the next day to head back to Ulaan Bataar, very pleased that we had come and looking forward to finally getting the Gobi dust out of our eyes, ears and noses. Our road trip back to the city took us through the same changing landscapes but with a new appreciation of the greenness of the land and the wonder of melt water lakes as we moved north.

 

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Kharkhorum

Kharkhorum was the capital city of the Mongolian Empire, as decreed by the mighty Chinggis Khan in the 13thCentury.  His was the largest empire in the history of the world and covered land from Japan in the east to Bulgaria in the west. The city had few solid buildings so there is very little left and unfortunately the current town is a bit of a dump.

 

As we arrived we saw the Erdene Zuu Monastery and a local museum just outside of the town located south of the site of the old city. The museum had an excellent presentation on the Kharkhorum and the entry fee included the cost of an English-speaking guide who showed us around. There were similar exhibits to the National Museum in Ulaan Bataar but here there was more focus on the ancient city.

The highlight of the tour was actually the relics from a 7thCentury tomb that was unearthed in 2011 some 200km from Kharkhorum. This was the burial site of an unknown Turkish nobleman and he was buried with gold coins, jewelry and clay effigies of his servants and warriors to serve and protect him in the afterlife.

The Erdene Zuu Monastery was another excellent example of Buddhist temple architecture, some of which dated back to the 1600’s and had been added to in subsequent centuries. Sadly, the monastery suffered badly in the Communist religious purges of 1930’s otherwise it would be even more impressive than it is today. Monks still maintain the site and each morning they gather to chant prayers in one of the main temples.

The other reason to come to this town was that it is the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Orkhon Valley. This cultural landscape was given status because it represents the evolution of nomadic pastoral traditions spanning over two thousand years.

Unfortunately, when we arrived we found out the valley had been closed to visitors because of concerns with mad cow disease.  We still wanted to experience the nomadic lifestyle first hand so as a contingency plan we travelled to Mongol Els where there is a 40km stretch of sand dunes. We were welcomed into a family ger for lunch. They were very accommodating and made us fried dumplings stuffed with mashed potato, cabbage and carrots. They were delicious but we weren’t sure how impressed the family was to be eating a veggie lunch with us!

Ger family lunch-3-2
Tending to the stove
Ger family lunch-1
Cow dung fire
Ger family lunch-2
Ger Family Portrait
Ger family lunch-3
Cooking traditional fried dumplings

We then climbed on some camels and the father of the family led us on a 2-hour trek. We crossed the sand dunes, passed an unexpected melt water lake and through a valley to our destination, a ger camp at the foot of a small range of rocky hills. We would spend the night here with another nomadic family.

It is perhaps time to talk about the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolian people. It is still very much in evidence throughout the country with more than 1.5 million people tending to over 70 million head of livestock. The conditions in this vast country are harsh and the families move their ger along with their herds in search of food.

The “Ger” is central to this lifestyle. At its most basic it is a Mongolian traditional round home made of wood and covered in felt. However, the ger represents much more than just a dwelling to the Mongolians; it is their safety, warmth and ability to live their nomadic lifestyle. It is a fundamental part of their culture and even those that live in a city house usually have a ger on their property and move in when the weather gets cold. (A “Yurt” is what the Russians call them.)

With more than half the population now living in the capital this traditional existence is now threatened by a modern life. In response, the nomads have begun to incorporate 21stcentury elements into their lives. The herdsmen use motorbikes or even cars to herd their animals; the gers have solar panels and satellite TV and they often use trucks to move camp.

Ger 21st-1
A 21st Century ger

After a chilly night’s sleep we awoke around dawn in the stunningly beautiful Khogno Khan Uul Nature Reserve. One of us (hmm, which one?) braved the cold to build a cow dung fire in the stove before heading out to catch the first rays of the sun, noting that the family were already up and had tended to the goats.

The sun crested the horizon, bathing the granite rock in the hills behind the camp in its warm light and we were able to fully appreciate the beauty of this landscape. The hills around us seemed to be constructed of these huge granite boulders, piled high to the sky, and the gnarled trees dotting the area were really the first wild trees we had seen in the country.

We took an early morning walk through the valley to a ruined Buddhist site called Lama Erdene Monastery. There are a few temples still intact, and once or twice a month the Lamas visit to perform ceremonies here. Legend has it that during a war between rival kings in the 17thcentury one of them cut the head off the Lamas at this monastery, but the story we heard was that he actually cut off their balls!

This was one of our favourite spots in the whole country and a nice way to end our time in this beautiful country.

 

Ulaan Bataar

Mongolia is a country of around 3 million people (half of whom live in the capital), 12 million horses and 45 million goats all sandwiched between Russia and China. The land is harsh and unforgiving, the continental climate brings freezing conditions for much of the year with extreme heat for the remaining months. It is a rugged and hard life for the people who traditionally live a nomadic existence with their livestock, moving from area to area chasing the meager grass and water supplies.

mongolia-map

Ulaan Bataar (called UB by the locals) is the coldest capital city in the world with winter temperatures regularly at -25 centigrade. A cold day in winter here is -45! We seemed to arrive with the spring and the city was mild and sunny so we immediately took to the streets to explore. Walking around UB was an experience in itself. After the rule-abiding drivers and pedestrians of Russia we had certainly arrived back in Asia! Crossing the crowded roads was nerve wracking to say the least. Even venturing onto the zebra markings with a green “walk” signal meant taking your life in your hands. We proceeded with care at all times, determined not to have an untimely end to our trip courtesy of a Mongolian driver.

 

Street Map UB-1

Other than the roads the city is rather odd but has a nice feel. There are some lovely Buddhist sites with traditional architecture set amongst shining glass and steel towers in the downtown area; quiet oases of history in the midst of a city trying to catch up with western counterparts. The seven former temples of the Choijin Lama are now a museum and a perfect example of this. They were closed down during the communist era, but the buildings have now been restored.

Further west the beautiful Gandan Monastery is still in use and Buddhist monks chant prayers each morning. Visitors can make a donation to have their own prayers chanted although we refrained.

UB has some diverse and, fortunately, small museums. The new Dinosaur museum was opened as a result of the repatriation of some dinosaur fossils from the USA in 2011. These bones and the famous fossilized eggs had been taken out of the country by the American paleontologist Chapman Andrews in the 1920’s and the Mongolians are clearly very pleased to have them back. Some of the species represented have never been found anywhere else in the world. The small collection was fun to view although we cant think of anywhere else where dinosaurs are displayed with green lights in quite this way!

Dinosaurs-1
National Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs

There is also a rather good National Museum with a comprehensive history of the country and it’s peoples.

We stayed near the center in the Zaya Hostel, which we are happy to recommend, the guys there were very helpful with advice and tours. Their location just off the main road of “Peace Street” meant we could walk to most places within 20 minutes and we did.

On the recommendation of the owner we took in a little local culture, as presented by the Tumen-Ekh Dance and Singing Ensemble. This group specialises in traditional Mongolian songs, singing techniques and instruments. Their songs evoke the natural environment of the Mongolian steppes and are usually based on stories about the herdsmen and their livestock. We were drawn to see the show by the promise of seeing Mongolian throat singers who completely lived up to expectations.

 

We don’t usually talk about food but this time it was in the forefront of our minds and we nearly didn’t get off the Trans-Mongolian railway here at all. Mongolian cuisine is famed for being very meat-heavy, until recently being vegetarian was not realisitic in a country that grows barely any vegetables. However, after some research we discovered that the city actually has some rather good veggie restaurants these days. We also discovered the State Department Store. This is the center of UB’s western ambitions, 5 floors of food, good coffee, fashion, electronics and cinema where we stocked up on fruit and veg for all our excursions out of the city.

State Department Store

Did we like UB? The simple answer is yes, although we were pleased to leave and experience the countryside as well. Watch this space for further blogs on our adventures in the Mongolian desert!

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Irkutsk

Irkutsk is the capital of eastern Siberia and the most popular stop for travellers on the Trans-Siberian railway because it serves as a gateway to the beautiful Lake Baikal. TheCossacks founded the city as a fur-trading center in the 17thCentury. The residents have a fierce sense of pride and feel they have very little in common with a capital city over 5000km away; this is the only province of the Russian Federation that still elects a Communist leader. We scheduled a day before our train left to explore this Siberian metropolis and were very pleased we had done so.

Irkutsk Church
Epiphany Cathedral Irkutsk

Irkutsk sees a lot of visitors annually and the tourism people have created an independent city tour to show it off. It was a pleasure to follow the painted Green Line around the city’s wide pavements and through various parks as we viewed monuments, private homes, state buildings and churches in a variety of styles.

 

Of course, we added a few detours along the way just to be rebellious. One of these highlights was the marvelously entertaining Central Market where we indulged in people watching and even some light shopping!

Another detour involved jumping on the number 4 tram.

Irkutsk Tram
Irkutsk tram, not the number 4 but similar!

This took us out to the northern suburbs to visit the remarkable Kazan Church.

We had seen online images of this Russian Orthodox beauty and we were not disappointed. The blue domes gleamed in the late morning sunshine and sunbeams cut through the smoke from votive candles in the ornate interior.

In amongst the 19thCentury classical architecture and the Soviet monoliths, many traditional buildings were log structures. While there are still a few left, they are mostly falling down and one only seemed to be held above the pavement by its window frames.

Recently the city has taken pride in this form of construction and built a whole district to honour this Siberian heritage. This area is pedestrianized and largely occupied by nice bars, trendy restaurants and designer shops and has created over 2000 jobs for the area.

It is a little like a theme park (Siberian World?) but when we visited on the first mild weekend of Spring and there was a great vibe; the street musicians were playing, there were plenty of people strolling around and kids climbing on the rather kitsch monument to the Babr, the symbol of the city based upon a steppe tiger.

Babr-1.jpg

All in all this turned out to be one of the surprises of our trip so far. Not necessarily a holiday destination in its own right but a great stop over on the way to somewhere else.