Our first stop in Russia was the capital of Siberia – Irkutsk. Siberia conjures up image of bleak freezing cold winters and hard labour. But for a couple of months of the year, the ice thaws, the grass grows green and the birds sing. When we arrived in Irkutsk after two nights and one day on the train from Mongolia it was a balmy 28 degrees, and the sun was shining until 11pm.
Irkutsk was the perfect introduction to Russia. It is small city of around a million people with lovely old style buildings including quaint wooden cottages with large ornate window shutters. Technically we were still in Asia (the border is officially near Yekaterinburg – our next stop) but it felt to be very much a European city, and unmistakably Russian, with main streets named Lenin and Karl Marx and the classic golden domed spires of Russian Orthodox Churches dotted throughout the city.
First stop was the Central Market, a wonderful smorgasbord of breads, cheeses, sweets (incredible biscuits and cakes!) fish (dried fish is the speciality), meats, fruits, nuts and vegetables. After three months in Asia, maybe it was good hearty bread and cheese that we were the most excited about!
Some of the popular perceptions of Russia were confirmed after our first day in Irkutsk. People do drink vodka and beer everywhere and at anytime, and Russian women are very beautiful!