Most people barely spend two days in Irkutsk, much less two weeks.
I initially planned a short stop as well, but when I heard about an opportunity to volunteer with the Great Baikal Trail organization, I thought a longer stay would be worth my while. I reached out to GBT in September and made arrangements to spend two weeks with them in mid-November, working on tasks ranging from working on their website to teaching English to the staff to helping write grant proposals.
Unfortunately, by the time I arrived in Irkutsk, the volunteer coordinator with whom I made my arrangements had left. When I met with the new coordinator on my first day in town, it became clear there wasn’t much for me to do. She explained that two long-term volunteers would be arriving shortly, so they wanted to save a lot of the tasks for them. Nonetheless, she said I could spend some time reviewing their website and providing edits – something I could do on my laptop from the flat where I was staying.
Considering how much I wanted to get some quality volunteer experience – and the fact that GBT was providing me with a really cheap place to stay, I spent several hours over my first few days in Irkutsk reviewing their website.
I soon had to accept the fact that they really didn’t need me to do much and find other ways to occupy my time.
I made one lap around the center of the city to get a feel for it.
I had the zipper on my winter coat repaired.
I went shopping and bought 2 new sweaters, long johns and a couple pairs of ski socks.
I caught up on editing photos and posting them to SmugMug.
I participated in the BootsnAll 30 Days of Indie Travel Project.
And I sampled three different dishes at the first Mexican fast food joint I encountered in all of Russia.
I know you’re all dying to know how that went, so I’ll tell you. Tacos, flautas and quesadillas all tasted exactly the same, just the size and shape of the “tortilla” varied (I put tortillas in parentheses because these were more like fried wonton shells that what most of the world would consider tortillas).
They are also served with tartar sauce rather than sour cream – odd considering Russians seem to add sour cream to so many other dishes. Overall, my first visit to Kafe Amigo satisfied a craving for something spicy (something sorely lacking in Russian cuisine), but by my third visit, I couldn’t even finish my meal.
After returning from a weekend on Olkhon Island, I decided to get serious about seeing the sights in Irkutsk during my last week.
Of course, Monday brought clouds and snow all day, which wasn’t really conducive to sightseeing or picture taking. On Tuesday, I managed to walk to the train station, seeing the Angara River on my way. On Wednesday, I had grand plans to take a day trip to Listvyanka to see some more of Lake Baikal and possibly try dog sledding. But when I overslept and saw how gray the day was, I decided only to go as far as the Taltsy Open Air Museum instead (which was still better than nothing).
On Thursday morning, I finally visited two museums, both located in the former homes of Decembrist exiles to Siberia – the Volkonsky and Trubetskoy houses. But I also needed to do laundry and I promised to speak to the English class taught by one of my flatmates in the afternoon, so that didn’t leave time for much else.
Finally, on Friday I walked around a new part of the city, seeing a few churches and running into a not-so-crazy cat lady who let me play with and take pictures of her cats for about twenty minutes.
In the end, while I didn’t enjoy the volunteer experience I was anticipating and I was far from a sightseeing guru, I enjoyed the downtime and left Irkutsk feeling refreshed and energized for the last whirlwind week of my Trans-Siberian journey.