The Grand Trans-Siberian Express Experience Part 3: Irkutsk

This is the third in a six-part series of blog posts about my experience onboard the Grand Trans-Siberian Express. To read the other parts, click here: 

Part 1: Moscow to Yekaterinburg

Part 2: Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk

Part 4: Lake Baikal

Part 5: Ulan-Ude and Tarbagatay

Part 6: Ulaanbaatar and Terelj National Park, Mongolia

The video above is a 7-part anthology of short films that capture my experience onboard, a highlight reel of memorable experiences onboard the Grand Trans-Siberian Express, taken during the summer of 2017.

The Grand Trans-Siberian Express is the premium version of the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway journey. The GTSE is an all-inclusive "cruise on rails" using a private charter train, with luxury accommodations and fine dining from start to finish onboard the train and at designated stops along the way. Our chosen route took us from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, over the course of 12 days, with guided day trips in between long hours in transit on the train. I had the good fortune of joining this trip thanks to Aeroflot Russian Airlines.

PART 3: Irkutsk

Irkutsk train station

WE ARRIVE in Irkutsk shortly after lunch. By now, on Day 8, we've traveled so far east that, though we began the trip in European time, we have now returned to the same time zone as Manila, having adjusted our clocks roughly an hour ahead each day since entering Siberia. This is pleasantly disorienting, and I don't know if any other land journey on Earth could cause the same simultaneous displacement of place and time.

We've looked forward to seeing Irkutsk, not just because of its one-time reputation as the "Paris of Siberia," but also because it is our guide Larisa's hometown.  We begin making our way towards the Angara river, stopping by to admire another Russian Orthodox cathedral.

Spasskaya Tserkov, with its distinctive outdoor icons

As we walk further on, we see the Eternal Flame memorial dedicated to the fallen Russians of World War II. It's situated in a park, where we find many couples getting several couples getting their photos done, as we are told is customary on Saturdays.

The Memorial Eternal Flame in Irkutsk

The park in the Memorial Complex

We cross a bridge over a highway and see the fast-flowing Angara River for the first time. We stroll along the embankment then cross back to see the colorful Cathedral of the Epiphany. 

The Angara River

More couples getting their photos taken

The Cathedral of the Epiphany

We make our way upriver around the bend of the Angara and visit a square with a monument to Tsar Alexander III, who is credited with the decision to build the Trans-Siberian Railway. The square is bustling with weekend activity on this sunny Saturday, with performances for children and a crafts fair. The warmth and color of the scene strike me as absolutely opposed to any preconceptions I had of the cold of Siberia and the Russian people.

Monument to Tsar Alexander III. That is a teenage girl in a dog suit, who happily greets all passersby. Not the Russian coldness we were expecting.

 Crafts fair at Irkutsk

Crafts fair at Irkutsk

From there, we go to a local mall for a spot of shopping. Thanks to our guide, we're able to go where the locals shop, and prices here are very cheap, at times cheaper than Manila. I invest in a Siberian fur hat for future winter adventures. 

We drive to the House of Europe, an exquisite traditional wooden house. Irkutsk still has large quarters still consisting of wooden houses only, which in many places across Russia have been destroyed by fire over the years.

The House of Europe

We drive to the 130th district, with its rows of trendy restaurants, shops, and boutique hotels housed in wooden heritage structures. This is a beautiful area, the kind of place I'd feel like spending time in regularly if I happened to live nearby. It strikes me as proof of how commerce and heritage can coexist in mutually beneficial harmony.

Irkutsk's 130th District

Irkutsk's 130h District houses trendy modern establishments in heritage buildings

We climb up to the top row for dinner at the Restaurant Misha. Once again it exudes old-world, turn-of-the-century elegance, as we've come to expect with many of the restaurants we dine in, but also has a modern deck with a view of the 130th district.

Restaurant Misha interior

Restaurant Misha deck

After dinner, we visit the Volkonsky Manor, a museum dedicated to the life in exile of the Decembrists in Siberia from 1845 - 1856. We get a taste of what life was like for an exiled 19th century Russian prince, and end our visit with one of the the entire trip's best moments: a private classical concert in the Volkonsky's drawing room, much as their guests would have experienced over a century and a half ago. We are entertained by a pianist, a tenor, and a soprano of stunning ability, with champagne broken out during the finale. At its best moments, the Grand Trans-Siberian Express brings one back to the grandeur of a bygone era, whether on the train or during excursions, and this is what separates it many other luxury experiences.

Welcoming us to the private classical concert as Larisa and the Mandarin-speaking guide translate

The pianist in the Volkonsky's drawing room

The tenor and soprano perform a duet

As we step out of the manor, we are greeted by beautiful light and the setting sun. Because of the schedule of the excursions, this is actually the first time in the trip we have been off the train with good light for photography. The city takes on a new air of romance in this light, as poplar fluff hangs in the air like snow. 

We step out of the Volkonsky Manor and are greeted by this soft, magical light.

The sun setting over Irkutsk

Irkutsk at sundown

After dinner at the hotel, I can't help but take advantage of the light and have my first proper photography session of the entire trip. I walk back to the embankment and find as perfect a sunset as I could have hoped for.

Sunset seen from the bridge by the Memorial Complex in Irkutsk

Perfect sunset over the Angara River

It is the summer and there is still light at 9pm. I continue shooting even as the temperature drops dramatically. It soon becomes too cold to stay out without a jacket.

The embankment of the Angara at twilight

10:30pm and it is still blue hour at Irkutsk

Cold and tired, but more than satisfied, I wrap up my session at almost quarter to 11 in the evening and head back to the Marriott. It has been one of the best days of the trip, but tomorrow promises to be even better: it's time to visit the largest lake in the world.

END OF PART 3

Proceed to Part 4: Lake Baikal

Many thanks to Regina Laquindanum and Lizette Jocson of Aeroflot Russian Airlines for having me along for this trip. If you are from the Philippines and would like more information on booking this trip, you may contact Aeroflot Philippines at:

GSA: VITA Travel Services

Unit 809 8F Tower One, PSE Plaza Ayala Triangle, Ayala Ave. Makati City

T:+632 759 2191 / 759 2192 / 836 8975

E: info@aeroflot.ph