Back in Irkutsk, we took advantage of the giant market to fill up on fresh food, baked goods and draft beer. Outside, babushkas were selling farm-fresh produce, pickles and mushrooms. There was time to wander around the streets of Irkutsk, admiring the wooden houses. The first-floor windows of some lay below street level, where they had been partially buried by the rising streets. There are even a few wooden palaces in town, build by the wealthy exiles of the December Uprising of 1825.
We moved on to Ulan Ude, about eight hours away. The train swept down to Kultuk, then followed the lake before turning up a long, green valley. Baikal's eastern shore was packed thick with icebergs. In Ulan Ude, the proud home of the world's largest Lenin head (carved from a single block of stone), we were surrounded by a majority of asian-looking people who spoke Russian.
We checked into a genuine, high-rise, Soviet-era hotel, the “Buryatya”, complete with rusty pipes and creaking elevators. On the top floor, with a view of the main square and Lenin's head, we tried not to think about the fact that the area was prone to earthquakes. Would such a Soviet-era building survive? Overall, Ulan Ude was laid-back and the people were friendly. Outside of town is a Buddhist monastery, its Mongolian-style temples a riot of crazy colors and peaked roofs.