Lake Baikal – a bit nippy…
After a bumpy one hour drive in our ancient Korean minibus, we arrived in Listvyanka, on the shores of the mighty Lake Baikal. We arrived on a particularly clear day and the views were incredible. Across the vast desert of frozen lake we saw the imposing belt of the Zabaikalskie (I think) mountains on the opposite shore. As we were there for 4-5 days I thought we’d plenty of time to snap some pictures, but typically the mountains remained hazy under a distant mist for the rest of the time we were there. A little annoying, but it did give the impression of the lake simply being a vast, endless, frozen ocean.
I can’t accurately describe how breathtaking the lake and the surrounding scenery was, especially with the winds howling and the ice creaking, and the pictures don’t even nearly do the place justice – but hopefully they give a better sense of it than any feeble attempt of a description by me. Listvyanka however, is a little bit of a stain on Baikal’s majesty. Its essentially a 4 mile road along the shore, stretching from the Angara Eastwards, dotted with faux-Old-Siberian houses, hugely tasteless pink Kremlin style second homes, and the odd souvenir shop. In places it was quite charming, with genuine little fish markets and a nice village atmosphere. Further back from the shore there were authentic little pockets of real Siberian village life, with wooden houses and the like, but mainly everything was geared towards the tourist trade. The place seemed sparsely populated, with very few tourists due to the off season, so hopefully we saw a bit of natural local life. I imagine it’s quite a tourist trap in the summer.
Its a small world, as we found out when we bumped into Frank and Lia by the lake. Their Californian bones were suffering in the biting wind and double figure negatives (as were ours) and they were on their way back to Irkutsk to get the train to UlaanBataar. We also met top German bloke called Mo. He’s a serious solo traveler into hardcore day and week long treks and the like. When we met he invited us on a 4 day trek along the lake. We politely declined due to timing issues. We bumped into Mo a few days later as his trek was cut short by some tracks being impassable in the winter weather. So, he joined us in our hostel in the evening for some pasta and beers. Being an experienced traveler, we got a lot of good advice about China and on-wards, as he’d just come from that neck of the woods, and was heading in the opposite direction. Next day he set of on a disappointingly meager (to him) two day trek along the Ice.
Our hostel (Baikler eco hostel) was pretty amazing. A purpose built log cabin set up that was extremely cosy, with a friendly and laid back manager named Natalia. It wasn’t as cheap as we’d of liked, but still cheaper than much of mainland Europe. (We later found many locals have bed and breakfast signs outside their houses, you can’t book in advance online, but by far the cheapest way to stay is just to turn up and find one of these. Plus, if you’re lucky you get more of a taste of the local culture). Worth a comment is our hostel’s dubious use of the word ‘eco’ in it’s moniker. Apart from a couple of solar panels, and water pressure equivalent to being dribbled on by a parched tortoise, there seemed to be very little ECO about. No recycling bins, and electric panel heaters everywhere, all seem like things conducive to a decidedly un-eco hostel.
In the hostel we met a spiffing British couple called Richard and Susie, who have quit their jobs to travel the noodleier parts of the world in the East. Like us they’re trying to avoid flying. Their blog is very funny and worth a gander: noodletour.wordpress.com.
From the hostel we could arrange various activities like dog sledding and snow mobiling, but these were a little out of our price range. One attractive option was to take out the ‘Ice bikes’ with studded tyres, and ride along the lake for the day. We were really looking forward to this, the lake is only 40km in width at Listvyanka so we maybe could of ridden to the other side and back in a day, or at least up to the next village, only accessible by Ice (or water in the summer). As is our luck, one bike had a puncture and they couldn’t fix it in time. Oh well.
You may think cycling on the Ice sounds like a crazy idea, but the majority of the lake is frozen a metre thick until summer. The locals use the frozen shoreline as a temporary road for driving to nearby villages. Vans, 4x4s, and old rusty soviet saloons are a regular sight on the Ice. We even saw cars driving right along the edge of the ice (where the frozen lake releases the flowing Angara) from Listvyanka to port Baikal.
During one of our many foot based excursions onto the ice, I heard a muffled thud behind me, only to discover Amy spreadeagled on her back looking rather dazed. She had incurred yet another head injury (she is prone to these, and blames a long history of head injuries on her terrible memory). After a reasonable amount of sympathy, I then discovered the shocking truth that during her fall she had been holding our digital camera. Inconsiderately the camera wasn’t her primary concern as her legs disappeared from under her. Luckily the camera still works perfectly, apart from the the LCD screen. There is no viewfinder. This means we can only blindly take photos by pointing at things, then checking what they look like on the computer later. Based on this, we’ll just be using our camera phones from now on. (I don’t think the LCD is broken, maybe just disconnected inside, if anyone has any suggestions please throw them this way).
A famous local inhabitant of the lake is the Omul. Omul have the unfortunate characteristic (for them) of being amazingly delicious, and the local humans whip them out of the lake by the bucket load. Smoked Omul is the local specialty and it is easily the best smoked fish I’ve ever tasted. Colourfully dressed old Siberian women sell the fish at the market, whilst the blokes our out on the lake boring new holes into the ice for the next days catch. When we bought our fish, we wanted to keep them warm till we got back to the hostel, so being the enterprising sorts that we are, we stuffed them inside my insulated skiing gloves, and put them in my bag. On the way home, we stopped at the shop, and as we were sorting out the shopping, a pair of gloves dropped onto the counter, and out flopped the heads of two fish. The girl in the shop paused, looked at us, looked at the two dead fish poking out of a mans glove, and strained a smile. Amy tried to explain by doing a mime of shivering, that we were trying to keep the fish warm, but unsurprisingly this just wierded the girl out even more. We laughed awkwardly and headed for the door.
Our last full day at the lake we decided to head to the apparently beautiful local viewing point, situated high up on a hill at the source of the Angara. Possibly the Listvyankans want to keep this spot tourist free as, although it was on the map at the hostel, finding it involved meandering down some nondescript tracks, with absolutely no signage, and we were just about to give up until we turned the corner and found… a ski lift up the hill. Never ones to pass up a go on a ski lift, we hopped on. The views of the lake and surrounding area were brilliant, I’ll avoid the corny description, but have a scan of the photos for some idea.
When we reached the bottom we decided to nip into a cafe for some borscht only to discover my wallet was gone. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a sinking feeling. All my cards, driving licence and cash were in it. In a hurried game of charades and telephone translating, we managed to explain our predicament to the lady in the ticket booth, and she let us get on the lift for free, with the aim of us looking on the floor on the way up, then hopefully locating it. There was no sign of it on the way up, and we spent a long time searching for it at the top. We were absolutely gutted, I hadn’t planned on an eventuality like this.
Suddenly, like the voice of an angel, one of the lift operators shouted me over, holding something proudly aloft. I felt like giving everyone in sight all the cash in my wallet, I was that glad just to have the rest of it back (I didn’t though, I’m not mental). Apparently it had been hanging of one of the seats precariously and had done around 3 or 4 laps of the ski lift. This type of luck doesn’t usually befall us two, but the relief was almost indescribable. Needless to say, I now only carry certain things in my wallet, and have emergency cards and cash elsewhere. Most people are probably clued up enough to do this from the start, but if not, it’s one of the few pieces of advice I could give.
We were sad to leave the peace and quiet of the lake behind, especially knowing we had to deal with the mayhem of Irkutsk one last time. Eventually arriving at the train station, we had a couple of hours to idle away, and as per usual, we instantly attracted the local nutter. A Buryat guy and his girlfriend. Buryatia is an autonomous state in Russia (On the Russia-Mongol border, its capital is Ulan-Ude) and its inhabitants are the real ethnic Siberians (they look Mongolian in appearance). Although they speak Russian, and would hold Russian federation passports, I think they see themselves (reasonably so) as purely Buryat. I believe there are quite a few autonomous states similar to this in the Russian federation, with ethnicities different to the standard slavic white Russians (these all arrived in Siberia as the railway was built). It stands to reason with the vast size of Russia, but never really crossed my mind before… Anyway, this guy was a laugh at first, but he could barley speak a word of English (or Russian to be honest, he was that pissed). I gather he instantly fell in love with Amy, and may well of offered her his hand in marriage, his girlfriend certainly didn’t seem impressed. After about an hour of the same 30 second conversation repeated again and again “What names? English or Deutch? Me Buryat. I English very bad. hahaha” we found an alternative way of conversing – through the medium of English premiership football team and player names. The system involved taking it in turns to mention a player or team, whilst the other then nodded and smiled, mentioning another team or player somehow related to the previous. Surprisingly this became tiresome very quickly. As luck would have it, they eventually got kicked out by security (We guessed that they weren’t waiting for a train, and used the heated station waiting room as a hang out spot, to drink and baffle tourists).
After a brief moment of calm before the train arrived, we moved onto Trans-Siberian (technically now the trans-Mongolian) Leg 2…
Other things we have learned about Listvyanka, Baikal and East Siberia:
Rural hospitality. As is probably the case in most places in the world – the more rural – the more hospitable people tend to get. In Irkutsk we were stared at and whispered about, and people wen’t all that friendly, even for Russian standards. By the lake, everyone was much friendlier. We even saw quite a few smiles! I guess they see more tourists there, but it was nice to buy fish from smiling old ladies and to get the occasional (only occasional) smile on the street.
Its Cold. Yes, you heard it here first. Its absolutely brass monkeys in East Siberia. To the locals, the measly -5 to -15 temperatures we experienced were but a joke compared to their -30 to -40 winters. These are the kind of temperatures where one might see the apocryphal frozen wee stream. (I’m still doubtful about whether that really happens).
Techno Techno. Siberians, and Russians in general it would appear, are rather partial to a bit of hardcore techno. We thought our bizarre dining experience on the Trans-Siberian may have been a one off, but we were sadly mistaken. Sit down in any type of establishment to eat, and the default ambient music is techno, regardless of whether its fast food joint, or a quaint local cafe. Even our little local shop on the shores of the lake curiously had speakers on the outside, and blurted hardcore techno music across the frozen wastes. It was very unnerving to stand out on the frozen lake, looking at a seemingly uninhabited village, and be serenaded by a wall of techno.
Listvyanka and Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russian Federation
26/03/2013 – 30/03/2013