In Russia – from Nauschki via Irkutsk to Listvjanka
17.05.2017 - 19.05.2017 12 °C
As soon as we had successfully completed the immigration formalities for Russia and had the impression that the procession of various officials had ended, Sam and I went to bed. We laid down on our comfortable mattresses, covered us with the fresh (and ironed!) linen provided and slept almost immediately. The soothing sound and gentle movement of the train was the perfect recipe for an excellent sleep.
When we woke up, we realized that the landscape had changed dramatically: from yesterday’s empty steppes of Mongolia, we suddenly found ourselves in the depths of Siberian taiga (or boreal forests) mainly consisting of birch and larch trees. I had not been aware that the world’s boreal forests make up for almost 30% of the world’s forested areas and are consequently the most important carbon storage – more than all rain forests and temperate forests combined. Here and there, we passed small settlements that looked very different from what we had seen in Mongolia. The only similarity were the high wooden fences and the colorful roofs.
Checking the mile posts vs. our handy ‘Trans-Siberian-Railway’ guidebook, we realized that we had covered already quite some ground in Russia. At km post 5504 (calculating from Moscow), we had just reached the Eastern shore of Lake Baikal. And indeed: once we opened the door of our apartment, we could see the waters of the lake. On the side of our compartment, there was much less to be seen. The odd settlement from time to time and only two larger towns, one of which featured a ski area.
Unfortunately, not only the landscape had changed, but also the weather. It was cloudy and seemed to start raining any minute. We were freezing! When we used the 20 minutes stop in the town of Sljudjanka to get off the train, we realized that the 30 °C of yesterday had turned into merely 12 °C.
We also experienced the Trans-Siberian time warp for the first time: the clock at the train station showed 7:45 (Moscow time), while in fact it was already 12:45 local time. To find an easy way to operate trains in such a vast country, all trains and train stations operate on Moscow time. It takes a bit of thinking when checking time tables, but after a while we got used to the system quite well.
As we left the station, we also left Lake Baikal and the train started winding its way up the hills of the Primorsky Mountains. We had a couple of nice views down towards the lake along the way. But as we headed into the hills, the vistas were reduced once again to forests, little streams and not much more.
After 24 hours on the train and 1146 km, we arrived in Irkutsk. Our first impression was rather mixed: the weather was simply awful at rainy 9 °C, but the train station was beautiful. Unfortunately, the building’s nice architecture did not reflect on the attitude on the employees: when inquiring where to take the bus to Listvjanka at the shores of Lake Baikal, we were faces with shrugs and shaking heads. There seemed to be no effort whatsoever to help us along.
Suddenly we received unexpected help: a Chinese girl (which we learned was called Bella) got up and asked us if we were trying to get to Listvjanka. Seemingly, she had encountered exactly the same difficulties two days ago and had painfully found out the solution. She advised us to take the tram to the central market where the minibuses would be waiting. Excellent – what a great help!
The tram was full of people, but due to the fogged-up windows, we were not able to see anything. Fortunately enough, a couple of elderly Russian ladies helped us out and made it their mission to point out which stop we had to get off at and which way the minibuses were located.
We found the minibuses without any issues and were admitted on board. For 400 rubles (less than 7€) the driver took us on board and would take us to Listvjanka, which is a drive of over an hour / 70km.
Originally, we had planned to go to Olkhon Island. As we started planning the details a couple of days earlier, we learned that the drive there would have taken six hours and that it would have cost us 8500 rubles – due to the arrival of our train in the afternoon, we would have needed to take a private driver. We then concluded that Listvjanka would be a much better option for us – closer to Irkutsk and much less expensive.
After 15 minutes the minibus every seat in our minibus was filled and we left. Next to us was a nice guy, maybe 55 years old. Talking with him, we learned that his name was Rashoud and that he was a Tadzhik living in Uzbekistan speaking Farsi. Suddenly he hands us one of the three rings of bread he had bought as a present. It was excellent. But even better – we were amazed by that act of unexpected kindness! Between his little English skills and our almost non-existing Russian, we learned about his kids, his job and about the region. It was fun.
We arrived in Listvjanka, got a taxi and were taken directly to our hotel. We had a comfortable nice room with a view of the lake. It was grey and windy outside and we were hoping for a day with nicer weather to fully appreciate the view of a hopefully then calmer lake.
The next morning we had breakfast, when we noticed two Australians that looked familiar. They were Geoff and Jennifer, who had stayed in the same hostel in Ulaanbaatar. They were very sympathetic and we spent the whole morning chatting away with them. They have extensively traveled the world since 1972 and had stories to tell about countries we have not been to (so far).
When Max got hungry, we suddenly realized that it was already early afternoon and time for us to head out and explore the lake. Along the way, we passed a couple of nice old Siberian wooden houses.
In a café at the lakeside we got good food. And we were surprised to see that the outside tables and chairs were all branded by Gösser Beer – a brewery that is located only 30 minutes away from Sam’s Austrian home town. We could not resist to buy two bottles for the evening.
We also headed down to the lake. After all, there is a saying that dipping your hand into Lake Baikal’s water will give you an additional year of life. In the attempt of doing so, I even managed to get five years extra – as a managed to get my feet wet in the process. With the lake being unfrozen only for a few days, at 3 °C water temperature that was not really intended and admittedly not very pleasant. Still, real Russians prefer to go swimming in the lake which is supposed to guarantee you 25 additional years of life.
We rather preferred to head towards the hills and to do some hiking. The craziest taxi driver of our trip so far delivered us to the lower station of the chairlift, where we realized that due to the heavy wind, it was not operating.
So we decided to hike up to Cherskogo Stone. It was a very nice walk through a light forest. All over the place, there were spring flowers blooming. From the stone itself we had a nice view of the lake and its outlet, the Angara River. Around the stone and in the bushes and trees around it, there were lots of colorful strips of cloth. Some of them had something written on them, others not – a custom that we had noticed already in South Korea intending to wish for good luck.
We hiked down directly to the Baikal Limnological Museum. We took a virtual submarine tour to the bottom of the lake at 1642m. The lake is not only the deepest freshwater lake in the world, but also the most voluminous – containing more water than all of the Great Lakes combined. The museum also hosts two freshwater seals called 'nerpas'. They are the only species of freshwater seals in the world and are endemic to Lake Baikal. It was funny to watch them racing through the water like cannonballs (yes, they seemed to be almost as wide as they were long).
A minibus took us back into town where we had dinner. Everyone had local food: I had omul, a local fish, Sam and Max had pelmeni (dumplings) with meat and cherry filling respectively. Food was excellent, but we were not able to enjoy it too much. We had discovered that on our hike we had managed to collect a fair number of ticks. Between us we had five bites and found another ten which were still crawling about in the intention of finding a nice spot to bite. This is not fun! In retrospect, it was probably not such a great idea to hike in the Siberian woods after all.
We walked home as the sun was setting over the lake. By then the wind had stopped and the water was very still. What a beautiful end of the day!
Back at our hotel, we met again with Geoff and Jennifer and kept chatting away with them until late after midnight. Their wonderful stories from their travels kept us entertained and we could have continued forever. We also used the opportunity to try some local vodka, called ‘Baikal’. We were not too impressed and had to check out if it gets better after getting used to the taste. In my humble opinion, it rather got worse. But maybe I did not try enough.
The next day, we headed to the fish market and from there to the lake to watch the hovercrafts. A guy asked me (in Russian) to take a picture of him and his friends. I answered in English that I’d be happy to help, even though I did not speak Russian. He also spoke English and after I had taken a picture, invited me and Sam to come over and to have a vodka.
It was 1pm, but why not. It turned out to be just the right decision: we joined them at the little rented hut along the lake and had an excellent afternoon. Our hosts (Serge, Denis, Sergey, Andrey, Ludmilla and more who’s names we don’t remember) turned out to be professors of law of various Russian universities and all of them spoke great English. And they were so kind and welcoming to us. The promised vodka turned out to be Chivas Regal whiskey and there was also a food. It was a fun afternoon.
When they eventually left to see the Baikal Museum, we went back to the fish market to get some smoked fish. We then rented a little hut for our own and were sitting there leisurely, having our food and marveling about Russian hospitality. What a great country and wonderful people!