27.08.2012 - 29.08.2012 19 °C
Episode 3: A side trip to Lake Baikal 26 August 2012
Lots of rain; outdoors museum; hike to the lake; a lovely boat trip
It is pissing down with rain. And not just a 'let's clean the dust off the leaves' shower, but a serious ground and bone soaking it's not going to let up rain. In this rain, I found a cheap Chinese umbrella in the Chinese market on which I immediately cut my thumb on the sharp spoke and stood in the wrong place adjacent to the market waiting for the bus to Listvyanka while trying to stem the flow of blood. After seeing dozens of buses come and go to everywhere but Listvyanka...and watching the people on-load and offload in the nano seconds they are given by the driver...I sensed that I was in in the wrong spot getting unnecessarily drenched. Eventually, with the help of my wet map, speaking my Czech version of Russian, wandering around and arm waving, I discovered the spot where the mini vans for Listvyanka park. So easy once you know where to go. They don't leave on any time table...they leave when the van is crammed full.
I had the van drop me off at the Taltsky Museum of Architecture and Ethnography which is located about 50 km to the east of Irkutsk. This outdoor museum consists of a number of different styles of renovated wooden Siberian style houses scattered amongst the birch trees adjacent to the Angara River. Some of the houses were open in which they displayed traditional Russia furnishings. Although it was grey and broody due to the rain, it was quite interesting seeing the various styles including a couple of churches, some old farms, and middle-class merchants houses. There was even a ger as the Buriat people can be found in this area. A stop at the cafe for some hot, rather tasty borst soup and slab of buttered bread got me going for the trip to Listvyanka.
Transport to Listvyanka consisted of my standing on the side of the road looking wet and forlorn. A van with an empty seat stopped not too long after I arrived on the road, I paid my fare while the driver balanced his cell phone, the steering wheel and giving me change. Twenty minutes later I was dropped off at the post office in the village of Listvyanka.
I stayed at the Baikaler Eco-Hostel, sister hostel to the Baikaler Hostel in Irkutsk. It was about 1200 m up the hill from the post office away from the hustle and bustle of Listvyanka. Listvyanka seems to be the best known as the spot to see Lake Baikal because it is so close to Irkutsk. The town itself is a strip of village bordering the mouth of the Angara River where it enters Lake Baikal and then runs up four valleys inland. So unless you stay on the one road the goes through town, you have to walk uphill....which is generally ok unless you have been trudging all day and all you want to do is put up your feet.
Highlights of Listvyanka included the Baikal Museum (with impish, swimming nerpa seals in a tank), Retro Park, Dendrologichekii Park, a walk to the top of the local ski field (awesome view of the lake and Port Baikal), and a yummy meal of smoked omul, boiled potato and pickles. I got a bit energetic and jaunted to Nikola, the next village over as I had seen a three mast boat by the river on the drive over. What a total waste of time. The village was non-descript and the vessel turned out to be totally bogus: the 'boat' belonged to a rather dodgy looking resort and wasn't even in the water. Maybe they use it as a restaurant in the summer. Maybe it was a brilliant idea that turned into a dud. Don't know.
The next day I started my hike to Bolshiye Koty, a very, very small, village about 20 km to the northeast of Listvyanka. The only way you can get to or from this village is by foot along a section of the Great Baikal Trail or by boat. So, my plan was to walk one way and take the daily boat back to Irkutsk. Best laid plans.....
The day started out perfect....sunshine, warm, a breeze wafting through the birch trees. After a slog up one of Listvyanka's house lined valley streets, I got to the start of the Great Baikal Trail - as indicated by the one, and only, sign. Commencement of construction of the Great Baikal Trail started in 2003 and is being built entirely by volunteers in conjunction with locals and the local national park system. So far, about 500 m of trail has been constructed, but the plan is to build a trail that will totally circumnavigate the lake. I discovered that the signposting along the trail left a lot to be desired but luckily the trail is well maintained and quite easy to follow. I was also given the instructions that if the trail splits, always go up...which I did and it worked.
I walked through predominately birch trees with a scattering of pine trees at the beginning of the walk. After going through forest for about two hours, I eventually descended down a valley to the shore of a rather spectacular Lake Baikal. There was a bit of a late summer algal bloom in the water but that did not detract from the clarity of the water and the sheer fresh, sweet air. Along the way, there were a number of picnic and camping spots overlooking the lake which allowed some very nice navel gazing stops and a wee nap at lunchtime. The rest of the trek followed the shoreline, with the occasional sign warning me that the trail was dangerous and I just had to take the upper trail. It took me about 6 1/2 hours to get to Boshiye Koty, including my lunchtime nap. And by the time I got there, the day had changed from a bird chirping, bee buzzing day to pissing down rain.
Jack Sheremetoff, the owner of the Baikal hostels, had booked me into the Lesnaya 7 Hostel. Given how small Bolshiye Koty was, it did not take me long to find the hostel. I was a bit cold and hungry once I got there, but a hot shower made all well again. I already knew that restaurants were non-existent in the village so it was my bread roll, cup-of-soup, cookies and tea for dinner.
So I am told, when I arrived, that the daily boat to Irkutsk is no longer in operation...with no warning given to the locals that this was to happen. Alex, the owner of the hostel, told me that maybe there will be a boat the next day. I really was hoping this would happen as even though I Iike to walk, I was not keen to walk back the same way I came.
The population of Boshiye Koty is only about 50-100 residents now, although in its heyday of gold mining, glass and soap factories, over one thousand people lived there. This is also the location of the Lake Baikal Biological Station where they have been conducting ecological monitoring of the lake since the 1920s. At night there is no sound...not even the wayward doddle do of a rooster or low of a cow. The sky did clear during the night and the stars were not short of awesome and spectacular. A wander around the next day gave me a village of only wooden Siberian style houses with nice neat little vegetable and flower gardens, and horses wandering freely. And the roads are more like tracks than roads. I only saw one sputtering car. There is a museum there, but as it was a Monday, it was closed.
On my way back to the hostel after my wanderings, I noticed a boat docked at the jetty. The crew had set up a BBQ on the shore and they were smoking fish. Not long afterwards, four people with backpacks and suitcases boarded.
- Ah ha....the maybe boat to Irkutsk me thinks.
I tried asking (in my best Czech-ish Russian) if the boat was indeed going to Irkutsk. Communication of sentences longer than one word was near hopeless, but I managed to understand that I could go on the boat but I had a nano-second in which to get my stuff. So, not really knowing where I would end up but taking the risk because I did not want to walk and the boat seemed to be heading in the right direction, I hightailed it back to the hostel, threw my stuff into my backpack and got to the boat just as it was blowing its whistle to leave.
And what a blissful boat ride it turned out to be. It was only going to Listvyanka, but who was I to complain? We were given freshly caught and smoked Lake Baikal fish (species unknown), rye bread and beer while sitting on the back deck. Sunny, warm, a wispish breeze and flat calm water while watching the birch lined shore of the lake pass by. A wonderful way to get back to Listvyanka where I then hopped in a passenger van and returned to Irkutsk.
Next stop: Krasnoyarsk.