Thought I’d take a self-guided visit to Lake Baikal since I had stopped by Irkutsk, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions on the trip.
Lake Baikal, not too far from Irkutsk, is the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume (20% of the world’s unfrozen surface freshwater- at least in summer), the deepest (1,642m), the oldest (25 million years), one of the clearest, and probably the one having the most superlatives. I had two nights at Lake Baikal so I decided to spend a night at the popular tourist town of Listvyanka before hiking into the Siberian forests in search of a remote-but-not-so-remote village, Bolshie Koty.
Day 1: Listvyanka
Continuing from Irkutsk, where I had spent 2 days exploring the first stop of my Trans-Siberian adventure (and the countless one of my overland trip from Singapore to Moscow), I made a short detour into the forests of Siberia, in search of the legendary Lake Baikal.
It took probably an hour or so before the minibus arrived at Listvyanka, a little town along the shores of the mighty Baikal.
Left my bags at the cosy looking hostel and went off to explore the village. There were a couple of pretty wooden houses around.
The air was cool and fresh, and a stroll along the coast could probably be one of the most relaxing things ever. If not for the occasional speeding vehicle.
I made my way to a pastry shop recommended by the hostel, and the warm buns and coffee was probably as perfect as it can get on a chilly day.
Got a little warmed up, and continued my walk.
There were a few plots of land for sale.
The coastal highway. Weather was great, somewhere in early summer.
Across the road from where the Angara River begins, there was a market selling smoked omul, a local delicacy. Prices were tourist oriented though, since it was along the highway and would welcome all vehicles coming into Listvyanka.
I got one for myself, and the guy tending to the stall gestured to me how I should attempt to tackle the fish. It was a little salty, but quite flavourful. I gave up trying to be gentle with it and dug in with my fingers. Quite a tasty fish.
With the tasty omul out of the way (or rather, in my stomach), I made my way up a ski slope (not quite the usual thing to do in summer) to get to a viewing point at the top of a hill.It was quite manageable, and the view at the top was impressive, although the weather was starting to give in, with the lingering smell of rain in the air. Listvyanka seemed rather popular with Russian families. I can’t say the same of the hike the next day though. Or rather, it didn’t seem to attract anyone at all.
I can imagine a thick blanket of fluffy snow on this.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the never ending lake. Even as someone who can’t swim.
Further inland, there were also a couple of attractions, such as the Retro Park, an intriguing collection of vintage stuff and art pieces. There were cute sculptures made of recycled metal, that were so lifelike they look like they may jump at you.
Inside an indoor area, there were paintings by the owner, and other less hardy vintage electronics.
Not far from the Retro Park was the St Nicholas Church, with an almost mythical beginning. The church was moved a couple of times, but still stands as one of the landmarks in Listvyanka.
There are diving courses and sessions organised at Listvyanka, which would have been a waste not to have, given the crystal clear waters. Maybe after I’m done learning swimming.
It was getting dark, and a little colder by then, so I picked up some food at a roadside stall, before hiding in the warmth of the hostel for the rest of the night.
Day 2: Nerpas and the Great Baikal Trail
Woke up feeling refreshed, with the fresh Siberian air. The calm, inviting waters were too much to resist, so I took a quick dip of my feet in the cool (or cold?) and ridiculously clear waters, that was perhaps, just as fresh as the air in the morning.
Had wanted to check out the nerpa (Baikal seal) with travellers I met at the hostel at the nerparium but it was closed for the day, so we went to the Baikal Museum (or Baikal Limnological Musuem) (₽310 rubles), which studied anything and everything Baikal. The surrounding region is rich in biodiversity with many endemic species, such as the nerpa, one of the three freshwater seals in the world. The two nerpas in the museum looked a little sad in their small tanks, but at the same time incredibly cute.
The visit to the museum was a good precursor to the hike later in the afternoon, after gaining a better understand of the biodiversity and richness of the entire region. (Though I didn’t see any of those animals mentioned in real life. Was just amazing to know that they were out there, somewhere.) After the museum, I went back to the area near the hostel with my newfound friends, with whom we were certain to have to bid goodbye not too long after.
Market at Baikal
Nearer to the hostel, there was a larger market than the one I visited the previous day, selling even more omul (and other local stuff, but mostly smoked omul). The banter at the market, touting for customers, and haggling that was going on, together with the smell and warmth emitting from freshly smoked fish, felt authentic. We bought some food and found a nice place to sit and enjoy a quick lunch.
I bought some buns for the hike. Was getting late by then- probably about 2pm- and I had a 20 odd km hike to complete before nightfall. So again I had to say goodbye to really friendly people I had just met, and hiked off on my own towards Bolshie Koty, inaccessible by car during summer, and accessible by driving over the ice in winter.
Great Baikal Trail
I should probably qualify that I really hate carrying heavy bags for hikes, so I had left most of my stuff back in Irkutsk, and brought out just an extra set of clothes and toiletries. With that in a tiny backpack I headed out into the slightly wilder side of Siberia, expecting to at least see some tourists along the way, but these were the last few people I saw (at the end of Listvyanka, start of the trail) until Bolshie Koty.
Wasn’t long before I realised the track I was on wasn’t the one demarcated on maps, but made the ridiculous decision to press on anyway. I knew I was heading in the right direction, just unsure if on the right path. Later on, I realised I was prone to making ridiculous decisions.
(almost) All alone
Nothing else, but the endless lake, countless trees, and me. Potentially bears too. It started to get unnerving at some point, and I didn’t realise how unnerving it can be to set out on a supposed tourist trail but ending up seeing not a single person, or any signage, for hours. Nothing to guide except the immediate path (or at least what seemed like a semi trodden path) before me. Somewhere along the way I somehow decided to turn left and bash straight through the forest in hope of finding the proper trail, but that got even more terrifying so I got back to the faith guided path and after I came to terms with the uncertainty, felt really calm enjoying the rest of the hike.
Not the safest trail, but not that dangerous too. On some parts I was just a couple of inches away from a certain death. If not from the fall, then by drowning.
The first signboard I saw along the way, not to offer directions, but to remind me of the stuff I had gotten myself into. Seems like this was where the random path I had taken merged with the proper trail, late into the hike.
First non-plant living things I saw on the hike on the Great Baikal Trail, since passing the sunbathers just outside of Listvyanka.
Back to the coastline
As the trail descended back to the water level, I took the opportunity to fill my bottle and take a sip. My hands were freezing by the time my bottle was full, but it felt especially pure and refreshing. I don’t remember anything tasting this fresh and pure. Barring any microorganisms that may have been in it.
Privacy isn’t much of a concern here, I suppose. Along the way, Russian guys (I suppose father and son) were camping, just chilling out, and the older guy was just strolling around totally naked, I guess not expecting anyone to be roaming around in this semi wilderness. The younger guy called out the the older guy as I approached, and the older guy dashed into the tent. And those were the first people I saw, hours since leaving Listvyanka on the Great Baikal Trail.
As the trail snaked back inland, I noticed that there were many different species of flowers, which looked really pretty. Which was strange coming from the garden city where pretty flowers are planted everywhere. I guess in all that rushing about back home, I hadn’t taken enough time to stop and enjoy all that was and is around.
Started to get a little hungry, late in the afternoon.
The final stretch to Bolshie Koty
A little hard to imagine that Lake Baikal, so calm and beautiful in summer, was the setting for the Great Siberian Ice March during the Russian Civil War, where the retreating White Army was forced to cross the frozen lake by foot. So cold was the Arctic wind that blew across the lake that some soldiers and their families froze in place till the following spring, where their bodies and belongings thawed and sank into the depths of the lake.
I was tired by then so I gladly accepted the caretaker’s offer to prepare dinner for me. Wasn’t too expensive and I liked the warm homely feel.
Went back to my room to watch night fall over Bolshie Koty.
The last of it, before it got really dark and rather cold. I was dressed for summer. It was below 10 degrees Celcius and the toilet was in a separate building. Went for a bath anyway, and spent the next hour beside the heater in the room.
Day 3: Last day in Lake Baikal, hiking to Skriper Cliff!
Another early morning in Siberia, the air can’t have gotten much crispier and fresher than this, for anywhere that can provider you with a nice warm bed and freshly cooked warm tasty food.
Breakfast never felt better, not in the middle of Siberia.
On the trail again, leaving Bolshie Koty. It was to be a much shorter hike, but still with no directional signs.
You can almost have entire beaches to yourself, early in summer. Not sure if the crowd changes over the seasons.
The view was well worth the hike. But even without the view, the hike itself was worth the effort. One of the most amazing experiences ever, hiking alone in Siberia.
Back in Bolshie Koty
I arrived back at the village around noon, with the air still cool and breezy.
A boat stopped by the village in the afternoon where hordes of tourists descended and probably tripled or quadrupled the village population for that hour they were there. As sudden as they came, they were gone, and peace and quiet returned to the village.
It was one of the most memorable back to nature experiences ever for me, and one of the accidental additions to the trip almost became one of the best. Back at Irkutsk, I spent one more day exploring the Siberian city, before continuing on my Trans-Siberian Railway adventure.
Total Spent in Lake Baikal(3 days)
Actual travel dates: 14 June 2015 – 16 June 2015
Listvyanka accommodation: ₽600 (1 night)
Bolshie Koty accommodation: ₽700 (1 night)
Transport to and from the Baikal Museum: ₽70 (walkabale)
Bus from Irkutsk to Lisvyanka and back: ₽240 (₽120 per trip)
Ferry from Bolshie Koty to Listvyanka: ₽380
Total expenses: ₽4065 (~S$100/ US$77 at June 2015 rate)