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.
Not long after leaving Irkutsk, racing through Siberian forests. The hostel at Listvyanka (Belka). Same owner as the hostel I stayed in in Irkutsk (Baikaler).
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.
Wooden houses in Listvyanka. Built to last through Siberian winters. Partied too hard.
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.
Here’s the road from Irkutsk, following the coastline of Lake Baikal at Listvyanka till the end of the town, where the road ends (and forests begin). Pastry shop recommended by the hostel (₽290 rubles for the bun and coffee).
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.
Listvyanka. Land for sale. No prizes for guessing who they’re targeting.
There were a few plots of land for sale.
The coastal highway. Weather was great, somewhere in early summer.
Quiet and picturesque, with the peace occasionally broken by vehicles speeding down the highway. Drifting on the still waters of the huge lake. It’s easy to feel really, really small against the backdrop of this endless lake. Where the Baikal flows into the Angara River, the main outflow of the Lake. And where it flows to Irkutsk.
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.
Local fish market selling smoked omul. Lightly salted (₽200 rubles. A little overpriced here.).
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.
Then went for a hike up a hill. Summer skiing. Top of the hill. Panoramic view of Lake Baikal. Popular spot for Russian families. Edge of the Siberian wilderness. Makes sure visitors behave on the ski slope. Wandered into some isolated areas.
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.
Back beside the lake.
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.
Interesting museum at Listvyanka, the Retro Park (₽50 rubles). Impressive collection of vintage vehicles (not all here). The artifacts/ relics are part of the private collection of an artist, and there is a small exhibition of artworks too. Various figures made from recycled materials. He’ll get you if you tried to get in without paying. I guess accidents are inevitable in such tight quarters. Friendly pump attendant for vehicles at the plot. Frozen since last winter.
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.
The town church. St Nicholas Church. Diving is possible in the clear and deep waters of the lake, but this diver’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
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.
Sunset at Listvyanka, over Lake Baikal.
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.
Took a quick dip in the clear waters of Lake Baikal.
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.
Nerpa at the Baikal Musem. Like little bobs of joy. These are adult ones. Baby nerpas are apparently white and fluffy. No kidding. This fish looked surprised at finally seeing something uglier than it. There’s also a section where you can see microscopic organisms from the lake under a microscope. And I drank straight from the lake during my hike later when I ran short on water. Whoops. Submarine used to conduct explorations of the lake. Took a bus back to the town center for lunch.
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.
Fish market at Listvyanka. There were other types of foods available too, such as pastries. All sorts of smoked omul (₽150 rubles here). I kinda liked it. Freshly baked pastries.
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.
The last humans I were to see for the next couple of hours. Never knew not seeing people for hours can actually be a little terrifying. Leaving the well known and familiar for the unknown and barely trodden. Always something new, every step of the way.
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.
Higher ground. Walking along the steep coastlines, where any slip up would mean getting into a slippery mess. Probably a couple of broken bones too. Not to mention no one to get me out of it.
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.
The first signs … of possible trouble. At least it was marked ‘GBT’ (Great Baikal Trail) which I was supposed to be on but had lost sight of it earlier on. “You know how I feel”
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.
Back to the waters’ edge. It was like, heaven and earth. Then I started craving for soft drinks.
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.
Empty beaches. The bun I bought earlier, with some cabbage/ carrot filling.
Started to get a little hungry, late in the afternoon.
Pretty flowers. More flowers. Picked up the pace a little, but still kept time for taking more random shots of random flowers. I don’t remember ever seeing so many different species of flowers within such a short time. Or I hadn’t been looking around. And more.
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.
So still, so peaceful, it consumes you. The calm and calming lake. Amazing views at every turn. Finally, some sign of civilisation. The village in sight!
By then, all activities had ceased, and the huge lake lay hauntingly still as it waited for darkness to fall. Finally arrived at Bolshie Koty at around 9pm. Just about time before it got too dark. Dogs welcomed me warmly and gave me a sniff down before allowing me safe passage into their clan village. My accommodation for the night, at Lesnaya 7. Checked in and headed out to the only shop in the village to grab some food. And the soft drink I had been craving for. Curious onlooker. Darkness consumed the village like a beast awakening from its sleep. Baby beast.
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.
Nice warm hut I slept in for the night. Had beds for four but I was the only one that day. Didn’t mind that. Almost al fresco dining in Siberia. Dinner after a long, beautiful hike. Nothing has more warmth than food cooked with sincerity.
Went back to my room to watch night fall over Bolshie Koty.
Night falling over Bolshie Koty. Last light.
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.
My room for the night. Another two beds in a separate room. Warm and clean. No heaven and earth, but this felt good too.
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.
Next morning. The previous night felt like a dream. Painted rocks.
Breakfast never felt better, not in the middle of Siberia.
Simple but hearty breakfast prepared by the kind caretaker. Bees were already hard at work, I had to get going. Recharged and ready to go. The same bridge, the next morning.
On the trail again, leaving Bolshie Koty. It was to be a much shorter hike, but still with no directional signs.
Leaving the village for Skriper Cliff, last stop of my Siberian wilderness adventures. Along the beach.
You can almost have entire beaches to yourself, early in summer. Not sure if the crowd changes over the seasons.
More warnings of my impending doom. And still no indication of the correct direction. It’s a long road to wisdom, but it’s a short one to being ignored. It takes a boy to live/ It takes a man to pretend he was there. Something about being all alone deep (not that deep actually) within nature that felt really powerful during the hike. I’d do it a couple more times to figure out what the feeling is.
The cliff in sight! After a steep climb up.
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.
No one else within kilometers. Spent awhile chilling here. Exotic looking flowers. More wildflowers. I couldn’t stop. Not with such picture perfect flora. Some huts in the middle of nowhere. It could easily have passed off as a sea or an ocean. But this was just a lake. A very big lake.
Back in Bolshie Koty
I arrived back at the village around noon, with the air still cool and breezy.
Horsing around. Back in the village for lunch and to get on the ferry to Lisvyanka. Almost empty village. The village pier. Was back in the village a little too early for the daily ferry so I sat with him at the pier for awhile. And he was nice enough to accompany me, even if just for awhile.
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.
Tourist boats. Beached. Last look at the lovely Bolshie Koty before boarding the ferry late in the afternoon. Schedules appear to shift around abit so do check them before making the trip. On the ferry back to Listvyanka, to catch the bus back to Irkutsk.
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)