After being cooped up on the train for three days I was itching to get outdoors, and after being cooped up in cities for three weeks I was itching spend some time surrounded by fresh air and trees rather than exhaust fumes and Soviet apartment blocks. So I had high expectations of Lake Baikal, which is nature to the extreme. It’s full of superlatives: the deepest, oldest lake in the world, the largest by volume, and one of the clearest. Three quarters of the species that live there are found nowhere else.
We headed straight from the train to Listvyanka on the shore of the lake. Here we imagined we’d hike in pristine forests next to the clear water, and relax at our hostel, which came highly recommended, and had a banya.
A banya is a Russian sauna. It’s usually steamier than a Scandinavian style sauna, and so can’t be quite as hot, but isn’t as humid as a Turkish bath. As the sign posted prominently in our hostel helpfully explained, this is because hot dry saunas ‘only dry the skin’, and baths that are too humid are also ‘bad for the body’ in some unspecified way. What the sign didn’t explain, was that the hostel banya was closed for the winter, so our plans to soothe our muscles in hot steam after hiking were dashed.
The hostel was generally a bit underwhelming, after the rave review the guidebook had given it. It was a cosy log cabin, as we’d imagined, but the welcome we got was a bit frosty. Though lots of people in Russia were instantly friendly and warm, there were also plenty of cases where you really had to look for signs that your attempt to use a good or service hadn’t ruined the proprietor’s day, or possibly life. A crack in the stone faced armour would usually eventually turn up, but patience was required.
This was definitely one of those cases. I felt mildly told off by the end our brief hostel tour, but this was nothing compared to the lambasting we got when we asked about hiking routes in the area. The proprietress told us, in a tone of escalating disgust, that there weren’t any marked trails here, or in fact in Russia (It’s not like Europe you know). Trying to explain that we weren’t expecting sign posts (as in Germany for example), but just some sort of path (as in much of the UK) just prompted repetition. Apparently the paths are just made by locals, and locals can follow them, but tourists will just get lost.
Asking if there was anywhere we could get a map prompted an outburst of full blown contempt.
There are no hiking maps of the Baikal area.
How about just a map then, to show the contours and rivers and so on?
No, no maps exist.
I found this highly unlikely, especially as we’d heard you could get a hiking map at the Irkutsk tourist office, which was closed when we tried to do so on the way, despite a large sign proclaiming it was open. But we clearly weren’t getting anywhere, so we went out to have a look at the lake.
The village was teeming with Russian day trippers, and there was a nice atmosphere on the sunny, chilly beach as we wandered along merrily licking ice creams (our first of the trip). Arthur sampled the local smoked fish, and I had a tasty potato pancake and a dill smothered salad, which was actually quite nice, despite my suffering from early stage dill fatigue.
Though it was quite cheery in the sunshine, Listvyanka was a little bit disappointing too. The views of the lake were spectacular, but on land everything was a bit tacky and tatty. We sat on the beach musing over what to do. We’d just booked into the hostel for one night, hoping to go hiking from there, and perhaps to camp out. It seemed like hiking was off the cards, so there wasn’t any reason to stay. We would have hiked out without a clear route, camped, then hiked back the way we came, but snow was due the next day so this didn’t seem wise. We thought about moving to a village further south, and hiking from there along a path that follows an old railway line, and definitely exists. The other option was to go north to Olkhon island, which is more remote, and so might be more what we’d hope for.
Undecided, we went for a walk in the woods, which hinted at what we’d expected from Baikal. Tall straight birch trees filtered the sharp light reflecting off the lake, and the only sound was the occasional woodpecker, tapping away, and our feet crunching the snow as we walked. But we couldn’t venture too far without a map, and with the dark and cold falling.
Somewhat morose, we made it back to the hostel as the stars were coming out.
Within an hour we were sat at the kitchen table eating dinner and drinking beer, and had a three day walk along the lake arranged, complete with evening banyas. The hostel lady had suggested that another guest, a Russian girl who was walking along the lake anyway, take us along for a nominal fee. From feeling unwelcome and disappointed we’d instantly gone to feeling extremely fortunate, and extremely grateful for both of them going out of their way to help us.
Perhaps the language barrier played a part, or just different ways of communicating, but this overwhelming helpfulness was so opposed to my previous impression that I felt very guilty for jumping to judgement.
The next morning Arthur, I, Natasha and Sabine (a German traveller who’d also come to Baikal for the hiking, and even had a mythical trail map) set off on the Great Baikal Trail. This trail is work in progress, which should one day run all the way round the lake, but several long bits of it have already been constructed by volunteers. One of these (clearly marked) stretches runs north from Listvyanka.
It was beautiful and quiet, and all day we followed the edge of the shining blue lake in crisp sunshine.
At lunchtime we stopped to share food and tea. When I owned up to being vegetarian, Natasha informed us that vegetarians can’t drive (their reactions are too slow). Russian superstitions are many and curious. For example, women shouldn’t sit on cold benches because if they do they’ll never conceive. The superstition that flowers should only be given in odd numbers seemed fairly tame in comparison when I read it, but seeing a man walking down the street concealed behind a bunch of flowers larger than the average family car, the practical implications of this belief dawned on me.
Pleasantly weary we arrived in Bolshie Koty (big cat), a collection of houses only accessible by boat, or a very rough 20 km track.
The village was more or less closed up for the winter (the locals mostly pack up and move to Irkutsk when the snow comes), but Baba Nina was still there to put us up in a little house in her garden next to the lake. Smiling and abrupt, she showed us our lodgings, cosy and hung with rugs and blankets, and offered to cook us dinner.
Next was the banya. Sitting sweating in the steam and woodsmoke, in a little wooden house perched on the shores of a vast blue lake, in a near abandoned village in the middle of Siberia, was a brilliantly unusual experience. Especially the part where we hit each other with bundles of birch twigs, mercifully pre-soaked in hot water, as tradition demanded.
At one point Natasha stuck her head round the door and instructed us that we had to jump in the lake afterwards. Obviously. We were unsure if this was indeed de rigueur, or just an opportunity to laugh at the sweaty Europeans, but we did it anyway.
Running barefoot through an empty Siberian village, in the rapidly cooling dusk, in your pants, is an even stranger experience. Hopping awkwardly over the rocks and bits of broken tractor that dotted the path, the banya seemed a lot further from the lake than I’d remembered.
And the lake was cold. Very very cold.
Afterwards we sought out beer. It took five minutes to get past the irate dog standing between us and the door of the miraculously still open village shop, but when we got in we were rewarded by a bundle of six tiny kittens curled up sleepily in a bed in the middle of the floor, warmed by a sputtering woodstove.
Similarly cosy that night we went to sleep after a delicious dinner, where Baba Nina had tried to trick me into eating chicken despite my protests, by hiding it under my cabbage. To her disappointment I foiled her, and in the conversation that followed, I think she was saying (complete with throat cutting gesture) ‘I killed a chicken for you and you didn’t eat it!’.
Arthur thought she was saying ‘You can’t all sleep in one room, if I catch you (Arthur) in here I will kill you’.
Next morning we woke to a luxuriant blanket of snow. In six inches of snow we couldn’t carry on as planned along the narrow cliff path. Our options were to wait for a boat to go to Listvyanka, at an unknown time/date, or walk back along the 20 km track, which was wide and safe enough to be more or less passable.
We took the track, and set off through a wonderland of untouched snow on every surface.
(The building on the left with the chimney is the banya.)
After bidding Natasha goodbye (she would wait for a boat, or for the snow to melt), we set off up the hills that lay between us and Listvyanka. It was cold, and wading through the thick snow with uneven ground underneath was hard work. Sometimes your foot would crash through unseen ice into a puddle, or slip down an hidden gully. Just as we were tiring of slipping and tripping through the untouched snow, a man overtook us on a quadbike, compacting our route.
Several miles later we came across his quadbike mired in the mud that lurked under the snow, with footprints leading away towards Listvyanka. Tired and cold by now, we took this to mean that the village was close.
It was not.
By the time we reached the outskirts quadbike man had returned on the back of his mate’s quadbike, rescued his steed, and the two of them had sped past us again in convoy. When we finally reached the deep snow quiet of the now near deserted village, we were somewhat relieved.
The hostel seemed particularly warm and cosy on our return.
Next day was sunny, if nearly as cold, and we went for a shorter walk to a lookout point. As we reached the top, the faint sound of chanting reached my ears. The local faith has elements of Shamanism and of Buddhism, and you see ribbons tied to trees and anything else that will have them in sacred places, often high spots. This hilltop was streaming with prayer ribbons, so I was intrigued to be stumbling across what could only be locals worshipping.
But as we reached the top, the chanting clarified into comprehensible words. Hare Krishna. Of course.
The spot was beautiful though, as was the walk there, and in the sunshine the cold seemed less dangerous, though still harsh enough to drive us back inside sooner rather than later.
The next day we headed back to Irkutsk, through the early morning mist, sad to leave, but almost glad to be getting back on the overheated train…