Lake Baikal is the kind of place with so many astonishing statistics that you can reach a point of brain-overload quite quickly if you try to take it all in at once. It’s the deepest lake in the world. It contains a fifth of the world’s fresh water. (A fifth. Just pause a moment and ponder that.) Its surface area is roughly the size of Belgium. It’s UNESCO World Heritage listed for all its natural wondrousness. The world’s only species of fresh-water seal lives there. And on the map of Russia, it looks a bit like a large toe-nail clipping somewhere in the eastern section of the divet along the border with Mongolia.
It was also a serious obstacle to the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway, and for some time trains travelled across the lake on ice-breaker ships until the railway section around the south of the lake was completed. It was around that spectacular section that I had just travelled when, after my first train stint of 3 days, it was with some relief that I hopped off at Irkutsk and was whisked about an hour down the road to the village of Listvyanka, on the edge of the lake. (The Toyota Yaris’ helpful display told me it reached -9 deg C while we were on the way. The sun hadn’t set yet at that point and the temperature continued to drop steadily… Meanwhile the guy doing my transfer was apologising for his poor english while using terms like ‘seismic rift activity’ and ‘biodegradable toilets’. I thought he was doing quite well.)
No homestay this time, but a lovely ‘chalet guest house’ built of solid siberian logs, perched high on the side of the valley, with glorious views down to the frozen lake and the snow-capped mountain range in the hazy far distance. (Another win for the choice of backpack over wheeled bag – I think there were about a thousand steps between the car and my room. Not to mention snow).
After a particularly welcome shower and a good sleep, I was blessed with an extraodinarily beautiful clear day to explore. As usual, statistics are no substitute for seeing such a wonder with your own eyes – especially when there is no chance of capturing the vastness of it in a photo! (Mind you, I did try. I have many photos that are largely white. I won’t bore you with these…)
It was also a particularly excellent day to go dog-sledding!! This has been on my ‘list of things to do at some point in life’ for a while now. So I was pretty excited as I set off, wearing more clothes than ever before. By the time I’d walked briskly for about an hour to get to the dog-sledding centre, I was expiring. Sigh. This layering thing is tricky! However, I was glad of every thread when, after a very short period of instruction (feet on the skids, bend your knees, lean in the direction of the turn, hold on), my 7-dog team was racing away through the snowy forest with me hanging on to the sled, wearing a large smile!
It was exhilarating. The forest is SO quiet under it’s deep snow blanket, that all you can hear is the rushing dogs and the metal sled swooshing along and crunching through the icy patches. The instructor sat on the sled while I stood on the back – he did all the hard work. And the yelling at the dogs when one of them decided he’d prefer to have a bit of a play-fight with his running partner instead of actually running. (The partner completely ignored him. When we got back the running order was rearranged so the distractable fellow ended up on his own rather than in a pair… in disgrace. He looked entirely unrepentant.)
I was disappointed that the ride was much shorter than I had expected it would be, but it was still great. The ‘list of things to do at some point in life’ now contains “do MORE dog sledding”. I spent some time hanging out with the rest of the dogs who weren’t out sledding that day. At the centre they have a total of 45 dogs, but 8 were away at a competition in Moscow. They were quite a variety of shapes and sizes – not all husky-looking as I had expected. Some of them were very pleased to have a random stranger come and pat them, while others were content just to bask lazily in the sun, mostly lying on top of their flat-roofed wooden kennels. (Incidentally, I didn’t see a single animal wearing a coat until I got to St Petersburg… They breed them tough in Siberia!)
After the dog sledding adventure, I had the rest of the day to walk and walk and walk (are you sensing a theme to my sightseeing technique?), and after exploring the lovely wooden village in the dog-sledding valley and a tasty fish soup lunch, I headed all the way down to where the Angara River meets the lake. The Angara is the only river that flows OUT of Lake Baikal. Hundreds flow in. It’s a big river, called the daughter of Baikal, and it doesn’t freeze. So where the lake meets the river is the edge of the ice. It’s pretty spectacular. I watched a few people clambering down there to get onto the ice. Some were walking but one had his cross-country skis and set out confidently for some far distant destination on the other side. Between looking at the lake out the train window and wandering around near it for a couple of days I saw various people on the lake walking, skating, skiing, driving vehicles, snow-mobiling, fishing through small holes in the ice, filling water containers, hover-crafting, and having a bbq while watching mates execute doughnuts on the ice in an old toyota. Seems male youth everywhere isn’t that different…
I visited the Baikal museum where the highlight was two fresh water seals (called Baikal Nerpa), swimming in lazy loopy patterns in their somewhat depressing concrete tank in the small aquarium section. They are like squat torpedos – much shorter and fatter than any seals I’ve seen before – with smiley-looking faces.
Then I went in search of the ski slope out the back which reportedly had a chair lift to a lookout up the top. Used what probably became my most useful Russian word “Gdyeh…” (Where is…) several times to ask people if I was on the right track. Eventually found it, having narrowly avoided being run down by 3 kids on sleds rushing down the smooth snowy footpath chased joyfully by their dog. I wished I had a sled!
The view from the top was certainly worth the searching, and I was particularly impressed with the girl who had made it to the lookout (which involved clambering up a ridge on an icy path marked only by other people’s footprints) wearing stilleto-heeled fashion boots. I think her snow-boarding boyfriend was also suitably impressed.
I meandered my way down again and eventually took the opportunity to do my own walking on the frozen lake. It’s not as easy as it looks! The ice is thick and solid, but covered in snow of varying depths. And at the edge of the lake where it meets the coast road, there are huge slabs of ice that have been pushed up into weird wave formations of a beautiful translucent blue. I decided it takes some technique to know where to walk so that you’re not slipping on clear ice, and not walking through knee deep powdery snow. It was fun though, and quite surreal – I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere before where you can walk about on a lake! I amused myself taking timer photos of me on the lake – here’s my favourite. I almost got my whole self in! But you get a good look at the ice 🙂
At the end of a huge day, I enjoyed watching the purveyors of smoked omul (the trademark local fish) in the marketplace near the port try to make a last sale or two to a late tour busload as the sun began to set over the lake and I finally trudged wearily up the snowy street back to my cosy room.
The following morning, which dawned not quite as clear and with an icy wind ripping off the lake, I had a few hours for some souvenir shopping (in which I’m sure I got ripped off due to lack of Russian bargaining skills!) before heading in to the picturesque town of Irkutsk where I had several delightfully sunny hours to wander around and enjoy a good meal before hopping onto another train for the next part of the journey – to Ekaterinburg. And that will be in the next blog installment!
The blog is fantastic, you have great skills at adventure having, and also story telling.
Looking forward to hearing more – it’s the highlight of my day!