Lake Baikal is the unquestionable natural gem of Russia, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed body of water that contains 20% of the world’s freshwater and is the oldest and deepest (1,700 m) lake in the world. It grows each year as the plates pull apart and it will eventually be the world’s next ocean, though to stand on its shores and peer across it you might believe it is one already. But to lean down and cup its cold water to your lips, you would be reminded that this is some of the cleanest freshwater in the world, safely drinkable without any purification.
Lake Baikal is flanked by the larger cities of Irkutsk to the west and Ulan-Ude to the east, neither of which rests on its shores but each of which act as a gateway to the Lake. We visited both of these cities along with the lakeside towns of Listvyanka and Bolshie Koty and the Lake’s revered Olkhon Island.
We arrived in Irkutsk at 6:30am, fresh off a 32 hour train from Novosibirsk. The scenery along the route to Irkutsk had been beautiful with rolling hills and villages of wooden homes.
Our search for a couchsurfing host in Irkutsk had been unfruitful, so we stayed at a hostel with an apartment-like room. It was quite a step-up for us in terms of accommodation, with an included toilet/shower, fridge and hotplate with cookware. The only negative was that we arrived during the few days that the hot water was turned off for maintenance (Large apartment complexes apparently have separate hot and cold water systems and it is not usual for flat owners or residents to have their own water heater to combat these types of hotwater shutoffs related to building maintenance). However, we quite enjoyed the space and our stay at the hostel.
The market in Irkutsk was more like the Central Asian markets of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Western China with plenty of Russian and Eastern Chinese flair added. Baikal is famous for omul, a smaller cousin of the salmon that resides only here and which is hot-smoked along the Lake’s shores by fishermen right off the boat. Unsurprisingly, smoked omul tastes quite similar to smoked salmon. We tried a number of other food from this market including steamed manti (big, pork and onion-filled dumplings), pirozhki (dough stuffed with meat), krovyanka (Russian blood sausage) and omul roe.
Listvyanka and Bolshie Koty
We took a bus from Irkutsk to Listvyanka in the morning, arriving at about 10.30am. Listvyanka is a formerly lazy fishing village on the shore of Lake Baikal that has started to develop into a somewhat busy tourist spot, as this is the most accessible spot from which to view the lake for those only able to spare a day trip away from the Trans-Siberian Rail. We decided that rather than sit in the town and stare at the Lake, the much better option was to take a 5-6 hour trek along the lake’s edge on the Great Baikal Trail (GBT) to the tiny roadless village of Bolshie Koty.
We did not set out on this day walk alone. We had met Eldad, an Israeli, in Tomsk and later met up with him at the markets in Irkutsk as well. Marc, a German, we met on the morning bus ride to Listvyanka.
The trail is 18-22km one way, depending on who you ask. This is the key detail as unless you hope to stay in one of Bolshie Koty’s few lodges, you must be in town by 6pm when the hydrofoil heads back to Listvyanka. We had planned this route, double checking the hydrofoil schedule posted at the dock in Listvyanka, checking the distance and time required to complete the walk from the tourist information desk and going so far as to buy tickets on the 7pm bus back to Irkutsk. There was little or no risk to us (no purchased rail tickets departing Irkutsk) or Eldad (not departing until the following afternoon), but Marc had to be on an early morning train to Moscow. This is a very expensive train ticket, perhaps over $500 and the other three of us saw this as a huge motivator to get back. Marc’s main motivation, however, was that he was due to meet his sister in Moscow and she had never been out of Germany and was very nervous about her first travel.
We initially had difficulty locating the trailhead of the GBT, but discovered it on our second walk through town and began our 5-6 hr trek just before noon. The trek began with a moderate hour-long uphill climb through a beautiful forested area, the trail then leveling out atop a ridge which offered very nice views of Baikal. From the top of the ridge switchbacks led back down a hill opposite Baikal to a birch and flower-filled valley and eventually to a rocky beach along the lake. It was a pleasant walk along the water side and through the forest. Across the lake we could see the outlines of mountains with the grey remnants of the winters snow still evident, though difficult to discern from the sky’s equally grey clouds. The water of Baikal was stunningly clear and brisk.
We continued along our walk and after 5.5 hours, we found ourselves in the quaint and beautiful village of Bolshie Koty with half an hour to spare before the hydrofoil arrived. Set in a valley with a rocky shoreline, Bolshie Koty is an idyllic location for those who want to see the Lake and have some time to sit and enjoy. We enjoyed for only about 15 minutes, soon becoming a bit worried that we had been as yet unsuccessful in our attempts to locate the pier, a hydrofoil, or really anyone at all in the village. In such a tiny village, the boat should have been immediately obvious, and we also recalled that the hydrofoil schedule noted its arrival as a few hours earlier with no scheduled stops between arrival in and departure from Bolshie Koty – shouldn’t it have been sitting here patiently waiting?
Marc was by now understandably becoming quite frantic and after asking around nearly the entire village he eventually found a fellow German traveler who guided us to the guesthouse at which she was staying. Here we met Natasha, a wonderfully outgoing and caring person and the manager of the guesthouse. She promptly informed us that the hydrofoil would not be here today as it did not run on Thursdays. You might imagine that this would have been a bit of a shock to us and especially Marc, but I think by this point in time we’d mostly assumed this to be the case and prepared ourselves for the worst. Luckily, Natasha wasn’t prepared to let us.
Sometimes you meet people who reinforce your believe in people and Natasha is definitely one of those people. Not only did she invite us into her warm guesthouse, but she also did the following:
- Fed us a dinner of the best borscht we tasted in Russia, bread, cookies, tea and water;
- Called every one of the town’s residents (Bolshie Koty population: 47) who had a boat and could potentially give us a ride back to Listvyanka. After preparing us for costs two to four times the hydrofoil ticket price, which she knew us willing to pay (especially mark), she eventually secured us a boat that cost only marginally more than the four hydrofoil tickets. She could have easily taken advantage of us here as many would have;
- Finally, she absolutely refused any payment for the hearty meals or help.
Natasha located a kind, older man, who pulled his motor boat out of its wooden shed onto the rocky shore to drive us back to Listvyanka. He was a dead ringer for a Maine lobsterman, could have had his face on a can of tuna or could have been Popeye’s brother. He spoke only Russian and was perhaps 60 years old, though he danced about the boat in a way that would make any 15-year old Olympic gymnast jealous.
The hour-and-a-half boat ride was as comfortable as it could be for Angie in the padded front seat alongside the drivers seat. However, in his effort to get some ballast, the Russian seaman had requested (using hand gestures) that Brett, Eldad and Marc all sit on the floor of the boat directly behind the front seats where he and Angie sat. Luckily, the view along the lake compensated for the lack of comfort.
We eventually made it back to Listvyanka, paid the Russian seaman for his troubles, and found our way to an unexpectedly waiting late mashrutka to take us back to Irkustk (we’d assumed we’d have to pay quite heavily for a taxi).
In the end, the day was beautiful and serene and then also exhilarating in a way that we had not expected, but all the more memorable for it. Due to the extreme generosity of Natasha, we highly recommend Bolshie Koty Chalet. She would not accept any monetary gift from us so the next best we can do is bring her customers who will support her. Natasha is another person we have met during our travel that we will not forget.
Olkhon Island is the 3rd largest lake bound island in the world. Its 1500 inhabitants are mostly of Buryat decent, the indigenous people of this part of Russia.
We reached Olkhon Island via a bumpy 5 hour mashrutka ride from Irkutsk, which included a ferry crossing of the Small Sea Straight. The ferry seemed to give preferential treatment to the mashrutkas, so we only waited a bit over a half an hour. Once on the island, it was an one hour even bumpier ride on the gravel path to the beautiful but quickly growing village of Khuzhir.
Nikita’s homestead was our accommodation for the visit. This place is a bit of a staple and is known far an wide (Natasha in Bolshie Koty had mentioned it to us). Nikita’s was the first major accommodation provider on Olkhon and it now consists of a group of lovely wooden buildings and a cosy atmosphere, offers rooms either with a shared shower or banyas, and the price of the room includes all meals. It is near the beautiful and spiritual Shaman’s Rock and the Burkhan cape.
From Olkhon, Baikal is a totally different beast than it is from Listvyanka or Bolshie Koty. Here you can see a more varied rocky landscape along the shores and a flat ocean-like lake that stretches on forever. The shoreline by Shaman’s Rock was where we began to understand why all Russians – even those who have not been to its shores – describe Baikal as a place with ‘energy’ (for whatever reason, this is the choice word a number of Russians used to describe this place).
At the shore it does not feel like a lake. There are rocky cliffs and massive rock formations, beaches, mountains with snow tops, rolling hills, green pine forests whose floors are carpeted in blooming rhododendrons and wavy and absurdly clear water all in view.
But most strikingly, Baikal is an ocean of colorless clear water that the ocean can never match, water that is difficult to adequately describe in words but that is absolutely more transparent than the waters of those pacific islands that are famous for having clear waters. Perhaps the difference is that in the pacific islands you still know that this is water into which you look; When up close to the shore at Olkhon the barrier between air and water is not so easily discernible.
On our first day at Olkhon Island, we walked the shoreline and took in the beauty. We walked a bit of Saraysky Bay Beach, which runs between Khuzhir and Kharantsy, and looked out over Maloye More, the name given to the waters between mainland Russia and western Olkhon Island.
Our second day, we hired bikes and rode north up the shoreline towards the next village of Kharantsy. It was an enjoyable ride up and down the island’s hills, but a bit strenuous at times because of the worn state of the bikes. The views from the shoreline made it all worth it. We had great views of the islands, one called ‘sphinx’ and the other ‘crocodile’ island because of the resemblance.
It was a really wonderful day and we were extremely pleased with our choice to visit the island. We finished our day, sitting and watching the sunset over the lake and mainland.
The only way for us to see the northern part of the island was by a tour. So, on our 3rd day, we took a tour organised by Nikita’s in a Russian 4×4 van with 7 other people. As our Russian driver was traversing sandy rutted paths and stony ditches, we were reminded at times of our 4×4 excursion out in western Australia.
Unfortunately, as tours go, we didn’t have much time at each place. In ten or twenty minutes, we had to take in the awesomeness and shoot our photos and then it was time to pile back into the van (we were nearly always the last ones back). We stopped at the cape north of Kharantsy and again at Sagan-Khushun (White Cape).
Our main destination was Cape Khoboy, the northern most point of the island. From where the van dropped us, it was a 20 minute walk to the point and there were fantastic views all around. The flowers along the path were unique and beautiful too. While the group was out walking, the driver cooked a fish soup for lunch over a fire which was served with cheese sandwiches.
We continued along our route to Cape Schunte Lewyj, which offered a panoramic view along the shoreline. The next stop was Uzury, a tiny village in a valley that rests on the shore of Lake Baikal on the northern end of the island. Uzury consisted of only a few homes and a university research station.
That completed our tour, but we had a slow ride back to the homestead. Part way back there was a loud sound in the gear box and the driver could no longer get the van out of 1st gear. We went fairly slowly the rest of the way, except on downhill sections where we went at breakneck speeds with the van in neutral.
Our last stop in the Baikal region was Ulan-Ude, a Buryat city 100km south of the lake that is a mixture of Russia and Asia. Ulan-ude is different than other parts of Russia in that the culture and people had more Asian features than European. Also, instead of the standard statue of Lenin that all Russian cities have, Ulan-Ude has a massive 7.7m tall Lenin head in the city center.
We used our time in Ulan-Ude to catch up on the blog and just go slow. It was a nice city and due to our laziness, we definitely did not take full advantage of all it had to offer. However, we were happy with our ending time in Russia.
We stayed at the GBT hostel which was more like a homestay, as there was only us and one other guy there, and the family used all the same facilities. It was a very quiet and pleasant stay.
Novosibirsk to Irkutsk
Another long, but agreeable, train ride. We boarded late in the evening, spending two nights on the train. We rode kupe with two other individuals, but they were not together. They were actually quiet and did not converse with each other or us the entire 30+hour ride. The views out the window were similar to the previous ride with rolling hills, small village homes with gardens, and greenery. However, this was the first time that the rails curved around due to the hills, so we were able to see the length of the train.