Irkutsk was a most unexpected town. I had expected – being at the edge of Mongolia and in the middle of Siberia – a ramshackle outpost. But this was a town built largely by the sophisticated, upper class political exiles in the 1800s and 1900s and so it is an urbane city that looks like it belongs in a black and white postcard from the 1920s. Essentially Russia’s answer to Britain’s Australian POMs.
It is famous for the Decembrists, a group of gents who attempted an unwise and unsuccessful coup against the Tsar in 1825. Being gentlemanly sorts, instead of shooting them in the head the Tsar opted to send them to the back of beyond for some hard labour and piercing temperatures. Ok, he hung the five ring leaders, but then he only exiled the rest to the coldest outskirts of the empire. The nobles WAGS, left behind in Moscow, decided that they would follow their husbands into the bitter exile conditions, rather than continue the comfortable lives at home while they waited. One, Maria, was very active and used the time to establish schools, hospitals and theatres in Siberia. Good for her.
On the 18-hour train journey from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk, I couldn’t help but notice the surfeit of timber cargo trains and lumber yards near the track. If there’s one thing that Siberia has in bountiful supply, it’s wood. Turns out that this is not only used to build and heat almost every home in Siberia, it’s also shipped out to the Chinese who now own the world and everything in it.
I stayed a night, hosted by Aleksander who like shooting his mates in the forest with air guns – paint ball, he says, is for wimps – wandered around exploring, and investigated the exit strategy. The visa is swiftly running out and onwards journeys to both China and Mongolia require further visas and leave me the wrong side of the world. Instead, I plan to exit back to Europe where visa constraints won’t bother me. The exit journey is going to be a long chain of flights and night trains. <Shudder.>
Irkutsk is nice but the real reason for coming here is for Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake, 1637m at its deepest point, containing 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. <Trivia alert.> That’s more than America’s five great lakes combined. If the world’s water supply ran out tomorrow, Baikal could quench mankind’s thirst for 40 years. It has been formed by two tectonic plates pulling apart and as they continue to do so, Baikal will eventually become the world’s fifth ocean, cleaving Asia in two.
It’s also bastard freezing. The waters never get warmer than 15 degrees and way colder than that in winter when it freezes over with 1m ice thick enough to drive cars and camp on. That didn’t stop a few of my crazy pals going for midnight dips. Not I. I huddled by the beach fire and laughed. The immense body of cold water acts like a natural fridge, cooling the immediate area down much more than the surrounding countryside. It makes it a popular holiday and weekend destination in summer when temperatures reach up to 45 degrees.
It’s a six-hour bumpy bus journey from the city to the island of Olkhon (pronounce ‘kh’ like the ‘ch’ in a Scottish loch), half way up the water. I thought that the bus would skirt the lake for most of the way and so feared my Russian mime had failed me horribly when we sped through dusty, rolling countryside for the first four hours. This was compounded by the four drunken screeching hags who formed my bus companions. You get used to people clutching a bottle of beer at 9am in Russia but it’s unusual to see four ladies in charge of two small kids and a couple of kittens get raging drunk and pass out in a minivan. Turned out I was on the right bus though and after a short ferry ride across the water and another 40 minutes along dusty tracks, we had arrived.
The island is a little haven of wildlife (including gophers!), sandy beaches, pine forest, light hills and remarkable viewpoints. The main town on the island is Khuzir and is home to less than 1,500 residents. It stands next to the holy Shamanic rock and caves. The island is one of the five poles of shamanic energy, as perceived by the local Buryat tribe. You’ll often find them leaving the spirits gifts of fags, sweets and flicks of vodka at the religious markers scattered around the island. The lake is also famed for its fish delicacy – omul – served cooked or smoked. A little fleet of boats and some small processing plants form one of the island’s main economic activities. Apart from tourism.
The most popular backpacker haunt is Nikita’s homestay, a sprawling development of wooden huts that has developed something of a monopoly over the local travel scene. I checked in for two nights which includes all your ‘organic meals’. They might be organic, but they’re also a lot like school dinners, although the portions are generous and filling. The rooms are homely, well-designed, warm and comfortable, even if they do lack showers. Instead, you are invited to take a Russian banya, a sauna with wash down afterwards, to get clean every night. You have to sign up for your 20-minute slot each day…only there aren’t enough for everyone staying. Error.
It turned out that down by the village church there is an awesome couchsurf venue hosted by Sergey who invites travellers into his home and uses a little of their labour each time to continue building his CS village. However he and Nikita are friends and have to live together in a small village so he politely declined my couch request for another couple of days. Loath to leave the idyllic island and displeased with the vibe of disapproval I was getting from expensive Nikita’s at the suggestion that I would move accommodation, I looked at other options. I wound up camping in a tent in a barn for another two nights.
Day times most involved exploring the scenery. One day I went for a walk through the forest and meadows up to a viewpoint, another I went for a wander up the coastal beaches,
At the moment the forest is filled with ladybirds and rhododendrons in the second coming of spring. The steppe is grasses and lichens and aromatic wild thyme. There are also some beautiful flowers around that look like something out of Avatar. They have a short fuzz around their pastel-coloured petals and stems, giving the appearance of almost glowing. I liked them very much. Some of the less sunny meadows and beaches have the remnants of snow from winter. The ice on the lake itself only melted three weeks ago.
Another day I went for an organised 4×4 adventure to the beautiful Khoboi cape at the very North. The trip takes you to some of the best viewpoints over the waters and introduced you to some of the legends. There is one rock formation called ‘Three Brothers’ said to have been formed as a father’s punishment. The powerful entity (non-specific) had turned his three sons into eagles. They were enjoying the wings of freedom but the condition was that they must never eat dead meat. I think he meant that they hadn’t killed themselves, else… Once, when hungry, they found a dead animal…yada, yada. Angry Dad then turned them into three rocks. Harsh but fair.
Another legend is related to the rivers flowing in and out of the lake. More than 300 rivers feed Baikal but only one flows out towards Krasnoyarsk, starting at a village called Listvyanka. At the beginning of this river is large rock, rising from the water. The story goes that Father Baikal threw the rock in anger to try and stop his cherish and beautiful daughter Angara running away to marry her lover. A fountain to commemorate this myth stands near the Opera Square in Krasnoyarsk.
Anyway, enough silly stories. I embarked on a day trip that took as its first port of call the remains of a gulag fish factory. It operated from 1938 to 1956 and would have been home to about 1200 prisoners. Once again, in the heat of spring and with only a Russian-speaking guide, it looked a lot more like a holiday camp. That said, no mention was made of the living conditions and you can bet your bottom dollar that they were tents on the freezing shore. Don’t think Stalin made a habit of comfortable lodgings.
Anyway, then we pressed North for a day of visiting the marvellous capes, beaches, dunes and steppe of the island. I’ll let some pics do the talking…
By night, much time was spent meeting other travellers on the island, and my does it attract an interesting crowd. I met Emma, a British girl and aspiring novelist who has just travelled the Silk Road and is also travelling indefinitely. Petr, the in-house artist, a Russian who has pieces on show in Moscow’s celebrated Tretyakov Gallery. Not my bowl of rice but some of his stuff is very good. A band of three French folks who are travelling across Asia with no specific destinations or timings; the sole objective is not to use planes. Pauline is investigating eco-villages as she goes with the intention of setting one of her own up back in France. Two Australian sisters on their way to Europe for the mandatory two year working visa. Cuno, a German man who is part-owner of a mechanics garage and home and who leaves his wife and adopted daughter at home for 3 to 4 months each year to go travelling, often camping and foraging as he goes: The family join him if they can, else it’s just him and his dog. A Swiss couple who are crossing Asia by train and bike after a stint working in Tajikistan working on a water supply development project. Nicholas, a Frenchman who has been travelling, teaching and learning his way across and around Central Asia and Russia for seven years, developing a keen interest in photography along the way.
Then there were the locals. Nikita himself is a one-time world table tennis champion. I briefly met another guy in the dining room who had walked across the ice from one end of Baikal to the other this winter. Took him 40 days, camping and ice fishing as he went.
This merry and organic gang passed a couple of evenings around beach camp fires drinking nips of vodka, cooking fish and potatoes and sharing tales. One night some local fishermen joined us to offer more fish and show us how to cook them properly (lashings of mayonnaise and unhealthy amounts of salt). Not as crusty hippy as I’ve made it sound. A very nice group of outdoorsy people and very pleasing way to spend evenings. Not to mention the view…