On arriving in Irkutsk (this time at the quite sociable hour of 8.28am local time), we all went our separate ways. The first thing we did in the station was buy a map of the town, so we could find our way to our hostel, Baikal Story. This felt like our first proper hostel experience – there was a large communal kitchen and a nice sociable dining area with a big table, sofas and a TV playing Russian soaps. We met two young German men who had just returned from a few days on Olkhon Island. We were planning on going there too, and they encouraged us to go couchsurfing at Sergey’s place, Philoxenia. It sounded pretty fun, so we thought we might do the same. For those who don’t know, couchsurfing is where you stay at someone’s house free of charge – by all accounts it is a great way to meet local people and make new friends, but we had not yet tried it. We had been signed up as couchsurfing hosts for several months prior to our departure, but no one wanted to couchsurf in Bicester!
We had a much needed shower (bliss after 3 nights of train travel!) and then headed into the town to have a look around. Of all the Russian towns we have visited so far, Irkutsk seems the most set up for tourism – but perhaps this is because it is smaller and so things are more manageable. At the tourist information centre, we found out where to catch buses to Olkhon Island and Listvyanka (the closest village to Irkutsk that borders Lake Baikal) and were furnished with several more maps free of charge!
We then commenced our journey along the ‘green line’. This is a line painted on the pavements around the city that leads you on a walking tour, so you can see the sights and learn a bit about the buildings and monuments by reading the little noticeboards that crop up along the way. These were all in Russian AND English, which was a refreshing change! Often the signs would say something like: ‘the building that used to be here was burned down in the great fire of 1879; this building was built to replace it’. Many of the houses are wooden, and often have a kind of wooden lace effect carved into the frames and shutters. Most of the time they are painted as well, and whilst the paint is usually peeling and the buildings look a bit tired, this does give them a certain charm.
Quite near the beginning of our green line journey, Luke decided to stop to draw a statue. I said I would continue to follow the green line and he could catch me up. You would think this couldn’t go wrong, but the green line has a few diversions… I went on one of these quite early on – I thought I had been quick and Luke was still drawing when I left, so I returned to the green line proper and continued my walk. After several minutes, he still hadn’t caught up with me, so I thought I’d better go and check if he had finished his sketch. I ran back – and he was gone! So now I was following Luke, who was rushing along trying to catch me up when I was actually behind him! We both raced along the green line with the dawning realisation that we had lost each other, and could be going round in circles all day! Luckily, we were eventually saved by another diversion and bumped into each other coming from opposite directions.
Back at the hostel that night, we got chatting to some other backpackers. We met a lovely French girl and a young South Korean man called Son. We talked about our travel plans with Son and decided to stick together for a few days, as we seemed to want to do the same things. The next morning, the three of us caught a bus to Listvyanka. It took about an hour to get there. We met a Finnish girl, Maria, and we decided to do part of the Great Baikal Trail together. Listvyanka is very small; just a string of small hotels, shops, cafés and houses along the shore of Lake Baikal. This was our first glimpse of the great lake. It was pretty impressive, but we didn’t grasp the scale of it until later.
We set off on the trail, which was a track through pine and birch woodland. For much of it, the trail was steep, which was tiring going up and very slippery due to the carpet of pine needles and dusty ground when going down. We met a trio of German hikers along the way who were doing the whole of the trail (a three day hike) with large rucksacks. I was glad it wasn’t me!
After a couple of hours or so of forest trekking, we were beginning to wonder if we would actually see the lake at all on our hike that day. Then we rounded a corner, and there it was! A vast expanse of blue, as far as the eye could see! It is hard to convince your brain that you’re looking at a freshwater lake and not the sea.
Maria had recently graduated with a geology degree, and she told us how the Baikal was created by the parting of two tectonic plates and that is why it is so deep – 1642m at its deepest point to be exact. She said that eventually, this rift will split the continent of Asia, and the Baikal will become part of another sea! She also told us that there is a twin lake in Mongolia that lies on the same rift. How cool is that? We take our geography for granted, but in reality, everything is so temporary.
Another (unrelated) thing I found interesting is that despite being Finnish, Maria doesn’t speak Finnish – she speaks Swedish. Apparently a lot of Finns speak Swedish as their first language – I had never known this! She, like me, is a keen cold water swimmer, so we resolved to take a dip when we reached the lake. We stopped for lunch at our halfway point on a little stony beach. The sun came out and it was quite warm as we gingerly made it into the water over the slippery rocks. The water was freezing! Some cold induced screaming ensued, but we managed to submerge ourselves and swim properly. Needless to say, we didn’t stay in long though! You could feel an icy sensation creep up the jugular when your neck was in the water. Your legs and body and arms go numb quite quickly, so it actually doesn’t feel too bad – it is the transition point from the bits that are in the water and the bits that are out where you notice the coldness most. We were swimming in a fifth of the world’s drinking water! Think about that next time you turn on a tap! I don’t think Son had done anything like this before (i.e. stripped off almost naked with a bunch of near strangers and plunged into freezing water), but he embraced the moment! Later that evening, he was telling a Korean family about it; they told us it would be unheard of in South Korea for girls to behave like we did – but they said that to travel is to put your judgements and preconceptions behind you and open yourself up to things that would not be the norm in your own culture.
We had a picnic on the beach and warmed up, then headed back along the trail. We accidentally found a different route back (probably the correct one), which was a bit easier going and followed the lake more, so we had wonderful views for much of the walk. I really felt like autumn was the perfect time to visit, as the colours were so vibrant; especially next to the beautiful, clear blue sky. Luke had his first taste of omul (and I tried a bit too!) at a small café that looked out over the Baikal just before we left. Omul is a type of white fish, related to trout, which is endemic to Lake Baikal.
We bid goodbye to Maria, and made our way back to our hostel. It is interesting how travel causes you to have fleeting experiences with strangers – people can teach you things, you can strike up a real rapport, and then drift on your separate ways. You will probably never meet again, but you have shared wonderful experiences together and have usually learnt something new, or seen something from a different perspective.
That night the three of us made plans for Olkhon Island. We decided to give Nikita’s Homestead a miss (his guesthouse is the main business on the island and he organises a lot of the excursions) and try out counchsurfing at Philoxenia, as the Germans had recommended. The Korean family we met that evening live in Beijing, and the lady gave me her contact number and said she would be happy to meet up there and that we could call her if we had any trouble. People are so lovely!